When the country-folk band The Ghosts of Johnson City step up on stages around town, they’re not just getting ready to perform, but also to archive history. It’s impossible to label them as just a country band, because of their varied influences and unique musical mission: to give voices to the disadvantaged folk of the 19th century.
The Ghosts of Johnson City — Amos Libby (lead vocals, banjo), Douglas Porter (guitar), Erik Neilson (baritone ukulele), Erik Winter (harmonium) and Ian Riley (upright bass) — are riding the wave of popularity folk-revival and traditional styles have seen in the past decade, but they’re doing so with a sense of authenticity, and a keen attention to historical detail.
“It’s incredibly easy to mine for stories; we dig up stories for songwriting, through historical archives and just talking to people around the country,” said Libby. “Also the Internet; the lived experience of human beings is recorded now like never before. For artists, the amount of material to draw from is staggering. It would be overwhelming if it wasn’t so exciting.”
With bandmates coming from years of experience in different musical projects (Johnny Cremains, Covered in Bees and Rural Ghosts) and sharing a mutual love for history, The Ghosts of Johnson City was formed over a year ago with the intention of giving a voice to our impoverished ancestors. Their musical mission is two-fold: on top of archiving history, The Ghosts of Johnson City are committed to adhering to tradition and creating a repertoire that’s filled with authentic folk-Americana. The Ghosts of Johnson City sound exactly like they were plucked from some unfortunate past. This is folk music with deep, deep roots.
Last September, the dark-Americana band released their debut album, Am I Born to Die?, a journey filled with mournful energy through the hardships of American frontiers and mountain ranges, confronting that timeless, ever-pressing question. The album is heavy indeed, dealing with themes of suffering, loss and perseverance; many people die by the time the 15-track album ends (and by sometimes grisly means). Although bandmates expressed uncertainty as to how such a melancholic collection of country tales would be received by the city folk of Portland, it seems they had nothing to fret about. Five months after the release of their debut, The Ghosts of Johnson City are working on a second album, spurred by glowing reviews and well-attended shows. There’s an audience out there that craves sorrowful, story-telling, listening music, just as much as people like blissful, beat-driven, dance music.
“I don’t doubt that people have been bummed out by our content,” said Libby. “We’re dealing with something so real, but people are receptive because we can all relate to pain and loss.”
While you’re listening to Am I Born to Die?, you won’t be singing in a bar, or dancing at a club. Rather, you’ll be contemplating your place in history and subconsciously studying oral and musical traditions. It’s the kind of sound that’s better paired with a roaring fireplace during a rainstorm, or a thoughtful night-drive home on a country road, or a purposeful walk down a beach, babbling brook, or snow-packed mountain trail. It’s the kind of music that makes you look beyond the guard-rails on the highway and into the snowy woods where the bones of forgotten people have laid for centuries. Music has many functions, and these songs are meant to “take listeners on a musical journey to some of the darkest hollows of America’s greatest historical calamities and personal tragedies.” If the wild, tragic and naturally epic movie, The Revenant, was a band, they’d be The Ghosts of Johnson City.
“We want to make it a transformational kind of experience; music should take you somewhere,” said Libby. “I felt like it was my job as a musician to be a part of a lineage and tell stories that preserve our collective memory.”
So what kind of places do The Ghosts of Johnson city take you? Pretty much anywhere an impoverished (Scottish-Irish immigrant) would be in 19th century America. The album Am I Born to Die? sounds like a perilous journey, fraught with anxiety through Civil War battlefields, frozen mountain camps, deep Kentucky coal mines, Maine logging camps, disastrous whaling missions, and the misty hills of Southern Appalachia. It’s a grim journey, where Libby’s sorrowful, soul-stirring voice sings ballads of death by drowning, gunfire, beatings, poisoning and stabbings; America’s past is riddled with the cries of the less fortunate.
“There were a lot of voices from our past that were ignored, or minimized to be less important,” said Libby. “We’re channeling voices however they come to us.”
The Ghosts of Johnson City have an interesting origin story, when you consider the musical background of the band’s frontman, Libby. His musical journey started with a style from halfway across the world, in India. Back in 1996, Libby began studying the North Indian tabla (a pair of small wooden drums) in Brooklyn, and continued the pursuit for the next 15 years. His passion for cultural music study and performance (and teaching English) has taken him to India, Morocco, Turkey and Palestine’s West Bank. Fluent in Arabic, Libby now is the co-director of the Bowdoin College Middle Eastern Ensemble and teaches the oud instrument as a faculty member at Bates College. There he immerses himself in Ottoman classics from the “Golden Age” of Arabic music: heavily produced blends of orchestral and classical sounds coming out of Cairo between the 1920s and 1950s. So how and when did this purveyor of the exotic sounds of the Arabic Renaissance decide to focus his musical (and storytelling) energy on the plights of the Scottish-Irish immigrants of the American Appalachia? Well, it started with a trip down to Tennessee, to the small town of Johnson City.
“I moved into this genre (American-folk) because I felt like it was time to look closer to home and explore the culture that I came from,” said Libby. “I lived all over the world, but this is home.”
In January 2015, Libby travelled down to Tennessee to meet the adopted daughter of his father, a man that was estranged from Libby most of his life and died in 2003 never having spoken to his son. Libby’s father was a gifted guitarist in the Americana vein and Libby has early childhood memories of playing guitar, singing in a trailer by the Nolichucky river and accompanying him to gigs in Jonesborough and Johnson City. When Libby met his father’s adopted daughter last year, she handed him an important relic that helped inspire The Ghosts of Johnson City: a timeless symbol of memories from a lost era, his father’s old guitar.
“The project was in motion for a few months before the guitar came into my possession; I had been playing primarily the banjo,” said Libby. “But when the instrument came to me it was not only a highly emotional experience to hold it in my hands, but it very much functioned (and still does) as a thread that ties me to the first live musical tradition to which I was ever exposed: the American folk music that my father played.”
Now that The Ghosts of Johnson City have solidified their presence in Portland and introduced many to “death-country,” and “Gothic-Americana,” they’re setting their sights on the future and “always looking for more stories.”
Currently, Libby is researching letters from 1849 exchanged between gold prospectors in California and their family members further east. Using inspiration from those long-forgotten exchanges and other original material along the same themes as Am I Born to Die?, The Ghosts of Johnson City are in the middle of recording 15 brand-new tracks. Further in the future, Libby expressed interest in exploring the tales and writing songs about Maine’s long and difficulty-ridden maritime history. I trust if there’s any group of musicians that are talented and respectful enough to pay homage to the poor unfortunate souls that drowned in Maine’s waters or crashed upon its rocks, it would be The Ghosts of Johnson City.
“It’s an archiving project,” said Libby. “It’s important to honor the voices of the past but also to realize that it’s still happening now. People all over the world are still suffering under the circumstances in these songs. The time and places might have changed, but the problems haven’t.”
You can hear these old mountain melodies, experience “murder ballads,” and think about your place in American history, with The Ghosts of Johnson City at Blue, on March 25 at 6:00pm.