Guest post by Peter Harkawik
I was recently digging through sidebars on musical sculpture, when I stumbled upon two enchanting private press albums by the late Dorothy Carter—mystic, free spirit, wizard of the strings. According to a tribute by her bandmates The Mediæval Bæbes, Carter was born in New York in 1935, studied at Bard and the Guildhall School of Music, and in her later years toured Europe, playing festivals, cabaret, and at least once, a concert in a cemetery. She reportedly lived in a drafty loft in New Orleans, where she collected giant zithers, hosted salons, and played her brand of medieval folk music wherever she could. By another account, she “lived in a commune, worked on a Mississippi steam boat as a ships boy, raised two kids and ran away to a Mexican cloister with an anarchistic priest.”
Somewhat more secular than her 1976 debut Troubador, Waillee Waillee alternates between darkly enigmatic, inward melodies, and jaunty, exuberant hymns. Songs like “Along the River,” while populated with some familiar folk imagery—woodland creatures, mollusks, and rosemary bushes—are absent of the studio chicanery that so often accompanies it. Flutes, maracas, and tambura, some played by new age pioneer and instrument-builder Constance Demby, join Carter’s expert plucking and hammering to great effect. Her vocals might draw comparisons to Karen Dalton, Bridget St John, or perhaps Linda Perhacs, but here, in the service of her wistful paeans to nature, they stand alone. On the album’s haunting title track, Carter croons, “When will my love return to me?” with uncomplicated sentimentality, like a forlorn lover trapped in a block of ice. “Dulcimer Medley” and “Celtic Medley” are sprightly instrumental ballads that would not be out of place in a scene from Barry Lyndon.
For me, the standout on this album is "Summer Rhapsody." Seven minutes long, expansive and majestic, it begins with a rumble like a jet engine, building to a crescendo of feverish dulcimer. It’s here too that the recording really sparkles, as though the dulcimer's harsh textures are pushing the tape to its very limits. While it might sound like a hurdy-gurdy, the corpulent drone is produced by a steel cello, an instrument resembling the sail on a medieval cog. Here we see the fruits of Carter’s decades-long collaboration with artist Robert Rutman, who, like Walter Smetak, Ellen Fullman, and others, pioneered a hybrid art that was neither purely aesthetic nor musical. It was with his group the Central Maine Power Music Company, formed in Skowhegan in 1970, that Carter first toured, playing unconventional shows in New England planetariums, sculpture gardens, and museums.
Part of what’s so incredible about Waillee Waillee is that as much as it is a psych-folk record, it is also completely at home with the experiments of Terry Riley, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Pauline Oliveros and Laraaji. Carter was a fascinating figure whose devotion to her chosen instruments was legendary. I hope you enjoy this record as much as I do.