Tim Eriksen and the Trio de Pumpkintown’s recent recording “Josh Billings Voyage” contains original songs and traditional music inspired by the character Billings, who travels by ship to India and other countries as part of the 19th-century cotton trade. Along the way, he hears the music of those cultures, and brings it back to the New England village of Pumpkintown.
Pumpkintown and Josh Billings are both fictional, although Josh Billings is based on an ancestor, Eriksen said in a phone interview. “Josh Billings Voyage” reflects musician and ethnomusicologist Eriksen’s deep interest in the origins of songs, and how music travels and migrates among cultures. Eriksen and Trio de Pumpkintown will be performing music from the recording, along with other traditional and original music, today at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. (Other members of the trio are Peter Irvine on percussion and Zoe Darrow on fiddle).
“There are all kinds of different ways that music travels and finds its way in different places, and takes on different meanings,” Eriksen said. “Josh Billings Voyage” is Eriksen’s imagining what a 15-year-old would have heard going to India, Zanzibar and other ports “then adding that to the sounds of home, which itself was composed of many different influences,” he said.
Eriksen has a degree in ethnomusicology, and is working on a Ph.D. dissertation in traditional sacred music. His music resume defies false musical categories. He played with the electric and acoustic band Cordelia’s Dad. Many listeners know his music from the soundtrack to the movie “Cold Mountain.” He was nominated for two Grammys for “Across the Divide,” his collaboration with Afro-Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. He has traveled to India and studied the music of that culture, and he teaches clinics in the shape note singing tradition.
His interest in the music of different traditions goes back to his teen years, when he was playing experimental music and punk rock, as well as folk and world music. “I was interested in the stories and the tunes,” Eriksen said of traditional music. “I was interested in the history. I was interested in the manner of singing,” he said. As a young child, he was always drawn to sound – like the sounds that water and insects make, and which he uses on “Josh Billings Voyage.”
On the album, he also makes new sounds by playing instruments in non-traditional ways. On the tune “Every Day Is Three,” Eriksen plays a banjo with a bow, which enhances the meditative quality of the song. He also has spent several years mastering the bajo sexto, a 12-string bass guitar used in the music of Mexico. “You get a really nice, deep, rich sound” from the instrument, he said. The bajo sexto, unlike acoustic guitar, does not automatically imply folk music, and Eriksen “wanted to have something that freed [the music] from the expectations of guitar.”
Many communities of Massachusetts, where he grew up, were more ethnically diverse in the 17th to 19th centuries, which also is reflected in the traditional music of the region. “The valley where I live was essentially a hybrid of Anglo and Native American culture. Those influences don’t go away,” he said.
“There are intellectual resons why I find this interesting, but for me it’s also an opportunity to experiment and to find stories. … A lot of what we do is just fun. It’s nice to be surprised, and it’s nice to pleasantly surprise people.”