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Visiting the Folks | The Nation

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Visiting the Folks

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I was born by a Kerouac stream under Eisenhower skies
         --John Gorka

The New Folk Movement is now about twenty years old, and John Gorka is one of its leading voices, along with peers like Nanci Griffith and newer arrivals like Ani DiFranco. Over nearly two decades, Gorka has honed his warm baritone and offbeat songwriting skills with 200-days-a-year touring. His fine new album, The Company You Keep (Red House), is a characteristically bittersweet disc, understated but sharpened by deft word usage and a grasp of life's conundrums and paradoxes.

Gorka fits contemporary notions of a folk musician. He was a history and philosophy major in college, and got his performing start at coffeehouses in the late 1970s. His tunes are self-reflective, wry, pungent, pessimistic but unwilling to despair; they have titles like "Joint of No Return" and "Wisheries." In "What Was That," he sings, "Guess I'd better get back up/Get up off the ground again/Guess I'm really not so tough/Up is farther than it's ever been." And up he goes, discarding regret and clearing a space for whatever future he faces.

His country-tinged group has tasty yet simple arrangements, augmented with guest vocals by DiFranco and Lucy Kaplansky and Mary Chapin Carpenter. He's got real range, from on-point satire ("People My Age," which mocks baby-boomer elective plastic surgery) to playful ("Around the House"). And like older generations of folk musicians, he uses found material. The lyrics for "Let Them In" come from an unknown soldier in a World War II military hospital; God tells St. Peter to "Give them things they like/Let them make some noise/Give roadhouse bands, not golden harps/To these our boys."

The Eisenhower years saw the beginnings of the postwar folk revival; it gathered strength and followers in the 1960s. Maria Muldaur was part of it; her funky Greenwich Village apartment at the time often hosted other scene-makers, like John Sebastian. (Check out The Lovin' Spoonful Greatest Hits [BMG/Buddha], a wonderful CD of Sebastian's mid-1960s folk-blues-pop quartet issued last year; its only flaw is incompleteness.) This was the first generation of white kids exploring the folk blues, the language invented by dispossessed rural black America that underpins this country's music. Many went on Kerouac-like journeys in search of the originals, turned some up and then recorded them, resuscitating their careers. Their new audience of white college kids on campuses and in coffeehouses was a far cry from the plantations and street corners and juke joints where the music was created.

The rediscovery of rural blues roughly paralleled the rise of the mass civil rights movement, and reflected it. Blues seemed a true folk music, in the original German sense of the word: a manifestation of something fundamental and authentic about a people. Inevitably, some revivalists had a few misguided notions about authenticity, putting acoustic guitars in the hands of electric-blues masters like Muddy Waters. And yet they also knew what they wanted. Blues material certainly couldn't have been less like Tin Pan Alley's: Love may be a central theme for both, but the blues' gritty realism, with its raw sex and violence and irony and humor, exposed the superficiality of 1950s American pop. It let listeners step outside America's conformity. Not coincidentally, it also let them see black people as cultural heroes--a dramatic reversal of racist stereotypes.

Muldaur has always admired Memphis Minnie, one of the few folk-blues musicians who happened to be a woman. Minnie played mean guitar and wrote lustily double-entendre songs about the life she led. Her "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," with the signature lick that Chuck Berry swiped decades later for "You Can't Catch Me," is among the best moments on Muldaur's twenty-fifth album, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain). Age has deepened and coarsened the lilting flutters that shaped Muldaur's girlish voice, but to compensate she's developed heft and power. Maybe it's the spirit she's found in the largely African-American church she attends. Whatever the cause, she both evokes her idols and makes their music her own; her emotional identification with them enriches nearly all of these fourteen songs.

Like Gorka's, this disc gathers like-minded souls, a community joined by music and history. Sebastian's nimble John Hurt-inspired fingerpicking backs Muldaur on the opening cut, and the list spins on from there: Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Tracy Nelson (whose duet with Muldaur, "Far Away Blues," is riveting and heartbreaking) and Bonnie Raitt. With Angela Strehli, Muldaur reprises the Bessie and Clara Smith classic, "My Man Blues," where two women, discovering they're sharing a man unwittingly, agree to continue the triad "on the cooperation plan," since they like how things are. The fluent piano behind them is courtesy of Dave Matthews.

History has been kind to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The original jubilee-style quintet met in 1939, at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, which they snuck out of to sing at a nearby military base. By the 1950s, the peak years of the "gospel highway," the church-based circuit that produced stars like Sam Cooke, they were shouters recording hits for Art Rupe's prestigious Specialty label. These top-tier, soul-rending performances are collected on Oh Lord--Stand by Me (Specialty).

In 1983 they were "rediscovered" in the electrifying remake of Sophocles called The Gospel at Colonnus; the musical hit Broadway in 1988. Now they've opened for rock superstars like Tom Petty and have headlined at the House of Blues chain. It sure ain't church, but in the wondrous way of art, the Blind Boys transform everything they perform into a forum for testifying. Clarence Fountain's massive voice is a monument in motion; few other than bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf match his raw timbre and full-lunged forcefulness.

Spirit of the Century (Real World) deliberately crosses gospel with blues, sacred with profane. It joins the three remaining Blind Boys with 1960s-vintage roots diggers like veteran guitarist David Lindley and blues harp great Charlie Musselwhite, who led one of the earliest and best 1960s electric-blues revival bands. They infuse Tom Waits's off-kilter "Jesus Gonna Be Here" with fearsome fervor, and deepen the resonances of Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home." And they set "Amazing Grace" to the music of that whorehouse anthem popularized in the 1960s, "House of the Rising Sun." Though he's reimagined himself into something sui generis, Tom Waits has self-evident blues roots. In the early 1970s, he opened for an undersung hero of the 1960s folk-blues revival. Back then, John Hammond was known as John Hammond Jr.; his famous father, the leftist Vanderbilt scion who'd made his name "discovering" and recording black musical talents from Bessie Smith to Charlie Christian, the man who signed Bob Dylan to a major label, was still alive and looming.

The younger Hammond has never reached mass audiences, but some of his students, like an ex-sideman named Jimi Hendrix who worked with him at the seminal Cafe Wha? in the Village, did. Hammond mastered a dizzying variety of folk-blues styles and performed hundreds of old blues, back when the stuff was hard to impossible to find on disc. White kids were scrounging through attics and flea markets and the like searching for old blues records, trying to piece together biographies, compiling oral history and field recordings--work that, along with the Lomax field recordings for the Smithsonian, unearthed most of what we know about blues today.

Long underrated or simply overlooked, Hammond serves up Wicked Grin (Pointblank), and it's a marvelous treat: In a way, it's this year's second Tom Waits disc. That's not a putdown. Old friend Waits produced this edgy album; he also penned and plays on twelve of its thirteen songs. Backed by other roots veterans like keyboardist Augie Meyers, Hammond makes Waits's surreal, character-driven tunes more emphatically bluesy, and Waits endows each song with a sound that evokes different original blues recordings. It's a more creative use of the blues than most have come up with in years. And dig Waits's open-lunged gravel voice dueting with Hammond on the spiritual "I Know I've Been Changed."

Since he joined the Yardbirds, then John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and became the Godhead of the 1960s British blues revival, which paralleled the folk and blues revivals in America, Eric Clapton has changed fairly constantly, yet remained recognizably the same. That, after all, is how superstardom works. One of the biggest shifts came thirty years ago, when he was touring with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and they taught him to sing for real. His next album, with Derek and the Dominos (PolyGram), showcased his heartbreak, his suddenly raunchy vocals and his slash-and-burn band featuring slide guitarist Duane Allman.

In the decades since, Clapton has made a few good, even great albums and a pile of slush. Last year's much-heralded outing with B.B. King sounded haphazard and undercooked--a shame, really, given what it could have been. By contrast, Reptile (Reprise) is a keeper, reminiscent in style and pacing to the classic album he made as Derek. During recording, his uncle died. Raised by his grandmother, Clapton had grown up thinking his uncle was his brother. His uncle's favorite term of endearment gave this disc its name. On it, Clapton tours his past with consistent conviction, and his guitar is spry and sharp and ready to slice almost everywhere. He taps oldies like "Got You on My Mind," which gets a nice Jimmy Reed-ish blues treatment, and covers Stevie Wonder and Isley Brothers hits. "Travelin' Light," the latest installment in his ongoing J.J. Cale tributes, is stuffed with rheumy guitars snarling. But "Come Back Baby," his Ray Charles tribute, is the show-stopper. Clapton's overdriven guitar blazes and curdles the clichés of his millions of imitators, and his voice exposes just how rich and craggy it has grown to be. Brother Ray could still outchurch him without too much pain, but Clapton makes us believe he's got us gathered, swaying, in Charles's pews, to the music compounded of the sinful blues and heavenly gospel, the music called soul.

Over a decade ago, Clapton covered Robert Cray's "Bad Influence" and gave the now-multiple Grammy winner an early boost. Cray started mixing blues and soul with touches of jazz in 1974, working the circuit relentlessly; older bluesmen like Albert Collins and Muddy Waters championed his updated sound and lyrics. As time went on, he pumped up his soul-music aspect, deliberately extending the tradition of singer-guitarists like Little Milton and the B.B. King of "The Thrill Is Gone."

On Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc), Cray's limber voice and spiky guitar once again merge blues and r&b with Memphis soul, with profitable results. Cray is well-known for tackling topics he sees as contemporary versions of the blues. "The 12 Year Old Boy" may even attract the unholy mob of politically correct leftists and Lynne Cheney followers who've climbed on Eminem's back, much as they would have onto Elvis Presley's. In this hard blues, Cray suggests ways to avoid having a preteen rival steal your lover: "If a young boy hangs around you/You should do what I shoulda did/Send him over to your neighbor's/And hope your neighbor likes kids."

Cray writes lyrics that tell stories, and storytelling is one reason I, like Charlie Parker, dig country music as well as blues. Which brings me to Charley Pride. Pride was a black star in country music in the 1960s, at the height of the whitebread "Nashville Sound," and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.

It's often been said that country music is white folks' blues, but that's what Pride always sang. In the midst of sharecropped Mississippi fields, he hugged his radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Not good enough for the ballplayer career he wanted, he went into the Army, became a smelter and moved his family to Montana, where he sang part time and caught the attention of touring Nashville stars. Chet Atkins signed him, released his first album without a picture, and started the hits rolling.

Country Legends (BMG/Buddha) collects them. Some, like "Snakes Crawl at Night," are period curiosities. There are solid genre efforts: the wistful look home ("Wonder Could I Live There Anymore"), infidelity ("Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger"). There's a tribute, a nice version of Hank Williams's classic "Honky Tonk Blues." There's his biggest hit, "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," a tune whose hooky bounce always makes me grin as it offers advice to "kiss an angel good morning/and love her like the devil when you get back home." And there's "I'm Just Me," to which you can add racial inferences, if you like: "Some want more and more's a-getting less/I just want what I got/Some wanna live up on a hill and others down by the sea/Some wanna live behind high walls/I just wanna live free."

The panorama that is American folk music opens in all directions on guitarist Bill Frisell's latest, most far-reaching album, Blues Dream (Nonesuch). For years now, Frisell has been integrating elements of jazz, folk, blues, new music, rock, pop, parlor tunes, you name it, into his musical quest. Unlike too many of his contemporaries, though, he's been trying to distill them into something of his own; he's not trying to slap together yet another postmodern slag heap of influences. With Blues Dream, he's succeeded incredibly.

The album charts many paths across the American landscape. The tremolo-shimmery title track is a brief minor-mode intro, an evocation of post-Kind of Blue Miles Davis. Track two, "Ron Carter," named for the great 1960s Davis bassist, opens with metallic horn squiggles that wind over a brief bass ostinato and off-kilter guitar licks, then builds with horns and overdriven guitar solos. It evokes and updates 1960s experimentalism--no mean feat--as do the rest of the album's tracks.

Music has one big advantage over the real world: Resolution is always possible, if you want it. Take "The Tractor." It kicks off as backporch bluegrass, drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist David Piltch laying down a shuffle behind Frisell's arpeggiated rhythms, sometimes doubling Greg Leisz's mandolin. Suddenly a snaky, slightly dissonant horn section slices across it. With each chorus, the fine section--trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxist Billy Drewes and trumpeter Ron Miles--connects the riffs, filling in until they're almost continuous, a Monkish counterpoint to hillbilly jazz heaven. It's a brilliant work, a wondrous musical portrait of a melting pot or tossed salad or whatever metaphor you prefer for the multiracial, multicultural place America has never, in sad reality, managed to become.

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