?Music that?s never gone away? 

Parish Ellis has to stop and think for a good minute before he answers my query.

The question I posed: “What’s the strangest response your band has ever received from an audience member?”

Ellis, fingerpicking guitarist for the blissfully anachronistic old-time trio The Wiyos, chuckles to himself – and his bandmates – and says into the phone, “well, we had been on the road for quite some time, travelling in close quarters and crashing on people’s floors. Some guy in a club came up and said, ‘you guys smell like you really love what you do.’”

At that, his compadrés dissolve into laughter, and then moments later, from the din, another voice rings out.

“Tell him about the train...”

“Oh, yeah,” Ellis says with a bemused tone. “Someone wanted to paint us onto the side of a train down in Mississippi.”

It’s an odd offer for anyone to field, but somehow, it seems a fitting tribute to Ellis’ combo. The band, which shares their name with an infamous Irish gang from New York City (circa 1880), is quickly becoming one of the most in-demand old-time groups on the East Coast – and their willingness to approach all manner of pre-war (World War One, that is) American music as merely different limbs on the same body has struck quite a chord.

With a joyous, exuberant sound that draws on rural blues, “hot” jazz, early swing, and Appalachian jug-band music of the 1920s and 1930s for inspiration, The Wiyos’ visages probably wouldn’t seem too awfully out of place on the side of a boxcar rolling slowly through the Delta.

According to the band, that’s their stated goal: to celebrate and revisit a time period before the rampant niche marketing of mass media had reduced popular music to a seemingly endless list of competing genres. Ellis and his bandmates Michael Farkas (washboard) and Joe DeJarnette (upright bass) are equally at home in the signified realm of the Gershwin brothers and Fats Waller as they are in the unrefined hillbilly fervor of the Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson and the near-mythical Skip James.

The three all share an affinity for the musical forms of earlier generations, but according to Ellis, The Wiyos look and sound is not nearly as contrived as some observers might be tempted to assume.

“We kind of fell into it through collaboration. I came to New York from Virginia looking for people to play country blues with. I’d been listening to a lot of Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotten and John Hurt. Michael played blues harmonica and we really gelled the very first time we jammed. He’d been studying old, silent-era physical comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. So, we started listening to swing and stuff from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dixieland jazz like Fletcher Henderson, Bix Biederbecke and King Oliver. Pretty soon that carried over to Django (Reinhardt, the guitarist) and (violinist Stephane) Grappelli. Joe’s been playing old-time bluegrass since I met him in college back in Virginia. He’s good with that whole slap-bass style which has a country or rockabilly feel to it. Our sound now is an amalgam of our different interests.”

I ask Ellis if he thinks we’ll ever see a time in America when popular music forms break the chains of categorization placed on them by commercial concerns.

“I hope that the music industry comes around to that,” he says.

“I certainly can envision that myself. I think we’re exposing people to music that’s never really gone away. It was drinking, dancing and party music in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and we feel like people can – and do – enjoy it just as much today. We not on a mission, or anything like that – but we are passionate about the music, and when we perform, we try to make the crowd that passionate as well.”

Sentient Bean co-owner Kelli Pearson thinks they’re doing a fine job.

“The last time they were here, they wound up with two standing ovations, which is highly unusual for The Bean,” she recalls. “They really know how to create an ambience with their music. They’re really fresh, while still playing traditional, Depression-era songs.”

Ellis says the crowd itself helps to create that ambience.

“I’m a big fan of Savannah, and I’m overjoyed when we get to visit communities where people really appreciate what we’re trying to do. That doesn’t happen in a lot of big cities with huge populations, but that aren’t supportive of the arts. Small towns like Savannah and Asheville, North Carolina, or Johnson City, Tennessee, really blow us away with their level of interest and excitement for the band. If we can find more people like that, it would be perfect.

“My favorite thing about being on the road is going to cool, unique places like Savannah, playing music with new people and learning lots of stuff from them.”


The Wiyos play First Friday for Folk (Friday night, 7:30 pm, Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church), and again at 8 pm, Saturday at The Bean.

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Jim Reed

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