Thursday, January 19, 2023

Much Depends Upon Bushwick Bill, Merle Haggard, More Poems about Money, Survivor's Songs, and Pallbearer's Clubs

 I used to write book reviews in my blog, and I may still occasionally do so. However, lately, it seems if I really want to help a book out, it needs to go on the Amazon page.

Don't get it twisted, when we can figure out a way to replace Amazon's hold on almost everything we read, watch, or listen to, I'm there. I'm down for the conversation right now, just like I'd like to have one about Ticketmaster and LiveNation and why regular folks can't afford big concerts anymore.

That said, more eyes will see these reviews on Amazon than anywhere else, and Amazon won't abide the duplicate posting here. So, I'll post the links. I thought it was some of my better work this past year.

I started with Charles Hughes' indispensable work on Bushwick Bill--

Before moving to David Cantwell's perfect reworking and expansion of his book The Running Kind: Listening to the Music of Merle Haggard--  

And Daniel Wolff's latest, one-of-a-kind and crucially important More Poems About Money--

To two reviews of Paul Tremblay's latest books, one of my favorite novelists growing richer and warmer with each outing--

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Bruce Springsteen's "Any Other Way" and Other Conversations


People argue over which version of William Bell’s “Any Other Way” Springsteen is covering on his new record (as Greil Marcus put it “a fan’s record”). I have half a dozen reasons for suspecting it starts with Chuck Jackson, not least of which is that he substitutes Jackson’s “you might see a big man cry” for “you might see a grown man cry.” The other singers simply say “you might see me cry.”

Bell’s 1962 single charted at 131 on the Hot 100, meaning most stations 12-year-old Bruce Springsteen might have listened to never played it. Released soon after, Shane’s version only charted in Toronto but hit #68 in Canada with a 1967 reissue. Jackson’s version charted #81 pop and #47 R&B, but, most importantly, was a track on Chuck Jackson’s 1967 Greatest Hits collection, a record an R&B-loving Jersey Shore musician with a band may well have picked up at the time. If nothing else, that collection’s a record Springsteen likely would have known by the time he worked with Jackson on the 1982 Gary U.S. Bonds record, On the Line.

Of course, a crate digger since his early days, Springsteen has mentioned that several of the songs here were, for him, recent discoveries, recent discoveries that play like more than a fair share of the DNA for his entire career.  When Springsteen heard anything doesn’t much matter. It’s the dialogue that went on because of the music that matters. What Springsteen heard whenever he heard it was filtered through all sorts of musical dialogue, including the Beatles “She Loves You,” a similar discussion between two friends about a girl, and a single released about a month before the Jackson version. I enjoy pondering the whole arc of a teenage romance occurring over the course of that month.

But that’s just musing. All four versions add something to the discussion I would like to hope records like this may still start. The build certainly illustrates Steve Van Zandt’s notion that rock and roll, at least in its origins, is white kids trying to make Black records and “failing gloriously.”

William Bell’s record conjures the sort of pre-Beatles (and Beatle-fueling) grandeur of, say, the Drifters, the backing singers even evoking the great girl groups. Without either we don’t have Born to Run    

Jackie Shane’s sultry version, substituting the word “gay” for happy, is at once the saddest sounding version of the record and the most defiantly certain of itself, dispensing with the fragile male bravado central to the other versions. While the sexual ambiguity no doubt resonates with any number of Springsteen’s decisions (the names of partners in song after song, the nightly Big Man stage kisses, the decision to cancel a 2016 North Carolina concert to protest transgender discrimination), I would argue that lack of a certain front-to-keep-from-crying aesthetic is precisely why Springsteen's record doesn’t move this direction—

Chuck Jackson’s comes closest, with its emphasis on horns and its celebration of freedom, though Springsteen stops short of the gospel outro—

Bruce plays it as the Jersey Shore party song where the singer fights to live brokenhearted—  

FWIW, not the best of 2022 in any objective way, but my 2022 playlist nevertheless—







Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Folk Alliance Day 4, To Serve the Music

The room explodes to Le Diable a Cinq
 On the last day of Folk Alliance, I was driving two other volunteers (David Torrejon and Concepcion Neuling of the Chilean duo Coda) to the various load out points for the Folk Alliance gear. At one point, David said that he preferred the volunteer aspect of the conference to the artist side of things.

That surprised and intrigued me, so I asked why.

“We like to serve,” Concepcion said from the little spot I’d dug out for her in my messy back seat.

Reflecting on the good-natured attitude of all the volunteers as we waited for trucks to arrive and keys to unlock doors, all the little snafus of any such operation, I found myself connecting that spirit to the patience expressed repeatedly throughout the conference.

Each night, the Westin hotel restaurant was overwhelmed whenever the folkies came down to eat dinner and celebrate in the evening. One night, desperately hungry, I squeezed into a spot at the bar, and a couple by my side managed to flag the server for me. We immediately began expressing our concern for how overworked and understaffed the crew who was serving us was, a conversation we would repeat the next day at the merchandise table where I was working.

When things hitched up, I didn’t hear anyone complain. These struggling artists and promoters all understood the nature of work. And, in these congenial conversations, many with Kansas Citians I’d somehow never met, we understood that, when it wasn’t completely overwhelming, this work we were engaged in was rife with useful lessons.

Waiting on the truck we were to load, David and Concepcion showed me the quena flutes David plays, which originated with the indigenous Andean peoples. When I commented on the textile of David’s vest in a picture of the duo (which plans to tour Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Spain this summer), David showed me a piece of the aguayo cloth they had with them, a beautiful wool woven from alpaca. Concepcion showed me how the aguayo could be worn for warmth, how it could hold a baby, and how it could also store food. 

These lessons were topped off by a gift of a CD made by a group with which Concepcion plays cello called Ensamble Transatlantico de Folk Chileno. The album’s twelve tracks tour the varied cultures of Chile and blend those sounds with the folk music of Japan and Sweden, as well as performances by the Indian singer Shubham Modi, Colombian singer Victoria Saavedra, and the haunting vocals of Finland’s Viivi Maria Saarenkyla and Hilda Lansman. With a full orchestra composed of many woodwinds and strings, this Chilean tour of folk music is a head-spinning celebration of unity in our diversity, the motto in the liner notes taking me back to my previous blog— “we are all this and much more!”

That last night, too, was a lesson in unity through diversity. We began with a set from Toronto singer Melissa Lauren. She sang jazz and blues-flavored gems accompanied by her producer Tyler Emond on guitar. Lauren joked about how many of her songs were written about arguments with her husband but promised, “we’ll get to more romantic songs.” She needn’t have worried. Anyone whose been in a relationship long enough to survive an argument or two could hear the love pouring through the struggle of each original— “The Day We Stopped,” “My Blue Friend,” “Back to You,” and “My Voice,” as bright and clear as Lauren’s voice.

Melissa Lauren, “The Day We Stopped”—

Gilles Garand and Le Diable a Cinq

Back at Mundial Montreal, Folk Quebec host Gilles Garand started the set by Le Diable a Cinq with a fevered harmonica solo. After about one song of the band’s set, Garand was walking down the aisle telling people to stack their chairs against the wall. In moments, the chairs were gone, and the room exploded with dancing and clapping to these Cajun-like jigs and reels.

Le Diable a Cinq, “Les Chaises a Chabot”—

Zal Sissokho and Kora Flamenco
Chairs back, we settled into a dazzling performance by Kora Flamenca, a group helmed by Kora player Zal Sissokho and flamenco guitarist Caroline Plante. The call of Sissokho’s Senegalese vocals and the dazzling waterfall-like sound of the kora strings with Plante’s driving guitar inspired someone in the room to respond to with large maracas.

Kora Flamenca, “Manssani”—

Our night ended back in the “Women of Note” room, where Aoife Scott was hosting the UK’s Katherine Priddy, New Orleans-based Lilli Lewis, and New York folk-blues singer Elly Wininger. Priddy began with the remarkably tender and tough “Wolf” about loving someone who is “everything I hate,” that contradiction nicely mapping out the tough territory ahead of us.

Katherine Priddy, “Wolf”—

After another forbidden love song in Gaelic by Scott, Lewis raised the stakes with “Piece of Mind,” calling it, “my one murder ballad.” Wininger finished off this round with a minor-keyed and gorgeous explanation for why these hard songs must be sung, the title track to her album, “The Blues Never End.”

Elly Wininger, “The Blues Never End” --

After that, Priddy’s “Letters from a Traveling Man” seemed like the living damnation so often associated with the blues singer as well as that hapless lover from “Wolf.” It’s not unsympathetic…. She sings from his point of view. But the man wants a fire waiting for him while promising he won’t pass this way again.

Lilli Lewis and Aoife Scott

Scott took the strain of such personal politics to the bigger picture with a cover of Damien Dempsey’s “The Colony” accompanied by her “fella” Andy Meany on guitar and Lilli Lewis on keys. With a litany of violence, that song describes the common cause that binds together the Irish with the indigenous people of North America, Australia, and Africa, and it ends with the hard-fought declaration, “You’ll never kill our will to be free.”

Lewis answered this with a story about the cotton gin and how Eli Whitney’s invention transformed the business of cotton into an exponentially more brutal system. And then she sang “Wednesday’s Child,” a song she called her own story, of violence, sickness, and suicide rooted in the bigotry of those who stole and sold her family. Wininger used “Alabama Blues,” about the attack on women’s reproductive rights specifically, to underscore the set’s direction, a tale of women under siege from every conceivable front.

Lilli Lewis, “Wednesday’s Child”

That coherence of this in-the-round session showed the potential of a collaborative set, each woman playing off the other’s perspective, each expanding our concept of how the personal and the political tie together.

I find myself again thinking about David and Concepcion’s concept of the conference itself as an opportunity to serve the music and to serve the musical community. At its prevalent best, that is what Folk Alliance does—the entire activity of gathering these people together in one place to meet in affinity groups and to discuss every aspect of their careers from songwriting to promotion. ‘

That, too, is the spirit of these blogs. I will have done my job if I’ve been of some small service to the music. It’s the music which binds us together, after all, and, as Scott sang in “The Colony,” it’s the music that holds the key to our freedom.


Lilli Lewis





Katherine Priddy








Saturday, May 21, 2022

Folk Alliance, Day 3: Praise the Women


“In Appalachia, it’s not traditional for a dancer to fiddle or a fiddler to dance. We typically do one or the other. But here at Folk Alliance, I’ve met three other dancing fiddlers, who I’m thinking will be lifelong friends,” Nashville-based Hillary Klug said this as part of her endearing (earnest and funny) patter that accompanied what she presented as a sort of demonstration regarding her beloved buck dancing.

Klug said, “Now, how many of you all are familiar with buck dancing?”


“Three people?” She paused again. “Now this is embarrassing. I’m the national champion of something only three of you ever heard of.” It was the oh-so-natural laugh line, and we laughed, hard and natural. 

That's the way the whole evening went.

“You’re probably familiar with clog dancing. They come from the same tradition, but buck dancing is older, and while clog dancing is fun to watch with all the high kicks”—Klug jumps and kicks heels together to illustrate— “buck dancing is all about the sound, and boring to watch.”

Klug was anything but boring to watch. Running through an array of standards from “Oh, Susanna!” to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “The Cuckoo,” her almost marionette-like movements were emotionally moving. As she fiddled with abandon and danced (though visually understated) much the same way, something that could only be called joy filled the room. Her set was the original concept of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance in the microcosm of one person.

Hillary Klug

Hillary Klug, “Cotton-Eyed Joe”

Noting the difference in Canadian dance fiddlers and Appalachians, mentioning the loss of her accompaniment that night as serendipitous because the approach she now used would be more traditionally Irish, Klug tied together the traditions in the “Women of Note” room, a room created by Dublin’s Aoife Scott to pay homage to a yearly Irish Tradfest where women gather and sing in the round at Dublin’s Saint Patrick Cathedral. (This past January Scott performed with Wallis Bird and Peggy Seeger.)

Last night, Scott opened for Klug, a brilliant and funny warm up for the buck dancer. Scott managed to render stories of the interminable Irish Lockdown and dark days of depression (including sad jam sandwiches) in a way that brought laughter and tears intertwined.

“One thing about the lockdown, before, I didn’t know who I was without gigging. I found out I am someone when I’m not gigging, and that was grand.” The sweet humor in that brief, confessional comment was, in many ways, a theme that ran through the evening. We're more than all this, but isn't it grand that we're all this, too?

Aoife Scott, “Sweet October”

Each night of the conference, at midnight, Scott is gathering a group of women to sing in the round. Last night, she was joined by Thea Hopkins, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe in what is today Massachusetts, who calls her music Red Roots Americana. With her full-throated yet ethereal vocals, Hopkins sang of having wings to fly like an angel and compared the power of love to rain feeding the dry earth.

Thea Hopkins, “Love Come Down”

Sands, Lowry, Scott, and Hopkins

Another indigenous American singer, of the Lumbee/Tuscarora tribes of North Carolina, Charly Lowry spoke thoughtfully about her own life story, how she moved from a predominantly native American hometown to a university town where most people were not indigenous, acknowledging she went through a profound culture shock, leading up to her celebratory anthem, dedicated to women, “Brown Skin.” Later in the set she called upon all of us to celebrate our backbones as well.

Charly Lowry, “Backbone”

Cork’s Clare Sands furthered the celebration with a song called “Praise the Women” in Gaelic, “Awe na Mna,” Then she closed the evening with two fiddle tunes accompanied by dances from another native of Cork, Louise O’Connor. At one point or another, Lowry and Scott playing hand drums, the room giddy with our common humanity.


O'Connor, Sands (almost hidden in red), Lowry, Scott, Hopkins