Friday, February 23, 2018

Second Folk Alliance 2018 Post: Woody, Letitia, Bri, Annie, Kyshona, Monique, and Wallis--Songs of Our World

"I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you were just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good for nothing. Cause you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I'm out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just like you." --Woody Guthrie

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.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Once Was Blind, But Now? Chris Lee Becker and Company Leave Folk Alliance Shaken

The end of the last Kansas City Folk Alliance, for me, came a little after 11:00 Saturday night at the end of four days of continuous music. To say it served as an exclamation point is to trivialize it.

It was at the start of Chris Lee Becker's set. Becker’s a wonderfully distinctive singer-songwriter who happens to come from my hometown, Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He has this eye for detail and a dark, wry sense of humor which I think of as his trademark. 

Anyway, Folk Alliance private showcases are, at most, about half an hour long. Becker, normally close to a solo act, came out with three extra “singers” (the quotes here because that wasn’t quite their role in this moment)—Beau Roberson, the lead singer-songwriter for Tulsa’s great band Pilgrim; Oklahoma singer-songwriter, Carter Sampson; and Tulsa singer-songwriter Dan Martin. They were backed by a full band.

Sampson squeezed Roberson’s hand before they started. Something was up, but I was too dumb to realize it was actually what they were about to do.

Becker started reading off a list of I was too shell shocked to remember what the questions were until a video emerged later. I remembered the one that made me struggle to reclaim the shocked laugh from my throat. It was "Is the number of humans killed in a shooting directly related to the number of hours we care about it?" Other questions followed, serious questions about how the fuck we deal with all of this mass murder in our society.

"If you kill twenty five people, do you get fifty hours of coverage, do you get seventy-five, do you get a hundred?
Are there bonus hours for dead children?
How many muscles does it take to pull a trigger?
How many muscles does it take to hug our loved ones?
How many muscles does it take to be a human shield?
To wrap our bodies around someone, envelope them, to surround them?"
Will the bullets lodge in our rib cages?
Or will they fly straight through us?

"The second amendment defines no limitations on the arms we have a right to bear,
But we are human,
Warm hearts beat in our chests,
We are empathetic,
We are members of our villages and citizens of our race--
Is that why no one has created the National Pipe Bomb Association?

"A man says 'Don't Tread on Me,' and we rally behind him;
We have fundraisers, we have parades, we chant his name.
A man says, 'Please don't shoot me,' and we are quiet,
And we listen for the inevitable 'bang!'

"Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder while seeking a formula for immortality--
Did they find it?"

Then, the three "singers" began reading the names of schools, shopping centers, movie theaters--most of them familiar--the sites of mass murders starting with Columbine. Each person read a name; the second one repeated it; the third one repeated it once again. Becker and the band played a sort of instrumental interlude behind them. 

The list was interminable. The music kept going, Becker picking his mandolin, an arpeggio in a holding pattern. Tulsa's Jesse Aycock and Jared Tyler on steel and resonator, respectively, making some simmering sound that reverberated through the room riding waves of pain. At some point, around the time my eyes blurred, Sampson fell out, momentarily. The readers occasionally touched each other's arms or held hands. And it kept going. The music kept going and the list kept going. It seemed it would never stop before eventually arriving at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Roberson finished the list declaring, “And many, many, MANY more!” The others repeated what he said.
According to a Facebook post by McAlester, Oklahoma singer-songwriter Levi Parham, the list lasted ten minutes. It felt like the eternity it was.

As it ended, the mandolin was playing a more identifiable melody, not that I could place it. The instrumental accompaniment stopped. Tyler threw his head back and launched into an acapella "Amazing Grace," the melody that had been just under the surface. The whole room started to sing along.

It's hard to overstate what an inversion of "hopes and prayers" that moment presented. "Was blind but now I see" became a message of hope. For me, it felt like a middle American—a rural American even—call for rebirth, and it couldn't have sounded much closer to Martin Luther King's 1968 Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech if that speech, in fact, had somehow been recited. In that speech, so close to his death, King called for America to be born again—born again to realize the hopes and dreams, the vision, that has bound this country together in its moments of greatness.

Now, that's me speaking, of course, but the moment showed something devastating and deep about the power of music. The room was shaken. I went out in the hall, and I heard (I think) Tulsa's Jacob Tovar telling my friend Jeff Freling about it. There was a spooky quiet all around.

I had to leave because my daughter needed to be picked up, but I remember wondering how in hell Becker was going to follow that.

I heard a lot of wonderful music this Folk Alliance, as usual. I heard some great music. But that moment struck such a raw hard chord, I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything quite like it.

(Thank you Mike, for having a better memory than the guy sitting next to you.)

Newly added video here. It took me almost a week, but I revised the above accordingly. Embedded below and linked--