For Jesse: Defying Gravity

For Jesse: Defying Gravity

Jesse Winchester in 2011

Jesse Winchester in 2011

In 1967, opposed to the Vietnam War, Jesse Winchester boarded an plane for Montreal instead, rather than join the military and fight in Vietnam. He spent the next 35 years in Canada, an exile of conscience and citizen of a new country.  This morning I opened the Guardian to read that he had died, aged 69, of cancer.

Learn to Love It

The third album – Learn to Love It

Jesse Winchester wasn’t a protest singer like Phil Ochs, and his songs rarely reflected his political views.  Most people I speak to have never heard his name, but somewhere along the line I picked up on his songs – many of them quiet and lovely painterly evocations of the life he had left behind in the South or meditations on the mysteries of life and love.  In fact, it was one of the latter – the wistful ‘Defying Gravity’ from his third album Learn to Love It that first held my attention and which has remained an mp3 player and car journey playlist staple ever since:

I live on a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
And even one day if I do
Well, I’ll jump off and smile back at you

I don’t even know where we are
They tell you we’re circling a star
Well, I’ll take their word, I don’t know
But I’m dizzy so it may be so

I’m riding a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
But one day the high must lay low
So when I do fall I’ll be glad to go
Yeah, when I do fall I’ll be glad to go


Jesse wasn’t a musician when he went to Canada, but unable to get a steady job he drifted into music, joining a French-language band in Quebec. He settled in Montreal, where he married and began to raise a family, living his life in French – a language that was familiar from his former life, born in Louisiana  and growing up in Mississippi.

Soon, though, he would take to piano or guitar, and the songs that emerged were reveries of the land he had left behind, forever it seemed.  In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, he said:

In a way, living in Montreal, in another culture, speaking another language is what makes it possible for me to write about the South. It gives me distance, a perspective I wouldn’t have if I were there.

In 1970, he recorded his first album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band.  That and five further albums released in the 1970s were overlooked by the general public, but highly-regarded by critics and artists such as Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, and the Everly Brothers who covered his songs.  If he had been able to tour and promote his work in his homeland during the singer-songwriter heyday, most commentators agree, he might now be regarded as one of the best.

Jesse Winchester in 1974

Jesse Winchester in 1974

Jesse wasn’t able to return to the US until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty to draft evaders.  He didn’t move back to the US to live until 2002.

The first song Jesse wrote was ‘The New Tennessee Waltz’:

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favour a girl that I knew
I imagine she’s back in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
In same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got him a few
So when I’m gone I’ll be glad to love you

In 2012, Lyle Lovett recorded a great cover version for a tribute album that came about when Winchester revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and artists banded together to show support and to generate some song-writing royalties for his treatment.


Boyhood memories of the South suffused the songs that came to him in Canada – songs like ‘Mississippi, You’re on My Mind’:

I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks
And along one side runs a rusty barbed wire fence
And beyond that sits an old tar paper shack:
Mississippi you’re on my mind

Or ‘Biloxi’ (the subject of an excellent cover version by Rosanne Cash on the tribute album, Quiet About It):
Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are swimming in the sea
Oh they look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salted water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans
The sun shines on Biloxi
The air is filled with vapours from the sea
And the boy will dig a pool beside the ocean
He sees creatures from a dream under the water
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans
The stars can see Biloxi
The stars can find their faces in the sea
We are walking in the evening by the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off towards New Orleans


Today, in the New York Times, Jon Pareles writes:

His songs were rooted in country, soul and gospel, and they strove to stay plain-spoken and succinct, whether he was singing wryly about everyday life or musing on philosophy and faith. In 1989 he told Musician magazine, ‘You can always find a way to say things in fewer words.’

Jesse Winchester learned he had oesophageal cancer in 2011, but was pronounced in remission after surgery. He returned to performing and recording (a new album is due later this year), but in February he was found to have bladder cancer.  The 2012 tribute album, Quiet About It, includes performances of his songs by luminaries such as Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Allen Toussaint.

One of the most recent videos on YouTube of Jesse performing live is this one, captured during a November 2010 gig at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Virginia, near to the home in Charlottesville where he had settled with his second wife Cindy Duffy in 2002:


 I’m riding a big round ball
I never do dream I may fall
But one day the high must lay low
So when I do fall I’ll be glad to go
Yeah, when I do fall I’ll be glad to go



Ry Cooder’s Election Special

I’ve got a bad feeling about the American Presidential election, and so has Ry Cooder.  He’s so worried that he’s rushed out a new album, Election Special, on which every track is dedicated to alerting his fellow-countrymen and the rest of the world to evil intentions of the Tea Party Republicans and their wealthy backers only interested in power, profit and war. Yes, it’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and concerned that this may be the last chance for ‘the 90 and the 9’ to hold on to their rights, their jobs, and a future for their children:

This may be the last time , I don’t know
It may be the last time for the 90 and the 9

If the Democrats don’t make it
Then I’ll have myself to blame
If we don’t raise some sand
Then our votes might slip away
And our civil rights and our equal pay
And then it’s too bad, Jim, for the 90 and the 9

They promised war was done but peace didn’t declare
Our young folks are still going there
I didn’t raise our child to go to war this time
Honey, they’re just shootin’
At the 90 and the 9

Opinion polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck.  Some say that the sane majority of Americans will remember why they voted for Obama in the first place. But, is there a sane majority in America these days? That’s what worries me.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that an attendee at this week’s Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying ‘this is how we feed animals’.

Released in the US just in time for the Tampa Convention, Ry Cooder’s album features a cheeky ditty, ‘Going to Tampa’, voiced by a delegate who’s heading there to get ‘my ashes hauled’:

Goodbye my honey, farewell my baby
Don’t look for me around convention time
I’m bound for Tampa, in the great state of Florida
To see some distinguished friends of mine

Mitt and Rick and the pitbulls, the jolly ride and step forth
To the highest bidder each will guarantee
I’d give all my money sir if Palin calls me honey
And shakes the pizzas on my tree

‘Cause I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning
Got my credentials in my overalls
But I can’t take you with me little darling
I’m going down to get my ashes hauled

If they can just find another Willie Horton, he opines, ‘we can petrify the nation and bring the votes from Mexico somehow’.  This guy dreams of reasserting states’ rights and Jim Crow laws.  In his sleeve notes to the album, Cooder wonders whether ‘as a mother, will Sarah Palin lead the Republican convention in a prayer for Treyvon?’

Election Special is full of folk, blues, and gospel themes brilliantly played by Cooder on guitar, mandolin and bass, with his son Joachim on drums.  Its songs draw upon old traditions of radical America reinterpreted for 2012, and in them Cooder takes direct and sometimes humorous aim at rapacious capitalists, big corporations and corrupt politicians.  An album consisting of nothing but political songs could end up an unlistenable disaster, but Election Special is entertaining, enjoyable to listen to, and musically seductive.  Many of these songs will last, like Woody Guthrie’s did.

In an interview with The Guardian, Cooder explained how these songs differ from the protest songs of the sixties:

Well, I don’t know how to write soldier music. They were soldiers’ songs so people could go out and hit the frontline. We shall overcome and so forth. And you need those types of songs. Especially in the Occupy movement. I think they’re going to want to have songs like that, it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know how to do that really. That’s a different kind of musical brain up there. So what I look at is these bleak stories: they’re narratives and they introduce you to a character and the character says something.

The album opens with the plaintive ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, voiced by the dog that Romney once strapped to the roof of his car for a long family road trip.  In his  forthright Guardian interview, Cooder explained that his loathing for Romney is fuelled as much by the way his business interests have raped the environment, as by his policies:

Romney is as bad as anyone can be. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a cruel man. He’s a perfect creation for what the Republican party is all about. And that is to say, a rapacious capitalist.  Anyone who ran Bain Capital is not your friend. All they’re going to do is rape and pillage the land.

The targets in ‘Brother Is Gone’ are the Koch Brothers who head up Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States and who liberally fund a bewildering range of conservative, free market and libertarian policy groups, lobbying organisations and right-wing foundations in the United States.

In an article a couple of years ago in New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote:

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests…. Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial’.  The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

In his sleeve notes, Ry Cooder observes, ‘The only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan. Satan will need to get paid, but in the meantime, they are doing everything in their power to hurt you and me. The big hurt’.

Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the good old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away

So, in the manner of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil at the crossroads, and decorated with a lovely mandolin arrangement, ‘Brother is Gone’ imagines the Koch brothers owing the devil, as Cooder explained in a New York Times interview:

I thought how could you – in a song phrase – explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That’s how I’ll start: “We made the deal, and Satan’s deal was good, ’cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want.” But Satan’s price is he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won’t say which one. He won’t say when.

‘The Wall Street Part of Town’ was clearly inspired by the spirit of solidarity invoked by the Occupy movement:

I’m in trouble again but this time I’m not the only one
I was hurtin’ before but this time I’m not a lonely one
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again but this time we’ve got friends

So I’ll keep walkin’ if it takes all night
Hopin’ we gonna make things right
I’m lookin’ for the Wall Street part of town

‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town?’ Ry asks in his sleeve note. ‘Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be’.  Or, as he put it more bluntly in the New York Times:

The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.

‘Guantanamo’ is not the lilting Cuban song about a country girl from Guantanamo, but a thunderous attack on prisons everywhere, and one notorious one in particular: ‘You can’t come back from Guantanamo’.

The striking thing about this election is the lack of any of the fervour that surrounded the Obama campaign in 2008, and there’s certainly no ‘Yes We Can’ video this time. Then, youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35 years, and it helped propel Obama to the White House. Now, according to an article in The Guardian earlier this month, as Obama strikes a centrist tone in order to reach crucial swing voters and conditions on the ground worsen, rappers see him as ‘part of the very political establishment rappers have long held in contempt’.

But Cooder will have none of this: at the heart of this collection of songs is his belief that Americans who want to preserve their liberties, defend jobs, health care and public services must stand up for Obama.  In ‘Cold Cold Feeling’  he imagines the president, alone in the dark, walking the Oval Office floor. ‘Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes’, he says on the album’s sleeve.  In the Guardian interview, Cooder was asked whether he saw Obama as a good man trapped in an impossible situation:

Yes, 110%. He’s set upon by dogs. He’s prevented from doing anything because the Republicans ensured that no president and no Democrat president can ever do good again. That’s what Bush was sent in there to do: destroy the presidency, and that’s what I think he did. How do you come back from that? How do you make the presidency good again? They talk about bi-partisanship but that’s an empty word, doesn’t mean a thing. So what is Obama supposed to do? How can he operate? This healthcare thing is really quite something, if it lives. They’re going to go after it and try to destroy it, that’s the leading end of the Republican effort right now, that’s going to sink the Titanic, you know?  I mean, I think he’s a good man. He’s a smart man. He understands the constitution, therefore he must respect it. They don’t. I believe that he does.

‘Kool-Aid’ is a fearsome blues enhanced by some classic Cooder slide guitar that gives voice to a poor man who swallowed conservative arguments. Too late, he realises that the rich have given the the poor gun rights and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws – but  defaulted on the promise of well-paid jobs and a secure future. He drank the Kool-Aid, they really drank it down.

Your poor white people — conservatives want to split them off and say, “We are going to engineer it so these people will vote against their own self-interest.” But this character in the “Kool-Aid” song says I did everything that was asked of me but I’m still losing my job and I’m going to lose my house. Finally, it occurs to him at 3 o’clock in the morning, what my friend Jim Dickinson used to call the moment of the horrible hillbilly reality, as his wife’s asleep and he’s smoking Chesterfields, and he says: “Wait a minute — this didn’t work at all. I’m hung out to dry. I’m twisting in the wind. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the two with which it closes – the aforementioned ‘The 90 and the 9’ and ‘ Take Your Hands off It’, an out-and-out rocker co-written with his son Joachim.  They see this as a re-working of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it the Cooders storm, ‘take your hands off my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my polling rights, my reproductive rights’. ‘Take your hands of it, you know it don’t belong to you’.

Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world
And your war machine and your corporation thieves
That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary
Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you

This isn’t the first time that Cooder has gone overtly political: his last album, Pull Up Some Dust opened with ‘No Banker Left Behind’ and may prove to be the record that future generations look to in order to understand this recession. And, of course, throughout his lengthy musical career Cooder has immersed himself in Dustbowl era music and social history, always seeing the parallels to the modern-day situation.

Ry Cooder first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in the blues-rock band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. They recorded an album’s worth of material that was not released until 1992.  After that, Cooder was in demand as a studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees, and making classic contributions to Rolling Stones recordings, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’ (on Gimme Shelter) and the slide guitar solo on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘Sister Morphine’.

His first solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including radical classics like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’. That began a pattern of albums early in his career that had at their centre classics of the Dust Bowl era, with songs by by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others.

More recently he produced two concept albums that documented social change in America in the years before and after the Second World War.  His 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, a land grab to build Dodger Stadium. It was a heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. He followed that with My Name Is Buddy, a collection of songs imbued with socialist values about unions in the Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad.

A Ry Cooder radical America playlist

No Bankers Left Behind (from Pull Up Some Dust)

Do Re Mi (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Strike! (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

One Cat, One Vote, One Beer (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

The Bourgeois Blues (from Chicken Skin Music, 1976)

Vigilante Man (from Into The Purple Valley, 1972)

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Take Your Hands Off It (from Election Special, 2012)

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

A little bit of music history was made in the Rodewald Suite last night.  The event was a celebration of the centennial this year of the birth of Woody Guthrie at which Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave an engaging personal talk about her father’s life and music. Organised by Alun Parry, founder of Liverpool’s Woody Guthrie Folk Club that meets on the final Thursday of each month at the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street.  Alun had heard that Nora was touring Europe in 2012 and took a chance on asking if she could fit in a visit to Liverpool.

As Nora explained at one point in the evening, she was eager to come to Liverpool for several reasons, one being that when Woody served in the Merchant Marine during the war he took shore leave several times in Scotland and England, and may (though this is unconfirmed) have stepped ashore in Liverpool.  Another reason was that Liverpool in the 1950s was the city of the ‘Cunard Yanks’, the Liverpudlian seamen who served on the ocean liners and brought back American blues, jazz and R&B records, thus enriching the musical culture of the city.  This was when a certain George Harrison was playing in a band led by Les Stewart that specialised in tunes by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy – and Woody Guthrie.

But there was another way in which Woody’s songs seeped into the repertoire of Liverpool bands: young musicians like Paul McCartney and John Lennon began messing around with guitars during the skiffle boom, heavily influenced by Lonnie Donegan, probably the most significant popularizer of songs byLeadbelly and Woody Guthrie.  With this in mind, when Nora Guthrie got the invite to Liverpool, she decided to contact Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, in London to see if he could make it.  He did – and provided a triumphant ending to a great night.

Alun Parry kicked off the evening with a song of his own, inspired by Woody’s statement in which he summed up the point of his songs:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.  I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

Then Nora took the stage to give a presentation, illustrated with family photos, paintings and drawings by Woody, and pages from his notebooks.  He wrote down all his lyrics, she said, because he could not memorize them. She began with the original words of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written by hand in a school notebook.  ‘This Land’ was, she pointed out, one of the earliest songs he wrote – in 1940, when he was only 27 years old and had just arrived in New York.  But, she asked, how did this song come to be written?

She took us right back to Woody’s beginnings in Oklahoma.  He was born on July 14, 1912 in a ‘typical Wild West town’, Okemah which, as Woody later wrote

was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
Bound For Glory

When he was a boy, Okemah was a sleepy farm town where they grew cotton out in the fields. Then as it became an oil boomtown, when he was about 8 years old, all kinds of other people were suddenly in Okemah overnight: a pretty rough and rowdy bunch of people that worked in the oil fields.  The politics were rough, too: Nora noted that Oklahoma was the last state to join the union, and had the most political parties – 14 in all, mostly left-wing (though today Oklahoma is a red state, solid Republican).

Woody’s mother, Nora and his father, Charley were a middle class up and coming couple: Charley was an entrepreneur, a land dealer, young and ambitious.  But the family went through an appalling sequence of tragedies that, suggested Nora, were the foundation of his empathy and compassion – not intellectual but a response to the experiences of his own family life.

Woody Guthrie’s childhood home in Okemah photographed in 1979

When Woody’s father got enough money to build a new house, it burned down before the family could move in. Then his older sister Clara was also burned in a fire and died.  Within two years of that happening his mother was sent away to an insane asylum, while his father lost everything in the Depression.

We now know that Woody’s mother was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease, a neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerves and eventually leads to loss of control of the body, and death.  But at the time nothing was known about it. People in the town made fun of  the way she behaved. She was a victim of a disease and she was ridiculed for it, and eventually deemed insane.

Woody felt this deeply, argued Nora in her talk. Running through every single song that Woody wrote is a sense of empathy with people who are enduring hard times, whether they are homeless or hungry or whatever. That became the signature and the heart of all of his music, suggested Nora.  She displayed the last photo of Woody’s mother, and drew attention to how she was holding her arms behind her back – literally holding on to her arms to control the Huntingdon’s.

Woody Guthrie in Okemah

Nora suggested that her grandmother had been important to Woody in another way: as she played piano, she would sing old Scots-Irish ballads. These long ballads were very likely the inspiration for the long ballads that he would later write.

In a very short period of time, Woody’s middle-class family life had fallen apart. By age thirteen, he was pretty much on his own with no parents – his father had left for Texas, while he stayed in Okemeh, living in a gang house with a couple of other kids on their own. In his autobiography Bound for Glory he tells of collecting garbage to get by. He was out of school and surviving on his wits.  At this point, Nora said, he wanted to be an artistand he took to painting as a potential career.  All of the art from his early years is gone, Nora said.  One of the only portraits that still survives, to her knowledge, is one that he did of Abraham Lincoln a few years later, when he was in his twenties. It’s an oil painting that’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

It was very hard to keep that up and pay for a $5 brush and the canvas and the oils.  Then he realized that once you did a painting and you sold it once and you never saw it again, and that dollar you earned for it got spent…He realized with a song you write it once and someone says, ‘Hey, I like that song. Sing it again!’ It was really a funny, very natural understanding that songwriting was a better way to make money in the early days than painting.

After two years in the gang house decided to join his father in Pampa Texas, where he spent most of his time in the public library ‘interested in everything’:

I scratched around in the books. I carried them home by the dozens and armloads, on any subject, I didn’t care which. I wanted to look into everything a little bit, and pick out something, something that would turn me into a human being of some kind – free to work for my own self,  and free to work for everybody.
Bound for Glory

This was when he really start writing, following the principle that ‘all you can write is what you see’.  What he saw first was the terrible impact of the dust storms on that part of Texas:

On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.

It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
– ‘The Great Dust Storm’

I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.

I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
Buried my tractor six feet underground.

Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand.
– ‘Dust Bowl Blues’

Dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein

Like countless others, Woody left Pampa, Texas in the early 1930s for California to see if he could get work in the fruit orchards
there. When he got to the California border there were roadblocks – they were stopping people from crossing the state line. Nora elaborated:

You get to a state line and they won’t let you cross the border. You are an American citizen, this is your country and they won’t let you cross the border. It’s not another country. This is America and these are American citizens. They wouldn’t let you cross the border unless you had $50 in your pocket. But he was thinking, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m not a foreigner. I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve walked across the desert a thousand miles and you are telling me I can’t come in? He saw families being turned around and being sent back. How in the world are these people going to have $50? They don’t have anything to eat, let alone have $50 in their pockets. Woody writes in the song ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi, well you had better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee.’

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”

Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.

When Woody arrived in Los Angeles he soon had a radio show which quickly became a tremendous hit because all of the Okies had come to California, so he had the biggest audience in Los Angeles. He got 10,000 letters a week in fan mail. The producers raised his salary and made his show longer. The same thing happened, Nora said, when he moved to New York. There, too, he soon had a very successful radio show. They were paying him so much that he wrote to Alan Lomax and said, ‘they are giving me money so fast I have to sleep under it’.

Then, Nora said, the producers and the sponsors would say, ‘Tone it down on some of those songs, Woody’.  But the idea of someone telling him how to do a radio show or what songs to sing – he would just walk out. He would just say, ‘I’m not doing this’.

With Woody’s arrival in New York in 1940, Nora finally reached the conclusion to the story of how ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came to be. Woody had hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York.

All kinds of things are going on. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are displaced because of the Dust Bowl and The Depression. As he is hitchhiking across America – Hollywood is in good shape and New York is in good shape, but from California to New York Island and everything in between, is really not so great. It takes him a month to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York. In every jukebox at every truck stop and every diner he kept hearing Kate Smith’s hit song ‘God Bless America’. But Woody’s experience was seeing people homeless and hungry. He was seeing people walking across the country because they had lost everything. He saw families travelling on Route 66 who had lost the farm that had been in their family for generations. So as he is hearing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio and the jukeboxes, he is thinking if God blessed America everybody would have a home and food and a job. We would be okay. He said I’m not getting it and I’m not seeing it. He finally got to New York in February 1940 and in the first week he was in a little boarding house on 43rd Street. He looked out the window and saw homeless people, and things were not so good.

So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a direct response to ‘God Bless America’ – even to the extent that the original chorus was ‘God blessed America for me’.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway: 
I saw below me that golden valley: 
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 
This land was made for you and me.

In the melting pot of New York, Woody for the first time was able to forge friendships with black Americans and with radical women. It was there he met Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It was there, too, he met people like Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Woody met Lomax when he performed at a ‘Grapes of Wrath Evening’, a benefit for the John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers. Woody Guthrie’s ballad ‘Tom Joad’, recorded in 1940, was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the successful John Ford film adaptation, released in 1940. The seventeen-verse song summarized Tom Joad’s story, concluding:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”

Nora said that after Steinbeck heard Woody’s ballad, he sent him an acerbic note: ‘You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me 500 pages to say’.  She was asked from the floor whether Woody and Steinbeck ever met – she thought not.  But on the Internet, Steinbeck’s son, Thom, is quoted as saying

My father met Woody several times. There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck loved all American music. Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.

Steinbeck later wrote, in the 1960s:

Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967)

In New York Woody began work on his autobiography, Bound For Glory, completed with the support of  his second wife Marjorie Mazia, whose disciplined approach came from her job as an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School (leaving notes on the fridge like ‘finish chapter 5 today!’).  The book was first published in 1943, and I still remember the thrill, as a teenager, of reading Woody’s larger than life narrative told in vivid and energetic dialect.

The cover of the original 1943 edition of Bound For Glory

During the Second World War, Woody joined the Merchant Navy with his friend and singing partner, Cisco Houston.  He washed dishes on a the troop ship which carried troops to the Normandy beach in early July 1944. Later, Woody was routed through London and Glasgow, before returning to the United States. While in London, he went to the BBC where he was given the opportunity to sing on Children’s Hour. After some autobiographical anecdotes, he was recorded singing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.

In 1946 Woody and moved to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with Marjorie and his daughter, Cathy. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.Three other children were born and grew up here – Joady, Arlo and Nora. In her talk, Nora vividly recalled this period of her childhood, when most of the year would be spent on the beach.




Woody with (left to right) Nora, Joady and Arlo, 1951


This was a productive song-writing period in which Woody wrote many songs for children, often inspired by Cathy, songs which he recorded with producer Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines, such as Deportees, his response to a plane crash in 1948 in which 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California being deported back to Mexico, were not named but simply referred to as ‘deporteees’ in press reports:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees

In 1947 Cathy died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to Arlo.  Nora movingly recalled how Woody, who looked after the children during the day while Marjorie worked, would record Cathy’s funny and childish remarks in a notebook, one of those now in the Guthrie archives, entitled ‘Cathy Says’.

By the late 1940s, Woody’s health was declining, and his behaviour becoming erratic. In 1952 it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease .  Increasingly unable to control his muscles and bodily functions, Woody was hospitalized from 1956 until 1966.  Nora described how her mother and the children would visit Woody in hospital  every Sunday, until finally the visits became too distressing and it was decided to bring Woody home at weekends.  She talked as well about the first time that the young Bob Dylan turned up at their house to see the songwriter who had inspired him (she turned him away, but Arlo invited him in).  Dylan later wrote (in Chronicles) what Guthrie’s songs meant for him:

The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.

Woody died on October 3, 1967.  ‘I’m a common-ist’ is how he used to describe himself, believing that people working together were a more powerful force than one.

After Nora Guthrie’s presentation, musicians took to the stage to perform songs by Guthrie and other writers.  Emma Runswick and Josh Cartwright sang  a cracking verse by a poet I’d never heard of before – Aaron Kramer.  ‘In Contempt’ was written in 1950 when people were being jailed for refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of being ‘in contempt of Congress’.  The words are as relevant today as when they were written.  Here, for example, they are used as counterpoint to a report on the Israeli ‘security fence’.

Build high build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
Who hold you in contempt build wide
That all the bad be locked inside

 The birds who still insist on song
The sunlit streams still running strong
The flowers a-blazing every hue
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized the gallant few
Whose glory casts a shade on you
How can you now go home with ease
Jangling your heavy dungeon keys

The parents dreaming still of peace
The playful children, the wild geese
Who still must fly the mountains to
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized both moon and sun
And jailed the poems one by one
And trapped each trouble-making breeze
Then you must throw away your keys

So let us hope the day will come
When man adores the rising sun
Empty jails and free to do
With no one in contempt of you

Then it was the turn of Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, who gave us powerful renditions of Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’, followed by a trio of Leadbelly songs – ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (with Nora called on stage to join in the choruses). On these songs, many popularised in Britain in versions by Lonnie Donegan, Pete sounded uncannily like his father.

In a resounding finale, all the night’s performers joined forces for a rousing version of ‘Union Maid’.  It had been a great show – absolutely unmissable.

Centennial poster by Shepard Fairey

See also

Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

Fifty years ago today, on 9 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released.  Dylan had arrived in New York only 14 months earlier and was still three months short of his 20th birthday. The songs on Bob Dylan  consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.  Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond, and some at the company began referring to Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly’ suggesting that Dylan’s contract should be ended.

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues
– ‘
Talkin’ New York’

Yesterday in an article in The Observer marking the anniversary, Ed Vulliamy wrote:

The immediately astonishing impact of the album, by any measure, is the contrast between the image of the unsmiling but fresh-faced lad in his cap and the depth of feeling and range in the singing between love, rage, sorrow and a fixation with death. The core of the album is ‘Fixin’ To Die’, sung as though he were pleading for the life he is about to lose, such is Dylan’s understanding of the intentions of its author, the great Delta blues master Booker T Washington – aka “Bukka” – White.

This is Dylan performing the song on a radio show and being interviewed by Cynthia Gooding on 11 March 1962:

Assessing the significance of the debut album, Vulliamy notes that

The estimable British writer on Dylan, Michael Gray, argues interestingly that the real value of the album is not only that it showed “more than a hint of a highly distinctive vision”, but also “served as a fine corrective for Greenwich Village: it was the opposite of effete,” he says, “in the context of what was happening at the time – American folk culture all but obliterated, and a stagnating ‘folk’ cult established as if in its place.”

Bruce Eder, reviewing the album for Allmusic, pinpoints what made Dylan’s debut album differ from the rest of the folk revivalists of the time:

A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O,” as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty “Talkin’ New York” and the poignant “Song to Woody” … But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries.  Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan’s presentation was more in your face … There’s a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie’s classic ’40s and early-’50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist’s more ambitious subsequent work.

Harold Lepidus at says the album shines even more today:

It has often been dismissed as a minor album, with only one “major” original composition – “Song To Woody.” For many fans, it was a late addition, something the “complete” their collection.  Now, with a half-century of hindsight, the album comes across as a marvel. Dylan, who was twenty at the time, slams through the material with a reckless intensity, like a sort of folk punk, or an acoustic Billy Bragg. What many people don’t realize is that this was virtually unheard of at the time, especially on a major label.

Bob Dylan on a rooftop in New York, 1962

Roland Ellis at Pig River Records adds:

At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn’t take Seeger and co’s folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn’t been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn’t interested in passing on old wisdom from gen to gen, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.

It’s ‘Song To Woody’ though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, ‘Song To Woody’ seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, whilst at the same time reassuring him that it’s okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.

There are almost no Dylan originals on YouTube (his office must be exceedingly diligent in squashing any uploads), but if you search for ‘Song To Woody’, you do find this treasure: in May 1970, shortly after The Beatles broke up, Bob Dylan and George Harrison recorded this version in New York with Charlie Daniels on bass:

Apart from marking the release of his first album, 1962 was significant for young Bob Zimmerman in two other respects.  In August 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, while a few weeks earlier he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,  the song that would see him break through to a much wider audience.   In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes wrote:

Bob composed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in a matter of minutes sitting in a cafe across the street from the Gaslight Club. Although he thought ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ special, he did not understand the full significance of what he had done. ‘It was just another song I wrote.’ The melody was uncannily similar to the African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block.’ However, borrowing melodies, and even lyrics, was part of the folk tradition and thus perfectly acceptable. A more pertinent criticism of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ concerned the rhetorical lyrics. Many of the most distinguished folk artists in New York were underwhelmed when they first heard the song. There seemed no link between the relentless questions; and, at the end of three verses, none of the questions had been resolved, except to say the answer was blowing in the wind, an image so vague that, arguably, it meant nothing.

Pete Seeger did not regard it highly. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not my favorite,’ he says. ‘It’s a little easy.’ Tom Paxton found it almost impossible to learn. ‘I hate the song myself. It’s what I call a grocery-list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.’ Dave Van Ronk thought it dumb. Still, within a couple of months of Bob performing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at Gerde’s Folk City, Van Ronk noticed to his surprise that musicians hanging around Washington Square Park had invented irreverent parodies such as, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ out your end.’ As Van Ronk says, ‘If the song is strong enough, without even having been recorded, to start garnering parodies, the song is stronger than I realized.'[His manager], meanwhile, knew Bob had created something extra­ordinary. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the key to it all,’ he says. ‘That song made it all happen.’ …

On July 30, 1962, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the song that was the foundation stone of Bob’s career and a catalyst of the singer-songwriter revolution, was copyrighted to M. Witmark & Sons. The same day, [Dylan’s new manager Albert] Grossman signed what Bob later called ‘a secret deal’ with M. Witmark & Sons giving Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter he brought to the company. Now Grossman stood to earn a substantial slice of Bob’s publishing fees, over and above the [20 percent] cut he took for managing him. This backhanded deal was one of Bob’s primary com­plaints when he and Grossman were in legal dispute in the 1980s, although in fairness Grossman was getting an enhanced part of Witmark’s share, and not necessarily money Bob himself would have received. Bob claimed indignantly that he had known nothing of Grossman’s fifty percent deal with M. Witmark & Sons (Grossman insisted he had told him). Bob also claimed to have had no idea Grossman was given as much as $100,000 to advance to him for signing with M. Witmark & Sons, of which he received one percent. Bob’s attorneys asserted that Grossman had ‘willfully and maliciously’ concealed vital information. The secretiveness was what angered Bob who was, of course, a very secretive person himself.

However, this was not the end of Grossman’s machinations. The last part of his plan was, in fact, the cleverest. If Peter, Paul and Mary [a group Grossman had created] had a hit with a Bob Dylan-Witmark song, Grossman would earn fourfold. He had his management fee from the two acts, plus his twenty-five per­cent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording income from Warner Bros., plus fifty percent of the income Witmark earned from publishing a Dylan song. When Peter, Paul and Mary had a massive hit with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and top-forty success with two further songs written by Dylan, Grossman became as rich as Croesus.  Suddenly, money had become very important.

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party in London, 22 December 22 1962.

In the first week of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts.  I can clearly remember that, and in my memory the whole Beatles phenomenon precedes my discovery of Dylan.  I’m pretty certain that it was June 1963 before I registered the name of Bob Dylan, when Peter Paul and Mary released their hit version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Then, a couple of months later listening to radio coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, I heard Dylan sing probably for the first time.

Dylan had actually visited London in December 1962,  to appear in a BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street. At the end of the play, Dylan performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but I never saw that – we didn’t have a TV at the time. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, and learned new songs from British folk singers such as Martin Carthy.  One of the songs he picked up from Carthy was the ballad Lord Randall’, on which Dylan based the tune of  ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, the standout track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963.

Graeme Thomson, in a superb piece on the artsdesk website, ‘Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road‘, writes:

Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; twelve months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan’s mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan’s appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction.

Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music. Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology.  […]

Since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

See also

Ry Cooder: songs for grubby, grabbing times

‘These times call for a very different kind of protest song. ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ We’re way down the road from that’.
– Ry Cooder

Which album released this year speaks most plainly to the times in which we live?  No contest: it’s Ry Cooder’s latest, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, an overtly political work which opens with ‘No Banker Left Behind’, a stomping old-time, jug-band tune that paints an image of bankers fleeing the country after ‘they robbed the nation blind’.  It was inspired by a news headline about the bailout of the America’s big banks.  Reviewing the album on the BBC website, Andy Fyfe concluded:

This is about as good and sustained a riposte to the grubby, grabbing times we live in as any artist has mustered, which makes it essential listening.

The songs on the album are angry, regretful, impassioned. Cooder is angry about the financial collapse, the bailout of the banks, despoilation of the environment and senseless wars. Embracing just about every musical style in the Americana bag – blues, folk, ragtime, Tex-Mex, conjunto, rock, and country – he has produced a set of scathing protest songs aimed at Wall Street bankers, Republican politicians, George W. Bush, anti-immigrant vigilantes and war profiteers.  Uncut magazine has called this ‘one of his best albums ever … an impassioned portrait of 21st century America and its injustices’ in which Cooder is ‘remade as a modern-day Woody Guthrie, fearless and funny, for like Guthrie he nails his targets with droll humour while empathising with society’s underdogs’.

My telephone rang one evening, my buddy called for me
Said the bankers are all leavin’, you better come round and see
It started revelation, they robbed the nation blind,
They’re all down at the station, no banker left behind.
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the station, no banker left behind

Well the bankers called a meetin’, to the White House they went one day
They was going to call one the president, in a quiet and a sociable way
The afternoon was sunny and the weather it was fine
They counted all our money and no banker was left behind
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the White House, no banker was left behind

Well I hear the whistle blowin, it plays a happy tune
The conductor is calling  ‘all aboard’, we’ll be leavin soon
With champagne and shrimp cocktails and that’s not all you’ll find
There’s a billion dollar bonus and no banker left behind.

A couple of weeks ago, Ry Cooder hammered the message home with a brand new song about the Occupy Wall Street movement, ‘Wall Street Part of Town’.  Listen to it here:

Back with Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Cooder pulls no punches, laying into greed and inhumanity.  After ‘No Banker Left Behind’ with its bleak humour, ‘El Corrido de Jesse James’ offers up, in waltz time, the notion that Jesse James is so disgusted watching the bankers rip us all off that begs to be allowed to visit some Old West justice on Wall Street with his ‘trusty 44’.

The outlaw Jesse James was up in heaven
With old friends around the kingdom throne
Boys I was branded as a bandit and bank robber
But I never turned a family from their home

We’re sworn to pass no judgments here in heaven
But there’s goings on a man can’t stand no more
There’s no open carry up in heaven
But please give me back my trusty .44

‘Quicksand’  is a pounding electric rocker concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants crossing into Arizona, the state with the strictest immigration law that makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally:

Thought we was getting close to Yuma
I heard it’s an unfriendly town
We just need a cool drink of water
Even Yuma can’t turn a poor boy down
Then a Dodge Ram truck drove down on us
Saying I’m your Arizona vigilante man
I’m here to say you ain’t welcome in Yuma
I’m taking you out just as hard as I can

From Pull Up's back cover

The very next track, ‘Dirty Chateau’, condemns the hypocrisy surrounding Mexican immigration in a song in which two voices weave around each other: that of a rich man in a Hollywood chateau and his Mexican maid.

I had a maid she used to come in days
Made the bed and mopped the fIoor
She didn’t like my rowdy ways
And she ain’t coming back no more:

‘You waste all your precious time
Italian movies and Portuguese wine
Little round bottles all in a row
You’re an unclean man in a dirty chateau’

She started life in the lettuce fields
Up in Salinas where the farm work is done

‘You go streaking by in your automobiles
You don’t even know where your lettuce comes from
The short handled hoe it scarred my hands
Tell me why do they love it so
It broke mama down daddy too
Now I work for you in your dirty chateau’

My friends are coming and they’d like to hear
A real sad Mexican song or two
They’ve been drinking and they don’t care
Just what you been goin’ through
How about Paloma Sin Nido
Pa Que Me Sirve la Vida
What about Pobre del Pobre
Also Lamento de un Prisionero

She used to call me borracho y perdido
Said I was loco y jodido
Buena para nada
Nunca quiero ver tu cara
But she’s gone in the world somewhere
Turlock somewhere, Stockton somewhere,
Salinas somewhere, Los Angeles somewhere, I just don’t know

‘If There’s A God’ also lays into Arizona’s immigration laws, with God driven from heaven by laws that herald a return to Jim Crow segregation. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joe’ all hit the road for Mexico. The anti-war message is delivered in various flavours: in the sleepy blues number, ‘Baby Joined the Army’, a father laments his child’s misguided decision to sign up for the armed forces, while ‘Christmas Time This Year’ laces a jaunty Polka with dark, savage humour:

Everybody stand up tall and cheer
Our children will be coming home in plastic bags I fear
Then we’ll know it’s Christmas time this year

Cooder provides a hilarious and convincing impersonation of the blues singer on ‘John Lee Hooker for President’, which imagines Hooker’s manifesto for the White House:

I want everybody to know I’m strictly copastatic, I ain’t Republican or Democratic. I got a new program for the nation. It’s gonna be groove time, a big sensation. Every man and woman gets one scotch, one bourbon and one beer, three times a day if they stay cool. Little chillens gets milk, cream and alcohol, two times a day if they stay involved in school. Now boogie chillen.

In an essay on the website of Nonesuch, Ry Cooder’s record label, Lynell George writes:

A succession of world-altering events scrolled across our collective screens and our consciousness the world at war, the mortgage crisis, the rollback of immigrant rights and civil liberties, the war on the environment—more than ever, it seemed, we needed to fight back, hold some one’s feet to the fire—but whose? “Fear and isolation,” he’s learned, “are the ways you keep people under control.”

His latest album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down grew out of this information void—and the pervasive political and corporate double-speak that began swirling in its absence. Snaking through it are familiar themes—the struggle toward real democracy, the trials of the working man, the elusive goal of equality—set against the mayhem of contemporary front page news. Paired with it is Cooder’s fluent command of the rhythms and textures of American vernacular music—but bent and reshaped for this moment: “Some of this should be vivid and intense and it should roll right at you,” he says, “but it shouldn’t tire you out so you stop paying attention. I don’t think they’ll listen to this and say: ‘Hey, I wonder what was on his mind?’”

The album is a trenchant examination of power and the abuses of it. Accordingly, it’s also a measure of Cooder’s own growing sense of disaffection. “Never have I seen the Republicans be so tight-fisted as they are now. The worst of it is the chipping away of what people, by rights, ought to have, should have … the resources they deserve, pay taxes for.” […]

These 14 songs—voices from the wreckage—work as a meditation on not just the state of the union or of the world, but really the state of our hearts and minds—our priorities and values. What happened to the concept of community? Who are we behind our fences and multi-billion dollar homes? What have we—or are poised to—become? Cooder sets these questions in motion, some as “eyewitness” soliloquies, others as allegories

There are quieter moments on the album as well.  The pleasures of an uncomplicated life are extolled in the Tex-Mex ballad ‘Simple Tools’, while ‘Dreamer’ is a an unashamedly nostalgic number that begins:

I wonder would you like to meet a dreamer
Would you share a glass or two
Of red red wine and you might find
I’m a simple one like you

The final song on ‘No Hard Feelings’ has a Buddhist sensibility, taking a philosophical view and dismissing humanity as a passing annoyance, whose misdeeds are ‘just a murmur on the whispering sands of time‘ and soon forgotten:

This land should have been our land
You took it for your land
You got a use for every stream and tree
When I go up the highway old trees are dying up that way
You pump out the water and sell it back to me
You build mansions in the city, prisons in Mojave
Bet you’re quite a pillar of high society
You call it law and order I call it dirty money
You lock the young ones down or send ’em off to war
But it’s no hard feelings, no offence taken
You’re just a ripple in the shifting sands of time
No bad karma no curses on ya
You go your way I’ll go mine

You remind me of a fellow I heard of in the city
Nervous kind of fellow he loved money like you do
He derived no satisfaction so he jumped clear out the window
They tell me that he bounced a time or two
So take in mind the credo of a jackass prospector
‘Take what you need but, please, leave the rest alone
Try and live in harmony with old Mother Nature
You’ll remain in grace after you have gone’

Don’t get many callers that little road leads nowhere
Been here 40 years, seems like yesterday
There’s an old screech owl living in my chimney
I don ‘t build no fires, he keeps the mice away
No hard feelings no offence taken

No hard feelings no offence taken
You’re just a murmur on the whispering sands of time
No bad karma no curses on you
You go your way I’ll go mine

Ry Cooder with Robert Francis (left) and Hugo Arroyo in Berkeley, February 2011

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is an album on which Ry Cooder has reached back to his earliest recordings for musical inspiration – those songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Blake and the rest.  In parts its songs sound like they came from the 1930s, but they tell topical stories about corruption and social inequality straight out of the America of 2011.  ‘No Banker Left Behind’ is an anthem for the Occupy camps, destined to become as much the Depression-era classic that Ry Cooder almost single-handedly resurrected from obscurity: Alfred Reed’s  ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’   Recorded on 4 December 1929 in New York City, the song told of hard times in the last Great Depression.

There was once a time when everything was cheap.
But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill
We just feel like making our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Video from Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let’s Have A Ball, a film by Les Blank recorded at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, California on 25 March 1987 and broadcast on Channel 4.

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

There are ten tracks on the magnificent new album from Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest – ten songs that Welch half-jokingly says express ‘ten different kinds of sad’.  So how can this music be enjoyable?

The answer lies in the consummate musicianship of GillianWelch and her musical partner, David Rawlings.  Their vocal harmonies are achieve such perfection that most of the time it is impossible to distinguish one voice from another. In addition, they are both superb instrumentalists:  Welch plays an old Gibson acoustic guitar which dates from the the 1960s or occasionally an old open back banjo, while Rawlings plays an Epiphone Olympia Guitar from the 1930s.  There are no drums, bass, keyboards – just two voices harmonising and two sets of strings resonating. This is truly beautiful music: melodic, yet also stark, raw, and often dark.

Which brings us to the songs themselves. Welch and Rawlings are writers of extraordinary lyrics that draw deeply on American tradition to paint vivid scenarios from the rural, run-down, paint-peeling, backroads America of now.  Welch once admitted ‘I don’t start writing until I’m totally miserable’, and her albums are famous for their ‘dark turn of mind’, in the words of one of the songs on the new album:

some girls are bright as morning, and some are blessed with a dark turn of mind

Like many of their compositions, that song is voiced by a woman who has been around the block and knows enough to expect the worst of a man:

Take me and love me if you want me
Don’t ever treat me unkind
‘Cause I had that trouble already
And it left me with a dark turn of mind

It’s the same voice that is heard on ‘Tennessee’, an absolute gem of a song that hinges on this line:

Of all the ways I’ve found to hurt myself, you may be my favourite one of all

She’s one who walks the line between goodness and temptation:

I kissed you cause I’ve never been an angel
I learned to say hosannas on my knees
But they threw me out of Sunday school when I was nine
And the sisters said I did just as I pleased
Even so I try to be a good girl
It’s only what I want that makes me weak
I had no desire to be a child of sin
Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek

Of the ten songs that make up the new album, nine (there is one upbeat number!) deal with darkness and pain, lives unfulfilled, desperation and death.  Yet the fact that these songs can be listened to with pleasure and not despair is testimony to their humanity and the fortitude of characters who stomp and yell: ‘hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind‘.

That line is from ‘Hard Times’, another outstanding and ambitious song from the album that seeks to encompass the sense of loss as old ways disappear.  It opens with a romantic image of a rural past:

There was a Camptown man, used to plow and sing
And he loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to his mule cow
Calling, “Come on my sweet old girl, and I’d bet the whole damn world
That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road”
Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

The final verse is drenched in a sense of having lost something you didn’t realise you had:

Said it’s a mean old world, heavy in need
That big machine is just picking up speed

But the Camptown man, he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings, and come on you dogs and sing
And pick up the dusty old horn and give it a blow

The aural soundscape of these tracks derives from the blend of bluegrass, Appalachian and old timey music of the 1930s, especially the close harmonies of the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers and the Delmore Brothers.  What’s extraordinary is the degree to which Rawlings and Welch, as songwriters and musicians, inhabit that period, whilst coming up with songs that are not a mere exercise in musical nostalgia, but are tuned to the modern world, often having a rock’n’roll sensibility: listen to ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ and ‘I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll’ from Time (The Revelator) or ‘Honey Now’ off Hell Among The Yearlings, for example, or the new mp3 single, a cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’.  As the Allmusic review of The Harrow and the Harvest says:

Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, are not mere revivalists in the old-timey style; Welch’s debts to artists of the past are obvious and clearly acknowledged, but there’s a maturity, intelligence, and keen eye for detail in Welch’s songs you wouldn’t expect from someone simply trying to ape the Carter Family.

Or, as Kitty Empire wrote of the duo some time ago in The Observer:

It would … be a mistake to dismiss them as staid revivalists (even though their first album was called Revival). Certainly, they play traditional American music to an impeccable standard … but Welch’s songs transcend the genre, speaking to anyone who has ever mourned a missed opportunity, or heard a train whistle on the wind and found it lonesome. [They are] a duo in love with the power of a tradition, but not in thrall to it.

In a sense the album is organised around three songs, ‘The Way It Goes’, ‘The Way It Will Be’ and ‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’.  The trademark blending of traditional sounds with modern sensibilities is apparent in the mordant ‘The Way It Goes’, in which we learn that ‘Betsy Johnson bought the farm, stuck a needle in her arm, that’s the way that it goes’, while

Miranda ran away
Took her cat and left LA
That’s the way that it goes
That’s the way

She was busted, broke and flat
Had to sell that pussy cat
That’s the way that it goes

Welch’s languid vocal and the duo’s knack of finding a haunting melody makes a thing of beauty from the resignation of ‘The Way It Will Be’, a song that Welch has been singing at concerts for some time and which fans knew as ‘Throw Me a Rope’, referring to the song’s most poignant line.  The song’s protagonist addresses the lover she has lost:

I lost you awhile ago
But still I don’t know why
I can’t say your name
Without a crow flying by
Gotta watch my back now
That you turned me around
Got me walking backwards
Into my hometown

Throw me a rope
On the rolling tide
What did you want me to be
He said it’s him or me
The way you made it
That’s the way it will be

Say you wanna see my garden
And you wanna make it shine
Say you wanna see my blue jeans
Hanging on your old clothesline
Standing in the backdoor crying
Now you wanna be my friend
That’s the way the cornbread crumbles
That’s the way the whole thing ends

‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’ is a shimmering blues, with Welch’s lyrics wryly noting a faithless  lover’s failings whilst noting that

People oughta stick together
That’s the way to make a crowd
But here ya come alone and crying
Now you wanna be my friend.

Many Welch-Rawlings songs could be mistaken for standards; on this album, ‘Down Along The Dixie Line’ and ‘Silver Dagger’ especially so.  But there’s always a moment on a Gillian Welch record when she reminds us that her old-timey music doesn’t live in the past. On ‘Silver Dagger’, for instance, the singer personifies a woman in a very dark place who is  wistful for the good old days of ‘nineteen-hundred and ninety-nine’:

I’m on the dark side of a hollow hill

I can’t remember when I felt so free
Maybe September, the year you believed in me,
Nineteen-hundred and ninety-nine
When I found the angels a’drinkin’ wine

Seems every castle is made of sand
The great destroyer sleeps in every man
Here comes my baby, here comes my man
With that silver dagger in his hand

‘Down along the Dixie Line’ is a train song, an elegy for a log-lost past, and the song of an exile:

I spent my childhood walking the wildwood
Down along the Dixie Line
Freight trains a-squallin’
Highballs a-bawling
Four engines at a time

They pulled up the tracks now
I can’t go back now
Can’t hardly keep from cryin’
Oh do they miss me way down in Dixie

All in all, The Harrow & the Harvest is remarkable for its  lack of studio artifice, its warmth and its timeless musicianship. Many of us thought that Time (The Revelator) was Gillian Welch’s masterpiece, but this is triumphantly better.

The title of  The Harrow And The Harvest is a metaphor for the record’s lengthy gestation: ithas been 8 years since Soul Journey appeared in 2003.  Welch explains that this tense time period inspired the album title:

Our songcraft slipped and I really don’t know why. It’s not uncommon. It’s something that happens to writers. It’s the deepest frustration we have come through, hence the album title.  The writing process involved this endless back and forth between the two of us.  It’s our most intertwined, co-authored, jointly-composed album.

Jason D. Hamad has dug deeper into the possible meaning(s) of the album title, comparing dictionary definitions of ‘harrow’ and ‘harvest’:

On the face of it, the applicable definitions are probably “harrow” (1) 1. and “harvest” 3., implying that the long fallow period was the churning of the ground that produced a bountiful return. But when you dig deeper, this agricultural denotation becomes a Delphic metaphor. “To disturb keenly or painfully; distress the mind, feelings, etc., of.” Surely the experience of your talents suddenly and inexplicably failing must be disturbing and painful, and certainly the stories contained on the album contain many harrowed characters.

But take the leap and look at the other, archaic root of the word. “To ravish; violate; despoil.” Yep that’s there. And “(of Christ) to descend into (hell) to free the righteous held captive.” Not to suggest that Gillian is a messiah figure, but she certainly does this with the characters in her songs. …  The Harrow and the Harvest is as close as we’re gonna come, and that’s just fine by me. I have said in the past that I hate applying the word “revelation” to music, but if it is proper to do so, then this is the time.

Back at the start of this fallow period, on Soul Journey in 2003, Gillian Welch is credited as sole writer of this song that she performs solo, with no accompaniment by David Rawlings; a pretty song from desperate place in which a writer finds herself blocked, perhaps:

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little song that ain’t been sung
One little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
Cause everybody can’t of thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhythms

Robert Plant: pure joy

It’s all about that great once upon a time when there were changes to made and music actually was a catalyst for a lot of beautiful change.  That’s why sad old hippies still keep their hair long.  Because we were part of something that meant something more than just ego and income.

In last night’s documentary, Robert Plant: By Myself, Plant discussed his musical journey from Stourbridge grammar school boy, via the British blues boom, superstardom with Led Zeppelin in the 70s, to the recent Band of Joy album. Interviewed by Mark Radcliffe, he came across as a genial and thoughtful guy, who throughout his career has been receptive to a wide variety of musical influences, beginning with blues and rock’n’roll:

I was a little grammar schoolboy and I could hear this kind of calling through the airwaves.  I could hear this voice transmuting into something different to the spoken word and way different to Dickie Valentine and the British  crooners who were just about to get their P45s.

I left home at 16 and I started my real education musically, moving from group to group, furthering my knowledge of the blues and of other music which had weight and was worth listening to. The black music that we listened to was sexy and alluring, it had great driving beats and rhythms which we couldn’t even get near. I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words at the time – I was just mesmerised.

Plant spoke of how, with drummer and best mate John Bonham, his musical explorations took him further – into Dylan, folk-rock and psychedelia:

At that period in time, the great change was coming…you go from Gene Vincent  and that precocious, sexually-charged rock’n’roll into the whole social commentary that was developing.  The first two, three, Dylan albums – that was a whole different way of telling a story.

Plant and Bonham formed the Band of Joy, merging blues with psychedelic sounds. Though the band met with no commercial success, word quickly spread about the young man with the powerful voice, leading to one of those meetings that have transformed music history (John and Paul at Woolton fete, Keith and Mick on Dartford station platform): when Jimmy Page saw the band perform at a teacher training college gig in Wolverhampton.

The interview was mainly focussed on Plant’s work since Led Zeppelin.  He had this to say about the ‘rock god’ cliché attached to those years in routine media surveys:

The estimation of …people about any one person is always generally a million miles from where it’s really at.  If I have a surge in creativity and it sticks to the wall for a while – which is what’s been happening recently – points of reference to the media are so clichéd , it’s frightening.   You cannot judge anyone’s work by just going to the spikes … ’cause my spikes are bits no-one ever even thinks about.  My spikes are getting off the plane in 1972 and driving into the Atlas mountains with a tape machine, exploring Berber singers in the field, walking through farmers’ markets in the middle of nowhere with the rattle of drums in the corner. Those were the moments that were so far away from ‘rock god’ but they were spectacular.

In the most moving section of the interview, Plant spoke of the dark years of the late 1970s. In 1977, Plant lost his eldest son, Karac, to an unidentified viral infection when he was just five.  Three years later, drummer John Bonham also died, aged 32:

I’d already lost my beautiful boy…you have to decide what to do.  I applied to become a teacher in the Rudolph Steiner education system and I was accepted to go to teacher-training college – this was 1978 – and I was really quite keen to just walk.  John had been incredibly supportive to me, so to lose John…that was the end of any naivety.

In 2002, with his newly-formed band Strange Sensation, Plant released a widely acclaimed collection of mostly blues and folk remakes, Dreamland.  Five years later, after a further album with Strange Sensation, he had moved on again –  recording and performing with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. Their duet album, Raising Sand, was a huge success, critically and commercially, including material from R&B, blues, folk, and country songwriters including Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Doc Watson, Little Milton and The Everly Brothers.  This is their performance of ‘Killing The Blues’ on Later With Jools Holland:

In 2005 with members of  Strange Sensation he journeyed to Mali to play at the Festival in the Desert, the most remote music festival in the world:

We went on a plane that was full of crackpots and extremists..we landed somewhere in southern Morocco and then made our way with a small team from Blue Peter who were doing a programme on education in Mali.  They had a little tiny plane they had got from some Christian zealots who ferried people around Africa for a sum of money. We followed the river all the way up  – it was desert, desert, desert…one patch of green.  And the patch of green was where Ali Farka Toure had taken his income he made from the album with Ry Cooder and sunk artesian wells in the desert and created a garden of avocados and salads and tomatoes – his contribution back to his people.  We landed and made our way up to the Festival – 60 miles north of Timbuktu by no roads, nothing at all, just guys driving by the occasional tree that they remembered.

One of the songs that Plant performed at the Festival in the Desert was ‘Win My Train Fare Home’.  Here he performs it at Glastonbury, I think:

Real World have recently posted this great video of Robert Plant in blues mode at 2009 WOMAD in Abu Dhabi performing Fixin’ To Die with Justin Adams (guitarist in Strange Sensation) and Juldeh Camara:

Looking back over his career, Plant mused on the way both he and the music has changed:

When I was a kid I thought that Robert Johnson had got the whole world sewn up with his lyrics – sexual innuendo and stuff like that – ‘cos it was hoot, funny and very clever.  But to actually make those work much later in life I think you either have to be prepared to go into character or…shelve it.

My grandfather was a musician – my great-grandfather was a musician.  They formed really important Black Country brass bands, which had posh names but were usually known as the Dudley drinking band …it goes on and on and on.  The only difference was they were playing Souza marches and no ‘squeeze my lemon’ involved.  The only thing they had to change was their tunics as their portage increased.  We have to change our mind enough to make it worthwhile.

Following the documentary, BBC2 screened the Electric Proms performance by Plant’s latest ensemble, Band Of Joy, that features singer Patty Griffin, singer-guitarist Buddy Miller, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Darrell Scott, bassist-vocalist Byron House, and drummer-percussionist-vocalist Marco Giovino. The encore, with the London Oriana Choir joining the Band on stage, was superb.  They performed a gospel medley – ‘Twelve Gates To The City’ – and the Bahamian gospel song, ‘I Bid You Goodnight’, that Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band incorporated into ‘A Very Cellular Song’ back in 1968.

The joy of Robert Plant revealed in these shows is his unceasing musical curiosity, which has taken him, inter alia, to Timbuktu, Memphis and the Appalachian mountains. The Band of Joy album is, for me, the best of 2010.

The material is gathered from a wide range: Los Lobos, Low, Richard Thompson, r & b, rockabilly, folk and gospel rarities from the 1940s 50s. But none of these covers is remotely like the original.  With the band – Patty Griffin, vocals; Darrell Scott on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion and pedal steel; Byron House on bass; Marco Giovino, drums and Buddy Miller astonishing on electric guitar – Plant has transformed these songs into something completely original with stunning arrangements.

The standout track is ‘Harms Swift Way’, the last song written by Townes Van Zandt shortly before his death.  Plant and the band started with a lyric that is raw and unpolished and a melody preserved on a ramshackle demo by Townes, offered by his widow.  It’s one of those songs that lift the hairs on the back of your neck: an elegy to passing time and lost memories, illuminated by flashes of beautiful imagery.  It sounds like something off Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Buddy Miller’s jangly guitar and ravishing vocals from Plant and Griffin.

There is a home out of harms swift way
I set myself to find
I swore to my love I would
Bring her there
Then I left my love behind
The desert was long
The mountain high
The road ran steep and winding
The promises so easily made
Unbearable, yet binding
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna count my time?

Time will go, it never stays
Memory locked in her passing
Try, oh try to cling to her
Until she becomes everlasting
The world’s still blue
My word’s still true
I feel I’m turning hollow
She does as she please
If ever she leaves
I’ll strangle upon the sorrow
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna mark my time?

The road is past, tomorrow the sky
Between sometimes is blinding
Someday soon when I turn to cloud
I will fly on her wings somehow
Wrapped in the road and filled with above
The ground seems to fade away
Hold to the earth like a new born child
Pray she returns someday
Oh me, oh my
Who’s gonna mark my time?

The soul of a song

The soul of a song

Blind Willie Johnson

I’ve been dipping into the second volume of Clinton Heylin’s exhaustive study of the songs of Bob Dylan.  ‘Dipping’ is all I can manage: I find the accumulated detail exhausting. And, moreover, it’s not ‘the songs of Bob Dylan’ – it should, more accurately be subtitled  ‘the recordings of Bob Dylan’ because Heylin exhaustively catalogues every known recording, but is less interested in the words – really the only thing on which it would be worth spending the time required to read the books from end to end.

Anyway, one thing that caught my eye was his discussion of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, the magnificent song that Dylan inexplicably left off the Infidels album.  There had always been something puzzling about the song – and Heylin confirms my suspicions:  Dylan got the wrong Blind Willie.

Dylan’s lyric ‘reeks of  the fumes of hell-fire’ in Heylin’s words. The song is drenched in religious and apocalyptic imagery that decries greed, vanity and corruption.  There is cruelty and pain; people are fallen, in chains, under the whip:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven and we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is

Now, Willie McTell was a great blues singer, but this imagery doesn’t evoke his work.  His material wasn’t religious and he rarely sang spirituals. Rather, he was a broad-brush entertainer, more likely to be singing ‘Beedle Um Bum’ or ‘Mama, Let Me Scoop For You’ than warning of sin and the Apocalypse.

Born William Samuel McTear in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could. His father left the family when McTell was still young, so when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927. His style was a form of country blues that bridged the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th Century and the more refined East Coast ‘Piedmont’ sound. McTell’s most famous songs are ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’.

There’s no doubt that Dylan revered Blind Willie McTell.  He paid tribute to him in his 1965 song ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in the second verse, which begins, ‘Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose‘, referring to one of Blind Willie McTell’s many recording names, and he recorded his own versions of McTell’s ‘Broke Down Engine’ and ‘Delia’ on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong.

But still…there is another Blind Willie, whose work exactly fits the imagery of Dylan’s song and who consistently sang about sin and redemption, judgement and the Apocalypse: Blind Willie Johnson.

The lyrics of all Blind Willie Johnson’s songs were religious, drawing on both sacred and blues traditions.  They have titles like Can’t Nobody Hide From God’, ‘I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole’, ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon’ and ‘God Don’t Never Change’:

Yes God, God don’t never change
He’s God, always will be God

God in the middle of the ocean
God in the middle of the sea
By the help of the great creator
Truly been a God to me
Hey God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

God in creation
God when Adam fell
God way up in heaven
God way down in hell
He’s God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

Johnson’s most famous recordings include ‘In My Time of Dying’, his rendition of the famous gospel song ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’, and the raw and powerful ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’, where he sings a wordless moan that will make the hairs stand on the back of the neck of even an atheist. ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground’ was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.  Johnson’s gravel-voiced growl is just as eery on his ‘John The Revelator’:

Well, who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Tell me what’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Father, who art worthy, son’s right and holy
Bound up for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judas the Lion
He redeemed us, and He bought us with his blood.
John the Revelator, great advocator
Gets’em on the battle of Zion
Lord, tellin’ the story, risin’ in glory

Blind Willie Johnson’s music and life were featured in the brilliant 2003 film The Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders for the PBS series The Blues. In his film Wim Wendersfocussed on the dramatic tension in the blues between the sacred and the profane, exploring the music and lives of three of his favorite blues artists: Skip James, J. B. Lenoir and Blind Willie Johnson. The film took its title from another of Blind Willie Johnson’s unearthly blues:

Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can

If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I’ve travelled in different countries, I’ve travelled foreign lands
I’ve found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man

I saw a crowd stand talking, I came up right on time
Were hearing the doctor and the lawyer, say a man ain’t nothing but his mind
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right

As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind
When Christ stood in the temple, the people stood amazed
Was showing the doctors and the lawyers, how to raise a body from the grave

So, Blind Willie Johnson seems a more likely inspiration for Dylan’s song than McTell.  But Dylan knows his blues: maybe it he chose McTell rather than Johnson because it offers better rhyming opportunities.  Or maybe the song is not so much a tribute to Blind Willie than a homage to an era with which he is apparently obsessed – at least going by his Theme Time Radio shows, his two albums of blues covers, and other evidence . Maybe it’s simply that listening to McTell – or any blues artist – takes him back to a time ‘big plantations’, ‘bootlegged whiskey’, ‘chain gang[s] on the highway’ and ‘the ghost of slavery’.  And then, because it was intended for Infidels, an album saturated in admonishments concerning power and greed, he adds the final verse that thrusts us back into the present:

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

In his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Michael Gray is convinced that the song really is about Blind Willie McTell.  He notes a spooky coincidence:

‘Blind Willie McTell’ manages to commemorate not only the death of McTell but his birthday also. McTell was almost certainly born in 1903, and the only specific birthdate ever mooted has been May 5. Either by eerie coincidence, or because Dylan is a walking blues encyclopedia, when he came to record ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in 1983, he did so on
May 5′.


Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt

You were a tiny spark
Caught in your parents’ eyes
When they made love in the dark
You were the big surprise
And the old man came through
Gave his very best for you
And your mother’s arms
They kept you warm
Like no other arms could do

When you couldn’t find the light
At the top of the stairs
When you cried in the night
Well, you knew they were there
Will the light of the day
Was as bright as it seemed
And you knew in your heart
You were livin’ the rest of the dream

For Christmas, S bought me tickets to see Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt in concert in London. She’s grown up hearing them both on the car stereo, and Hiatt’s songs, especially, came to have a very special meaning for her. ‘Living the Rest of the Dream’ was our song, three of us bound together in one life; ‘Perfectly Good Guitar’ was for rockin’ out; ‘Drive South’ accompanied our car trips, whether to Cornwall, the south of France or Italy.  More recently, for S, ‘Child of the Wild Blue Yonder’ became a personally defining song.  Traversing a rough time at work and in her personal life,  and to signify her determination to power her way through, she had tattooed on her foot a line from the lyric: the power just to be.

If you see her falling
That’s just a little trick she does
She makes a dive for the pain that’s calling
Then heads for the clouds like a little dove…

Medicine woman raised her
Spirit father praised her
Through their love she was set free
From a baby kicking and screaming
To a full blood woman dreaming
With the power just to be

So anyway…Monday night we join the crowd at the Empire, Shepherd’s Bush to see Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt play together in a format they’ve been presenting to audiences in the US for a few years now, but, as far as I’m aware, never before in Britain. The format is plain and simple: the two alternate songs from their extensive back catalogue, accompanied only by their own guitars, and between songs trade gags, anecdotes and musical memories. Lovett plays the dry, straight man with his deadpan humour. The two spend almost as much time talking in between songs as playing music – which we found fascinating and entertaining, but which annoyed some insensitive boor in the audience who yelled ‘Get on with it, guys!’  Lovett seemed rattled, hurriedly moving on to the next song, but Hiatt dedicated the next song to ‘the man who had a train to catch’.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, songwriting troubadours from Texas and Tennessee respectively, have forged an unusual alliance in recent years. Both men are in their fifties, with extensive back catalogues and dedicated, if ageing, fan bases. So the idea of pooling resources and going on the road together was not, in itself, so radical. But they have gone one step further and evolved an affectionate, slightly quirky double act that proved to be surprisingly more than the sum of the parts involved.  Sitting next to each other and cradling their acoustic guitars at the front of a vast area of empty stage, the two men swapped anecdotes, cracked jokes and fired off songs in turn, each of them occasionally contributing to the other’s number, or else just soaking up the music and enjoying their good buddy’s company.  “We’ve been on the bus together for three weeks and . . .” Hiatt said, “We’re starting to finish off each other’s sentences,” Lovett continued.
Review, The Times

This was how the evening progressed: each man would take it in turn to play and sing, revealing the contrasts between their songwriting and performing styles. Hiatt sings a lot about cars and guitars: he sang ‘Thunderbird’, one of his more recent songs, a paen to the classic Ford of the 50s and 60s, and in ‘Slow Turning’ he sang:

My only pride and joy
Was this racket down here
Banging on an old guitar
And singin’ what I had to say

His approach to the guitar is that of a rocker, bashing out the rhythm, most notably on  ‘Riding With the King’  and ‘Master of Disaster’. Talking about recording the Master of Disaster album, produced by close friend Jim Dickinson who died last year, John recalled that the inscription on Jim’s headstone reads: ‘Not gone, just dead’.

Lyle, on the other hand, picks the guitar with a certain delicacy and sparseness, and favours songs that are either introspective miniatures like ‘A Simple Song’ or Pontiac’ or which  showcase his wry humour, such as  ‘She’s No Lady’ and  ‘Her First Mistake’.

All in all, apart from having to undergo the endurance test of standing through a lengthy set of two and a half hours, this was a great evening and a Christmas gift for which I give grateful thanks.  And there was more – towards the end my joy was unbounded when Lyle and John were joined on stage by another of my guitar heroes, Joe Ely, who who ‘happened to be in town’ (apparently to record a show with Lyle and John for BBC TV). He sang the Flatlanders tune, ‘Wishing for a Rainbow’ and his own ‘My Eyes Got Lucky’ before the trio did a great version of  Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Gonna be Treated This Way’. They wrapped up the show with a rather low-key rendition of  ‘Ain’t No More Cane’.


Lyle: I Will Rise Up, She’s Already Made Up Her Mind, If I Had a Boat, She’s No Lady, Pontiac, My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Her First Mistake, LA County, Simple Song

John: Memphis in the Meantime, Riding With the King, Real Fine Love, Drive South, Slow Turning, Thing Called Love, Thunderbird, Master of Disaster, Crossing Muddy Waters, Like a Freight Train (the only new song – from his forthcoming album The Open Road)

Joe: Wishing for a Rainbow, My Eyes Got Lucky

Lyle ,  John & Joe: Ain’t Gonna be Treated This Way, Ain’t No More Cane

A few YouTube clips, the first three from recent nights on the European tour:

John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, Brussels, 10.2.2010: If I had a boat

Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt, Zurich 1.2.2010: My Baby Don’t Tolerate

John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, Milan, 2.2.2010: Memphis in the Meantime

John Hiatt – Thunderbird (album track)

John Hiatt – Slow Turning (DVD track)

And finally…for S, the song she waited for, but John didn’t sing:

John Hiatt: Child Of The Wild Blue Yonder (live, Italian TV 1993)

Lyle: I Will Rise Up
5. John: Memphis in the Meantime
6. Lyle: If I Had a Boat
7. John: Real Fine Love
8. Lyle: Penguins
9. John: Drive South
10. Lyle: Walk Through the Bottomland
11. John: What Do We Do Now
12. Lyle: She’s No Lady
13. John: Seven Little Indians
14. Lyle: The Waltzing Fool
15. John: What Love Can Do
16. Lyle: Keep It In Your Pantry
17. John: Slow Turning
18. Lyle: Home Is Where My Horse Is
19. John: Thing Called Love
20. Lyle: My Baby Don’t Tolerate
21. Lyle & John: Ain’t No More Cane

Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound

I saw first Joan Baez perform live at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1964, being at the time addicted to her first two studio albums, with their strange and mysterious songs such as ‘Silkie’, ‘Barbara Allen’ and the ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’. I recall that I was surprised and thrilled that the ‘Queen of Folk’ was both funny and hip: joking and singing snatches of the Beatles and the Supremes. Tonight I watched Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound in the PBS American Masters series (streaming online until December 10). For me, nearly 50 years have passed since I first dropped the needle on a Baez album. However, the film’s director, Mary Wharton, writes on the PBS website that,

‘growing up in the 1970’s, I was mostly aware of Joan Baez from her hits of that decade, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds and Rust.” I don’t think I had any idea about her connection to Bob Dylan (I didn’t know that “Diamonds and Rust” was about him) and I was pretty much unaware of Joan’s earlier incarnation as the Queen of Folk. I do remember knowing that she was “political” and that as a kid growing up in the South during the Vietnam War, I had respect for a woman who was not afraid to speak her mind.’

Well, she’s produced a fine film that primarily focuses on those two themes – the folk years (with amazingly crisp film shot at Club 47 in Boston in 1958, when Joan was only 17 years old – see below) and her long-standing political committment to the causes of peace and human rights. In fact, it’s this latter theme that shines through most powerfully, with many details that are fresh and striking. We learn that when Joan was ten her father was sent by Unesco to work in Baghdad and that her  awareness of real poverty was the first step in her journey towards a sense of social justice; that she was a conscientious objector as early as age 17 when she refused to take part in a nuclear attack drill. We see her in 1964 marching beside Martin Luther King in Grenada, Mississippi, to integrate local schools; and, of course, alongside King at the March on Washington in 1963 where she sang ‘We Shall Overcome’. This was the era of church bombings lamented in Joan’s rendition of Richard Farina’s ‘Birmingham Sunday’ about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on 15 September 1963, a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shutterworth.

There is film footage of her confronting conscripts at the Oakland Induction Centre – she and her mother were jailed for 45 days for blocking the doorways.  In 1968 she married David Harris, a leader of the movement resisting the draft for Vietnam. In July 1969 Harris was imprisoned again for refusing induction into the draft. Baez was pregnant with their son, Gabe, but within three months of Harris’s release from jail they separated, and were divorced in 1972. There is moving footage of them meeting again and recalling those times.

In 1972 Baez was in Hanoi as a guest of the North Vietnamese and to deliver mail to American PoWs. On her third night in the city the Americans began carpet bombing the city, which continued for 11 days. ‘It was the first time I’d ever really felt mortal’. The maimed and broken bodies lying in the streets after the raids, and the frightened and confused American PoWs, were the most shocking and heartbreaking spectacle Baez says she has ever seen. She describes how for years she suppressed all of the horror she had felt.

Perhaps the most moving section of the film is when we see Joan in Sarajevo in 1993, the first major artist to perform in the beseiged city since the outbreak of the civil war. There she encountered the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’, Vedran Smajlović (see this post) and in the film we see him play in the alley where the atrocity had occurred, after which Joan takes his seat and sings ‘Amazing Grace’.

Mentioning Richard Farina earlier reminds me of another passage in the film, when Joan talks movingly of her sister, Mimi, who died after a  two-year battle with cancer in 2001. In the sixties she too was a folk icon, recording with her husband Richard Farina. They did a lovely version of  ‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’.

Others who appear in the film include David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Reverend Jesse Jackson. The film includes footage shot in Nashville, where she was working with Steve Earle as producer on her latest album, Day After Tomorrow. What’s interesting is that she talks about both Bob Dylan and Steve Earle as her muses – Bob Dylan enabling her to break out from the traditional folk song reportoire to incorporate songs that reflected her own political values; now Steve Earle is an inspiration, providing songs on her three most recent albums.

Certainly Joan has always had an ear for a good song – from the early folk ballads, through the Dylan covers (some of them definitive such as ‘Farewell Angelina’, ‘Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’) to recent albums with choice songs from luminaries such as Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Tom Waits, Thea Gilmore, Elvis Costello, Diana Jones and John Hiatt. And they are choice; take these:

Well I recall his parting words
Must I accept his fate?
Or take myself far from this place
I thought I heard a black bell toll
A little bird did sing
Man has no choice
When he wants everything

We’ll rise above the scarlet tide
That trickles down through the mountain
And separates the widow from the bride

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
The dark of night was swiftly fading
Close to the dawn of the day
Why would I want him
Just to lose him again

Scarlet Tide – Elvis Costello

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls

Jerusalem – Steve Earle

Cut me down, bury this rosary
Somewhere out of town, somewhere out by the sea
And take this ring, and give it to Emily
Tell her I’m peaceful now, Tell her I’ve been released
I will be rolling on, I will be rolling on
Well I know that drill, I know it all too well
It starts like a lonely voice, and it shifts to a tolling bell
Like rain on the dusty ground, small bones in the driest well
The spark breeds a fiery tongue, and the tongues kiss the cheek of Hell
There’s no telling which way, boys, this thing is going to take hold
From the fruit on a poplar tree, to the bruise round a band of gold
From the blood in a far country, to the war of just growing old
We travel a lower road, and it’s lonely and it is cold
But we will be rolling on, we will be rolling on
We’ve had our part to play, now we are going home
We will keep rolling on, we will keep rolling on
‘Cos for every midnight hour, there’s always a rising sun

The Lower Road – Thea Gilmore

Where in the hell can you go far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete that keeps crawling its way about 1,000 miles a day?
Take one last look behind, commit this to memory and mind.
Don’t miss this wasteland, this terrible place.
When you leave keep your heart off your sleeve.
Motherland cradle me, close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep.
Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me don’t go.

Motherland – Natalie Merchant

Those early songs were rich in imagery and language, full of strangeness, mystery, injustice and death. In ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ a young woman who is ‘twice twelve’ sings of being done a great wrong – married by her father to a boy who ‘is but fourteen’ who will ‘make a lord for you to wait upon’. But death brings an end to all hopes and aspiration:

At the age of fourteen, he was a married man
At the age of fifteen, the father of a son
At the age of sixteen, his grave it was green
And death had put an end to his growing.

Neither mother nor father can stop the tragedy of the woman wronged by in ‘Railroad Boy’:

That railroad boy that I love so well.
He courted me my life away
And now at home will no longer stay.”
“There is a place in yonder town
Where my love goes and he sits him down.
And he takes that strange girl on his knee
And he tells to her what he won’t tell me.”
Her father he came home from work
Sayin’, “Where is my daughter, she seems so hurt”
He went upstairs to give her hope
An’ he found her hangin’ by a rope.

‘Hard-hearted Barbara Allen’ dies of sorrow and remorse for failing to comfort her dying William, but redemption comes through nature:

Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William was buried beside her,
Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.

They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar.

But strangest of all, and truly haunting, was the tale told in ‘Silkie’ (for me, also one of Joan’s very best vocals):

An earthly nurse sits and sings,
And aye she sings a lily wean –
“Little ken I my bairn’s father,
Far less the land that he dwells in.”

For he’s come one night to her bed’s foot
And a grumly guest I’m sure he’d be,
Saying, “Here am I, thy bairn’s father,
Although I be not comely.

‘I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie in the sea,
And when I’m far and far from land,
My home it is the sule skerrie.’

And he has ta’en a purse of gold,
And he had placed it upon her knee,
Saying, “Give to me my little young son
And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.

“And I will come one summer’s day
When the sun shine’s bright on every stane,
I’ll come and fetch my little young son,
And teach him how to swim the faem.

“And ye shall marry a gunner bold,
And a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that ever he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.”

Joan Baez is here singing  Child Ballad number 113, which tells of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, one of
numerous tales of the selkies, or seals, known to the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands. In these stories, the selkies were not malicious creatures but rather gentle shape shifters with the ability to transform from seals into humans. It was that final verse that haunted me, with its crystallisation of the relationship between man the hunter and the natural world – even more remarkable arising from an island culture where seals had long been regarded by fishermen as serious competitors.

Here is an excellent appreciation of Joan, on the PBS website, by Arthur Levy:

Fifty Years of Joan Baez

In the summer of 1958, Joan Chandos Baez, a 17-year old high school graduate (by the skin of her teeth) moved with her family—her parents Albert and Joan, older sister Pauline and younger sister Mimi—from Palo Alto to Boston. They drove cross-country with the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” all over the radio, a guilty pleasure of Joan’s. That fall she entered Boston University School Of Drama where she was surrounded by a musical group of friends who shared a passion for folk music.

A stunning soprano, Joan’s natural vibrato lent a taut, nervous tension to everything she sang. Yet even as an 18-year old, introduced onstage at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, her repertoire reflected a different sensibility from her peers. In the traditional songs she mastered, there was an acknowledgment of the human condition

She recorded her first solo LP for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960, the beginning of a prolific 14-album, 12-year association with the label. Her earliest records, with their mix of traditional ballads, blues, lullabies, Carter Family, Weavers and Woody Guthrie songs, cowboy tunes, ethnic folk staples of American and non-American vintage, and much more—won strong followings in the U.S. and abroad.

Among the songs she introduced on her earliest albums that would find their ways into the repertoire of 60’s rock stalwarts were “House Of the Rising Sun” (the Animals), “John Riley” (the Byrds), “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (Led Zeppelin), “What Have They Done To the Rain” (the Searchers), “Jackaroe” (Grateful Dead), and “Long Black Veil” (the Band), to name a few. “Geordie,” “House Carpenter” and “Matty Groves” inspired a multitude of British acts who trace their origins to Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span.

In 1963, Joan began touring with Bob Dylan and recording his songs, a bond that came to symbolize the folk music movement for the next two years. At the same time, Joan began her lifelong role of introducing songs from a host of contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Phil Ochs, Richard Fariña, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and others. Her repertoire grew to include songs by Jacques Brel, Lennon-McCartney, Johnny Cash and his Nashville peers, and South American composers Nascimento, Bonfa, Villa-Lobos, and others.

At a time in our country’s history when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, and her life’s work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, she withheld 60% of her income tax from the IRS to protest military spending and participated in the birth of the Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. A year later she co-founded the Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence near her home in Carmel Valley. In 1966, Joan Baez stood in the fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers striking for fair wages and opposed capital punishment at San Quentin during a Christmas vigil. The following year she turned her attention to the draft resistance movement. In 1968, she recorded an album of country standards for her then-husband David Harris. He was later taken into custody by Federal marshals in July 1969 and imprisoned for 20 months for refusing induction and organizing draft resistance against the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, Joan traveled to Hanoi with the U.S.-based Liaison Committee and helped establish Amnesty International on the West Coast.

In the wake of the Beatles, the definition of folk music—a singer with an acoustic guitar—broadened and liberated many artists. Rather than following the pack into amplified folk-rock, Joan recorded three remarkable LPs with classical instrumentation. Later, as the 60’s turned into the 70’s, she began recording in Nashville. The “A-Team” of Nashville’s session musicians backed Joan on her last four LPs for Vanguard Records (including her biggest career single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971) and her first two releases on A&M.

Within the context of those albums and the approaching end of hostilities in Southeast Asia, Joan turned to the suffering of those living in Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet. To those people she dedicated her first album sung entirely in Spanish, a record that inspired Linda Ronstadt, later in the 80’s, to begin recording the Spanish songs of her heritage. One of the songs Joan sang on that album, “No Nos Moveran” (We Shall Not Be Moved) had been banned from public singing in Spain for more than 40 years under Generalissimo Franco’s rule and was excised from copies of the LP sold there. Joan became the first major artist to sing the song publicly when she performed it on a controversial television appearance in Madrid in 1977, three years after the dictator’s death.

In 1975, Joan’s self-penned “Diamonds & Rust” became the title song of an LP with songs by Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, John Prine, Stevie Wonder & Syreeta, Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band—and Bob Dylan. His Rolling Thunder Revues of late 75 and 76 (and resulting movie Renaldo & Clara, released in 1978) co-starred Joan Baez.

In 1978, she traveled to Northern Ireland and marched with the Irish Peace People, calling for an end to violence. She appeared at rallies on behalf of the nuclear freeze movement and performed at benefit concerts to defeat California’s Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative), legislation that would have banned openly gay people from teaching in public schools. Joan received the American Civil Liberties Union’s Earl Warren Award for her commitment to human and civil rights issues and founded Humanitas International Human Rights Committee, which she headed for 13 years. She won the San Francisco Bay Area Music Award (BAMMY) award as top female vocalist in 1978 and 1979. A number of film, video and live recordings released in Europe and the U.S. documented her travels and concerts into the ’80s.

In 1983, she performed on the Grammy awards telecast for the first time (singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”). In the summer of 1985, after opening the U.S. segment of the worldwide Live Aid telecast, she later appeared at the revived Newport Folk Festival, the first gathering there since 1969. In 1986, Joan joined Peter Gabriel, Sting and others on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour; her subsequent album was influenced by the tour, as it acknowledged artists and groups whose lives in turn were influenced by her, with songs from Gabriel, U2, Dire Straits, Johnny Clegg, and others. Later in 1986, however, she was chosen to perform The People’s Summit concert in Iceland at the time of the historic meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Joan’s 1989 concert in Czechoslovakia was attended by many of that country’s dissidents including President Vaclav Havel who cited her as a great influence in the so-called Velvet Revolution.

After attending an early Indigo Girls concert in 1990 (the year after their major label album debut), Joan teamed with the duo and Mary Chapin Carpenter (as Four Voices) for a series of benefit performances. The experience reinforced Joan’s belief in the new generation of songwriters’ ability to speak to her. When her album, Play Me Backwards, was released in 1992, it featured songs by Carpenter, John Hiatt, John Stewart, and others.

In 1993, Joan became the first major artist to perform in Sarajevo since the outbreak of the civil war as she traveled to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Refugees International. The next year, she sang in honor of Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala in Washington, D.C. Also in 1994, Joan and Janis Ian sang for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Fight the Right fundraising event in San Francisco.

In 1995, Joan received her third BAMMY as Outstanding Female Vocalist. Joan’s nurturing support of other singer-songwriters came full circle with her next album, Ring Them Bells. This idea of collaborative mentoring was expanded on 1997’s Gone From Danger, where Joan was revealed as a lightning rod for young songwriting talent, with compositions from Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan, Kerrville Music Festival newcomer Betty Elders, Austin’s The Borrowers, and Richard Shindell (who went on to tour extensively with Joan over the years).

In August 2001, Vanguard Records began the most extensive chronological CD reissue program ever devoted to one artist in the company’s history. Expanded editions (with bonus tracks and newly commissioned liner notes) were released of her debut solo album of 1960, Joan Baez, and Joan Baez Vol. 2 (1961). The six-year campaign went on to encompass every original LP she recorded while under contract to the label from 1960 to 1972. In 2003, spurred by Vanguard’s lead, Universal Music Enterprises gathered Joan’s six complete A&M albums released from 1972 to 1976 into a mini-boxed set of four CDs with bonus material and extensive liner notes.

The release of Dark Chords On a Big Guitar in September 2003 was supported with a 22-city U.S. tour. On October 3, Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin presented her debut performance of The Joan Baez Suite, Opus 144. Written for Isbin by John Duarte and commissioned by the Augustine Foundation, the piece featured songs from Joan’s earliest days in folk music.

On the night of February 11, 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards telecast viewed by more than a billion people worldwide, it was announced that Joan Baez had received the highly prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, the greatest honor that the Recording Academy can bestow. In turn, she introduced the live performance of “Not Ready To Make Nice” by dark horse nominees the Dixie Chicks. It was an ironic moment, as Joan’s “lifetime” of activism resonated in sync with the trio. They had been blacklisted by country radio and the Academy Of Country Music (ACM) when they criticized the president and the impending war in Iraq back in March 2003.

On Saturday, June 28, 2008, Joan was seen by countless TV viewers worldwide at the 46664 event in London’s Hyde Park, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. After appearing with Johnny Clegg and the Soweto Gospel Choir singing “Asimbonanga,” Joan later stood center stage behind Mandela when he addressed the assembled crowd of 46,664 people. The event coincided with the annual Glastonbury Music Festival that same weekend, where Joan was also performing.

Most recently, on September 4th, in advance of Day After Tomorrow’s release, Joan launches the new 2008-2009 lecture season at New York City’s 92nd Street Y (where she made her official NY concert debut in 1960). The event will be an in-depth conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis at the 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall.

Later, on September 18th, Joan receives the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association’s 7th annual awards show in Nashville. The honor “recognizes and celebrates artists who have ignited discussion and challenged the status quo through their music and actions.” Past recipients include Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Mavis Staples and Steve Earle, who presents the award to Joan.

“All of us are survivors,” Joan Baez wrote, “but how many of us transcend survival?” 50 years on, she continues to show renewed vitality and passion in her concerts and records, and is more comfortable than ever inside her own skin. In this troubled world, to paraphrase “Wings,” she will always continue to seek “a place where they can hear me when I sing.”

— Arthur Levy

Disfarmer: more interesting images than music

I’ve been listening to the new Bill Frisell album, Disfarmer. I know he is considered to be a great guitarist, but I find his albums, with the exception of Good Dog, Happy Man, rather dreary and uninspiring – ‘gentle sweet nothings’, in the words of a BBC review. Despite the favourable reviews, this one doesn’t do it for me either, though there is a rather jaunty version of ‘It’s Alright Mama’.

Much more interesting, however, is what inspired the album and explains its strange title: the story of  Mike Disfarmer a small town eccentric from Heber Springs, Arkansas. Disfarmer is an unusual name – because he made it up, changing his name to indicate a rift with both his kin and his agrarian surroundings. He was born Michael Meyer in 1884 and legally changed his name to Disfarmer to disassociate himself from the farming community in which he plied his trade and from his own kinfolk—claiming that a tornado had accidentally blown him onto the Meyer family farm as a baby.

But Disfarmer set up a portrait studio in Heber Springs and photographed members of the local community, producing portraits that endowed his subjects with a sense of dignity. His photographs capture the essence of a particular community at a particular time with solemnity and a touching simplicity. After his death in the 1950s the negatives and glass plates recording his portraits were rescued and eventually became widely known: the full story is here.

Explaining the inspiration for his album, Bill Frisell’ said:

I try to picture what went on in Disfarmer’s mind. How did he really feel about the people in this town? What was he thinking? What did he see? We’ll never know, but as I write the music, I’d like to imagine it coming from his point of view. The sound of him looking through the lens.

These art2art notes sum up Disfarmer’s significance as a photographer:

Despite his quirks, as the resident studio photographer in tiny Heber Springs, Arkansas, Disfarmer captured the faces of the American heartland at a defining period in history, as they struggled through the Depression and World War II.

Disfarmer is often compared to Walker Evans for his powerfully rendered Depression-era Southern subjects, and to August Sander for his rendering of “people without masks.” In turn, Richard Avedon acknowledged Disfarmer’s influence when he created In the American West.

In his biography, Rick Woodward writes, “Disfarmer is not cruel, patronizing or sentimental about [his subjects’] plight. But neither is he a friend or pastor. He is like a crime scene photographer, determined to record the details because the details are what ultimately will exonerate a person. The reality of their condition—the hats, creases in their jeans and dresses, lines in faces and hands, bad posture, dangling cigarettes and arms, staring eyes—can be preserved in a photograph and serve as existential evidence.”

Bill Frisell: Disfarmer project slideshow


Mary Travers

Mary Travers, who with Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow helped popularise folk music in the 1960s as Peter, Paul and Mary, has died aged 72.  Peter, Paul and Mary were the most popular folk group of the 1960s and their music had a profound effect on my musical appreciation and political development at that time. Along with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, they provided a doorway to a rich musical tradition. They could trace their roots and inspiration back to music and events from the late ’40s, and the founding of the Weavers. Though they broke up in 1952, the Weavers planted two seeds in American popular culture: one was the folk song revival of the late fifties and the other, a byproduct of their blacklisting, was the emergence of a politically focused branch of folk music.

Travers was born in Kentucky but attended high school in New York’s West Village, where her family lived in the same building as Pete Seeger. She became a disciple of the Weavers and performed with Seeger before Yarrow and his manager Albert Grossman (who later steered Bob Dylan’s career) recruited her for the trio. After seven months of rehearsals, the group made its debut in 1961 performing songs carefully arranged by Milk Okun.

I played their first two LPs till the vinyl smoked, alongside The Times They Are A Changin’ and Joan Baez 1 and 2. Their debut contained ‘Early In The Morning’ (featured recently on Mad Men),  ‘500 Miles’, ‘If I Had a Hammer’,’Lemon Tree’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’. The follow-up, In The Wind, included three Dylan tracks (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, in a version I have always loved, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘Quit Your Lowdown Ways’) as well as ‘Long Chain On’, ‘Rocky Road’ and ‘All My Trials’.

Peter Paul and Mary sometimes get a bad press, but I never saw any contradiction between listening to the Beatles and the Stones, or the latest top twenty on Radio Luxembourg, and being inspired by the stars of the sixties folk revival. What their songs provided was something different – rich imagery, social comment and the politics of resistance. I remember the electric impact of PPM singing Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘Long Chain On’:

One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
he had a long chain on.

I heard his chains a clankin’,
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
draggin’ along the ground.

He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
“I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread”

He didn’t look like a robber,
he didn’t look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
a face full of sorrow and grief.

I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
that’s what I gave him to eat

Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
he said a beautiful grace.

I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
“I guess we had best let it be.”

When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it’s been years since I’ve seen him,
still hear him draggin’ his chain.

You didn’t have to take on board the underlying religious import of these lyrics (I had grown up in a household where my mum was a fervent believer and my dad a fierce atheist, and by then I had followed him in rejecting organised religion) to feel the strange power of the imagery; the sense that eradicating hunger and injustice required more than one blow of a hammer and chisel: it needed a movement.

At 15 years old, hearing Peter Paul and Mary perform ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’  at the March on Washington in 1963 was transcendent. The trio reflected the moment in history, politics, and art with Dylan’s song. Civil rights activism was at its height, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ embodied the spirit of the time.

The song established Bob Dylan as the conscience of my generation, and PP&M as the voice of that conscience, culminating with their performance at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech. Their recording of the song had been released as a single just two months earlier,  in June 1963, and was an instant hit, selling over 300,000 copies in less than two weeks and eventually rising to number two on the U.S. charts.



Mary and the rest of the trio remained politically active, as can be seen in the 1971 YouTube video below. She was outspoken in her support for the civil-rights and antiwar movements, in sharp contrast to clean-cut folk groups like the Kingston Trio, which avoided making political statements. They had always combined their music with radical causes, both onstage and off. Their version of “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem for racial equality. They were vehement in their opposition to the Vietnam War and in more rcent times performed at the 1995 anniversary of the Kent State shootings and at benefits for California strawberry pickers.

In a 1966 New York Times interview, Travers said the three worked well together because they respected one another. “There has to be a certain amount of love just in order for you to survive together,” she said. “I think a lot of groups have gone down the tubes because they were not able to relate to one another.”

Peter Paul & Mary: Blowin In The Wind (Tonight In Person 1966)

Peter Paul & Mary: Early Morning Rain (Tonight In Person 1966)

Peter Paul & Mary: Early in the Morning

Peter, Paul & Mary: If I Had A Hammer

Peter Paul & Mary: 500 Miles

Peter Paul & Mary: Washington Peace March, 1971