Essential New Music: Magic Tuber Stringband’s “Tarantism”

The 21st century may seem rough, but we really do live in kinder, gentler times. In our era, a character who feels compelled to dance can be portrayed as the hero of their community in a blockbuster animated motion picture. But in centuries past, if you were seized with tarantism (the compulsion to dance), there was no Happy Feet for you. Sufferers were deemed to be possessed with a madness that could only be treated by prescription of the symptom: You had to dance it out.

Still, we aren’t free of the afflictions of early times. Tarantism was conceived and recorded in a time of plague. During the spring of 2020, Courtney Werner and Evan Morgan retreated to Hayesville, N.C. (pop. 311). While the duo known as Magic Tuber Stringband waited out the lockdown, they made this record. Mindful of the world’s insanity and confusion, they referenced the troubles of earlier times. To date, Werner and Morgan have mined the vein of musical ore opened up by Henry Flynt, Pelt and their tributary ensembles and associates, synthesizing the ringing sonorities of Appalachian string-band music and American minimalism.

That’s still very much a part of Magic Tuber Stringband’s practice, and those elements prove to be handy tools when addressing the tenor of these times. Tarantism opener “Trumpet Of The Dead” is a Piedmont waltz that belies the bleakness of its title with a cheery air, as though those who have shuffled off their mortal coil feel nothing but joy at being so called. The scraped cello and huffing shruti box of “Ruah,” on the other hand, sets its compass for the heart of the drone.

But this time, Werner and Morgan have also thrown a bit of Southern Italian folk into the mix, stepping lively on “Tarantella,” which happens to be the dance that was supposed to cure tarantism. This positions Magic Tuber Stringband as healers of our time, ready to revive ancient cures in order to bring us back to our better selves.

—Bill Meyer