arry Smith captured firefly voices. He kept them close in the dark; he used their waning light as argument against a pervasive nihilism. Strings, wood, and voice connected in alchemical ways. Their yield spoke more to man’s connection with eternity than personal contribution. Cut off from urban flux, rural people grew their roots into systems that writhed past soil and rock and threatened to constrict around the Earth’s very core. Daniel Higgs not only works within this same channel; he also brings the magic wagon out into the open. It circles soul, self, and essence—words drawn from a topless hat and held tightly to connect with some sort of tradition that makes the progress from breakfast to supper a bearable cross.
Higgs has been around. His “punk” band, Lungfish—named for the cartilaginous carnivore—enjoys invisibility nestled in one of Dischord’s nooks. Their music scribbled schemas of violence and stoic patience; their sounds always threatened to stand and fall, dispersed in frustration and ennui. Higgs brought the emotional well to every single song. His voice staggered in the wind and rolled loosely down hills, often given to wailing, often concentrating on single lyrical phrases, rubbing them down into dust as a devotee does a band of worry beads. The disposable characteristic of music in vivo was given long legs; Higgs’ presence erased decay and forcibly granted longevity. Method sequestered the music into a cave; over time he closed it in with sticks and stones.
“When I think of music, I know it as an entity,” Higgs told Punk Planet seven years ago. “I would hope it speaks to people, because it’s speaking to us as we’re making it.” Making something out of nothing—creation ex nihilo—has always had a place set for it at the table of hillbilly blues and astrophysics. Ancestral Songs takes its place at the head and eats vociferously, pausing to talk about Pythagoras, soul as harmony of the body, eschatology, Eastern Mysticism, fear and hope, and—of course—sound as entity. Its six songs utilize acoustic guitar, banjo, field recording, Hindi harp, toy piano, effects, and voice. Words focus on inevitable demise, impermanence, physical and ethereal, a primordial demon whose name best be not spoken.
While Higgs’ delivery is far from transparent, he does open doors wide enough for one to walk through. “Living in the Kingdom of Death,” is a song anyone can relate to: trees wither, dogs and cats loose to the tire, silvering relatives lay in hospital beds and buy time with optimism and medication. The tone is appropriately grave; connections are made between good and evil and then blurred into a glaring grey. Dichotomies are fashioned out of old bone, shaken and rolled snake eyes. “Are You of the Body?” erects the big tent and sends drones deep into the Earth. Higgs’ acoustic fingering writhes over the top and falls into Eastern acrobatic. There are no words, and Higgs lets the instruments speak for the immensity and presence that he conjures up around him. “Thy Chosen Bride” offers mountainside homily, celebration in the midst of so much suffering. Hands are bound with heavy promise. Dancing and revelry ensue while the hog looses his head to feed the family. A crow stands on a treetop looking on. Laughter echoes through the hills.
“The biggest danger lies in underestimating the strangeness of these cultures,” Greil Marcus wrote of mountain folk in Invisible Republic. “It takes a constant effort of the imagination to realize the isolation of their lives, the lack of canned music, the scarcity of professional musicians, the grip of tradition.” Higgs’ lineage is intertwined with hillbilly shamans, held fast with front-porch hootenanny, shine-fueled and fed by a troubled urban mythos that tries in vain to pin down voices from beyond America’s grave. Ancestral Songs is an extrapolation of this music; a line of descent that runs north to south, east to west, through forests and into plains, over tundra and onto beaches, through creeks and ponds, rivers and oceans. It is train and truck, bus and bike. It creaks in the church’s pew; it prophesies from a homeless throat on a trash-strewn street corner. The message is timeless, and it will do its damndest to make a long run of it. Highly recommended.