PortFolio Weekly Summer Music 2007

PortFolio Weekly
May 22, 2007

A Party Band with a Conscience

by Jim Newsom

The Mammals have impeccable folk music credentials. Banjoman Tao Rodriguez-Seeger is Pete Seeger’s grandson. Fiddler Ruth Ungar is the daughter of famed fiddler Jay Ungar, best known for the “Ashokan Farewell” theme to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and folksinger Lyn Hardy. But don’t try to pigeonhole the band in the folk bin.

“I only consider myself a folk musician in the broadest possible definition,” Rodriguez-Seeger told me recently. “Folk music at one point was defined as people expressing and reinterpreting old traditional music. At a certain point it became anybody with a guitar wearing their heart on their sleeves. I don’t like putting the word ‘folk music’ in a box; in order for folk music to stay vibrant, it has to be allowed to change and shift and morph with whoever happens to be playing it.

“People are always asking us, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ And we get so wrapped up in telling them what we’re not that we never get around to actually telling them what we are. I think we’re a party band with a conscience. Our best material is this real upbeat, happy sounding music, but if you spend any time listening to the lyrics, you realize that we’re singing about some fairly real stuff—singing against the war or singing about relationships that have gone wrong. Every once in a blue moon you’ll find us actually singing a happy song, but rarely. Yet the music is very cheerful, and that reminds people of bluegrass because we play banjos and fiddles.”

The Mammals are coming to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts next Tuesday as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. Besides Tao and Ruthie, the band includes brothers Mike and Chris Merenda on guitar and drums, and bassist Jacob Silver. The core trio first got together six years ago at a party.

“I wanted to start a group,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “I had one with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion but they were moving to South Carolina and I wanted to start another band. I thought the best way to do it was to throw a party and invite all the musicians in the Pioneer Valley-Northampton, Massachusetts area that I knew. I didn’t tell anybody that I was conducting auditions for a band, but that’s what I was doing. I had just come back from Puerto Rico visiting my dad and I had all this good Puerto Rican rum. And I just clicked with Mike and Ruth and another fiddler, and we ended up jamming all night playing old-time tunes.”

The trio moved to Woodstock, New York, where they lived in the house that Ungar grew up in.

“Ruth and I knew how to book bands because of our families,” Rodriguez-Seeger explained. “My grandmother basically managed my grandfather and Ruthie’s father managed his career from the house. So we never had a manager, we didn’t have an agent for the first three years. We just booked ourselves. It was very DIY—no one was going to tell us how to look, what to wear, what to play. I think during this era of highly corporatized, packaged music, the bands that do it on their own are the ones that stand out.”

I asked Tao if the family legacies are a help or a hindrance.

“Every once in a while,” he replied, “someone shows up at a show and wishes that we sounded more like Pete Seeger or the Weavers or Jay & Mollie. But I think we’re good enough now that they end up being won over by our differences. And ultimately they see that the similarities and the differences combined make it really cool.

“I play a guitar that’s exactly like my grandpa’s; I play a banjo that’s exactly like my grandpa’s. Ruthie plays a fiddle that was given to her by her dad. And we’ve spent a lot of time playing with those people. I’ve been playing with my grandpa since I was born and we started playing together professionally when I was sixteen. So these are connections that are very personal, and that’s how we feel music is. Music is a very personal connection that draws people closer together. At its best it changes the world; it makes you feel like there’s hope in a dark time and it brings light into a dark place.”

There are family connections within the band too. The Merendas are brothers, and Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar are now married. When I saw the band perform in Maine two summers ago, I was taken with the enthusiasm and spirited good fun they obviously share. But the band also takes its motto, “subversive acoustic traditionalists” seriously.

“I think part of what we’re trying to do,” Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said, “is to look at the world around us, our country, and speak some kind of truth through our songs. We played in Lafayette, Louisiana, once at the Festival International and played an upbeat, goodtime set. At the end we got an encore, so we decided to do something risky, to play our anti-Bush song, ‘The Bush Boys,’ as our encore. It completely polarized the crowd! It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We got what was tantamount to death threats; the festival had its corporate sponsors threaten to pull money from the festival.

“This older gentleman came up to Ruth afterwards and said, ‘I wish you hadn’t played that song. You were my favorite band but when you played that song it broke my heart.’ And I thought, wow, one song can break a man’s heart over political differences.

“Anything that can push people to such an emotional extreme, I think, is great.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.