The Victor Mourning, Gothic Country, and the Swedes

Earlier this year, the Swedish website CD-Runda published an overview of The Victor Mourning in their series of articles on Gothic Country. We’ve translated it for our non-Swedish speaking visitors:


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The Victor Mourning

The Victor Mourning are from Austin, Texas, but have now relocated to Maryville, Tennessee. The name “The Victor Mourning” gave me many headaches as I got to work trying to figure out what it referred to. My guesses as to the name’s origin grew ever wilder, everything from a Victorian mourning brooch (which actually appears in their logo below) to a 2008 episode of the soap opera The Young & the Restless in which a character named Victor mourns to the music of Leo Delibes’ opera Lakmé. In the end, I e-mailed The Victor Mourning to get the answer. Here is their response: ”The Victor Mourning is mostly a combination of words that seem to fit our sound. Victor was an early record company that started around 1901. Early recorded music is a big influence on us. We have a dark sound and are fascinated by the art of mourning (tombstones, mourning jewelry, etc.), so the “Mourning” part was added. Also, if you take it as a phrase, ‘The Victor Mourning’ can evoke the image of a winner who is deeply saddened by his victory, an image we also liked. And if all that weren’t enough, in this era you must have a unique name if anyone is to find your band via Google.” If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Above all, it’s best not to think that you were wrong. In any case, it’s a very good name for a gothic country band.

The Victor Mourning was formed in 2008 and features Stephen Canner (guitar and vocals), Lynne Adele (guitjo and vocals), and Stefan Keydel (violin). Stephen has, to say the least, had a checkered career in the past in bands such as Your Real Dad, Too Cool, and The Nazarenes, whose repertoire ranged from punk, to glam rock, to garage rock. He then performed for a time under his own name, but wanted to start a new band. One difficulty in Austin — an important hub in the “gothic country” world — was meeting like-minded musicians who were not already involved in other projects. Arriving late to a show by The Builders & the Butchers at Yard Dog Gallery, Stephen met Lynne who worked at the gallery and met the criteria for a member of the band. Stephen had previously played with Stefan from time to time a few years earlier. The band was formed. Besides being musicians, Lynne works at a university and Stefan trained as a folklorist. Stephen and Lynne were married in 2009 (sic). When the band relocated to Tennessee, Stefan stayed in Austin but still performs and records with them. Stephen Canner writes all the music and lyrics, but everyone in the band contributes to the arrangements. Like the band Blanche, much of their style and influence comes from another time—particularly the Victorian era. According to the band’s website, their influences include: “Ancient American & British ballads, pre-WWII hillbilly music, abandoned shopping centers & empty swimming pools, scythes, cemeteries & odd museums, the smell of old books, gasoline & matchbooks, jewelry made of human hair, and the broken shores of Patagonia.”

The Victor Mourning are the least known band in this series of articles, undeservedly so. I discovered the band during my triangulation of the genre. In a discussion thread on a music forum one member submitted a very informed list of suggestions of gothic country bands. His taste was exquisite. Humbly, and in passing, he mentioned his own band. I followed this lead and eventually bought their album on line. I was hooked. There’s a dark streak in the music, but it’s also razor sharp and cuts straight through joints and marrow. Their website describes it as ”dark Americana, hillbilly noir, gothic country, dark twang, the half barbaric yawp of ancestors who would shame you if you met them.” The lyrics are dark and deal with ”grief-torn outcasts, confidences betrayed, piracy, and murder. There’s a song about a man who eats nothing but locusts and Campbell’s soup, another about an itinerant albino, and an unexpected version of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus set in the hills of rural Arkansas.” Stephen sings in a nasal, gloomy style and Lynne adds beautiful harmonies to the choruses.

The Victor Mourning have recorded an album: A Handful of Locusts (2010), released on Backwoods Modern Recordings. A single with the British label Folk Police has been planned since 2012, but has not yet been released. I asked The Victor Mourning if they plan to release a second album. They do, but it will likely only be released on vinyl and download in late 2013. Since my preferred format is the CD, this worries me a bit. As an alternative, if a CD is not in the works, I hope the album will be downloadable in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Code) format. The cover [of A Handful of Locusts] was designed by Jamie Panzer and features a drawing of Gryllus Cristatus (grasshopper) by George Shaw, 1895 (sic).

What does the future hold for the band? It is, of course, hard for me to tell from the other side of the world, but the band is not just concerned with music. In the Journal section of their website, you’ll find very well written articles on subjects such as jewelry, art, antiques, quackery, genealogy, old historic homes, and the “Signs Following” church which follows the five signs: exorcism, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, drinking poison (preferably strychnine or lye), and handling poisonous snakes. There’s much more content in this area of the website than in the sections dealing with the band’s music. What this means is unclear, but I hope it doesn’t displace the music. Judging by the high quality of the first album, this band should have another very good album in them. But it should be perfectly clear from this series of articles that you don’t become a millionaire playing gothic country. It’s more about survival than about being able to make a living with the music. It’s important that someone like me respects that fact while sitting here comfortably in my favorite chair with my laptop, expressing my views on the band’s choices, level of ambition, and persistence. 

As I’ve pointed out in the other articles in this series, to suggest tracks for a CD compilation for a band with only one album seems a bit odd and pretentious, but all the songs are solid. Below is a suggested CD compilation.

Translated by Stephen Canner

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Grandpa Maschka’s Violin

I don’t have many memories of my grandfather, Frank Anton Maschka. He died before my 5th birthday, and in my vague recollections of him, he’s either helping me learn to turn backwards somersaults, or I’m sitting on his lap in his Victorian platform rocker. I also recall that he played the violin and wore suspenders and string ties.

Frank Anton Maschka (1882-1959) with his violin, c. 1910.

Frank Anton Maschka (1882-1959) with his violin, c. 1910.

Born in Witków, Poland, on April 14, 1882, Frank was the first child of August Maschka, who had been a soldier in the Prussian army, and his wife, Rosalia Wesierski. August emigrated to the US in 1881, and Rosalia arrived with the newborn Frank in 1882. They went first to Ohio before settling along with numerous other Polish immigrants at Ashton, in Sherman County, Nebraska, five years later. There they built a sod house (soon replaced with a large frame structure), began farming, and raised a large family. I remember visiting the old homestead many years later, by that time long abandoned.

The Maschkas were musical and had a family band that enjoyed regional success. Frank played violin, and when he married my grandmother, Helen Jamrog, in 1913, she joined the band as pianist. Frank and Helen adopted their only child, my dad, Richard, in 1923. (Naturally, they provided Richard with music lessons from early childhood; he became an accomplished saxophonist and pianist, earned a music degree, and played with both Artie Shaw and Claude Thornhill.)

Frank owned and operated a grocery/general merchandise store in the small, largely Polish community of Ashton, and with his brother, Alfonzo (Uncle Ollie), ran a successful sausage shop. Maschka’s Sausage is still in operation today in its original location. Ashton reached its peak population of 488 in 1940, before declining to fewer than 200 today. Some of my fondest childhood memories are set in that tiny Nebraska town.

I’ve always loved this photograph of my grandfather, taken c. 1910 when he was about 28 years old. He chose to have his portrait taken holding what was undoubtedly his most valued possession, his 1907 Johann Dressel violin. I haven’t been able to find much information on Johann Dressel beyond that he was a violin maker in Berlin, Germany, and that his violins were imported between 1890 and 1925 by the Chicago music business, Lyon & Healy. It is my understanding that these instruments were considered to be of fairly high quality and were relatively expensive for their time. Lyon & Healy advertised them as having “graceful outlines, workmanship of high order, [and] a tone of unsurpassed volume, great beauty and richness.”

A hundred years after the photo was taken, the violin came into my possession, along with the bow my Grandpa Maschka holds in the photo. It hasn’t been played since he died in 1959, and it needs some work to return it to a playable condition. I hope to have the instrument restored so I can listen to it once again.

—Lynne Adele

“Christmas Bells”: Longfellow’s Holiday Poem of Hope Amidst Despair

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), the most widely known and best-loved American poet of his time, was deeply sorrowed when he put pen to paper on Christmas Day, 1863.

He was still grieving the tragic death, just two years earlier, of his beloved wife Fanny, who died of burns received when packages of locks of her children’s hair, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame and caught her dress on fire. Longfellow tried unsuccessfully to save her by smothering the flames with a rug, and was burned so seriously he was unable to attend the funeral. He turned to ether and laudanum to ease his physical and emotional pain.

After Fanny’s death, Christmas lost its joy for the poet. On Christmas Day, 1861, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following Christmas he recorded, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written


While he was a staunch abolitionist, Longfellow was also a pacifist. By the time Christmas arrived in 1863, the American Civil War had been raging for more than two years, and had taken a decidedly personal turn for the poet. Earlier that year, against Longfellow’s wishes, his elder son, Charles, 18, had joined the Union Army. In November, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He was brought home to recuperate on December 8.
Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863


Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1863. The poem tells of the narrator’s despair upon hearing Christmas bells, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” It concludes with the bells carrying a message of renewed hope for peace among mankind.
Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863


The poem was first published in 1865. It was set to music in 1872 by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, becoming the carol with which we are familiar. In his version Calkin removed the stanzas relating to the war, a purge that diluted Longfellow’s powerful message. The poem follows in its original form.

—Lynne Adele

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

John Dana Guildner (1949-2011)

John Dana Guildner - 1949-2011


The Victor Mourning regrets the passing of our fellow musician, John Dana Guildner, known to his friends as Dana, after a brief illness.

An extraordinarily talented musician, Dana had played the string bass with the Minnesota Symphony, and more recently, he played accordion and string bass with our friends, the Geneva Witnesses. He was also known for playing traditional hymns on his 1880s pump organ, pumped by a vacuum cleaner operated by his wife, Barb.

We treasure our memories of playing with Dana on the shore of Geneva Lake in Southern Minnesota, and it’s difficult to accept that we won’t have another opportunity to share that experience. In addition to his musical talents, Dana was a truly eccentric character, a generous friend and neighbor, and an important member of his community. Our thoughts are with his family. He will be missed.

Henry Russell’s Last Words

Federal No. 3 Mine

Federal No. 3 Mine


If you’ve attended one of our live shows, you are probably aware that band member Stephen Lee Canner writes nearly all our material. We do often add a “cover” or two to our set list—songs written by other songwriters we admire, and that for one reason or another we like to share with our audiences.

Among our favorites is the heartbreakingly beautiful song, “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” written by Diana Jones. Inspired by an historical event, the song documents the final moments of a West Virginia coal miner trapped underground following a mine disaster.

In The Victor Mourning’s version of the song, guitjo player Lynne Adele contributes lead vocals, Stephen Canner takes a rare break from singing duties to focus on delicately textured guitar accompaniment, and Stefan Keydel lends soaring fiddle solos that build dramatically to the song’s tragic climax. We hope to record the song for our next album.

Henry Russell was born in 1885 in Hamilton, a town near Glasgow in the west central lowlands of Scotland. He worked as a miner in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S. with his pregnant wife, Mary, and their two young children. They moved to Monongalia County, West Virginia, where Henry found work at the Federal No. 3 coalmine in Everettville.

Henry Russell

Henry Russell

The day of April 30, 1927 probably began like just any other workday for the miners of the Federal No. 3. But the day came to a sudden end for 111 of the miners when a massive explosion ripped through the mine, killing most of them instantly. Only nine miners working that day survived. Several men survived the initial blast, trapped hundreds of feet underground for several hours before succumbing to gas fumes. Among them was Henry Russell.

Russell gathered pieces of coal and scraps of paper torn from cement sacks, and began to write notes to his wife. The notes, which he placed carefully in his lunch box, were found along with the bodies of Henry and his coworkers and passed along to Russell’s widow, Mary. Their daughter, Marguerite, was just six years old when her father died. Now in her 90s, she still has her father’s handwritten notes.

The note

One of Henry Russell's handwritten notes


In 2006, songwriter Diana Jones accepted the challenge to write a song to help raise awareness for a memorial to the miners of the Federal No. 3 mine. Inspired by Henry Russell’s notes, she set them to music and created the intensely moving song “Henry Russell’s Last Words.”

On April 30, 2011, 84 years to the day after the disaster, the memorial was dedicated in the town of Everettville in memory of 149 coal miners who lost their lives in accidents there during the years the mine operated, 1918 to 1951. The memorial, which stands on a hillside overlooking the former Federal No. 3 Mine, is a 7.5-ton stone inscribed with the names of the miners, many of whom lie buried in unmarked paupers’ graves. 

—Lynne Adele

For more information, visit the Everettville Historical Association website: http://www.wveha.org/wveha2/home

A Handful of Locusts

Locust, George Shaw, 1805


Steve and I are extremely fond of 19th-century imagery, and we have a collection of early natural history and literary engravings and lithographs in our home in Austin. After deciding that our recent CD would be titled A Handful of Locusts, referencing a line from our song “Grasshoppers,” we worked with graphic designer Jamie Panzer to develop the concept for the cover design.
 
The song “Grasshoppers” tells the tale of an eccentric, religiously obsessed man who talks to Jesus through his car antenna and believes that God wants him to eat only locusts and Campbell’s soup. We recorded the track live in the studio, with the legendary Jad Fair (best known for his role as co-founder of the band Half Japanese) providing guest vocals that “quake with the ultimate rumination of wrack and ruin” (Doug Freeman, Austin Chronicle).
 
We ultimately decided to build the design around a copper plate engraving from a book by the English botanist and zoologist, George Shaw (1751-1813), published in 1805, which we purchased from a dealer in New Zealand.
 
Jamie then went to work, creating a design incorporating the iconic image. The image was reversed, enabling it to wrap around the cover and be viewed in full when the cover is opened. For the inside cover, Jamie’s individual portraits of the band were presented in Victorian-era mourning jewelry settings and a typical Union case, continuing the 19th-century aesthetic.
 
The locust engraving itself is a product of the burgeoning interest in scientific exploration during the 19th century. Western adventurer-scientists were traveling the globe to explore new regions, seek real and imagined treasures, and discover and classify mammals, reptiles, insects, plants, fungi, sea life, and minerals. They returned from their expeditions to find attentive audiences fascinated by lectures about their adventures and discoveries, and wealthy patrons eager to purchase exotic specimens for their collections. Lavishly illustrated studies published as books and portfolios found their places in private libraries. Our locust came from one of these works.
 

A Handful of Locusts disc image


In addition to the literal reference to the song, we were also drawn to the biblical, apocalyptic associations of the locust with plagues and ruination—a thread that runs throughout the album. The disc itself features an image of a swarm of locusts as a visual conclusion to the cover’s ominous warning. Naturally, we were pleased when a British reviewer praised it as “some of the best cover art we’ve seen this year.”
 
—Lynne Adele

A Handful of Locusts CD cover

CD Review from Rootstime.be

Rootstime.be in Belgium recently published a review of our latest CD, A Handful of Locusts. Since the review was in Dutch and most of our audience doesn’t read this language we’ve translated it for our English speaking audience:

The Victor Mourning – A Handful of Locusts

If only autumn were already here. God, how I long for the silence, the peace, and the dark days of November. The tumult of summer always paralyzes my attempts to get anything done. Because of this I only dare make my way out into the world at night, but even then summer’s tumult is not completely gone. Then there are those dang farmers that disturb my much needed rest like beings possessed, racing their tractors across the fields. Luckily there’s a new voice out there, “A Handful of Locusts” by The Victor Mourning, evoking autumnal scenes that provide comfort and refuge from the infernal madness of summer.

It’s always autumn in the mind of Austin resident Stephen Lee Canner – vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for The Victor Mourning – and seemingly the clock is turned back to the year 1880. Along with his fiancee Lynne Adele and violinist Stefan Keydel, his longing for that dark era of Victorian America is expressed through morbid Southern Gothic tales wrapped in somber, sepia toned, Appalachian folk music. The songs on “A Handful of Locusts” sound like they were recorded in an old, crumbling Victorian house.

If you listen closely, you can hear the creak of rotten wooden floorboards in the background, made by the ghosts of the previous occupants who still wander the house where yellowed black and white photos hang crookedly on the walls. Stephen Lee Canner presents these morbid tales of deceit, violence, and murder, his wailing lamentation accompanied by Keydel’s mournful fiddle and the ominous sounding banjo of Adele. An example is the tale of local eccentric “Zachariah”, who read too deeply into Greek mythology and imagined himself as Icarus. Like Icarus, Zachariah did not fly to the sun but to death. Or the tale told in “Grasshoppers” of another eccentric who ate nothing but grasshoppers. The verses on this tune are sung by Jad Fair (known for his work with, among others, Daniel Johnston, Yo La Tengo, Isobel Campbell, and Teenage Fanclub.)

No, the members of The Victor Mourning are not jolly Frans Bauers [a famous Dutch pop/folk singer.] If things don’t work out with their musical career they could always start a funeral home. I wouldn’t recommend “A Handful of Locusts” to anyone who uses “Carpe diem” or “Living la vida loca” as their motto. Rather, “A Handful of Locusts” is fodder for the denizens of the dark and other nocturnal vermin who avoid the daylight. Such as your very own,

Roen Het Zwoen

Translation by Stephen Lee Canner

The Victor Mourning: Mini Spring Tour

The Victor Mourning will be heading out on a mini-Spring tour this week with new songs and new merchandise items in hand. 

Wed, Mar 24 – Lynchburg, VA – The White Hart

Thu, Mar 25 – Harrisonburg, VA – Court Square Theater

Fri, Mar 26 – Charleston, WV – Taylor Books

Sat, Mar 27 – Noblesville, IN – Noble Coffee and Tea

Check our website for details on the specific venues. Hope to see some of y’all on the road!

The Littlefield Home

 

The Victor Mourning at the Littlefield House

 

When faced with the task of choosing a location for The Victor Mourning’s recent photo shoot, we decided on the George W. Littlefield home, on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. We love Victorian architecture, and this elegant (and reportedly haunted) mansion proved to be an ideal setting for our new band photos, taken by Austin photographer, Will Branch.  

The house was built in 1893 at a cost of $50,000 by George W. Littlefield—a Confederate officer, cattle baron, banker, and UT benefactor and Regent—for himself and his wife, Alice. (The couple, married in 1863, had two children who died in infancy.) They lived in the home until Major Littlefield died there on November 10, 1920; Alice continued to reside there until her death fifteen years later, and bequeathed the home to The University. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The Littlefield mansion is, sadly, the only remaining structure of its era on a street it once shared with other grand Victorian homes. The home’s St. Louis brick exterior, stately marble columns and steps, intricate iron grillwork, eccentric unmatched turrets, wrap-around veranda, mosaic tiles, and stained glass windows provide the opulent and eclectic elements associated with high Victorian “Queen Anne” style. The extravagance continues throughout the interior, with decorative details including a grand staircase, elaborate woodwork, impressive chandeliers suspended from 14-foot ceilings, and multiple fireplaces—including one flanked by a pair of menacing griffins. Today, the house’s rather disheveled appearance only adds to its character.

Reports of strange occurrences, no doubt fueled by the structure’s distinctive presence, have resulted in its being labeled among Austin’s haunted places. Tales of hauntings often revolve around Alice Littlefield, who has been characterized as a “melancholic, depressive, agoraphobic woman who slowly and quietly went insane later in life.” Other stories suggest that “Major Littlefield locked Alice up in the attic when he was away so she would not be grabbed by Yankees who might be strolling by and oblivious to the fact that the Civil War was over. . . . [W]hile languishing in the attic she was assaulted by bats, and her shrieks of terror reverberate in the mansion to this day.” Still other accounts stress Alice’s “deep concern for her husband’s welfare and her fears for his safety when he was away. Her ghost is said to restlessly roam the attic, peering out the windows, watching for his return.” It has also been said that Alice’s ghost can sometimes be heard “banging out a chord or two on the old piano on the first floor.”

The Victor Mourning on the porch of the Littlefield House

 

Although we had originally envisioned that the photos would be black and white, we found that the subtle terracotta and verdigris palette of the veranda complemented our monochromatic clothing beautifully. The combination of the exquisite location, soft afternoon light, and Will’s keen eye and talent as a photographer resulted in photos that reflect our visual aesthetic, allude to the band’s name, and evoke the dark, haunting nature of our music. 

—Lynne Adele

The Guitjo

 

guitjo

British Sailors, 1908

“What is that instrument?” is a question we’re used to hearing in reference to my six-string banjo, or guitjo, when The Victor Mourning performs. Although it dates to the mid-nineteenth century, the guitjo (sometimes called a banjitar) remains surprisingly unfamiliar to the general public and musicians alike.

The banjo, of course, traces its history to African slaves in the United States, who adapted African stringed instruments into gourd banjos. Until the 1830s, the banjo was an instrument associated exclusively with African American musicians. The five-string banjo was popularized to white audiences in the U.S. by the early minstrel performer, Joel Sweeney, in the 1830s, and introduced to England by the Virginia Minstrels during the following decade. The banjo quickly became a favorite instrument in English music halls.

The six-string banjo was evidently a British innovation, attributed to William Temlett, one of England’s earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846. Although early examples differ in design, the guitjo soon came to consist of a banjo body with a guitar neck, tuned and played like a guitar. Other hybrid banjo forms include the banjolele (a banjo/ukelele combo), the mandobanjo (mandolin/banjo), bass banjo, and cello banjo.

The six-string banjo joined the four-string banjo as a popular instrument in jazz and swing music of the 1920s and 30s. The six-string banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr (of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven), as well as that of Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis.

Johnny St Cyr

Johnny St Cyr

Neither banjo nor guitar, the guitjo belongs to both the banjo and guitar families. Its distinctly plunky, percussive sound is being rediscovered by musicians today. Artists including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have used it on tour and in the studio, and it is the primary instrument of Old Crow Medicine Show ‘s Kevin Hayes.

—Lynne Adele

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