Spuyten Duyvil writes its own tunes but also plays covers of traditional songs, which give a unique spin.
“Twenty percent are modern interpretations of traditional tunes,” Miller said. “We play ‘Shady Grove,’ but we play it in a major key, like a New Orleans second-line tune, as opposed to a mournful, minor key, like an English-Irish ballad.”
They also mash up alternating verses of “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten and “Louis Collins” by Mississippi John Hurt.
Miller said the group’s taste, performance style and values do emphasize one American tradition in particular.
“Old-time music is social music,” he said. “It was the music people played together when they got together either to mourn or celebrate. The music gave voice to their communal experience.
“Whereas bluegrass is really a performance music, it’s a virtuosic music.”
The high level of skill on display in a bluegrass tune, which features a series of solos played at breakneck speed, emphasizes the difference between the audience and performer.
Bluegrass shares that basic structure with big-band jazz tunes, Miller said, while old-time music is more about the group as a whole and its relationship to the audience.
“We use these traditional forms because it’s easier to communicate emotionally,” he said. “The strongest message is that we should spend time together; people should enjoy each other as a community.
“We think of our shows as opportunities for people to get together and enjoy music and find other like-minded people, breaking down the isolation of modern life.”
That message reflects the band’s origins in Yonkers, where they first started playing together on a front porch in 2007.
“The original lineup was all neighbors from an interesting, creative neighborhood with a lot of houses from the 1890s,” Miller said.
The old-fashioned clothes they wear on stage add a touch of theatricality to shows and help create a sense of drama around each song, which helps the audience get involved.