URBANA — Considered one of the world's foremost practitioners of folk, former punk rocker Tim Eriksen has turned his attention to a fictional New England village in more ways than one.
The resident of Amherst, Mass., is writing a doctoral dissertation about music in a fictional New England village called Pumpkintown, specifically about a real-life, 19th-century tradition called "old folks' concerts."
"It's a tradition of old-time singing started by senior citizens in the 1850s," he said. "They were singing music from the late 18th century, from the 1770s to the 1800s, the days of their childhood. It had pretty much been relegated to community and family singing, but they brought it back out in the public again."
And he's performing the music of Pumpkintown. One of his new bands, Trio de Pumpkintown, led by Eriksen, with Zoe Darrow on fiddle and Peter Irvine on percussion, will perform traditional as well as original tunes from Pumpkintown on Wednesday evening in Urbana.
Eriksen described the acoustic songs from Pumpkintown as ranging "from humorous to the terribly sad."
"It's our own take on a number of different kinds of music from New England, including original songs," he said. "The arrangements are pretty novel, and they use a combination of acoustic instruments."
Among them is a glockenspiel, a percussion instrument featuring a set of tuned keys arranged like a piano and similar to the xylophone, yet smaller and higher in pitch, with metal plates or tubes.
A versatile musician, composer and ethnomusicologist, Eriksen said he has always gravitated toward traditional music — and unusual kinds of music.
"Old songs were one of the things that grabbed me when I was a kid," he said. "At the same time, I was interested in playing hard-core punk and experimental music. I taught myself basically how to play and sing all the old songs."
According to a release from the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, Eriksen — perhaps best known for his haunting music for the movie "Cold Mountain," for which he was a music consultant and performer — is acclaimed for transforming American tradition with his "startling" interpretations of old ballads, love songs, shape-note gospel and dance tunes from New England and southern Appalachia.
"He combines hair-raising vocals with inventive accompaniment on banjo, fiddle, guitar and bajo sexto — a 12-string Mexican acoustic bass — creating a distinctive hard-core Americana sound that ranges from the bare bones of solo unaccompanied singing to the lush, multilayered arrangements on 'Josh Billings Voyage,' the new album of multicultural American folk songs from the imaginary New England village of Pumpkintown."
Much of the music on the new CD is inspired by Pumpkintown's diverse early inhabitants: Yankees, Africans, Native Americans, Irish, Scots and Germans.
"Also influential are the sounds of the cotton trade, which brought many of the town's youth to southern India via Zanzibar and back, and there is a good dose of originals about mice, lovers and the apocalypse," according to press material.
Eriksen plays in a couple of other groups, one with British singer, songwriter and fiddler Eliza Carthy, and the other a Czech band in the Czech Republic, where Eriksen has taught. He also has taught in Poland.
In addition, Eriksen plays in the band Batteries Die, which he called a multimedia ensemble that does experimental music. At one point, Eriksen performed 200 concerts a year. He estimates he now plays fewer than 100, mainly because he has a family and is busy with other projects.
He continues to write music occasionally for movies. The documentary, "Behold the Earth," to be released next year, features some of his music, including traditional and original songs.
He's also working on a project with artists in England that will involve a magic lantern show with live music, performed along remote locations in the hills. Those concerts will be simulcast in a London gallery, and a film of the project will be made.
But for now he's having fun touring with the Trio de Pumpkintown. He sees that band as an ongoing project, one that will perhaps include a theatrical element in the future.
"It's really tremendous fun and a new, different direction for me musically," he said. "It's more collaborative. There's more opportunity for invention and for storytelling and humor. And it's also just fun to be playing with a band again."
If you go
What: Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival presents Trio de Pumpkintown, featuring Tim Eriksen, and opening act The Young and the Fretless, a local string band
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Iron Post, 120 S. Race St., U