Through the ages, a lot of lore has passed from one generation to the next in the form of folk songs, sung so many times they become part of the cultural DNA. In these days of instant access to online music recordings, people don’t have to learn songs by passing them from person to person, but that’s exactly the way Ian Van Ornum and Dani Aubert want to do it.
The Oregon-based couple, who were part of a seven-piece “folk orchestra” called Patchy Sanders, perform as a folk duo called Fellow Pynins, with Aubert playing clawhammer banjo and bouzouki, and Van Ornum on guitar, mandolin and hurdy-gurdy.
They toured relentlessly for five years with Patchy Sanders. Early in 2016, they had just released their 10-song Fellow Pynins debut, “Hunter and the Hunted,” when they zigged when any other duo with a new album out might have zagged. Instead of touring the county promoting the album, they set out on an epic voyage of musical discovery, spending almost a year traveling in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe and Iceland.
Their mission was to visit remote corners of the continent and root out the songs from which American folk music sprang — and learn the stories behind them.
“The intention was collecting songs without learning them from recordings. That was really important to us,” Van Ornum said by phone from Oregon before packing up for a holiday trip to visit family in Eden Prairie, Minn., where he grew up. “We’ve always been intrigued by these old songs that could be hundreds of years old and the origin is unclear. We’re mostly drawn to the ballads and melodies of Ireland and England and Scotland and Wales.”
In the course of their odyssey, about half of which they spent in the U.K., Van Ornum and Aubert put 40,000 miles on a cheap car they bought, spent a good 3,000 Euros on ferry fares, played concerts as Fellow Pynins and made a small army of new friends while digging into native folk songs, some of which maybe only 100 people knew.
Van Ornum said came back with about 60 songs they are strongly attached to, some of them learned in person-to-person sessions, some coming from song circles where the tunes came so fast and furious that they did resort to recordings as reminders. A person can only soak up so much at once.
One of their favorite songs from the trip was learned on a small island off the northern coast of Scotland. Aubert and Van Ornum were keen to take part in a summer solstice celebration and came across an ad for one to take place in the Orkney Islands that sounded like there would be an emphasis on music.
They drove two days to get to the 10-day celebration, which drew about 150 people to a tiny island with five houses. The singing went on until the wee hours on the solstice — it never really got dark because the island was so far north — and as things were winding down, a woman who had sat on the sidelines was pressed to do a song. The song she sang, which had been sung to her every night by her father when she was a little girl, was called “Bonny at Morn,” and Van Ornum said he was so struck by it that he made the woman promise to teach it to him the next morning.
They met on the beach and went over the song for at least two hours. The woman had to explain a lot of the archaic Scottish terms in the lyrics, but for Van Ornum the hours were a good investment because it’s such a striking song. “It has kind of an eerie melody but at the same time so beautiful,” something he said was common among the songs they loved most. “To me, the melodies are so gorgeous and beautiful and tender, and then you listen to the words and it’s about some witch poisoning this guy.”
When the Fellow Pynins perform Dec. 28 at The Root Note in La Crosse and Dec. 29 at Leo & Leona’s Tavern and Dancehall, there’s a good chance people will hear some of the music mined from the European journey as well as original Fellow Pynins material. One thing about that will set the Fellow Pynins versions of the ancient folk songs apart is they’ll have vocal harmonies, something the songs haven’t typically featured.
“That is our favorite thing to do,” Van Ornum said of harmonizing. “Nothing gets us more than voices intermingling that way.”
Growing up in Eden Prairie, Van Ornum was heavily into sports, but the gift of an electric guitar 10 years ago when he was a senior in high school proved to be a turning point. “That was the end of a lot of things for me,” he said. “I’ve never been bored since I got that guitar.”
While in Oregon for college, he felt the pull of folk music and gravitated toward the mandolin, his main instrument with Patchy Sanders. There’s no question that Van Ornum still adores acoustic roots music, but he went back to Europe in August to record his first solo album, a project that will be a major departure from his previous musical endeavors.
Van Ornum said he felt like a commitment to doing strictly acoustic folk music was holding him back, so he went to Paris to record a very different album for his solo debut. “I went with the intention of breaking myself out of the box,” he said. “I just didn’t want to have any boundaries anymore.”