Never been to Jackson Township, New Jersey? Just another small town in the middle of the pines in Southern New Jersey, a bit north of Tom’s River, just south of I-295 – nothing to see here, right? Sadly, you’d miss Jackson Pines, a roots-folk-rock band that grew up there, and still have deep ties to their community. Pine Barrens, Volume 1 is their love letter to the traditional folk music of Southern New Jersey.
Jackson Pines has been part of the Philadelphia music scene for quite a while. Their debut, the Simone Felice (Felice Brothers) produced Purgatory Road, is about as strong a debut you’d ever hear. Frontman/guitarist/songwriter Joe Mackoviecki and bassist James Black have been the core of the band since the beginning, and they’ve been delighting the area and beyond (the group tours constantly).
But they still call Jackson their hometown, and the group dove deep into the roots of the region’s folk music. They came back with a father and son: Merce Ridgway Sr and Jr and the Pine Hawkers. Merce Jr founded Albert Music Hall (which Jackson Pines has played) in Waretown, NJ with the help of the Pinelands Cultural Society, and has dedicated most of his life to preserving and highlighting the old folk songs of the Pine Barrens. According to their website, Albert Music Hall still offers music every Saturday night.
“The Depression Song” starts the record off. It’s a celebratory tune with the refrain “No money to spend / Holes in their shoes / But I never heard nobody singin’ the blues.” If you’re familiar with the tunes of the early 1930s in America, you’ve heard songs that hit this exact theme, like “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The first single for the album, “Mount Holly Jail,” represents one of the oldest tunes the group tackles. Originally written down in 1936 by a student who heard it sung by a half-Black, half-Lenape man named Oliver Minney, Mackoviecki claims, “This is what NJ folk music sounded like.”
When Mackoviecki sings “Love’s A Gamble”, you could swear it was one of theirs. That’s the accomplishment Jackson Pines pulls off on this collection: bringing themselves and their musical identity to these old songs. And certainly, that’s the point of folk music and oral tradition. To belabor the point: It is more authentic to make the song your own than it is to adhere to some sort of “standard” or aesthetic, particularly with older music traditions. Same goes for “The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad No. 78).” It’s a tune of mourning and loss going back a hundred years, but it’s also a tune being given new life right now by the group. The flute solo, played by collaborator Max Carmichael, lends that wistful air that we’d associate with the finest Irish folk music.
The fiddle-led instrumental of “Herdman Hymn” is probably the tune that represents the closest the record gets to “traditional” folk of the time and place. “Beulah Land,” based originally (and loosely) on an old hymn from 1876, evokes tent revival imagery, and some great call-and-response singing. The band reprises “Herdman Hymn” at the end of the record, bringing in percussion and stand-up bass, and giving the tune one more chance to take a spin around the room.
“Why are we doing this?” That’s how Mackoviecki starts the announcement of the new album on the band’s website. According to Mackoviecki, he grew tired of answering people who asked, “What even is New Jersey folk, anyways?” “We’d play on,” he says, “But it stuck in my craw for about ten years.” Mackoviecki is an avid fan and student of folk tradition. On a recent appearance on the podcast “Your Next Favorite Band“, he talks about his love of old Alan Lomax recordings, and how there are distinct differences in singing styles based on geography (higher tones up in the mountains, lower tones the closer you get to the river valleys).
A project like Pine Barrens, Volume 1 is in good hands with Jackson Pines. They’ve created a new life for these tunes, showing us that old music and traditions can still have resonance as living, breathing songs, recorded and performed today.