Acres of Diamonds
In 1997, I was highly taken with Last Forever, a self-titled album by Last Forever, a project centered around composer-arranger Dick Connette and singer Sonya Cohen that included highly reimagined versions of traditional folksongs like “In the Pines” and “Ain’t Going Down to the Well No More” and new compositions of Dick’s that seemed inspired and informed by folk music. I played the album a lot on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program.
They did a second album in 2000, Trainfare Home, which I loved just as much. I played it a lot on the radio show, reviewed it in Sing Out! magazine (see below), and did phone interviews with Dick and Sonya for the show.
Fifteen years later, Acres of Diamonds is a new and equally wonderful release from Last Forever. It’s an EP-length release – seven songs, 30 minutes – of more wonderfully reimagined folksongs and some new, but seemingly timeless, compositions of Dick’s.
The tour-de-force is the finale – variations on the traditional “Boll Weevil Blues,” an amazing 13-minute performance that begins with a string section playing classical-style variations on the folk music theme before the folk-style instrumentation and Sonya’s lovely, but oh so powerful, voice come in. Eventually, the folk and classical elements blend seamlessly leading to a hair-raising ending of Sonya’s vocalizations on top of a single violin bowing the very highest notes.
Although each of the other songs could well be cited as a highlight, I’ll mention “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” a reimagined version of the traditional ballad in which Sir John Franklin’s wife laments his death while searching for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in 1845; “Mr. Olio,” a sad but beautiful set piece about an old vaudevillian co-written by Dick and Loudon Wainwright III; and “Acres of Diamonds,” a catchy, very folkish song, originally written by Dick for Loudon’s High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.
Every time I’ve listened to this album, I’ve discovered something new in the music, the lyrics, the strikingly original arrangements, the beautiful singing, or the totality of it all. I’ve returned often to the early Last Forever albums over the past 15 years and I expect I’ll be returning often to Acres of Diamonds.
Sonya was born to a folk music family as the daughter of John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers and the late Penny Seeger. There’s a photo I recall – I’m sure it was taken by David Gahr – of Sonya being held as a small baby by her uncle, Pete Seeger, as he spoke on stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Sadly, Sonya died of cancer on October 9, a week before Acres of Diamonds was released. She was just 50 years old.
StorySound Records has also recently reissued Trainfare Home, the second Last Forever album, originally released by Nonesuch Records in 2000. My review originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Sing Out! magazine:
Dick Connette spent much of his composing career working in neo-classical and avant-garde music before turning his attention to rearranging traditional folk songs and writing new songs inspired by traditional music. Last Forever was formed when he began collaborating with vocalist Sonya Cohen, the daughter of New Lost City Rambler John Cohen and niece of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger.
Their first album, released in 1997, was a fascinating blend of old and new music that quickly became a favorite of mine. This sophomore effort from Connette and Cohen is just as fascinating and is one of the best releases of the past year. Like Last Forever’s first album, this one mixes old songs recast in new ways with new songs based on old melodies or lyric phrases.
Among the already-familiar songs is “Louis Collins/Spike Driver Blues,” a medley of two Mississippi John Hurt songs that begins with Cohen’s voice multi-tracked to sound like a choir on a brief refrain from “Louis Collins” before the familiar guitar notes of “Spike Driver Blues” come pouring out of Connette’s spinet and the accompanying violins, saxophone, bass, harmonium, guitar and drums begin to emulate the sound of a train as Cohen sings the lyrics. It’s all so very familiar and so very different at the same time.
On most of the original material, Connette draws on traditional elements in his compositions. “Down the Road,” sung from the point of view of an emancipated slave in the 1860s, uses “Feather Bed,” the old jug band song as its melodic starting point. The upbeat arrangement features Connette’s spinet interacting with trombone, banjo and drums. Connette’s “Bachelor’s Hall” borrows the traditional melody from “Pretty Saro” for a drawing room arrangement.
One of the most ambitious of the original songs is “Oklahoma,” which encapsulates some of the history of the state stretching from the forced relocation of the Cherokee from Georgia to the devastating bombing by a domestic terrorist in 1995.
With the new music they are creating, Connette and Cohen are proving that there is much to learn from, and to be inspired by, in traditional folk music while they create something new and different.