“To sing an old song is a good practice for survival these days,” says Libby Rodenbough about her rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” She released the song last week with fellow North Carolinian, Skylar Gudasz, via Sleep Cat Records. “It makes you feel like a small part of a big web— like you’re responsible to your predecessors and successors, and like they’re holding you in your existence, too.”
Gudasz and Rodenbough are among a class of musicians based in the Triangle’s enterprising music scene. Like many in the area, the artists are fervent purveyors of regional music traditions. Their dual interpretation of this folk classic follows Gudasz’s release of Cinema and Libby Rodenbough’s (of Rounder Records’ Mipso) recent solo release Spectacle of Love. As frequent collaborators, the two drew inspiration from their downtime this spring, breathing new life into the tune.
Gudasz first encountered the song while watching a video of Joan Baez performing in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the sixties. “She’s playing in this room full of people, and they’re all singing along with her,” she says. “It was captivating, and then I continued down the rabbit hole, listening to all the different versions of it.”
Like many of its kind, the Celtic tune’s lineage was lost along its voyage to the new world. Its roots lie somewhere between Ireland and Scotland under several names and adaptations. The song itself is a vessel of history, time-stamped by every bearer along the way. From Joan Baez to James Taylor and The Byrds to Ed Sheeran, the folklore lives on in a new light.
“I read that Francis McPeake wrote “Wild Mountain Thyme” for his first wife, but he got remarried, and his son did him the service of adding a verse for wife number two,” says Rodenbough. “ Love is incalculable that way.”
The duet began as a voice memo-acapella performance from Gudasz’s closet. Vocals fell into the epicenter, as the artists continued to build around them, layering in strings. A touch of piano aided the atmospheric translation of the timeless tune. Ornamental textures like Casey Toll’s synths and percussion from Joe Westerlund added weight to their lofty vocals.
“It’s like a really long, gentle, ongoing conversation,” says Gudasz. “It’s a deep breath of a song.”
The duo intentionally left space in the song’s scaffolding. The natural world dwells in the hallows left untouched by instrumentation. Like the passing of seasons, the two typically touring artists witnessed this year, their approach held the song’s original shape, shifting only gradually from their predecessors to display a evolution through time and space.
“I was thinking about the way the noises of the world outdoors filter in and out of your field of hearing, with sympathetic moments between all the little sounds as they travel along their way,” Rodenbough says. “Being home from touring all this time has given me the opportunity to wander around out there and let the chaotic swirl of thoughts about government neglect and violence surrender, momentarily, to the fortifying chaos of life on a neighborhood street. It helps me to remember that complicatedness, even inscrutability, can be beautiful as well as crushing.”
The accompanying video, captured by Casey Toll, perpetuates this juxtaposing relationship. From the ever-shifting sands of North Carolina’s battered barrier islands, a lightning storm alleviates the unrelenting summer heat. The voltage illuminates a purple-glow through otherwise opaque storm clouds, towering above the angered Atlantic.
Lyrically, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” tells a story set on higher ground, the summer blooms above sea level. Yet, the song’s alignment with the natural world is undeniable as the tension of the storm mimics its strings. The majesty of nature rolls over the tune set perfectly into motion by the light show.