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(Above: Justin Townes Earle performs the joyous/sorrowful “Harlem River Blues” for David Letterman.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

While he was living in Los Angeles in the throes of addiction, songwriter Steve Earle reached out to his son Justin, who was living with his mom in Nashville.

“I had very little contact with my dad growing up,” Justin Townes Earle said, “but once a month I’d get a package in the mail full of records.”

Steve Earle was a country sensation at the time, building on the success of his albums “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” but the albums he mailed his son bore little relation to ones he was making.

“I guarantee you I was the first kid in Nashville to have Nirvana’s ‘Bleach,’ because I got it from my dad in ’89 when it first came out,” Earle said. “I had all the AC/DC albums … Mudhoney. I got Ice Cube’s ‘Lethal Injection’ from my father.”

A few years later, the elder Earle — now clean of his addictions — offered some musical advice to his son: Write what you know and write honestly. By this time Justin Townes Earle, 14, had discovered the music native to his hometown.

“I took that advice and ran with it,” Earle said. “I’m the type of person who, once you point me in the right direction, just leave me alone and let me go.”

Earle plays the Bottleneck in Lawrence tonight. Fifteen years have passed since his songwriting career began, and although he suffered some of the same dark periods of substance abuse his father endured, Earle has persevered. He has released an album a year since 2007, each building on the last.

“My albums have been a conscious progression,” Earle said. “ ‘Yuma’ was me addressing my Woody Guthrie thing. ‘The Good Life’ addressed the honky-tonk ghost. With ‘Midnight at the Movies’ I was trying to push to the weirder side of folk, and then on ‘Harlem River Blues’ I was going for more of the gospel and blues.”

Last year’s “Harlem River Blues” opens with what may be the standout track in Earle’s impressive catalog, an upbeat, jaunty gospel number … about suicide by drowning.

“That song initially came from something I remembered when reading the ‘Basketball Diaries’ when I was young,” Earle said. “Jim Carroll and his buddies were the toughest kids in New York because they’d jump off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”

The darker elements draw on Earle’s days as a homeless junkie. Shortly after being fired from his father’s band in the early 2000s, Earle spent two years on the streets in perpetual search for the next fix.

“Because I am a drug addict, I have friends with fairly miserable lives and a few who actually took their own lives,” Earle said. “I talked with one friend about eight hours before he did it (killed himself) and as he told me his plan. I saw a look of ease on his face I’d never seen. It was what he wanted to do and why the song has a celebratory feeling.”

Barely 29, Earle feels like he has already lived several lifetimes. He quit school at 14 and ran off with some other budding songwriters at 16. A near-death experience hastened the start of his recovery from hard substances, although Earle still smokes and just swore off alcohol.

“The album ‘Harlem River Blues’ is about a man in his late 20s realizing he’s human and slowing down. The invincible part of my 20s are over,” Earle said. “I’ve run the gamut. There’s something about drugs that make you realize how delicate life is.”

Most of Earle’s immediate future will be consumed with touring, but he plans to take several weeks in October to record his next album. After that he’s moving from New York City to Europe for three years.

“I want to go to Barcelona on weekends and Paris for dinner,” Earle said. “I’ve been to Barcelona three times on tour but have never been to the beach. I want to spend a month in Marrakech. I just want to take in as much as I can.”

Thursday’s show will be Earle’s first appearance in the area since he opened for Levon Helm at the Crossroads in July, a night Earle calls “one of my favorite shows of all time.”

“I had done a couple shows with Levon prior to that night, but because his voice was bad he didn’t sing,” Earle said. “After my set I walked out and ordered a couple drinks from the bar at the right side of the stage. When the band kicked into ‘Ophelia’ and I heard that voice, I dropped my drinks and ran to the side of the stage.

“I didn’t move for the rest of the night.”

Keep reading:

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

Woody Guthrie – “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

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(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

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Above: Students at the Berklee School of Music break down the Roots’ “Water.”

By Joel Francis

The New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff participated in a very enlightening Q and A with readers yesterday. It seems Kansas City jazz fans, like our friend at Plastic Sax, aren’t the only ones obsessed about the state of the genre.

Several people asked Ratliff why jazz didn’t have a bigger audience, what the media’s responsibility is to promote jazz to a larger audience, if there is a stigma against jazz in mainstream culture and, most bluntly, whether jazz was dead.

Similarly, several readers were concerned about the legacy of today’s jazz artists. They asked which contemporary artists have the best potential to join the pantheon of innovators like Miles and Duke, and whether the current crop of players are pioneers or regurgitators. One bold reader actually called out the elephant likely hiding behind many of these questions. “Pretty much all jazz sounds the same today,” he said.

It seems that just as baseball fans can’t wait to compare Albert Pujols to Stan Musial, jazzheads love debating the merits of John Medeski to Jimmy Smith or Joshua Redman to Sonny Rollins. They (we) are forever insecure that our moment in the sun won’t measure up to the established legacy. They are right. Just as no contemporary president will be as lauded as the Founding Fathers, and no slugging outfield can surpass Babe Ruth’s mythology, there is no way that the abilities of Jaco Pastorius or Christian McBride can exceed the monumental achievements of Charlie Mingus and Ray Brown.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t all be enjoyed. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove hasn’t redefined the instrument the way Louis Armstrong did in the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but I think his playing on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” is inventive and unique. There is no comparison between the works, because they can’t be compared. They exist in different worlds. And questions about “is it jazz” are as silly and insignificant as whether or not poker or Nascar are sports. It doesn’t matter.

One of the elements I enjoy most about jazz is watching how it absorbed in reinterpreted in new contexts. One can hear the free jazz influence of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders in both the Stooges and the Soft Machine, but what they did with it was drastically different.

Ironically, “fans” might be the only ones worrying or arguing about these issues. Just as Hargrove had no problem working with Common and D’Angelo, I’m sure Ron Carter didn’t hesitate before recording with A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star. Artists make art, not distinctions.

To these ears, pieces like “Water” from the Roots’ album “Phrenology” or Mos Def’s “Modern Marvel” from “The New Danger” embody the spirit of jazz as much as anything Rudy Van Gelder recorded for Impulse or Blue Note.

Just as folk music survived the birth of the electric guitar (and Bob Dylan plugging in), and Sacred Harp has peacefully coexisted with gospel, jazz will survive. It will not be preserved in amber, but it is too indelible to be erased from American culture.

Although Ratliff’s answers were thoughtful and informative, he failed to pass along one key piece of advice to the Chicken Littles so worried about the future of their art: Pick up a horn and do it yourself.

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Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

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Indigo Girls

Kaw Valley Independent (Lawrence, Kan.)

By Joel Francis

It is impossible for the Indigo Girls to separate their music from their activism. Their 90-minute set at the Lied Center last week not only brought out the fans, but the plight of Leonard Peltier, the American Buffalo and environmental issues.
The Girls opened their set with a moving version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that featured Emily Saliers on piano and Amy Ray on guitar. After the song the duo yielded the stage to Winona LaDuke, Honor the Earth project director. They returned aided only by accordion and piano player Carol Issacs for an all-acoustic set that included “Get Out the Map,” “Power of Two” and a reworking of “Go” that did not lose any of its electricity despite being unplugged.
The Girls also premiered two new tracks, “Devotion” and “Leaving,” that were released on the new best-of “Retrospective.” The crowd responded enthusiastically and sang along like they were old standards.
“We put two brand new songs on (the collection) because we wanted the fans to have something new,” Saliers said in telephone interview the day before the concert. “Picking the songs for the new album wasn’t nearly as difficult as putting together 1,200 Curfews, our live album. We just picked songs that we liked and we both agreed on it together.”
The set climaxed with “Kid Fears” when supporting act Shawn Mullins and reprised the vocals originally recorded by Michael Stipe. The trio’s voices blended and danced around the room leaving the audience awestruck. Later, on “Galileo,” Ray and Saliers yielded the mic to the crowd, who didn’t miss a beat or a lyric.
The Girls closed a jubilant night on the Honor the Earth Tour on a bill shared with Mullins and the all-Native American blues band Indigenous, each of whom received standing ovations at the end of their sets.
“The Honor the Earth tour is something Amy and I have been doing for almost seven years now,” Saliers said. “It has very specific social, political focuses that have to do with environmental issues on Native lands.”
This year’s issues included the slaughter of buffalos in Yellowstone Park and nuclear waste dumping on Native American land.
“It’s impossible to be an environmentalist and not consider indigenous issues,” Saliers said. “I think Americans need to see what kind of environmental racism is going on in impoverished communities and the responsibility for the nuclear industry to take care of its waste.”
To show their willingness to put their money where their mouths (or hearts) are, the Indigo Girls have released another new track, “Pt. Hope.” The song was recorded live in Atlanta and is available only by download at Indigogirls.com for $3.60.
“Three dollars of that money goes to Honor the Earth,” Saliers said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful song that Amy wrote that deals with a lot of the issues that we’re covering on the tour.”
The Indigo Girls are not slowing down once the Honor the Earth tour wraps up. Ray will release her first solo record in February. Both Girls will return to the studio in May to record their ninth album. Saliers said the new album would have an intimate sound and return to their acoustic roots.
“We don’t want to belabor over this record,” Saliers said. “We just want to write strong songs and get in there and do it in a way that’s pure and catch the emotion of the songs.”
That emotion was undeniable on Saturday night.
“We’re passionate about these issues. If you’re going to write a song, you have to write about something you’re really thinking about or feeling,” Saliers said. “We’re activists and we come from the question of what can be done to help rectify a bad situation”

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