Looking Back

It's another Wednesday night at Tobacco Road in downtown Miami, and another lineup of local acts is waiting to perform at Danny Jessup's curiously named International Musico showcase. Jessup explains that tonight's theme will feature performers who have something vaguely international about them ... or not. Which is why singer/songwriter and Florida native Matthew Sabatella fits the bill with his decidedly noninternational folk tunes.

It's a big crowd for a weeknight. But as the hour moves past midnight before Sabatella's 12:15 a.m. set, the room starts to thin out a bit; a few working stiffs shuffle toward the door. Too bad for them, because when he bangs out chords on his chocolate-brown acoustic guitar and sings deeply into the mike, his songs begin to soar.

After performing several highlights from his albums A Walk in the Park and Where the Hell Am I? like "Long Way" and "Picture Show," he rearranges some pages on a music stand and tells the crowd, "This is an oldie but a goodie. It goes back to the 1600 or 1700s where it came over with the British, then planted itself in the Southern mountains and lived on up there. But I think the words still ring true today."

It is called "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies," and the audience may be excused for not knowing the words. But there's something familiar about it, striking a chord that trips back to a deep-seated memory rooted in the history of the Appalachian mountain people. First published in one of several historical books Sabatella has pored over during his research, the song floats out in his trademark earthy baritone and sweet, languid cadences.

"This is a song that comes from the early 1800s when settlers on the East Coast were wondering whether to move west for better opportunities. It's a conversation between a husband and wife," he continues before breaking into "Wisconsin Immigrant," following that with more stories and then "Shenandoah," a traditional sea chantey that most likely originated from the Missouri and Shenandoah River areas. Then, as he finishes up his set, Jessup leads the crowd in requesting an encore. Sabatella obliges with "This Old Hammer," an interpretation of the classic John Henry work song. Though these old sing-alongs -- none of which are attributed to songwriters and were passed along from generation to generation as a form of solace, entertainment, or celebration -- were all written centuries ago, they sound surprisingly current, with their timeless themes of love and loss and longing brought to life by his contemporary style.

Despite the number of originals included in the set, Sabatella's interest in early Americana is more than just a passing fancy. With the release of Ballad of America (a CD filled with songs from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries); a contribution to the Miami Art Museum's "American Tableaux: Many Voices, Many Stories" exhibit featuring the origins behind Ballad of America; and a Website (www.balladofamerica.com), you could say he has jumped into the deep end of our national folklore.

But Sabatella's journey back in time has been a gradual process. It started with a Gram Parsons song here, a Louvin Brothers article there, some Carter Family liner notes, then finally returning to and embracing other artifacts like Harry Smith's six-CD Anthology of American Folk Music. "I think it's when I stumbled on that Carter Family CD. I just loved that when I first put it on," he says, searching his mind for the final straw that propelled him to make Ballad of America. "So that's when I took the Harry Smith set out again and really read the notes. I spent a couple weeks with it, and that's what put the whole story into perspective."

After hearing ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn's rendition of the cowboy song "Old Paint," Sabatella thought "I can do this," and set out to record his own version of the classic. He then began studying cowboy music, which led him to explore the culture of other regional groups like the San Francisco forty-niners, Yankee soldiers, prairie farmers, and Southern mountain folk.

Part of the local music scene since 1988, Sabatella has perplexed some long-time fans by his adventures in Americana. "People who have known me still like this [Americana] stuff, but it is a little crazy to see me doing this now, because it is so out of the blue," he says. "Two years ago I wasn't doing any of this, and now people can see me singing two hours of, like, lumberjack songs or something." But for newer fans unfamiliar with his earlier work, a performance of the Ballad of America material can make for a vivid narrative they never expected to get during a night on the town.

One convert is Jessup, who excitedly recalls Sabatella's interpretation of "Old Chissom Trail" during an all-cowboy tunes set at Tobacco Road last May. It's a tale that describes a nighttime stampede and the static electricity built up by the cattle's rubbing bodies, then discharged through eerie blue sparks by the touching of their horns. "By the third set, people were actually mooing, and it fit right in," says Jessup. "It's very visual. It was phenomenal, so fucking cool."

When he works as a substitute teacher for local elementary schools like Ojus and Northeast Academy, Sabatella will often pull out his guitar to play for the young students, to surprising effect. "Oh, they love it. They'll ask questions about it, they seem to be interested," he says. "I thought they would be only into Eminem, and think this was dumb, but they weren't at all. They seemed to enjoy it."

Sabatella has other ambitions for the project, too, including an idea to compile Ballad of America with supplemental notes and a history text into a package that students can listen to and read. "Even just the basic aspect of American history wasn't really revealed to me until I discovered this music," he says. "It's the larger story of a bunch of people coming from countries around the world and settling here, and with different music, settling in different places, and then having these different experiences and changing the words accordingly."

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John Anderson