Julia Wolfe, meet Merle Travis

May 13, 2015 by

A couple of weeks ago, a Pulitzer Prize jury awarded the 2015 prize for music to Julia Wolfe for Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for mixed chorus and sextet. The fields of the title are in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, and anthracite (a high-carbon, extra-hard version of coal) was discovered there early in the 19th century. Julia Wolfe calls herself “a storyteller with music,” and Anthracite Fields uses the words, songs and stories of miners and their families to tell the story of their work, their lives, and their deaths.

As part of the compositional process, Wolfe went down to the mines, immersed herself in oral histories and interviews, and found narrative threads that eventually became the five movements of the piece.

The opening movement is called Foundation and presents two related narratives. The first is simply and hauntingly a list of names of men killed or injured in the mines, chanted by the chorus’s male voices. From the multitude of dead, Wolfe included in this first list only those whose first name was “John” and whose last name was a single syllable.

The second narrative begins with a description of how coal is formed, initially including the women’s voices alone, but they are soon rejoined by the men who resume their invocation of the dead and injured, no longer just Johns, but men from all over the world, as immigrants were drawn to the mines at the beginning of the 20th century. The music becomes more complex, more intense, and the narratives intertwine as the movement ends. “These men,” Wolfe says, “are the foundation.”

It struck me as I listened to excerpts of this movement (a recording is due our in the fall) how closely it resembles Merle Travis’s classic coal-mining song, Dark as the Dungeon. In the last verse, Travis combines Wolfe’s two narratives at least as artfully, taking Wolfe’s foundation metaphor literally:

I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner diggin’ my bones.

Wolfe’s cantata continues with the story of the breaker boys, who were as young as six when they started their dangerous work, picking slate from the stream of coal as it flowed below them. Boys who lost their balance could be crushed in the rolling mass of coal and rock; those who survived likely moved underground, where, in Travis’s words, “danger is double and pleasures are few.”

The last three movements are titled Speech, Flowers, and Appliances: union leader John L. Lewis provides the text for Speech, as he describes the disregard of mine owners for workers’ lives. Flowers deals with lives in the “patch towns” that housed the mine workers: despite the often oppressive conditions, most did their best to preserve a sense of community, and the flower gardens maintained by the women of the community are a symbol of that solidarity for Wolfe.

Coal was a way of life, and death, for these men and their families; the last movement of Anthracite Fields, Appliances, shows us how much we owe them for their work. Most electricity in the United States is still produced by coal-fired plants, and without the workers memorialized by Wolfe, our lives would have been much darker.

Music like Julia Wolfe’s is a bit out of my usual path, and it was a surprise to me, as I poked around her website, to see that Anthracite Fields isn’t the only one of her works to deal with the American worker. Steel Hammer tells, in Wolfe’s phrase “the story of the story of the John Henry legend.” riSe and fLY takes its title from a chain gang work song collected by Alan Lomax, and incorporates the rhythms of American work songs. Maybe Anthracite Fields will bring some of Wolfe’s audience over to John Henry and Merle Travis, and maybe you’ll watch the little video below and check out the rest of Wolfe’s work. I hope so.

The video is a little two-minute intro to Anthracite Fields – there’s a 23-minute documentary here that tells more of the story and, if you have the time, is really worth watching. And for you Merle Travis fans, check this out – where’s his Pulitzer?



Spuyten Duyvil at Passim

April 20, 2015 by

When New York City was run by the Dutch, back in the 17th century, a creek in what is now the Bronx got a reputation for being tough on swimmers. They started calling it Spuyten Duyvil (Devil’s Whirlpool) from the currents that made it so hard to cross. Soon the whole neighborhood was called Spuyten Duyvil, and later (about 300 years later), there was a band called Spuyten Duyvil, and they’ll be performing at Club Passim in beautiful Harvard Square on Wednesday, April 22. Laney Jones opens (listen! she’s really good!).

The band is just wrapping up a tour behind their new CD, The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1, which they’ve described as “a love letter to the Anthology of American Folk Music.” Most of the material on the new CD is traditional (although only one of the tunes actually appears on the Anthology), but Spuyten Duyvil aren’t tied down to any one tradition. Lead singer Beth Kaufman is versatile enough to put across both Barbara Allen and Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy, and the band handles blues, jug band music and ancient ballads with equal grace. Show starts at 8 – check them out. Here’s Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy live from Rockwell Music Hall. Please enjoy!

Back In the Saddle Again

May 28, 2014 by

A few months ago, the people who publish the 33 1/3 series of books issued an open call  for proposals. If you’re not acquainted with the 33 1/3 books, each is a little (roughly 120 pages) book about a single LP/CD. Anyway, I found out about this way too late to get a proposal of my own together, but started thinking that it might be interesting to work a 33 1/3 book about the Anthology. So I decided to write a proposal on spec, get in touch with the 33 1/3 people about it, and take it from there. I just started, and I’m going to use the blog as sort of a semi-public clearing house for ideas as the process continues.

I’ve been reading a few of the books in the series, and they seem to be part personal (how am I and this music related?), part informational (stuff about the artists, how the record got made, etc.), and part cultural (what was going on around this record and how does it all fit together?). It’s an approach that I think lends itself perfectly to a work like the Anthology.

At any rate, I’ll be posting again, with the usual musical accompaniment. Today’s video is Gene Autry’s Back in the Saddle Again. When I was a little kid, my old man (who was from Western Pennsylvania), used to listen to a country music station from New Jersey that was certainly the only such whose signal reached New York City. They played all the great cuts we now call “classic country,” and I hated every minute of it. Back in the Saddle Again was the theme of one of the DJs on the station, and I’m sure I heard it thousands of times before I was 10. Here’s one more. Please enjoy.


Which Side Are You On?

September 3, 2012 by

It’s Labor Day, as if that’s more than just another Monday holiday to most Americans. Income inequality continues to expand, union membership continues to decline. No doubt, the plutocrats have got us on the run.

And now they’re moving in for the kill: a new book by Edward Conard would like to see all taxes eliminated for the very rich, while at the same time making bank bailouts guaranteed. That doesn’t leave a whole lot for the rest of us, does it? Is Conard just some right-wing crank? Hardly. He’s a former Bain Capital director, friend and million-dollar plus contributor to Mitt Romney. Should the day arrive when Mitt and Ann move to Washington, Conard will have a good seat at the inauguration.

Florence Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On,” a song workers will be singing for as long as there is work to be done. Her father died in a coal mine, her husband died of black lung, and she never stopped fighting for the men and women who followed them. So take your pick. Florence Reece or Ed Conard? That’s our choice now. Which side are you on?

New Music From Iris Dement

June 28, 2012 by

After a sixteen-year layoff, Iris Dement’s first album of new music will be released on October 2, and she’ll even be touring a bit.

Billboard Magazine is streaming the title track, Sing the Delta, on its website, and her tour schedule is available here.

Here’s a wonderful performance of Let the Mystery Be: the soloists are Russ Barenberg on guitar and the great Jay Ungar on fiddle. Donal Lunny and Molly Mason complete the ensemble. Please enjoy!


The Winding Stream: A Carter Family Film That Needs Our Help

June 24, 2012 by

Beth Harrington, director of Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, started shooting The Winding Stream in 2003. It’s an ambitious project, a documentary looking at the impact of two families – the Carters and the Cashes – on the history of country music. She’s at a crossroads now, and needs money to continue post-production work on the film.

The original Carter Family cut their first records at the epochal Bristol Sessions in 1927. Since then, we’ve heard from at least three generations of Carters. Johnny Cash started his recording career at Sam Philips’s Sun Studios in Memphis, and now his daughter Roseanne and her daughter, Chelsea Crowell are continuing the family business. Those of us who have been listening to this music for most of their lives (my old man sang Carter family tunes as part of his “long car ride repertoire”) often take it for granted, but there are way too many Americans who don’t realize how beautiful, and how important, this music is. The Winding Stream can become an essential and unique document of that importance – but only if it gets released.

Ms. Harrington is trying to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to get this film through editing and some other post-production work. Abandoning this project now would be a terrible loss – the interviews alone (including one of the last Johnny Cash ever gave) are an irreplaceable resource.

Please, go over to The Winding Stream’s Kickstarter page and, if you can, give them some money (the minimum pledge is $1). Since the project is backed by a non-profit organization, all contributions are tax-deductible to the extent of the law, minus, of course, the value of the rewards associated with each pledge level. And while the biggest and best reward is helping this film get made, some of the perks you get for contributing aren’t too shabby, either: a reception with Roseanne Cash? Tickets to the LA, NY or Boston premieres of the film? DVDs of Welcome to the Club? These and other wonders are only a couple of clicks away.

Here’s Beth Harrington’s Kickstarter pitch, including the film’s trailer – Beth Harrington has a great story to tell and needs just a little help to be able to tell it to a much wider audience. As of right now (June 25th, 9:30 PM, EDT) they need about $7,000. They’ve only got three days to get it. Put them over the top, will you? And tell them Harry sent you!

Great Music, Great Cause

June 3, 2012 by

The Diva Day Foundation has been working since 2008 to raise awareness of domestic violence issues. They have not only raised money for such vital groups as Jane Doe, Inc., The Elizabeth Stone House, Transition House, and On the Rise, but by way of their “house band,” Diva’s Daughters, have been active in the community, making, in their words, “a real impact on the lives of women and girls.” It’s important work.

The foundation’s big annual fundraising event, Diva Day, is coming up this Saturday, June 10, and the theme this year is: One Voice: A Celebration of Women in Bluegrass and Folk Music. Fortunately for us, there will be not one, but many voices on stage come Saturday. Diva’s Daughters will open the festivities, followed by Jan Bell and the Maybelles and the headliners, Red Molly.

If you’ve never seen Red Molly perform, you are in for the proverbial real treat – go visit their website, listen to some of their music and reserve your place at Diva Day. Red Molly has some big events coming up: they’re opening for Willie Nelson at the South Shore Music Circus and Cape Cod Melody Tent later this month, and will be kicking off their Southwest Tour soon after.

The music will (I promise!) be fantastic, but don’t forget the cause – funding for domestic violence shelters has not kept pace with need during these tough financial times – I guess none of them fall into the “too big to fail” category. So it’s up to us to keep them going. Tickets for the show are an amazingly affordable $25: buy them right here., and tell them Harry sent you!

If you can’t show up for Diva Day in person, you can still donate to this more than worthy cause: just click right here and they’ll make it easy for you.

Still need convincing? Watch the video – it’s a great introduction to the women and their music. Please enjoy!

Levon Helm Has Died

April 19, 2012 by

The last time I saw Levon Helm was at a concert in Central Park maybe four or five years ago. He’d recently gotten his voice back after having lost it to throat cancer, so every sound he made was something of a miracle. The love he had for his music, and for each of us and for all of us, came pouring off that bandstand and filled every song and every chord and every note of a long rainy celebration of an evening. We thanked him then, and I thank him now.

The video is from Festival Express, a documentary of an all-star rock tour across Canada in 1970. The way The Band sounds here, on The Weight, is the way I remember hearing them live. When you’re done with the video, please go read Charlie Pierce’s great tribute to Levon over at his Esquire blog.



Help Kelly Willis on Kickstarter! (Updated – THEY MADE IT!)

January 16, 2012 by

Kelly Willis and her husband, singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, are finally making a record together, and they’ve decided to self-finance it by way of Kickstarter.

They’ve recorded three songs already and are doing the rest a couple of songs at a time. Brad Jones is producing and what they’ve done so far sounds great.

I hope you’ll head right over to their Kickstarter project page and help out in any way you can. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett to make a real contribution and get a real reward. One (that’s 1) lone dollar gets you a song download and newsletter – get a signed copy of the album when it comes out for only $25. There are contribution categories from $1 to $10,000 (a house concert!) with a bunch of options in between. They need about $11,000 with 10 days to go, and truly, every little bit helps.

Kelly and Bruce have made beautiful music together (and apart, for that matter) for many years, but have never done an album together. This project is probably their (and our) best hope of getting it done.

Here’s one you’ll hear on the new album, from a recent show – it’s Waterfall, and it’s beautiful…please enjoy, and give till it hurts!

Update: The project is now fully funded! Great news for Bruce and Kelly, and for us!

Half Past Dead

January 8, 2012 by

That’s what this blog has been lately, while I more or less abandoned it to lead a study group on the Southern Diaspora. The course is over and I’m hoping to ease back into a semi-regular posting schedule over here. what better way to begin than with this video of Wilco, Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe – they’re in a dressing room at the Civic Opera House in Chicago and they’re having fun with The Weight. Please enjoy, and happy new year to all!