The Corn Potato String Band's Mission: Rescuing Forgotten Songs
Aaron Jonah Lewis does write the occasional song, such as "Bell & Anchor Rag" and "Route 77," both of which appear on The Corn Potato String Band's debut album, Volume 1, released last year.
Songwriting, however, has never really been Lewis' passion. He and his Corn Potato String Band partners Lindsay McCaw and Ben Belcher would much rather be saving some old-time fiddle and banjo tune from a one-way trip to the dustbins of history.
"It's something we're pretty obsessed with," Lewis says by telephone while traveling through Michigan. "It's a total thrill to kind of breathe new life into these old songs. Some of them we feel like we're reviving them and sort of rescuing them. We do write our own songs, but not much. That's really never been our focus. We find more satisfaction as collectors of old songs."
So it shouldn't come as a great surprise to find out that The Corn Potato String Band's Volume 2, released in January, features 10 tracks that all can be found in the public domain.
"Someone just told me that Volume 2 was so much better than Volume 1 because of the variety," Lewis says. "I think they both have a lot of variety. Volume 2 just has more vocals."
Both albums were actually recorded in consecutive sessions in January 2014 at Sheriff Bob's home studio in lower Manhattan. The exception is two tracks off the new project, "Raleigh And Spencer" and "Little Black Train," which were recorded and mixed at RTÉ, in Dublin, Ireland, by Mark McGrath.
"We played on RTÉ, which is sort of the equivalent of NPR, in Ireland last summer and they were kind enough to let us use them," Lewis says. "'Raleigh And Spencer' is a common traditional ballad where the words are sort of nonsense, but also refers to prohibition and being a tough guy. That's a pretty straight ahead fiddle and banjo number that Lindsay and I sing in harmony."
Other favorite tunes on the album are "Silver Lake Polka," a tune McCaw piked up in northern Minnesota, and "Russian Rag," which Lewis and Belcher have been playing since they met in 2001.
"It's a ragtime tune that not too many people play because it's pretty difficult technically," Lewis says. "It comes from Dave Apollon, who was a Russian-Ukrainian-American mandolin virtuoso around during the vaudeville period. He was an amazing musician."
The Corn Potato String Band began as a way for Lewis to get McCaw and Belcher in the same room.
"It was kind of selfish on my part because Lindsay and Ben hadn't even met," Lewis says. "Lindsay and I had started playing some double fiddle tunes, and I thought, 'We need to get Ben in here. That would make a great band.' They were two of my favorite people and I wanted to get them together and hope they liked each other enough to make a band."
It turns out, they did, although The Corn Potato String Band remains one of several projects all three musicians happen to be a part of.
Belcher, who plays banjo, guitar and fiddle, is perhaps best known as a member of The Hot Seats, which took first place in the Neotraditional Band competition at the 2008 Appalachian String Band Festival, and a Herald Angel award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe festival.
McCaw, who plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, accordion and piano, has her own puppet company, The Dolly Wagglers, and is a two-time winner of the Minneapolis Jug Band Contest and four-time Grand Prize winner of the Sheffield Field Days Fiddle contest.
As for Lewis, a multi-instrumentalist who moved to Detroit last year, his long resume includes dozens of recordings with bands such as Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line, The Froggy Mountain Boys, and Special Ed and the Shortbus. He also has taught workshops at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and at the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London.
Recently Lewis and McCaw have been recording with Rootchie Tootchie & The Ragtime Shepherd Kings, and The Old 78s.
Still, Lewis says, for The Corn Potato String Band, nothing beats finding an old, almost-forgotten song to breathe new life into.
"For me, the door opened really wide when I first went to the Old Fiddlers Convention (in Galax, Va.)," Lewis says. "That's where it all fell into place for me. These songs and this music is really a community experience. It's something shared between people. It's not just about performance, it's about friendship."
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, Mich.