Welcome to Songwriting School, where we talk to songwriters about the craft of songwriting.
Jake Xerxes Fussell is a folk music treasure and something of a treasure hunter as well.
In addition to singing and playing guitar, the Durham-based musician is regarded for his research methods. He finds Southern songs of yesteryear in archives and old field recordings. And after he digs up these songs, he breathes new life into them by recording them himself.
We spoke with Fussell prior to his show on October 13 at the Intuition Ale Works Bier Hall in downtown Jacksonville.
The following interview has been condensed and edited from the original recording.
I’ve seen you referred to as a music researcher as well as a musician. What does being a music researcher look like for you?
For me, it’s one of two things. I do have an interest in music history and musicology and things like that. And I went to graduate school to explore that a little bit with a mind of maybe going into academia or going into writing about music. And I have a lot of friends in that world who are researchers, archivists, that kind of thing. And I kind of came out of that world a little bit. My dad’s a folklorist and my mom was an English professor.
But on the other hand, I’m also a musician and have been playing music for a really long time. And at a certain point, I think after sort of going through college and the experience of grad school, I kind of realized that I didn’t need to separate those two things, and that exploring things musically could also involve archival research. They’re very different types of exploration in some ways. But I use music as an excuse to do some of that same type of digging and use it in a creative way rather than writing research papers about it.
Speaking of that archival work, how do you find the songs you decide to record?
I’m always looking for stuff, looking through recordings that I haven’t heard before or thinking of different versions of songs that I already know. I’ve been listening to field recordings and early commercial recordings of vernacular music for so long now. It’s been a passion of mine since I was 12 or 13 years old.
It begins in an organic way, and once I start to try to get into the tune, I might go back and try to find some versions that I haven’t heard before. That involves a little bit of digging in the archive, as they say, which mostly means looking on the Internet. There’s Max Hunter folk song collection at Missouri State. This guy, Max Hunter, went around the Ozarks and recorded a bunch of people in the 50s. And then, you know, things like the Library of Congress website, of course, and then Smithsonian Folkways, things like that. And also old folk song books and ballad books.
This probably won’t surprise you coming from a Florida music journalist, but one of my favorite recordings of yours is called The River Saint Johns, which you described during your Tiny Desk Home Concert as an old fishmonger song from Florida. You said you came across that one in an old field recording from the Library of Congress. What is it about songs like that one that makes you say, “Okay, I think I’m going to try to take a stab at that one myself?”
That’s a good example that I didn’t even mention because that was recording by Stetson Kennedy, the great folklorist from Florida and writer. And that recording is from Jacksonville, actually, from 1939 when he was with the Works Progress Administration. Florida has that great Florida Memory website with also a really wonderful archive with a lot of the Florida folklore, field recordings, and photographs. It’s really a great resource for me that I’ve used a few times and for a lot of people I know.
A recording like that—I mean, I just heard that one day I thought, “This is extraordinary.” You know, I kind of kept it in the back of my mind for a long time. It probably didn’t occur to me to try to sing it myself until years later. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it’s like I really like something, but it doesn’t feel legitimate for me to do. And something like a Fishmonger song might feel that way at first because it’s like, “Well, I’m not on the street trying to sell fish. I’m just like a guy with a guitar singing some songs.” But there was something about that song melodically and poetically that sort of lent itself to it, sort of had an openness about it that I could work with. And so that’s where I took it.
I’m curious what your own personal songwriting practice looks like. How often do you write songs yourself?
I never do. I don’t write lyrics. It’s funny. I have a lot of friends who do and I admire them, and I’ve just never been prone to that sort of writing poetry or anything like that. I mean, I have a deep admiration and I’m in awe of some people, friends who do that, but this has always been my way of being creative. I don’t sit down and write lyrics ever.
If you ever were to sit down and write a song, where do you think you would start?
Well, that’s the problem, because I don’t know. I’ve never done it. I’ve yet to get there. And, you know, I’ve thought about it, but I really have found a lot of gratitude and fulfillment from doing things this way. And I always have. And it actually just gets more and more interesting as I go along the process of it all. I’m really fulfilled by thinking about traditional tunes and how to have them make sense for me in different settings musically and working with that is deeply gratifying.
It does sound like such a gratifying and fulfilling process to interpret songs in this way. Do you feel like you’ve learned anything about the craft of songwriting from that interpretation practice?
Oh yeah. I certainly have a lot of respect for people who phrase things in a certain way. And, you know, sometimes there’ll be like, you know, like 20 versions of one ballad, and then there will be one or two that are kind of superior to all these other ones, and you realize that you know it from this certain performer, and they have an approach where they might embellish certain aspects of the lyric or the melody that make it really interesting and stick out.