Reinventing old-time music
Woody Forster and Devora Laye of the Burying Ground. (photo by Mary Matheson)
Contrary to what you might expect, given the band’s name, there is much joy in the Burying Ground. Woody Forster and Devora Laye obviously love what they do, and it comes through in their music, their performances, their promotional photos and even in their responses to an email interview. So, from where does the name come?
“The name came from the Blind Lemon Jefferson song ‘One Kind Favor,’ where he uses the line to describe his resting place,” explained Forster. “I also see it as maybe a metaphor for us finding this music for ourselves that has essentially been buried and forgotten in popular music today, and we are trying to draw from that place and explore those musical styles again.”
The Burying Ground plays 1920s and ’30s blues, ragtime, country and jazz, as well as original works in those genres. Their upbeat songs evoke images of musicians jamming away on the wooden porch of a farmhouse, people dancing and enjoying some moonshine. Their hurtin’ songs, with Forster’s gravelly voice, can make you feel like pouring yourself a stiff drink. The pair share the vocals, with Forster on guitar and Laye on myriad instruments, including the washboard, cymbals, tin can and cowbell – the sounds she produces with the saw will make you shiver. Various other musicians join the duo for performances and recordings.
“I can’t exactly find a reason why I love the music from that era,” said Forster. “I just seemed to get drawn deeper into it as I explored the history and the musicians that created it all. There is certainly a raw intensity in the sounds, as well as a very genuine feeling that I maybe don’t get out of other types of popular music through the last century.”
In November, the Burying Ground released a vinyl version of their eponymous album, which came out in June this year. It followed by a mere six months the group’s January 2017 release, Country Blues & Rags, which is “a collection of the band’s renditions of some of their most beloved songs.” The Burying Ground’s first album was Big City Blues, in 2015.
“The new EP is 11 original songs,” Laye told the Independent. “Our process is different from song to song. The last song on the album, ‘Longing for Home,’ is a song that I wrote for guitar and voice. The melody often comes to me while I’m walking around. For this particular song, I was walking around Vancouver when I smelled woodstove smoke, which made me miss living on Hornby Island, where I spent a couple years in my mid-20s. I sang it for Woody and he played along.
“‘Mean Spirit Blues’ was a trickier process for it’s a more complex song. I hummed the melody to Woody and he put the music to it. He often suggests a bridge or middle part of the song and we just play around with the ideas. We bounce ideas off of each other and give each other feedback. It’s fun, challenging and a nonstop learning process.”
“We are always bouncing ideas off of each other creatively to see whether we are liking what the other is bringing to the table, and tweaking the songs so we are both happy with the final outcome,” agreed Forster.
“We are learning a lot about writing music together and pushing ourselves to constantly grow and improve – and, at the same time, having a lot of fun doing it,” he added.
The two are definitely in sync. They have known each other a long time.
“Devora and I met around 15 years ago now, although we didn’t start playing music with each other until much later,” said Forster. “The Dire Wolves [band] started around 2008 and it was originally formed as a three-piece with me on mandolin, Blake Bamford on guitar and Joshua Doherty on harmonica, with Devora joining in on washboard a short time after. When the band split up around 2013, Devora and I kind of threw around the idea of starting a new project – we were both huge fans of early Americana music and both got more serious about it. And, from there, it has grown into the project we have created, and continues to grow.”
Both Laye and Forster come out of Vancouver’s punk scene, having been in different groups over the years. “As time went on, I gradually got more into old-time, and started studying it seriously in the last five years,” said Forster. “One of our first performances was at a venue called the China Cloud and I can remember being super-nervous, my hands were shaking, and I forgot lyrics, but somehow got through it with out train-wrecking the show. It has taken me awhile to get used to singing and playing guitar in front of people in such a stripped-down form of acoustic music. Not to say I still don’t get nervous, but I can hide it a little better now.”
Laye’s musical path has been varied.
“At home,” she said, “I was always surrounded by music. My dad plays guitar and has always written songs. He used to sing and play for us at bedtime and, of course, many other times. Growing up, I was exposed to different types of music, from classical to folk to Jewish music (Shlomo Carlebach was a big hit for me). My part of going to synagogue every week was the singing. When I was old enough to walk to the synagogue on my own, I would go for the evening/ma’ariv service on Saturdays to sing the zemirot with the enthusiastic congregation.
“I always loved to sing and play,” said Laye. “My eldest sister, Aviva, played the flute and I thought that was really cool and decided I wanted to learn how to play. I started taking lessons from Andrea Minden when I was 7 years old. Started on the recorder, of course, because my hands were too small for flute!
“Anyhow, I studied with Andrea until I was about 14. She was in a family band called the Minden Ensemble and they’d play all sorts of unusual instruments, such as vacuum hoses, bottles, spoons, pots and pans and the saw. Andrea showed me how to hold and bow the saw. When I was in my early 20s, I decided to pick it up and teach myself how to play along to songs, and have been having a lot of fun with it ever since.”
And how did she come to the washboard, which she also plays in the Myrtle Family Band?
“I’ve always loved to tap on nearby objects,” she said. “I’d tap on tables, chairs, find music and rhythm in glasses. I think my parents have learned to appreciate that side of me! Haha. I taught myself to play a drum kit when I moved out of my parents’ house, and played drums for some years before picking up the washboard. I had a partner who played old-time banjo and he suggested that I pick up the washboard so we could jam. I wasn’t sure it was a real instrument and thought it slightly inferior to a stringed instrument but, soon after, realized it added a lot to the music and can really be the backbone of a band. I ended up getting more and more into the old styles and into the playing and here I am today playing every day.”
Forster and Laye are based in Vancouver now, but this has not always been the case.
“I spent much of the past year on the Sunshine Coast and commuting to the city for gigs and to see family and friends,” said Laye. “The coast has been really great. I love to be surrounded by the trees, down the street from the ocean – bears, deer, coyotes and cougars through my backyard! Room to think in the quiet.
“The community on the coast has been so supportive of the Burying Ground,” she said. “I didn’t really have any expectations of what it would be like. I didn’t really know anyone when I moved over to Gibsons, and feel very grateful to have met such kind, supportive and inspiring people. Smaller communities are often more supportive, there is the time for that when the pace is slower. The city can be real tricky to break into. There are so many musicians, so much going on all the time.
“The coast is also limiting,” she added. “As professional musicians, there are only so many gigs you can play. Our band lives in the city.”
For more information about the Burying Ground, to hear their music and check out their upcoming shows – including the JI Chai Celebration on Dec. 6 – visit theburyingground.com.