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 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 tune was famously composed 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.

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 work 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

_____

 

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 Porter 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 — seems an almost plaintive failure of technology.

Cover to Field Report’s “Marigolden” album. Courtesy youtube. 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 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 I’ll put him in the bigger-name conversation. 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 the last two albums 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, him in a hard-rocking backdrop seems problematic.

Chris 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. But instead of comparing him too closely to others, for now, 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 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 resonating with  psychological utterance, 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 St. 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) seems shot from the window of a car stuck in traffic on a large bridge over a large body of water in Asia. And musically the group employs synthesizer, played by Thomas Wincek, much more than previously.

For me, this 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 for unrealized happiness and beauty, a place we may never reach unto, perhaps, only death’s passage.

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

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 29 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.”

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 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 voice, 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 they 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.

From Culture Currents, May 2015: 

“(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 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 his veins by now. But McMurtry’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 hell if he can’t 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 turns and spies New Mexico and Carolina — by way of Austin — from that metaphoric peak. 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 footsteps to follow.

_____

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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Once Were Brothers” traces the mythical saga of The Band, through Robbie Robertson’s lens

“We few, we proud, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare, Henry V

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary film by Daniel Roher, plays at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, at the Oriental Theater, 2230 N. Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 276-5140

__________

This story needed to be told again, on Robbie Robertson’s terms, even as it needs telling from all five. Three are gone, so Robbie the wordsmith stands best to speak here, anew and anon. And The Band started with him; it’s roots arose when he converged with Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. But this needed to be told because the Band lasted too short a time for the America it embraced and re-imagined, the nation that needed a band like this, to remind us who and what America was, and is, and might be.

For perhaps no other American vernacular band compressed more talent into one entity, like pages of a tattered book filled with dried and pressed leaves, shadows and light, and music of American spheres. It was a great North American band, comprising four Canadians and one Arkansan, who embodied “Canadian driftwood, gypsy tailwind,” as they regaled us on one of their late, great saga-songs.

We need this story because, well, as the venerable roots purveyor Taj Mahal asserts here, they are the closest we have to the American Beatles. Daniel Roher’s film provides classic and never-published photos and film footage of their life in Woodstock. N.Y. and at the house called Big Pink, on the road, and reflections from most band members, but mainly Robertson’s and those of his wife Dominique, their road manager and some celebrated others.

But Mahal’s claim begs examination, because the band’s peak years lasted less than the Beatles. Both bands emerged from, and remained rooted in, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, blues, and country. Like their counterparts, the North Americans drew from British Isle folk sources as well. Stylistically where they diverged was when the Beatles embraced psychedelia. The Band arrived right about that time, but driven by older forces, and enamored of the rustic weirdness, oily charm, verve, wit and tragedy that would come to be called Americana, a genre they forged as much as anyone. As Robertson points out, “The rock generation revolted against their parents but we loved our parents.” They had a sprawling family portrait taken during the Basement Tapes sessions.

And yet their extraordinary quintet synergy also made for some of the bitterness that would ultimately arise, perhaps justified (more on that later).

“It was such a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful that it went up in flames,” Robertson reflects.

More on the Beatles comparison. Both had magnificent and glorious songwriting, though the Beatles were more diverse with three gifted writers, which may be their greatest claim, aside from the phenomenal impact they had on our culture. The Band had primarily Robertson writing songs, but they had that three-part harmony, probably the most fulsome and profoundly textured of any popular group, because these were also “three of the greatest white rhythm-and-blues singers in the world at the time,” as Eric Clapton comments.

“They have voices that you’d never heard before, and yet they sound like they’ve always been there,” rhapsodizes Bruce Springsteen.

Here, The Band has a leg up on the more famous British band, whose third and fourth singers were only serviceable, though George and Ringo had their moments.

The Band was also instrumentally superior, again, to almost almost any rock ’n’ roll band, especially in ensemble, given their kaleidoscopic versatility. Bassist-singer Rick Danko was capable with several horns and string instruments. Classically-trained Garth Hudson played organ, synthesizer, accordion, saxophones, brass, and piccolo. Drummer-singer Hudson also played mandolin.

Guitarist Robertson developed a style that startled and even intimidated many guitarists, even if he wasn’t the typical virtuoso pealing off chorus after dazzling chorus. Few pickers had a sharper rhythmic flair, or could make a guitar bite, sear, and jump for joy, almost at once. Richard Manuel played piano, clavinet and drums, and sang with the most soul-haunting voice of any of them. I’m probably forgetting a few axes. Clapton was so moved — “they changed my life” — that he forsook his two fellows of the psychedelic-blues-rock trio Cream at its peak, in hopes he could join The Band. “Maybe they’d need a rhythm guitar,” he says.

The band performs in the concert film “The Last Waltz.” (Left to right) Richard Manuel, piano and vocals; Garth Hudson, accordion, keyboards and saxes; Rick Danko, bass and vocals; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Levon Helm, drums; Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, vocals.

As for style, their playing and singing blended looseness and precision, defiant resolve and abandon, high humor and pooling sadness. They fully inhabited the characters dwelling in Robertson’s songs of American archetypes — dirt farmers, varmints, vagabonds, drunkards, Dixie fighters. “Virgil Cain is my name and I worked on the Danville train,” Helm sings on the forlorn, feisty epic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “They reminded me of 19th century American literature, of Melville’s stories of searchers,” film director Martin Scorsese ponders.

Barney Hoskyns, biographer of The Band, has a similar reflection, by way of quoting the great American critic Greil Marcus: “…their music gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed.’” Hoskyns adds: “If there was any band that could get to the heart of the mystery that pervaded rural life in America, then The Band was it. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been right when he wrote of Americans that ‘we have so much country that we have really no country at all’,’ but The Band managed to create a sense of its adopted land that was at once precise and mythical.” 1

Courtesy Nebraska Furniture Mart

The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, as well as Northern Lights-Southern Cross compare well to any Beatles album, as does, in its rough, eccentric ways The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan. Stage Fright and Cahoots are right in the ballpark. Rock of Ages is a masterful live recording achievement, and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz remains arguably the finest concert documentary ever made, studded with stars, and The Band’s last-ever live performance at Winterland in San Francisco, in its original incarnation, here sweaty and transcendent.

I saw them once, at Summerfest, on their last 1974 tour, and the power and glory remained, though the poisons that killed it all festered beneath the surface.

Robertson recounts his prodigious rise when, at 15, he wrote two songs recorded by Canadian rock ‘n’ roll star Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. “That band was my own personal Big Bang,” Robertson says. He soon joined the Hawks, and they reformed as Levon Helm and the Hawks.

Aside from his musical and literary genius, Bob Dylan is an astute aficionado and observer of American musical talent. When he heard The Band he knew they had to be his. He approached them and they invited to their basement studios in their communal Woodstock home “Big Pink.” Dylan was dubious at first of recording there, as they only had a small reel-to-reel, but once they got down to it, things began flowing. Dylan clacked away song lyrics on his typewriter and they rehearsed.

The Basement Tapes is among the most mythical informal recordings in pop music history, largely Dylan songs, immensely enhanced by The Band. Before long they were touring, yet this was early in Dylan’s plugged-in phase. His still-faithful-to-folk-roots fans consistently booed the electric music, for all its quality. This rejection eventually wore on Helm, who was beginning to sink into drugs and alcohol, as were several others, especially Manuel, a sensitive soul, who struggled with depression, and would soon self-destruct. In time, disillusioned Helm quit the group to become an oil rigger in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robertson soldiered on with the group though somewhat devastated by the loss of his soul brother and best friend. He addresses the nature of creativity, saying it’s often a matter of “trying to surprise yourself. For example, if you look inside the sounding hole of a Martin guitar you see imprinted” made in Nazareth, PA.” One day I saw that and thought, ‘I pulled into Nazareth, was a feeling about half-past dead.’ Then I heard these voices, ‘Take a load off Fanny,’” and “The Weight” was born.

The Band performs “The Weight” with The Staple Singers, in “The Last Waltz.” YouTube

The Band’s Robbie Robertson (right) is interviewed about the new film “Once Were Brothers.” Courtesy The Toronto Star. 

Enter producer entrepreneur extraordinaire David Geffen. He convinced Robertson to move to Malibu, CA, and a oceanfront property, and before long he’d lured the band members out there which replenished them. The result was the 1976 album Northern Lights-Southern Cross considered by many their best album since their second. It included three classic new songs “Acadian Driftwood,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “Ophelia” and no clunkers.

Robertson treads too lightly on the feud that developed between him and Helm. “Bitterness was setting in with Levon.” he muses. It had to do with the band members beginning to indulge in heroin. Robertson fortunately did not have an addictive makeup and was not chemically affected. But he does gloss Helms point of view which deeply resented all the royalties that Robertson received for their original music. Although Robertson wrote the majority of the songs, few bands could better fit the adage: The sum is greater than their parts. So there was a strong argument for all members sharing in some royalties.

Nor does Robertson address Richard Manuel’s devastating suicide in the film. So, it’s worth referring to Barney Hoskyns book Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, to give the subject some due. “The band had played capacity crowds for two shows which went well, despite the fact that Rick had complained to Richard about his drink. ‘We played a good show for good intelligent people,’ Rick said. ‘Talk was of the next show. That’s what we were all living for.’

 

After leaving the club, Richard headed back to the nearby Quality Inn and stopped by Levon’s room en route to his own. To Levon, he did not seem especially depressed. “I don’t know what got crosswise in his mind between leaving the foot of my bed and going into his bathroom.” Once in the room Richard finished off a bottle of Grand Marnier and his last scrapings of coke. Sometime between 3 and 3:30 AM on Tuesday 4, March, he went into the bathroom…

Richard Manuel. Courtesy Live for Live Music

Rick Danko was in shock, and denial. “I cannot believe in a million years that wasn’t a goddamn silly accident,” he said

“It seems much more likely that loneliness and a profound sense of failure combined to convince him of the futility of life,” Hoskyns writes.

The opening words of his prologue also address the fated artist. “Richard Manuel’s is the first voice you hear in the the first Band album Music from Big Pink (1968)…His aching baritone launches into the first reproachful line of “Tears of Rage.” As it arches over ‘arms,’ you can’t help thinking of Ray Charles, the singer who more than any other shaped this unlikely white soul voice from Stratford, Ontario… A month shy of his 43rd birthday, he could see nothing ahead but these depressing one-nighters, rehashing ‘the old magic’ in a continuing, fruitless struggle to moderate his intake of alcohol and cocaine.”

On that Tuesday morning in 1986, “he tied one end of a plain black belt around her neck, the other end around the shower curtain and hanged himself. The distance between ‘Tears of Rage’ and Richard Manuel’s lonely death at the Winter Park Quality Inn was the journey The Band traveled in their rise and fall as one of the greatest rock bands in America.” 2

Levon Helm drums and sings, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in “The Last Waltz.”

Once Were Brothers — an engrossing, touching and well-crafted film — understandably climaxes with two generous clips from The Last Waltz. The Band’s radiant final hurrah was on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, and includes Dylan, Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, The Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, and a brass ensemble.

“Time is the most mysterious word of all,” Norman Mailer once wrote. The Band somehow traversed and encapsulated the mysteries of our time, Because “Life is a Carnival.” and because of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

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1 Barney Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, Hyperion, 1993 Quote of Greil Marcus from his book Mystery Train, 3-4 .

2 Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide, 384-85

 

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming

Sister singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have recorded their first duo album, mostly brilliantly realized covers. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Album cover courtesy rollingstone.com

Album Review

Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

The lateness of this first, yet seemingly natural, collaboration of sister singer-songwriters carries old, heavy freight. Both witnessed their father kill their mother, then himself, in the backwoods of Alabama. Decades past, finally realized, Not Dark Yet reveals both as artists mature enough to transmute tragedy into a deep array of poignant expression. The album cover does depict three figures wholly shrouded in shadow, a teenager and an adolescent frolicking while a third person plays guitar.

Lynne is a fairly straight country artist and younger sister Allison (the ex-spouse of Steve Earle) is decidedly alt-country. And yet, they avoid the sentimental pitfalls common to country autobiographical song with a brilliant array of covers of other singer-songwriters, save one song by Lynne. The title song, one of Dylan’s best late period creations, clearly encounters trauma’s impact: “Feels like my soul has turned into steel/I’ve still got the scars the sun didn’t heal.” Yet it has graceful depth, an offhanded philosophic recognition of darkness’s inevitability in life. Here and elsewhere, their voices’ blood-matched closeness plumbs their souls and touches the listener.

Their oblique approach to their parental loss dwells in their rendering of  Townes Van Zandt’s chilling “Lungs,” uttered from the strangely-elevated viewpoint of a person dying of lung cancer: “Jesus was an only son and love his only concept/strangers cry in foreign tongues and dirty up the doorstep.”

Or perhaps they’re searching for their martyred mother in Jessi Coulter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” Here their vocal harmonies are soul-straining but wrenchingly radiant, entwining each other like tendrils of a crown of thorns. Or hear the yearning of Jason Isbell’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day”: “I can never find you in my dreams,” an obsessively repeated refrain. Nirvana’s “Lithium” activates a chemistry that seems to reach into the sisters’ shared historical essence. A forlorn, layered spirituality dwells in this album, an acceptance of the larger mysteries.

And yet, such fathomless beauty and tenderness carries through their lovely, life-worn voices that one feels them, not merely as orphans, but as women artists who have lived, lost and learned. This is among the year’s most indelible roots music albums.

And it’s an activist statement: They list the contact information for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence  beneath the inside-cover song titles and credits.

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A shorter version of this review was first published in The Shepherd Express

No Depression print quarterly investigates and celebrates Heartland music

ndspring2017-cover-1

The full cover of the “Heartland” issue of the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music. Cover painting by Iowan Greta Songe  

 

In Milwaukee at least, spring is in the air, and in the earth and the river. The pathway along the Milwaukee River down below Kern Park is still fairly muddy but leaf padding of decayed brown and faded gold along each side of the path allows fairly brisk negotiation.

Ah, but if you pause to observe nature’s inexorable might, the big river flows swift and strong in it’s fluid, forward tumble. The quirky rhythm of the meandering pathway and the propulsive rhythms of the river are part of the essential music of the heartland which helps, perhaps subconsciously, inspire the rhythms and melodies of human music which emerges from the vast, green, heaving chest of America, The Heartland.

So it is now time to respond to that embrace’s cultural power. There’s no better way to do so in one fell swoop, short of turning on a Jayhawks CD or a rootsy radio station, than the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music, entitled The Heartland.

Full disclosure: the issue includes an article by this writer, a survey of upper Midwest venues that cater to roots music, ranging from a working CSA farm to a poster-bedecked Madison basement house-concert venue.

The 160-page coffee table-sized journal began by defying most digital media trends through reasserting intellectual and aesthetic quality in real print. Editor-in-chief Kim Reuhl has stood on the shoulders of the strong journalistic tradition pioneered by her predecessors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden when they began the original No Depression magazine in 1995, dedicated to the growing movement of roots music that looks forward as much as it reaches back into the past. When the magazine ceased operations it continued as a very strong community-oriented website. Then a new business partnership with The FreshGrass Foundation in 2015 opened the doors to reinvent No Depression as a new kind of print music publication.

Indeed, as you sit with a copy of the journal in your lap, the photography and artwork, often spreading across both pages, has the scale and quality of a wide laptop screen of digital imagery. This graphic sensation reminds us that the experience of roots music rises from the thick, layered and complex texture of American culture, the intersection of our strong ethnic musical traditions which remained the envy and allure of the world over.

Plus, you can sit or carry the journal anywhere and enjoy not only the lush graphics but a serious standard of music writing. I can attest, Reuhl works in much closer collaboration with writers in crafting stories than most editors I’ve ever experienced. Of course, the internet has facilitated that close interactive relationship, which was always more cumbersome for print publications with contributions from writers all over North America, and beyond (The summer edition will be “The International Issue,” defying the stereotype of roots music as provincial, hayseed or American-centric.)

Besides seasoned and skilled journalists, the quarterly features contributions by literate and eloquent musicians including, in the Heartland issue, Minnesota blues man Charlie Parr, Indiana blues man Reverend Payton, Illinois folk-wit Robbie Fulks, and a revealing piece by Alabama-born singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who details her peculiar challenges in penetrating heartland radio, venues and audiences. Yet she persists towards mid-America, and quotes a favorite political maxim: “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”

Sparing more self-service, I’ll let my article “Fill the Room: Peeking in on the Upper Midwest’s Music Venues” speak for itself. I haven’t even read the whole issue yet, but it seems brimming with highlights, including Margaret Daniels’ examination of the Midwest seedlings of Bob Dylan’s voracious scholarly genius. She draws connections to Dylan’s fellow Minnesotan literary lion F. Scott Fitzgerald including, as Dylan put it in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature speech, how the two writers share “inarticulate dreams” which they both honed to gleaming and haunting vividness.

Katherine Turman’s far-reaching re-examination of so-called “heartland rock” reveals it to be a complicated and far-flung musical phenomenon with improbable classical music foundations, melding sophistication with the jagged edge. She also shows how such big-shouldered music has helped sustain the success of the Farm Aid benefit concert series by connecting with stadium-sized crowds, which the more coffeehouse-scale dynamics of much roots music can’t quite reach.

Historically deeper still is Stephen Deusner’s unearthing and reclamation of the seminal Indiana vernacular music “recording laboratory” Gennett. The label gave us, among other things, Charley Patton’s harrowing 1929 country blues hollers, and Louis Armstrong’s dazzling New Orleans-style jazz recordings with King Oliver, from 1923.

I was also impressed with an interview-profile with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a figure with a street-corner Socrates flair. He annually travels around his native Wisconsin on a bicycle, which allows him to feel the warp and the woof of both cities and rural regions, above all his still-troubled hometown of Milwaukee. The article also reveals Mulvey’s passion and debt to poetry, in his use of concise imagery and artistic “breathing space.” Author Erin Lyndal Martin shows how Mulvey achieves a balance between the philosophical, the political and the poetical, while engaging and challenging with musical storytelling and a palpable openness of spirit.

That’s what much of the best roots music does, but in ways characteristic of each artist or group. When you open the wide pages of this journal, it’s a bit like peeking into that big, defiantly persistent American heart.

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For a preview of the “Heartland” issue and mail ordering and retail outlet information, see below.

The Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, “Heartland,” explores the stories and music that thumps, picks, and breathes between the coasts. While mainstream music critics focus on cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville to learn about rising stars and buzzworthy music, artists in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Iowa City are making some of the purest, most honest roots music around. What’s more, artists from the coasts are increasingly touring the heartland — and some are even moving there — to find inspiration in the region’s big skies, honest people, and rich musical legacies.

Heartland Rock with John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Kansas / The influence of Hee Haw and Branson, Missouri / Native American music in the Dakotas / The unknown story of Indiana’s Gennett Records / The musical pipeline between Chicago and Austin / Why singer-songwriters like Jesse Sykes and Lissie are moving to Iowa

Bob Dylan / The Jayhawks / Conor Oberst / Over the Rhine / Peter Mulvey / Chicago Farmer / Bozeman, Montana / Cleveland, Ohio / Essays by artists like Reverend Peyton and many more