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.

follow @kimruehl on Twitter

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.

follow @kimruehl on Twitter

Ben Sollee live in Los Angeles, and other observations about Hollywood

originally written for NoDepression.com

Los Angeles is a rather strange place. You knew this already, of course. Whether you’ve lived there before or have only just visited on a pilgrimage to discover Hollywood, or even if you’ve only heard tell of it through blogs and television shows and the movies. It’s a weird town. Nothing is as it appears.

I’ve worked in the music industry long enough to have forgotten how it feels to not know the glamour as anything other than facade. But where magic still gets conjured on stages, flying over heads of strangers on banjo wings, there’s no mistaking the cracked earth running its fingers through the heart of Los Angeles.

On Hollywood Boulevard, inches from the pink and gold stars bearing the names of the entertainment industry’s most storied glamour-hounds, some bum has invariably pissed or puked up his breakfast. If you can’t plainly see it, you can smell it. If you can’t smell it, squint your eyes and there’s the stain, somewhere between the crack in the stone and the discarded condom. Of course the poetic irony of it is that all this glamour and hogwash only serves to underscore the incredible humanity of it all: We are a social species which instinctively organizes around our idols and gods, as arbitrarily as we’ve chosen them, or as they have chosen themselves for us. We like shiny things, we like to forget ourselves. Sometimes this works to our advantage, sure.

On the day when my partner and I visited Hollywood Boulevard, one of those blasted singing competition shows – the one with Simon Cowell and Britney Spears – was going to be filming, or something, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’ve seen a crowd this size gathering early in the day before – once when the Dalai Lama visited Portland and, before that, when Days of Thunder was filming in my hometown of DeLand, FL. Deep down inside, I wanted to sit down next to someone in the crowd and find out what in the world really matters to them. To hold that up next to whatever it is which motivated them to take the day off work or school (it was a weekday) to be here, to stake their spot for this television show.

Of course, it was 9/11, so I instinctively wanted to know what makes the world tick already. (Some other time, perhaps, I could tell you the story of how I ran for my life on 9/11. It’s always an interesting day for me, as it is for many.) Of course, it could have been the desire to escape the reality of remembering 9/11 which pulled these throngs onto the filthy sidewalk to wait the day away, in hopes of seeing so much as the back of Randy Jackson’s head. Just to say they had been there.

We all want to bear witness to something worth mentioning, I suppose.

Speaking of bearing witness, back up a little bit more, and you’d find me at the Hotel Cafe the night before, watching Kentuckian cellist Ben Sollee pay to a comfortable-sized crowd. Sandwiched between Steve Forbert and something called Super Soul Monday, Sollee crammed as much authenticity as one could possibly drag – kicking and screaming, I’d imagine – into a Hollywood bar. He only had 45 minutes to pull off that magic trick, but I wasn’t concerned. Sollee is a proficient authentician. He delivered songs from his new album Half Made Man – a remarkably touching, arrestingly honest disc which drops on the 25th – as well as a couple from last year’s Inclusions.

I stood there hyper-aware, of course, of my typical 9/10 state of mind. (I’ve long since let go the illusion that 9/10 was the last day when everything made sense. Nothing has ever made sense.) The energy I recognize in myself each September 10 is always markedly different from that of the day which follows. Sep. 10 is a somber, thoughtful day of observance. Sep. 11 makes sense as being focused more inward. The search for peace and beauty wherever I am becomes vital. Hollywood Boulevard made this a chore. Ben Sollee made it simple.

There’s this funny word people use for the kind of earnestly kind and determined quality by which people like Ben Sollee seem to be so driven: “naive”. Or sometimes they’ll use the word “optimistic” which, when used to describe anyone other than onesself, tends to carry with it a sort of negative judgment. Yes, we’ve all been on Earth a different amount of time, but once you’ve left your parents’ house and struck out on your own, the naivete dissipates in almost no time. For many of us, it leaves even before that date. Further, anyone who would call a traveling artist “optimistic” like its a bad thing has no idea the reality of living on the road away from everything familiar and comforting and supportive and secure, making a pittance in order to share the unshareable emotions with rooms full of strangers. To choose a life of touring (by bicycle, no less) and come out the other end with a sense of optimism, is a feat. Plain and simple.

That Sollee has found a way to put this optimism into music which is neither cliched or silly – or, dare I say, even naive – is impressive alone. He can sing about mountaintop removal or the Bible Belt or changing the world with authority, despite his 20-something years, because this is the life he lives. He’s not imagining a story of pain or serenity or empowerment or confusion. His lyrics acknowledge all those things without pretense and zero in on the truth as he knows it. As a result, the songs are wholly convincing. Never preachy or presumptuous. Never glinted by an attractive facade. This is a guy with a cello, for chrissakes – a skinny white boy from Kentucky with black-rimmed glasses and a wife and son, and a heart on his sleeve.

It makes sense that we had to walk around the back of the building to get in, to duck into an alley to find a door where you can only pay cash. It makes sense that it’s safe to say a good portion of the crowd were Sollee’s friends and family – a crowd full of real honest-to-goodness human connections. Imagine.

Back home here in Asheville, Sollee will play to another crowded house at the Orange Peel later this month – a crowd of hundreds of strangers hanging on his every word (if his previous shows at that same venue are any indication). But in Los Angeles, in that small room, it was okay to see him deliver such an impressive set to so few people. Whatever interest LA has in authenticity – which hadn’t already flown to Nashville for the AMAs – was probably present. Sollee’s seasoned bow pulling hard against an emotional song he’s never played live before, a certain kind of humanity shone through – something unmistakable and clear. Meanwhile, not far from there, another honest side of humanity was sloppily stumbling home, past Judy Garland’s star.

Black Prairie – ‘A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart’

Originally written for Folk Alley

For all the buzz that’s been made about members of Black Prairie having performed for years as the Decemberists, one truth has stuck through their releases. This is a separate band built on a foundation of folk and bluegrass, and is by no means intended to be anything Decemberists-like. Sure, there’s bleed-over – these same instrumentalists with these same minds have contributed to Decemberists projects. But they’ve done so pulling on their long history and affection for traditional music.

At the end of the day, these folks can pick a guitar and banjo and saw the hell out of a fiddle – nothing ironic about it. They proved it on their self-titled debut two years ago, and they’re solidifying it here on their new album A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart (due Sept. 18 on Sugar Hill Records).

Granted, they’re taking more liberty with the form this time around.

Black Prairie PR vert.jpg“Nowhere Massachusetts” has a little Jessica Lea Mayfield energy in it. You might hear a smattering of a PJ Harvey-meets-Sara-Watkins vibe here and there. Nonetheless, this is back porch music – from the twilight-and-fireflies of “Rock of Ages” to the fiddle-and-clog of “For the Love of John Hartford,” to the swig-and-swagger instrumentalism of “Evil Leaves” and “Taraf”.

It’s an album which speaks for the ever-evolving face of the Portland, Oregon, music scene. In addition to the rawness of the bluegrass influence, the disc is heavy on piano, accordion, dobro, and percussion. There are Vaudeville moments and others which transport you straight to the heart of Appalachia.

It’s also a long disc, capping out at sixteen tracks, but every single one is a keeper. Sure, hardcore bluegrass fans may be disappointed about the diversions toward something more imaginative and dreamy and outside tradition’s box, but these are clothes Black Prairie wears well. Try them on for yourself.

Where Pussy Riot, Riot Grrls, and Katy Perry meet -or- I enjoy being a girl

Originally written for No Depression

The Cinebarre is a movie theater attached to an old mall on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. It shares a highway exit ramp with hotels and chain restaurants. One way is the farmer’s market, the other is the arboretum. I’ve never known anyone to shop at the mall there. I’ve never been inside but, from what I can tell, it’s still at least somewhat functional. There’s a larger mall across town anchored to Barnes and Noble and a couple large department stores. In this town, every shop and bar has a sign up that says “Put your money where your heart is. Buy local.” So it stands to reason the mall is a destination most folks only ever approach if they need to buy a gift card for a family member in another state, where a Malaprop’s or Top’s Shoe Store doesn’t exist. (Buy online? Why would anyone do that in Asheville?)

I’ve come to Cinebarre one grumpy Sunday afternoon to kill some time watching that Katy Perry movie. Next to me, a young mother sits with a glass of wine (there’s waiter service and a full bar at this place) and two young girls. The girl sitting closest to her grips a pair of dolls that look somewhere between Bratz dolls and American Girls. Her shoes are covered in glitter. Her clothes don’t necessarily match, but the outfit works. Her friend is dressed much the same, but without the dolls. They’re both probably seven.

The movie is good, tugging you into a world of Perry’s creation, built on  music and dancing and, more than anything else, a desire to create a space where people can find joy and connection in a less-than-perfect world.

I like Katy Perry. In a parallel universe, I may have become her largest detractor – considering songs like the one where she asks her alien man to abduct her – had I never seen her live. But, a couple years ago, during a lull in the schedule of Americana bands at Bumbershoot in Seattle, I climbed to the top of the stadium seats and took in about half of her mainstage set. It was something like 2 in the afternoon. She worked her ass off up there – proving she has a voice that need never be touched by the auspices of autotune; proving she’s backed by a band of remarkably gifted indie rock instrumentalists; showing the kind of presence and command of a midday festival crowd in the City that Grunge Built…the kind of presence which can only be formed by years of playing for nobody in bars with no backup dancers or band. Indeed, as the film attests with plenty of footage, Perry cut her teeth playing solo acoustic – songs which would be applauded on this site and could just as well have been written by someone like Amos Lee or Ray LaMontagne. Before that, influenced by her traveling Pentecostal preacher parents, she tried her way in the world of contemporary acoustic Christian music.

The Katy Perry we see now with the spinning boobs and silly string backdrops emerged in response to a bullshit music industry that wanted to make her sound like Alanis and then Avril and then whatever other “girl power” singer came along. Fuck it, she finally said, and flew the coop to another label that would let her write her songs by herself, for herself, etc., etc.

I understand the impulse.

When I was at about the age that Katy Perry told her label to get lost, I had somehow found my way to Riot Grrls. From my small town in Florida, where people self-segregated (still do, mostly) and the white kids drove big-wheeled trucks covered in mud and packed with CB radios, without the benefit of the internet, I found my way to the gritty, chunky guitar riffs of bands with names like Bikini Kill, L7, Babes in Toyland, Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, Hole. I wasn’t an angry kid. I was kind of popular, I think, and just didn’t feel in-step with my peers. I wanted out. Big time.

I had zero appreciation for the high school way of life – that which prized appearances over ideas – and made sure my feelings about that were clear when I cut my hair into a boyish bowl senior year and started wearing the shirts of alt-rock bands in place of my Keyette jersey. I had a sneaking suspicion life beyond the high school walls wasn’t all that different, especially not for girls, and I had a craving for the intersection of all my interests – music, dancing, ideas, connections, imagination, questioning the way of things, defiance. Everything but the dancing could be found in the universe run by Riot Grrls.

From Riot Grrls, I learned about integrity and empowerment. I learned that a world which valued the contributions of women might not be perfect, but it could be just as legitimate (to coin a term, ahem) as the one in which we were already living. From listening to singers like Donita Sparks and Kat Bjelland and dykecore vocalists like Kaia Wilson and Donna Dresch, I learned that you don’t have to scream to be heard. There is power in every corner of your voice as long as you use it. Whispering, grunting, mumbling, caterwauling…no matter how a woman speaks, they seemed to be saying, she deserves to be heard. We deserve to be heard. Listen, for the love of god.

These are the same ideas behind everything Woody Guthrie ever wrote, and a couple of years later – following the long rusty, dusty road introduced to me by Ani DiFranco – I discovered the Riot Grrls’ message was nothing new. It had been passed down and repeated and amplified and poeticized throughought the entirety of human history. One big, long, musical game of telephone to which more and more people were bound to be listening all the time. The more of us joined that particular chain of justice and peace and equality for all, I discovered, the more the chain started to look like one big field of thriving flowers overpowering the din of concrete just by existing, by standing with all its color and warmth.

Pete Seeger tells a story about history being like a big unbalanced scale. On one side is a giant bucket full of rocks, the size of a planet. On the other is a basket of sand. The sand is always leaking out of the basket and all we have to fill it back up with is a bunch of teaspoons. We’re always scooping up sand with our teaspoons and putting it back in the basket. People say, “You’re crazy. Don’t you see the sand is always going to fall out of that basket? You can’t possibly balance that scale using tea spoons.” But we’re getting more people with tea spoons all the time, and if we all keep at it – only if we keep at it – the scale will tip. You can wait and see, or you can join us.

I say all of this – this whole convoluted twistingly circuitous statement about stuff – because there are three women in prison in Russia. Three members of a ten-or-so-person band who were arrested because they climbed over a railing to stand – and sing and dance – in a part of a church where only men are supposed to stand. They were charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in jail.

We humans have a problem with perspective. We wage a war on drugs when, if we step back for a moment, we can realize drugs aren’t the problem. People take drugs for reasons which will continue to persist whenever every addictive substance is erased from the planet (which will never happen because human beings do not control the whims of nature). We wage a war on terrorism as if that’ll ever eliminate the human impulse to convert others to our way of thinking through any means possible. And we lock up prisoners of conscience – artists and defiant activists – as if we can so destroy the spirit of oppressed people on the verge of empowerment, that ruling forces can once and for all  convert others to their way of thinking through any means possible.

Locking up Pussy Riot – like attacking cocaine and Chick-fil-a and guns and abortion and gay families and black skin and Islam – is not going to fix anything at all. A giant conglomerate record label could not turn Katy Perry into Alanis Morrisette despite all the money they could possibly throw at her. Outlawing cocaine and guns will not stop people suffering from mental illness, from self-medicating or lashing out. Millions of people buying waffle fries are not going to make me walk away from my partner and the family we’re working on making. Passing laws that ban women from wearing religious garments is not going to erase the message of Muhammad from the hearts of those who have dedicated their spirit to his teachings. And redefining the word “rape” will neither stop men from attacking women and boys, nor will it save any clusters of multiplying cells from having their growth spurts interrupted by women incapable of taking care of the baby which could one day result.

And so, once again I find myself here on a music website trying to shed light on where all these things connect. I guess at least partly because I’m here on this site all day every day and I see people trying to make sense of why a song stirred their soul, or why it didn’t. There’s a great deal of discussion about the dexterity of guitar skills or the poetic allusion of a half-verse which leads into a chorus. People argue about whose words and melodies are more pertinent in a world of impertinence. And what I take away from all of it is a need to connect with strangers. A need to find joy and understanding away from the political vitriol of graphic memes splattered across Facebook. A need to step away from all the injustice and remember we all have so much in common, and so we owe each other at least an embrace if not a pledge to protect one another from harm.

And suddenly Katy Perry on the screen outside of this small mountain town, asking why we reject the fairy tale, talking about how the only thing that really matters to her when she gets onstage is that everyone in the room can find a smile on their face, even if it’s just for two hours…suddenly the gulf between this California girl with her spinning boobs is not so markedly separated from Kaia Wilson, Donita Sparks, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Woody Guthrie.

And me, I’m sitting here in the South, outside of the city, with the smallest part of me worried that the woman sitting next to me with her two girls might be concerned that she’s sitting next to a pair of lesbians holding hands in the dark theater. It doesn’t stop me, of course, because I pose no threat to them. But society and my upbringing tells me to feel sheepish about these things, so the thought enters my head. I quickly knock it away by life experience, which has taught me whenever people gather in a room around music, the things which divide them fall away.

At the end of the movie, the young mother leans over to me and my partner and says, “Isn’t she so cool? I’m so glad there’s someone in mainstream pop telling kids to stop trying to fit in. Just be who you are and that’s the most important. Be different. Know what you have to give the world. What a  relief to have someone making music little girls can love that tells them different is beautiful. Because I have a different one.”

I push myself against my chair to give them room to walk by, and out march the two little girls with their glitter shoes and dolls and daringly mismatched outfits. Boom, boom, boom. Even brighter than the moon…even on the outskirts of town.

I’m in love with your ghost – Indigo Girls live in Knoxville, Tenn.

Originally written for NoDepression.com

Emily Saliers is many things – a Georgia native, a songwriter and foodie, a spiritual woman, a guitarist, a poet and an author. Right now she’s got a Martin guitar in her hands – I don’t know what model it is, but the sound is warm and full. She’s just off to the left of centerstage with a spotlight on her face and a room full of  several hundred people waiting for her to play that thing. But her eyes are squinting against the light. Her is face turned up, peering toward a doorway in the back of the upper balcony…

Tonight, Emily Saliers is looking for ghosts.

I’ve only ever interviewed her twice. I have no idea what her personal relationship is with ghosts, but somehow this detail is haunting tonight.

Pardon the pun.

She wrote a song about a ghost once, but it was more of a heartbreak tune. The ghost was used for imagery, a metaphor for love that’s died but still won’t leave you to heal. It’s a beautiful song with all its earnest admissions of in-the-moment emotions (“There’s not enough room in this world for my pain” seems a little dramatic and extreme, but we’ve all been there). She won’t play that song tonight, though I’m not sure why not. She pauses several times in the middle of the set to talk about the ghosts who supposedly haunt this space.

Ghosts interest me, though I don’t really believe in them the way they’re frequently portrayed. I believe in science, so I don’t believe energy ever dies. It only gets passed from one object to another. . . one person to another. The energy each of us create in our lifetimes certainly goes somewhere, but I have a hard time imagining it ever presents as a transparent outline of the human form lurking in corners or thrusting objects across rooms.

Of course I also can appreciate forces exist in the world which are beyond explanation or the possibility of human understanding, so sure. Maybe. Ghosts. I don’t know.

I do know the Bijou Theater is a small room. Its 700 seats have, over the course of the past century, welcomed theater-goers for movies and plays. The space has housed a hotel and a porn house, as well as the commencement ceremonies for a nearby African-American high school, presumably during the Jim Crow era. These days it’s hailed as one of the most beloved music venues in this part of the country. The acoustics are incredible. The decorations aren’t so ornate they make you want to vomit gold leaf, but there’s a certain appearance to the place. No doubt it’s haunted by the intermingling of energies which have graced its walls and floors across time. Hopeful grads entering an unjustly segregated world, pornographic films, vaudevillian comedy…few things could match each other less.

Throw into that mix a couple of women with acoustic guitars, at this point veterans of their genre. Women who have had at least a small place in the history of the south – doing their part to move it forward when it comes to LGBTQ civil rights, environmental justice, the rights of indigenous people, immigration reform. Women who, simply by caring about what they care about, driving around and making music, have opened countless minds to the possibility of a better world.

Speaking of that better world, tonight the Indigo Girls aren’t playing the hits. They work in “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine” – the crowd wouldn’t let them leave without those two – but otherwise they veer. A couple of things have happened in the world recently, and it’s not far-fetched to imagine they considered these things in the crafting of their setlist. They don’t talk about the recent mass-murder in Colorado directly, but the headlines hang when they enter into “Tether” – easily one of the strongest moments of the night. Behind them, the Shadowboxers provide texture and harmony, instrumentation and dynamics. The instrumental solos beckon and Amy Ray’s vocals answer:

We’ll make it better.
Let go of the hawk, we’ll let go of the dove.
I sing to you, all you true believers
with the strength to see this and not be still.
I’m telling you now, find the hope that feeds you.

It’s one of those moments when a room swells, like a breath has been exhaled underneath everyone’s feet and they all rise together. It’s one of those songs in a set where everything connects.

At some point, Ray looks at the crowd, noticing a number of young girls standing against the stage – maybe eight years old, each of them – and comments on how nice it is to see such young people so engaged with live music. I’ve been eyeing these girls from the start. Glued to the edge of the stage together, a group of friends with their moms, excited not about the dance moves from the boy band, but about the socio-political, philosophical insights of a couple of women who are pushing 50. Ray notes it’s important to not get caught up in age ranges, since everyone has a life to live and the year in which they arrived has little to do with it. . . except, of course, for the sake of context.

“Age doesn’t matter,” Ray says.

Her collaborator chimes right in, fueled by a lifetime of personal experience as much as she no doubt is that some fast-food chain has joined the debate about marriage equality in recent days. “You know what else doesn’t matter?” She pauses. Ray looks at her with a can’t-wait-to-see-where-this-is-going face. “The fact that gay people want to marry each other.”

Indeed, both she and Saliers were born right around the time the civil rights movement was coming to a head, into a state which held onto segregation with all its might. It was a time when perhaps this room was used to graduate black high school seniors – men and women who could now run for president if they wanted. Tonight, these two women can take for granted that society on the whole has deemed the ideological struggle into which they were born worthwhile. Time has marched forward, dragging along its history from which we can learn. Its insights which can be passed on to younger people. When those little girls are pushing 50, they’re likely to be able to take for granted that people like the Indigo Girls have equal rights. Whatever they think or feel about that will be informed by everything they’ve seen and heard and felt in their lives, including what’s going down at the Bijou Theater this summer evening.

In this theater, of all places, that point isn’t lost.

We’re taught that history is made up of large events, big political moments when something graced the headlines. But really, history is made up of moments in rooms, with people making connections, having conversations, changing the color on the walls and floor, changing the color in the middle, changing the music, changing their minds. Those big events are made up of infinitely smaller moments when eight-year-old kids connected with performers on a stage.

These are the moments when energy passes. Call it ghosts if you want. I call it music.

Brandi Carlile live at Red Rocks, CO

Originally written for NoDepression.com

We’re in the middle of the mountains, far from town. This is the domain of wild animals, dust and jutting monolithic rocks. There’s a breeze and clouds and maybe three visible stars, but who’s looking up? Brandi Carlile is alone on the stage down there, at the bottom of the amphitheater. It’s a quite-dark night and a single spotlight separates her from us. A single spotlight and an incredible gift which has transported her, over the past few years, from her Maple Valley, Wash., barn-home to center stage at one of the finest outdoor venues in the US, if not the world.

It’s a moment, is all it is, though it’s lasted about an hour and a half. It’s hard to miss that fact in the midst of these mountains – anything you can do is just a blip in time. You may as well make it count, make it beautiful, make it memorable.

Carlile doesn’t have a problem with that. Right now she’s making her way through her version of Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” If you ask me, she’s one of maybe three singers left in the world who has any business singing this song. (The other two would  be k.d. lang and Leonard Cohen.)

Indeed, this song’s difficult and musical melody can stretch a voice to its farthest reaches. It has a tendency to make big-voiced singers think simply singing the hell out of a song is enough. It’s not. Cranking your big voice up to 11 and letting it rip through such a richly nuanced, roller-coaster-of-emotions song as “Hallelujah” does not cut it. Doing such a thing would be like screaming an entire conversation. It’s ineffective and annoying and obnoxious, but that’s how most people approach this song. Actually, that’s how most people with voices the size of Brandi Carlile’s approach singing anything at all.

Lucky for us, that’s not how she sings, and that is why she’s here on this stage, in the middle of a dark night, with a spotlight on her and a pin you can hear dropping at the top of the hill.

All night, she’s been gushing about the fact that she’s found herself here. Like the last several years haven’t happened, and she just woke up at 9am this morning in a  bus at the top of this hill, with a view like this – the breathtaking wingspan of the Rocky Mountains. You can’t fault her for that sense. No doubt it’s been a whirlwind of unimaginable gifts. When you grow up in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, you can’t really picture yourself being whisked off to a Vegas studio to collaborate with Elton John. Can’t really imagine you’ll find yourself touring Europe with a beloved band of your best friends. She was talking earlier about being an opening act, playing when it’s still light out and feeling the incredible surge of being asked to sing with the headliner. In this case, it was Sheryl Crow who welcomed her onto this very Red Rocks stage for one song. That was when she got to feel what it’s like to be here, in the middle of a dark night, carrying 10,000 people’s imaginations with no tool other than the way her voice tugs on a melody.

That was then, though; that was just a tease. Time has passed. You can see in the way she juts her chin and scoots her feet that exactly how that time has passed has affected her viscerally. It’s probably only now, the breath between notes when she can step away from the mic for a half-second and just inhale, that it’s all hitting her consciousness.

I’m in a special place witnessing this moment. And I do feel like a witness. I don’t feel like I’m watching a rock star play a show right now. I don’t really know this person, but I know the dream. I know the sitting alone in your room and picking through those six strings, trying to wrest an idea into being. I know the frustration of the chords not matching exactly what’s happening in your brain. The taking it to someone else who hears the same way you do, having them pop on a capo and deliver it exactly right. The way that getting it right connects two people. I know the working on a melody across a couch in the living room. The playing dark bars and feeling like you’ve just touched glory with that half-second note even if only 20 people are there to hear it.

As a critic, I’ve come to feel jaded about music. So much of it sounds the same. So much of it misses the point. I see bands on stages and more often than not, feel about as much excitement as I feel about the sidewalk underneath my feet when I’m walking from my house to the car. Sometimes, this makes me sad. I see people’s faces fold when they ask me about their favorite band and I respond with an “eh.” I get the sense of saturation and wonder if I’ll feel the fire again. We’re an old married couple, music and me. There’s a lifetime of love but sometimes I can’t really even explain what’s so great about it. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s great at all.

Earlier this night, I sat in a parking lot surrounded by a breed of individual I’ve come to refer to as “superfans.” I commented on the fact that their adoration of Brandi Carlile is no different from a 9-year-old’s freakish affection for the latest boy band. It’s just a grown-up version. All the car doors open, lazing on chairs, the music of the band we’re here to see blasting from speakers. Beer. Cornhole. People with similar hairdos, hats, and clothing to the artist they’ve paid money to see. Like there’s a Brandi Carlile catalog and everyone here has ordered from it.

It’s been years since I felt that way about music. I haven’t been a superfan of anyone since I started forging a career as a songwriter myself. The years of playing shit gigs and hanging out with artists helped me understand the glamour is a myth. I can’t force myself into a superfan’s clothes with all my might. This makes me sad sometimes too. I’d like to feel that splendor, that oh-my-god-this-artist-is-the-most-amazing-person-on-the-planet. But I’ve met too many of my heroes. I’ve seen too much. The thing about life in general is the less you know, the more you appreciate. The trick is knowing you know less than you think you know, so there’s still room for loving something.

Sometimes I can see that room and it rips me wide open in the good way. Wide open like the spaces between these mountains.

Now and then, there are moments when I appreciate the way my relationship with music has changed. I realize I no longer have a reverence for the artist. But, when I least expect it, the music itself – when it’s allowed to realize its full potential – that is the thing which blows my mind. Which knocks me onto my feet. It can feel like all this time I’ve been standing in front of a mountain and didn’t even notice because I was looking straight ahead, thinking it was a wall. Then someone with a voice like that reminds me to look up and suddenly I realize how much potential is right there.

Thanks to my role for years as a roots music reporter in Carlile’s hometown, I’ve seen the woman play too many shows to count. I think I’ve probably written more words about her than most other artists in the genre.

But right now I don’t care about any of what I’ve just written. I don’t even think about it, don’t even notice. It doesn’t matter. Because that voice which is at once so subtle and commanding is delivering one of the truest love song lines in any love song ever – “Love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a lonesome ‘hallelujah'”. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a bit of poetry which once poured from her pen. I trust this song still went through that whole process I noted above – the trying it out, the frustration, the getting it wrong and then getting it right. I’ve seen her sing it before, watched her explore in other venues where to growl and where to come clear, when to keep it in her chest and when to let it whine and warble out through her delicate and artfully imperfect falsetto.

She’s unleashed however many songs in the past 90 minutes – those she’s been playing for years and others which came from an album I thought fell short of her promise. But that was the critic talking. That was the part of my mind which is required to analyse and opine. Here on this hill, between those two giant rocks I couldn’t even begin to climb, I get to hear music the way it was meant to be made. She’s down there making it count, making it matter, proving the years which have compelled her to this place and time have not gone unlearned.

When she’s done and the place has cleared, my partner and I stand on the exit ramp and watch the moment pass. A skunk climbs the stairs toward the arena. A family of raccoons. Something which looks to me like a mountain lion appears, making its way toward the stage. As the night folds in on itself, these rocks belong to the animals again. But the music still rings in my ears.

follow @kimruehl on Twitter

What Woody Guthrie did

Woody GuthrieOriginally written for No Depression

It’s hard to really imagine how life was in 1912, having not been there myself. From this end of the internet, it’s a sepia-colored place where everyone dressed a little less casual than they do now, looked either freakishly dapper or remarkably filthy, but always proud and probably at least a little tired.

Woody Guthrie wouldn’t be able to say much about 1912 either, having only just arrived in the world that year himself. But he certainly figured out a way to talk about everything that happened after that.

He was a jack of all trades for a while there, painting big bubble letters on the windows of local businesses for cash. He was a fortune teller for about a minute. He went looking for gold in Texas of all godforsaken places, not really convinced he would actually find it, I imagine, as much as he was probably just interested in how it would feel to be in the middle of a story where a group of men looked for gold.

But he was from a time and place where music was something people did together. It’s hard to imagine that too, sometimes, from this end of the internet age – the idea that music wasn’t something folks went somewhere to observe others doing; wasn’t something people bought or traded or tried to get for free, or argued about. It was something people did when they gathered. Something that was passed on from grandfather to granddaughter and -son. It was sort of like storytelling or cooking or playing games or shooting the shit.

People got together, they made music.

That he came from a family of fiddlers, banjo pickers, guitar toters, and jaw harp twangers hardly set Guthrie apart in his day. It didn’t even make him think anything of his ability to do all these things. He had been a young man married out of his family’s house for some time before it ever occurred to him to try to make music for a living. Had it not been for his cousin Jack, maybe he never would have gone there. Who knows. That might be debatable. I’m no Guthrie Scholar. But I do believe he was an opportunist. He did the songwriter thing because that’s what worked out for him. After a while he did it because it was expected of him, because Moe Asche was kicking him cash to do it.

How Woody Guthrie ticked, what motivated him, is perhaps another topic for another time. After all Joe Klein and others have done a splendid job at that already, with their books.

I want to talk about what Woody Guthrie did, probably mostly on purpose, but a little bit inadvertently, for people like me and you.

First of all, before Woody Guthrie, singers and songwriters were separate people within the music industry. Certainly, out in the world, people sang songs they wrote all the time. But, in the music business this was not something that was done, and it definitely wasn’t normal. Popular music fans didn’t have ears for folk music. Part of what got Guthrie as far as he got in his brief life was that he understood how to be a charicature of himself without disrespecting himself – or Okies in general. He knew nobody in New York City was going to open their ears for a wickedly articulate editorialist Commie with ideas about labor and feminism and civil rights and the distribution of wealth in this country. But if he made himself a bit of a novelty act, he could sneak in verses about property ownership and welfare lines. He could talk about what’ll happen to you in California if you ain’t got the do re mi. He did it with humor, sure, but he also did it with a certain amount of no-bullshit. He was a handsome man, sort of, but small, with a somewhat misshapen arm and a certain coyote quality to his voice which wasn’t exactly what you’d call beautiful, but had an intrinsic musicality about it.

He couldn’t make this stuff up, basically. Even though he played up the Okie for the cameras, hammed up the redneck, there was nothing inauthentic about anything that happened once he started strumming that guitar.

Plus, there was something about him. People had pilgrimages around the guy. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott showed up one day and just stuck around. Pete Seeger wasn’t exactly his pilgrim, but he certainly stuck to Guthrie’s side trying to learn everything he could. They started the Almanac Singers together.

A few years ago I got to interview Bess Lomax Hawes – daughter of John Lomax, sister of Alan, an Almanac Singer herself, among countless other things with which she could be credited. I’ll never forget her telling me about Woody and Pete at the kitchen table in the early 1940s, debating over whether there was any sense at all for music to be overtly political. This was a group of people who were some of the original path-forgers in what would later become a national topical song movement.

Pete always had a knack for getting people to sing things they always believed but would never admit in a conversation. Guthrie, for his part, tended to stick to telling stories. Stories about military ships sinking. Stories about criminals trying to fend for themselves and their families. Stories about rivers flowing and dam workers busting their backs. Stories about farms getting buried beneath high winds. Stories about soldiers and driving cars and feeling reverence toward beautiful women. Stories about Jesus and, yes, stories about people standing in a welfare line.

He sang stories about everyday life in America – things people actually did and thought about and worried about and accomplished. He gave an authority to The Folk which had been missing from popular music. He made it okay to speak for those unsure of their own voice.

For a guy so focused on giving voice to the speechless, his inability to communicate toward the end of his life must have been a special kind of suffering. Indeed, Guthrie died in 1967 after a long battle with Huntington’s disease. But the way he approached his work – the regard he had for the stories, his emphasis on the common life lived in earnest, the importance of the average person just getting through their day and the strength we all possess to change something if we can change our own minds – all this became the standard for being a folksinger in America.

You look at anyone who’s come along since and you’ll see it. Bob Dylan, of course. We all know that. But the influence stretches much farther – through the fingers of conscious hiphop, to the ruminations of overt activist songwriters like Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle, and beyond.

But, his influence aside, perhaps what’s most remarkable about what Woody Guthrie did is that he created thousands of songs to address just about anything anyone could ever find themselves in the middle of. He gave us a foundation of music from which to draw in the moments when we don’t know what to say or think about what’s going on. He gave us songs for welfare lines and picket lines, for immigrants and women and those who feel stomped on. He gave us songs for people who work on farms and those who work in factories, songs about raising money and being outraised and outraged.

Where the photos seem to tell of people long ago and far away, we can sing the songs and they still make sense right now, right here. Maybe that’s unfortunate – that we haven’t yet solved all these things. Then again, there’s comfort in knowing this isn’t the first time around, and hopefully we can take a bigger step toward a bigger risk with greater confidence now that we don’t have to start entirely from scratch.

Woody liked to tell a story about a couple of rabbits being chased by a pack of wolves. After running and running and hopping and hopping, they started to feel tired, like it was futile, and they’d never be able to outrun the wolves forever. So they ducked into a hollow log and waited. One rabbit said to the other, “What are we gonna do in here?” And the other rabbit said, “We’re gonna stay here and do what rabbits do best, until we outnumber ’em.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Happy 100th birthday to Woody Guthrie, and thank you.