Folks don’t really understand folk music.
In the contemporary world, where we use genres to categorize sounds, the word “folk” gets thrown around a lot.
This was much to the chagrin of the late Martin Jack Rosenblum, a Milwaukee-native, rock ‘n’ roll poet (known as The Holy Ranger) and educator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“It’s oral tradition music,” Marty would say, his palms pressed together – emphasizing each word – slightly, almost sympathetically, bowing to his pupils, as if this very notion might destroy their construction of reality.
What Marty was really emphasizing was that – in order to use terms like “folk” – we should understand the history and intent, and, maybe more importantly, come to some common agreement on how to discuss the pedagogy.
After all, Marty was a bard, so his laser-focus was on the literary aspects. While the modern genre of folk seems universally accepted to be a single performer twiddling an acoustic guitar, Marty was far more interested in the language that defined authentic folk music, and less so the facade.
“Andrew Bird whistles on a record and we’re calling it folk music?” Marty once asked breathlessly to a class of spellbound students. “…Come on.”
This was not a criticism (per se) of Bird, Elliot Smith, Nick Drake or Justin Vernon (whatever the day’s flavor was), but instead, a lamentation that the modern “media anthropologist” was eager to lump these largely commercial entities in with the likes of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Odetta.
To paraphrase Marty’s insight: “There are rules. You mark that frame an 8, and you’re entering a world of pain.”
To talk about folk music with Marty was to talk about the stories and characters of early-American oral tradition music. He could expertly trace themes from late-1800 spiritual songs through the decades – into songs written by Guthrie or Dylan, or even Reed and Cobain. Identifying how oral tradition music (Marty’s alternative term for “folk”) cycled through popular culture – while identifying the social and historical aspects surrounding those songs– was the framework of his lecture.
This music, in essence, was of the people, by the people and for the people, and there was little tactility to its existence.
These themes and songs, instead, live in the collective consciousness.
So, with Marty’s lens now over our eyes, can there be contemporary oral tradition music?
Here we have Kat Wodtke, a Riverwest folk troubadour who has spent more than a decade writing songs and performing across the country without ever recording one of them. She’s earned a following – fans from all over know the words to her songs without hearing her perform in years.
She grew up and lived most of her life in Southeast Wisconsin. She went to Minneapolis for college, has a “home-away-from-home” in Alaska but moved to Riverwest roughly 10 years ago into the same flat she occupies today. The space, she said, was integral to her music; beyond just the environment in which she wrote a good portion of the album, the attic holds a performance space where countless house shows have sprung up through the years.
“This is my first time recording a collection of my own songs,” she confirmed, with Long Mama’s debut album, Poor Pretender, released October 28, 2022.
She looks back on the years from her second-story balcony, clutching a Hamm’s beer can as competing church bells between Holton and Humboldt ring in the evening hour.
There were plenty of changes throughout her life, but one thing was consistent, though, as she traveled between the Midwest and Alaska regularly: There was always a guitar. But, that Kat became somewhat of a regional, modern trouvère was not entirely intentional.
“You can get addicted to the magic of live music, and I never felt compelled to record until this particular concoction of musicians got together,” said Kat, when asked why now, after all these years, she decided to physically impress her songs into a medium. “There was some magic happening as we were playing live. We realized this was special. So, we saved up some dough and made it happen.”
For Kat, after all these years of letting her music float into the ether, the project was a joy. Songs perfected through years of playing in basements, attics, bedrooms and backyards were now complemented with full instrumentation and professional recording, mixing and mastering.
While someone might assume there could be some anxiety after this long avoiding a pressing, Kat was giddy for the release of the album, noting friends in Alaska, who have had to learn her songs to play themselves just to hear them, can now celebrate her art without the effort.
“The virtual and digital thing really sucks. I’m a Luddite in a lot of ways, but it does make things more accessible for certain people,” she confessed. “My nephew in Germany, who has never heard me play music, is so jazzed about this, and has staked his claim on a signed vinyl, already. When you have people near-and-dear to you across the globe, it feels nice to finally have something tangible to share with them.”
The end result is a debut unlike any other: a catalog of original, modern oral tradition music.
“This album was recorded live,” noted Kat, with Erik Koskinen producing along with Long Mama at Real Phonic Studios in Minnesota. “It was our band – Andrew [Koenig], Nick [Lang] in a room; Sam [Odin] and I and Eva [Nimmer] in another – we could see each other through a window, but we were playing together.”
Koskinen played several different instruments on multiple tracks.
With authenticity being paramount, Koskinen’s chops in recording and performing Americana/roots music – he engineered Trampled By Turtles 2010 effort Palomino and played slide on the band’s cover of “Where is My Mind” – provided a creative space meant to celebrate Long Mama’s organic sound, not commercialize it.
“He’s really the expert in that,” said Kat, noting that the recording experience was intentionally loose. “We had the songs, but we didn’t go in with a hard concept or sound or idea. We wanted to capture what we sound like as a band.”
While it took Kat two decades to document her music, it also took a year to mix the album. Due to the pandemic – and the group content to take their time – there were moments the last few years when a more grandiose effort was considered.
“As we chipped away at mixing, we considered adding more layers and instrumentation,” she said, noting that Koskinen frequently encouraged that the sound stay truer to the live performance of recording day. “Erik was a fantastic collaborator, because sometimes we’d want to fix something or edit out a weird note or something, and he’d just say, ‘Why?’ But, like, really asking: What’s wrong with what you’re hearing?”
Kat said that we may catch a “crack” or “clunk” here and there, but she said these details were intentionally left behind to be cataloged forever as part of the song (“you can hear Nick [on drums] breathing,” she said, excited by the mood the sound adds to “Lonerman,” the album’s final track).
“Those are the things that make you sound like a band,” said Kat, adding that it humanizes artists when people can see and hear flaws. “It’s okay to be yourself.”
Certainly, early Carter Family or Roscoe Holcomb recordings are not without the performers’ blemishes (though, of course, that was more so a symptom of limited technology at the time).
That is not to say this record is unpolished; it is expertly refined. The ten tracks are a prime synthesis of what happens when talented musicians coalesce around a common goal: playing the hell out of Kat Wodtke’s songs.
The quintet’s confidence and familiarity with one another is evident on the album; on tempo tracks like “Half Love,” the unit is tight and crisp, allowing Wodtke and Nimmer to explore their voices, but on “Badlands Honeymoon,” Koenig’s guitar drives a moody, ethereal blues tune about a really bad day in an even worse relationship.
Of course, what is folk music without a few, even if unintentional, nods to the past?
The title track, and opener, might seem like a tongue-in-cheek response to Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender,” a detail that tickled Kat, but turned out not to be true.
“I am not familiar with the song!” she said, but the accidental analysis remains accurate.
In “Poor Pretender,” the narrator lightheartedly ambles through the tale of a letdown, trying to convince herself, this time, that everything will be just fine.
“I’m sorry, babe/I’m a poor pretender,” she finishes.
The next track, “Half Love,” seems to find the narrator a few years down the road, now on the other side of leaving a relationship, wiser and more confident.
“I’ve been down that one-way road/And I see where it goes/I’ve tasted your blues/And I’ve had enough of those.”
As one might expect from a guitar-on-her-back singer-songwriter from Milwaukee County, the songs’ characters are self-deprecating, some are in quite the pickle, while others, just maybe, are onto something better.
The music matches the movement, as no song seems to fall into a formula. Like a Warren Zevon record, Poor Pretender is inscrutable in its structure, forcing listeners to keep up with both the melody and the story through sonic twists and turns.
“All of these songs I wrote. Some of them I wrote a while ago. They’re all songs the band has been playing for a bit,” said Kat, noting that, even for her, a song she knew since she was in her 20’s was suddenly taking a different shape at the recording studio. “There were times I felt free to just put my guitar down in certain places, and just focus on the singing.”
Kat noted “Lonerman” as an example where the “sparseness” along with the story (“it’s about a man walking alone,” she said), coupled with the recording practice, created the need for a new sonic web.
The tune, a ghostly coda for the album, will serve the listener’s memory of Long Mama as being unfastened but purposeful and amicable; there is room so that, next time, perhaps in the flesh, this song could change, again; become something new.
Ultimately, that’s what this project is all about for Kat and Long Mama. It is not the finality of her life’s work, nor is it time for her talented supporting cast to move on from the headway made by Poor Pretender. Instead, it’s a reference point, a record in history upon which they can always look back to help inform, improve or even impress.
“This is not a band where we will ever play live and try to recreate the album. We’re going to keep evolving and experimenting and see where the songs take us,” she said.
Even from an outsider’s perspective, there is something uniquely intangible about Long Mama, and it could just be their personal affinity for one another as people and as artists. An unrelenting common goal shared through music often cultivates celebrated art.
Kat sounded humbled as hell when she said of her bandmates:
“There’s something about this band. They listen so well. They manage to take the story of the song and infuse their playing with it, while also playing well off each other. Andrew’s solo on “Kite Flyer” – it just takes my breath away – the whole band, they just casually add so much color and texture and life to the story. I’m pretty lucky to have these people take what were simple folk songs that I played at Linneman’s open mic and turn it into this.”
Almost like a eureka moment, she found a metaphor:
“It’s kind of like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when we go from black-and-white to color.”
From the grayscale to harlequin, Long Mama has arrived as a vibrant presence with Poor Pretender, and traditional music lovers would be wise to pick this album up, lest the band decides to wait another decade before recording their second.
was produced by Long Mama and Erik Koskinen, recorded and mixed by Erik Koskinen at Real Phonic Studios in Cleveland, Minnesota, and mastered by Justin Perkins at Mystery Room Mastering in Madison, Wisconsin. Album artwork was created by Jessica Seamans, with album layout and design by Alison Kleiman.Back to Latest