Music in Your Gardens: Q&A, Joe Troop
July 27, 2020
This summer, we’re proud to present Music in Your Gardens, a free eight-week online concert series showcasing nationally renowned artists who call Durham and the surrounding area home. The series shifts Duke Performances’ longtime summer series, Music in the Gardens, normally held outdoors at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Duke’s campus, to an online format.
Each week, in advance of these performances, Duke Performances’ Michaela Dwyer — and this week, DP intern Caroline Waring — “sit down” over email to chat with each artist.
We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog to read previous Q&As with artists participating in our spring 2020 livestream series. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates.
Could you describe your quarantine scene — your surroundings, your interiors, your objects, your day-to-day — and those of your Che Apalache bandmates? (From social media, I’m a particular fan of your banjo inscribed with “Esta máquina derrumba tiranía” and a rainbow flag.) I’m wondering how you’re mapping the distance between each other, from western North Carolina to Buenos Aires: a gap you’ve navigated before, but which I imagine takes on a different valence these days. How do you honor and invoke your bandmates in solo performance, across that distance?
My quarantine scene has varied a lot since the pandemic hit. I bounced around between several dear friends’ guest houses and campers, also in and out of my minivan, which I slept in for several weeks. This month I finally found a small house to rent up in the hills [in western North Carolina], which I’m using as an office space and creative headquarters. Most of my belongings are down in Buenos Aires. I basically got stranded in the US mid-tour and have been living out of the suitcase I brought up here. Luckily, I had a banjo I’d left at my brother’s and, of course, my fiddle, which I play in the band. I also bought a beautiful vintage guitar in May from the radiant Anya Hinkle, who put me up for the first month of this whirlwind. I’m slowly acquiring other stuff as needed. I’m in a unfinished but beautiful home in the Sauratown Mountains, far away from any urban center. I’m liking the peace and quiet after a decade in a massive city. My bandmates fled to Argentina and México. We are each on our own pandemic journey and haven’t been communicating too extensively, but all is well. We’re on hiatus as this thing plays out.
Yeah, I felt my banjo needed a tattoo and some bling, a tip of the hat to Woody, Pete and generations of homos that stood their ground. I’m using the instrument to write protest music and help people get their heads out of their asses. A lot of progressive-leaning folks in North Carolina think their votes don’t matter this year, but they’re wrong. The local, national and global ramifications of these elections deeply concern me. I’m hell-bent on being a homosexual code-switching bluegrass social justice wake-up call. Laying it all out there, which I admit is tacky. But that’s how I roll these days, wavin’ my trash flag high.
You grew up in Winston-Salem, surrounded by bluegrass players and jam sessions; you’ve played at Clifftop and Galax. You teach (and play) both old-time and bluegrass, and have long been a part of both communities. What appeals to you, especially after years of travel and immersion in other places and genres, about the strictures and possibilities of these two idioms?
I like the cack, the groove, the commitment, and of course the surrounding community. I like how the styles don’t come off pristine. There’s not a ton of chords. It’s more about rhythm and tone. And umph! Raw expression, very technical but comes off easy. Technical but with cack. And, you know, it’s the music of the region of the world I was born in. It’s the closest thing to “home” I’ve got. And so by playing it, I’m always home.
I’d love to dig into the anatomy of one of Che Apalache’s songs. Let’s take “Red Rocking Chair” — a traditional Appalachian tune, perhaps traceable to a nineteenth century Scottish ballad, that’s also been known by the names “Red Apple Juice,” “I Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now,” among others. After a few of the traditional verses (“I ain’t got no use for that red rocking chair”), you interpolate a set of lines sung in Spanish that mourn a disappearing love (“Para que lamentar, para que lamentar un amor que se va / Me acompaño con la soledad”). It’s backed by a sound that to me partially invokes flamenco. Take us through this composition as a microcosm of Che Apalache: how you collaborated with your bandmates to interweave these musical and spoken languages, how you honor distinct traditions in a blended form.
In 2014, I did a State Department tour of the Northwest of Argentina, where I was exposed to Andean music, which is largely pentatonic. One day while playing “Red Rocking Chair,” I noticed that the melody could very easily be Andean. (The pentatonic scale is the only scale shared by all musical traditions.) On the fiddle I tried to bring out the spirit of the quena, which ended up sounding like an er-hu (guffaw). Martin imitated the charango on the mandolin, which works great. Franco used the guitar percussively to imitate a caja chayera or cajón, which is probably where you felt some flamenco influences. (The cajón is an Andean instrument that was appropriated by the Spanish.) And Pau does some beautiful phrasing on the banjo, which doesn’t really mean to imitate anything. So, basically, we just played around with the concept of fusing an Appalachian song with Andean textures, unabashedly flowing between the two. Kind of like the Spanglish concept, but musically.
Your creative life seems to thrive in travel and direct engagement in other places, and your music often incorporates the stories of immigrants. The pandemic has closed borders and renewed all kinds of xenophobia. How have these conditions impacted how you think about and make art?
I’ve become fully focused on activism. The future of my band in the U.S. depends on the outcome of these elections. I have good counsel and am working with incredible grassroots organizers. I hope it has some impact. You know, noteworthy work is often buried on social media. We’re doing what we can to push rural progressive voices through, though.
Talk to us about your “Pickin’ for Progress” video series, and about how you were mobilized to take up this media platform. (Your most recent video features Juana Luz Tobar Ortega — who has been living in sanctuary in a church in Greensboro, NC, for several years — speaking about the importance of voting as one piece of working toward immigration justice.) I’m curious about how you define your advocacy both within and beyond your music.
I was approached by Matt Hildreth, the executive director or ruralorganizing.org, last year at Clifftop. We started collaborating and saw actual quantifiable results. Matt and his team have greatly influenced my political philosophy. They have helped me frame in words what I already knew, that rural sensibilities are drastically different from urban ones. Urban progressives don’t know shit about the complexities we’re navigating in the southeast. But midwestern progressives are making a huge effort to crack our perplexing codes. Thing is, in the rural southeast, there really are fascists. We live in fear of physical and emotional violence and are controlled by twisted, cantankerous bullies. I guarantee that half of those people you see at Trump rallies don’t even want to be there but get dragged there by the same people I speak of. It’s time to usher in new authority on all levels. Better representation! Do urban progressives care about what’s happening in Alamance County? It’s time we find ways to help out progressive candidates like Dreama Caldwell in North Carolina. Or else Sheriff Johnson and his mob will continue to make their lives a living hell. My only means of pitching in is through music, so that’s what I’m doing.
An intentionally open-ended question I’m asking of all the artists participating in this series: What’s next?
What’s next is up to us! We’re at a crossroads. I can’t think past November yet, and I hope more people start feeling the same way.
Duke Performances presents Music in Your Gardens in collaboration with Duke Arts, WXDU, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke Continuing Studies, and Duke Summer Session. Hospitality partners include The Palace International and Locopops.