Where I go on and on about Zilphia Horton during a webcast from Echo Mountain Studio

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Pharis & Jason Romero – ‘Long Gone Out West Blues’

Pharis and Jason RomeroOriginally written for Folk Alley

Let’s just get the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings comparison out of the way.

Good, now we can listen more deeply. After all, Pharis & Jason Romero are artists unto themselves – instrument makers, songwriters, pickers extraordinaire. These two clearly have as much adoration and natural talent for the traditions of American folk music as they do for the intrinsic musicality of their two voices.

Fresh from a win at the Canadian Folk Music Awards (they won New/Emerging Artist of the Year), they’ve got a sophomore album ready (Long Gone Out West Blues), which wanders deeper into their craft. Like a path through the woods, you think you know where you’re headed until you to hear the running water. Then come the lonely songs.

There can be a desperation in singing lonely songs – something quiet, sad, and seething. But, when the Romeros sing, there’s more of a letting go. You’re not peering into the mind of a songwriter; you’re witnessing the release of some long-clenched story or emotion. Though these are all beautifully composed, well-considered songs, there’s a sense that the music is coming more from the spur of the moment – the newness of the emotion – than from the channeling spirit you might witness with Welch & Rawlings. For example, when Pharis comes in on “Wild Bill Jones,” it’s like she was listening to this confession then joined in out of urgent solidarity.

Besides, as the album progresses, the influence of Joni Mitchell surfaces on “The Little Things Are Hardest in the End” – possibly the album’s hardest hitting tune – followed by hints of Dylan and Baez, and other more elusive influences. A spirit emerges, clearly plucked from deep within obscure field recordings. From Pharis’ thoughtful, creative originals to classics like “Sally Goodin”, you might be hard pressed to determine what’s old and what’s new.

This is music made on a timeless continuum, where yesterday’s troubles contribute to today’s lonesome songs. Listen in, and see where it takes you.

A few of my favorite things about 2012: A somewhat musical review

Anais MitchellOriginally written for No Depression

I rang in 2012 at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina, at an Avett Brothers concert. It was one of two or three times that I’d see the Avetts in 2012. Another memorable moment came at the Austin City Limits Festival. Completely exhausted and overwhelmed with the absurd crowds, the downpours, the horrendous sound systems and football-on-big-screens interludes, my partner and I bailed a couple songs into the Avetts’ set. On our way back to the car, though, we discovered we could hear the band crystal clear from the park across the street, where the competing stages and crowd noise were strangely filtered away. (By what? All the bicycles? The three or four trees?) We sat on the lawn – we could even see through the fence – and enjoyed the rest of their show from afar.

In a way, it was a good metaphor for my year in the music business. It was a year when I took a break from the absurd overcrowding of music festivals and industry events, focused in on my home and family, a book I’m trying to write, the couple of day jobs I hold down, and finding space in my heart and mind to truly, completely enjoy music again. Not just because I have to; not because it’s my job to enjoy music; but because I was once a five-year-old child craving more than anything a seat at a piano, where I dreamed I might plunk keys with so much creative energy as to play entire landscapes into being.

Music is in my blood and, at times, I’ve found being a critic is like donating platelets. It’s not a perfect existence, but it allows me to deeply, richly analyse the thing with which I have fueled my world. After six years of doing what I thought others expected of a critic, 2012 was the year where I did what I expected of myself. As a result, I found music from across the street, away from the maddening crowd, among the trees and the fields, where the sound could dance on its own, with plenty of space, without competing for anything or trying to fit into any particular scene.

I sat on a hill in Tennessee, just about halfway through 2012. It was a hill on which others have sat for 80 years. A hill at theHighlander Center, which has been borrowed from the mountains along the Tennesee-Carolina border for the purpose of figuring out how to make the world a better place. The others who have sat there have, for generations, had hard conversations, have cried and sweat and slept in fear. They’ve been raided and threatened. They’ve had incredible meals and celebrated, and danced, and dreamed. They’ve stretched and wandered and tried to come up with plans. They have challenged each other – as I was challenged that week. At the beginning and end of every day, they have sung songs which were sung by others before them, who faced other questions and struggled with larger and different injustices, and have overcome. There, I remembered music is something we have not only to entertain us, but to carry us, to help us carry each other. The history of music – specifically folk music, roots music, the stuff we call Americana – is a rope over the mountain, onto which we can grab for strength, for direction, or just when we need to rest, when we need to connect.

If you listen to the ten albums I collected into a list of some of my favorites of the year, you’ll hear all these things. You’ll hear the hand of history reaching out to pull us through. You’ll hear the struggles of everyday people, coming to terms with the cacophony of life. You’ll hear melodies which defy the din of me-me-me – the status updates and news headlines and sensationalism of political debate. Anais Mitchell, John Fullbright, Rodney Crowell, Rose Cousins, Black Prairie, the Avetts…everyone listed – these are artists who have crossed the street to sit in the empty spaces, away from everything. They’ve stepped back from the canvas and taken a look at the bigger picture, back far enough to filter out the bullshit and hone in on the parts of it which serve us. The parts which sing. Which swing us, carry us forward.

2012 was the year I lost all interest in music which does none of those things. I appreciate entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but with the world being as it is, I feel the need to hear music which pulls us forward, through, beyond the polarized madness and fear and confusion. These albums have pointed out the beautiful nature of all of us. I can’t wait to see how we all move with artists like this poised to carry us forward.

My favorite albums of 2012:

  1. Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
  2. Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
  3. Rose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark
  4. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
  5. Rodney Crowell & Mary Karr – Kin
  6. Various Artists Mercyland – Hymns for the Rest of Us
  7. John Fullbright – From the Ground Up
  8. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change
  9. Black Prairie – A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart
  10. Avett Brothers – The Carpenter

The Next Big Thing – Tag! I’m It

Last week, my friend Denise Kiernan tagged me in a post on her blog, effectively signing me up for this author meme that’s going around. Denise and her husband Joe are both fabulous writers whose work – together and apart – deserves your eyes. Her newest book The Girls of Atomic City – about the women who unwittingly worked on the atomic bomb – drops Mar. 5 via Touchston/Simon & Schuster. Buy it.

Now, to the meme. The rule is, you fill it out, tag someone else to do the same, they fill it out and tag others, and so on. Here you go:

1) What is the title of your next book?

0715000313-lCurrent working title: ‘We Will Overcome: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton’. (That’s Zilphia to the right.)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Long ago and far away, I was writing very brief histories (maybe 500-750 words a pop) of American folk songs for one of my day jobs. George W. Bush was president and people in the folk music world had been complaining that no protest song movement had emerged. I asked Ani DiFranco – my generation’s most celebrated songwriter who could possibly be considered a “protest singer” – why she thought that was, and she told me one reason might be because those songs are hard to write. All the words which describe what’s wrong, she told me, are not musical words. Patriarchy, consumerism, evangelism, partisanship…these are not words which lend themselves to being sung or rhymed with. She had a point.

After that interview, I decided to try to focus my folk-music-history project on tunes that had moved social change without even bringing up what was wrong. I found a well of old optimistic folk songs, and started tracing their histories. Most of them had been touched – at one point or another – by a woman named Zilphia Horton.

Zilphia is a memorable name. I had assumed she was an elder in her community. As folk music history goes, there’s usually a common singer or instrumentalist who taught everyone around them any number of songs. I figured Zilphia was that figure in her world. I was right, but there was more. As I dug, I found the songs that were tied to her were not just optimistic songs; they were some of the most important movement songs in American history – “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, “We Shall Not Be Moved”, “This Little Light of Mine”, “We Shall Overcome”, and on and on. I finally looked her up and found out almost nothing had been written about her. What had been written indicated she had influenced Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She’d worked with Eleanor Roosevelt and sung with Rosa Parks. Her work inspired former President of the CIO John L. Lewis to declare “A singing army is a winning army.” Etc.

I wished I could learn more about her. I wished someone would write a book about her life. I wished that for about three years until I remembered I’m a writer and got to work.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Narrative non-fiction, narrative history.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Sara RamirezZilphia was a large woman – not fat, just tall and…husky. Finding a striking actress the size of Zilphia, who could also sing very well, might be difficult. Maybe Sara Ramirez? (“Dr. Torres” from Grey’s Anatomy.) Anne Hathaway could do it if she put a little meat on her bones. Hollywood could put her in a ‘big’ suit, perhaps. Regardless, John Hamm would be a great Myles Horton (Zilphia’s husband).

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s the story of a small town teacher who stood amid the segregated confusion of the McCarthy Era, and taught the revolution to sing.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I want to go the traditional route with this, but have no representation yet. I tried for a minute to get some, then realized I was jumping the gun. I’m still researching and collecting and organizing information, so I’m not sweating it. I’m in it for the long haul.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

There was almost nothing written about Zilphia when I started, so the past two years have been full of detective work – collecting oral histories from people pushing 100, piecing together facts from interviews other people conducted with folks who are now dead, visiting the Highlander center to learn how it works, tracking down anyone who knew her and might still be alive… I’ve opened archives for the first time since they were packed away, that sort of thing. I still have some work to do to that end before I can seriously start writing. I’ve taken a few stabs and have several solid pieces, but the best real answer I can give is “so far, two years.”

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It straddles a line between The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Both employ community lore to tell a story from history which was immeasurably impactful but is more or less unknown outside of a certain community. Like Zilphia’s story, they’re both accounts of fascinating obscurities which impact all of our daily lives, and will for many years to come.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I grew up in the South and, after years of moving around, have wound up back here to plant my roots. Mainstream history tells us that Southern – and especially rural Southern – people have always been backwards, inbred, dumb, lazy, racist, etc. Zilphia’s story has opened me up to the realization there have always been strong forces in the South dedicated to justice and equality. These voices have been just as prominent as their opposition but, like any voice of reason, have had to work twice as hard for twice as long to be heard against the din of fear and reactionism. Polarization is more expedient than understanding; fear and propriety seem more urgent than empathy and common ground sometimes, etc. Zilphia’s work was focused on commonalities, truths I feel we’ve wandered away from. She used to tell her students “I don’t care if people do have one country or religion … there’s only one thing they have to have in common before they sing together, and that is that they believe in something.”

The more I learn about Zilphia, frankly, the more astonished I am that her story has yet to be told, the more I feel it must.

Besides, I ran a Kickstarter campaign at the very beginning of all this, just to see if anyone other than me thought Zilphia’s story might be interesting. That scored me $5,000 to gather enough research to devise a story plan. I’m accountable to those people. I’m inspired when I remind myself that my backers are still waiting on this project.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Oh, you know. It’s just a quiet little story punctuated here and there by Communist accusations, threats from the KKK, government moles, FBI files, danger, defiance, accordions, poison, and moonshine.

More about the Zilphiabook here.

Now I’m tagging my friend and former editor Mark Baumgarten, who may or may not oblige. He’s a man of many mysteries. Thanks for reading!

Pete Seeger: “You Stick Together ’Til It’s Won”

Pete SeegerOriginally written for Yes! magazine

When a pair of writers expressed interest in publishing Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, one of Seeger’s first requests was “Don’t make me out to be a saint.”

Banjo in hand, Seeger has championed causes from labor to civil rights to the environment, revived our oldest folk songs, and co-authored new folk classics like “If I Had a Hammer,” so the impulse to portray him as saintly is understandable. But to do so would be a misunderstanding of his message: It doesn’t take a saint to make the world a better place. Real, flawed people do it all the time.

“When I sing [‘Amazing Grace’],” he writes, “I usually remind audiences that the words were written by a man who had for ten years been captain of a slave ship, but in his thirties he quit and … started the antislavery movement in England. He turned his life around and gave us hope that we can turn our country around.”

Seeger is no more a superman than he is a saint. As his letters attest, he has long battled fear, loneliness, and the fear of failure that stems from an overwhelming sense of duty—to his family, his community, his country. He has considered, at every turn, what it means to sing out in a world where the din of injustice is often deafening. But his songs assert that to sing is to recognize the power of one’s own voice, to declare and defend its worth.

In His Own Words is a collection gleaned from Seeger’s letters, essays, and articles. (Some previously unpublished writing in this collection is from the ephemera of decades that Seeger kept stored in his barn.) It begins with a letter from 13-year-old Pete to his mother, asking for funds so that he can purchase a “big banjo and play in the very little jazz band,” then proceeds through his involvement in the labor movement, World War II, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and onward to the present day.

We see Seeger’s development over distinct phases of life: as a young man distraught at the world’s injustice, and as a young soldier frustrated at being kept stateside during the war. As a musician impressed by friends and mentors Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Lee Hays. As a new father delighted by his children, a mature activist worrying for his grandchildrens’ future, and as an older man committed to a legacy of clean water for every living soul along a 315-mile river.

To consider Seeger’s life is to learn a lesson in citizenship. His personal story unfolded during the century when America came into its own as a superpower. Even as Seeger worked to keep traditional music alive, he was unable to sit still while history sped forward.

In His Own Words displays how Seeger’s unique blend of practicality, optimism, and humanism shaped his life of engagement with social responsibility. When he and his family were attacked during the Peekskill Riots in 1949, Seeger took home the stones that had broken his car windows—and cemented them into his fireplace. When he and a crowd marched singing to Columbus Circle amid the thick of the Occupy movement last year, Seeger stopped to pick up a piece of trash from the sidewalk. And, when he found himself cited for contempt of Congress during the McCarthy era, Seeger sat down to write a time capsule letter to his grandchildren. “Communism,” he wrote, “has urged me on, to continually learn, to continually better myself in every way, to always give more for the common good of the working people of America and the world.”

Seeger wrote that letter at a time when he was blacklisted for his political beliefs. Two generations later, at the age of 89, he sang “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for America’s first black president.

The pragmatism and hope that carried him to that moment is expressed in words he wrote in 1965, during the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam, that ring just as true today: “If the world survives these dangerous times, the folk process will go on, and music and poetry can help us teach love and common sense to foolish people who think that money and power are the important things in life.”

Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: The Avett Brothers – ‘The Carpenter’

The Avett BrothersOriginally written for No Depression

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

This provocative quote came from Maggie Kuhn. If you’re unfamiliar, she was an activist and member of the Silver Panthers – a radical organization which organizes to seek justice for older Americans. It’s a popular quote, sure, but placed in the context of the woman who was speaking, it packs a real powerful punch. This is an intelligent, strong, dignified older woman who was speaking to an audience of older people who have already powered through life’s greatest uncertainties with their heads high. The beginning of the quote talks about looking the people you fear in the face.

The point is that fear never gets easier. And, even more than that, the truth is never easy to tell. But telling it is, indeed, important.

The Avett Brothers have built their whole career on telling the truth, with all its imperfections and unglowing, wart-strewn poky points. Somehow so magical that I can’t even begin to articulate, they’ve found a way to do this that makes you stomp and jump and twirl around like a hula-hooping hippy. Yes, their songs are downright catchy and packed with emotional urgency. So much so that, for the past couple of years, bands have been picking up banjos and guitars and cellos, trying to pour their own fluid into the mold cast by the Avetts and their band. The result has been an emergent sound that’s young and optimistic and emotional and raw.

Look more closely at most of those bands, though, and the rawness you’re staring at is about the artistic equivalent of a freshly opened box of macaroni and cheese. It’s the stuff you consume on the way to something better to do. The Avetts, meanwhile, are serving all the ingredients for something homecooked and slaved-over – something to nourish themselves as much as you, something to carry us through.

What’s more, when they sing, their voices often shake.

Though there are moments on The Carpenter where the vocals soar with utter smoothness – giving me the impression they did a number of takes to nail that element – producer Rick Rubin was right to leave in the stuttering parts. Those where their voices are less sure-footed amid difficult emotional declarations. Indeed, some of what they’re unloading here are feelings you would slave over before you mustered the will to whisper them to your most intimate friend. The uncertainty with which they share those feelings openly with all of us strangers reminds us what it is to muster courage.

To follow the metaphor set forth by their album title – it’s the dirt and sweat and trust of building something tangible from a mere idea.

There’s this other band who released one of the highest selling albums of the year doing something that struck me as a predictable facsimile of all the exquisitely honest, raw emotion the Avetts exude from their pinky nails. I think Mumford has so much more in them, so I’ll remain optimistic and wait for their next album, even as I wonder why they enjoyed so much success this time around.

Then again…

Once upon a time, I decided to learn how to play the trumpet. I’d been playing musical instruments for something like 25 years at that point – all of them with strings or keyboards. So, the trumpet seemed like a fun diversionary task for me. Something new to spark some inspiration. One of the first things my trumpet teacher had me do was to hold long tones, to get a hang of my embouchure. (For you non-woodwinds people, that’s French for “how you hold your mouth.”) I was supposed to move through all the various scales and arpeggios via whole notes. But, there was this impulse when I landed smack-dab on, say, a middle-C, to just keep doing long tones of the middle-C. I was so happy to have hit the right note, I just wanted to hear and feel the note coming out of me again and again. Of course that would not have served my development on trumpet at all, so I resisted the urge and moved along up the scale.

I tell you this little story because there is an impulse in music to repeat yourself. Once you’ve landed on the thing that strikes the chord, that gets the audience responding the way you want them to, that gets the energy in the room to a certain level, and so on – you kind of just want to recreate that. But, while there is a certain part of art which requires recreation on some level, making the same album again and again in hopes that it’ll hit people just as hard, is kind of boring if you ask me.

Yet, we hear from critics and fans all the time who complain that an artist has tried something new or gone down a different path. When, if we allow artists to be artists, we have to admit that creativity and consistency are not always friends. Consistency is for Starbucks lattes and McDonalds fries. We should leave the predictability to fast food and WalMart and let the artists lunge in whatever directions entice them. It’s those among us who run in new and different ways, who turn us on to the existence of other possibilities beyond what we can see in our immediate view.

We need them telling us the truth, even when their voices shake.

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Best Albums of 2012: Iris DeMent – ‘Sing the Delta’

originally written for No Depression

I’ve been doing this writing-about-music thing for about eight years, so I guess I can now safely admit (without fear of completely derailing my career) that I really don’t enjoy reviewing albums. Climbing behind a bullyhorn to praise or damn the work of an artist is not my cup of tea. I have very strong and emotionally entangled responses to music – I know what I like – but I have no idea what might resonate with any single other individual on the planet.

It’s important to resonate with people. With someone. Most music resonates with someone.

Besides, people should listen to the music which moves them. I don’t want to deter anyone from listening to any music. Something which strikes me as pretentious copycat crap – because of the mood I’m in or the stage of life I’m in, what else has come through my review stack, or any other reason – might contain a single phrase which cuts straight to the core of someone else’s emotional tumult, exposing them to some kind of sense that they’re not alone and there’s light in the world after all. It’s not my place to tell anyone the way they express themselves is any more valid or important or beautiful than what someone else did. Anything anyone does to communicate from a place of truth and beauty is important if we want to progress toward a more peaceful and equitable world.

I believe music is one of the most important things we can do as human beings. Everyone should do it, or something like it, whenever they need to.

So, don’t get me wrong. I have a great affection – and somewhat obsession – for writing stories about people who make extraordinary music. I love highlighting the ways in which music’s creation intersects with the way we change the world every day – in large and infinitely tiny ways. But criticism? Not so much, usually.

That said, I do criticism now and then when I’m asked, or when I’m told. And, because I’m a sucker for tradition and the celebration of individual effort, at the end of each year, I fall in line and come up with a list of albums which struck me as the most remarkable, effective, creative, provocative, et cetera, albums of the year.

Because I almost never actually review music on this site, I thought I’d take a moment to delve deeply into some of the albums which have made my list this year, so I can hopefully serve my choices more than is possible by simply listing them and adding a video of one of the songs on the album (which is the way I usually deliver my year-end lists).

I’ll be posting in the coming weeks with closeups on these albums – one at a time. Let’s begin, shall we, with Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta. 

The song after which this album was titled is a song about longing for a certain time and place. The grass is greener, the water’s bluer, the heartache more haunting, the love much truer in some place other than here. So, DeMent sings, “Sing the delta a love song for me.” It’s a song which encapsulates all the backward glances of having moved on from a place which was once home – a place which lives now in soft focus, in the rearview. But it’s also a song about marriage and wanting what’s best for another person, in spite of yourself. The woman who’s singing is sending her lover off to pursue what he needs to pursue. She’s recognizing that this wandering pursuit has been present in her whole life, from the Delta to wherever she sits when she’s singing.

It’s a tribute. An ode. It’s a beautiful, arresting song in itself.

But the fact that she used the title of that song to stand for the rest of the album, puts a different spin on things. These dozen songs, she seems to be declaring, are songs which have come from the Delta in one way or another. Stories of truth from a certain part of the country. It’s probably the most folky album title of the year, but it also indicates an intimacy which is at once studious and intensely personal.

If the Delta were to sing, it would sing songs about faith and doubt, love and loss, fire and darkness, dirt and sweat, and a “river of tears.” Like the image on the cover of the disc indicates, these are songs which unfold behind screen doors in working class communities, where people are tired and strong and loving and linked with long, deep family roots.

They’re informed by memory – not so much nostalgia as just the haunting, unforgettable truths which once upon a time rocked our worlds. These songs can be taken on their own – and if DeMent spliced them into a set list next to “Our Town” and “Let the Mystery Be”, they would make some kind of sense – but, in the context of an album aimed at the Delta, they tell a more complex story.

Her chunky piano, slow and stumbling drums, a voice like clothes blowing on a line, like the dripping hot breeze itself…everything that happens sonically on this disc is leaning toward the southern Delta. It’s not just a study of Delta music or traditional stories and ideas. It’s literally the closest estimation humanly possible to how the Delta would make music if it could sing in a human voice.

What makes this album stand out from so many of the other singer-songwriter albums released this year is that DeMent inhabits not just the songs or the stories or the lyrics, but the complete foundational image of the album. I hear artists who write honest songs that spill the beans or recall stories of their past, or explore the sounds of life around them. But they take those tasks one at a time, hoping the effort pulls together in the end for some estimation of continuity. DeMent crawls into the body of the music and looks out through the eyes of the songs, speaks with the language and inflection of the landscape. The difference is embodiment.

DeMent has been singing from this spirit for her whole career, but I got the feeling she had been eyeing and circling that skin for years; on this album, she discovered the way to crawl inside it. A less developed artist might “Sing the Songs of the Delta” or “Sing About the Delta.” DeMent cuts the crap and just sings the delta. An exceptional effort. Listen to it now if you haven’t yet, or turn it on again and hear the food cooking on the stove, the children yelling, and beyond all that, the river’s persistent flow.

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