It's said that when Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, "Because that's where the money is." Clearly, that was not Lee Knight's motivation when he chose to make his life's work the playing of traditional southern Appalachian and Adirondack mountain music — often sung a cappella! Even when he started, during the "folk scare" of the mid-1960s, when some folk musicians did find fame and fortune, it would have been hard to find an art form with less commercial potential. And yet, later this year, Knight will perform at Carnegie Hall. More on that later.
Knight's singing and his straight-ahead, "Just the facts, ma'am" voice, reminiscent of Doc Watson (if you're not familiar with Doc, that's high praise), are solidly in the long tradition of balladeers who put their songs, rather than themselves, center stage. He accompanies himself on three-stringed Appalachian lap dulcimer, fretless banjo (the more primitive precursor of the fretted instrument commonly heard in bluegrass), and mouthbow, which, like the banjo, was brought from Africa by slaves. He also uses a Cherokee river cane flute and drum when he plays the music of the Native Americans of those regions.
Knight is more archaeologist than architect. Instead of building new songs, or updating old ones with modernized arrangements, he unearths the musical artifacts of cultures now disappearing, or gone entirely, and preserves and displays them for us in their original form. That does not mean that his shows are sealed-under-glass museum pieces. By relating the histories of his instruments and their makers, by telling stories of the men and women he studied with, old-timers who learned these songs long before the advent of modern recording technologies, Knight is able to bring to life a culture that helped shape our present world.
Though born and raised in Saranac Lake, New York, Knight has lived in the Appalachians for many years, now in Cashiers, North Carolina. (Okay, there's your money connection!) His Ann Arbor visit is sponsored jointly by the Ann Arbor District Library's Songsters program and the Ann Arbor Council for Traditional Music and Dance. Knight will be in residence at local schools and will play a concert at the downtown library on Wednesday, February 8.
From Ann Arbor he'll travel to New York to share the stage of Carnegie Hall with Chinese pipa player Wu Man, a prolific collaborator both with Western classical and jazz musicians and with traditional musicians from many cultures. Her lutelike instrument, it turns out, blends beautifully with Knight's banjo and dulcimer. At Carnegie Hall, Knight will bring the music he loves down from the mountains and, demonstrating its continuing vitality, raise it to the pinnacle of the music world.
[Review published February 2006]