Folk music is about people, obviously. It’s right there in the name. It’s an entire category of music that, when you dig deeper than mandolin-wielding hipsters, is about the traditions and times of a group of people and the place they lived. Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi, the local duo behind the fiddle-heavy The Vox Hunters, understand this and have taken it upon themselves to take that dive into Rhode Island’s own musical heritage. The result is The Ocean State Songster, a collection of ballads and folk tunes reaching all the way back to the state’s origins.
“The idea for the Songster was spurred by our desire to have a repertoire of old music from our own locality,” explains Aromin. “When we attend various festivals and singing weekends in and around New England, we often hear folks introducing a song or tune with, ‘I learned this song from my mother back in Vermont, who learned it from an elderly woman down the road, who learned it from her mother who…’ or ‘This is an old logging song that lumbermen used to sing in Minnesota.’ Thanks to the digital age, we’ve since found that researching your own local music isn’t terribly difficult once you know what to look for.”
Funded in part by the Rhode Island Council for the Arts, Aromin and Gagliardi turned to digital resources, local libraries, and the Library of Congress. The songs they uncovered trace their roots back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the Dorr’s Rebellion, and ad jingles from the late 19th century. They tell of shipwrecks and murder, but more to the point, they tell what life was like in Rhode Island in a way that history books can’t.
Of their many musical discoveries, one of the more exciting came during a performance in England earlier this year. After playing a song about Roger Williams, someone in the audience shared that it reminded her of a song that she’d sung in the schoolyard as a young girl. Turns out the two songs were related, which speaks to the enduring power of folk music. Though it had been written in Rhode Island, the ditty had made its way across an ocean, was changed by the people who carried it with them, and became a playground game for children who had no idea that the “Old Roger” they sang about was our own founding father.
With the research done and the book in print, The Vox Hunters are already thinking about the next volume of the Songster, as well as a new album of traditional, Rhode Island-centric music.
“We’re proud to say that our Rhode Island repertoire is sizable enough that we can play two 45-minute sets and still have plenty of material leftover.” Find The Ocean State Songster and upcoming Vox Hunters shows at TheVoxHunter.com