Roots Redux

To the casual observer, this comment might seem self-effacing: "I was smiling during that last song because I saw such a big crowd in here. But then I realized maybe it was because this is the only tent with air conditioning." Yet there is no denying that the speaker, Matthew Sabatella, is truly delighted. Sabatella and his all-acoustic combo, the Rambling String Band, have played four gigs this particular weekend, showcasing his latest passion, traditional American folk songs. He spotlights the form on his two most recent albums, last year's Ballad of America, Volume 1: Over a Wide and Fruitful Land and the just-released Ballad of America, Volume 2: America Singing. The venue, Miami Book Fair International, a gathering devoted to storytelling, fits with Sabatella's lessons in song. Even the disheartening revelation that his car has been towed for being illegally parked appears to do little to defuse his enthusiasm.

Sabatella feels compelled to reinterpret these songs and believes that in doing so he's not only teaching his audiences about the roots of American music but also providing a deeper connection to the American psyche. These are, after all, songs most people grew up singing, whether they learned them in grade school or heard them in passing. He's recasting traditional tunes — "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Buffalo Gals," "On Top of Old Smokey," "Down in the Valley" — in faithful, well-worn renditions that probably sound much like they did originally, when early settlers making their way west across the open prairies spilled forth the tunes over old-fashioned campfires.

"They are more about the history of America and the American people than they are about the history of American music," Sabatella explains. "That's what excited and inspired me from the beginning. When I first really became aware of this body of traditional folk music, I was primarily struck by how the songs were able to bring people and events from the past to life. It doesn't even feel like I'm singing about the past. The songs are in the present, and many of the sentiments they express are completely contemporary. Singing and even just hearing them creates a deep understanding and connection with other people who happened to have lived 100 or 200 or more years ago."

This particular afternoon, Sabatella and his close-knit combo — Lynn Griffith on banjo and mandolin, Jack Stamates on fiddle, Sean Edelson on mandolin, and Chris DeAngelis on stand-up bass, with Sabatella on guitar and vocals — play to a tent filled nearly to capacity, its 50 or so occupants clearly caught up in the familiar strains of the music and, just possibly, a certain whiff of nostalgia.

"One of the great joys of playing this music is seeing people's response to it. It bridges generations like nothing else," Sabatella muses. Although he initially took the same musical path other budding musicians have pursued — making the rounds in various groups — he eventually tired of the tug of egos and outside pressures that impinge on creativity. "Being in a rock and roll band is great, but it is striking to me how I now spend occasional weekends playing acoustic music with total strangers and I never once hear or utter words such as record label, record deal, radio airplay, and the like," Sabatella insists. "It's a different world.

"I really connect now with this type of casual, impromptu session in which music is being made out of sheer joy and love," he continues. "I find it happening with me again in the folk music communities I've encountered, both locally and elsewhere in the country."

Born in Manchester, Connecticut, Sabatella migrated to South Florida while he was still in elementary school. Asked about musical influences, he says, "In the past, my standard answer to questions about what started me playing music was the Beatles. I got hooked on them in sixth grade, bought an electric bass, and started a band that played mostly Beatles and other Sixties rock. My current musical ventures, however, have me thinking about even earlier experiences that now seem more relevant than I had given them credit for. My mother's parents were musicians and performers. Music-making was a way of life for my family from my earliest childhood memories. When my family got together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, a guitar or two would come out, my grandmother would play the piano, my grandfather played the Jew's harp, and anybody and everybody would sing."

Sabatella became proficient on a variety of instruments, which allowed him to single-handedly tackle the bulk of a musical arrangement, not only on his own recordings but also on those of other local musicians. "I've always played a lot of different instruments at the cost of not becoming a virtuoso on any of them," he admits. "I was never inclined to spend much time practicing technique, but it comes pretty naturally to me to make some kind of musical sound out of just about anything. So when there is a musical void to fill, I'm happy to jump in and do whatever I can."

As a solo artist, Sabatella immersed himself in the South Florida music scene in the mid- to late-Nineties, establishing himself as both a performer and a contributor. He partnered with singer-songwriter Amanda Green and played on albums by local luminaries such as Diane Ward, Mary Karlzen, Jolynn Daniel, Sixo, and the Curious Hair. He also helped further the notion of a thriving independent musical consortium by founding, an Internet-based record company, to give local artists wider recognition.

The company's goal, at least in part, was to become a viable alternative to the constraints major music labels often impose on musicians. "It wasn't so much a reaction against the music industry as it was seizing an opportunity to make things happen for ourselves," Sabatella contends. "As far as how the industry stands now, I don't know and I don't care. The do-it-yourself mentality is so internalized and the tools for independents are so readily available that I don't even give the ömusic industry' a thought."

Slipstream's larger concept eventually faltered, but it remained viable as an outlet for Sabatella's own albums. "We had a good run, but by the early 2000s, the site was breaking even financially, at best. It took a lot of time to maintain, and I had gotten so deeply into traditional music that I finally made the decision to pull the plug. The inspiration with which I started it had faded, and I was becoming totally committed to this other musical experience."

Sabatella's first solo album, Where the Hell Am I?, released in 1997, featured a host of Miami's musical mainstays. It was the work of an artist who was cloaking himself in the anthemic if somewhat generic radio-ready rock style of the decade. His second effort, A Walk in the Park, saw him taking a more introspective approach, replete with acoustic guitars and a more elegiac perspective.

"I think my second album ... is somewhat of a bridge between my first album and Ballad of America," Sabatella suggests. "But I wouldn't drive a pickup truck over it." A subsequent original, "This Old Hammer" — which would later turn up on Ballad of America, Volume 1 — marked his first foray into a pure folk sound. That, in turn, led him to explore the musical roots transported from the old world to the new, the basis of America's musical melting pot. It even inspired him in his day job, first as an elementary school music teacher and then as an employee in the district office of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where he currently helps develop the school system's arts- and music-related curriculum.

Back at its book fair gig, Sabatella's Rambling String Band is in full swing. Launching into "The Wabash Cannonball," the musicians lean together toward an invisible center, connected by a common bond, each instinctively drawn by the timeless flow of these rustic, robust melodies. Other chestnuts follow: the beautiful ballad "Shenandoah," the jaunty sing-along "Once More A-Lumbering Go," the familiar strains of "Skip to My Lou," each preceded by a Sabatella narrative detailing the tune's folk-fueled origins. "I feel like these traditional songs are my songs," Sabatella says later. "I'm not doing cover songs. I'm creating and reinventing these songs with my sensibilities as a musician and songwriter."

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Lee Zimmerman