The crowd cheers as three musicians settle into one of their favorite tunes. People standing shoulder-to-shoulder clap, stomp and sing along as the banjo-picker croons and the acoustic guitarist at his side sings the accompaniment: “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door/And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.” The upright-bass player in the faded baseball cap thumps away as the room full of twentysomethings move to the lyrics. “Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor/And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
The Tillers, a Cincinnati-based folk trio, specialize in creating scenes one might expect to have seen during the Great Depression, if not for the tattooed punk rockers sprinkled throughout the crowd and the listeners on cellphones in the back. “I Ain’t Got No Home”–one of several Woody Guthrie melodies featured in this show–was first recorded about seventy years ago. But considering the sky-high number of foreclosed houses the recent economic crisis has spawned across the country, the music is eerily relevant today.
When The Tillers sing union hymns like “Which Side Are You On,” they do so with an awareness of the history behind the songs. “Playing folk music, you have to be just as much a historian as a musician,” banjo player and vocalist Mike Oberst says. “A lot of the things that were going on then are going on just the same now,” guitarist Sean Geil says. So their fans sing along passionately when The Tillers sing, “Us poor folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize.”
As part of America’s progressive folk tradition, The Tillers demonstrate that the political left has long been essential to the country’s cultural fabric–even in those parts of the country that Sarah Palin might call the “real” America. The Tillers remind their young listeners that folk icons like Woody Guthrie were actually hardcore left-wingers. Artists like Lead Belly, Guthrie and Pete Seeger fiercely fought for progressive causes and later passed the torch to musicians like Bob Dylan.
The Tillers’ banjo and fiddle player Michael Oberst began playing folk music with guitarist Sean Geil in 2007; soon after, they recruited bassist Jason Soudrette. The group had previously played in punk rock bands, but their love for history and the “old-time” music of the ’30s and ’40s made them set aside their electric guitars for banjos, fiddles and harmonica racks. The three musicians believe part of their mission is to teach people about the history of labor struggle in America, often peppering their shows with stories about coal mines and dust-bowl farmers. They hope to build the same sense of community that drove people to organize against economic injustice generations ago.
The Times They Are a-‘Changin’
Many folk musicians and scholars divide the American folk tradition into two camps. The “rural” side is rooted primarily in social gatherings and draws from the diverse cultural backgrounds of ordinary Americans; the banjo and some of the blues-inspired song structures have African origins, while other instruments and dances originated from the Irish and German roots of Appalachian immigrants. Yasha Aginsky, a documentarian of traditional music and its origins, explains that rural folk music wasn’t used explicitly for political purposes, but that because “it was everybody’s music,” it was inherently political. “It was the voice of the oppressed and poor people that crossed racial and religious boundaries,” he says.
The other side of American folk music–the “urban” side–came to life in the ’30s and ’40s. Artists from big cities with classical music backgrounds stumbled upon the songs being played by “folk” in rural settings and were drawn to the raw authenticity of it. Many “urban” folk singers quickly took up the political goals of labor organizing and fighting racial segregation. Artists like Seeger, Bess Lomax Hawes, Lee Hays and Guthrie formed a group called the Almanac Singers, which explicitly aimed to mobilize working-class people for better workplace conditions and a fair wage.
In the blacklisting days of the postwar period, musicians like Guthrie and the Almanacs fell out of favor. But in the ’60s urban folk was revived as a political force. People like Odetta Holmes, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and, of course, Dylan, became musical and cultural leaders in the civil rights movement and campaigns against the Vietnam War.
Political and Personal
The Tillers draw from both folk traditions but always return to the theme of economic justice, which for them still means expressing solidarity with workers by emphasizing fair wages and a decent quality of life for everyday people.
Oberst grows somber when he talks about his own family’s history with coal companies. In the late ’40s his grandfather, an Indiana farmer, signed away his farm to representatives of the Sunlight Coal Company who were intimidating farmers into selling their land for mining. When Oberst’s grandfather finally signed away his farm, he was given far less in payment than he was promised. He had no choice but to move his parents and young family into the drafty, rat-infested shack the company left them. When Oberst’s uncle died three years ago, he was still in litigation, trying to settle the score with the coal company. Now Oberst’s father has taken up the case.
As old political issues have morphed into new ones, folk artists have adapted, too. War and recession have played a role in the prominence of some of the most politically charged folk offerings from artists like Ani DiFranco and Rage Against the Machine’s acclaimed guitarist, Tom Morello. Since the social movements of the ’60s, urban folk musicians have taken up a variety of causes, from nuclear disarmament to immigrants’ rights. Environmentalism has also become one of the most popular causes among folk musicians.
Given the number of songs they play about being penniless and itinerant, it isn’t surprising that The Tillers have done their part by performing at homelessness benefits. In addition to food and clothing drives, their musical interest in coal mining songs led to an interest in current mining issues. They recently worked with Ohio Citizen’s Action to combat mountaintop removal.
In 1965 Dylan caused an uproar among fans when he decided to “go electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. The Tillers have taken a sort of reverse journey, choosing to leave the distorted guitars of punk rock and “go acoustic.” And they aren’t alone.
Dick Weissman, a folk musician and author of several books on folk music history, says that The Tillers are part of a national trend toward acoustic styles. “There is something of a shift,” Weissman says, citing a variety of artists who have recently demonstrated a clear movement toward folk from past careers dominated by electric rock or punk. Some of these artists include Wilco, Bruce Springsteen and Monsters of Folk (fronted by Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes).
Mark Utley, leader of another Cincinnati-based folk band called Magnolia Mountain, followed a similar path away from punk rock. The two groups have forged a close friendship. Utley formed his band around the same time as The Tillers and has performed with the other former punk rockers frequently over the past several years. Like The Tillers, Utley was drawn to more acoustic styles because of the music’s warmth and humanity.
Both Progressive and Traditional
It’s a mild autumn night, and The Tillers are practicing on Mike Oberst’s back porch in Cincinnati, as they do every Monday night. Frogs and crickets send alternating chirps into the darkness from the nearby woods as the smoke of the three men’s cigarettes rises slowly from the guitar-shaped ashtray on the floor. Oberst and Geil have put aside their instruments to rehearse a yodel they’re having trouble harmonizing. “It’s screwing up my equilibrium,” Geil says. Oberst references one of his favorite rap songs, “Liberation,” to encourage his band mate. “You just got to ‘shake that load off,’ like Outkast,” he says.
Moments like these explain why The Tillers describe themselves as “both progressive and traditional.” “We’re also a product of the ’90s and pop music,” Geil says. “It’s a little more catchy than traditional music is.” Their original tunes often add subtle modern flourishes that come from other styles they listen to, from punk to hip-hop.
The specific blend The Tillers create has generated an extremely wide fan base. While they started off playing for change on street corners, they now perform everywhere from concert venues and bars, to elementary schools and nursing homes. One of their biggest fans is Lillie, Oberst’s 4-year-old neighbor, who listens to them practice from her open window.
In July, Tom Brokaw featured The Tillers on his USA show, American Character: Along Route 50. The former NBC news anchor told them he was particularly fond of the song “There Is a Road (Route 50),” from their debut album; the song was inspired by the road that runs near their homes.
Cultural diversity occasionally sparks political disagreements. When Geil learned that Brokaw might be bringing a film crew to The Music Shoppe, where he teaches guitar and banjo lessons, Geil’s boss–a conservative–was livid. “Well, I don’t want that motherfucker in here,” Geil recalls the older man saying. “[He’s a] fucking liberal anyway.” Geil felt compelled to respond. “You know you got liberals teaching in your shop?” he said. “There’s more liberals coming in here than you think!”
But The Tillers are determined not to let politics get in the way of their relationships. To them, folk music is about forging a sense of community. That includes the hipsters, the punks, the toe-tapping 60-year-old country fans, Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, Hispanics and whomever else they attract.
The Tillers just finished their second album, By The Signs, which was released this month on their independent label, Chestnut Tree Records. Unlike their first album, which relied largely on Guthrie covers and other union hymns, much of their latest album features original “old-time” songs. The lyrics cover a range of topics: romance, religious redemption, war and ecological destruction.
The new tune that best describes The Tillers’ current philosophy was actually written for them by Utley–their friend from Magnolia Mountain. Titled “There Is Enough,” the single laments the greed destroying America’s economy but also delivers a hopeful message about how everyone can share in the world’s wealth: “From the east Kentucky coal mines to the California sunshine/There is enough for us all.”