"The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine"
One of the most memorable performances at poet/folk musician Ken Waldman's From Manhattan to Moose Pass APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) showcase last Friday at Manhattan cabaret club Don't Tell Mama was the acoustic trio Miller, Knuth, Kilianski, made up of Revelers' saxophonist Chris Miller, Gaslight Tinkers fiddler Audrey Knuth and Hoot and Holler guitarist Mark Kilianski.
The standout moment came when Kilianski sang the song "The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine," a traditional-sounding folk song but with a contemporary antiwar message referencing the use of drones. Almost a throwback to the times when folk music was a frequent protest vehicle, the tune will appear on Hoot and Holler's upcoming album Reasons to Run, which is slated for release on Feb. 1.
It's a DIY self-release, says Kilianski, who's paired with fiddler Amy Alvey in Hoot and Holler and cites such songwriting influences as Gillian Welch and Townes Van Zandt along with authentic mountain musicians like Roscoe Holcomb and Ola Belle Reed. Boston-based but relocating to Asheville, N.C. in the spring, the old-time/bluegrass/country duo have earned scholarships to the Cajun-focused Blackpot Camp in Eunice, La. and the Appalachian-styled Augusta Heritage Center.
Reasons to Run, continues Kilianski, is Hoot and Holler's first full-length recording, having previously released an EP and two singles.
"As far as 'The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine' goes, I had wanted to write a political song for some time," notes Kilianski, who has also released a solo album. "You don't hear protest songs from folk musicians much these days, and when you do they sound preachy. So I found these stories involving drone warfare to be very universally relatable."
The drone issue "is lost amid all the other topics and tragedies in the news," continues Kilianski. "Hopefully I'm keeping it in the consciousness of my small audience."
Musically, Kilianski went to "the great well of Traditional Song for inspiration," he says.
"The melody of the chorus comes from 'Little Satchel,' a trad song performed by [late North Carolina fiddler/banjo player] Fred Cockerham. I moved it from 4/4 to 3/4 and changed the words."
Drones, he notes, "cannot function in a cloudy sky, as they fly too high to see the ground--hence the sick irony of a clear blue sky being a signal of fear and death. From there the verses kind of sprung up when I started looking at the issue more closely."
He points out that his song's first verse is from the perspective of a boy from Yemen, "whose grandmother was a civilian casualty in an American drone strike. I saw a video clip of him speak at the U.N. The second is from an Air Force pilot turned drone operator, as portrayed in the movie Good Kill, whom I researched. The third verse is from my own perspective. It's all true--except for the $8 coffee. I would never buy an $8 coffee! That's just my obligatory jab at consumerism."
"You can look at this issue from all different perspectives and see that it's harmful," Kilianski concludes.
"There are lots of civilian casualties, though the military won't admit that. The CIA had--and possibly still has—a policy that basically said anybody near a confirmed terrorist is probably a terrorist as well. Though drone pilots in the U..S are safer than troops in the Middle East, their PTSD is just as strong, and they have fewer resources to deal with it. Imagine killing people on the other side of the world for living from the safety of a bunker in the middle of the desert, and then going home and helping your son with his math homework. And we, the American public, and all of humanity, are at an increased risk when our military stokes the flames of hate by engaging in sloppy strikes resulting in innocent deaths."
Kilianski, by the way, continues to perform with Miller, Knuth, Kilianski, too, though the threesome has changed its name to Void in Vermont since its From Manhattan to Moose Pass showcase.