Archives For Folk Music

Pete Seeger – RIP [Video]

January 28, 2014


Pete Seeger

When I heard the news this morning that Pete Seeger had died yesterday, I was reminded of this video that was filmed with our friends at the Bruderhof less than a year ago…

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Whose Justice, Which Radicalism?

A Brief Review of

Woody Guthrie, American Radical.
Will Kaufman.
Hardback: U. of Illinois Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

I’ve long been a fan of folk music, in its literal sense of being the music of the people, and in this regard, Woody Guthrie was the quintessential folk singer.  In some ways, simply being a folk musician is itself a radical act, but the new book Woody Guthrie, American Radical by Will Kaufman explores in great detail the radical aspects of Woody Guthrie’s life and songwriting. I’ve read other biographies of Guthrie, but probably still harbored some false conceptions about him that were deflated over the course of reading Kaufman’s book.  It’s easy, I suppose, to misconstrue the folk singer who is renowned for writing such songs as “This land is your land,” as the peace-loving hippy sort of radical who wants little more than for everyone to get along and to live in harmony with each other and with nature.  Granted, many of the next generation of folk singers after Guthrie, who interpreted and popularized many of his songs were indeed this kind of radical.

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“The most delightful toy in our possession

A Review of

Leave Your Sleep.
By Natalie Merchant

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

[ In this online issue, we bring you a change of pace:
reviews of two recent literary-themed albums.
This is one of them and
Bill Mallonee’s Ti Jean
is the other… ]

Natalie Merchant - Leave your sleepLeave Your Sleep.
Natalie Merchant.
2 Audio CD’s, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Let me put all my cards on the table before we begin: I own every Natalie Merchant (and 10,000 Maniacs) CD that there is; I could quote lines, sing along, or beat you in Name That Tune. Yes, I have a music crush, so this might not be the most fair or balanced reporting, though I will try to refrain from dealing in obscure references or geeky trivia, and instead describe why I’ve come to appreciate Merchant’s musicality so much.

That said, Leave Your Sleep, Merchant’s most recent release, is an impressive two-CD production in which she adapted 26 poems to music, and performed with over 100 musicians; the complexity of this project could cause a listener to reflect on a host of considerations – the translation of the written word into song, the contextualization Merchant gives each poem musically, as well as this album’s relationship to others by Merchant, such as 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, which is similar in that it gathers together a collection of folk and traditional songs.

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“A Strong Argument for
Locally-Oriented Communities

A Review of
Harry Smith:
The Avant-Garde in
The American Vernacular.

Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, editors.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Harry Smith:
The Avant-Garde in
The American Vernacular.

Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh, editors
Paperback: Getty Research Institute, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]

Harry Smith - Perchuk / SinghI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about a church community’s role in nurturing the local culture of its place (see, for instance, my review of Walter Brueggemann’s newest book Journey to the Common Good).  Most recently, I have been thinking about the idea of folk music – i.e.,  music that is distinctive to the people of a place – and its relation to the church.  It seems like there is a lot of good work to be done by churches in discerning a style of music that reflects the people of the place, and at the same time allowing the music of the church to be open to this sort of local folk music – which could come in the form of writing new songs or in the way old hymns or songs are sung or accompanied.  My understanding of what folk music is has been shaped to a large extent by the classic collection The Anthology of American Folk Music (AAFM), which was assembled in the early 1950’s by the eccentric artist and ethnographer Harry Smith.  As I was beginning to reflect more intentionally on the idea of folk music as it relates to the church, I happened to see that the Getty Research Institute had released a new biography of Smith, which will undoubtedly become the authoritative reference work on Smith’s life and work.  This book, Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, reflects the broadness of Smith’s work as an artist and scholar: ethnographer, collector, bibliophile, visual artist, filmmaker, etc.  The book is divided into five parts, the first of which contains biographical essays, the subsequent four engage various aspects of Smith’s work (his films: “Heaven and Earth Magic” and “Mahagonny”; theAAFM”; and finally his use of collage).

The first part of the book is helpful for understanding Smith’s development as an artist, and provides a rich context in which the following essays on his work can be understood.  Smith was born in 1923 in Portland, Oregon and raised by his theosophist parents who encouraged him to explore all the sorts of esoteric philosophies, “which led to an early and ongoing fascination with unorthodox spirituality, comparative religion and philosophy” (16).  The picture that is painted here of Smith is one of a man of extraordinary intellect and endless curiosity who was well-connected with key and cultural figures of his time (especially the poet Allen Ginsberg), and yet much of his life was spent in – or on the edge of – destitution.  Several stories recounted here, for instance, depict Smith as a literal embodiment of Erasmus’ famous epithet: “When I get a little money, I buy books and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

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“The Sort of Peace and Integrity
For Which We Were Created”

A Review of

Before & After.
Carrie Newcomer.
Rounder Records, 2010.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

[Scroll Down for Details on how to win a copy of this CD! ]

Local music aficionados here in Central Indiana have long been acquainted with the superb folk songwriting of Carrie Newcomer with its deep roots in the rich tradition of Quaker spirituality.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that over the last few years her music has begun to reach larger audiences across North America.  Her newest cd Before and After continues her legacy of combining lush folk melodies, crisp vocals and sharp, insightful songwriting.  As a whole, the songs here wrestle with issues related to living lives at peace in the face of quotidian challenges.   These struggles are perhaps most clearly in the song “I meant to do my work today”:

I meant to do my work today,
So many plans I had made.

I’d check the mail, I’d make the calls
Save the world and sweep the hall,
Finally get my accounting done,
Sort the beans one by one,
But I got waylaid by the morning sun.
And I got absolutely nothing done.
I thought I’d live a louder life.
I’d learn a lot and get it right.
I’d rent a loft I’d drink all night,
I’d be a living archetype,
And in a blinding flash of light,
I’d see that one great insight,
But silence called me deeper still.
Like nothing else ever will. …

All the songs here are superb, but I found myself repeating the cycle of the album’s last three songs, followed by the first (and title) track.  “Do No Harm,” was inspired by “Savages” a short story by fellow Hoosier Scott Russell Sanders, and spins the rich historical narrative of a group of nineteenth century Moravian Brethren in Ohio who dared to believe in the peaceable Kingdom of God and its unshakeable nature, even in the face of the bloody forces of Manifest Destiny.  “I wish I May, I Wish I Might” is a truly local music at its finest, a delightful whirlwind tour through local Indiana fairs and festivals.  I was surprised by how many of these I am familiar with and have enjoyed over my last two decades here in the Hoosier state.  “A Crash of Rhinoceros” is the album’s whimsical bonus track in which Newcomer imagines a scene from Eden where Adam names the animals but Eve gives unique names to the groups of animals: “A troubling of goldfish, a cluster of cats, / A bloat of hippopotami, a cloud of bats.”  The title track “Before and After” is a catchy tune that captures the essence of the album:

We live our lives from then until now,
By the mercy received and the marks on our brow

To my heart I’ll collect what the four winds will scatter
And frame my life into before and after.

“Before and After” is a beautifully crafted album that challenges us with its call to embrace every day as a gift and to live our with the sort of peace and integrity for which we were created.

We are giving away six copies of this excellent cd!

  1. Announce the contest on Twitter, Facebook or your blog: I just entered to win  Carrie Newcomer’s new cd BEFORE& AFTER from The Englewood Review (@ERBks ). You can enter too:
  2. Post a comment to this announcement with your name and a link to your post for #1.
  3. You may enter one time per day for the duration of the contest.
  4. We will pick a winner at random from the eligible contestants and notify them next weekend.

The contest will end at 4PM ET on this Friday March 26.