Saturday, March 27, 2010

Listening to Lange...

Hip-deep in some recent books relating to the Great Depression--the first one, I mean, not our on-going "Grim Regression"--I am offering here for the moment my own slight tribute to the astonishing, hauntingly beautiful, era-defining b&w photos taken by those artists working for the W.P.A. in the early Thirties: Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and, of course, Dorothea Lange.

So: an encore presentation of my Lange dramatic monologue/ballad poem... but this time I'm adding photos that should enhance it a lot:

Ballad for Dorothea

I saw the plow that broke the Plains
break on dust and “drouth.”
That’s what the people called it,
a word as dry in the mouth

as a farmer’s thirst. Or his curse.
That damnable dearth of rain
dried up the land, growing
crops of nothing--but a harvest of shame

when bankers foreclosed on families
who’d seeded the earth with their bones,
raising up an army of the homeless
I held in the lens

of my eye long enough
to let the pure
light within them burn this country
a way to a truer future.

I couldn’t think of them as migrants,
or Okies, like some, because I’d
seen the dusters come rolling and boiling,
blotting out the sky,

till a one’s hair and tongue and dreams
were all the same dark smudge.
To me they were refugees,
even the ones that held on and didn’t budge.

Those black blizzards ate the sun,
and I traveled through the towns,
the tent camps and Hoovervilles,
seeking with my lens

to tell the folks’ hard stories
without leaching their pride.
That was my strength: I could look
and not seem to be looking; I could

see the split-seconds that would
document lives—that bitter old man
with his cup, turned away
from the breadline; one

lone worker, his wheelbarrow dumped over,
head down and back against the wall… Yet
truth to tell, I suppose
I never quite caught

those broken farms on film.
How I envied Rothstein his glorious
shot of the man and his sons
leaning into the dust

storm! I was better focused
close on people: mothers and children
in tarpaper shacks, towns
fly-specked with aimless men,

whole families packing the roads.
Displaced persons everywhere I looked,
their faces streaked
with the dust they couldn’t lose. The Joads

were just folks I’d met;
I as much as snapped the photos
for John’s novel. Still, I don’t know
what they thought.

Times we’d talk, they weren’t what
you’d call articulate. Uneducated,
most of them, and shy.
But with hearts that could reach the sky

above the Great Plains. I
never knew a one of them to grovel,
or even ask for pity.
I loved them all

the only way I could—
I hugged them with the camera.
But I don’t see as how
my caring made any difference.

So many years now,
and the moneyed are still in control,
the homeless still search for cover.
I’ve come to believe we’re all,

poor and rich, wandering in ignorance;
refugees, on a road the dust blows over.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tom Russell: Darkness Visible

Lately I've been listening to more folk/ roots music than anything else, and I've found four artists who speak more directly to me than the popular, maybe better-known performers do. I suppose it's partly a matter of age, because these four songwriters are closer to my 67 years than, say, Ben Harper or Ani Defranco or Whosit. All four are well-regarded here in the U.S. and highly praised in Europe. I've already written (here) about Dave Alvin, ex- of the great roots rock band the Blasters; and another of the four needs no publicity from me (hard-living, late- and still-lamented Townes Van Zandt), so I'll focus some attention on the remaining two, stubborn Westerner Tom Russell in this post and New Orleans r&b guitar master Chris Smither (sometime soon).

Russell has been at it since the mid-Sixties. In fact, a recent post on his personal blog talks about having an encounter with Bob Dylan back in '62 or so, and knowing then and there what he wanted to do with his life. His success came slowly, but by the early Eighties other performers were recording Tom's songs--Joe Ely, Nancy Griffith, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dave Alvin, Tom Paxton, and Johnny Cash all discovered his music. In the meantime he was recording for Philo and then Hightone, and nearly every album from those three decades is a gem. But a trio of his most recent releases provide a good summation and intro: Veteran's Day: The Tom Russell Anthology, a 2CD set on Shout Factory, sampling his best songs from those two defunct labels; One to the Heart, One to the Head, by Gretchen Peters, with Russell duetting and producing, on Scarlet Letter/Frontera Records (in 2008); and Tom's latest, 2009's Blood and Candle Smoke, also on Shout Factory.

There's a well-known Northwest poet named David Wagoner, who in his heyday seemed to find poems in everything: old shoes, getting lost in the woods, baseball games, croaking frogs... you name it and he'd write it. Russell has some of that world-embracing, eclectic, encyclopedic intelligence; his storytelling songs draw on the cowboy past and the confused present, historic happenstance and misterioso modern moments alike. So in the two-set you find wonderful originals devoted to Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar, the sad death of Bill Haley, Vietnam veterans, pre-Katrina Mississippi floods, careless horsethieves caught and hung, Little Willie John's cellmate, a handy Navajo rug, Mickey Mantle, fighting cocks in Mexico, Charles Bukowski, a border patrolman in California's unexpected snow, a statue in Lyon, France... and that's just a third of the 37 tracks on Veteran's Day.

Tom's fondness for high-energy folk-rock and chiming guitars (mostly courtesy of longtime pal Andrew Hardin), mariachi and Tex-Mex backgrounds, memorable images and muscular language, are all well represented, his past as amateur boxer, carney roustabout, sometime cowpuncher, and semi-pro adherent to the stripped-down style of Hemingway and Raymond Carver subtly present too. Listen to this 2CD set, and I'll bet you want more.

Gretchen Peters is a Nashville-based country singer/songwriter, but she grew up out in Colorado and a few years back she and Tom linked up somewhere, with Peters providing background vocals on some Russell tracks. And Tom was immediately convinced she should cut a modern Western album, which is how One to the Heart got recorded. The two put their heads together and assembled a terrific array of new and old Western songs with a suitably autumnal feeling and arrangements favoring piano, accordion, and cello more than guitars--Mary McCaslin's beautiful "Prairie in the Sky" and Rosalie Sorrels' proud farewell titled "My Last Go Round," the cowboy tune "Old Paint" and Dylan's border-flavored "Billy 4" (from his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Ian Tyson's sad and lonely "Blue Mountains of Mexico" and Nan O'Byrne's comically rowdy, not-precisely-cowboy original called "Sweet and Shiny Eyes."

Three others elevate the album beyond excellence to secure classic. Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' on Raton" receives a gorgeously simple guitar-and-piano arrangement, with Gretchen and Tom trading verses and harmonizing a slightly lengthened chorus, repeating the simple, hypnotic lines "Snowin' on Raton, Come mornin' I'll be through these hills and gone." Meanwhile, the puzzling title of Peters' album comes from a number (written by several women) which addresses directly and angrily male abuse of women; its title "If I Had a Gun" tells you that the later line "One to the heart, one to the head" comes with a snarl and a promise of violent revenge. A cowboy song? No, but a modern "murder ballad" for sure.

Finally, Russell provided a new song for Gretchen and himself to share, the wonderful, spirit-comforting original called "Guadalupe," depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine and miracle story of Juan Diego seen anew through the eyes of a troubled penitent, and sung first-person as if truly being experienced by Gretchen (or Tom, in harmony). The lines are haunting, questing, amazing. Here's a sample:

There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
High up in those ancient trees
And I have given up without a fight
Another blind fool on her knees...

She is reaching out her arms tonight
And, yes, my poverty is real
I pray roses shall rain down again
From Guadalupe on her hill

And who am I to doubt these mysteries?
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here
But I am most in need of hope...

I have to admit that this beautiful song strikes a chord in me, the first time I've ever been made curious about Catholicism and saints and miracles. And the performance anchored Gretchen's CD so remarkably that when Tom released his own Blood and Candle Smoke a year later, he revisited their duet and picked an alternate track or shaped a different mix putting himself in the lead (making it the album's title source too). With Russell's wounded baritone throughout, a later verse takes on new meaning:

So here I am, your ragged disbeliever
Old doubting Thomas drowned in tears
As I watch your church sink through the earth
Like a heart worn down through fear...

But the earlier duet was a musical miracle not to be supplanted by his own doubt and guilt, however heartfelt.

Russell's songs are quite literate, even literary, sometimes more like short stories or spoken word recordings, as he cites in passing--or builds whole songs around--Mother Jones, Nina Simone, Hank Williams, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger, Graham Greene, Picasso and John Donne and Tennessee Williams. But this is not just namedropping; the references are usually surprising but apropos and add welcome depth--until his later CDs have come to seem chapters in some grand Encyclopedia of America, evoking Nature despoiled ("Santa Ana Wind" and "Mississippi River Runnin' Backwards"), his own wild past in Nigeria and Canada and Mexico as some strange code for U.S. meddling around the world ("Criminology" and "East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam"), and carnival craziness as greater metaphysical exemplar, found in "Darkness Visible" and "Don't Look Down," the latter including this packed verse:

Oh, the rhymes of the ranges,
And the kindness of strangers
I have run all the changes
Of the Chickasaw waltz
Tasted lipstick and nylons,
Seen your mental asylums
Turned my back on that violence,
Before I turned into salt...

Even the music this time roams farther, offering not just folk guitars and Tex-Mex excitement, but odd percussion and drifting arrangements involving members of the musical cooperative Calexico/Giant Sand (Joey Burns, John Covertino, and others) and ex-Box Top keyboards whiz Barry Walsh. Gretchen Peters adds harmonies as well.

I could blather on for several more paragraphs, but I'll skip to the chase--the remarkable track titled "American Rivers," which pretty much includes all the points about Russell's songs I tried to make earlier: personal remembrance, history and politics, pollution of Nature, satirical references, surprising tenderness. Let Tom's own words suggest his role in roots music:

In an old Chinese Graveyard, I slept in the weeds
When a song and a story were all a kid needs
Yeah, the rhymes and the rattle of those runaway trains
And the songs of the cowboys, and the sound of the rain

And it's mama I miss you, I woke up and screamed
American rivers roll deep through my dreams...

With their jigsawed old arteries so clogged and defiled
No open-heart miracle will turn 'em back wild
Past towns gone to bankers; past fields gone to seed
All cut up and carved out; so divided by greed

And old grandfather Cat Fish with whiskers so long
And his life in a struggle, 'cause the oxygen's gone
Oh, mama I miss you, I woke up and I screamed
The American rivers, they've poisoned my dreams

Colorado, Allegheny
Shenandoah, Sus-qua-hay-nee
And the Wabash, the Hudson, the brave Rio Grande
I was a kid there, asleep in the sand, near your Waters...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Of Bootlegs and Blogging

I'm lucky to have lived through the birth and early growth of Rock Music's bootleg records--1967 to 1980, approximately--back when the Mafia hadn't yet muscled in to press counterfeit copies of real albums, and the artists themselves were often amazed and flattered and happy to cooperate somewhat in the release of such collectable stuff.

Back then, it was understood that any bootleg collector was also a big fan who'd buy anything the artist recorded, whether released as an industry product or a private label swipe. The records were pressed in limited numbers and sold openly in certain alternative-style, hippie-driven stores, and there weren't that many releases at first.

If we ignore the Forties/Fifties tradition of beyond-legal (re)issues of unavailable Early Jazz discs (at first still as 78s, then later gathered on 12" LPs), the first Rock era bootleg was a two-record set issued in 1969 in a plain white jacket completely devoid of text, with blank white labels as well. The set was loosely identified as Great White Wonder, and playing it revealed four sides of previously unissued tracks and unknown songs by Bob Dylan: a variety of studio outtakes, hotel room tapes, live-in-club performances, and demos of tunes offered to other artists, two dozen numbers ranging from "Dink's Song" and "Ramblin' Around" to "Tears of Rage" and "The Mighty Quinn." The tracks weren't uniformly excellent, and sound quality varied widely, but to have them issued at all was both feat and treat, offering splendid fare for collectors and Dylan fans.

I guess the set must have sold well because soon other (and better) Dylan albums appeared, and then other artists showed up too--the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin--and in no time the levees were breached and the floodgates broken wide: live concert tapes and obscurities galore by the Who, Neil Young, David Bowie, the Dead, and other Sixties faves, followed soon by a whole new branch devoted to Bruce Springsteen alone, and then Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, the new Fleetwood Mac, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, on and on.

There were a couple of excellent underground companies like "Trademark of Quality" (with its pig symbol and jacket covers featuring artwork by brilliant comics artist William Stout); but there were also crappy fly-by-nighters who just bootlegged, poorly, other labels' boots, and--still later--legitimate above-ground industry careers for one or two of the ever-anonymous master 'leggers!

Several major artists actually climbed on board, allowing high-quality tapes to slip out to the "fans," and a few even issued their own official boots. (Decades later came the legal Dylan series that continues today on CDs.) Bootleg album packaging kept getting fancier and fancier, until a buyer could easily be fooled into thinking s/he was purchasing a legitimate release.

But, really, what had begun as a service to fans, and a relatively harmless promotion for the performers, somehow had grown immense and become a giant sub rosa industry involving a few thousand different albums and hundreds of thousands of dollars--worrisome revenue totals not going to the bypassed record labels and original artists. Investigations were launched, warehouses and pressing plants raided, serious fines and jail terms slapped on anyone caught selling any sort of bootleg. (Elvis Presley, meaning Colonel Parker, and RCA were especially virulent and aggressive; one bigtime bootlegger, based in Florida as I recall, got 20 years.)

The fun went out of the game. Too much grief awaiting buyers and sellers. Too much shoddy product. Too many choices with no open discussion possible to help determine which discs were worth owning.

Like many others I stopped buying... until CDs came along and revived the whole thing all over again, resulting in new high-quality discs, more serious collector material unearthed, and many stores again selling them almost openly--for example, major stuff appeared from the always-indefatigable Dylan, including a five- or six-CD set offering the complete Basement Tapes of Bob and the Band, which shamed Columbia's mid-Seventies two-record sampling... I've succumbed to a few of these new-era issues, but I'm cautious.

Who wants the hassle? Let the younger fans track down boots of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Throbbing Gristle and REM or whoever. The collector fun's pretty much gone for me. I guess I'll just stick with the now-historical gems I was able to accumulate 40 years ago--samples of which are illustrating this very pictorial post.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Delray Beach, Sort Of

Spaceholder this week...

Just back from Florida, from the Shults family gathering--with Ludwiczaks too, and extended-family Maxwells and Stalneckers--convened around father Richard's lamented passing (see post below). But he got a grand send-off indeed, from Funeral Mass at the favored Catholic Church, to official Reception at a posh Holiday Inn restaurant, to several reunion parties with all ten kids (well, all of them are aging adults now), and spouses, and some of their children present too, ranging from 23-year-old blonde bartender Ashleigh down to six-months-old, new-kid-on-the-block Blake.

West Palm Beach, Highland Beach, Delray Beach... wind and rain, sand and sun, we roamed the Southeast Florida retirement/vacation strip. And a great good time was had by all, even widow and proud matriarch Peg.

So the sad occasion became serendipitous and magical, brimful of love and joy. Glad I got to go along as daughter Sandra's happy partner (albeit worse half).