If you were to cast a warm-hearted schoolmaster for a Hollywood movie, Lauren Sheehan, who lives near Portland, Oregon, would be the perfect pick. Her persona exudes kindness and patience, with a gentle beauty and a maternal, trustworthy visage. There is something comforting and kind about her essence; she projects inner strength and confidence as the type of person who’s made a life’s work of getting through to people, reaching an understanding before words are ever spoken. Sheehan was, in fact, a career schoolteacher and director. Today, she is still in front of people to reach out and connect with them intrinsically, but now it’s not a lesson but a song. Once retired from teaching she devoted herself fully to her longtime muse, folk roots and blues, playing and singing on guitar, mandolin and banjo, and the world was off just a little better for it.
A woman of considerable musical prowess, she merges and blends tightly related genres where there are way too few women– Americana and acoustic blues. Sheehan is not just a beautiful voice. Decades of acoustic string music have brought her to a level of excellence in a variety of roots styles. A superb fingerpicker, and a singer who captures the down-home vibe most eloquently, Sheehan has earned her place among the finest women in the blues and Americana.
Indeed, Sheehan is perhaps best defined as an American roots music songster, steeped equally in the string music of both black and white folks, whose cultures have been indelibly linked for centuries. Like any good songster in the East Coast tradition, from the Tidewater region over to the Piedmont on to the Appalachian mountains, she draws from the roots repertoire of the people, all the people, to play the songs she likes, whether it comes from gospel music of both the white mountain people of the African-American community; country music, mountain ballads, blues, spirituals, Irish and Scottish, or even popular songs of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Over the last eight years, Sheehan has often performed with acoustic blues guitar virtuoso Terry Robb. She explained, “The interesting thing about playing with Terry is that we bring such different energies and styles to form a very unique country blues duo; my gentler and melodic approach with his quick improvisatory intensity. AND it’s old school country blues with the old feeling mixed in with modern stylings. AND it’ s mostly him on guitar, with me on mandolin more than guitar. That’s special as there are not very many duos with mandolin especially. ”
She also plays in a duo with her very talented daughter Zoë Carpenter, a fine singer, who lives in Washington, D.C. where she is an editor for the progressive political magazine The Nation. There is nothing like kinfolk harmonies and this duo is no exception. While the geographical distance prevents full time cooperation, the duo is one of the primary mother-daughter folk blues duos on the scene today. They recently issued an EP Tillamook Burn, an acoustic blues album, which features one of the best versions of Phil Wiggins song Roberta, with Wiggins joining the duo on harmonica. The mother-daughter duo is also named Tillamook Burn, a reference to a large area of forest in Tillamook County, Oregon, where Sheehan resides and where her daughter grew up. Tillamook forest was ravaged by a series of forest fires and so the name.
Wiggins is a longtime collaborator with Lauren Sheehan, having performed on her first two albums and having encouraged and mentored her ever since the musicians met at the Centrum Port Townsend Acoustic Blues workshop, one of the most important centers for the acoustic blues in the United States, and a place of tremendous influence on the musical development of Lauren Sheehan. It was at Port Townsend that Sheehan truly connected with the traditional country blues roots, and perhaps more than anyone took advantage of the program as a musical apprenticeship with some of the genres most important practitioners. Her musical journey took her through the amalgam of roots music that is inherent in her style today.
Sheehan was from Springfield, Massachusetts. In high school she played the usual mix of contemporary pop & folk. She cites Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Rory Block, Mississippi John, David Bromberg, Elizabeth Cotton, and Room Full of Blues. In the mid-1970s she developed a passion for New England fiddle music and started going to contra dances. During that period she started going to folk festivals and discovered many new styles of roots music and the culture of social and folk music. The singer explained, “In Portland at Reed College where I played a lot of string band music, got introduced to the power of raw southern old time music, both singing and dance music, the British folks like Sandy Denny, John Renborne, John Martin, Cream, and then Irish music. There was a terrific scene in the late ‘70s early ‘80s in Portland with Kevin Burke and Michael O’Domnail living here and then many Irish folks passing through to visit and play. Also, at college, I came upon and studied a lot of Lomax recordings and other field recordings, broadened my sense of American music and began a curiosity about contemporary oral tradition in America, and an interest in our living traditions connected to the past, i.e., who were the players that came up with elders who played? Who had music in the homes or in community and what did contemporary players bring forward? This started my practice or habit, which is now a life style, of placing myself around musicians who came up with music and still play, for love of it, as well as money.”
She has attended every Centrum Port Townsend Acoustic Blues workshop since the early 1990s, and continues to this day. The intensive week-long interaction with the teachers at Centrum over more than 20 years amounted to an apprenticeship literally elbow to elbow with the best living practitioners in the genre. The importance of the program, widely called “Centrum” or “Port Townsend” on the traditional blues in America is profound.
The singer explained, “So I went up there to Centrum, and it was the first time that I really sat around in an environment with many purveyors of traditional blues and heard different voices and heard different guitars and felt the different styles of the guitar playing and the various acoustic blues genres – the first time I had ever really heard deep traditional blues. And I mean the first time I had really felt the sparkle of John Jackson’s guitar or that velvety passion of Phil Wiggins and John Cephas. I think the beautiful acoustic properties of the guitar work and the very natural but incredibly warm and expressive elements of singing really spoke to me…Imagine a person who had really not grown up with a sea of black country blues players and then another sea of white folks close to the tradition or who understood the tradition, who studied the tradition. And the first time you really hear it – the first time one hears R.L. Burnside and sits three feet in front of R.L. Burnside – the first time you sit in front of John Jackson and there’s only three other people in the room, and the man plays and speaks for an hour and a half. The first time you sit in a room with 12 people with John and Phil, the first time that you hear and see Etta Baker, the first time one is around Howard Armstrong – and this is all happening at once. Two hours later you’re with Lonnie Pitchford. Two hours later you’re hanging around Del Rey. Two hours later you’re with Algia Mae Hinton and Lightnin’ Wells, John D. Holman plays. So the impact of this general quality really reveals a whole scope of styles and genres within this thing we call country blues. And that was so fascinating to me, because I mean the field is really enormous when you hear the nuances of styles. And I think it was really a big influence on my playing and on my approach to the music and being an artist that I heard such a wide variety of styles, because it certainly showed me there were many ways to be expressive in the country blues format. So if I go back to people I studied with more specifically, I ended up being drawn to John Jackson and have learned a lot of music from him… John Cephas and Phil Wiggins were huge influences – and Phil Wiggins is probably one of my most important influences because he is so generous of spirit. He sat in many, many sessions when I was first learning country blues and as I began to learn more and more he continued to encourage me and played with me, and he played on a couple of my albums, which was an enormous influence to get to work in the studio with him…he influences musically and with a spirit of encouragement –and Phil has been an enormous influence and great source of encouragement and inspiration to me – even though he’s not a guitar player. So I studied with Phil and John Cephas – of course the guitar classes with John Cephas. And I met with Eleanor Ellis – loved her, and have been influenced by her – perhaps more personally than musically – because she’s helped me understand so much about the scene and the music – and I like her so much. It’s hard to not be influenced by her because she’s so wonderful. I was influenced a lot by Howard Armstrong, the few times he came out to Centrum’s programs were times where I made a point to go to all of his classes, making recordings and working from them afterwards – and of course that would be a natural connection for me because there was a big overlap of string band material – just early standards that just end up being part of anybody’s general repertoire if you’re playing general American music, I think…Etta Baker was a huge influence because she’s just such a lovely woman, and how she plays is so great. By the time I met Etta I had already known about her music. Once I went to country blues for the first year I really started doing a lot more research. Plus, when I was in college, I did a thesis on American folk music, and I had really started understanding about country blues through recordings. But I still hadn’t become part of the network of living tradition yet. So Etta Baker –and then two other huge influences were Algia Mae Hinton in North Carolina and Lightnin’ Wells – Mike Wells – who is down in North Carolina. I was just drawn to Algia Mae and went to her workshops for the three different times that she came up to Centrum. And I’ve been back to visit both of those players a few times now.”
Unwittingly, Sheehan profited from the generous spirit that prevails in the Washington, D.C. acoustic blues community where many of her teachers lived. In D.C. the spirit of nurturing and sharing was and is a way of life. Through her teachers and mentors, she became an extension of that Piedmont blues scene, even though she lives on the West Coast.
Clearly, the Piedmont style, with the alternating bass syncopated style, comes through in her blues playing, just as Appalachian folk music comes through on her Americana side. In every way a folk musician, Sheehan carries on the oral traditions and musical styles, but also the spirit of sharing and supporting younger players in her own community.
She elaborated,“…the relationship of music to people, to hanging out and passing time together is something that I think is really very important to my experience of the music with the folks from the Washington area. And I continued to do that. In fact, on Sunday night I am playing at the Waterfront Blues Festival in a very large act that’s featuring many of the Portland players that play jug band-related music, and there are a lot of people who are in their 20s and 30s and 40s who are part of this act. And I’m having them all over for a barbecue afterwards so we can all sit around and play, because I know the way to keep the music going and alive is you have to hang out together and do this. And that’s something that I really – I mean, I’ve always known this, but Phil, John, Eleanor – they do that – they hang around and music happens. I’m mentioning all of this because I think for me as an apprentice what I’ve learned is that this isn’t just one lonely artist expressing themselves to the universe, and has this deep abiding path and message – this is just what they have to do be right with God. In addition to being artists, all these folks – Phil, John, Eleanor, John Jackson – they were gracious about time. They were gracious about time and being social together and having a relationship with each other and with other people and letting music be part of how we would socialize together.”
Lauren Sheehan and Zoë Carpenter now carry on the proud tradition of the Piedmont blues, as well as Appalachian folk music, and even though Lauren Sheehan is all the way up in Oregon, she continues the legacy of her East Coast mentors most exquisitely.