Tales of Lament Amidst an Unexpected Landscape: William Elliott Whitmore, September 9 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 05 September 2006 22:37

William Elliott Whitmore Sallow red roses adorn the withered remains of a small crow on the cover of Song of the Blackbird. The image of the crow is carried throughout the album and serves as an apt metaphor for the turmoil in Whitmore's songs. A magnificent bird with gleaming black feathers and supple curves, the crow's shrill cry seems to contradict its splendor.

A hymn of redemption rather than regret, "Dry" is our first glimpse at Whitmore's juxtaposition of the Christian themes found in American roots music with the Native American spirituality he embraces. "Dry" opens with the sparse plucking of a banjo as Whitmore sorrowfully rejoices, "Well the song of the blackbird is mighty clear / On morning's such as this / And all those useless pains and fears / Is things that I won't miss." In English literature, the blackbird is an archetypal symbol associated with cemeteries and funerals. In Native American lore, however, it was the raven that bore the world out of darkness. "The morning glories and the Queen Anne's Lace / Are baptized by the wind / These inspirations are my saving grace / In these times we're living in."

Growing up a stone's throw from the Quad Cities on his uncle's horse farm in Lee County, William Elliott Whitmore sings with the experience of someone twice his age. Steeped in tradition, passion, and insight, and still in his mid-20s when he recorded Song of the Blackbird, Whitmore is not simply regurgitating songs and styles from American history. He's making music based upon themes as old as the peoples who once roamed the rolling hills and prairies along the Mississippi River.

"The Chariot" - a take on the African-American spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" - is an ironic twist on the hymn from which it gains inspiration. Joined by Iowa City musician Dave Zollo on organ, Jonathan "Crawdaddy" Crawford on percussion, and Steven "The Kid" Howard on guitars, Whitmore churns this spiritual into a tale not about taking solace in faith, but about losing faith.

What makes Song of the Blackbird so powerful is how the turbulent nature of the subject matter is conveyed by Whitmore's gravelly voice. At one moment his delivery is abrasive and brusque, and the next soothing and consolatory. "But the chariot swung low and sweet / It could not carry me home." Whitmore shows he is more than just a songwriter; he is a poet as well. His lyrics are filled with literary allusion and alliterative cadence, and still manage to sound perfectly natural.

Song of the Blackbird By the third track, it becomes obvious Song of the Blackbird is nothing short of brilliant. "One Mans' Shame" finds Whitmore once again accompanied only by his banjo, a confident companion. Each note bustles along gritty but bright. Contrary to the title, "One Man's Shame" is an upbeat and urban take on traditionally rural old-timey music. The banjo sounds as if it had been ripped out of its folk foundations and infused with the chugging percussiveness reminiscent of bebop.

On "One Man's Shame," Whitmore delves even further into his introspections on Christianity and Native American spirituality. At one point he sings, "My church is the water / My home is underneath the shady pines" only to resolve this admission with the stark realization of an ever-present fear of eternal damnation: "One man's story is another man's shame / I ain't bound for glory / I'm bound for flames."

"And Then the Rains Come" is the only instrumental offering on Song of the Blackbird and doesn't require Whitmore's voice to be equally dramatic. An electric-guitar loop played backwards gives way to a purposefully strummed steel-string guitar in open tuning. While chains clink and clatter, the open tuning resounds haunting and cavernous. In the background, static fuzz falls like rain. At just over two minutes, "And Then the Rains Come" would have worked as a prologue but makes for a potent interlude and appropriately transitions into "Lee County Flood."

With Whitmore referencing the climate and topography of his home, "Lee County Flood" takes off with forceful foot-stomping, hand-clapping flair. "And if the levee holds its ground / And keeps that water back / The Mississippi won't reach my little tarpaper shack." Testimonials about the Midwest have never sounded so fresh and articulate. Whitmore's affinity with the region adds the validity vital to such intimate reflections.

The third and final album in a trilogy for Southern Records, Song of the Blackbird is preceded by Hymn for the Hopeless and Ashes to Dust. All three albums bear similarly themed album covers: Pallid roses surround bleached skulls, bony reptile carcasses bordered by obsidian stems. All are reminders of the majesty that can be found in something as barren as death.

Song of the Blackbird is immediately enthralling and only gets better with each listen. With the trilogy ended, it will be interesting to see whether Whitmore has truly laid his skeletons to rest.


William Elliott Whitmore will perform at RIBCO on Saturday, September 9, with Hello Dave. The show starts at 10 p.m. For more information on Whitmore, visit (http://www.williamelliottwhitmore.com).


Culley Smith runs a local music Web site at (http://www.theairstrange.com).

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