The Gypsy Lumberjacks are pied pipers who carry a heavy vernacular load like pros

The Gypsy Lumberjacks showed their impulse to wander by venturing into territory that so far remains a wasteland for them — Milwaukee, specifically, a gig at Catch 22, a sports bar where virtually all downtown dwellers were outdoors, savoring some of the last few beautiful summer evenings.

So, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, September can be a pretty damn cruel month, too.  Yet these woodsy gypsies  “bred lilacs out of the dead land”  — performing a set of fresh inspiration and forward-thrusting bloom, to their own high professional standards on the premise that people might show up.

Indeed, there was something faintly heroic about it, tinged with pathos, the lonely lumberjack felling a mighty tree that no one hears in the forest.

So listen up – if they’re in your town — or hear this: The touring Minneapolis-based band’s vibrantly colorful and emotionally nuanced new CD Pulling Upon the Strap demonstrates intriguing instrumentation, which showcases their stylistic originality — including an accordionist and a violinist, and percussionist Ben Karon who specializes in the cajon. Originated in Peru but used often in Africa, the six-sided box-like instrument is also the percussionist’s seat as barefoot Karon slaps and paradiddles it barehanded between his knees — with staccato power and nearly a master tabla-player’s dexterity.


Lumberjack percussionist Ben Karon specializes in the Peruvian cajon, which he sits on and beats like a tabla player. Photo by Kris Verdin.


It’s no Mary Tyler Moore show set, but the Gypsy Lumberjacks happily call the the clean airiness of Minneapolis home. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Leif Magnuson is in foreground. Courtesy

But at this gig, with the only the band’s core trio —singer, songwriter and Flamenco-inflected guitarist Leif Magnuson, bass guitarist Pete Verdin* and Karon — performed a long set of original music climaxed with a songful Bela Fleck cover,  demonstrating their commitment to a high standard of musicality. In fact, the musical synergy was extraordinary considering they’re just starting a tour and hadn’t played for three weeks before their previous gig in Madison, according to Verdin.

So I can only begin to imagine them live under ideal circumstances, with a responsive audience, which is evident on their first album Live at the Sound Gallery.


The Gypsy Lumberjacks with a more hospitable crowd. Courtesy

The latest CD of all originals, Pulling Upon the Strap, begins with “Chicha Fria,” a skipping, infectious guitar and percussion rhythmic pattern, overlaid with spoken voices like a dial radio between two stations. But the voices debate the qualities and power of knowledge, also suggesting the multi-layered experience of today’s social media-obsessed life.

“Who am I and why should I care? Who are you you, why do we share?” Magnuson sings to the main melody which beguiles oddly, as do the refrain’s lyrics: “Don’t follow me ! I know just where I stand, don’t follow me! No matter where I stand…follow them, you’re running out of time…” Despite the singer’s disclaimer, the song conveys a pied piper-like magnetism and a certain urgency, an apt beginning. Magnuson possesses an appealing and resonant voice that can bellow clarion strong, yet in this album he reigns in the slightly elephantine tendencies that sometimes marred his vocals on the first album. Now Magnuson does more just to his song’s nuance and meaning, enriching expression rather than trampling it.

“Ploughman’s Blues” is no conventional blues but its minor-key refrain phrase virtually glides, eliciting a work song-like tension-and-release, riding Cliff Smyrl’s organ-like accordion —  the sort of motion that historically sustained labor, from chattel slaves to ploughmen or lumberjacks. Vocal harmonies call: “The sweat upon your brow,brings the silver that you need.” But life’s never simple or easy: “The solace that you sought is fraught now with disease.. .Then you cry out loud. No one seems to hear.”

This is hardly just a band backing up a strong singer-songwriter. The ensuing instrumental “Blaenau Ffestiniog” shows the Lumberjacks capable of substantial improvisation dynamics and invention. Here Verdin’s supple bass drives and lifts from underneath the band’s blend of zydeco, traditional and progressive bluegrass.


Bassist Peter Verdin’s supple fluency drives the Gypsy Lumberjacks sound from the bottom up. Photo by Kris Verdin

Another instrumental follows, “Caspian’s March” led by James Berget’s pirouetting violin, revealing a  strong Spanish strain, drawing on Magnuson’s background. He learned to master strong aspects of Flamenco guitar while in South America and Spain.

The two mid-album instrumentals cast an expansive aura that drives the gypsy spirit, an imaginative and daring programming strategy that works superbly.

Then the limpid melody of “Miner’s Dross”  helps contemplate humanity’s proverbial fall from grace. “When you gather your thoughts all you have are the miner’s dross.” To wit, the cruel life gut-punch often accompanying flawed behavior can also drain the brain and spirit — due wisdom for relatively young performers. And yet, in the ensuing “Elephants Underwear” Magnuson ponders: “His time, his fate, is it too late to do something great?”

Verdin’s playing, especially on “River Song” recalls the great Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady in the bass’s almost vocal yet sturdy resonance, and harmonic fluency.

“Riversong” declares “We’ll keep movin’ on, movin’ on like water.” And though the lyric leads to the ocean floor, the group radiates forward motion and rising inevitability. These gypsies are coming, as is their time.

The Carribbean-cum-African Hi-Life lilt of the closing “What You Wanted Here” may seem to push the stylistic envelope to bursting, yet they pull it off. The band’s nearly seamless vernacular cross-stitching encompasses a global awareness that extends far beyond the ostensible Americana they were first associated with.

There’s not a weak number on the record, a rare accomplishment, and a measure of the balance of songcraft and musicianship. And in true lumberjack style, they’re pulling the strap tight to haul their loads of stylistic cuttings. They seem ready for the long haul.


The Gypsy Lumberjacks remaining tour is listed here:

The CD Pulling Upon the Strap is available at

*Full disclosure: Peter Verdin is the writer’s nephew by a previous marriage.


“The Highway Home, Spying Sun”: a photograph and two poems


It took me a while but I finally matched up one of my photographs with one of my poems.


This light’s polished so as to
lure me to blindness.
What eye wouldn’t devour a
pearl ice cream cloud?
My sight sticks to the
cloud’s surface — molten hot
one instant, cool the next.

My eye and memory hang onto
that sky coaster arc, unafraid
of falling until I turned away, look back
and see the celestial slag
fallen into the water far, far below.

The car shakes and mocks the sight,
then turns wheels, cursing dull drivers and

The Pied Pipers of the lemon lemming-and-crumpet crowd?
How many ways would a
multi-hostess slice a pearl cloud
— & dole it onto gilded plates
for faintly drooling dinner club diners
still masticating from their prime rib —
especially if the pearl cloud matched her interior?


There’s a companion poem to THE HIGHWAY HOME, SPYING SUN. I wrote this second piece on the same trip back to Milwaukee from an escape to Wisconsin’s North Woods and a cabin in Pembine. Imagine the gloriously celestial sky accompanying “HIGHWAY HOME” inundated with black clouds and pelting rain. The ensuing poem is correspondingly darker.


Again, the windshield wiper streaked
liquid silver along the rainbow in view
and I wondered why so much rain fell
from the sunlight.

Was it because we drove
to where sky is so wide
no clouds could cover,
where crust of age falls away to river spray,
the hurdle of timeless still,
over bugs and our feet?

Or was it because we stood
on the rounded edge between darkness and
tomorrows lifted like wings of the eagle
clutching the will to prey, feed and multiply
while our leaders aped his fierce eye
and strangled the air until clicking heads
saw destination instead of sky,
till rockets spit down fire and
hell fell from above,
while our windshield wipers ape wings of

Copyright — Kevin Lynch 2014

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still takes his audience down a long, crooked road


jack marquee

Photo by Ann K. Peterson

At 83, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott might be shrinking a tad — there didn’t seem too much there under the long, gray curls, the big cowboy hat and the sturdy old guitar Friday night at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall.

Ah, but that leaves the timeless charm, the cavernous memory and the storytelling way with songs, and the twisting tales between them. All that still oozes at a steady, impressible rate, like Vesuvius set on medium flow. And truth is, the man’s physical bearing still radiates smart charisma, in a sly smile, a mock-heroic pose, and a face that vividly collapses into a lifetime of memories and feelings.

He opened with what sounded like a secularized rendition of the old, dark spiritual “Nearer,  My God, to Thee.” After the applause he muttered, “You’re not supposed to clap at that.”

So a packed house embarked on a mine-filled journey, even if at times the anecdotal tributaries seemed to outrun the songs. But following-him-where-he-may-go is a big part of the appeal and adventure of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott performance.

jack hat

Through his long career, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has traveled far in song, story and distance. Photo courtesy of

You encounter moments like when Elliott stopped smack in the middle of a song line — to ostensibly talk about the song — but then led us on a picaresque journey, the song left unfinished. Maybe on his next time through.

He told about being on the road in 1954 with a 20-years-elder Woody Guthrie, stopping in Woody’s hometown of Kansas City, where Woody ironically got abused by someone who recognized him, while Jack slept in the car. But the young Elliott was blessed, he claims. “I didn’t have pimples as a teenager. Back then I did everything backwards.”

We heard the tangled tale about the rodeo clown who gave him his first cigar for fifty-five cents, and somehow persuaded him to go back to high school, and then college, which he got partly through. Yet Jack roundaboutly ended up in “a stolen whale ship boat going down the Thames River.”

jack and woody

“Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie,” 1961. Photo by John Cohen, courtesy of

Or there was the Guthrie naval story about his ship being torpedoed by German U-boats, but Woody manages to save his slogan-branded guitar and his fiddle. That did lead logically to Guthrie’s song “Talking Sailor”:

“This convoys the biggest I ever did see/it stretches all the way out across the Sea…Look out, you Fascists!/I’m just one of the merchant crew/

I belong to the union called the N.M.R./I’m union man from head to toe/I’m USA and CIO/fighting out here on the waters/when some freedom. On the land.”

Such unvarnished Guthrie politics seems anachronistic in an era where union power seems perpetually under the capitalist boot. And Elliott, virtually a pure song interpreter, seems out of step, too, when every person today with a guitar and two lungs seems also a self-proclaimed “songwriter.”

Do we ever need a guy like Ramblin’ Jack, who seems to have most of America’s folk song history in the tattered backpack of his brain. So this crowd waited for each transporting turn though time.

jack close

Photo of Jack Elliott courtesy


We heard the old Roy Acuff train song in which, before starting in the wrong key, Jack finally hit the track and his careening falsetto caught the train’s long, lonesome whistle, like a bird soaring into a slipstream.

At this point in his career, besides his set break, Elliott turns the mic over for one song to his Tim Grimm, who offered a song mythologizing the storied folksinger for whom he has served as a driver for, due to Grimm’s high regard for the aging legend. But first, Grimm fiddled with Jack’s instrument for a moment, then asked him, “Do you ever tune this guitar?”

From a spot near the men’s room door, Jack demurred, “It was in tune when I bought it.”

Of course, Elliott’s musical meanderings inevitably led to Bob Dylan, whom he once influenced, and who, after hearing Jack perform Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” said, “I’m relinquishing the song do you, Jack.” So Elliott did it in the voices of several different people – slipping in and out of nasal mimics of Dylan at pointed spots in the trademark song of sullied romance.

And yet he also flipped to Dylan’s bright side, with a pulsing version “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

jack Dylan

Jack Elliott (right) with Bob Dylan and John Sebastian in the heady musical days of Greenwich Village in 1964. Photo courtesy the

By contrast, his riveting rendition of Merle Travis’ classic mining song “Dark as a Dungeon” proved even more harrowing than his recording of it with Guy Clark — here a focused mini-opera with noirish shades of fear, blackness, rain and measured nuance.

Elliott’s career has been too shambling to ever court commercial success. But eventually he’s gained recognition, from Dylan’s recollections in his biographical book Chronicles, to a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Song album in 1995 for South Coast, the National Medal of the Arts in 1998, and another Grammy, for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2009 for A Stranger Here.

Through it all at Shank Hall, Elliott’s guitar playing still bounced and crackled just enough to keep each song moving smartly. Of course, there was always another story to subvert his own music-making.

“Did you hear about the time I landed the space shuttle in Dakar? They said it was a perfect three-point landing.” After a calculated pause he added. “I wish I’d known you then, I could’ve invited you onto it.”

By then, he had the crowd almost in synch with his unpredictable stride. So it didn’t matter that he’d clearly crossed the line into fabrication. We were about ready to follow him anywhere. Even time seems to wait to hitch a ride with Elliott. Grimm said he drove Jack from Denver to Milwaukee in one day.

Ramble on, Jack Elliott. Hope to see you back this way again some time.

jack fan

Irrepressible Ramblin’ Jack Elliott even had stories to tell for a number of fans waiting in line for him after a recent performance at Shank Hall in Milwaukee. Photo by Ann K. Peterson


Jazz education is swinging hard across Milwaukee and America


Brian L

Artist-in-residence and Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch (left) works with the Wisconsin Conservatory Music Jazz Institute’s award-winning students saxophonist Lenard Simpson and student pianist Peter Garofalo.

Jazz ain’t the music that made Milwaukee famous. However, like beer, the music’s innate effervescence is part of this city’s cultural DNA. Improv and swing are rising locally, and reflect the creative brewing of musicians – like sax and brass players – who literally blow life into their instruments.

I’ve been extremely impressed by the young-musician generation since returning to Milwaukee, two decades after extensively covering the jazz scene here.

“A difference today is a very strong crop of young players in town,” says trumpeter Jamie Breiwick.

For a serious art form, jazz education is essential for performers and to cultivate audiences, unlike more innately popular folk- or mass media-based arts. Education  creates musician’s work, as it has for decades with an art form that commingles sophistication and soulful grittiness. Down Beat magazine extensive annual October jazz education guide provides a documentation of the art form’s ongoing growth at the roots of youth nationwide, and is considered so important that Jazz Times has begun offering an annual jazz guide as well.

UWM jazz

UW-Milwaukee offers a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies, begun in 1990. Photo courtesy of The Peck School of the Arts.

UW-Milwaukee’s jazz studies degree program, begun in the wake of the city’s 1980s jazz revival, is directed by noted veteran reed player Curt Hanrahan, and signifies the music’s growth and demand, as does the ambitious Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which holds concerts, summer camps and annual residencies by Milwaukee-born trumpeter Brian Lynch, a Grammy-winning former Jazz Messenger with Art Blakey. Plus, The West End Conservatory opened on Vliet Street a few years ago with a strong faculty of young professional jazz musicians.

A highlight of the jazz education year will be the second annual Music Education Day at Summerfest on Wednesday, September 17 (with a free lunch) featuring nationally known clinicians, including New Orleans drummer-bandleader Adonis Rose, who leads his own quintet and has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and other jazz luminaries. Jazz Institute director Mark Davis will also lead a group. Last year’s event drew 600 school-age music students.

The Conservatory’s accredited jazz degree program, launched in 1971, crucially sparked that era’s early 1980’s jazz renaissance. The Jazz Institute, underwritten by the Batterman Foundation, also selects top high school players for scholarships in private lessons, theory classes and concerts. In addition to the Prospect Avenue Conservatory home, The Institute now also has branch locations in Fox Point and Brookfield.

For the third consecutive year, the program’s Batterman Ensemble placed as a finalist in the International Charles Mingus Jazz Competition, and in 2013 won the competition’s “Mingus Spirit” award and the group’s trumpeter Travis Drow won an outstanding soloist award. The current ensemble took first place for best high school ensemble in 2014 at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. In 2012, the Batterman’s 17-year-old saxophonist Lenard Simpson won the Mingus event’s “outstanding soloist.”

conservatory band

The Jazz Institute’s Batterman Ensemble recently won the award for best jazz high school Jazz Ensemble at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. The ensemble includes (L-R) Jordan Rattner on guitar, Gervis Myles on bass, Amy Clapp on tenor sax, Hannah Johnson on drums and Travis Drow on trumpet.

This sounds like a dynamic art form in town, yet an old saw endures: “Jazz is dying.” “Compared to what? For the last story about that, we had a joke: All the jazz musicians were unavailable for comment,” responds the Conservatory’s pianist Davis.

“All the musicians I know are constantly working,” concurs Breiwick, also a professor at the UWM program.

“You really need to work at it, but it pays off,” adds Jeff Hamann, the city’s “first-call” bassist, a Conservatory instructor and house bassist in Michael Feldman’s nationally-syndicated radio program “Whad D’ya Know?” “My peers seem to keep busy.” However, Hamann has noticed less work for some veteran players. “Everyone’s path to success is a little different.”

“The value of jazz education is that you can play just about any type of music with it,” Davis says. And yet, he adds, “some music programs are dwindling, especially in the inner city.” But WCM and other higher-ed programs provide scholarships — and the Conservatory faculty ensemble, We Six, does residencies and performances — at these schools.

“Milwaukee seems on a real upswing, with numerous incredible Conservatory-trained high school and college players coming up: Lenard Simpson, trumpeter Alec Aldred, guitarist Tommy Antonic, saxophonist Robert Larry (from UWM) and percussionist Jake Richter — now on full scholarship to Indiana University.”

“Their success comes from education, the jazz community and musicians acting as mentors, if only through their playing. Guys like Jamie Breiwick. Last night, Jordan Rattner, a great high school guitarist and trumpeter Cody Longreen sat in with us. You can’t just teach jazz in classroom. You gotta be out in the real world,” Davis says.

“You hear criticisms that academia creates musical clones, who all sound the same. I think it’s a reaction to more jazz education and less playing opportunities.”

Jazz still fights against American anti-intellectualism, and it lacks the funding base classical music enjoys. Yet jazz persists.

“You have to learn how to hear those harmonies to really understand it,” Davis concludes. “Most jazz musicians recognize the need to give something back, to educate people to create an audience for tomorrow. Most people I taught 20 years ago are adults and hopefully it’s part of their culture.”

We Six Concert Season Will Tribute the Late Horace Silver, and a Classic Wayne Shorter Album
we six
We Six 
The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s faculty jazz ensemble We Six is probably Southeast Wisconsin’s premier straight-ahead jazz ensemble. The group includes Eric Jacobson, trumpet; Eric Schoor, tenor sax, Paul Silbergleit, guitar, Mark Davis, piano; Jeff Hamann, bass; and Dave Bayles, drums.
The 2014-15 We Six concert season will honor the passing of the great hard-bop pianist, composer and bandleader Horace Silver, as well as a concert that will reproduce all the music from Wayne Shorter’s 1964 Blue Note album Speak No Evil, one the most brilliant and influential recordings of modern jazz. This season also includes a concert of original compositions by the ensemble’s members.

The Music of Horace Silver — October 9, 2014. We Six performs “Nica’s Dream,” “Strollin’,” “Señor Blues,” and other classics by this highly influential composer and pianist.

“Speak No Evil” — November 13, 2014. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Wayne Shorter’s iconic album Speak No Evil, We Six performs “Witch Hunt,” “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” “Infant Eyes,” and other selections.

All Our Own — March 19, 2015. An annual showcase, this concert features new original compositions and arrangements by members of We Six.

Sounds of Brazil — April 16, 2015. We Six draws upon the musical traditions of Brazil, performing works by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ivan Lins, Luiz Bonfá, and others.


Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Jazz Institute.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Shepherd Express.





Here’s my list of “Books that Mattered the Most to Me.”

  • sontag
  • My friend Stuart Levitan prompted this list by posting his Facebook list of “Books that mattered the most to me.” I gather such lists are a viral trend right now on the Internet, so a blogger, if anything, can be trendy.
  • However, I hope my list of BTMTMTM (also on FB) stands the test of time, much longer than any list-making fashion. For me, they already have.
  • Feel free to comment on my list or post your own list. And think about checking out these books. I’d also be happy to comment on specific books on my list, by request.
  • BTMTMTM, in the order they came to mind. Note the slashes for separate books by the same author:
    Moby-Dick/ Tales, Poems and Other Writings (Ed. John Bryant) – Melville 
    The Idiot — Dostoevsky
    American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman – F.O. Matthiessen
    Dubliners — James Joyce
    The TrialFranz Kafka
    Cloudsplitter / Continental Drift — Russell Banks
    Lyrics 1962-1985 — Bob Dylan
    News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness — Ed. Robert Bly 
    Humboldt’s Gift — Saul Bellow 
    On God: An Uncommon Conversation — Norman Mailer and Michael Lennon
    Mystery Train/The Old Weird America – Greil Marcus
    The Arts Without Mystery – Denis Donoghue
    Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America – Tom Piazza
    Thanks to Stu for mentioning Dave Maraniss’ excellent and important book about the Vietnam War, They Marched into Sunlight on his list. While reading “They Marched” in January of 2004, I was afflicted with my auto-immune neuropathy. Note (in scan below) how my p. 143 and ensuing notations are written left-handed, cuz my right hand was in hell. It forced me to stop. I must finish it, soon.

    Kevin Lynch's photo.
    I’d also want to add Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Daniel Martin by John Fowles and Independence Day by Richard Ford, and two by the superb literary critic Ihab Hassan: Selves at Risk & Radical Innocence.
  • Finally, I would include Susan Sontag’s essay collection, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, published in 2007, three years after her death.
    Because it’s the most recent book on my list that I happened to write a review of, here’s my review of At the Same Time. I believe the book is available in paperback now from Penguin.
    Regarding Sontag’s interesting quote on the back of her book (see below), I believe my “community of writers,” as listed here, includes slightly more dead than living writers.
    (Below) The back cover of the hardcover edition of Sontag’s At the Same Time.
    sontag 2