There aren’t any words on the seven original songs on Nathan Salsburg’s debut album, Affirmed. But the album still tells the life story its author, who was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Kentucky, and worked in New York as a folklorist for the Alan Lomax Archive before moving back to Kentucky a few years ago.
Up until now, Salsburg has mostly focused on the stories of other musicians. Take, for example, a recent album of Lomax’s Scottish recording from the ’50s released on Drag City imprint Twos and Fews; or a Fred McDowell LP on Portland’s Mississippi Records; or countless more hours of Lomax recordings, some released on the new Global Jukebox digital imprint, others, like the recent Haiti box set, on specialist labels like San Francisco’s Birdman Records.
When I asked Salsburg how he got into the strange world of archiving folk music, he jokes, “Through the rabbit hole, that’s how you get into it.” He says he stumbled onto the job at the Archive in 2000, doing data entry and office runs, but his role matured through the decade.
But for someone so deeply ensconced in the world of folk music, Salsburg’s own music has a curious relationship with the genre. After a lengthy back and forth about what folk music is, we settle on a term for Salsburg’s album: “songwriter guitar music.”
Unlike many folk purists who sit down to learn traditional songs off records (or learn directly from the original sources if they’re still alive), Salsburg doesn’t really “play” folk music. But working at the Archive, he says, has given him “a deepened appreciation and ability as a listener,” and that’s probably made him a better guitarist, though maybe unconsciously.
Instead of sitting down to learn a traditional tune note for note (Salsburg says he doesn’t read music), more likely what will happen is he will try to learn a song like Rev. Gary Davis’ “You Can Go Home” or Johnny St. Cyr’s banjo line in Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues.” But then, after giving up, the information he stored in the process will come out in a new song. (Morton’s tune re-purposes itself in “Back Home In Bogenbrook.”)
“It isn’t the folk process,” Salsburg says of his craft, “But I like to think it’s this kind of synthetic approach — drawing from as many sources as possible and trying to make something that feels mine.”
You could call the songs on Affirmed guitar instrumentals, but they’re more like rapturous little passages through time. They certainly bear a resemblance to the Piedmont regional blues fingerpicking styles of Gary Davis or John Hurt (who actually was from Mississippi but did not have a Delta style). I can think of a lot of things that Salsburg’s songs might draw influence from, but then nothing that really sounds like them at all.
Salsburg started writing the songs for Affirmed while he was still living in New York but romantically contemplating moving back to Kentucky. The first song was a fast tune that reminded him of a horse called Bold Ruler. I guess you could say he was off to the races.
“Horses are an easy metaphor for the Kentucky experience,” admits Salsburg. “Bold Ruler was really good at running short distances very quickly,” he says.
He named the tune “Bold Ruler’s Joys,” both a nod to his quick picking and Jelly Roll Morton’s idea that songs could be called blues or “joys.”
Other horses also appear on Affirmed, like Eight Belles who shows up in two song titles. Horse racing fans may also connect the album’s title with the summer of 1978 — also, coincidentally, the year Salsburg was born. That year a horse named Affirmed won the Triple Crown. “I’ve always been attached to that horse,” says Salsburg.
Salsburg says this album is ultimately an attempt to bring together all his romantic feelings. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, he missed living in Pennsylvania. Working for the Archive in New York, he missed the quality of Kentucky life.
“I’ve always been someone who looks back — and maybe it’s my interest in folk music — that longing for a place that doesn’t exist, out of my reach.”
So now that he’s back in Kentucky and has recorded an album that seems to reconcile his journey, what’s he going to long for now? He laughs, but has an answer ready.
“My girlfriend lives in Maine. I’m trying to spend more time up there. I find myself looking more towards the Maritimes.”