If you haven’t heard Eden and John’s East River String Band yet, then you are in for a treat! Based in the East Village in NYC, Eden Brower and John Heneghan have been entertaining audiences in America, Canada, and Europe for the past several years with their versions of 1920s pre-war blues, jazz, pop, and country songs, recreating and reviving a new world of “Old Time” music.
Their unique sound and authentic vibe are a fresh breath of air in contemporary music. By bringing to light this world of old music, they bring us back to a time where the love of playing is as important as technical skill, as they share a catalog of old time songs infused with feeling, emotion, and energy.
Since 2006, the band has released four albums: Sweet East River, Some Cold Rainy Day, Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down, and Drunken Barrel House Blues.
While Eden Brower (vocals, ukulele, guitar & kazoo) and John Heneghan (vocals, guitar, mandolin & kazoo) make up the backbone of the band, the duo has guest musicians play with them at gigs and on recordings. They’ve played with some amazing musicians including Terri Waldo, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, R. Crumb, and Pat Conte. Artwork by R. Crumb has graced their last several LP/CD covers, and their first album features cover art by Sophie Crumb. Their CDs and LPs are sold through Red Eye Distribution and on eBay. They are recording their fifth album, Take A Look At That Baby, which they plan on finishing in the South of France this summer.
Read on as I interview Eden Brower and John Heneghan, the dynamic duo behind Eden and John’s East River String Band!
Michelle Augello-Page: What was it like to discover a new world of old music? And then further on, to not only to discover, but to recreate and revive some of these songs?
JH: I found a reissue of a Charley Patton record by the company Yazoo in a used bin at a record store. The thing that struck me about it was that all the song titles had the word “blues” in it. By the bad photo on the cover, you couldn’t tell if the guy was white or black and the dates on it were from the 20′s. It hadn’t occurred to me that blues was being recorded that long ago. It was all brand new to me. My whole life I collected records but I wasn’t like a typical collector. I tried punk, jazz, classical, everything. Funny, I wasn’t even sure if I liked the music at first. It was so weird to me. So foreign. I had never heard anything like it. But after a few minutes of listening to these old records I knew immediately that I had found what I was looking for.
EB: Covering these old songs makes us feel like we are preserving a part of history. We tried to play note for note at first. There had been a long history in America of people passing these songs down from generation to generation. They would alter them and do their own thing with them. So, while they are covers, we do our own interpretation of them and are happy with the reception we have been getting lately. Not everyone knows what they are listening to – some think we wrote the songs or ask where we heard a song from. When we explain they are songs from the 20′s, people who have never heard that kind of music are surprised and interested in learning more.
Where do you draw your inspiration? What are some of your favorite pre-war musicians? How has this music have helped shape not only how you play, but your mindset as well?
EB: For old pre-war blues some of my favorites range from Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Mississippi Sheiks, as well as some lesser known artists like Geeshie Wiley, Two Poor Boys, Robert Wilkins, and Hattie Hart. The list is endless really. There is simply nothing like this music in the world for me, in terms of the emotion, fun, and energy that comes with it.
JH: My favorite musicians right now tend to be of the rural tradition and genre. Charley Patton, Hayes Shepherd, Joseph and Cleoma Falcon. I also really like songsters and minstrel style musicians like Chubby Parker and Gus Cannon. My mindset right now towards music is to play these old songs that were passed down from generation to generation, and try to render them in a personal way, which was kind of the standard way that musicians played in this country up until the 1940′s and 50′s.
EB: This music sucked me in with it’s pure honesty and raw emotions. I can listen to a song John has on a scratchy old 78 and get chills from how much it moves me. Some songs have actually made me tear up and I will feel emotional and in a dream state for the rest of the day, just from being so deeply moved from something. Good music and art to me is anything that makes you deeply feel something. Even if it is sadness. Actually I prefer the sad songs myself. I like the depressing blues stuff – raw, pure emotion laid bare.
Many people are very interested in John’s 78 collection – I’m thinking that you pull a lot of your material from this collection? David Fricke observed that the band has “a natural flair that suggests loving study and a respect for the hard lives and fight for joy on the original records” What do you think it is about these sounds and original recordings that resonate with you, and continue to resonate with other people?
JH: As for my 78′s, there is something about this music that is just 100% sincere. People then were not manipulated by the media or marketing or image, and all the other things that seem to be what music is about today. Popular music today is solely determined by how much money can be made from it. Music from the period that we listen to existed for the sole purpose of entertainment and for people to tell personal stories. It really had very little to do with making money, compared to today.
We definitely pull much of the stuff we cover from my 78 collection. Other then a few reissued CD’s, everything we do comes from my collection. We were very pleased when Fricke reviewed us and chose us at a pick of the month in Rolling Stone. I think a lot of people like the music we are doing because maybe they haven’t heard this type of music before. They connect with the honesty and emotion of it – it’s genuine and not commercialized. There is just something real about it.
ERSB Eden and John with R. Crumb playing “So Sorry Dear” off the last album … recorded in their apartment live for WFMU.
Since 2006, you’ve released four albums and each one seems to be getting bigger. You’ve played with Terri Waldo, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Pat Conte, and R. Crumb. What was it like playing and recording with these musicians?
EB: When ERSB first started it was five musicians, then it became John and I and guest musicians sitting in from time to time. Pat Conte is an amazing player who played in the Otis Brothers and The Canebreak Rattlers – he also has art done by Crumb on one of his albums too and they are friends. Eli Smith is from the Dust Busters who performs and records with John Cohen and are doing really well. Terry has played with tons of people including Leon Redbone and Woody Allen’s jazz band. Dom is in The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won a well deserved Grammy last year and are constantly on tour. Recording sessions are really just fun for us. John records it all live so if someone messes up we have to start over, so it’s a challenge, and when we are done we all go out and celebrate with dinner or something.
R. Crumb also did the cover art for most of your albums, besides playing on the last two. What was it like to collaborate artistically and musically with such an icon?
EB: Crumb has always loved and been very supportive of our music. When we first met Robert, it was really a great honor that he liked us because he is such an expert on old music. Crumb had been jamming with us just for fun and it sounded good and natural so it was an easy step to ask him to play on the albums … he is very modest and asked, “Are you sure you want me?” He plays left handed mandolin upside down and plays by ear. He has been playing for a long time and sounds amazing. We were like, “Uh, YES we want you to play! Are you nuts? You sound great!”
Now he’s just such a pal to us it’s just like playing with any other guy in our band. Him doing the artwork seemed a natural step. He has done the artwork for three so far starting with Some Cold Rainy Day and up to our last release Be Kind to a Man When He’s Down which is the album that he plays mandolin on. He is also going to play on the one we are recording right now which we plan to call Take A Look At That Baby.
Recording with Crumb was so much fun. We did it in France last year and had one day of practice and used the entire next day to do about 8 songs. We recorded in his drawing studio, closed the door and windows and just didn’t leave for hours, then we listened to some of Robert’s incredible collection of 78′s and talked about what we would record next time. The songs we like are just never ending and we kept coming up with more and more and saying, “DAMN! We forgot that one! We HAVE to do that one next time!”
This year we will be in Europe touring, so we will have over two months to practice with Crumb and will be able to take our time and really get some great tracks. So I expect when we go back in June the recording will be a fun, exciting project and our choices will change daily until we are all satisfied!
You play a lot of gigs and festivals, both in and out of the states. What were some of the unexpected reactions to your music outside of an American audience?
EB: In New York, We love playing at Jalopy Theater which is THE place for old timey music, and a wonderful space where they also repair and build instruments and have classes – all in the old time genre. They even have their own record label now.
Playing in Europe, like Italy or France, is so different from playing in the states! We played in Italy at blues fests a bunch of times and at the first time we did we were worried a little. The other bands booked spoke the language and were electric. You have to really not talk when we are playing as we don’t plug in. It’s very hard to hear us, even with mics, if there is a lot of talking going on. The crowd at this one festival in Italy were drunk and boisterous … Then as soon as John started picking, they went dead silent! We looked up after the song and they were applauding and going nuts.
They are just very polite and respectful in other countries towards artists and musicians. Even at airports when they see we are carrying instrument cases they flip and are so impressed we are traveling to play music. Security in Dublin wanted us to stay there and play shows one time when we got stuck there for a night! Here, if you are in a band or try to make a living playing, you are a bum. There, you are looked at with admiration and respect. I really liked that!
What are some questions or comments that you often hear from fans? Do you have any stories to share that made you realize how your music affects other people?
EB: Fans always ask about R Crumb of course … how we know him, how he came to play with us, can we pass along their etching so he can say if they are good or not … haha! We get that A LOT! But the nicest comments are when fans say we sounded “authentic” or that our cover of a particularly hard or well-loved song came out great.
We did “Last Kind Words” by Geeshie Wiley on one of our albums and that song is just so moving, it rips my heart out every time. Whenever we do it people react to it, “I have NEVER heard ANYONE do that song!” “I can’t believe you played that one!” They always say we did it justice which makes me happy. It is an intimidating song to cover – it is just such a wonderful masterpiece – in our minds and in so many others’ minds too!
Lately, we have been getting fan mail asking will we please com to their city, state, country to play. I love those too. We write back “Send along some places we can email with our press kit and we may come!” It’s so nice to be asked to play somewhere from a total stranger who emails out of nowhere saying they love our stuff.
How have you seen the reception to your music change over the past several years? How have you grown/changed as musicians? What have you learned?
EB: John’s playing is beyond great and he has grown a lot in terms of playing more loosely and gaining a better feel for the music. This music relies a lot on the feeling of the song, as well as the technical finger picking, which is very difficult on some songs we do. You have to get the hard stuff down while at the same time sounding loose and laid back.
As a singer, I have really grown to love being on stage and belting out these songs. Nothing makes me happier than playing a gig. I like when the audience is a challenge and you have to win them over. It’s really fun and challenging to pick out a song you want to do then go about interpreting it your own way while not losing the emotion and power it had to make you want to cover it in the first place.
We got asked to play the Chicago Blues Fest a few years ago. We were on the “Old Time” stage with Dom Flemons and our friend Blind Boy Paxton. Other stages had electric music while we didn’t. We had a big audience – hundreds of people came over to hear us. We decided to have fun and play round robin style. At the end we all played together and we were a huge hit.
I think each album we do gets better and better. They are all different from each other. The first one had piano. The second and third we added bones, fiddle and banjo. The new one will have our friend Ernesto Gomez on harmonica … He is a great, great player. I have moved on to trying to play guitar now, along with the uke and kazoo. We are maturing with each recording.
The reviews we’ve gotten are very flattering and many say what Rolling Stone said – that we sound “natural” and not “put on”, forcing the old time vibe out – that we just naturally have that vibe. That is truly the best compliment – that we sound exactly like an old time string band. The fact that we are white and do a lot of old black blues and that we look weird, covered in tattoos while donning old time clothes for when we play and in everyday life, just adds to the character of our duo.
With Crumb playing with us, we get to play bigger shows than usual and the crowd we get in can be overwhelming. Robert does not like the spotlight and we try to play in mellow places where he will not be surrounded by crazed autograph hounds. I am the only person in the band who is thrilled to sign autographs!!! John is shy about that stuff but I enjoy it.
We are in the middle of recording Take A Look at that Baby, our new album, and will finish it up in France over the summer. We have shows booked in France where we will be playing with Crumb, and we also have booked some in Italy and in the surrounding countries. We will be in Europe for two and a half months starting June15th and we expect that more festivals will contact us to play as that always happens when we go to Europe. We book a show or two then someone asks us to play a festival in their village or at a cafe somewhere. It’s going to a be a fun and productive experience!
The thing that we have learned mainly over the years as we have gotten a bit more well known is just to keep making sure you have fun. And practice a lot! But always love what you are doing or what’s the point really?
More about Eden and John:
John Heneghan has an online show, Old Time Radio Show, which features music from his 78 collection. John also has a comp on Dust-to-Digital called Baby How can It B? Songs of Love, Lust and Discontent. It is a 3-cd disc set of songs from his 78 collection dealing with those topics, available on ebay and through the label Dust-to-Digital. He is currently working on a comp called Wait For Me, which will feature love themed songs from his 78 collection, and will be put out by East River Records. It will be at least a 2 disc cd set with lengthy liner notes explaining the history of each song.
Eden Brower has a blog (http://slumgoddess.blogspot.com/) where she writes about her life and her neighborhood (the East Village and LES). She is also an actor and enjoys doing sketch comedy. She loves writing and has had some interest from publishers about turning her blog into a book. From touring with the Grateful Dead to squatting in the Lower East Side for almost 12 years, to hopping freight trains across country to being in an old time string band and playing music around the world, Eden has had many unique adventures and many a tale to tell!