What Happens When a Band Learns its Name was an Obscure Racial Epithet? Meet Parsonsfield.
For Poor Old Shine, it started with a song… a traditional prison work song of the American South, called “Ain’t No Cane on This Brazos.” It’s been interpreted by everyone from Dylan and the Band, to the Low Anthem, Lyle Lovett and the Wood Brothers. And it was the song in one of the great scenes in the movie “Festival Express,” as a completely blotto Rick Danko and Janis Joplin warbled their way through it with the help of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on their train trip across the Canadian countryside.
It is from that song’s lyrics that the Connecticut roots band got their name: “Captain, don’t you do me like you done poor old Shine/Well ya drove that bully til he went stone blind.”
For those unfamiliar with Poor Old Shine, they are a five-piece group similar in style and attitude to the Avett Brothers, with influences of bluegrass, old-timey, and folk music shot with a punky attitude and a rowdy spirit.
As singer/banjo player Chris Freeman explains, the band’s name simply came from a song the group loved to play.
“Our first show was December of 2010. It was at Toad’s Place [in New Haven, Conn.] and we weren’t even billed as a band,” Freeman says. “We were billed as Chris Freeman and it was literally a band that was thrown together in a week. All Antonio [Alcorn, the group’s mandolin player] and I had ever played together before was folk songs. … I didn’t really feel comfortable having the band billed under my name since everyone was equal in a folk music club. So we pulled our name from one of our favorite songs that we had been playing in our song circle at UConn, “Ain’t No More Cane.” The afternoon of the gig we read aloud the lyrics to the songs we were going to play that night and looked for a band name. We liked Poor Old Shine.”
The name just seemed to fit what Freeman and the band were trying to get across with their music. “I think we were really in an amazing state of wonder over folk music and had so much fun playing together that we may have naively wanted to become the characters and folk singers we were singing about,” Freeman says.
Since those early days, Poor Old Shine – now including Max Shakun on guitar and pump organ, Harrison Goodale on bass, and new member drummer Erik Hischmann – played out steadily, released its debut self-titled album in 2013, and nabbed a nifty gig as the live band for the American Repertory Theater’s exuberant production of “The Heart of Robin Hood.
Momentum has surely been in the band’s favor as they have built a solid fanbase over the years. But there has been one nagging problem…
According to Freeman, Poor Old Shine had been performing for about a year when they first heard about the issue regarding the band’s name.
“One person brought it up to us at a show,” says Freeman. “They were nice enough about it, told us they liked our music but hated our name. I kind of froze when he told me why but I didn’t know how to respond."
What they have since learned is that Poor Old Shine is an obscure racial stereotype for a shoeshine boy, or someone who is looked down upon, in the Deep South.
The news shocked the band. They had no idea of any racist connotation.
How obscure is this term? Our digging turned up a handful of references to the word “shine” as a derogatory word for black people, but nothing that would indicate that Poor Old Shine, other than the aforementioned song, has any specific meaning in itself. Email inquiries to various experts on race and racial history around the country returned nothing of consequence on the band name either.
But Freeman says he’s received at least a dozen emails and a handful of comments at shows over the years concerning their name, and, in truth, it doesn’t matter how obscure the phrase is, it certainly affected the band.
“It was difficult because it meant something completely different to us than it seemed to mean to people who have heard it used in a derogatory way,” he says. “It came to represent us. … It’s a matter of association. It’s hard to change someone’s mind once they associate it with one thing. For a lot of people that was our music… but for others it was this derogatory meaning, and we weren’t going to change their minds.”
Freeman says deciding what to do was frustrating and difficult. Band members’ discussions went back and forth.
“It was hard to know whether to just ignore it, people are going to criticize you on the Internet no matter what you do or what your called,” he says. “We tried to forget about it for a while, but whenever it came up it stung for a while and was a distraction.”
The band did what it could, courteously returning emails from anyone who had an issue, trying to explain their intentions and move past it. But it just wouldn’t go away.
“We get an email five minutes before we go on stage for a “Robin Hood” show that says we have a racist name. It’s hard to put it out of your head, perform, and promote that name,” he says.
According to Freeman, even though they didn’t have issues with venues or cities they have played concerning their name, it just became too much to bear.
“I tried not to think about it, but it was a distraction at times. I found myself hoping no one would bring it up after the show each night,” he says.
So last January, the band finally decided something had to be done. By March, they had a plan, in May they informed fans via a note on their website, and in July – at the Green River Festival – they made it official with their stage announcement. They have a new album to be released Aug. 19. It’s called “Afterparty” and it’s by the band Parsonsfield.
“It’s so difficult renaming something that already has an identity,” he says. “We needed to pick something that was personal to us. Most names we came up with felt very contrived.”
Parsonsfield is the name of the town in Maine where they recorded their albums with producer Sam Kassirer at his studio, Great North Sound Society.
“It’s also where we met our drummer Erik. He worked with Sam and was hired as a session drummer for our album but stayed on and joined the band full time after recording,” says Freeman. “Our sound really changed when he joined and pulled us from a more traditional string band sound to something that felt much more uniquely ourselves. We owe a lot to what happened in the 10 days that we spent there working on the album. It made us the band that we are today, not the band that improvised folk songs in a song circle. We still love that, but as a band I think we’ve moved on.”
Moving on is what the band is doing, in steps. They will be billed for a while as Parsonsfield (formally Poor Old Shine), just to make sure their fanbase hangs with them during the transition.
“I’m not too worried. It’s gone really smoothly so far and word has been spreading well I think,” says Freeman. I don’t think anyone listened to us because we were called Poor Old Shine. If they like the music, they’ll follow along.”
As for the band’s new name, Freeman is genuinely ecstatic.
“I think it gives us more freedom to explore different genres and styles without having the burden of expectation,” he says. “Many people thought Poor Old Shine was a reference to moonshine and thus called us an Appalachian or bluegrass band. This will give us the opportunity to explore our own music with greater clarity.”
Reprinted from Modern Acoustic magazine. Download the full issue at www.modernacoustic.com.