Rufus Cappadocia is an absolute monster of a musician. He plays a five-string cello he invented by adding magnetic and acoustic pickups and “blending them passively,” i.e., no batteries required. With this setup he can get that wah-wah distortion that characterizes funk groups like the Meters, but without using an effects processor. The classically trained Cappadocia now plays with the Berkeley-based Eastern European trance group Stellamara and the Vodou Jazz Ensemble, but also gets down with Moroccan percussionists, Indian and Syrian vocalists, and improvisational dancers. He’s one of very few who can make the cello look genuinely, virulently masculine. “Hey, man, it’s the baddest-ass instrument going,” he says in a recent interview.
Bethany Yarrow, meanwhile, is a vamp. She has the slithery, fallen-woman look of a Courtney Love or an Amy Winehouse: baby-doll dresses, jangly hoop earrings, wine-colored lipstick. She’s an art-school chick who produced a documentary for Sundance while studying medieval literature and political philosophy at Yale. Now she sings folk music, in a kind of woozy, groove-driven style that represents the genre’s recent shift from frumpy granola-eaters to tattooed hipsters. Except Yarrow is heir to a dynasty: Her dad is Peter Yarrow from the hit 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
The singer and the cellist met at New York’s Knitting Factory in 1999, on a night Cappadocia was performing with his Balkan jazz group, the Paradox Trio. Yarrow was shellshocked. She needed a bassist for her band, which then had just drums and guitar. So she recruited Cappadocia.
Before this year, the pair’s best-known collaboration was 2003’s Rock Island, traditional Appalachian ballads and old prison songs with trance-electronica production overtop. For this year’s 900 Miles they pared it down to cello and voice, with fetching results. Opening with the title track, a hobo song, it comprises lonely but hopeful tunes exhumed from a long-abandoned folk music crypt.
“The Swallow,” which originated in Newfoundland, is about a girl picking primroses — flowers traditionally used to end a pregnancy, Yarrow explains over the phone. “St. James Infirmary,” about an untimely death, originated as a British folk ballad and eventually became a New Orleans bar song. Yarrow describes the uncanny feeling she got performing the tune in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s about going to the morgue to see your lover,” she says. “It was bone-chilling.”
The video for “900 Miles” was shot on train tracks and in Yarrow’s house in upstate New York. Then five months pregnant, she leans against a boudoir and croons to her reflection while Cappadocia plays cello in the living room. With her lipsticked mouth and stunning opalescent eyes, Yarrow more closely resembles a pop diva than the forlorn tramp who might have sung “900 Miles” a hundred years ago. But she insists she’s not concerned with packaging. “I think it’s just my thing,” she says. “I’ve got dark black hair and big green eyes. I inherited a lot of my mom’s hippie jewelry.”
In truth, few contemporary folksters ground their authenticity in a visual aesthetic — look no further than dreadlocked Bonfire Madigan, or rainbow-haired, omnisexual Ani DiFranco. Yarrow and Cappadocia aren’t hell-bent on ditching their Birkenstock-wearing forebears — after all, they still perform with the elder Yarrow. “Folk was really, really broad before Dylan came along and made it singer-songwriter,” Cappadocia explained. “We’re going back to Newport, like, ’61 or something, and getting all this material from the horse’s mouth and reworking into more of a feel thing.”
Bethany & Rufus’ simple blues changes, coupled with the primordial funkiness of Cappadocia’s cello, evoke the ancient world that serves as a backdrop for 900 Miles — all ragged tombstones and railroad unspooling forever in one direction. Still, they’re trying to make that world seem less parochial. A former punk rocker, Yarrow confesses to spending most of her life on the run from folk music — it’s difficult to be the daughter of Peter Yarrow and not have the sounds of Appalachia constantly foisted upon you. But now she sees their appeal.