Villager photo by Lorcan Otway
Eden Brower and John Heneghan in their E. Fifth St. apartment.
Plucky couple revive rural blues, winning rave reviews
By Lucas Mann
From a one-bedroom apartment on E. Fifth St. comes a new album called “Some Cold Rainy Day,” with some of the most faithful renditions of 90-year-old, rural Southern country blues that you are going to hear nowadays. It’s an odd concept, but then again, everything about the musical tastes and efforts of John Heneghan and Eden Brower — two music lovers who met at Forbidden Planet comic shop, fell in love and formed the East River String Band — is a bit strange.
Their apartment is packed with meticulously organized 78-rpm records, as well as dolls, posters and magazines from a time and a place that neither of them will ever experience. “The Ragtime Goblin Man,” reads one poster hanging on the wall. “Vocalian Race Records!” reads another, now nearly a century old.
“I’m a 78 collector and totally obsessed with this music,” Heneghan said bluntly, sitting in his living room, surrounded by his artifacts. “Before radio took over in the mid-1930s, music was really interesting — people weren’t hearing each other. Now, you can hear the most popular thing on the radio and then everybody copies it. In the ’20s, music was different from state to state, county to county. This music isn’t like anything you’ve ever heard.”
“I’ve always listened to an eclectic mix of music,” Brower chimed in. “Punk rock, some stuff like Aimee Mann; my favorite band was The Beatles. I still listen to that stuff, but this music is special. There’s something about it — if John has a certain 78, he might be the only person in the world to listen to that song. It’s romantic.”
Heneghan has been playing guitar since he was 5, attending jazz performance school and then gigging with any type of band that could make him a living.
“I was trying to make money playing music for so long,” Heneghan said. “But it’s like anything else: If you’re not doing what you love, it’s no fun. I got a day job, so I could play the music I want on the side.”
Heneghan would sit in his apartment trying to master old Charlie Patton and Skip James guitar licks as perfectly as possible. Brower began to sing along, absentmindedly, as her boyfriend played.
“A lot of people, when they sing this type of music, they put on a ‘now I’m an old black woman’ sort of voice,” Heneghan said with a smile. “Eden just sounded natural. Almost anyone who comes down to see us play says she’s got one of the most natural blues voices, and she’s this little Jewish girl. It’s kind of ironic.”
While the numbers of those who “come down” to see the East River String Band play are not huge, they can boast of having the friendship and praise of some of the most respected personalities in the niche world of country blues obsession. Robert Crumb, the iconic cartoonist and 78 record collector has befriended the band, along with his daughter, who is also an artist. Crumb has traded records in their apartment, sat in on their shows and, most recently, drew the cover art for “Some Cold Rainy Day.” They’ve also earned the respect of the collector circle’s most-known characters.
“I think they did a really good job [on the album],” said John Tefteller, the founder and operator of Bluesimages.com, the world’s largest private archive of blues material. “These days, there’s a lot of people who attempt to play like the blues guys, but it comes off like white guys trying to do the blues. It’s not at all easy to play this music correctly and [Heneghan] is able to do it well. It’s a bit odd, at first, to hear [Brower] sing songs originally done by men, but she does it well, so it comes off.”
Ralph DeLuca, another serious collector, explained it this way: “A lot of bands that think they’re playing the blues have no idea of the history. They’re playing Stevie Ray Vaughn and they think that’s where it started. [The East River String Band] focuses only on the guys that created the blues, and I like that it gives young people a chance to see this music played right, live.”
Still, it’s hard to say that there is a scene for what the East River String Band is doing. Brower pointed to a small ukulele clique that has sprouted up in the city, where she can find others who appreciate her instrument of choice. But obscure 1920s records have not reached the retro-cool status that seems, right now, to extend only about as far back as 1981.
“People come up to us after our shows and say, ‘Hey, that was great…what was that?’” Heneghan chuckled. “It’s strange, but I feel a bit like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, when they were playing in the ’60s and people were telling them, ‘Oh you’re bluegrass’ or ‘Oh, you’re folk.’ Sometimes I want to tell people who ask, that we’re bluegrass, because it’s easier, but I don’t even really like bluegrass.”
Still, the band enjoys the idea of bringing these virtually unknown musical gems to an unaware audience, while still putting their own spin on the music that they revere.
“For years, I obsessed about trying to learn these songs note for note, to present them in the most authentic way,” Heneghan said. “Now, we’ve realized that you have to kind of do your own thing with it, or else you’re not making music, you’re just like one of those Black Sabbath cover bands. Now, it always impresses me that people come up to us after a show with lots of questions about this kind of music.”
As they continue to use their archival apartment as inspiration to create their own take on songs by Little Het Jones, Hokum Boys, Willie Brown, Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie and many other artists you’ve never heard of, the couple are proud of the unique and underpublicized nature of their music.
As Heneghan began to explain the lack of profit that their music generates, Brower interrupted, saying, “And that’s a good thing.”
They looked at one another for a moment and smiled, before Heneghan added wryly: “Sure, it would be nice to make tons of money. But, really, if everyone was into this music, it would ruin it for me. If you are that popular, you’re doing something wrong.”
The East River String Band will have their record release party on Sat., June 14, at Banjo Jim’s, at 700 E. Ninth St., from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. — they’ll be performing from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., sandwiched between three other bands — and they’re selling the new album on their Web site, eastriverstringband.com.