I know I've "heard it" before, but I really heard it at this year's Folk Alliance when my friend Sue Martinez got me to the Bear Family Records discussion of the Carnegie Hall and Hollywood Bowl Woody Guthrie tribute concerts. Instead of the old hodgepodge of the two concerts originally released on vinyl in '72, this box set preserves almost the entirety of the two sets, featuring spoken word by Robert Ryan, Peter Fonda and Will Geer. In the first half of this Guthrie prose-poem, hearing Geer's laughter and anger put the emphasis in all the right spots to make it clear--this is not about the songs that contemplate hardship; this is about the idea of a music that makes people feel as small as the world already makes them feel. In the second half, Geer's voice rises like a musical fist, acknowledging the blues that give you the strength and dignity to fight on.
On some level, it's a summation of everything that makes me love music. It's also a summation of the corporate propaganda that fights everything good about music every step of the way. When you're in the business of identity formation, why not keep music a spectator sport?
The trick has always been the way music encourages listeners to get off the sidelines. It's that active thing in music that drew a healthy handful of musicians and cultural workers I'd never met before to the Folk Alliance session hosted by Kansas City's local of Showing Up for Racial Justice. The discussion was a fine workshop--hosted by the KC Black and Brown alliance One Struggle--but, of course a starting point, a starting point that had to face the fact that a healthy handful was not the population that should be at such an event at Folk Alliance--not next year, and not the year after that.
I met three kindred artists at that event--Nashville's Bri Murphy, who was in my group; Baltimore's Letitia Van Sant, who stopped me in the hall to talk about SURJ; and Annie Sumi, who lives in North Bay, Ontario. Because I have a hard time separating politics and music (especially when it comes to those musics that no one seems to think are political), I was curious to see each of these women play and managed to make it to Murphy and Van Sant. Murphy's bold, clear voice--unapologetically political when it wanted to be--left me wanting to hear much more. Similarly, Van Sant's conflicted yearnings promised action and inspired the same. In these women, I heard the songs that--as Woody says--though you may be "knocked for a dozen loops," ask you "to take pride in yourself and your work." One some level, why else get up there with a guitar and bare your soul? The great thing is that, when it works, it works for the audience as well. That's music's superpower.
But visiting those women in their sets opened the door to so much more. I saw Murphy in the Wisconsin room, where I also got to hear Mary Bragg and Kyshona Armstrong. They each offered beautiful songs with the kind of grit and strength that makes the listener feel stronger. Armstrong's powerful affirmation of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human race, "Same Blood," took thematic center in the set.
A similar surprise came with the visit to the East Coast singer-songwriters around Van Sant. In that room I got to hear the clear-eyed mountain lilt of Caroline Cotter (who does a remarkable version of Guthrie's "My Peace," on her new album Home on the River) and Emily Mure's delicate ferocity. Incidentally, this set was beautifully bolstered by fine guitar I hope was played by David McKindley-Ward (or I owe someone a rewrite and apology).
And all of this beautiful fight music doesn't even touch the range suggested by the polarity between Australia's Monique Clare and Ireland's Wallis Bird. Clare is a remarkable cellist songwriter who I first met having to take a break after two other songwriters (who I wish I knew) drove her to unplayable sadness. Her terrific Aussie singer-songwriter friend Larissa Tandy filled in with a song about a mother's boyfriend that cut to the heart of feelings I only have the strength to confront on rare occasions. After that, Clare went straight to another set and showed more musical muscle than I could imagine, plunging through the sadness toward something necessary and real.
Then came Wallis Bird, in a set with Clare and, later in the conference on a stage of her own. It's hard not to think of the good-natured, go-for-the-throat mania of Ani DiFranco when watching Bird's one-woman show, but she definitely has her own thing going on. Bird's music is as hip hop as it is folk, and if that hip hop doesn't lean gangsta it certainly has a metal edge. She's loud and hard and angry and joyous--ultimately, as empowering as a primal scream. Better than that, Bird's primal therapy makes you want to dance. That whole set is on line here--
And I never saw Annie Sumi, not this time. But we talked, at the very end of everything, we talked. We talked about some of the heaviness of our lives and how it didn't make anything easier, but she was unusually bold and strong in the way she embraced our conversation and embraced life. After all, that daily pain is also exactly why we do what we do.
So I had to go look for her on line. Among many other videos that make me want to watch more, I found this, all about holding you up, not knocking you down. At it's best, that's the heart of the Folk Alliance, a yearly event that reminds me to look deeper, think longer and recognize that little bit of god in everything....even me.