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Atwater-Donnelly

Atwater-Donnelly

Traditional folk duo

Atwater-Donnelly is a Rhode Island-based folk duo that performs traditional American and Celtic folk music. The group also performs original music and poetry. Much of their touring is concentrated in the Northeastern United States.

Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly met while serving as volunteer emcees at the Stone Soup Coffeehouse in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1987. One night they decided to harmonize on an a cappella introduction, according to the All Music Guide, and "discovered that their combined tone was much greater than what they could produce on their own."

Self-taught musicians, they decided to perform together later that year, and they ended up marrying two years later. They continue to be based in Rhode Island, but tour internationally to discover new material as much as to perform.

Atwater's first instrument, which she began playing at the age of six, was piano. Classically trained, she decided to stop playing when she was 13 years old. Three years later she began experimenting with acoustic guitar, in order to play songs by singer-songwriters in the folk vein, including Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Neil Young. She performed in and around Providence while attending Brown University, where she studied psychology, history, and French.

Donnelly began performing at the age of 15. His first instruments were guitar and harmonica. He played with two bands—the rock group The Lonely Things, from 1965 to 1967, and The Kesar Band, which performed traditional Cambodian music.

Atwater-Donnelly's music delves into the traditional folk music and storytelling traditions of the Americas. This includes regions such as Appalachia, the Ozarks, Prince Edward Island, and New England. The duo also write original folk music based on these traditions. Atwater-Donnelly play various instruments as well as sing. Their instruments include mountain dulcimer, old-time banjo, tin whistle, mandolin, harmonica, and others. Their performances are reputed to be as educational as they are entertaining.

Atwater-Donnelly's first self-released recordings, Labor and Love and Culled From the Garden, were issued between 1988 and 1991. Their material, which has been fairly consistent since their early days, consists largely of Irish, English, and Scottish songs. They released two other projects prior to 2000, one of which was Where the Wild Birds Do Whistle in 1997.

Matt Fink, writing for All Music Guide, called Where the Wild Birds Do Whistle "a mixed bag of material. Their originals tend to overreach at times, settling on rather stilted socially conscious narratives and overly picturesque imagery. Still, to their credit, they can make their original material sound as if it truly were as old as the songs in their repertoire, but as always, their skill at recasting traditional material accounts for the album's best moments." He singled out their versions of songs learned from Ritchie—"Pretty Saro" and "Dabbling in the Dew"—as exemplars of "the absolute height of their talents, as they present the understated grandeur of the simple folk melodies with all the attention to detail due them."

Live ... And Then I'm Going Home, released in 2002, compiled live Atwater-Donnelly performances at the Stone Soup Coffeehouse and The Blackstone River Theater in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The collection included several of the Childe ballads, "Angel Band," and several stories. Sing Out! called the recording "a fine introduction to their loving recreations of great traditional songs, along with some contemporary selections from Jean Ritchie, Mike Cross and Ralph Stanley. ... Besides being fine interpreters of traditional songs, Atwater-Donnelly are first rate storytellers."

The Blackest Crow was released in February of 2004 on the Rabbit Island Music label. Tom Druckenmiller, writing in Sing Out!, described the project as a eclectic one steeped in tradition. "'The Blackest Crow' has become a very popular song among traditional players and Aubrey's mountain dulcimer backup of the duet vocal is especially distinctive. She also lends her dulcimer to the Carter Family classic 'Single Girl, Married Girl.'" Other songs included a reworking of the traditional song "Soldier's Joy," "Song of the Cowboys," and various Celtic tunes. "Both Atwater and Donnelly are strong singers and talented multi-instrumentalists," wrote Steve Winick in a Dirty Linen review. "Atwater-Donnelly are to be complimented, for whatever the origin of the material, they are able to make the tunes and songs their own. They present the music simply, and true to their souls," wrote Druckenmiller.

In addition to performing, Atwater is also a published author with three collections of poetry. One collection, By Our Words: The Poetry of Three Generations, contains her poems as well as those of her grandmother, Mary Rose His, and her mother, Nina Dodd. She also has published the instructional song book Song By Song, which features songs as well as method information for mountain dulcimer, old-time banjo, tin whistle, guitar, and voice. Ivan Emke, writing in Dirty Linen, called the book "the result of a decade of teaching at workshops, festivals, and schools, putting together instructional sheets and jotting down assorted pieces of advice. Atwater is keenly interested in where the traditional songs she sings come from, and how they help to illuminate the lives of the 'ordinary folks' who originated the music." Atwater also has recorded two solo projects: Simple Sentences, consisting of original material, released in 1992, and a live children's recording, Daily Growing: Aubrey Atwater Live in the Classroom, released in 1999.

Folktown: The Story of the Fifth Mary, a musical production, was scheduled to be produced by Swamp Meadow Community Theatre (SMCT) in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2005. The play was written by Robert Hollis and features music by Atwater-Donnelly. According to the Providence Phoenix, the play is based on 22 traditional American and Celtic folk songs.

The duo has continued to perform and teach at traditional music festivals and camps, such as those at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, the Swannanoa Gathering, and the renowned John C. Campbell Folk School in western North Carolina. They have been featured artists on the national radio programs All Things Considered and on Fiona Ritchie's Thistle and Shamrock, which showcases traditional music.

For the Record . . .

Members include Aubrey Atwater (born on September 22, 1963), singer; Elwood Donnelly (born on January 30, 1950), singer. Married each other, 1987.

Group formed in Providence, RI, 1987; began self-releasing recordings with Labor and Love, 1988; featured artists on All Things Considered and Thistle and Shamrock radio programs; Live ... And Then I'm Going Home released in 2002; The Blackest Crow released, 2004; key creators of Folktown: The Story of the Fifth Mary, a musical production, 2005.

Addresses: Contact—Atwater-Donnelly, 19 Walker Rd., Foster, RI 02825. Website—Atwater-Donnelly Official Website: http://www.atwater-donnelly.com/.

Selected discography

Labor and Love, Rabbit Island Music, 1988.

Culled From the Garden, Rabbit Island Music, 1991.

Like the Willow Tree, Beacon Records, 1994.

Where the Wild Birds Do Whistle, Rabbit Island Music, 1997.

And Then I'm Going Home: Atwater-Donnelly Live, Rabbit Island Music, 2001.

The Blackest Crow, Rabbit Island Music, 2004.

Sources

Books

MusicHound Guide to Folk, Visible Ink, 1998.

Periodicals

Dirty Linen, June-July 2002; October-November 2004.

Sing Out!, Winter 2002; Summer 2004.

Online

"Atwater-Donnelly," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 16, 2004).

Atwater-Donnelly Official Website, http://www.atwater-donnelly.com/ (December 14, 2004).

Brown Alumni Magazine, July-August 2004, http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=2391 (December 14, 2004).

Folk Library, http://www.folklib.net/index/birth/birth_a.shtml# AT (December 14, 2004).

"Music," Providence Phoenix,http://www.providencephoenix.com/music/top/documents/04298499.asp (December 14, 2004).

—Linda Dailey Paulson

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