The history of American roots music in the early 20th century could never fit into an encyclopedia. it’s too ramshackle, too rambunctious, too radical. Fiddlers, guitarists, banjo players, and all kinds of folks rambled those early roads, learning from each other, inspiring each other, and pushing the music in new directions. Music constantly switched back and forth across the racial divide, beholden only to the beat and the dance. It’s this fevered period of musical exchange that inspires Northwest roots music duo Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons. The songs on their new album, The North Wind & The Sun, tap into everything from Memphis Jug Band blues to work songs recorded in Southern prisons. They also touch on an 1861 composition used to recruit black troops for the Civil war, an original adaptaton of old topical songs about corrupt clergymen, and an early jazz composition of Duke Ellington. All of these traditions are tied together in the swirling musical whirlpool of pre-war American music. In January of 2016, the Washington Blues Society sent Ben and Joe to the 26th annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. There, they were awarded 1st place—out of 94 solo/duo acts representing 16 countries—for their unique blend of pre-blues a cappella field hollers, fiddle & banjo breakdowns, and duet distillations of early jazz.
Ben and Joe have been playing together for almost 5 years, the last 3 of which sent them to the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, learning at the feet of the elders of the acoustic blues tradition. They found an affinity in the many branches that tied into the blues and created this duo as a way to explore these branches. Their musical kinship and sense of joy in interpreting this music is evident and was the basis of an invitation Dom Flemons (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) to tour and record for his album Prospect Hill. Last year, they launched an ongoing documentary film project to explore modern day music along the Mississippi River. Rather than thinking of their music as blues, it’s best to situate Ben and Joe as American songsters. A songster traditionally refers to an artist whose repertoire is much broader than the old blues, and spans many of the genres that Ben and Joe Inhabit. Uncle Dave Macon and Robert Johnson are classic examples of songsters. Whatever you want to call it, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons make American music. They make music that hews to the rough-and-tumble collisions of musical inspirations from the early 20th century; music that paved the way for everything we enjoy today.
Contact Ben and Joe via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ben Hunter was born in Lesotho, a tiny nation in South Africa, and was largely raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Living with his globe trotting mother, he also spent 2 of his formative years in Zimbabwe. There, at the age of seven, his love of rhythm began to blossom as he learned to play the marimbaand perform traditional Shona music, while also continuing to pursue better grasp on the violin. Throughout his early travels, Ben was introduced to a large variety of music, ranging from the folk traditions of the United States, down through Latin America, and across the seas to the continent of Africa.
Ben began studying classical violin at at the age of 5, and was taught predominantly in the that tradition. Ben played in a variety of youth and string orchestra’s before, eventually, majoring in violin performance at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. Adopting the Pacific Northwest as his new home, Ben moved to Seattle, WA soon after college. After discovering the vibrant diversity of SE Seattle, he founded a non-profit, Community Arts Create, to break down social barriers through community arts activities. In 2011, he joined Renegade Stringband after meeting its banjo player, Joe Seamons, at String Summit. After two years of national tours in 2012 – 13, both Ben and Joe attended the Pt. Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, where living legends of traditional blues and ragtime showed them a new musical direction. After founding a new duo act with Joe to pursue this direction, Ben suggested that they expand their work as educators (both regularly taught private lessons and after school classes) by developing a new music project as a program of Community Arts Create. The Rhapsody Project was thus established, with the goal to strengthen communities through song and spread the gospel of folk and blues music. Rhapsody is the integration of performance and teaching through public events and school workshops designed to facilitate cross-generational, cross-cultural interactions through the medium of music. Ben plays an active role in the SE Seattle community, serving on a variety of boards and committees that serve to develop the south Seattle region economically, socially, environmentally, and all the while, artistically. In 2013, Ben co-founded The Hillman City Collaboratory, the mission of which is to be an instrument of transformation that provides a built environment and programming specifically designed to create community and equip change-makers.
See more about Ben and our duo in the media by visiting our Press Page.
Joe Seamons was raised in the backwoods of Northwestern Oregon in a house built by his parents. There, he was exposed to local folk music of sawmill workers, loggers and fishermen whose music reflected the character of the region. As he heard these songs in living rooms, around campfires, and at cider pressing parties, Joe also attended public school in the small nearby town of Rainier, Oregon. Consequently, he was exposed to the artistry and fierce environmentalist passion of his parent’s and their friends as well as the quiet conservatism of a tiny town full of paper mill workers and longshoremen. Living between these two cultures perfectly prepared Joe to relate to the outsider perspective of the great early blues artists, whose music he discovered after taking up guitar at age 16 and while exploring the influences of his local folk heroes.
After graduating from Rainier High School in 2003, Joe moved to Portland where he studied music and English at Lewis & Clark College. In 2006, the College’s abroad program allowed him to travel to London, where he spent four months pursuing an independent study of British folk song and its influences on American balladry during the day, and busking on train platforms at night. In 2007 Joe graduated from Lewis & Clark with a major in English poetry and a minor in music. The following year Joe worked to deepen his knowledge of the history of Northwest folk songs by applying for and receiving a Woody Guthrie Fellowship from the BMI Foundation. He travelled to New York City, where he worked for a week in the Woody Guthrie Archives studying lyrics and letters written by Guthrie during his time in Portland, OR (in 1941). This intensive study of Guthrie’s Columbia River songs greatly enhanced his appreciation of the power and value of the more obscure music he had heard growing up. To properly perform and interpret this music, Joe soon took up the banjo, taking instruction from the brilliant Northwest folklorist (and old family friend) Hobe Kytr. Joe’s passion for Northwest folk culture soon took shape in a new musical endeavor called Timberbound, an acoustic quartet that performs Northwest ballads.
As he studied banjo with Hobe, Joe also began to spend time with Hobe’s longtime musical partner; Dave Berge; Dave is a former logger and fisherman who wrote very fine songs about his work in the Northwest. Joe learned Dave’s songs and brought him into the studio to play autoharp and sing on Timberbound’s self-titled album in 2014. While doing this work as a folklorist, Joe teaches guitar part time and tours nationally with Renegade Stringband, a new-timey bluegrass band he founded in 2010. As his bandmates began choosing life off the road, Joe deepened his commitment to American folk and blues traditions in 2012, when he began performing as an duo with his Stringband-mate, Ben Hunter.