CLIMATE FOLKLORE IN ALMANAC BEHIND
a Cc interview with Daniel Bachman
I first started this interview with Daniel in the spring of 2023, but we continued our discussion through the summer of 2023. As is becoming more common these days, it seemed the world was changing due to climate change at the exact moment we were conversing about the impacts of climate change. During the summer of 2023, 150 million people, almost half the nation, was under threat of extreme weather due to historic flooding in the northeast and a record-breaking heatwave from California to Texas. During this time, the Canadian wildfires inundated the mid- and eastern US with toxic particulate matter. Then July was the hottest month ever recorded on earth. This is not a case where some records were broken in some places; the entire planet, everywhere, was hotter than it had ever been.
How do we wrap our minds around the immense changes we are living through in our society and environment? The answer for Daniel is through music. Daniel has an uncanny ability to tell the story of people and place through his music. These are not campy narratives or folk tales told over and over again ad nauseum. They are “wordless dissertations” on colonialism, racism, extraction, and climate change.
Almanac Behind, one of Daniel’s recent albums, focuses on the impacts of climate change by taking field recordings of weather events taken over the course of one year in the mountains of Virginia and weaving them into his music. It’s sonic in texture, making it current and even futuristic—and simultaneously archival and historic telling the detailed story of an exact time and place.
In the interview, we talk about his music process, what it's like around his home, and where his inspiration comes from. Daniel finds the discussion of climate change too amorphous and chooses to focus on local and specific impacts and narratives while he observes and takes note of climate change impacts from other regions.
Over the course of our conversations, Daniel finished a new album entitled When the Roses Come Again on Three Lobed Recordings. Daniel’s scholarship, field recordings, and Notes on the State of Virginia can be found on Youtube and his website Danielbachman.com. His music catalogue can also be streamed on Spotify.
—Ted Martinez, Carbon Copy
Carbon Copy: What is the natural environment like where you are from?
Daniel Bachman: I currently live along the Robinson river near Shenandoah National Park. It’s one of the oldest national parks in the country but also one of the most polluted due to its proximity to production centers in Virginia and Maryland. The mountains here are very old and it’s very biologically diverse. We have pine forests and deciduous forests, and diverse animal species. Lots of the old growth forest here was cut for timber and then used for cattle grazing, but there are sections of the park with some of the larger Tulip Poplar and White oak that give some impression of what is possible in this section of the eastern woodlands. Before settlers moved into this section of the Robinson river was inhabited by the Mannahoac tribes, a related tribe to the federally recognized Monacan Indian Nation just southwest of us in Amherst co. Virginia. They fade from settlers records in the 1750s, though local sources state that remnant Mannahoacs remained well after the American revolution.
I actually grew up on the same plantation that George Washington grew up on, it’s called Ferry Farm Plantation and it’s close to the Chesapeake Bay, though the land had been subdivided in the 1940s. It’s the beginning of an area called the Northern Neck, a sort of long peninsula between the Potomac River and Rappahannock Rivers. Some of the worst parts of the colonial era/American Civil War occurred here and I believe this place is tormented by four hundred years of unrelenting trauma and oppression, at least that’s how I’ve come to understand it. There are African American and Caribbean histories here as well, in fact the Afro Chesapeake cultures of Virginia are among the oldest in America’s African diaspora, and before that there was a Spanish history when this area was known as the Bahia de Santa Maria. Back then this loosely defined region was known as Ajacan, a 16th century Spanish interpretation of one Indigenous name for this area.
Cc: Are there certain landforms, topography, habitat types, or weather phenomena that inspired the music in Almanac Behind?
DB: With this record I wanted to focus on the hyper local effects of climate change. I feel like in America right now we only get the real big stories of climate change. I have been finding all over America that the media is very localized. I started making the album in January last year (2022) by making field recordings of weather events and collected as much as I could from my front yard. I would leave the field recorder on in the front yard, and back shed area as storms would come in through the mountain valley. Friends recorded flooding events for me, and I also included emergency radio broadcast off of our weather box.
I know that fire is a very real threat on the West Coast and here in the middle Appalachians that threat is rising consistently, we are getting flash fire events, but what is worse here is we are getting what people are calling whiplash weather. We are going from flash drought events to flash flood events. We are right outside Charlottesville, Virginia and when I first moved there, we got six months’ worth of rain in thirty minutes. We’ve experienced similar “rain bomb” like storms out here in Madison county. These types of events are growing exponentially. It can get 90-100 degrees F here and the sun just bakes the red earth clay and makes it incredibly hard, so that when we get these torrential downpours the water just skates on top of the soil and concentrates in these tight mountain valleys. The night that I submitted the album we had catastrophic flooding that devastated an area about an hour south of us and left forty-four people briefly unaccounted for and homes completely destroyed. To make matters worse, the strip mining in the Appalachian region is making flooding even more prevalent and dangerous due to topsoil erosion.
For each 1 degree C the planet warms there is a 7 percent increase in atmospheric moisture. We get terrible hurricanes here and I’ve experienced some very powerful ones growing up close to the Bay. One of the worst of those was hurricane Isabel in 2003. These hurricanes are increasing in power and they come further inland and get stuck in the mountains in what people call hollows or hollers. This is a major concern for people who live in these mountains. In addition, the sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic coast are as much as 56.8 degrees F (13.8 degrees C) warmer than the 1981 -2011 average. So ocean temperatures are increasing hurricane strength. I haven’t even mentioned sea level rise. We are also ground zero for sea level rise comparable to what’s happening in Louisiana or Florida, in some places even worse.
For us right now, the biggest fear is the Robinson River flooding as we are only a couple hundred feet away. In 1995 hurricane Camille came into this section of the Blue Ridge and as much as 30” of rain fell in a 24-hour period, with approximately 25” falling in five of those hours. It was absolutely catastrophic and claimed the lives of six people, destroying numerous homes and livelihoods. It is something the area has never forgotten, and the year before we moved in water came up almost to our porch, according to neighbors. All we can do is have a couple bags packed with sleeping gear and keep a plan on top of our minds in case the big one ever comes.
Cc: Your music is inspired by people and place. Is this album any different because it’s focused more specifically on climate change or was your process for this album similar to some of your other albums?
DB: Almanac Behind was really just a folklore project. If you were going to do field work and interview some folks that have lived wherever for some period of time you would bring your field recorder and ask them a series of questions and document their history and experiences. That’s how I approached this album, I wanted it to be a literal historical document about what we are living through. There are a lot of folk tunes in this area that are about environmental disasters such as tornadoes, cyclones, and floods. There’s a blues musician named John Jackson from the next county over (Rappahannock) who passed away in the nineties and he learned to pick during the drought of 1929 from an incarcerated man who toted water during the building of local route 231.
I asked myself ‘how can I preserve these absolutely historic moments we are going through.’ It blows my mind sometimes what we are all living through. No one in human history has ever lived through such rapid earth changes as we are right now. People at the end of the last ice age did live through some crazy shit. The Atlantic Ocean used to be some distance further east than it is now. We know that people were hunting megafauna there because the oystermen dredge up the artifacts from the ocean floor. We can also look to the past to see what our future might hold. For instance, if you look at maps of North America during the Miocene, some 20 million years ago when there was very little sea ice, we may get little glimpses into what the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast may return to in shape and form.
I’m very interested in folklore and history and a big part of that includes the impacts of settler colonialism on the landscape. Virginia being ground zero for the destructive extractive capitalist methods now causing climate breakdown. A little side note on me is that I have no higher education, I’m a high school dropout. I went to school when the heroin/pills epidemic was really hitting us hard and I dropped out because it was a terrible time to be around white supremacists/"good old boy” systems, and so many drugs, violence, suicide, etc. So I found folklore as a passion of mine and a way to understand deeper histories and to understand this place better. I think it’s helped me process my own traumas. These are historic times. I’m really just trying to preserve what we are going through in ways that are accessible to the generation of people who are inheriting the earth during this crisis.
Cc: Can you tell us more about your field recording process and artistic process for this album?
DB: I've found it difficult at times to express the emotional weight of these massive changes that all of us are experiencing on Earth through simple major/minor key changes, words, and even the instruments that I've learned to play on. By using literal or abstracted sounds from these extreme weather events I'm trying to make a direct emotional connection with the listener, regardless of musical/cultural preferences of creative expression. Everyone on Earth knows the sound of hard rain, rushing water, fire, and the silence that comes in the aftermath of these events. I also believe that working with non-human collaborators in creative ways is going to be one of the only ways we will be able to adapt to life in the Anthropocene, and that those collaborations should also extend into our creative communities.
I also used a couple different methods for creating the melodies and more conventional song structures on this one. My main trick was to play loosely composed or improvised instrument parts into a tape recorder or field recorder. Then I would put those sounds into my computer and chop up each note, or note cluster, and rearrange those pieces into an entirely different piece of music. Pitching notes up, or down, slowing their tempo or speeding them up. I also did this with the natural sounds you hear throughout the record. So hail beating against our tin roof sounds massive and slow, or fast and very harsh. Same with rain, wind, sleet, etc. I did this to illustrate the fact that these seemingly innocuous types of weather we know from lived experience are transmuting into something else, mainly in regard to its severity. The album is also playable as a loop to illustrate the cyclical nature of our new reality on Earth.
Overall, I wanted to connect the listener with these experiences in a safe, controlled environment. Give someone the space to experience and think about these Earth changes away from an emergency context, which unfortunately is when many of us find ourselves facing such facts. As well as to remind people that you don't have to be an expert to speak about climate collapse. If you are experiencing extreme weather and changes to your region's climatological norms, you are an expert. You have lived it.
Cc: Are terms like Bomb Cyclone and Arctic Oscillation used in the news in your area when it comes to extreme weather?
DB: I heard Bomb Cyclone for the first time this year, on the news at least; I had heard it before but not as a weather event that impacts this area. I don’t know if you saw on the news the crazy cold spell they had in Buffalo, New York this winter, but we had the same temperatures here as they did in New York. I believe we had wind chills of -22 degrees F in some of the hollows around here. That is completely crazy. We were at 65 degrees F, then were hit with freezing cold, then it went right back to normal. It was completely disruptive to flowering trees, people growing food, and animals. We were able to watch puddles freeze in real time, I’ve never seen that before. We hung some wet laundry outside to see what happened and it froze solid, it was pretty funny.
There are good people, climate scientists and meteorologists in the area, but we are in an unfortunate place where the reality still hasn’t caught up with some people, they’re still viewing this as anomalous. In the news, the weather can be portrayed in a comical tongue-in-cheek way, “It’s minus twenty-two degree’s, better bundle up out there.” That is simply 20 century thinking. I have seen people online using the term “rain bomb” and I think that fits quite well given some of the monsoon type storms we have experienced.
The wildfire smoke from eastern/western Canadian wildfires has been pretty intense this summer as well, coming in waves that last two to three days each, at times approaching an AQI near 200. It’s sad to see people out in those conditions unmasked. There is a real sense that there is a minimization of these things to keep economic prosperity the top national priority. Unfortunately, the US has used this tactic many times over the years, from 18-19th century Yellow Fever epidemics, 1918-1921 H1N1 (Spanish Flu), SARS-CoV-2, and now including deadly heat waves/extreme precipitation events, etc. It’s a very American “keep calm and carry on” attitude, and I believe we’re seeing those mechanisms at work controlling the narrative of climate breakdown.
Cc: Since we’re talking about the connection between people, place, and music, can you tell us about some more of the climate impacts in your area, maybe Chesapeake Bay and sea- level rise?
DB: Yeah, so Virginia Tech has been releasing research they are doing regularly, and I’ve been trying to follow it as I’m able to. Sections of the Chesapeake Bay are sinking up to 7 millimeters a year, and this is something that the older generations, and fishermen (watermen as they are locally known), talk about quite a bit. In this area it is referred to as “erosion”, sea level rise or it’s connection to climate breakdown is rarely discussed, at least in my experience. These people know the tidal creeks, marshes, and rivers like the back of their hand though, and see a difference in where the water used to sit.
In some places the change is undeniable, and such is the case on Tangier Island in the middle of the Bay. I attended an online community led discussion for a recent book about Tangier and the locals want so desperately for something to be done, for someone to help save this piece of land that generations of Tangiermen have lived, worked and fished. Unfortunately, it seems that projects like sea walls will only slow the inevitable. Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach, these are the places I see being ground zero for local climate refugees. In some places its already begun.
I do find a sense of poetry in this Virginia Tidewater region being some of the first U.S. land to be lost to sea level rise. After all, these are the flat marshy lands that were first violently claimed for the Virginia Company of London, at Jamestown. A time of immeasurable suffering for the Virginia Indian Nations, as well as the literal breeding ground of what became the brutally corrupt and immoral practice of North American chattel slavery, where the woodlands were utterly deforested for cattle and monocropping tobacco, the land overhunted, and bays overfished. We continue to degrade the region by dumping PFAS contaminated waste from military installations into the ancient rivers and tear off mountaintops for weak seams of bituminous coal. Sea level rise is taking our myths and memories out with the tide. All that colonial pomp and heraldry, soon home for the crabs and eel grass.
is an artist, musician, and independent scholar primarily interested in the folk histories of Virginia. Bachman has released 11 full length records since 2011, and toured extensively internationally and throughout the US, garnering wide acclaim. His latest record, “When The Roses Come Again” is out Nov. 18, 2022, on Three Lobed Recordings.
Photo credit: Aldona Dye