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.