A few years back, Barry Osborne read a five-lined poem by Wisconsin Depression-era objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker.
“Jim Poor’s his name/Poor Jay’s mine/His hair’s aflame/Not worth a dime/Or He’d sell it.”
“Who are Jim Poor and Poor Jay?” Osborne asked himself upon finishing the single stanza.
“It’s a very short poem, but it's a big spark,” Osborne says.
The question served as the impetus behind a sixteen-song cycle of old-time indie-folk tunes called What a Fool Might Suggest that Osborne will premiere at Swallow Hill Music in Denver on October 3. (Osborn is associate marketing director at the nonprofit music organization.)
His interest in telling the story of the two characters ever so briefly mentioned by Niedecker springs in part from a profound fascination with the Great Depression and his love of playing clawhammer-style banjo.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that era, because my grandparents were dairy farmers in Wisconsin,” Osborne says. “They lived through that era. I remember just as a kid hearing stories about hard times. You know it was through rose-tinted lenses how they were able to pull together as a family and community and support their extended family in Milwaukee.”
Osborne says the clawhammer-banjo style evokes the Great Depression. The style, which originated in Africa and came to North America via the slave trade, was later absorbed into modern Appalachian folk music and old-time music. The distinctive playing style was first recorded in the 1930s, when the Depression was at its height.
He started writing what resulted in the song cycle in 2014, and decided earlier this year that he wanted to play the nearly hour-long set for a live audience. Osborne assembled a backing band consisting of Niki Tredinnick of the Denver indie-folk band the Dollhouse Thieves on multiple instruments, Olivia Shaw of Denver folk band Avenhart on fiddle, and Yoni Fine on guitar.
“We’ve been playing together, and I think we have a really great energy that’s greater than the individual players,” he says. “I love playing with these folks. It’s cool to play with people who maybe had to take a leap of faith to jump into this with me.”
He says that people shouldn’t come expecting a full, complete narrative of the trials and tribulations of Jim Poor and Poor Jay. Certain themes are repeated in the songs, but the whole story is left untold. Osborne likens it somewhat to the 1968 Kinks album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.
“Ray Davies created a world,” he says. “I think you can imagine those people in the songs inhabiting that world and that space. It’s a little looser. It’s that kind of realm rather than a straight-up narrative.”
The song cycle leans heavily into traditional old-time music, but listeners shouldn’t expect a purist fidelity to those styles. Osborne says that he loves playing old-time music, but when he got back into playing after a long hiatus, he wanted to combine some of the newer genres that influenced him — college radio from the late ’80s and early ’90s, as well as post-punk and alternative music.
Listeners will be able to hear some of those influences in What a Fool Might Suggest.
“At this point it’s definitely more indie folk,” he says. “I know that’s an amorphous term, but it maybe helps prepare folks a little bit. At Swallow Hill, we hear the term 'Americana' that is so used so much that unless you define it a bit, it might not mean anything anymore.”
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He settles on calling the cycle “original songs that nod to different traditions without being completely beholden to them.”
Osborne released his debut EP, Back of the Title Page, in 2018. He says he would like to eventually record What a Fool Might Suggest. For now, he wants to see how everything plays out at the inaugural performance.
“Everyone in the band has said just nominally they’d be interested in doing it again and that includes, hopefully, recording it,” he says. “Right now we're going to see how this goes.”
Barry Osborne performs at Swallow Hill Music, at 7 p.m. on October 3, at Swallow Hill Music, 71 East Yale Avenue. Tickets are $10 to $12 and available at the Swallow Hill website.