Growing Hope for America: An anniversary revisit to the 25th Farm Aid in Milwaukee

It’s one day removed from the date but I am honoring the anniversary of a great concert in Milwaukee history by posting my review of Farm Aim 25,  at Miller Park on October 2, 2010.

October 2, 2010 

Farm Aid 25 Does Heavy Hauling for America’s Family Farmers

MILWAUKEE — It took a quarter of a century for the players in this farm system to make it to the majors.

But Farm Aid 25 proved it ain’t no game though, heck, it was at least as fun as any Brewers outing, to judge from the 35,000 who rocked Miller Park Saturday, along with the many dedicated musicians who filled the ten-hour event.

Farm Aid 25 at Miller Park. Courtesy Onmilwaukee.com

The first Farm Aid drew 78,000 in Champaign, Illinois in 1985. Today it’s the longest-running concert benefit in the U.S, having raised $37 million over those years. And co-founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp – who all performed Saturday with style and passion – have been stars for decades. So the event’s 25th anniversary in its first major league stadium only served to remind people of a team effort as heroic as a two-outs, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

The hero’s stance is somewhat different now. Farm Aid now does heavy work on the promotional tractor hauling the local sustainable food movement to public awareness. They’re helping push for organized family farming and healthy food choices as refurbished tools for economic revitalization of America through “family farm food systems” based on alliances, economic stewardship and well being of community and public health (see farmaid.org for more information on this)

They still proselytize for the ongoing plight of America’s family farmers in the face of corporate farming’s razing of the small farm business model. In the pre-concert press conference, Neil Young, Farm Aids’ resident corporate gadfly, asserted that big-business farms “create and spread disease and are inhumane to animals” and ravage the ecosystem.

Yet, as perennial good guy Nelson says, “We started out trying to save the family farmer and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.”

Farm Aid to mark 25th anniversary at Miller Park

Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 25 in Milwaukee OnMilwaukee.com

With a majority of this huge throng appearing to be under 30, the message seemed to connect with the generation that must take up the mantle of leadership.

Many of them sang along from memory to lyrics of musicians old enough to be pa or grandpa. While Mellencamp did his harrowing farm tragedy saga, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” even a young stadium security guard sang along, with his back to the stage and eyes diligently scanning the crowd.

Yes, there’d been plenty of tailgating beforehand, which kept attendance at a slow trickle-in though the early afternoon acts like Randy Rogers, Robert Francis, Jamey Johnson and the Blackwood Quartet. Among those, the act too many missed was Johnson, whose Moses beard and hair hang as long as his foghorn voice resounds deep, seeping into the darkest caverns of the heart, with deftly self-deprecating storytelling. His Depression-survivor song “In Color” deserves to be a widely-covered classic, though I doubt anyone could deliver such craggy authenticity as does Johnson.

Though now middle-aged thick and lovable-attire slob, Mellencamp can still ignite and work a crowd – into what Quakers call (not so) gentle persuasion: At one point he asked all of the cell-phone toting fans to immediately call a friend to “thank them for supporting Farm Aid.”

He even grabbed one fan’s phone and thanked a doubtlessly startled “Steve,” on the call’s receiving end.

Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp at Farm Aid 25. Courtesy milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

By then, the crowd seemed primed to attack the back forty, after a bracing but short set from Milwaukee’s own seminal roots rockers The Bo Deans, and a beguiling one from Philadelphia folk-soul troubadour Amos Lee, and another by the appealingly high-energy alt-roots rock Band of Horses, who are galloping up record charts these days.

Milwaukee’s own, The Bodeans, at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

Yet the crowd perked up for the almost effortless charm of two young pop music phenoms, Norah Jones and Jason Mraz. The line-up’s only female act, Texas-raised singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist Jones recently relocated to New York. She captivated with her sophisticated new look – punky page boy and fishnet stockings — and fluent eclectic flair, shifting from her sultry sweetheart mega hit “Come Away With Me” to Johnny Cash’s honk-tony beer lament “Cry, Cry, Cry” to her own increasingly dark and thoughtful originals.

Norah Jones at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel

By contrast, Mraz seems like his own brand of endless sunshine with a voice as boyish as Paul Simon’s but stadium-impact strong and with songs carrying a high melodic calorie count. He woos the listener like the boy Romeo next door, or the strapping young farmer down the road. He actually runs an avocado farm in California when not doing music or surfing. Too cool.

Between the Jones and Mraz sets, Jeff Tweedy — leader of the immensely popular and arty roots-rock band Wilco – delivered a curiously tepid solo set that suggested his true gifts are as a musical conceptualist/bandleader/songwriter.

You get the stylistic gist here — Farm Aid welcomes virtually all American music genres under its big farmer’s market tent. And to wit, many fans also partook of the outdoor Homegrown Market and chatted with farmers about their issues and tasty wares even through cold wind and some rain. That interaction is part of the important underlying purposes of this musical harvest.

Back inside, time-conscious bandleaders too infrequently introduced their faithful band members. But the show rarely dragged with Willie Nelson stepping in to add his “Texas herb” aroma to the sets of Jones and Lee, and with contemporary country star Kenny Chesney showing gleaming vocal pipes and sporting a New Orleans Saints cap instead of the expected ten-gallon hat.

And few complained about nepotism when Willie’s son Lukas Nelson scored a set, because he’s inherited the old man’s showmanship. No knockoff though, the younger Nelson’s style strives to virtually channel the ghost of short-lived blues rock guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. His guitar-string biting impressed some, but made you wonder if Willie feeds the kid enough.

Dave Matthews, the Gen-X rock star who joined the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001 and is the fourth perennial headliner, started his duo set with guitar ace Tim Reynolds by unleashing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which felt like a man reliving the song’s wild tale as a primal-scream dream. His intensity cranked the crowd up to a level that Mellencamp rode masterfully.

Yet, for this baby boomer, and surely many others, this all climaxed with Young’s set. He remains an uncanny blend of wizardly yet unpretentious song-storyteller/melody-spinner prone to deft feedback theatrics and spontaneous speeches. Few seem to care about farmers as much as he does. But an eloquent riff on being an aware consumer for small farm support –“read the label” is his mantra – immediately lost any hint of browbeating when Young launched into “Long May Young Run.” This is a gloriously warm-hearted salutation to a friend he last saw alive “in Blind River in 1962.” The winsome melody and sentiment seem to suggest – with a new line crucially added to the original lyrics – that the never-forgotten friend was a farmer.

Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel 

Young’s always had a quirky a genius for balancing his fiery social consciousness with mournful, humane soul. Accompanied only by his own scruffy-scarecrow presence and solitary electric guitar, Young’s “Ohio” still seared into memories of the Vietnam war-era killing of four Kent State University student protesters by National Guard members.

Of course, Farm Aid always provides the salve of Willie Nelson to top off even reopened psychic wounds, and to send everyone home buzzed on musical vibe. That’s from toking up on ol’ Willie, twirling his smoky, behind-the-beat phrasing around another blessedly-crafted song. His concert-closing set ranged from tough blues-rock led by son Lukas, to reggae rhythms, to “one for Waylon.” On cue, all the headliners joined onstage to sing “Good-Hearted Woman,” a comfortable-as-worn-blue-jeans song by Nelson’s fellow progressive-country “outlaw,” the late, great Waylon Jennings.

Concert epics like this don’t get much more golden.

It was well after 11 p.m. and co-sponsor Direct TV had been telecasting the concert since Mraz’s set at 5, so one hoped the ideals and passion of this extraordinarily well-conceived and executed effort may spread like the winds of change, rather than like locusts or chemical farming-borne disease.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, long may Farm Aid run.

_______________

This review was originally published in YourNews.com, Madison edition

For videos about the Milwaukee event, go to www.farmaid.org.)

Madison’s 40th annual Atwood Fest had plenty to fill up the senses, the mind, and the spirit

 

Lead singer Jeff Taylor and The Altered Five Blues Band were among the big crowd-pleasers at the 40th Annual Atwood Fest on Madison’s east side last weekend. All photos by Kevin Lynch

I had a fabulous sun-soaked weekend at the 40th annual Atwood Fest, on Madison’s east side. This is the best street festival I have attended in some time. For starters, Madison lived up to its colorful and left-leaning reputation, something you could see, hear and smell — in the steady scent of burning cannabis drifting into our nostrils among a group of people gathered under some shade trees listening to Steely Dane, on Sunday.

However I didn’t quite see everything I might have, to get the full experience.

I had my head down and was wearing my broad-brimmed sun hat as I riffled through used CDs at the WORT radio station booth. I heard my girlfriend Ann say, “Kevin, you just missed a topless woman, who walked right by.”

That did get me to look up, long enough to catch what is called “the philosopher’s view” of a striking woman (which Ann assured me she was), receding into the distance. But from 20 feet away I saw her liberally tattooed back, and attached to her (covered) derrière was a sign that read “MY BODY, MY CHOICE.”

She was clearly and boldly making a protest statement about the recent Supreme Court overturning of Roe versus Wade which had guaranteed women legal abortions since the mid-1970s. It was a vivid bit of symbolism, signifying her gender and sexuality and the inherent motherhood of the female bosom. (Of course me, the inveterate music album browser, had to miss the full impact). Still I give the woman credit and for her courage and commitment to, um, raising consciousness, as well as eyebrows.

Elsewhere, less, provocatively, we saw several senior women walking around with blue hair. One younger woman had several piercings adorning every facial orifice, and created a few new orifices. It’s really something to see women of a several feminist generations in full force. And of course, tattoos advertised individuality (or now-dated trendiness?) galore, artfully bespeckling both genders

There was also plenty of delicious food, but I’m here to offer you a photo essay on the music. I was drawn back to the city I worked and lived in for nearly 20 years after marvelous day at the Madison Jazz Festival, on the Wisconsin Union Terrace beside Lake Mendota, earlier this summer.

For us, the music started relatively low-key with Inside Pocket, a jazz quartet leaning toward contemporary and post-bop styles with several shapely compositions by guitarist composer Pat Metheny, even though there’s no guitarist in this group. However the group’s tenor saxophonist Bob Kerwin pulled us into a fine afternoon mood with, slightly brooding yet lyrical playing somewhat reminiscent of the cool-to-bop school of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon.

Tenor saxophonist Bob Kerwin of the jazz quartet Inside Pocket eased us into the stimulating atmosphere of Atwood Fest Saturday afternoon. 

The next group we heard was actually playing their debut gig. Called with droll, non-P.C. panache, Lawnmower, it’s led my a fascinating and accomplished guitarist-singer-songwriter Louka Patenaude. A UW Madison music department lecturer, Patenaude has performed globally in a wide array of world music and American vernacular styles and contexts, including playing on recordings by Metheny and The Grateful Dead. Patenaude has played with most of the region’s top jazz musicians, including the award-winning Tony Castaneda’s Latin Jazz Sextet. I ran into Tony as he took in this sun-drenched set. Louka’s eclecticism is a tribute to both musicians’ open-minded voraciousness, given that what Tony, the master Latino conga-player, was listening to was something like bluegrass music. This group didn’t even have a percussionist.

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Louka Patenaude leads his new progressive bluegrass group Lawnmower (above L-R: Shauncey Ali, fiddle; Patenaude, guitar, Dave Havas, bass; Aaron Nolan guitar; and Isaac DeBroux-Slone, mandolin) and (below) takes a solo accompanied by bassist Havas.

Louka’s band had the peculiar soulfulness of bluegrass mixed with sophisticated string-playing interplay, by turns lilting and rhythmically charged. As Castaneda said to me, “call it progressive bluegrass.” Fair enough. They performed mostly original songs by Patenaude, who’s worth checking out on his most recent album of mostly originals under his own name, titled Testing Your Patience.  However, he did end the set with an exemplary version of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” The album includes Louka doing a sardonically laconic rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Annotator Joy Dragland calls the album Louka’s “fever dream.”

Tony Castaneda split to check out the New Orleans band Sam Price and The True Believers at another stage, understandably because, he said the group’s percussionist was borrowing Tony’s conga drum. Price’s band was next on my list of “must hear” bands and they hardly disappointed. This was the most collectively high-energy group I saw that weekend with a swampy, funk style reminiscent of Little Feat, replete with slickly woozy organ playing, and a vibe both jittery and jumping. It also included a feisty, bouncy female singer and Price, a leather-lunged singer and bassist. They spilled over the whole street of Atwood with an infectiously greasy, gumbo boil.

Now we be dancing despite ourselves, lubed a bit, in my case, by a sudsy glass of Oktoberfest beer.

Sam Price, and The True Believers, straight from New Orleans, rock and boogie the Heritage Stage at the top of Atwood Fest, in it’s 40th year.

We then moved to the Clyde Stubblefield Stage to catch The Altered Five Blues Band, from Milwaukee. the band sure plays like it’s altered, in the best sense, probably with some of “Milwaukee’s finest.” Lead guitarist Jeff Schroedl was ripping off a searing solo just as we walked up, as the whole band doled out heaping helpings of steamy electric Chicago-style blues, interspersed with the hard rock edge that blues-style helped infuse the venerable vernacular with.

Lead singer Jeff Taylor rides the power as Brew City’s Altered Five Blues Band fills it up with contemporary Chicago-style blues, with a full Milwaukee head. 

Rotund but rollin’ and tumblin’ lead singer Jeff Taylor may be “a heart attack waiting to happen” as retired NP Ann commented. But on this waning afternoon, he belted out the good gooey blue stuff with gusto, and a stentorian vocal heartiness recalling B.B. King. You can see and hear why this band as won awards, including current nominations from The Blues Foundation, for best contemporary blues album, Holler If You Hear Me, and the title song for “best song.”

But this afternoon, with beer in hand, I felt like the good-time strut of the band’s “Great Minds Drink Alike” :

After this set, gal pal Ann was running out of gas a bit, and my cup was drained, so we exited despite more good music to be had.

We planned to be back right when everything kicked off on Sunday with Steely Dane.

***

It was 12 noon when some folks are still in church, but the crowd gathered at the Clyde Stubblefield Stage ended up attending their own revival meeting. The resurrection is the music of Steely Dan. I’m normally not inclined to indulge much in cover bands. But I’d heard Steely Dane live previously and, frankly, they’re a gas. This band’s nominal wordplay conveys that it’s band members all reside in Dane County, the surrounding region of the one-of-a-kind capital city that is sometimes referred to as “sixty-four square miles surrounded by reality.” The way this world is right now, I was hungry for the hip escapism of those 64 squares, as epitomized by Steely Dane.

It’s a 13 to 15 member band, with four horn players, three female backup singers, and two keyboard players along with two guitarists, bass, percussion, and drums. Three members share lead vocals, striving to approximate Donald Fagen’s raring, chameleon-cobra singing. That fulsome force provides the pulsing flexibility of extremely dynamic musical muscles, which makes Steely Dan’s music so intoxicating and almost good buddy-like in it’s catchiness.

Steely Dane horn section (top): (L-R) Al Falaschi, Jim Doherty and Courtney Larsen, with keyboardist-musical director Dave Stoler. Another SD personnel segment (above) includes (L-R) guitarist-vocalist Jay Moran, bassist Phil Lyons, singer-keyboardist-co-leader Dave Adler, and background singers Megan Moran and Lo Marie.

So the effect was that this big joyous big crowd were SD true believers who knew many of the lyrics they sang along with, not unlike biblical verses duly memorized. Except wafting herb, as mentioned, is the substitute for incense. And Steely Dan is as secular as music gets. Steely Dan’s resident genius Donald Fagen crafted songs about love, loss and “the royal scam,” with a variety of intriguingly romantic, roguish and eccentric characters, and even sweeps us back to high school days without seeming corny or trite.

Steely Dane’s frontman Dave Adler’s evident Donald Fagen wannabe-ism has morphed, with diligent practice and zeal, into a Fagen might-as-well-be-ism. As gal pal Ann Peterson commented during the band’s exuberant 90-minute (without a break) set, “If you close your eyes, you can easily imagine that it’s Steely Dan.”

If that sounds like a perfectly ingenuous critical comment, it’s also spot on. This band has taken in, mastered and absorbed what sounds like most of Steely Dan’s repertoire, and they’ve got it down cold, that is to say, cool, but also quite hot, and utterly convincing.

The co-founder of the band, along with Adler, is the accomplished and respected Madison jazz pianist Dave Stoler.  And what a contrast in stage presences. Dave Adler bounces around, flailing limbs like Gumby on steroids. He sings with a kind of please-love-me-to-death ardency. You get the feeling he’d perform ’till he woke up the moon and, remember, this was noon.

By contrast, band co-founder Dave Stoler, studious and nearly immobile, is a Buddha with dancing fingers, yet absorbed in awareness of the musical whole, given that he does the arranging for this big ensemble. He’s previously fronted a full jazz orchestra project. To intro one song, Stoler also delivered an cappella piano solo brimming with extended chords and slowly spiraling substitutions.  

Guitarist Jay Moran does his best to muster the bite of Walter Becker’s guitar and ably handles some of the vocals. None of the lead singers quite matches Fagen’s elastic, gut-to-the tongue sass.

But the Dane ensemble is so strong, supple and committed to this material, and with gospel-like call and responses, it plunges into the memory and heart, and mainlines Steely Dan’s “when-Josie-comes-home” nostalgia amid sardonic philosophizing.

Here’s saxophonist-vocalist Al Falaschi, Adler and Moran highlighted in a goes-down-so-easy version of “Do It Again,” recorded at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.

Similarly, In this band’s hands, “Aja” still unfolds as a gorgeous little suite, that breathes and arches its back like a big ol’ tiger. The “up on the hill” refrain has strong spiritual overtones, but mainly about social acceptance, and consolidation. “When all my dime dancing is through, I’ll run to you.”

. Tenor saxophonist Falaschi did a reasonable, though hardly imitative, Wayne Shorter solo. And drummer Joey Banks rippled through the long, polyrhythmic “Aja” outro made famous by “Bad” Steve Gadd.

By contrast, “Reeling in the Years” allowed listeners to dance way out on the memory line, with all the euphoria that caught everybody’s ear when Dan first hit the charts. The Dan-by-way-of-Dane waves of slithering funk is too delicious to deny, and you sense this is as good as it’ll get – especially given that the real Steely Dan rarely toured live, being largely a recording studio creature, as gleamingly brilliant and contagious as those got with hip, R&B-jazzy song jammin’. 1

During a short stint in the 1970s, I worked at the North Shore Milwaukee audio store Sound Stage, and SD’s masterpiece album Aja, was our favorite demo record, to show off the equipment. You see, the album’s production level, with Victor Feldman’s souped-up marimbas like tolling redwoods, is about as high as the music can get you. It felt about that way Sunday, as high noon unfolded into the after’s Mary Jane-filled glow.

_________

  1. Steely Dane has recently won “best cover band” awards from both Madison Area Music Awards and Madison Magazine.

 

 

James McMurtry’s synchronistic guitar playing is the yin to his songwriting yang

James McMurtry. Courtesy Texas Monthly

James McMurtry has embarked on his first tour in several years. He will perform solo in dates running through April, then continue with his band in May, on a tour running through the end of July.

Upper Midwest McMurtry dates include April 22 at Old Town School of Music, in Chicago, June 11 at the SPACE, in Evanston, June 12 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee (https://shankhall.com/), and June 14 at The Ark in Ann Arbor.

Here’s the full tour list: https://www.highroadtouring.com/artists/james-mcmurtry/itinerary/

 Imagining James McMurtry in his element: He squints hard, and sees humanity and the world with laser vision, in the cruel Texas-glare sun, amid imperious cactuses. Flies buzz like hungry little devils. James coughs in the dust, but a man knows what he’s gotta do. Especially if he’s as driven as he is. He could drive a cattle herd across that behemoth state, and beyond, like the one his father Larry McMurtry famously depicted in his famous novel Lonesome Dove.

But such epic drives are rare now, as cattle growing and marketing are bad for the planet. James knows this, even as he commemorates, partially in Spanish, a deceased cowboy friend and his tradition in his recent song “Vaquero.” So, he turns off his vintage Ford Falcon convertible, peers at the horizon, the hot wind rippling his long gray hair. He lifts his cowboy hat, wipes sweat off his grimy brow, then plops the hot hat right back on. Part of him wishes he has a horse raring to go, instead of a smelly old car. So, he reaches over to the passenger seat, unbuckles his 12-string Gibson acoustic guitar, climbs out, leans against the car, and starts up a big sky-type chordal pattern.

He sings, “No more buffalo…” This thought he seems to care about greatly, as metaphor and as reality. Why and how? The guitar has plenty to do with it.

James McMurtry at home: He ended another Livestream pandemic solo home concert recently with that song, set his guitar down and said “thank you” to the silent audience that can applaud only with Facebook comments. I think “No More Buffalo” is something of a signature song, and I think he feels that way, too. You could make an obvious case for “We Can’t Make It Here,” too, or perhaps “Just Us Kids,” or “Choctaw Bingo.” The majestically big-picture “Long Island Sound” and one troubled man’s stunningly confessional “Decent Man” are more recent candidates.

(As far as I know, McMurtry’s “Live with Restream” home solo concerts are only available on his Facebook page, which you can follow: https://www.facebook.com/watch/JamesMcMurtry/

But those songs are mostly anthemic, and clear hallmarks, whereas James is also an expert in understatement, of tracing the shadows of the underserved. Among his more indelible intimate American portraits is the stoic loser of “Rachel’s Song,” who might be quite typical of many contemporary divorced people, stumbling along spiritually on a deserted street. It’s telling that Jason Isbell, a younger talent of superlative songwriting skills, has covered this song, with tender insight.

As an American troubadour McMurtry rivals any we know today. But he’s also only the peculiar kind he’s capable of being. That happens to involve an atypical genius which has been insufficiently addressed to date, in its artistic fullness.

Indeed, the often-surly glory of his artistry is piling up just a bit: Not only have I not yet written about his latest album The Horses and the Hounds, but I’ve also come to realize that his fullest artistry doesn’t just lie squarely on his most salient talent, the lyric-endowed song.

McMurtry started playing guitar at age seven (first taught him by his mother, an English professor) but didn’t start writing songs until he was 18, he has said.

The stereotype is the gifted singer-songwriter as a type of literary whiz. We don’t associate their guitar-playing and songwriting skills as part of a shared prism of expression and narrative, especially coming out of the folk tradition, where a songwriter is expected to do little more than simply strum through simple chord changes.

James McMurtry performing “Down Across the Delaware.” Courtesy YouTube.

Today McMurtry seems, song after song, compelled to self-accompaniment as integral to his storytelling technique, like a sonic cinematographer, or musical dramatist. He’s never showy, yet the guitar can pull you into his distinctive musical world with a magnetic force and, when he’s playing 12-string, his rhythmic patterns and pulses sparkle with harmonic auras that can be stunning. His guitar blends rhythm playing, rich chording, and finger-style adornments. His digits tell their own story yet boost and entwine his songs, which explore a variety of cadences and moods, in well-observed and psychologically resonant narratives.

He admits he takes his sweet time writing songs. But performing his songs, with glimmering and chiaroscuroed backdrops, seems a weekly task of this troubadour, with his well-oiled work ethic. Witnessing that online has been a precious upshot of the COVID pandemic’s forced social distancing.

So, the realm of that interactive song-guitar dynamic is where we must assess McMurtry. He may be the greatest songwriter now working in his prime – one video-watcher, himself a songwriter, called him “The Dustbowl Dylan … and the best everyman songwriter alive.”

Yet McMurtry might also be our greatest singer-songwriter/self-accompanist, capable of extraordinary yins to his yangs. That’s why his assessment as an artist must be recalibrated. A comparable songwriter and more gifted singer, Willie Nelson, also is an extraordinary guitarist, but sort of when he wants to be – periodic fluent solos between verses on his battered old guitar named Trigger.

Another artist who comes to mind in comparison is Leo Kottke, but Kottke is known primarily as a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist. If McMurtry set his mind to it, I think he could do a guitar-oriented set like Kottke does.

This has much to do with the virtuosity and artistry he has refined, especially over the last year and a half at his home. He has performed Livestream with skilled diligence each Wednesday and Sunday. This is a logical extension of his weekly, self-imposed Wednesday night gigs at Austin’s Continental Club, whenever he’s not touring. 1

This recalls somewhat our greatest living songwriter, Bob Dylan, because they both seem driven to constantly work or tour, Dylan especially at an advancing age. We should remember what Thomas Edison famously said: “Genius is two-percent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration.”

***

I first became aware of the synchronicity of McMurtry’s guitar playing and song-craft when I got a 10-feet-away seat for a solo acoustic recital at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall in 2014. Here was my immediate response:

“Friends, it was Thursday at Shank Hall in Brew Town and James McMurtry was dealin’, alone, with nothin’ but a 12-string guitar. That surprisingly stacked the deck for a show that rated four aces, period. He’s so skilled – playing bass accompaniment to his typically deft figurations – that I never missed his band. At times, the 12-string’s shining harmonic resonances at a fast-chugging tempo sounded like a chrome-plated locomotive at full speed. Best 12-string playing this side of Leo Kottke.”

I’ve seen only brief video-response comments on McMurtry’s solo acoustic performances during the pandemic; we are more aware of his electric playing with his band. A singer-songwriter named Sean, the same person quoted about the “Dustbowl Dylan,” also comments: “Sometimes you can tell the road has worn him down a bit, but his guitar playing is always the driving force of his band. His electric sound is effortless, full, and he can create an amazing sustain.”

So, attention must be paid: McMurtry’s self-accompaniment has become even more deft, fluent, and effective as the driving force of his songs. It’s as if he insists on sustaining a strong or at least simpatico heartbeat for even his most diminished characters, like the nameless, quietly desperate person in “Cutter,” bereft yet clinging to better memories. The song – which also poignantly reflects the too-common gulf of understanding between even close friends – closes Complicated Game with stunning power.

I hope McMurtry considers shepherding and curating a dozen of the best solo acoustic songs he has Livestreamed in recent times for an album. Now that would be something, quiet but deeply resonant.

You see, I’m shifting gears: To fully contextualize my focus on his guitar-to-song-singing synchronicity, I need to delve properly into the depths of his song-writing prowess.

So, as I said, “No More Buffalo” (from the fatefully titled 1997 album It Had to Happen) is, too me, one of the great environmental protest songs we have. 2 It’s so good because it starts with a chest-filling chordal statement that portends something, in a G-D-A-G progression. The song sustains or suspends on that major key sequence until a few anguished B-flats, most tellingly on the phrase “I swear” on the late-in-the-song lyric: But man, they were here, they were here I swear. Yet, McMurtry sort of sidles up to that point, by telling a story of a group of graying guys who probably haven’t changed their ways in just about forever. But at least one of them remembers and feels something and sees how things have changed. So, the song’s narrator finally tunes into the problem. But see how the revelation sneaks up on him:

We headed South across those Colorado plains
Just as empty as the day
We looked around at all we saw

Remembered all we’d hoped to see
Looking out through the bugs on the windshield
Somebody said to me

(chorus) No more buffalo, blue skies or open road
No more rodeo, no more noise
Take this Cadillac, park it out in back
Mama’s calling, put away the toys

The narrator now remembers and believes, too – just maybe the noble, hulking giants are still out there. He continues until this interchange of voices:

I never thought they’d ever doubt my words
I guess they were just too tired to care
I’d point to the horizon, to the dust of the herds
Still hovering in the air
Somebody said it ain’t any such
Man you wish so hard you’re scaring me

‘Cause those are combines kicking up that dust
But you can see what you want to see
And go on chasing after what used to be there
Top that rise and face the pain

But man, they were here, they were here I swear
Not just these bleaching bones, stretching across the plain

Those anonymous “somebody saids” make the rhetoric work, persuasive without haranguing, or preaching. “Somebody” could be anyone, or his own subconscious and memory reflecting each other. So, we feel the loss, as if the hoary bison embodied something invaluable in life. Even the rodeo, the celebration of Wild West conquerors who helped desecrate the land and its creatures, and committed genocide of Native Americans – even the mano contra toro — has become passe.

And by the end, the title refrain, one more time, has gained momentum, a power you feel in your own bones. It’s like their car is speeding up, hurtling towards a horizon falling to the abyss of irrevocable passage. Since I heard it and it sunk in, I’ve never been able to think about the buffalo or the travesties and waste of The West without McMurtry’s song ringing in the back of my head.

This is a band performance of “No More Buffalo” but McMurtry, as usual on this song, plays acoustic guitar. Along with those chords, Daren Hess’s bass drum and tom toms open the song, resounding like cracks of revelation in a gorge of environmental ignorance. Then, listen to those drums, a brilliant stroke, rumble through the song, just like the tromping thunder of the great vanquished herds. This piece slays me every time, earning its emotional impact every step of the way. 2

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Courtesy New West Records

This brings me to his latest album. The titular phrase, “the horses and the hounds,” recurs as several meanings. Ostensibly it seems to tell – as the wonderfully blue-tinged noir album cover does – of a working stiff who drives a horse-truck trailer. What other meaning? “The singer finally admits, “Still, I’m running from the horses and the hounds.” He’s running from horses?  These magnificent, larger-than-life creatures, often with very close relationships with humans – can occur in dreams, a phenomenon artistically acknowledged as early as in Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.”

Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.” Courtesy fineartamerica.com

As for the hounds: There’s always the mythical hellhounds that bluesman Robert Johnson endured, and maybe helped chase him to his early grave. They sure haunt his legacy and the blues tradition. It’s an enduring metaphor for psychological affliction or terror.

Hellhounds on the trail of blues legend Robert Johnson. Art print by Elena Barbieri. Courtesy INPRINT

McMurtry also often trades in the interface of hard-grit reality and troubled dreams or memories. He talks about one of the new album’s most substantial songs, “Decent Man,” a story that might give any man in this situation nightmares.

McMurtry reimagines a Wendell Berry short story, which derived from Woody Guthrie’s song “Tom Joad,” itself a musical portrait of the protagonist of novelist John Steinbeck’s Dustbowl tragedy The Grapes of Wrath.

The “decent man” is the guy the narrator kills with a .38 pistol. No less than his best friend. It’s unclear why he shot him, but he circles semi-coherently around his mental state:

If the truth be known, I wasn’t doing that well/ I wasn’t paying attention, I brought it on myself/and I blamed it on the gods that seem to smile on everybody else/I got so inside out, I didn’t know what was real.”

That sounds like what? Maybe like too-many men in tough life situations where a conflagration of circumstances put them in a paranoid or aggrieved state, and a gun is too easy to reach for, and to irrationally think it will solve a complicated problem. It usually makes thing worse, much worse. It’s an all-too American dilemma and tragedy, repeated with shocking, even numbing, frequency.

Listen: My fields are empty now/my ground won’t take the plow. / It’s washed down to gravel and stones. / It’s only good for buryin’ bones. That is the song’s actual chorus, one of the most devastated choruses you’ll ever hear. It’s a murder ballad of uncommon ingenuity, yet understanding of common human foibles, and suffering. And loss. Most of all.

In McMurtry’s version of the story, the killer’s daughter, named Lola, visits him in jail. She still loves her dad, despite the horror of his deed, and that bothers the prisoner as much as the crime itself. His own daughter’s love throws this man off balance so that he must reconsider his still-fresh self-loathing. “I don’t know how she even stands to look on her daddy’s face,” McMurtry sings. There’s no better way to comment on this story than the songwriter’s summation: He was more than just a decent man/ best friend I ever had. / When you’re shooting at a coffee can/ a thirty-eight don’t kick that bad. / But it kicks right through my bones every second of every day/ clacking by like cobblestones under broken wheels.”

Even if he’s profoundly affected, in shock, he still doesn’t seem to know why he did it. Because life is too confusing or abject? Does that disquieting possibility offer any hope for absolution or healing?

It’s powerful stuff. How does Lola really feel? And the victim’s family? And “poor dad?” – The song strives for some empathy for him.

Laurence Fishburne played Socrates Fortlow in an HBO adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel. IMDb

The killer recalls Socrates Fortlow (pictured above), a fascinating murder/rape ex-convict created by novelist Walter Mosley who never understands the reasons for his crimes, yet becomes a street philosopher of redemptive power, while always remaining “at risk.”

McMurtry credits Horses producer Ross Hogarth who “probably got the best vocal performances I’ve ever done.” On “Blackberry Winter,” in his upper singing register, McMurtry is his most emotionally engaged.

A man looks back at the seeming end of his primary relationship, and having to refuse his woman, who apparently still has feelings for him, “to tell her no, to tell her no.” It’s a tough task to do at once, emotionally at least. And does he really need to? “Blackberry winter” is a Southern term for damaging early spring freezes, after blackberries have blossomed. Couldn’t he see if some berries – from the original branch their relationship grew upon – are still salvageable?

McMurtry is expert at painting pictures of troubled, just-barely-getting-by common folk, in the era of American democracy in peril. Or so it seems, with working folk still struggling while the rest of “the economy” – investors, Wall Street, big business, etc. – seems to flourish. Many of these working folk are now Trumpsters, sadly, because they had nowhere else to turn, feeling their dreams are threatened. So, they hang onto common biases of white fear or “supremacy,” as a psychological crutch holding up a nominal ideology.

rump – a successful faux television demagogue to whom the Electoral College handed the keys to The Bully Pulpit – understood, voiced, and “validated” their grievances. The Democratic Party had forgotten about them a long time ago, as Thomas Frank argues cogently in “Listen, Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of The People?” So, the song’s emotional impact radiates like an extended electric shock, about a characteristic state of American being. It poses the implicit question: Do you know someone like this? Might one of these people be you?

What are we gonna do for these people? Will politicians ever address their concerns and suffering honestly, instead of only as an election ploy? Frank argues you won’t get it from the contemporary professional upscale liberal (think of Silicon Valley culture and comparable ones) where funding and values go to support entrepreneurship and “innovation” that does little for the plight or incomes of ordinary folk.

These may even be “innovative” ways to exploit them. Of the working class, these elevated folks think that, if you don’t have a college degree, it’s your fault, Frank explains. Even teachers, by their thinking, are suspect professionals, beneath their value system. The current Democratic party has shifted closer to addressing the huge lower end of the equality gap since Frank’s 2016 appraisal, but in 2022 President Biden hasn’t yet substantially addressed racial justice and other issues crucial to inequality, to bridge the political gap Democrats helped create for Trump to exploit and widen. Inflation and high gas prices don’t help, even if the latter helps the effort to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion.

The narrator of “Blackberry Winter” might be telling her “no” because he can’t afford to support her, or some other circumstance of a tough life, devalued and forsaken. McMurtry’s characters often live close to the edge, like so many Americans. “And tell you no,” isn’t delivered in a way suggesting any disdain, based on a contaminated relationship. In this vocal register he sounds a bit like Jackson Browne. 3 So there’s a plaintive weariness beneath his straightforward talk, which also conveys something palpable and spiritual, and common to humanity, like “everybody has holes to fill, and you know those holes are all that’s real,” as Townes Van Zandt. once sang.

McMurtry is akin to fellow Texas troubadour Van Zandt whom he’s covered him from time to time – he does covers very occasionally — including Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” on his 1998 album Walk Between the Raindrops and on his live 2004 album Live in Aught Three. 4

In a 2019 interview, McMurtry commented on America’s current tribalism: “Everybody wants to feel a part of something. They are in a group thing. They don’t want to think individually. It’s easy to make money off of that. It’s not just American, it’s human. It’s always been like that…

“It’s hard-wired caveman stuff. We have to learn how to think our way around that. Basically, our minds will have to evolve faster than (our) simian brains are able to evolve on a cellular level. That hard wiring is going to stay in there unless we learn to short-circuit it in some way, or we are just going to perish.” 5

In solo renditions of his newest songs, his guitar-playing’s fluent sense of rhythmic propulsion and drama, and his quirkily apt harmonic changes – which sometimes recall those of Joni Mitchell – cast just the right tone, emotional grist, and gravitas. The Horses and the Hounds has plenty more character-packed scenarios, no more poignant than truck-driving “Jackie,” whose fate ambushes the listener with McMurtry’s matter-of-fact tone. And yet, there’s also the self-deprecating comic relief of “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.” After doing “Decent Man” and “Jackie” consecutively on a Livestream, he peered at his setlist and muttered, “Well, I got a bunch a’ real downers in here this time. Break out the Prozac.” His speaking delivery is as dry as tumbleweed too old to tumble.

The Horses album, with old drumming mate Darren Hess and a bunch of studio aces, is a continuation of a major artist at the peak of his powers, who seems philosophically bittersweet, slyly heartfelt, and still cranky enough, and still comparatively obscure, given his talents. He’s capable of very catchy songs, but his ordinary-Joe voice always earns its emotional truths, and he’s no attention-seeking self-promoter, so he never compromises his art. In that way, he may be keeping himself close to the real people reflected in his characters.

His music is a vivid way to refocus reality to where our social responsibilities might best align. With “the people.” McMurtry’s seemingly forgotten folk dwell low in societal shadows, with some, in effect, face-down in American dirt, because you can’t get lower, without being buried alive.

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(Author’s note: This essay was submitted to nodepression.com, which didn’t accept it because, they said, “We don’t publish essays on individual artists.” Ironically, the first article they ever published of mine was also an essay of comparable length. Their editors have since changed.)

  1. I’m not a guitarist, so I won’t get gear-geeky here. But I’ll report that, on his Livestreams, McMurtry regularly alternates among four (or five) acoustic guitars: a 12-String Ovation, a 12-string Fender, a red 6-string Guild, and, I believe, a 6-string Fender. Sometimes he pulls out a big, dark brown 8-string baritone guitar, which he refers to as “The Beast.” In November, he used it to play the title song from The Horses and the Hounds. He seems to have slight preference for the 12-strings.
  2. Buffalo appear to be making a comeback. I’d like to think McMurtry’s song, released in 2007 made some difference in consciousness and action.
  3. “No More Buffalo” is also on the 2007 collection, James McMurtry, The Best of the Sugar Hill Years.
  4. Perhaps not coincidentally there’s an influence. McMurtry recorded most of the album at Jackson Browne’s Groovemasters Studio in Los Angeles.
  5. Caleb Horton, in a James McMurtry Primer blog, vividly explains the connection in the kinds of emotional impacts of their music:

“The easiest way to explain it is that James McMurtry and Townes Van Zandt exist along a ten-beer continuum. McMurtry plays to that fourth beer, right before you decide to have six more, where you’re sitting down, and sadness somehow feels like the world’s only honest emotion. Van Zandt plays to beer number ten, where pharmacy vodka with a wolf on the label is in the cards and tomorrow doesn’t even exist because the sun’s down.” Horton continues. “Point is, I can only listen to Townes Van Zandt two or three times a year. The man’s music should come with a warning label…like they do with European cigarettes. James McMurtry is in the same tradition, but he opens the blinds in the morning. I can listen to him. And that’s how I recommend him to people.”  Caleb Horton, A James McMurtry Primer http://bitterempire.com/james-mcmurtry-primer/

  1. Mary Andrews, “McMurtry Remains the Harbinger of American Truth,” Glide Magazine https://glidemagazine.com/228503/james-mcmurtry-remains-the-harbinger-of-american-truth-interview/

 

 

 

 

 

 

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
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As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed, as the museum was closing for the day. I didn’t have time to return before flying back home. The great work moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
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And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
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Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
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Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
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That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some readers of this blog might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many readers understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
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The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his 228 woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
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So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. Courtesy “History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature: Herman Melville.”
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Yet it persists, remaining afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Sascha Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
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On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip seeing God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
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1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159

Musing about Michael (Bloomfield), gone too soon, like so many

I’m in a reflective mood and just ran across my favorite photograph of the tragic guitar great Michael Bloomfield, a man who’s always spoken to me for various reasons. Well, this photo is a close number one ahead of the famous shot (below) of Bloomfield playing and jivin’ with Bob Dylan when he infamously went electric at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965.  Bloomfield and Dylan cranked up the electric venom on “Maggie’s Farm” and, after that shock treatment, folk music was never the same again. A hoary but sometimes beautiful new creature was born: folk-rock.

(Musicians left to right) Michael Bloomfield, Sam Lay, Jerome Arnold, Bob Dylan. Pinterest

As for the revealing and, for me. rather moving Jim Marshall photo at top, it was taken at the famous Super Session recording with bassist Harvey Brooks affectionately needling Michael.

Bloomfield’s utterly chilled, prone position speaks volumes about the man: enduring extreme, chronic insomnia and drug addiction in the making. It also speaks to the man’s creativity and profound love for the music, especially the blues.

I would think Michael Bloomfield – the Jewish boy from Chicago, as much as any white man – bled blue.

The story continues to unfold: Michael lies amid the maze of wires, with a faraway gaze, a cigarette put out, or simply dropped, in the pool of spilled coffee on the floor. What are his eyes fixed on? What sort of vision hovers, almost taunting him with its distant guitar utopia? It would be fascinating to hear what he was actually playing at that moment, and what those phrases had to say. The man was clearly suffering, but persevering, for the time being, channeling his pain into the music, transforming it into something vibrant and redemptive, the essence of the blues.

Bloomfield played as well as he ever has that day, but could not even complete a whole recording session. Not long after this photo was shot, he informed singer-organist Al Kooper that he couldn’t continue, and Stephen Stills had to be called, finish what would become side two of Super Session.

It’s worth noting why this was to be called Super Session. Kooper, Bloomfield and Brooks had all achieved fame by recording Bob Dylan”s Highway 61 Revisited album, and the song that carved a mountain in the middle of the highway of rock music, called “Like a Rollling Stone.”

Soon afterward, Bloomfield became a freshly-crowned guitar god with the Butterfield Blues Band, which I’ll get to shortly. Although he started with Dylan and Butterfield playing the edgier Fender telecaster guitar (see photo with Dylan) it was with Les Paul’s Gibson guitar that Bloomfield found his true voice, in what he himself termed “sweet blues,” the sound for which you wanted most to be known. A biographical film is titled Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield. Kooper had formed pioneering jazz-rock bands, The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears, though he left the latter group early on.

The Les Paul guitar’s comparatively clean, singing tone replicated somewhat that of Bloomfield’s idol, B.B. King, who played a different sort of Gibson guitar. Waukeshan Les Paul’s gorgeously-sculpted physical creation allowed for a sonic vividness that captivated most leading rock guitarists at the time, who could all be seen playing the Les Paul shortly after Bloomfield took it up.

Another favorite Bloomfield shot reveals the man’s brilliant blues passion, at a rock fest with the Electric Flag in Santa Rosa, California.

The superbly produced Super Session is a great example of the guitar’s voice in the extraordinarily simpatico hands of Bloomfield.

How good was Bloomfield? Bob Dylan called him the best guitarist he’d ever hear. Or let’s hear Miles Davis, in his float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee bluntness: “You could put Michael Bloomfield with James Brown and he’d be a motherfucker.”

To answer more personally, I now must refer backwards, to what would become his career masterpiece, the long instrumental piece “East-West,” which Bloomfield composed in 1966, as the title tune of the Butterfield Blues Band’s second album.

I have discussed the tune in a previous blog about the anthology box set Michael Bloomfield: From the Heart to the Head to the Hand. But what I wanted to say now, in light of the photograph above, is that he may have realized that “East-West,” composed while he was still in his 20s, was the pinnacle of his career. He would go on to play plenty, including Super Session, and great live follow-up albums for Columbia Records with Kooper, Taj Mahal and others.

He then formed the jazz-rock-R&B band The Electric Flag, but he was poorly suited as a long-term bandleader. So he embarked on a substantial solo career, as a scholarly maven of blues, of virtually all stripes. But because he intuitively fled from the personal spotlight like a heart-of-gold blues vampire (ergo the frequent nocturnal existence?),  he remains underappreciated to this day.

But the masterful blend of Ravi Shankar’s Eastern classical music, rock and John Coltrane’s modal music that became “East-West” also reveals something of the man in the photo above. The composition was famously created in a sleepless all-night jam and composing session, and one can imagine Bloomfield, in the wee hours, on the floor with his Les Paul again. Something mysterious arose that night. I believe Elvin Bishop, who brilliantly shares lead guitar duties on the piece, in a much grittier style, has related how the piece welled up out of Michael as well as becoming a courageous labor of stylistic synthesis:

“We listened to Ravi Shankar and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Everything, you know? So yeah, it was cool,” Bishop recalled.

“But I’ll tell you the honest truth: the only person in the band who had any kind of clue about Indian music was Bloomfield, and his knowledge was …you know, you don’t really get into Indian music; it takes years and years. But the groove of the thing was based on a common blues thing in Chicago. A lot of times there would be a little revue happening, with a basic band and two or three different front guys; one of them would have a good name. And there was always what they called a “shake dancer,” a girl doing exotic dancing somewhere in the mix. The groove that starts out ‘East-West’ came from that. They would play an ‘exotic’ groove, something similar to ‘Caravan.” 1

For its diverse and unassuming roots, the piece is superbly realized as an extended composition. At times, it blazes like a house of blues afire, dueling with sun gods. Yet what always gets me is the quiet passages of the piece, which is miked so closely by producer Paul Rothschild that you can almost hear hear Bloomfield breathe, as he’s hunched over his Les Paul, in his typical manner. He played with tenderness, a balance of reverence and abandon, and assurance in the face of his personal abyss, and the sunburst of musical possibilities.

He had unlocked the doors of perception, between two great cultural traditions, and turned vernacular musics into high, revelatory art. “East-West” influenced countless musicians, and the nether blooming directions of creative popular music. Contextualized further, there had been no instrumental works as ambitious as this in American vernacular music in 1966. Few comparable works since have been as artistically successful.

Here it is. I recommend a hearty volume to get the full impact of the music’s wide dynamic range:

(L-R) Bassist Harvey Brooks, guitarist-singer-bandleader Michael Bloomfield, and singer Nick Gravenites of the newly-formed Electric Flag, probably shortly before they performed at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival in 1966. Facebook: Not Necessarily Stoned, but Beautiful: Hippies of the 60s and Beyond

I also just came across a third photo, which I decided to include because it is perhaps more upbeat, yet still complex. It shows Bloomfield with Brooks and singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites (who is credited with co-composing “East-West.”), about the time they had formed The Electric Flag, following all the music previously discussed. It was a marvelous group, bursting with grimy soul and ingenious jazzy finesse, but all too-short-lived. You can see the weight of life bearing down on Bloomfield, as a still-young man in his 30s. He was far from finished, but perhaps his fate was sealed.

He died in in his car, alone on a San Francisco street, of a drug overdose at age 37.

“Heroin, be the death of me.” — Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground

_____

  1. Elvin Bishop: Still Struttin’ His Stuff at 78 (part 2 of 2)

 

Christopher Porterfield of Field Report travels inner highways and outer byways

Christopher Porterfield on the road. milwaukeerecord.com

Perhaps his parents detected the glint of a wanderer in their infant’s eyes, then they named him. Christopher Porterfield is like a flawed version of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, especially in his marvelous song “Home (Leave the Lights On).” Or in “Summons” or “Enchantment,” or the Kerouac-esque “If I Knew.” In his humble way, Porterfield conveys an acute sense of place, even as locales shift. So he honors “the sacred,” as he did in his recent live YouTube performance, from Café Carpe, the quietly legendary roots music venue in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which prompted this essay. He paraphrased the great poet-naturalist Wendell Barry: “There are no places that are not sacred, only some that are desecrated.” This recalls the adage “The Holy Land is everywhere,” spoken by Native American wise man Black Elk, as the white man began his desecrating.

And much of Porterfield’s traveling runs parallel to wayward inner psycho-scapes, like the one depicted on the cover of the second Field Report album, Marigolden. There, two people stand separated by crevasses, lonely, yet heart-wrenchingly close, a stone’s throw away. Beside one person is a car — with head lights projecting towards the other person but too far overhead to illuminate the other person — an almost plaintive failure of technology.

Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy amazon.com

You get the feeling of risk in his wanderer’s sensibility. He conveys a distinctly American dilemma of isolation or alienation, from a desolate yet hungry heart. Yet the persona also belies the mythical Western loner/cowboy narrative.

Porterfield’s slightly nerdy-hip horn-rim specs help make that abundantly clear. The UW-Eau Claire journalism major crafted his band’s name as a clever anagram of his last name, and the name Field Report posits himself as striving to be an honest yet poetic correspondent on what he finds “out there,” in still-untamed or sacred or desecrated, America, and in the craggy depths of his own heart and life.

Bob Dylan still does something comparable but less confessionally, as he did brilliantly probing modern American history in his epic Kennedy assassination song “Murder Most Foul,” last year. Porterfield’s missives, rich in autobiographical experience, seem closer to The New Journalism as Song, with the reporter playing a central role.

To back up a bit, I recently made the critical assertion that James McMurtry is probably America’s finest living singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan.” Of course, there are a goodly handful of others who would be that in that “best” conversation, including Steve Earle, whom I also reviewed in that blog. 1

But recently, Porterfield reminded me of his powers in his superb, often exquisite virtual concert. The front man and singer-songwriter for Field Report is a Milwaukeean (by way of Minnesota), part of the rich motherlode of creative songwriting born of the Upper Midwest, including (among many others) Dylan, John Prine, Greg Brown, Prince, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Hayward Williams, Bill Camplin, Josh Harty, Heidi Spencer, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), with whom Porterfield previously played with in the band DeYarmond Edison.

I first met Porterfield some years ago, when we were both employed by Marquette University. He was leading his previous band, Conrad Plymouth, at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, a Milwaukee music venue that has long nurtured and celebrated singer-songwriters. “Fergus Falls,” destined as the opener for the first Field Report album, was already a highlight in his repertoire.

I’ve seen him open solo for Richard Thompson at The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, which immediately put him on substantial ground with that great artist. By then, Field Report was touring and making its mark. The band has since opened for Counting Crows, Emmylou Harris, Aimee Mann, and others. They signed to Verve/Forecast in time for their third album Summertime Songs. That label’s catalogue includes Ritchie Havens, Tim Hardin and Laura Nyro.

So, yes, I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation of great songwriters. Porterfield isn’t as outward-looking or social commenting as a McMurtry or an Earle. But on the premise that “all politics is personal,” you might accordingly contextualize this far more introspective artist. He lacks some of the musical range and variety of those artists (He’s not really a rocker, as those two often are, even if Field Report’s last two albums delve into pop-rock textures and elevated production.

Porterfield is essentially a lyrical brooder who can raise his emotional temperature as high as a rocker’s, as a lonesome howling wolf, though not in a bluegrass sense. So, even if McMurtry often expresses regret and doleful sentiment in a funky rock groove, it’s often couched in ironic attitude — he can walk that fine line superbly. But until Porterfield proves otherwise, hearing him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.

Christopher Porterfield, lead singer-songwriter of Field Report. Courtesy npr.org

Though Earle certainly has strong and tender singing moments, Porterfield is actually a more gifted vocalist than either he or McMurtry. His songwriting catalog can’t compare to those prolific veterans, but his voice is how Porterfield often catches you, as sharply and powerfully as an ace fly fisherman. For now, instead of comparing him too closely to others, I’ll mainly strive to take him on his own terms — looking at the world from inside-out, and poetically, while often mining the quotidian, and being easy to connect with. His extraordinary singing emanates with stunningly affecting power, and unassuming poignancy. His points of emphasis often teeter along a gravelly vibrato that virtually bleeds vulnerability, and other times as startling upper-register bursts of emotion. These two stylistic aspects combine in the listener’s memory like a vivid, very human sonic silhouette.

Porterfield is a bruised, contemporary romantic, who directly admits he’s struggled with alcohol, who often sounds like a man dredging limpid thoughts from the depths of his innards, often with a starkness that feels naked, yet perfectly expressed, in the tender grain and surge of that voice. The emotion’s exposed moment often compels the outcries, but tempered by a man’s eloquent sense of self, uncertain as he may be of his situation.

Among his most affecting works is the aforementioned “Home (Leave the Lights On),” from Marigolden, which captures the longing of being “homeward-bound” as well has the famous Paul Simon song named for that phrase.

Among Porterfield’s most vivid, apparently recollected landscapes is “Fergus Falls,” the song resurrected from a 2010 Conrad Plymouth EP, for the self-titled debut Field Report album. Fergus Falls is a small town in Otter Tail County in Western Minnesota, his native state. Of the song’s inspiration, Porterfield told me: “My family used to have a cabin in northern Minnesota. We would drive through Fergus to get there. It sprung from my subconscious when that song appeared, mostly for the alliteration.”

The first Field Report album opens thusly: “This is the one in which I miraculously pulled out of a freefall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota.” It is the first of many struggles for equilibrium and grace in his lyric storytelling, and brings to mind another gifted Minnesota writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a drinker, who died at 44, and who, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun.” 2

Porterfield emerged from his early vertigo less fatefully, but comparably, with both a sharp-eyed self-insight and a sense of inhabited landscape. Recollected landscapes, real and metaphorical, are a key to his sensibility. As The All-Music Guide has noted, “Some albums are about mood more than anything else, and on Marigolden Porterfield shows he’s a master of creating an ambience that’s cinematic in its strength and emotional impact.”  In fact, I can easily envision a Porterfield song adorning one of the new breed of Western movies being made by women directors (eg. Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland), which court America’s sprawling, rugged spaces but understand the vulnerable smallness of the wandering or wayward soul, alienated from community. 3 “Enchantment” from Marigolden opens on “Easter morning in New Mexico: the Son is risen on another day.” The spiritual wordplay replaces macho Old West gun play.

Porterfield’s is a gift he shares with the Texan McMurtry, as well as not many others. It has to do with how he imbues such perfectly wrought details with psychological resonance, so they breathe ultimately as song lyrics even though they’re impressive even on paper.

Like the aforementioned songs, “If I Knew,” the best-known title from the third album Summertime Songs, is also a road song, but more like a DUI-fueled misadventure that probably left old Saint Chris forgotten, way back in the dust: “You were bouncing off the guardrails shouting at the wind/ we were off our meds, drinking again.”

Album cover for Field Report’s “Brake Lights Red Tide.” Courtesy bandcamp.com

On the latest Field Report album, 2020’s Brake Lights Red Tide, Porterfield is still on the road and still searching for equilibrium but with an enhanced sonic vision, that seems to suspend him from deterioration or harm, and allows listeners to share such uneasy atmospheric heights.

The album cover photo (above) is shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on an expansive modern bridge over a large body of water in China. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.

For me, this approach first seemed like a calculated detour, and throughout Porterfield’s singing is more restrained than previously. But the effect ultimately beguiles in its open waywardness. The sonics elevate the thrust of the album on a woozy arc, until finally the penultimate track, “Whulge,” which is essentially a synthesizer instrumental, rippling in sonic waves, buoyant yet immersive. “Red tide” refers to a dense kind of sea algae. So, between the atmospheric synth and that metaphoric “tide,” Porterfield still faces mysteries he dares to dive into, especially with such watery themes as “a river’s love” and “Puget Sound.” Finally, the closing track, “Begin to Begin,” suggests a certain sense of being, a psychological condition he describes which seems like falling back into a pre-natal state, a refrain in sighing descent: “Begin to begin to begin to begin…” Only a session with his therapist, he sings, can pull him out.

But the whole notion of receding from a troubled lifetime back into pre-birth, the swallowing or drowning of full experience, is a profound abandonment, a healing re-immersion into imagined innocence. Perhaps it is the impulse toward literary critic Ihab Hassan’s famous concept of American “radical innocence”: “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” 4

Somehow, after life’s vagaries, cruelties and suffering, perhaps it’s a longing we all subconsciously share, to reset our course to unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach, perhaps, until death’s passage.

Earlier on Red Tide rebirthing hovers, as this sad road saint sings, “My heart begs to be light but my mind gets dark. Can’t push us into love.”

Also, can’t push us into life, and its inevitable losses? Thus are the risks taken, by an artist as honest as he dares to be.

_________

  1. Or should I say, “younger than Willie Nelson”? The great critic Mikal Gilmore reminds us that, at 87, the godfather of “outlaw” Texas singer-songwriters, remains vital and in the game. https://legacyrecordings.medium.com/willie-nelson-first-rose-of-spring-1ae9f6eed41f Nelson’s long legacy (His 2018 album was aptly titled Last Man Standing), reinforces the research and statistics that show that marijuana is a far safer drug of pain or psychological management, or even indulgence, than booze (Among gifted singer-songwriters, see: Hank Williams, dead at 29; Steve Earle’s son, Justin Townes Earle, dead last December at 38; and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, dead at 50; Tim Hardin dead at 39; Phil Ochs dead at 35, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, both dead at 27, primarily with alcohol abuse or hard drugs central to their demise. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s gun-shot suicide, at 27, was preceded by substantial drug abuse. The brilliant Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake overdosed, at 26, on a prescription anti-depressant drug, amitriptyline.)
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions, Modern Library, 139
  3. See Jordan Kisner’s essay, “The Western Rides Again,” The Atlantic, May 2021, 86 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/zhao-nomadland-women-western/618403/
  4. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton University Press 1961, 7

A participating writer catches up with the 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

Maria Schneider conducts her jazz orchestra live at the Jazz Standard in New York. Photo by Dina Regine. Courtesy steptempest.org

My posting of National Public Radio’s Jazz Critics Poll for 2020 is belated partly because my Facebook page was in techno limbo for so long, and the various vagaries of life in a pandemic, and being 65-plus with asthma. Good news, I got my first vaccine this week, and my daily rhythms seem closer to normal. Maybe that’s good or not — disruption that leads to new inlets of creativity, productivity and health should also be considered. I’m still working out that tricky balance.

Anyway, I contributed to the NPR Critics Poll again, and the consensus choice for album of the year, Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, was my Number 2 choice. I heard her play some of that arrestingly layered and signifying music live a couple years ago at the Elmhurst Jazz Festival, and she’s clearly a major artist who’s still evolving with the times, and her own complex muse. The high concept album addresses the ways that huge electronic media companies have transformed our lives and ways of thinking and communicating, for better and worse.

Beyond that, none of the top ten consensus choices were among mine. Some of my choices made the consensus top 50. My choices depended partly on what I’ve heard versus other critics.

Here’s Francis Davis’s lead story on the 2020 Jazz Poll and the consensus top 50 albums: 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

And here’s my Top 10 list, at NPR’s website, along with the other critics’ lists: Kevin Lynch’s NPR Poll

(The Shepherd Express, No DepressionCulture Currents)

And here’s my list below:

The album cover for “Dialogues on Race: Vol. 1”

NEW RELEASES

  1. Gregg August, Dialogues on Race: Volume One (Iacuessa)
  2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (ArtistShare)
  3. SFJazz Collective, Live: SFJazz Center 2019: 50th Anniversary: Miles Davis In a Silent Way and Sly & the Family Stone Stand! (SFJazz)
  4. Adam Kolker, Lost (Sunnyside)
  5. Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)
  6. Greg Reitan, West 60th (Sunnyside)
  7. Lynne Arriale Trio, Chimes of Freedom (Challenge)
  8. Weird Turn Pro, Maul and Mezcal (Weird Turn Pro)
  9. Dayna Stephens, Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard (Contagious Music)
  10. Dave Douglas, Marching Music (Greenleaf Music)

REISSUES/HISTORICAL

  1. Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (1968, Impulse)
  2. Edward Simon, 25 Years (1995-2018, Ridgeway)
  3. Pharoah Sanders, Live in Paris 1975: Lost ORTF Recordings (Transversales Disque)

VOCAL

  • Kurt Elling, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition)

DEBUT

  • Emi Makabe, Anniversary (Greenleaf Music)

LATIN

  • Poncho Sanchez, Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante -19)

I believe my top choice, bassist-composer Gregg August’s astonishingly powerful and provocative Dialogues on Race, Vol. 1, should’ve rated much higher than 33 on the critics’ list. However, Dialogues has been nominated for a Grammy Award, a worthy honor. My rather outlier top-ten picks overall suggest to me that distribution of albums, especially indie-produced ones like this one, can be spotty, and that there appears to be too few of the 148 participating jazz journalists in the heartland area (Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa), though Chicago, of course, is well-represented. One’s locale, if not itinerant, determines sensibility to some degree, I believe. I’m Milwaukee-based with a strong Madison history, as well.

So I’m really glad that Madison friend and Strictly Jazz Sounds DJ Steve Braunginn included August’s Dialogues in his February 25th Black History Month radio program on Madison’s WORT, 89.9 FM, Here’s a link to the show’s announcement, and to the audio archives you can use to get to Steve’s Feb. 25th show:

Black History Month Pt. 2 on Strictly Jazz Sounds

That station’s Monday-through-Thursday afternoon jazz programming is the most consistent source of exposure of recorded jazz in Wisconsin (Braunginn alternates weeks of the Thursday 2 to 5 p.m. shift of Strictly Jazz Sounds with Jane Reynolds).

That’s not to minimize Dr. Sushi’s Free Jazz Barbecue from 9 a.m. to 12 noon Tuesdays on WMSE, 91.7 FM in Milwaukee. I’ve done a fair share of jazz radio programing in the past, so I’m sensitive to its role, especially in this era of online access to recorded music. I’m deeply grateful to these dedicated radio folks, including WORT’s Alexander Wilding-White (Mondays), and John Kraniak (Saturday morning). Research shows that radio remains a very popular medium, despite the the explosion of online media.

Nevertheless, Milwaukee misses longtime jazz DJ stalwarts Ron Cuzner, Howard Austin, Gene Johnson and others, and Madison misses Michael Hanson and Gary Alderman.

I did review a few of my Top Ten albums this year, Here’s my take on Gregg August’s Dialogue on Race:

Gregg August’s “Dialogues on Race” is jazz facing up to racial history and present

And Adam Kolker’s Lost:

Saxophonist Adam Kolker travels in the long shadows of Wayne Shorter

And Lynne Arriale’s Chimes of Freedom:

Jazz pianist Lynne Arriale’s “Chimes of Freedom” testifies to forsaken humanity

Perhaps I should be using this post to expand on my other poll choices. But you readers make your decisions on purchasing recordings most of all by hearing music, which my music writing strives to get you to do. And this poll is facilitated by the nation’s public radio network, which does fair justice to jazz elsewhere, in some of its interview features and jazz album reviews, though not much actual jazz music programming.

So I recommend listening to NPR, the aforementioned local jazz radio programs, as well as accessing recommended music samples online. If you’re interested in the programming and live beyond either WORT or WMSE’s relatively small Wisconsin broadcast range, the shows are streamable.

If anyone is curious beyond the three reviews above about the whys of my poll choices, I’d be happy to expand on them in a Facebook message or, preferably, an e-mail. I’m at kelynchmi@gmail.com. (Unfortunately, I need to fix this blog’s out-of-commission “comments” section below — apologies.)

A blog reflects a writer’s mood and mine today contemplates the connection between sonic media and The Music.

To that end, I will end by at least giving you a sample or two here:

From Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, Vol 1: “A Wreath for Emmett Till” 

From Lynne Arriale’s  Chimes of Freedom: “Chimes of Freedom”

The Lynne Arriale Trio (drummer E.J. Strickland, left, and bassist/co-producer Jasper Somsen, right) recording “Chimes of Freedom.” 

I’m a bit biased towards jazz with a social conscious. I think much of authentic instrumental jazz does have that, at least implicitly, as I explore in my forthcoming book (I promise!) Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. But these two pieces, with texts by Marilyn Nelson (“Wreath”), and the astonishing lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes” make that case more obviously. Dylan’s lines refract with a poetic density of images, but with clear pay-off kicker lines. It’s a lyric that, I believe, traverses the political spectrum. I mean, it’s the chimes of freedom, for a vast array of characters. Listen, think and feel.

It’s worth searching out the full lyrics of one of Dylan’s greatest opuses. Arriale’s version, sung by K.J. Denhert and beautiful as it is, only presents three of the six verses.

_____________

Steve Earle, and James McMurtry, mine the hearts of forsaken Trump voters

“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com

Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.

It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2

Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest 

Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs,  “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.

Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:

Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org

Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all twenty-nine Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”

When I saw Earle this summer at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin, he performed “It’s About Blood” and, sure enough, at the end, he recited the twenty-nine dead men’s names from memory, with raw, stentorian power. And now it seemed as if they were a band of brothers, his very own, and the names had lacerated his heart with so many scars. 

But the bridge across America was still rising.

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/ghosts-of-west-virginia-by-steve-earle-the-dukes-new-west/

***

Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly  solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.

He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3

“Complicated Game” album cover  

So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.

For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical impeachment conviction vote).

Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:

“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4

To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this vocal intoxication, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?

The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so the songwriters inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.

Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5

James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com

This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.

McMurtry typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).

But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates the betrayals of America’s economic times as well as anything.

Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.

“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through McMurtry’s veins by now. But he’s holding steady. 7

“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/ Won’t you share your morning’s catch/ with those whose ground you walk across/ May their memory be not lost. 

“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And he sure can celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes — he might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song “Cutter,” about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day. 

Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as “enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.”  8

We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid forthright footsteps to follow, and perhaps to a bridge to new understanding, healing and common purpose.

_____

1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.

Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.

3. Mike Seely, https://www.houstonpress.com/music/james-mcmurtrys-10-best-songs-6518030

4. Lorrie Moore, April 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office

5.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93

7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)

The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time

, and Paste Magazine’s “50 Greatest Alt-Country Albums,” (published in August 2016). https://www.pastemagazine.com/music/alt-country/the-50-best-alt-country-albums-of-all-time/

Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.

More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.

8. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/

John Kennedy embraced Martin Luther King’s vision in his Civil Rights Act Speech. Our nation cries out now, for such leadership.

President John F. Kennedy delivering his Civil Right Act speech in 1963. Courtesy The Atlantic.

On Tuesday iconic conservative journalist George Will called for the ouster of Donald Trump in a Washington Post opinion piece. That’s extraordinary in itself.

“There’s a downward spiral (in Trump’s behavior) and no one should take pleasure in this,” Will said in a TV interview with MSNBC’s Ari Melber. Will continued: “In 2016, the people chose the person they liked the least (Not really, the Electoral College did that. “The people” chose Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. It drives me crazy that Will, like many commentators, glosses over the real will of “We the People.”  Far too little discussion of abolishing the EC, or revising our electoral system.).

“Now, ninety per cent of the Republican Party approves of Trump’s conduct. It’s never been more united in its history. It’s united around somebody unfit to lead. You need to give a thorough rejection of the party in the election, which should cause them to pause and reflect.”

Bow-tied George is too mild-toned for me. But what’s also extraordinary is this renowned conservative is almost echoing what sounds to many like a radical idea, a column I posted on Facebook a few days ago from The New Republic calling for: End the GOP

Well, I’ve been reflecting since I heard Bob Dylan’s supremely wise and powerful 17-minute ballad about John Kennedy’s assassination, “Murder Most Foul.” Culture  As a folk-rock singer-songwriter who has managed to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Dylan exemplifies the “common” in our culture as also uncommon, the realm of expression and art this blog strives to engage. There’s good reason why the song has become Dylan’s first-ever number one Billboard single in his storied career. Here is my blog review of, with recorded links to, “Murder” and Dylan’s follow-up song “I Contain Multitudes,” from a new album:

The pandemic’s hidden blessing: The first album of original Dylan songs in eight years

But another TV commentator last night, who’s name I missed, reminded me of Kennedy’s brilliant speech in enacting the Civil Rights Act in 1963, the credit for which should go largely to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists.

Joe Biden says today, “the nation is crying out for leadership.” At this point we hope it will be him in November, with an inspired choice of a woman for his running mate. But Biden he has plenty of work to do, and perhaps he should start by revisiting Kennedy’s speech and King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which significantly inspired the president that day. My God, look how far we have fallen recently despite the apparent progress made since 1963. Backsliding, thy name is America or, more correctly, her leadership.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy trussvilletribune.com

The president’s address also resembled King’s ‘Letter’ in rejecting the idea that blacks should have to wait for equality, and here’s where Kennedy rings in thunderous harmony with the sentiments of the throngs now gorging American city streets and many other international cities (see below), protesting the murder of George Lloyd, and far too many other black people, by police.

” ‘Who among us,’ Kennedy demanded, ‘would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?’ He mimicked King’s critique of ‘appalling silence’: “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence.’ The president even picked up the mass meeting chant — ‘Now is the time!’ said Kennedy, “Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise.”

Here is the complete article from the June, 2013 Atlantic.

The Atlantic on Kennedy

It may seem like idle speculation to wonder what might’ve happened to America had not Kennedy fallen to “murder most foul,” as would King, and another supremely promising young leader, Kennedy’s brother, Bobby. Certainly successor Lyndon Johnson was a skilled legislator who did plenty to enable civil rights, but he was hardly the inspirational leader that any of those men were. Would we have endured the disgraced Nixon era had Johnson chosen not to run again in 1968? How sharply would history’s arc of justice have bent to realization? I’ll leave the rhetorical questions there.
But we need now to reach deep down as a nation, and inspire our leaders, surely they need to inspire us. That seems to be happening right now, but we must keep the fires  for justice burning, albeit in a civil and non-violent manner, as King and Kennedy envisioned.

Urgently needed changes today include “the outlawing of police choke holds, with a national standard of definition, and banning of military-style assault weapons for police,” says Mark Claxon, an ex-New York Police detective and police oversight expert.

In ostensibly progressive Minneapolis, where George Floyd died, 44 people were rendered unconscious in the last five years by city police choke holds. And, of those victimized, 60% were black suspects, even though blacks comprise only 4% of the city population. 

“We also need independent committees to judge police brutality outcomes,” Claxton told Melber.

Finally, video images can inspire too, even astonish. We may be at a pivotal moment in our history:

____________

Dylan offers an evocative, expansive ballad for JFK: “Murder Most Foul”

Ghosts can drag on our psychic heels interminably – that’s why they’re called haunting. Damn hard to shake. So Bob Dylan was utterly apt in titling his new 17-minute opus “Murder Most Foul.” He’s quoting perhaps the most famous haunter in literature, Hamlet’s father — murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother and gains the Danish crown. At one point, the ghostly father whispers, “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”

The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father in the Kenneth Branaugh film adaptation of “Hamlet.” Courtesy Kristlinglistics

Dylan was apparently among the countless of both the so-called “greatest generation” and the baby-boomers who could never quite let go of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And have we really, as a nation? Ever since that fateful day in Dallas, America has indulged a weakness for conspiracy theories. It’s hard to not argue that Kennedy assassination isn’t the primary impetus for a collective national neurosis — the Warren Report be damned. I have an intelligent friend with a license plate that reads simply: “JFK,” and who eagerly unfurls intriguing conspiracy tentacles on the subject. I’ll admit I wrote one of the first poems of my young life, and then read a whole book, about the assassination back in the day. 1

So, we struggled mightily with the tragedy of it, the insanity of it, the mystery, skulduggery and intrigue. It brought this barrel-chested nation crashing to its knees and wringing its hands, after Kennedy had lifted us up with a noble challenge, the dream of the moon, and hope for a greater America – not in xenophobic isolation like our current president – but through the Peace Corps, and diplomacy, in service to the world. Even in largely outmaneuvering The Soviets in the Cold War, though that almost went awry.

What a different world ours might be had Kennedy (and M. L. King and RFK) lived to fulfill their promise and vision. Instead, we soon got the “Reagan Revolution,” neo-liberalism, and now, Donald Trump and his white-nationalist primary policy-maker, our currents state of affairs.

Rolling Stone is straightforward in striving for the song’s currency, certainly at an emotional level: “All across the country at this very moment, people are lost, scared, and grieving. The coronavirus crisis has transformed American life with shocking speed — and Bob Dylan wants you to know that he feels your pain,” asserts Simon Vozick- Levinson. 2

For sure, by transporting us with such skilled empathy, Dylan transfers our neurological focus away from our pain, in a similar way that certain tried-and-true medications, such as medical marijuana, work for countless people suffering chronic physical pain.

Dylan releasing this now also might help explain why, after becoming the unofficial protest spokesman of the ‘60s generation, he abdicated the role increasingly in the few years after Kennedy’s death in November 1963. He clearly cares that people hear it now, as if finally unburdening himself.  2

The summer of 1964 brought Another Side of Bob Dylan which stepped back from the heavy protest of The Times They Are a’ Changin’, with the exception of the magnificent “Chimes of Freedom,” a sort of farewell hosanna to justice. And by 1965’s rootsier, more personal and romantic Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s also beginning to plug in, and he chain-anchors the album with the long, searingly bleak “It’s All Right Ma (I’m only Bleeding)” which remains it’s very own surreal rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Yet, in retrospect, it’s chant-like manner and lyrics might also resonate as a conceptual trial run for “Murder Most Foul.” Consider the earlier song’s: “Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ As human gods aim for their mark/ made everything from toy guns that spark/ to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/ It’s easy to see without looking too far/ that not much is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates/ teachers teach that knowledge waits/ can lead to hundred-dollar plates/ Goodness hides behind its gates/ but even the President of the United States/ sometimes must have to stand naked.”

This new piece won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; Dylan doesn’t even sing a single melody. It’s more like a minister’s funeral sermon. Yet, his voice is richly nuanced, by turns, ironic, quizzical, tender and garrulous. At the very least, let’s agree his bard’s technique remains peerless, including his uncannily effortlessness at rhyming couplets, which keep our mind almost helplessly hooked at his words’ rhythmic resonance.

Dylan contemplates what we lost by paraphrasing Kennedy’s most famous aphorism: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” and soon follows by yoking bluesman Robert Johnson with Shakespeare, ”I’m going down to the crossroads try to flag a ride/ the place where faith, hope and charity die…“What is the truth, where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby they oughta know. Business is business and it’s a murder most foul.”

Jackie Kennedy reacts to her husband being shot. Courtesy The Conversation

Arriving at the decisive moment, Dylan pulls a masterful trick by inhabiting JFK:

Riding in the backseat next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left; got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap.

The songwriter, creator of many unforgettable characters who’d be nobodies if not for him, learned long ago the power of rhetorical illusionism. Of the assassination itself he comments, “The greatest magic trick under the sun/ perfectly executed, skillfully done.”

A simulation of the gun sight of JFK’s assassin. Courtesy The Guardian 

The Abraham Zapruder film, now replayed in slow motion, remains shockingly violent:

It’s a strangely compelling phenomenon – hearing the man who refused to speak for his generation doing what he can’t help but doing. Speaking for perhaps all generations, then and since, who cherish gifted, inspiring leaders. We feel we, too, must stand naked when they’re torn from us, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert soon would be too. No wonder Dylan thought it was all too much for even him, or perhaps anyone, to fully grapple with then. Even now, he drolly disavows any special role: “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline.”

Nevertheless, his insight arises in several ways, including by changing points of view, so we look at life with a prismatic perspective. And it’s perhaps most powerful as emotional insight, well-honed empathy, a way of understanding the old rawness that remains, like heavy, rotting branches from our heart. Time heals, but somewhere beneath our psychic scars, many of us still carry a cross for our martyr, who carried an almost Christ-like aura, even if we knew his human weaknesses. Dylan curtly references the famous temptress who allegedly led two Kennedy brothers astray.

The instrumental accompaniment is also inspired, in its welling empathy and its softly buoyant restraint — from the most eloquent of instruments, the cello, and bowed bass, and piano. Lightly struck cymbals.

Yes, this feels like Dylan delivering the ghost of a beloved and blood-spattered leader into the existential consciousness of generations (Though Hamlet’s maker did as well, would that the poor prince been so successful):

“We’re right down the street, from the street where you live.

They mutilated his body/ they took out his brain

what more could they do?/ They piled on the pain.

But his soul is not there where it was supposed to be at

For the last 50 years they’ve been searching for that

Freedom, oh freedom, freedom from me

I hate to tell you mister, but only dead men are free…

Note the deftly swift switching of points-of-view here, as the author refuses to let us forget the horrid, cold-blooded nature of the deed:

Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by…

Got blood in my eye, got blood in my ear

I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier.

The Zapruder film I’ve seen the night before.

Seen it thirty-three times maybe more.

Its foul and deceitful and vile and mean/ ugliest thing that you ever have seen

They killed him once, they killed him twice/, killed him like a human sacrifice.”

(Incredibly, Secret Service agent Clint Hill, on the Kennedy car’s trunk by then, reports that Jackie Kennedy climbed onto the hood not to flee, but to retrieve parts of her husband’s skull and brain matter.) 3

The Kennedy limousine in Dallas. Photo courtesy Getty Gallery

Dylan’s consolation is intermittent, almost as if only the innocent have earned it, by default: ”Hush little children you’ll understand/ the Beatles are coming, they’ll hold your hand.”

This nifty pop cultural reference preludes Dylan’s most inspired leap, an extended petitioning for grace even non-believers can understand. He invokes the period’s colorful, big-talking disc jockey Wolfman Jack, who hardly carries the gravitas of a Walter Cronkite. But Jack lets us down easier, we hope, in music’s healing waters. So hear Dylan, himself a disk jockey of note, riding his imploring waves, for the ghost’s sake and ours:

Wolfman Jack he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song Mister Wolfman Jack

play it for my long Cadillac

play it that only the good die young,

take us to the place where Tom Dooley was hung…

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe.

Play please don’t let me be misunderstood

play it for the First Lady she ain’t feeling so good…

Play “Mystery Train” for Mister Mystery

for the man who fell down like a rootless tree…

Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz, play “Blue Sky” play Dickey Betts.

Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk

play Charlie Parker and all that junk.

All that junk and all that jazz

play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.

play Buster Keaton play Harold Loyd

play Bugsy Seigel play Pretty Boy Floyd…

play Nat King Cole play Nature Boy”

Play “Down in the Boondocks” for Terry Malloy…

Don’t worry Mister President help’s on the way

your brothers are coming

there’ll be hell to pay.

Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?…

Was a hard act to follow second to none

They’ll killed him on the altar of the rising sun…”

Marlon Brando as dock laborer Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s classic film “On the Waterfront.” Courtesy MarlonBrando.com

The riffing’s cumulative effect is stunning, deeply gratifying, as the songwriter/poet/disc jockey neatly ties it together at the end, like a spiritual tourniquet, that increasingly eases the pain built up over half a century.

Yet Dylan challenges us to reconsider, give this tragedy its full due, once more. How can we, as a nation and people, do better? At times, like now, our leaders need to lead. And yet, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” John F. Kennedy’s ghost might quote John Lennon: “Come together, right now, over me.”

But this work also feels healing, the work of a kind of doctor, a pop culture witch doctor perhaps, or a shaman, posing as a mere patsy.

We all know how Patsy Cline went to pieces. By doing so, she began to help us pick up our pieces.

And so, this patsy-priest helps us to walk, with that ghost, away from the altar, to our own rising sun.

_________________

  1. My “JFK” friend, a deeply involved aficionado of the assassination subculture,  comments about official explanations: “An elaborate disinformation campaign by the CIA has led people astray at a Freudian level.”
  2. Here’s a Twitter message Dylan posted with the song’s release:
Bob Dylan Twitter
@bobdylan

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. — Bob Dylan

March 27, 2020[1]

3. This video, narrated by SS agent Clint Hill, recounts the event with startling efficacy: