Fresh off their tour from everywhere else in the world, Cassie and Maggie MacDonald are about to hit their home turf for their official Atlantic Canadian Tour, the release of their album ‘The Willow Collection’, and a series of videos filmed by Jordan Mattie. ‘Hangman’ is the opening track from the album, and if you give it a listen you might recognize something familiar about it.
This song comes with a bit of a history lesson. There’s no way around it. On The Willow Collection you hear it as ‘Hangman’, the story of a young woman holding off the executioner as she waits for her family and friends to either come rescue her, or to watch her swing. It’s been dressed up with a Celtic tune, but it’s more or less the same song as Led Zeppelin’s ‘Gallow’s Pole’, or Lead Belly’s ‘The Gallis Pole’, or Bob Dylan’s ‘Seven Curses’. It’s one of those folk songs that gets picked up and reinvented again and again over centuries. Originally it might have been titled ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’, at least when it began showing up in English.
“Maggie spent the better part of a year scouring folk archives from across North America,” says Cassie. They were looking for songs to fit the theme of willow trees when her sister encountered the folk tune.
“She came across an old field recording of this song in the Max Hunter folk collection which features many archived songs from the Ozark mountains. The version she heard was a little hard to make out the melody, but the simplicity of the lyrics and the intrigue of the story charmed us immediately. We knew we could do a really sparky and lively version of it, and thought it would compliment a fiddle tune really perfectly. There are so many different versions! It’s amazing!”
The two sisters filmed the video atop Spyglass Hill in Rothesay, New Brunswick with videographer Jordan Mattie. “Jordan is so talented, he has such a great eye for lighting and overall aesthetic,” says Cassie. It’s an almost curious choice given the location’s history as a holdout against development. “Being from a traditional background, music videos are sort of a new concert for us, but working with him was a dream.”
Moving forward is integral to Cassie and Maggie’s long term ethos, not their easiest thing in their genre of choice. There’s an established way of going about things when it comes to fiddle music in Nova Scotia, and an inherent expectation that no self respecting Celtic album be without its share of traditional jigs and reels. Admittedly ‘The Willow Collective’ has skimped on them either, but Cassie and Maggie have made a push to bring them forward, modernizing them, giving them a little pop.
“That’s part of what we were trying to achieve with this record… to show the evolution and the influence that the Scottish, Irish and English settlers had when they emigrated to North America. You find similar songs all throughout the bluegrass, Appalachian and Celtic genres showing how this music travelled and changed over time. We grew up with traditional music, and we love it, I think people have been very accepting of us putting our own contemporary spin on this music. We’re paying tribute to the tradition bearers who passed the songs and tunes down to each new generation, but also bringing it to a new audience where it can continue to evolve and flourish.”
Their album ‘The Willow Collection’ begins their official launch tour in Halifax, March 3rd.