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Posts Tagged ‘folk music’

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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In these days of iTunes, albums are probably obsolete. However, I still prefer to listen by albums, knowing how much care many musicians take to arrange material.

I have some thousand albums, all of which I’m slowly digitalizing while hardware like USB cassette players still exist to make the task easy. Choosing one over another is in many ways meaningless, since my favorites can differ depending on my mood and whatever song is running through my head when I wake up in the morning. However, if I had to choose my general favorites, in no particular order, the list would look something like this:

  • Breakfast in Bedlam by Malcolm’s Interview: Also known as “God’s Little Monkeys,” Malcolm’s Interview was a short-lived punk band in England during the 1980s. Hard-driving lyrics, strong song-writing, and the occasional reinterpretation of folk standards make this first album worth hunting down if you weren’t around when it was released.
  • Celtic Hotel by Battlefield Band: Anything by Battlefield Band in its innumerable incarnations is worth hear. But in this album, the lineup included songwriter Brian McNeill, and the group soars above its usual lofty standards. Standouts include “The Roving Dies Hard,” a romantic overview of Scottish history,“Seacoalers,” a bitterly defiant soliloquy about an independent beachcomber, and a cover of Sting’s “We Work the Black Seam.”
  • Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl: Dubbed MacColl’s divorce album, this album is full of breakup angst, defiance, female fantasy, and even a chilling look into the mind of a serial killer, all backed up by MacColl’s characteristic wall of sound. Listen to this album, and you’ll understand why she was once described as “the Dorothy Parker of pop.”
  • Waiting for Bonaparte by The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Using a name that The Pogues discarded, TMTCH sound in this album like a Mersey-side rock band with a historical perspective and a political conscience. Especially strong numbers include “The Crest,” a father’s last words to his son about the family tradition, and “The Colors,” an account of the great English naval mutiny at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Hat Trick by the Mollys: Tex-Mex punk folk sounds like it should be a disaster. Somehow, the Mollys made the combination work, combining original songs that sound like their lyrics were written by a female Sean McGowan with cheeky re-working of folk standards like “All Around My Hat” and “Myrshkin Derkin.”
  • Small Rebellions by James Keelaghan: James Keelaghan is one of Canada’s major song writers. This album is a mixture of unionism (“Hillcrest Mine” and “Small Rebellions,” Canadian history (“Red River Rising,” and “Rebecca’s Song” local patriotism (“Gladys Ridge”), humor (“Departure Bay”) and quiet lyricism (“Country Fair”) – something for anyone who prefers intelligent lyrics with their music.
  • Love, Loneliness and Laundry by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey: England’s answer to Tom Lehrer, Leon Rosselson also has a quieter, if no less satirical side. He is joined here by the rich voice of Roy Bailey, and occasionally feminist folk singer Frankie Armstrong. Warning: “Standup for Judas” should not be played if you have invited Christian friends over. The same goes for “Abezier Coppe.”
  • Mothers, Daughters, Wives by Judy Small. Australian’s premier feminist folk singer in the 1990s, Small has one of the most expressive voices I have ever heard. The title song is a description of the lives of her mother’s generation and the roles available to them, so moving that it could probably reduce the most confirmed misogynist in the world into tears at the waste.
  • Angel Tiger by June Tabor: June Tabor’s voice sounds like that of a survivor, sad and depressed, but still struggling, with one of the most expressive voices ever to come out of England. This album includes her gut-wrenching version of “Hard Love,” a story of hard-won maturity, and “All This Wasted Beauty,” the song that Elvis Costello wrote for her voice. Expect to be literally moved to tears.
  • Elemental by Loreena McKennitt: With her harp and an expressive voice that can glide effortlessly up and down the octaves, Loreena McKennit is not heard so much as experienced. This is her first album, a collection of folk standards plus an arrangement of W. B. Yeat’s “Stolen Child” that has to be heard to be believed.
  • The Shouting End of Life by OysterBand: This album catches OysterBand in its electric rock phase. Opening with the pro-environmental “We’ll Be There,” the album waxes lyrical in “By Northern Light” and “Long Dark Street,” switches into comedy with “Don’t Slit Your Wrists for Me,” and ends a rock version of Leon Rosselson’s anthem, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
  • Frivolous Love by Pete Morton: With a punk voice but a quiet sound, Morton specializes in enigmatic but moving lyrics, such as “The Sloth and the Greed” and “The Backward King.” The album also includes one of the best ever recordings of “Tamlyn.”
  • Memento: The Best of Maddy Prior by Maddy Prior: Frequently the lead singer for Steeleye Span and the occasional collaborator of June Tabor, Prior is one of folk rock’s best-known vocalists. This album covers a few folk standards, as well as Prior’s own considerable song-writing skills, which are on display in such numbers as “Commit the Crime” and “Face to Face,” as well as “Rose” and “Alex,” her odes to her children. But by far the most interesting song on the album is “The Sovereign Prince,” which contrasts Elizabeth I with the frivolous English girls who live in the world that she created.
  • The Texas Campfire Takes by Michelle Shocked: While I’m dismayed by Shock’s recent anti-gay sentiments, I have to admit she still writes effective music. This album is her version of the bootleg album that launched her career without her permision, The Texas Campfire Tapes, after she had regained the rights. It contains both the originally released songs and the unedited versions she rightly prefers.
  • Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard: To his frequent regret, Hubbard is best-known for the outlaw country hit, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” However, this album shows Hubbard is more complicated than that old hit would suggest, offering a unique combination of blues and rock, and songs that are vignettes of the American South that could have come from the pages of a William Faulkner novel.
  • Red Roses for Me by the Pogues: This early album shows The Pogues at their best. Their musicianship is displayed in instrumentals like “The Battle of Brisbane” and “Dingle Regatta,” and the strength of their lyrics in “Boys from County Hell” and “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go.” The Pogues even take the time to cover Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida” and fellow Irish rakehell Brendan Behan’s “The Old Triangle.”
  • From Fresh Water by Stan Rogers: Stan Rogers never released an album that was uninteresting, but this is by far his strongest. Part of his Canadian region recordings, it focuses on songs about Ontario. As might be expected from Rogers, many of the songs are about ships on the Great Lakes, including “White Squall” and “Lock Keeper.” Others are about Canadian history, such as “McDonnel on the Heights” and “The Nancy.” Still others are about the dreams of ordinary Canadians, including “Flying,” which is probably the only memorable song ever written by hockey.
  • Amnesia by Richard Thompson: The English guitar legend has dozens of albums to his credit, but Amnesia has a claim to being the best of them all, with all ten songs being winners. Its ballads include “Gypsy Love Song” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” its had-edge material, “Yankee Go Home” and “Jerusalem on the Jukebox. It ends with“Pharoah,” a metaphorical social commentary unlike any you’re likely to have heard.
  • Singing of the Times by Tommy Sands:A peace activist in Irelands, Sands starts this album with, “There Were Roses” about The Troubles. Other songs like “Children of the Dole” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons” sound like activist anthems. However, some of his works, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “I’m Going Back on the Bicycle” display a sly sense of humor, and “Peter’s Song,” an elegy for a fiddler, is simply beautiful.
  • All Used Up by Utah Phillips: Nobody ever went to a Utah Phillips concert for his guitar playing. But if you like story telling or want to hear about the Wobblies and the great North American labor movements through their songs, this album is a great place to start.
  • Restless by Sam Weis: With her twelve string guitar and husky voice, Weis was a standard on the folk circuits of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s before she retired to small town Washington to paint abstracts. Restless show her ability to write moving, original love songs, such as “Rubicon” and “Moment to Moment,” as well as her outstanding guitar work in songs like “Train to Big Sur” and her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

You probably haven’t heard of most of these performers, especially if you live outside of Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even then. But that’s why I list them – because if you do take the trouble to track them down, you’re unlikely to regret the effort.

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One benefit of digitalizing my music is the rediscovery of artists. Thanks to the digitalizing, I’ve tracked down at least a dozen artists and found what they’ve been doing since I first heard their music, including The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Michelle Shocked, Kirsty McColl, and Mark Graham. My latest re-discovery is Sam Weis, a twelve-string guitar player and writer of original songs from Washington State.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Weis, but it must have been at a Rogue Folk concert at the WISE Hall in East Vancouver. Possibly, I’d run across her previously at regional science fiction conventions; if not, it was someone remarkably similar. She had a vaguely punk sensibility that appealed to the front-row lesbians who seemed to attend every local folk concert in those days, and a twelve-string guitar that seemed almost too big for her and with which she could do almost anything. I especially remember the audience joining on the “Ride, ride, ride” chorus of “Til We’ve Seen It All,” and many of those around me crying at the longing expressed in the song.

At some point, we bought her Restless album, and over the years I played it often. But the CD lost its cover, and Weis seemed to be performing less, perhaps concentrating on her painting, which she also does professionally. Occasionally, I searched the Internet for her, but never found anything.

It was only last week, as I searched through my digital collection, that I realized that I had been looking for “Weiss,” adding an erroneous “s” to the end of her name. Having grabbed a clue, I located and downloaded her other three albums, and have been enjoying them for the past six days.

Finding an analogy for Sam Weis’ work isn’t easy, because it appeals in a number of different ways. Listening to her cover of “Dancing Barefoot,” I might compare her to Patti Smith with a stronger voice and better guitar work. Listening to “’55 Ford,” you might mistake her for a rocker. Her instrumental “Helix” is reminiscent of the Scottish harp duo Sileas. Another instrumental, “Train to Blue Sky” sounds like something the Allman Brothers might have recorded in their heyday, while “Breakfast with Bob” has an acoustic quietness. Philosophical pieces like “Why Not Utopia?” are reminiscent of Tori Amos in expression, while “Seven Sisters Road” suggests Michelle Shocked feeling nostalgic. Some critics have compared her to Joan Armatrading because of her probing relationship songs.

All these comparisons have a grain of insight, and none is accurate by itself, if only because Weis’ versatility is always supported by her strong guitar skills and a voice that, while ordinary in range, has a husky vibrato that suggests ambiguity and repressed emotion, making it second to very few in expression.

At times, her lyrics teeter at the edge of triteness, often as she finds herself boxed in by a scarcity of non-cliched rhymes. Such low points are especially likely to happen when she waxes philosophical in songs like “Why Not Utopia?” or “Shape of Time.” Not that such songs aren’t redeemed by the arrangements, but tackling such topics in a three or four minute song is only slightly easier than doing so on Twitter.

By contrast, Weis’ lyrics are at their height when she deals with personal emotions, whose complexities and ambiguities she expresses better than almost anyone. For instance, in “Seven Sisters Road,” she talks about youthful sessions with friends “where we invented destiny / And traded rage for poetry.”

Her lyrics are at their best when describing the intricacies of love in plain language. In “Restless Heart,” for example, she pleads, “Open up and let me come in / My lessons have been learned and I want to try again” and invites her lover to “slow dance on the back porch.” Similarly, in “Moment to Moment,” she expresses the obsessiveness of love with:

I don’t want to spend one more night
With you on my mind,
I’m going to be so tough when I pretend
I can leave this love behind.

However, my personal favorite remains “Til We’ve Seen It All.” I suppose you might argue that, in modern times, a song about cruising the highways with a lover isn’t environmentally correct. All the same, the poignancy remains despite such quibbles:

This is how I see
The golden American Dream,
Three thousand miles of asphalt,
Four wheels and a holy machine;
I’ve been chasing the illusion
Like an astronaut running down a star,
The dream to go fast, go hard,
Go now and go far.

I’m sure that the only way that any listener can fail to be moved by the longing is if they’ve completely given up their own ambitions and dreams.

None of this is to dismiss Weis’ instrumentals – just to say that I’m more qualified to discuss her words. Instrumentals like “Cosmo and Peanut” and “Helix” from her just-released album Paradox have already kept me sane while riding public transit, and I plan on them doing the same many times in the future. The fact is, all Weis’ albums have a permanent place on my music player, and I”ll happily listen to whatever other music she releases.

The only question I have is: Why isn’t this artist better known?

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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Railroading on the Great Divide,
Nothing around me but the Rockies and sky,
It’s there you’ll find me as years go by,
Railroading on the Great Divide.

– Traditional

Reading The Globe and Mail a couple of days ago, I learned that folk-singer Bruce “Utah” Phillips had died on May 23. He had been ill since last summer, so the news wasn’t exactly a surprise. And with his unkempt gray beard, he had always looked a decade or two older than he was, so I had been expecting to hear of his death for some years. But I suppose that one of the consequences of growing older is that you have to watch your heroes die off one by one. And Utah Phillips was certainly once of mine.

As we come marching, marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it’s bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too.

I first heard Utah at one of the early Vancouver Folk Festivals. In fact, except for a concert or two, most of the places I heard him play or talked to him (casually, and so little I would have been surprised to hear that he remembered me) were at one Vancouver Folk Festival or another. He was never the greatest guitar play – no one came to hear him on the guitar, Kate Wolf is supposed to have said when she coaxed him out of retirement when his fingers were stiff – and his voice was never more than adequate. But he was one of those people who know how to put a song across. There was a sincerity and passion in his voice that was infectious. Just hearing it could inspire you.

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And we hail you still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth,
But marks the workers’ dead.

Another part of his appeal was his material. Few people today know or perform the old Wobbly songs – the material used by the Industrial Workers of the World in their agitation. But, to the extent that anybody does know or perform them, they do so because of Utah Phillips. Often reworkings of popular hymns (“so they made more sense,” as Utah liked to put it), and inevitably attributed (often dubiously) to Joe Hill, they were a glimpse of the past outside the one provided by official history, and often wickedly humorous. “The Popular Wobbly,” “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years” — there was a time when those were the songs I played several times a week, whose words I memorized and whose tunes I went around humming.

I spent my whole life making somebody rich,
I busted my back for that son of a bitch,
And he left me to die like a dog in a ditch,
And he told me I’m all used up.

Occasionally, these forgotten songs would be joined by Utah’s own compositions, such “Enola Gay” “All Used Up” and “The Goodnight Loving Trail.” No doubt influenced by the material he was keeping alive, they were examples for me as a young man of the attitudes I needed to survive and think well of myself. For better or worse, I am who I am today in some part because of Utah Phillips’ songs.

What will I say when my children ask me,
Where was I flying up on that day?
With trembling voice I gave the order
To the bombardier of Enola Gay.

Then there were the stories that he came to tell with increasing frequency as he grew older. Some were tall tales with a hilarious, sometimes political point to them, but the best were stories about his life on the road. Early on, I inferred that Utah was not a natural anarchist or pacificist, but that he had done his best to reshape himself into something like the man he wanted to be. Not being naturally those things myself, I was fascinated to hear the bits and pieces of his life story that he had worked into stage material.

I have lead a good life, careful and artistic,
I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic.

I remember, too, the outrage at one folk festival, when Utah’s children concert involved stories about how to get meals for free at a restaurant. Somehow, I’m sure that he delighted in shocking the trendy leftist parents as much as he enjoyed talking to the kids.

Hallejuah, I’m a bum, hallejuah, bum again
Hallejuah give us a handout to revive us again.

For about a decade now, whenever we tired of the second and third rate poets and dub artists that the Vancouver Folk Festival seems determined to inflict on us in the name of attracting a younger audience, we could always count on one of Utah’s sessions to provide both solid entertainment and inspiration.

Are you poor, forlorn and hungry,
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

That’s gone now, but that’s not why we’re not going to the festival this year. The reason we’re not going (or one of them) is that we can’t stand the thought of the mythologization of Utah that will undoubtedly be going on. In the process of remembering him, the festival officials are likely to try to turn him into a kindly old eccentric, and, while I can’t say I knew him well (or even at all, really), I know that he was more than that. He was an original, and someone who tried to live what he believed, and he deserves to be remembered with all his human imperfection. I’d like to remember him as he was, so I’ll leave others to the creation of comforting lies about him and remember him by putting on one of his old LPs instead.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.

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After several years of online journalism, I thought I was inured to comments about my work. When you’re praised as an unsung genius and as pond scum for the same article a few times, you start to get cynical. But I admit that I was a little overwhelmed when my use of a quote by Ray Wylie Hubbard in my entry entitled “Sweat and grace” brought a friendly comment from Hubbard himself.

Somehow, when I quote somebody, I never consider the possibility that they might reply. The fact that the comment popped up in my inbox while I was listening to Hubbard’s “The Way of the Fallen” made the event all the synchronicitiously spooky.

Depending on your musical taste, that may not mean too much to you. But there are exactly three musical acts I’ve fallen for after hearing less than a single song. The first two were Stan Rogers and OysterBand. Ever since I first heard Hubbard at the Vancouver Folk Festival a few years ago, Hubbard has been the third. His CDs get a lot of play time around our house.

You want to know how much I like Hubbard’s music? Completely inappropriately, Hubbard’s music is filed under Country and Western in most stores. Around Vancouver, C&W still carries overtones of ignorant rednecks. Yet I have been known to search the C&W racks, without even a paperbag on my head to hide my shame, on the off chance of finding another Hubbard album.

That’s how much I like his music.

Hubbard is best known for “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers,” a humorous work he wrote in the early 1970s. It’s a song that he has since had the occasional regret about, although, as he says on a live album, when he wanders down to the mail box and gets a cheque for it, he feels pretty good about being responsible for the piece. And he has since written songs in much the same vein, such as “Screw You, We’re from Texas.”

But such songs represent only a small part of his range. Even his humor tends to be wryer and dryer these days, as in “Preacher,” when a sinner dumbfounds a minister who has called seeking his repentance points out his woman hanging clothes in the yard and tells him, “I ain’t missing nothing / When she stoop down low,” or in “Mississippi Flush,” a song named for the ultimate hand in poker: “A small revolver and any five cards.”

In a more serious vein, Hubbard is a storyteller, telling gritty stories of the American south with a strong strain of legend and the lore of the blues throughout. It’s no wonder that at least one of his songs, “This River Runs Red,” was partly inspired by a Flannery O’Connor story – there’s more than a little of the Southern Gothic in his work. In “Younger Son,” the narrator is a man with an unwelcome supernatural power; and, in more than one song, he refers to the crossroads where bluesmen like Robert Johnson struck a deal with the devil. And, even when the story is more mundane, there’s often a hint of desperation and long-endured pain in Hubbard’s songs.

If this atmosphere and collection of metaphors was all there was to Hubbard’s work, he would still be one of the great original song writers. But, within these confines, Hubbard manages to slip in a surprising amount of intellectual content and spirituality. In many other songwriters, these elements would seem self-conscious or trite, but Hubbard talks about the Aztec deities in “The Wild Gods of Mexico” or reincarnation in “Stolen Horses,” or the role of the writer in “Knives of Spain” and “The Ballad of the Crimson Kings,” or Rilke in “The Pilgrim” with such naturalness that it’s only afterwards that you do a double-take. Did Hubbard really write about those things in the genre of a popular song? But look at the liner notes, and you’ll see that he did. What’s more, he does so with such casualness that you know that they’ve become part of his thinking.

There’s also a note of what I can only call maturity in his work of the last ten years or so, which is all that is available from his career. I know nothing of Hubbard’s life, and I would hesitate to take references to cocaine and Alcoholics’ Anonymous as based on his personal experience without more details – after all, just because Hubbard writes about such things doesn’t mean they form a major part of his biography.

But unless all powers of observation fail me, I suspect that, somewhere along the line, Hubbard has been through some traumatic times. I also suspect that he has lived through them and developed an existential or stoic philosophy. Listening to Hubbard’s recent songs, you soon realize that they aren’t a young man’s songs – and how rare such perspectives are in popular music, and how much is lost when such voices are banished from one of our culture’s most popular art forms.

So far, I haven’t said much about Hubbard’s music. That’s partly because I’m a writer and tend to respond to words first, and partly because Hubbard is such a strong lyricist.

But I’d be only telling half the story if I didn’t at least mention that Hubbard’s music is as versatile as his words. It’s a little bit country, although far less than you might expect. What’s even more obvious are the strong shots of rock and roll and blues in his work. Some of the blues might be the influence of Gurf Morlix, Hubbard’s producer and sometimes collaborator, but, having listen to both of them working apart, I suspect that their alliance is more a meeting of like minds than a question of influence. And, wherever it comes from, Hubbard’s music is a carefully crafted fusion that is both consistent with its roots and something different than the sum of its parts.

In a just world, a singer-songwriter like Hubbard would have the reputation of a Woodie Guthrie or a Bob Dylan. But perhaps it’s a small consolation for those of us who dislike such unfairness that a corollary of the fact that Hubbard is currently only comfortably successful is that we can still hear him in relatively small settings, where we can properly appreciate his music.

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