Traditional musician James Leva has quite an eclectic background. According to his website, he holds a Ph.D. in French Literature, has composed music for and performed in plays around the world, and has performed and recorded with artists from almost every traditional style imaginable, including Celtic, Cajun, and African-American blues and string band music. Leva himself is a multi-instrumentalist who most often focuses on fiddle and banjo. His recent album, All Over the Map, is similarly eclectic. Though all of the music is based in the traditional music of Appalachia, Leva samples from blues, fiddle tunes, Gospel, old-time, and even more mainstream folk sounds throughout the album’s seventeen tracks.
Leva has researched traditional African-American music and performed with traditional African musicians, so it’s no surprise that a number of songs here come from southern and Appalachian African-American traditions. The opening number, Sea Lion Woman, is an interesting, almost-chanted number that Leva learned from a 1939 recording of African-American schoolgirls in Mississippi. The vocals are performed a capella, with fiddle solos in between each verse, reflecting the song’s historical background as performed with indigenous African fiddles. Another Man Done Gone/Baby Please Don’t Go is a mournful, bluesy number, sung soulfully by Leva’s daughter Vivian. Although the song begins with a capella vocals, Leva joins in about halfway through with guitar and fiddle. Woman at the Well is a foot-tapping Gospel song, also drawn from African-American traditions.
Also included are several very well-performed traditional old-time mountain songs, such as White Oak Mountain, first popularized by Lily Mae Ledford of the Coon Creek Girls (not to be confused with the New Coon Creek Girls). Al Tharp’s old-time banjo and Leva’s fiddle work nicely with each other here. The Tommy Jarrell fiddle tune Devil in the Strawstack has been given a unique arrangement featuring cellist Tristan Claridge accompanying Leva’s fiddle. Sally Gal is another fiddle/cello duet, with the cello providing a fuller sound behind the fiddle. It’s really very interesting to hear a cello played in an “old-time” style, and these two tunes (as well as a few others Claridge appears on) are certainly worth a listen from any fans of old-time fiddle tunes.
Americana singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers offers her clear lead vocals on several songs, lending them a peaceful, folky sound. I Will Wait for You is an original from Struthers and features both her and Leva playing finger-picked guitar. Leva wrote From Far Away, which is probably the album’s most radio-friendly track. It has a gentle feel, and according to the liner notes, was inspired by the fact that “because of the extraordinary nature of light, everything that has ever occurred is potentially still perceptible in the fabric of space/time.” Struthers and Leva also duet on the enjoyable version of the ballad Katy Dear. The ever-present “Willie” makes an appearance here, as the young man who hopes to marry Katy and is partially responsible for her death.
Leva, an obviously talented musician, provides a broad, enjoyable overview of traditional Appalachian music on All Over the Map. He has relied on several other skilled artists here, with his daughter Vivian’s vocals perhaps standing out the most. Although the album is a bit hard to classify – it’s not just old-time, it’s not just folk – fans of historical American music (especially that of the south) should find something to enjoy here.
For more information, visit Leva’s website at www.jamesleva.com. All Over the Map is available now from Patuxent Music and can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.