Bumper KP

A Brief Synopsis of Northern Arms

Nearing the end of my third year as station director for WNLW Pittsburgh I received an envelope with a Philadelphia return address from an outfit calling themselves Northern Arms. This was late fall of 2006. Inside I found an unlabeled cassette tape as well as a short letter explaining that upon hearing a recent three hour program on our station in which the show was divided equally between the history of sacred harp music and the scarcely catalogued tradition of shaker hymns, the gentlemen of the group, who I later learned were only two, felt that I may find their music suitable for programming.

Unfortunately, there was no longer a cassette player in existence on WNLW premises on which I could review any work. Groups had ceased using the format some time ago and so all compatible equipment had been dismantled or donated elsewhere. I ended up setting the envelope aside for nearly a month until a week after Christmas when I took a ride to the suburb of Lower Burell where my younger brother Lou was living in a rented room on Wayne Street. In those days he was the owner of a spent Honda with a tape deck in working order. And so we sat after his shift that night in the near vacant lot of Wildlife Lanes and hit the play button while drinking coffee and staring at the numerous splits and chips in the windshield.

My introduction to Northern Arms began with a faint hiss that was soon overcome by a single organ note followed by what sounded like an executioner’s drum being slowly beaten with a two by four accompanied by the sparse strumming of nylon strings. And then there were voices; throats would be a better description, a battalion of throats that rang forth in a stark resonance that seemed to flood the vehicle like an oily wave. There were certainly traces of religious influence in the unified howl and the pulsing simplicity of the instrumentation. And yet it wasn’t gospel. There was no joy in the choral attack and the speed of delivery was akin to that of a funeral dirge. Upon later reflection I began to recognize a construction of layers made present in each piece that I feel now could be justly compared to the annual running of the salmon; a time when the species exit the ocean and swim to the upper reaches of rivers where countless numbers are impaled mid journey by hovering talon or probing claw. As the tape wore on I became increasingly aware of an aquatic hush, barely audible, lurking beneath the surface; an ethereal rising that seemed to enter mid-piece and swell accordingly, not unlike the migration of those gill-bearing travelers from oceans deep to the violent rapids. And above it all there remained this choir of groans and declaration, of conviction without sentiment. An ensemble of voice bearing no signs of sadness, only traces of guilt, and the will to endure by any means necessary.

When back in Pittsburg my attempt to make contact with those calling themselves Northern Arms proved unsuccessful. I was on board for airing the songs, provided they could send a file or compact disc as opposed to the original tape. Yet when I dialed the number on the cassette I received nothing more than a short recording informing me that the line had been disconnected. I sent a letter to the address given and heard nothing in reply. Not word one. Then comes the middle of August 2012 when I receive a forwarded envelope at home. WNLW closed its doors due to lack of funding in early 2009. Any hard mail sent to the former station, which isn’t often, is automatically directed to me. It was a letter from Northern Arms. They wished to thank me for the kind words I had sent five years ago and proposed that I write a brief biography of the group. A request I found odd as my knowledge of the gentleman is made up of nothing more than the few recording’s they sent that November as well as what I could gather from a friend in Mount Lebanon who tells me he caught a New Year’s Eve show they performed some years ago in Philadelphia. He spoke of homemade contraptions in place of percussion and lighting so dim that at times all that could be seen upon the stage were teeth. And yes, he assured me the choir was still intact. When I inquired as to their appearance, his answer was that to him they looked like ministers that had nowhere to sleep.
Salmon are born in the river, and then swim out to sea where they live their adult lives only to return with uncanny precision to the natal waters of their birth. Those who survive the migration will spawn on beds of gravel and perish soon thereafter. And though I write this for Northern Arms, I know nothing of Northern Arms; who they are or where they are headed. Yet Judging solely on the sound of that strained and ghostly chorus, it will be upriver and against the bears all the way.

Jack Hirsch