In 1999, world-music label Putumayo released Memphis to Mali, a collection of songs by American blues artists like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal, and Malian superstars like Habib Koite and Baba Djan.
Four years later, roots artist Corey Harris responded with his Mississippi to Mali CD, which critics likened to a modern field recording. The rough-edged tracks trace the spiritual connection between America and Africa, including fife-and-drum musicians in North Mississippi and African guitar great Ali Farka Toure.
Local musicians Patrick Fitzsimons and Eliza Lynn are traveling a similar path, tracking down the points of intersection between their own heritage (distinctly Western European, as evidenced by their near-matching crimson coifs) and the rest of the world influences — African, Latin American and Caribbean — that come together to create American folk music.
All of this sounds complex enough to be a job for PBS’ History Detectives — that is, until you hear Fitzsimons and Lynn (known together as Red Locks Blue Rooster) croon an effortlessly sultry minor-key version of “Iko Iko.”
Girls just wanna have … folk songs
“For me, it has to do with being an American,” Lynn says. “If you just listen to American music, there are all these building blocks. You’re naturally interested in all the things that make [it up].”
Case in point: “Iko Iko” has been covered by everyone from funkster Dr. John to pop icon Cyndi Lauper, and has the feel of a centuries-old folk chestnut. In actuality (according to Dr. John’s album liner notes for Gumbo), it was penned in the early 1950s, by New Orleans musician James Crawford. But the simple Mardi Gras song is rooted in Cajun patois, derived from French, English and African languages.
Fitzsimons brings a similar worldliness to his performances. After studying at Appalachian State University, he made his way around Europe. “For a while, busking was my sole source of income,” the musician recently told the Citizen-Times. In Barcelona, he studied traditional Cuban salsa before returning to Western North Carolina to immerse himself in the African-music-and-dance scene.
Born in Belfast, Fitzsimons moved with his family to New York to avoid the tensions in Northern Ireland. That was in the late 1970s, when the musician was just a toddler — but already he seemed destined for world citizenship.
“I think syncopated rhythms speak to everyone, the way everyone’s drawn to a drum circle,” Fitzsimons muses in a simplistic explanation of his multicultural immersion.
“My mom was a tap dancer,” Lynn suggests as the source of her love of stressed beats.
“Mine was an Irish dancer,” Fitzsimons replies.
Early on it was percussion that drove the Irish-born musician’s quest, though he’d long owned a guitar, among other instruments. “One day [in Barcelona] I up and decided that I’d trade my only guitar for a set of congas,” he recalls. “My plans were to return to the U.S. for a stint, then go to Cuba for more intensive study — but instead I was soon caught up in Guinean music.”
It was at the suggestion of his acupuncture teacher (Fitzsimons just completed a four-year degree in that field) that the musician got serious about playing guitar. Turns out that palm and finger pads roughened from drumming numb a practitioner’s ability to diagnose a patient’s pulse, whereas the fingertip calluses formed from guitar playing are less a hindrance. He now performs finger-style, where a bass line and melody are played simultaneously on the same instrument.
Lynn’s journey to early American music is equally circuitous. She and Fitzsimons had collaborated half a decade ago, but her banjo playing gave way to other passions, like dancing and her own work in the health profession (she runs a program for diabetics at the YWCA).
“Because I’d been playing banjo, I introduced Patrick to the song ‘Pretty Polly,'” she remembers. “We’d been out of touch for a while, and I went on his Web site and there was [a song sample of] ‘Pretty Polly.’ I loved it — the way he’d taken this old-time murder ballad and made it something bluesy.”
She adds: “We’ve been laughing about how a murder ballad was the unifier.”
More bluesy than normal
Currently, Fitzsimons and Lynn can be found in any number of musical combinations. The guitarist often goes it solo or as a one-man band, where he simultaneously manages guitar, harmonica, kick drum and high hat. Lynn, aside from a number of upcoming dates with Fitzsimons, is putting together her own band, which will play originals, blues, honky-tonk and gospel.
“It’s part of our similarity, that we’re interested in the same different genres,” Lynn laughs.
Fitzsimons agrees that dabbling in various styles is a benefit. “It always feeds all of the different aspects of [my] musical being,” he says. “I have a short attention span for music, so I have to keep moving.”
And the future for Red Locks Blue Rooster portends even greater opportunity for globe trekking and genre blending — musically speaking. “Something we hope to do more is fuse a Western African feel of music, melodically and rhythmically, through what we play,” Fitzsimons says. “Already we’re touching on Latin and some reggae.”
For fans who make it to the duo’s Westville Pub appearance, Lynn speculates, “They’ll hear some Piedmont blues, some originals pulling more toward world music, a little of the bluesy side of old-time, and maybe a jazz standard done a little more bluesy than normal.”
Consider it serious cultural edification — with a danceable groove.
Red Locks Blue Rooster (Patrick Fitzsimons and Eliza Lynn) plays a 9 p.m. show at Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road) on Thursday, Aug. 3. Info at 225-9782.