Thursday, October 18, 2012

Below is something Jonathan Byrd posted the other day.... it's a long one, but it really spoke to me on a number of levels. The part about the tradition of oral narrative and songs is something I've been putting a lot of thought into in the past year- I love when there are people more articulate than myself who are able to take some of my disjointed thoughts and help me to make better sense of them.
I'm taking much of this to heart.

Andrew Calhoun, a good friend and the president of Waterbug Records, received the Lantern Bearer Award at this weekend's Folk Alliance Regional Midwest. I wish we had one elected official in this country with half of Mr. Calhoun's integrity. This was his acceptance speech. 


25 years ago, my marriage was bre
aking up. My wife’s remark to me on my way out the door was “You’re just gonna be a folksinger for the rest of your life.”

John Perry and his wife Micki were the heart of the Three Rivers Folk Society in Kennewick, Washington, creating sing-arounds, producing concerts in the Grange hall and an annual festival. When I heard John had passed away a few years ago, my first thought was, “A life promoting folk music is a life well spent.”

“God bless the grass that grows through the crack
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through
And God bless the grass.” - Malvina Reynolds

Folk Music is bigger than us: it is more than a genre, a sound, a style of music with stars and charts and so on. Traditional songs existed and thrived outside of the economic system, the jewels of the hardscrabble poor. They existed on their own merits - for hundreds of years, passed from singer to singer. “Oral tradition” is an academic term for something we don’t think enough about. Imagine there is no google, and no library, and no writing paper; and you are the carrier of a ballad which has been the sacred property of your family for generations, which is not shared readily with strangers. You are the book. There is a tremendous self-esteem which goes with this experience.

The great folk ballads of antiquity are largely the work of women - women singing to babies, singing at the hoeing and the milking, singing at the spinning wheel. Rituals for ancestor communion are universal in tribal cultures. Old songs sung with respect carry this energy. In this country, folk songs have been called into action in the Underground Railroad, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-War movement.

Have these battles been won?

Are there still battles worth fighting?

What are they?

There used to be a good deal of talk about “songwriter vs traditional” in the Folk Alliance newsletter’s letter section. At bottom, it is the same spirit of quest and the discipline and courage for the journey that makes a great songwriter or folksinger.

For a folksinger, it’s the desire to understand as much as possible about a song and the people who made it, and why they sang it. Murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” were sung to children as a warning; everyone is not your friend. When I heard “The Two Sisters” as a kid, I thought the elder sister was just mean; but the eldest sister was supposed to marry first, and when the younger sister stepped out of line with the suitor, she was murdered. It’s a conservative song, in a way. These songs had a psychological purpose, which is why they survived for hundreds of years. I never thought ‘Barbara Allen” was that interesting - the pining lover dying for love; Martin Carthy wrote that her name was “Barbary Ellen,” she was a gypsy and that’s why William didn’t drink her health with his friends in the tavern; he had insulted her people and that’s why her heart was hardened. When you understand that, you have an epic tragedy. The folksinger’s quest is through old books and field recordings to find new old songs, and finding source singers to learn from. It’s spending the time to tune your ear to different frequencies of the scale. You have to be in love.

A songwriter’s quest is internal: what is the hardest question I can ask? What do I love the most? What is the thing I fear most to speak? “What is this thing or experience like?” And to spend time with that sense of what a thing truly is, and let the words come. If you know what you want to say in a song before you start, it probably isn’t worth writing. The song holds the energy of the risks you take and the choices you make while you’re working on it.

My own songs fell on me like lightning from the age of twelve. Some of them terrified me - charged with imagery from another dimension. My father said to me, “You have the kind of imagination that requires that you not imagine anything.”

Extraordinary experiences we have in childhood - traumatic or otherwise - compel us to hyper-develop certain aspects of ourselves, often at the cost of our emotional balance. I had a mother who was raised by a dreamer for a father, and she had a sadistically abusive mother. My mother, born Joy Goodman in 1926, was a brilliant teacher, lover of art and fighter for justice. She was also a raw-nerved rage-aholic whose demonic words shrieked to her terrified 4 year old son would turn a therapists’ face white a quarter century later.

My father, the son of an eminent historical theologian, began his still unfinished life’s work in philosophy at the age of 12. When I was in my mid-teens, my father began having awe-inspiring visions after a trip to France and relating them to me. I was sleepwalking through high school in a conservative Chicago suburb, staying up late listening to Mississippi John Hurt records and writing songs. There were times when the images in my father’s visions were common to songs I was writing independently of them. There was a sense of moment, of things in the balance, of keeping vigil, of witnessing.

My songs of that time were not always well received. There was a happening folk scene in Chicago at that time that wanted no part of me. I could mesmerize an audience to the point of getting an encore at an open mike, but I still could get any work. Well, it was a scene, and one with a feeling I wasn’t going to fit into. I wasn’t looking at the scene and trying to find my place in the pecking order. If it’s not about the art, I’m not interested.

I donated my time performing at a weekly coffeehouse at a place called Save the Alcohoic on skid row in Uptown, founded by James Harper. The only requirement for entry was that you had to be sober. Those people living on the edge, were open to my songs. My first recording, Water Street, was funded by a couple on the board. I found help when I gave freely to others.

Those of us who feel alienated from ordinary life and conversation by odd experience are trying to find a way back in to the circle. And we do that by taking the experience that alienates us and putting it into a sharable form. A painting, a song, that says, “this is what it is like for me. This is what I have seen” And when that song or painting is created convincingly enough to resonate with others, we feel less alone. Transforming our pain into beauty heals us and we intend it to heal others as well. Sharing difficult things with an audience liberates everyone in the room from feeling that their sorrows are unique to them.

When this energy begins to work, there’s a very dangerous point, where people want to think that the artist is special, to make a celebrity of the person rather than deal with the message. This has been happening at least since the time of Christ. When the artist buys into the myth that they are special, a “star,” the work ceases to evolve, and we are left with either a nostalgia act or a good-looking corpse. The lantern bearer is not the lantern. Stay humble and keep learning if you wish to grow old.

I trace the roots of Waterbug to a night at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas in 1991. There was a late gathering on Chapel Hill; Kat and I had just met Hugh Blumenfeld a couple of nights before; a singing fiddler from New Orleans sat next to me and introduced herself as Gina Forsyth; Diane Chodkowsi sang the first Richard Shindell song I ever heard, “Fleur-de-Lis,” a teasing, subversive challenge to hundreds of years of corrupt and twisted religion; and as she finished, the wind rang the chimes on the hill. Michael McNevin sang “Busy Life,” a vision of struggling humanity trampling its own garden to death; as he finished, there was a rare police siren in the rural distance. As dawn broke, we wandered down the hill and stood around a circle of stones. Hugh improvised the funniest song any of us ever heard off the top of his head. Michael sang “Castaway,” the loveliest song about friendship I’ve heard to this day; Margo Hennebach sang a Susan Osborne prayer. But it wasn’t a prayer of asking from God; it was a love song sung full-heartedly to God. No one spoke for several minutes. It was the first time in my life I had experienced being in a group of people who respect the sacred.

In May of 1992 I wrote to my brother and said, “I want to start a record label and get America’s real singing poets on the airwaves.” When you share your pipedreams , it brings them a step close to reality. I borrowed money from my father to produce a collection called “American Impressionist Songwriters”. Cosy Sheridan was finishing up her “Quietly Led” recording, and we schemed to start an artists’ cooperative where everyone would produce and own their own work; we would set a standard of quality and eventually score national distribution.

Waterbug’s first releases come out in March, 1993. Ken Irwin from Rounder warned me it wasn’t a good time to get into the record business, and the entire business was headed for a train wreck of unprecedented proportions that started in 1996. One of the things that kept us afloat was the direct mail order business generated by our samplers; 20 artists would contribute a track and production money; each would get 50 copies to sell at $5 each, and could reorder at $2.50 each. Before youtube and downloadable music, these had a big impact. The artists would sell them at their gigs, sharing their audience with the other artists; we sent them to radio, and out free with every mail order. Advertising that pays for itself. Artist helping one another get heard.

I want to say something to young people who are starting careers; when people start talking to you about “the next level,” cover your wallet. There is no other level. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re supposed to get someplace you aren’t already in order to feel fulfilled in your life and work. Be grateful for every gig. Play for children and old people. If your work touches a heart, it’s valid. Your personal ambitions will be dashed on the rocks more than once. That sense of quest, of serving something larger, will sustain your energy over the long haul.

My mother was a union steward in a Chicago canning factory in the 50’s, and hollered against Jim Crow on sound trucks. She sang us ballads and spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “All God’s Chil’n Got Shoes.”She took us along to bring hot coffee to strikers on the picket line in the winter, and to a civil rights march in 1965. She volunteered at Head Start. Into her 70’s she was driving in to Beethoven School near the Robert Taylor homes to tutor disadvantaged children.

She contracted progressive supra-nuclear palsy, and for the last year of her life was unable to walk or speak. I moved back in with my folks and took a shift at night so my father could go upstairs and think. I sang her a lot of the songs I wrote in my teens. When hospice told us it was the end, my brother and sister flew in. That evening my sister Ellen asked me to sing “Mother, I Climbed,” by Dave Carter. So I poured myself a shot of Bowmore and sat on the commode, the only available chair, and sang for six hours, my mother’s favorite songs of mine, songs Matthew and Ellen asked for that I didn’t think I still knew. Then it was songs we could all sing to her, that she had sung to us: “I Gave My Love a Cherry,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,””All God’s Children Got Shoes.” My mother had loved to walk, and Ted and I would help her up and back on Cumnor Avenue until she couldn’t shuffle her feet any longer. “When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven.” I always thought it was a cool song. But this passing is what the song was for. I had a palpable sense of people “out there,” who were wiser about death than we, who were neither defiant nor afraid, but embraced this passage as an adventure. What was heaven but the sky? And what more beautiful heaven could we imagine? During that week, I talked more with Matthew about the spirituals, and began ordering books, eventually stumbling onto “Slave Songs of the United States,” published in 1867.

That summer, out on Matinicus Island, my caregiving father allowed himself to catch a cold for the first time in six years; I brought him cups of peppermint tea and started sounding out some of the songs. They blew our minds - 135 songs of which I’d only ever heard four. I ordered more collections, Lomax’s Deep River of Song and Southern Journey recordings. After several months, the lightbulb went on - the wisdom of the spirituals is from the West African religious sensibility. Google. Bingo. The 10,000 year old Vodou religion has strong parallels with Lakota spirituality. There are the ancestors, and the four directions, the communal support for transcendent experience for which our society offers almost nothing. I read up on my history for a year, determined to make a recording to revive some of this material.

I met the great Gullah painter Jonathan Green in Naples, Florida. “Slavery was war,” he said to me. He hooked me up with the Avery Research Center in Charleston and I saw “De Gullah Singers” perform a ring shout. I met a singer in Charleston, Anne Caldwell, who had taken a gospel group to Europe. The European venues complained that her group included two white singers.

My white liberal folksinger friends warned me repeatedly about making the recording, They said, “They’ll say, why is a white guy playing our music?” As if somehow I was violating something by learning songs by brother and sister poets from old books. No one has ever complained that I play Bach on the guitar without having German ancestry. It took some searching but I found some black singers and musicians, and mixed in with some white ones we made friends and an album called Bound to Go together and nobody ever said, “why are you singing our songs?”

Our folk genre is as segregated as an Alabama bus station in 1957. The very few blacks in folk music tend to play in bands with other blacks. But all of this music we play was created together, and nobody even knows that anymore.
Back in the 20’s, Jimmie Rodgers learned a lot of music from black railway workers who worked for his dad, mixed in some yodelling with the blue notes and became a recording star. A.P. Carter went on collecting trips with his African American friend Lesley Riddle, collecting songs from white and black families in the South. A.P. Carter copyrighted these songs - the roots of country music. Hank Williams said he received all of his musical training from Rufus Payne, called Tee Tot, a black street musician in Birmingham, Alabama. Bill Monroe created his high lonesome vocal sound from imitating the field hollers of African American farmhands. He was mentored by Arnold Shultz, a legendary black musician who was never recorded. Shultz also coached a group of Kentucky guitarists in his amazing style, one of whom was Merle Travis. A fourth of the sailors on American whaling ships were the free blacks of the North, the preferred shanty singers over the Irish. Those rockin’ call-and-response work shanties also were created by the dynamic interaction of cultures.

A racist recording industry segregated blacks and whites by genre. It is a tragedy that we have let this pass in silence. I am here to tell you that it is not so hard to befriend and include black, hispanic, any other musicians in your life. You can start by saying hello. If you love Pete Seeger, don’t just look up to him. Follow his example. Be inclusive. Reach out.

When Bound to Go was finished, I felt for the first time as if I’d finished a real chunk of my life’s work. I wondered what was still going in with this story and I looked up the prison system.

When I wrote my first song, there were 200,000 Americans in prison. Due to the “war on drugs,” there are now 2.3 million Americans in prison, more than half being African Americans incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Poor Latinos make up the next largest percentage. The US now incarcerates more people than Russia and China combined. This is not about drugs. This is about cheap labor. 110 factories in the federal system alone are operating 24 hours a day, paying wages of .15-.23 an hour. Prisoners take apart biohazard computers without health regulations. Prisoners make the cheap cherrywood filing cabinets we buy at office depot, replacing Union jobs. Convicted felons, deprived of the right to vote, cannot find employment on the outside. The rate of illegal drug use is the same for whites and blacks - 13%. But when they need more cheap labor, they do their sweeps in minority neighborhoods. 7% of African Americans have lost the right to vote, as compared to 1.8% of the rest of the population. The Corrections Corporation of America recently offered to buy up all the state prisons if they would be guaranteed 90% occupancy. Our minority poor are viewed as a harvest crop. California now spends more on prisons than higher education. This is Mordor - a slave state operating under our noses, and they are counting on the fact that people with a voice will not speak out, will not raise hell, do not give a damn. The problem is bigger than me and you, but it is not bigger than us. Let’s not make a statue of Dr. King and give up on the dream.

On the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth, let’s remember why we sing.

-Andrew Calhoun

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