New Music: Cassie and Maggie’s ‘The Willow Collection’

Nova Scotian sister duo Cassie and Maggie MacDonald have recently released a new collection of eleven folk songs, all based around a very particular theme: The Willow Tree.

While this may seem a rather arbitrary theme for a music album, there is method to the madness.  Originally instrumental artists, the sisters have recently found a new love in traditional folk singing. They began scouring vast catalogues of traditional folk archives, some of which have been passed down for many generations. Says Cassie, “We decided to give ourselves a theme that would help focus our research and also help us trace the evolution of certain songs as they traveled across the Atlantic and formed the backbone of many folk genres as we know them today.  The willow was a natural choice, it has such a symbolic meaning in folklore, many of the most beautiful and poignant songs in traditional music are inspired by the image of the willow and what it represents“.

But finding songs on theme for ‘The Willow Collection’ was just the beginning. Many of the tracks were found in Appalachian folk archives, on scratchy field recordings that made it hard to even unearth the song’s melody.  Once that difficult task was accomplished, the duo then had to make the songs their own.  For this, Cassie gives Maggie much of the credit.  “She has an incredible talent for hearing a song, and immediately hearing potential for an arrangement, even if the melody is hard to decipher as was the case with some of the old field recordings. Our approach was to take these songs, and blend them with a fiddle tune, or an alternate melody, basically to use our Celtic instrumental background as the foundation to make the songs really come alive“.

This is not exactly your Grandpa’s fiddle music, even though he would surely tap his foot along to the beat of nearly every track on ‘The Willow Collection’.  The MacDonald sisters have taken on the arduous task of modernizing a centuries-old musical style; not easy, to say the least.  But they’ve somehow managed it, as is evident on a number of the album’s tracks.

‘Hangman‘, the lead-off track and first video off the album, sets the tone for the album.  A very old song with numerous interpretations; the duo pay homage to its history while offering a more modern arrangement, combining Cassie’s expert fiddle playing with Maggie’s modern vocals and acoustic guitar.

All but one song on the album is the result of searching through song archives for anything related to the willow theme.  ‘The Willow Lullaby’ is the only original song on the album, written by the sisters. Sweet and endearing, the track is a stand-out and an instant classic.

Other notable tracks on the album include ‘Blue Willow’, which includes part of the original recording from The Lawrence Welk Show, where the Lennon Sisters performed the song in 1956.

One of the most interesting tracks on ‘The Willow Collection’ and the one I can’t seem to get out of my head is ‘The Willow Hits’.  The track is a mash-up of several songs that reference willows, including Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’ and Patsy Cline’s ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, as well as one of the best known of them all, ‘Bury Me Beneath the Willow’.  The track perfectly demonstrates the MacDonald sister’s considerable ability to make a song their own.  In this case, three.

‘The Willow Collection’ is an ambitious album that attempts to bridge the gap between some of the oldest music in existence and modern musical styles. We think it’s an album that every fan of traditional folk and/or Celtic music should include in their collection. We think even the most hard-core traditionalists will appreciate it. Heck, even your Grandpa will like it.

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