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All photos by Kelly Hotte and John McDonald.

Aiken & Beggs: Purveyors of old time traditions

By John McDonald on March 6, 2016

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to. They just don’t.”

Now, my late Grandfather could have easily been speaking of lawn mowers, coffee makers, or even tandem bicycles.

Instead, he was speaking of songs.

“Not the same.” he’d grumble.

Ottawa musicians Sonny Aiken and Mabel Beggs, collectively known as Aiken & Beggs might agree.

The guitar and mandolin duo play Amercian folk and country with a focus on the recordings and traditions prior to the end of WWII. They’ve just released a collection of songs based on the original Carter Family recordings.

I sat down with Sonny and Mabel at the very welcoming Bluebird Coffee on Dalhousie, where they will appear every Sunday with their Aiken & Beggs Morning Show, to talk about their new album, early American folk music, and the Carter Family.

I started our get-together by asking Sonny and Mabel how they met:

Mabel: We actually met at an open mic over at the Chateau Lafayette in the Byward Market. We were playing separately with others and we both thought “Oh you play really cool music that I like to play too” and from there we sparked. That was two years ago now.

Sonny: Yeah, we just started to hang out. It was summer and we got together and we played tunes and from there we just started.

The idea is to retain the soul of the music and the soul of the people who originally intended for it to be heard in this fashion

What kind of music were you both playing then?

Mabel: I was playing bluegrass and Sonny was playing stuff similar to what we’re playing now.

Sonny: Old time and traditional country.

Mabel: We decided together to dive into the Carter Family collection and just sort of immerse ourselves in it and make that our show.

So was that the decision from the start?

Sonny: The Carter Family’s been a big part of what we both love. They were big around the house. That’s what I’ve always listened to and it’s had a big impact on us as people in general. It’s the music we play because that’s the feeling that we’re trying to bring to people. It’s the sounds and the traditions that we’re trying to keep alive. And when we play these songs we play them like the original Carter Family recordings or our versions of them. The idea is to retain the soul of the music and the soul of the people who originally intended for it to be heard in this fashion. It’s music for the common folk. We play other tunes as well, but the album is specifically the Carter Family because there aren’t a lot of people who’ve done this kind of thing. We wanted to document the music, and document our time playing it in what we think is a pretty good representation of their span of time.

Can you tell us a bit about the Carter Family?

Sonny: The Carter Family recorded from 1927. There are hundreds of songs that we know of, but maybe 25 of them are 100% written by them. They were around during the start of recording and they had the foresight to copyright their recordings. They brought over European songs, changed the titles and the lines, and they were their own songs at that point. They were trying to do what we are trying to do too – preserve. AP (Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter) would travel around and collect songs. They used to play every night on the radio for an hour from just over the US border in Mexico. You could tune into the broadcast throughout the US. The album we put together has the feeling of tuning in for an hour listening to the radio.

Aiken & Beggs

The title of your new album Countless Hours By You I’ve Spent: Aiken and Beggs Play The Carter Family refers to listening to the radio. Radio was special then.

Mabel: That is the feeling that our album represents – People spending time around the radio, as a family, listening to the Carter Family with their own family. There is a feeling of community through the songs.

Sonny: The title is a mouthful, but it works. It’s a line from the first song on the album, which is also one of the first songs they say AP wrote.

You’ve tried to maintain the sound of the original recordings. How did you achieve this?

Mabel: In terms of the actual recording technique, we recorded to 1/4 inch tape. That was a big difference compared to digital. It’s a really different sound. And the microphone was almost, but not quite, from the era. We also did it live all in one day.

Sonny: We just played the whole day and recorded everything. We just kept going. When you get into the flow, the recordings have a continuity at the end of the day. And in terms of the actual sound of the songs, it’s just a lot of listening. We consider ourselves purveyors of old time traditions. This is all a daily part of our lives. Listening and being in that sound, in that music, is like putting on our shoes.

Mabel: A lot of these songs are popular. Some have been redone by others. But it’s like a translation. If you don’t go back to the original source, then you are just getting stuff that is based on other people’s interpretations. Our interpretation is from the source rather than from the various other recordings over the year.

Sonny: We’re trying to keep the soul. That’s the only way to think about it. There’s the twinkle that they put in the song that means so much.

The album we put together has the feeling of tuning in for an hour listening to the radio.

For me, your album has been an introduction to the Carter Family (and I thank you for that). Which other musicians should I be looking into?

Mabel: Jimmy Rogers is a great one. That was really the country western side of it.

Sonny: During that time its all so regional. It’s dependent on where they came from. The Carter Family came from West Virginia which is why they sound the way they do. Jimmy Rogers came from Texas, recording at the same time and recording some of the same tunes.

Mabel: The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers even recorded together.

Sonny: Charlie Poole is a huge influence on both of us. He came from North Carolina. Again, a different sound – more hard hitting with a different kind of pace to the music, and different harmonic tendencies. Mississippi John Hurt is another to listen to.

And then you get into what were considered race records, like all the jug band music that was going around earlier than 1927, but into the 30s. Black people playing the same music, except jug style. They spoke from a different side of things.

Hank Williams comes soon after. But that early stuff is stripped down and is really about the singing and the storytelling with not much flash.

I take it from what you’re saying that this is the music that you regularly listen to. What about other types of music that you like ?

Mabel: We like a lot a lot of other music, but what we listen to at home is generally pretty old.

Sonny: I love music history and how it ties into culture. I’ve always been a fan of everything that happened in 20th century jazz world, the blues world, classic rock, and the breakthroughs of the 70’s. So we know all about this. We really appreciate it for what it is, and we do listen to it. We grew up in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s, so we love that music that we heard when we were driving around in our parents car. But at the end of the day, we listen to this and nothing else. Old stuff.

Mabel: And there’s so much old stuff to go through, and right now is the perfect time. People are finding old recordings and making them available on the internet so that folk can have access to them. It’s an amazing time to be able to go back and dig through all this stuff.

Sonny: Music today is good, but its just not on my radar.

Aiken & BeggsAny future plans for Aiken & Beggs?

Sonny: Years down the road, I’m sure that we’ll probably write music. We play this old music right now but writing music is a big art of what we do.

Mabel: We both write so there are endless possibilities.

Sonny: We’ll continue to play gigs and get together. Who knows what will happen. Never plan too far. Let pieces fall where they may. But it’s definitely not something we want to stop doing.

Where will you be playing in the next little while?

Mabel: On Saturday, March 19th, we’re playing a Spirit of Rasputin show over at the Masonic Hall opening for Lotus Wight. That’s going to be really cool. We’re really exited to play that evening.

Sonny: We also play with others. She plays bluegrass with The Monroe Sisters, and I play with my good friend, Ben Nesrallah, as The Noisy Locomotive, so there’s also that. And, of course, we’re here (Bluebird Coffee) every Sunday from 11am to 2pm.

Mabel then mentions that they “will be playing at a wedding reception in April”. I nod in interest, waiting for her to fill in the details. As she starts to laugh, I realize that I already know this. Aiken and Beggs will be playing at my wedding reception.

I thank them for sitting down with me, and as they head back to their corner of the cafe, I swear I can hear my Grandfather humming “Funny When You Feel That Way”.

Maybe it was just my imagination.

Regardless, he would certainly approve.

Countless Hours By You I’ve Spent: Aiken & Beggs Play The Carter Family is available at Aiken & Beggs events. You can also buy a copy by contacting them through their Facebook page.