Norman Warwick sees
BRITISH & AMERICAN FOLK
´from another world´, growing side by side
Geoffrey Himes is the first among equals of a plethora of excellent magazine journalists working in the music fields of Americana, jazz, country, blues and folk. in between sporadic reviews and intervioews that always are delivered in a gently provocative style he also delivers an occasional piece in the paste on-line magazine that is accurately titled Á Curmudgeon Column.
In a piece which was titled ´From Another World and was published on March 29th he spoke about several of my favourite artists, such as Iris DeMent, Greg Brown, Rufus Wainwright and Dom Flemons.
So, here was an article about four excellent, hard working and serious muisicians written by my favourite writer and I knew it would be fun.
It was perhaps more precisely targeting an American readership, but it therefore also sat neatly with the reviews we included on Sidetracks & Detours of the excellent work being facilitated and celebrated in the UK by the English Folk Expo (EFE) that over the ‘past decade a so has served both the traditional and contemporary folkies and have established or supported clubs and festivals, and artists showcases for the benefit of the press and the organisers of folk events, all of which also benefits the artsts, too, of course. Efe also report on a folk radio station that gives ´top of the pops´ style programme every month of a dedicated chart of folk music sales.
From our Pass It On desk in the Sidetracks And Detours office, we share EFE newsletters with our readers, having done so most recently with consecutive daily posts: called English Folk Expo Partnership Showcases and Contemporary And Traditional As One on March 2oth and 21st respectively, and both pieces remain available in our easy to ramble archives, to help you compare and contrasts the folk sense on both sides of the Atlantic.
Geoffrey Himes began his piece with a pretty unequivocal paragraph.
Iris DeMent (left) was one of the most distinctive voices in the 1990s—a lyricist who inspired John Prine to write the liner notes for her 1992 debut album and a vocalist who inspired Merle Haggard to say, “She’s the best singer I’ve ever heard.” Prine would later record four duets with her, and Haggard would record her greatest song, “No Time To Cry,” with DeMent on piano.
I have often thought I would like the Iris DeMent title of Let The Mystery Be engraved on my headstone. It was the song that introduced me to her (as it was for so many of us) but although she sang it in an other-worldly voice and diction its simple, uet deeply profound, lyrics became, along with a few John Stewart phrases like Daydream Believer, one of the codes I have tried to live by.
But while DeMent emerged during the ’90s, she never sounded like a representative of that decade; her songs were built atop church-piano chords and delivered in a piercingly nasal Arkansas voice. She sounded as if she had time traveled from another time and another world. Like Prine, she was sometimes described as a country singer, but she was drawing from a well deeper than that. If the term “folk music” means anything anymore, it means music like this.
DeMent’s new album, Workin’ on a World, is her first recording in eight years, her first with her own lyrics in 11 years and only her fourth since 1996. And yet, she seems as unmoored from time and fashion as she ever has. She attacks each song as if she’s been playing the same piano in the same, small Delta church for the same congregation for 100 years, as if her voice had absorbed the alluvial mud of the Mississippi River’s yearly flooding, as if her songs reflected every musical trend, family crisis and political injustice she’d witnessed over that century.
“Folk music” is a slippery label. In its strictest, academic sense, it refers to music made by members of a circumscribed community for that community, music made not for a career, not for the moment and not for strangers, music based on generations before and designed for generations to come.
A ´slippery´ label, indeed, but again Geoffrey Himes, distils the essence of folk music. I would, and have done many times, taken lines and lines of sidetracks and detours that would have almost certainly led me to a lost and desolate place with no greater understanding of what folk music means, In literary terms I would think of the terms ANALEPSIS AND PROLEPSIS for what is commonly referred to in film as “flashback” and “flashforward.”
In other words, these are ways in which a narrative’s discourse re-order’s a given story: by “flashing back” to an earlier point in the story (analepsis) or “flashing forward” to a moment later in the chronological sequence of events (prolepsis). The classic example of prolepsis is prophecy, as when Oedipus is told that he will sleep with his mother and kill his father. As we learn later in Sophocles’ play, he does both despite his efforts to evade his fate. A good example of both analepsis and prolepsis is the first scene of La Jetée. As we learn a few minutes later, what we are seeing in that scene is a flashback to the past, since the present of the film’s diegesis is a time directly following World War III. However, as we learn at the very end of the film, that scene also doubles as a prolepsis, since the dying man the boy is seeing is, in fact, himself. In other words, he is proleptically seeing his own death. We thus have an analepsis and prolepsis in the very same scene.
Mr. Himes references to borrowing from the past to lend to the future is also, I think, apparent in presentations by the likes of Tom Paxton and Townes Van Zandt
In common usage, however, folk music is any music rooted in old-fashioned acoustic instruments and decades-old sounds, no matter how new and personal the lyrics, no matter what other instruments are added in support. In its narrowest definition, it refers to music based on the sound of Southern Appalachian balladeers and string bands. Strum an acoustic guitar steadily as you sing, and someone is bound to call you a folk musician.
A more generous definition will include any working-class music inspired by Anglo-Celtic and/or West African music and played in the rural and small-town American South before the Beatles came to America. This includes blues, gospel and Cajun/Zydeco as well Appalachian music. You can add whatever you want to this tradition, as long as you allow the sources to shine through.
By this latter demarcation, Workin’ On A World is as good a folk-music album as we’re likely to get this decade. Sure, DeMent is often backed by a Nashville rhythm section led by Emmylou Harris’s drummer Bryan Owings and by guitarist Richard Bennett, Steve Earle’s early producer. There’s even a horn section on the opening and closing tracks. But at the center of it all is DeMent, singing and playing as if it were 1923 instead of 2023.
The album’s title track was written in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election, but the candidates are never mentioned. In the best folk tradition, she evokes the kind of crisis that’s a recurring nightmare in our national history (“Filled with sadness, fear and dread, the world I took for granted was crashing to the ground”). What’s important is not the specifics of any particular calamity but rather her prescription for how to respond. Over the hand-clapping hymn of the music, she declares, “I’m workin’ on a world I may never see, joinin’ forces with the warriors of love who came before and will follow you and me.”
In those chorus lyrics, she suggests that the recipe for keeping our politics healthy is the same as doing the same for our music: don’t get trapped in the transient moment; become a bridge between what “came before” and what “will follow.” On the other hand, the album also includes “The Sacred Now,” a folk-rock anthem with Bennet’s jangly electric 12-string guitar. She proclaims that the one thing that unites our disunited land is our sharing of the present moment, the fleeting instant we must improve if we are to connect the past to the future.
What distinguishes DeMent’s hymns from most religious music is her willingness to admit she doesn’t have any final answers, just best guesses. She admitted as much on the first song from her first album, “Let the Mystery Be,” an agnostic prayer for letting some questions go unsolved. She sticks to that on the new album, describing the bewildering trauma of her mother’s death but promising, “I Won’t Ask Why.”
The horns return for another consideration of mortality, “Nothin’ for The Dead.” And “The Cherry Orchard,” based on the great Anton Chekhov play, reflects the stoic acceptance of age and death by the play’s protagonist, Lyubov. Sounding like an old parlor ballad, the song advises us, “There’s no way out, no use in trying, I promise you, I promise you. The train has pulled into the station; don your cape, lace your shoes.”
Like many of the best folk projects, Workin’ On A World is a family affair. DeMent’s stepdaughter, Pieta Brown co-wrote two of the songs with DeMent, whose husband, Greg Brown (right) co-wrote a third and wrote two others without his wife. The whole thing was co-produced by DeMent, Pieta, Bennett and Jim Rooney (who has produced not only four of DeMent’s albums but also seven by Prine and four by Nanci Griffith). Dasha Brown, Iris and Greg’s adopted daughter, took the photo that accompanies this story. If the essence of folk music is members of the same community performing for each other, that essence is further distilled when the music is made by members of the same family.
If DeMent is an underappreciated folk-music legend, her husband is even more so. Greg Brown has released 29 albums, all on small labels and all featuring his rumbling baritone voice on unfailingly brilliant songs. His compositions boast a mix of wit and poignancy, of vernacular conversation and gem-like aphorisms, very much like Prine’s. If Brown is less well known, it’s because he never released a major-label album and stubbornly stayed home in Iowa rather than moving to Nashville.
All his albums are splendid, but the best introduction is the 2003 anthology, If I Had Known: Essential Recordings 1980-1996, If he’s not familiar to the general public, he’s much beloved by acoustic singer/songwriters. When the album Going Driftless – An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown was released in 2002, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco and DeMent herself each sang a song. DeMent and Brown were married that November.
Twenty years later, the world still needed a reminder of Brown’s genius, and the album Seth Avett (left) Sings Greg Brown provided it at the end of last year. Avett, of course, is no stranger to folk-music families—he performs with his older brother Scott as the Avett Brothers, and their father Jim was a singing preacher in the North Carolina foothills.
Seth, who released Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sings Elliott Smith in 2015, recorded this new project in various hotel rooms during an Avett Brothers tour. He started out playing his favorite songs, but when he realized that many of them were Brown compositions, he narrowed his focus.
It wouldn’t be accurate to claim that Avett improves on Brown’s original versions. But it is true that these new versions are more accessible. Avett’s friendly, off-handed tenor and vanilla guitar rhythms are welcoming, where Brown’s irony-drenched baritone and knotty arrangements can be intimidating. And Avett offers not only Brown’s best known songs (“The Poet’s Game” and “Good Morning Coffee”) but also overlooked deep cuts (“My New Book” and “I Slept All Night My Love”).
Though Rufus Wainwright is best known for his radical updating of stage music (both opera and musical comedy), he too comes from a folk-music family. His parents were the terrific singer/songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle; his aunt was Anna McGarrigle, and his sisters are the singers Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Rufus (right) returns to those roots on his new album, Folkocracy, due in June. His aunt and two sisters are guest singers, but so are such non-folk performers as John Legend, David Byrne and Sheryl Crow. Most of the material is traditional folk tunes but there are also folk-rock hits by Neil Young and the Mamas and the Papas as well as left-field numbers by Moondog and Van Dyke Parks.
Some of the ornate arrangements uncomfortably resemble the way 1950s arranger John Jacob Niles dressed up rough rural numbers in musical tuxedos. But Rufus is such a mesmerizing singer that he brings new light to the even most common numbers, especially such traditional pieces as “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which he sings with five family members, and an incandescent “Shenandoah,” which he sings by himself.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were not a family band, but they were fused by a common crusade to revive the neglected tradition of African-American string bands. The original trio made just three albums by themselves, but those discs were so good that that’s all it took for the crusade to succeed. Those recordings were not only tributes to that lineage but also masterful examples of it.
But with the mission accomplished, the band began to splinter. Justin Robinson, at heart a rock’n’roller, left first to make a solo album. Rhiannon Giddens had too much charisma, too much talent and too many interests to stick with the original game plan. She pursued a variety of artistic risks, some of which did not pay off and others paid off brilliantly, especially her two recent duo albums with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. Ironically, her best post-Chocolate Drops work has come when she returned to her initial vision of extending the evolution of folk music.
Dom Flemons, (left9 the third co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has never wavered in his devotion to the American folk tradition. His debut solo album, 2006’s Dance Tunes, Ballads and Blues, mixed examples of the title categories by Charlie Patton, Jimmie Rodgers and Lightnin’ Hopkins with four originals very much in the same vein. In 2018, Flemons released an album that focused the spotlight on Black Cowboys as he had once focused on Carolina string bands.
Flemons took to calling himself an “American Songster,” a job title that Leadbelly and Mance Lipscomb adopted long ago to describe repertoires taken from every corner of American culture. The 2020 three-CD set, Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, mapped out the territory he was exploring. All these immersions in traditional music set the stage for this year’s album, Traveling Wildfire, which is dominated by Flemons’ own songwriting that remains deeply connected to the older songs he loves.
Bob Dylan didn’t invent the idea of writing new songs using the folk vocabulary, but he did it so well for such a large audience that he has influenced everyone since. Flemons is no exception, and he transforms an obscure, early Dylan tune, “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” by emphasizing its uptempo string-band roots. Flemons plays acoustic guitar, banjo, bones and stone jug, while Sam Bush adds a fiery fiddle track. Here we have an old mountain melody repurposed by Dylan and then repurposed again by Flemons.
Traveling Wildfire is full of old materials being reworked in inspiring ways. The set opens with three lovely, romantic country waltzes composed by Flemons. The relaxed pleasure of the singing and picking on those songs carries over to the blues, gospel and cowboy songs as well. The folk tradition was full of social-justice songs long before Dylan was ever born, and Flemons adds links to that chain with songs about climate change, forgotten Black history and income inequality—always sounding as if the music could have come from any decade in the last dozen.
That sense that music needn’t be trapped in the here and now, that it can pull from the past and push into the future, that it exists for more than next week’s Billboard chart or tomorrow’s YouTube clicker, is the essence of folk music. And just when you might fear that music is dwindling away, DeMent, Brown, Avett, Giddens and Flemons demonstrate how vital it still is.
This reassuring viewpoint uttered by Geoffrey Himes and his descriptions of those artists who deliver that reassurance might, had it been written by a British folk-music lover, have included names like Riognach Connolly /right) & Honeyfeet, or Eliza Carthy and John Boden, or former Steeleye Spanner Maddy Prior singing and epitomising Forgotten Lands.
Another prime example of borrowing from the past to inform the future would be Hack-Poets Guild are three of the UK’s most innovative folk artists, Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann. Inspired by historic broadside ballads the artists rejuvenate and reinvent these stories. Fascinating interpretations and original compositions tell tales of birth, love, conflict and death, with all the imagination of the folklore from which they’re based.
However, ocean cross-currents will surely carry from the Steas to the uk and vice versa that will reveal that folk is a huge part of Americana music and is also a huge part of Britainia music or whetever we might call. Or, perhaps it is not that music is a part of all of us, but rather that all of us are a part of music, down sidetracks and detours all across the arts and right around the world and that, i guess is why they call it World music !