The term “American folk music” may conjure up images of Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger, but for Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly – the married couple behind the folk band Atwater-Donnelly – the genre means something quite different. Songs like “The Blackest Crow” and “Spanish Lady” supplant “This Little Light of Mine,” “If I Had a Hammer” and all the other songs you used to sing in grade school. This is not your father’s folk music; it’s your great-grandfather’s.
The duo plays the traditional folk music that has long since been drowned out by the more mainstream tunes that have arisen in the past half-century. The jams at an Atwater-Donnelly concert can often boast no date of origin; some have been traced back a full 1,000 years. A folk song becomes a classic when everyone forgets who wrote it originally, Aubrey says. The two have not shied away from marking their place in the unique history of these genres. Aubrey says they are always trying to add their own unique flair to each song, but are also cautious never to deviate enough from the original for it to lose its soul. With 10 albums of music recorded, the duo is certainly helping to keep these songs vibrant in perpetuity.
Nevertheless, for songs written centuries ago, Atwater-Donnelly manages to connect with a 21st century audience more accustomed to an ever-changinglist of billboard hits than the tried and true classics attributable only to our ancestors. The two now tour around the country together regularly, travelling to venues that feature their unique abilities. Also, Aubrey has been known to drop her instruments and break it down with some “clogging,” a traditional form of dance, which could have been the freak dance of its time.
Aubrey says American folk music has touches of Irish, English and Scottish influence, with a particular debt to African- American culture. The huge range of influences along with the wide breadth of material, made available to them over the course of a millennium of song writing, means the team is always learning new music. Touring around the country, they meet other performers, who teach them new songs, allowing them to keep their set list perpetually evolving.
Atwater-Donnelly is playing a number of shows throughout Rhode Island in July, starting with performance on the Barrington Town Hall Lawn on July 8. With Atwater-Donnelly’s help, it is possible that these songs could last another millennium. After all, the duo is uniquely placed to testify to the power of the music. Their musical bond gave way to a stronger connection that led to their marriage only a few years after they began performing together. The rest, they say, is history.