In a March 2006 post I pondered a reference to “John Barrister Tipton” in the film The Big Chill, but was unable to find a satisfactory answer online. Thanks to another Google search today, I found that John Beresford Tipton was a character on a 1950s TV show called The Millionaire, in which he “indulges himself [by] giving away one million dollars apiece to persons that he has never met.” Now, that makes sense. Whether the character in The Big Chill misspoke and said “Barrister” rather than “Beresford” remains to be determined.
When I was in college I had the privilege of befriending an exceptional musical talent by the name of Jen Bernard. As I got to know her better—for a year we shared a house in the heart of the student ghetto—I learned that her talent came naturally, that her entire family was as richly steeped in musical tradition as she. (Jen’s current project is The Stolen Sweets, a 1930s swing jazz revival group that is a fine showcase for her ear for close, intricate harmonies. Their tasty recording debut, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, is available from CD Baby.)
One chilly winter weekend that year, several of us descended on the Bernard family homestead in northern lower Michigan, known as Earthwork Farms. It was then that I met the youngest sibling, Seth, who at the time seemed to me like your typical preteen boy, interested in sports and horseplay and hanging out with friends more than family.
Years later, I was pleased to discover that Seth, despite erstwhile appearances to the contrary, had learned well at the family hearth and has become, perhaps, the most talented Bernard musician of them all.
From his first recorded output, 2001’s Hello Fellow Travelers, Seth Bernard has demonstrated a very unique and personal songwriting style, one that understands well its myriad influences and yet chooses its own independent path. Subsequent solo releases, Constellation (2003) and Being This Being (2004), have shown growing maturity, along with a lively wit. Seth is comfortable in his music, in his voice, and in himself. I’m particularly fond of “Sassafras,” “Travel,” and “Collage,” all off the 2004 album.
All his releases are self-produced and appear on his Earthwork Music label. That name, and the fact that he has built a home studio on the farmstead, are testament to his love of family—a theme that recurs frequently in his songs. Among the members of Seth’s family is Daisy May Erlewine, who has also released solo works on the Earthwork label. Seth and Daisy May have toured and performed together for some time; for one, she lends her clarion, chiming voice to a beautifully harmonious accompaniment on “Sassafras.”
In early 2006 they released their first duet album, Seth Bernard and Daisy May. Although they don’t share songwriting credits (each track on the record is attributed to one or the other, but never both), their musical partnership is one of perfect symbiosis and playful give-and-take. Even on the sadder songs, the joy of making music together comes through in every track.
On this album Seth and May are joined by a trio of friends to form “The Copper Country Quintet,” a name that stems from the fact that the recordings were primarily made in Calumet, Michigan, way up near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P.—copper mining country. Over the course of two days they recorded on the stage of the Calumet Theatre, a classic and well-preserved venue built in 1900 during the mining industry’s heyday.
This was a perfect choice. Judging from photographs, the theatre is gorgeous. Judging from the music, it has fantastic acoustics. In fact, the room has such a warm, strong presence on this album that it has its own entity, almost as if it’s an additional musician in the group. I don’t think I’ve heard a room play such an integral, positive role in a recording since the Cowboy Junkies set up shop in Toronto’s Holy Trinity Church back in 1987. And frankly, Seth Bernard and Daisy May deserves the same kind of long-term recognition as a piece of beautiful, timeless art that The Trinity Session has received over the years.
I can only hope that, some time soon, Seth and May make a trip “out west” and play a gig or two in Chicago.