In the fall of 2015, Portland Americana act The Ghosts of Johnson City released its debut record “Am I Born to Die,” a collection of old mountain music, Civil War songs, songs about mining, loss, murder and the American South, and I swooned over it. This week brings with it the release of its sophomore album, “The Devil’s Gold,” and the celebration happens at Portland House of Music on Saturday.
The band’s lead vocalist is Amos Libby, who I’ve seen play a number of times through the years with his Middle Eastern music ensemble, Okbari. Libby also plays guitar and banjo. The rest of the Ghosts are Douglas Porter (banjo, guitar, vocals), Erik Neilson (baritone ukulele, vocals), Erik Winter (pump organ), Ian Riley (upright bass), Sarah Mueller (violin) and Bethany Winter (vocals.)
They’re still all about love, loss and mortality, but with “The Devil’s Gold,” The Ghosts of Johnson City have made a 15-track album of all original songs that are history lessons about topics like the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, the Gold Rush of 1849, the 1947 suicide of Evelyn McHale who jumped from the Empire State Building and New England’s logging history, among other things. If I were a history teacher, I would find a way to incorporate these songs into my lesson plan. But it’s not just the lyrics that make these songs standout, it’s the first-rate musicianship from the entire band.
I’m going to shine a light on three tracks from “The Devil’s Gold” and will send you off to theghostsofjohnsoncity.com where you can learn more about the band and read all the album’s lyrics. I’m also sending you to Bull Moose to pick up a copy of the physical CD, which you’ll also be able to do at the House of Music show.
I’ll start with the album’s opening track, “Jordan’s Golden Shore,” about the influenza outbreak that killed between 20 and 40 million people globally in one year. From the liner notes: “This song imagines the grief of a father and husband left behind by his wife and son, who fell to influenza’s fever. As his story draws to a close, he faces his own battle with the flu that promises to take him to his end upon the golden shores of the river Jordan.” While this sounds downright depressing, the song is actually quite moving, and Mueller adds a layer of sorrow that only a violin can. I also appreciate the clarity of Libby’s vocals so that the lyrics are discernible. The backing vocals by several Ghosts add to the potency of the tune. “If I could take their place I surely would alas they’re gone/But those who I love so dear, I’ll do to see anon.”
Now onto “Evelyn McHale” and the liner notes back story. “On May 1, 1947 a young woman named Evelyn McHale jumped to her death from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City. This song draws inspiration from the young Ms. McHale’s cryptic suicide note to tell the story of her fateful decision on that spring day.” I braced myself and hit “play.”
Take a listen to “Evelyn McHale”
Porter’s banjo shines brightly, and Libby sings this one with Winter, and they sound perfect together. “I’m wearing the dress that you made me and the string of dazzling pearls/That father so sweetly gave me when all seemed a different world.” It’s as if they’re channeling McHale’s sorrow and have put words to it. And the Ghosts do this in a way that makes for a song you want to hear, not one you want to shy away from because the subject matter isn’t going to exactly brighten your day. If there’s a heaven, McHale will be smiling down from it when they play this one live.
The last song I’ll mention (and I could have written about all of them) is “Disaster at the Stag Canyon Mine.” Said disaster took place in October of 1913 at the Stag Canyon Mine in Dawson, New Mexico, and killed more than 250 miners. “Disasters like this were horribly commonplace in the early days of the American mining industry, and this song is our tribute to the men lost on that terrible day down in those dark tunnels.” I read that back story and closed my eyes to take it in. About five minutes later, it ended with the two most important lines of the entire song: “Stag Canyon mine was hungry, and her lesson we should heed/The earth will take what’s hers in blood for the crime of mankind’s greed.”
For real, this album flows like a collection of historical fiction vignettes and brings the stories to life in a way that makes you feel all the things: empathy, sympathy, sorrow, love and more. The Ghosts of Johnson City aren’t just musicians, they’re explorers of history and have a deep appreciation for keeping it alive with “The Devil’s Gold.” These are songs that matter, songs that are thoughtful and provocative and songs that can teach listeners about days long gone and real people during some pretty dark times. But there’s also a thread of hopefulness to them, and it’s clear that Amos Libby, who wrote them all, cares deeply about keeping the past alive the best way he knows how — through music.
Here’s “A Drowning at The Stillwater,” another track from “The Devil’s Gold”
9 p.m. Saturday. Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St., Portland, $8 in advance, $10 at the door, 21-plus. portlandhouseofmusic.com