Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Peggy Seeger, a legendary member of a legendary folk music family, life and musical partner to the late Ewan MacColl, and a familiar voice on Folk Roots/Folk Branches – she was a guest on the show twice – is returning to Montreal to open this season’s Wintergreen Concert Series on Friday, September 11, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East. Call Hello Darlin’ Productions at 514-524-9225 to reserve tickets.
This is a concert not to be missed by anyone interested in traditional folk music or in finely-crafted, insightful, passionate and compelling songwriting that’s informed by traditional music.
Here are some reviews of Peggy’s recordings, beginning with her latest album, that I’ve written over the past 15 or so years for Sing Out! Magazine.
Bring Me Home
Bring me Home is the final installment in a trilogy of albums – the first two were Heading for Home and Love Calls Me Home – mostly devoted to traditional songs that Peggy heard growing up as the daughter of famed musicologist Charles Seeger and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and as the sister and half-sister of Mike, older by two years, and Pete, 16 years her senior.
The album begins with a powerful, a cappella rendition of “Peacock Street,” Aunt Molly Jackson’s first-person account of a poor and homeless person driven to stealing from a rich man in order to survive. Next, Peggy brings out the banjo for a version of “Hang Me,” featuring strong harmonies by sons Calum and Neill MacColl. She introduces her guitar playing with the familiar “Wagoner’s Lad,” and later plays concertina on a lovely version of “O the Wind and Rain.”
Among the other highlights are a gorgeous version of “Dink’s Song,” the bluesy lament collected in Texas a century ago by John Lomax, and banjo-driven versions of “Roving Gambler” and “Little Birdie.” I think the latter, in particular, shows the influence of brother Mike.
As on the two previous CDs in the trilogy, Peggy includes a title song from her own pen. “Bring Me Home” is a tribute to the loved ones with whom she’s made music over the course of her life, to the various homes in which she’s made that music, and to the songs themselves. Among those to whom she refers, beginning with infancy and carrying through to today, are her parents, her brothers, her husband, the late Ewan MacColl, and more recent partner, Irene Pyper-Scott. Singing about how their memories always bring her home is a lovely way to end both this CD and the three-CD trilogy.
Love Calls Me Home
Love Calls Me Home is the second of a three-album trilogy that Peggy Seeger is releasing of primarily traditional folksongs. I say primarily because she does include a couple of her own, traditionally-oriented, songs in the program. Many of these songs, like “Careless Love,” “Logan County Jail,” and “Who Killed Cock Robin?” are ones that she’s probably known or sung for many decades and she brings to them the weight of her performer’s experience. Among Peggy’s collaborators here are Irene Pyper-Scott, with whom she has worked extensively in recent years, and her children Calum, Neill and Kitty MacColl, who have, no doubt like their mother, lived with this music all of their lives. The cover photo of Peggy playing harmonica as a young child is priceless.
On Period Pieces, Peggy Seeger gathers together 17 topical songs written and recorded over several decades that deal with such issues as violence against women, the disappeared of Chile during the Pinochet regime and the struggle against nuclear arms. Some, like a new version of her classic "I'm Gonna Be An Engineer," were recorded especially for this CD, others were gathered from recorded archives. While some of these songs may seem dated in that they deal with issues (e.g. apartheid in South Africa) that have passed from the headlines, they are an important reminder of struggles that should not be forgotten any time soon.
Classic Peggy Seeger
An Odd Collection
These two new 70-plus minute CDs contrast two sides of Peggy Seeger's artistry. Classic Peggy Seeger is an assortment of traditional folk songs drawn from four Topic LPs recorded between 1958 and 1964 while the newly-recorded An Odd Collection showcases Peggy as a mature and masterful singer-songwriter.
Peggy, in her twenties when the songs on Classic Peggy Seeger were recorded, grew up in one of the most famous of folk music families and was an accomplished singer and multi-instrumentalist who moved effortlessly from banjo to guitar and other stringed instruments. The material on this disc concentrates on American versions of songs from the Anglo-ballad tradition and includes wonderful versions of "The Lady of Carlisle," "The Cruel War Is Raging" and "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens." There are also several cuts like "Cumberland Gap" and a medley that includes "Shady Grove" that showcase her skill at old-timey music. Peggy's adaptation of an 1895 poem, "Englewood Mine," to a traditional tune, presages Peggy's commitment to political folk music.
Peggy performs solo on the 1958 and 1962 recordings. The 1964 sessions, which comprise the last third of the CD, feature accompaniment from and several duets with, Tom Paley, an original member -- with Peggy's brother Mike -- of the New Lost City Ramblers. Although the recordings on Classic Peggy Seeger are between three and four decades old, they sound remarkably fresh and vital.
On the exceptional An Odd Collection, Peggy offers up 18 original songs -- and one spoken word performance -- that reveal her to be a perspicacious commentator on both personal and political issues and a gifted composer, lyricist and singer. Among other topics, Peggy sings about the environment, the drudgery of housework, women's reproductive rights and the toll of unemployment.
While I'd be hard pressed to come up with a weak song in this bunch, I will call attention to a few of the best. "It's A Free World," is a hilarious tale of a woman's direct action in reforming an unrepentant smoker from imposing his toxins on everybody else. Unfortunately the song is but a fantasy; it's a delightful one though. "Old Friend" is a moving tribute to the late Ralph Rinzler on which Peggy's guitar and voice are backed up by the autoharp and harmonies of her brother Mike. In the anthemic "If You Want A Better Life," Peggy calls both for union solidarity and for union members to insure that their unions do not forget what they're there for. "Emily" is a moving ballad about a battered woman, her abuser and the safety that she found in a women's shelter.
A couple of songs speak directly to Peggy's own family life. "On This Very Day" celebrates the common date on which she met her husband and partner – the late Ewan MacColl – and on which their son got married 38 years later. "Lost" lays bare the emotions that Peggy felt at MacColl's death.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The late Stan Rogers and I were friends for about eight years before he was killed in an Air Canada fire in 1983. We met at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1975 and I quickly booked him to play at the Golem, the folk club I was running in those days. It was at the Golem, in early-‘76 and late-’82, that Stan played his first and last Montreal concerts.
I well remember how thrilled he was at the birth of his son, Nathan, and I know how proud Stan would have been to see the man and the artist his son grew up to be.
Although Nathan Rogers certainly has his own voice, as both a singer and songwriter, I hear the very strong influence of his father in some of the songs on The Gauntlet, particularly on historical ballads like Nathan’s own “The Jewel of Paris,” set in New France in the 17th century, the traditional “Willie O’Winsbury,’ or Stan’s “The Puddler’s Tale.” Nathan’s voice is thinner and higher than his father’s was but sometimes the genetic similarity in the timbre is unmistakable.
The connection to the father he never had a chance to know shines through the strongest in “Moving Mountains,” a song in which he explains to his mother why he had to leave home as a young man and strike out on his own. Travelling some of the same roads his father had gone down a generation before, he encounters his spirit and accepts the advice his father seemed to have to left to him about following the vision that he must set for himself.
On at least one song, “Naamche Bazaar,” Nathan’s music bears no resemblance to anything Stan ever did as he – quite effectively, I would say – offers up four minutes of Tuvan-style throat singing. Along with Anne Hills, Nathan is one of only two singers not born and raised in either the Tuvan culture of Central Asia or the Inuit culture of Northern Canada that I’ve heard who can throat-sing credibly.
The Gauntlet is Nathan’s second album and his growth as an artist since the first is obvious. I look forward to following his progress as Nathan Rogers continues to follow the vision he sets for himself.
Like virtually all songwriters, Stan was thrilled to hear other artists sing his songs. In 1979, I was working with Priscilla Herdman and she recorded versions of “45 Years” and “Turnaround” for Forgotten Dreams, her second album. I played the rough mixes for Stan and he listened to them with obvious glee. Priscilla was among the first artists to record some of Stan’s songs and countless others have followed over the past three decades.
Joey Kitson, the longtime lead singer of Rawlins Cross, first recorded a couple of Stan’s songs on the two multi-artist East Coast tribute albums to Stan drawn from a 1995 tribute concert in Halifax. For his first solo album, he’s recorded 10 more.
I like some of Kitson’s interpretations very much. He does very well with his soulful versions of “Lock-Keeper,” one Stan’s Great Lakes songs, and his pair of prairie farm songs, “The Field Behind the Plow” and “Lies.” Of Stan’s Maritimes songs, Kitson fares best with “The Jeannie C,” a tragic ballad about a fisherman who lost the boat his father built and named for his mother. I also like the kitchen party versions of “Fogarty’s Cove” and “Acadian Saturday Night.”
There are a few songs, though, that I don’t think Kitson nails. The rock arrangements on “Bluenose” and “45 Years” seem forced and just don’t sit right with me.
Kitson’s Stan is a reminder of what a great songwriter Stan was. Listening to Joey Kitson sing the songs of Stan Rogers kindled in me the desire to pull out Stan’s own albums and immerse myself in them again. And that was a great thing to do.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips
Note: This review, from the Summer 2009 issue of Sing Out! Magazine, is posted here at the request of several of the artists who contributed to the collection.
Talk about timing, this 39 song, 2-CD collection tribute to the late Bruce (Utah) Phillips begins with Magpie, Dan Schatz, Emma’s Revolution – and a bunch more folks playing instruments and singing the chorus – performing “Singing Through the Hard Times,” a previously unheard song of Bruce’s that sure sounds like the perfect song for the recessionary hard times we’re living through right now. In fact, many of these songs would fit that bill.
This obviously loving collection includes 29 songs recorded specifically for this project and 10 more that were previously released. I counted 29 songs that were written or co-written by Bruce, three more that he didn’t write but which were part of his repertoire, and another seven that were in the spirit of some aspect of his music or persona.
There are far too many highlights in this collection for me to mention, but I would call your attention to the already-mentioned title song, and the excellent versions of “I Remember Loving You” by Tom Paxton, “Goodnight Loving Trail” by Gordon Bok, “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” by Emmylou Harris and Mary Black, “The Soldier’s Return” by Rosalie Sorrels, “He Comes Like Rain” by Finest Kind and “Look for Me in Butte” by Mark Ross.
I’d also draw your attention to Fast Rattler’s version of the rarely-performed “Paddy Welcome Back.” Fast Rattler’s lead singer is Bruce’s son, Brendan, who I remember as a baby and toddler.
Perhaps another volume would be in order. Off the top of my head, I can easily think of another album’s worth of songs and a whole bunch of appropriate artists to sing them.
Monday, August 17, 2009
If you look on the ‘About Me’ not on the side of this blog, I mention that I produced most of Montreal’s folk-oriented concerts in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a torch that I picked up from people like the late Sam Gesser, the late Gary Eisenkraft, Chuck Baker and a few others who produced concerts and ran folk clubs before me.
In this decade, that torch has been carried by the husband-and-wife team of Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson who founded Hello Darlin’ Productions and the Wintergreen Concert Series about seven or eight years ago. From the time Matt and Rebecca started, I’ve seen them follow the same kind of inspiration and motivation that guided Sam, Gary, Chuck and me back in the day. For all of us, and for Matt and Rebecca now, it was always about the love of the music, about giving the artists that make that music, and the audiences that appreciate it, the respect they deserve.
Matt and Rebecca have done a remarkable job of presenting folk-oriented music in Montreal, probably the hardest – for a lot of reasons that I won’t get into here – big city in North America in which to produce this kind of music. They’ve brought some of the world’s finest folk-oriented artists to Montreal stages and supported our own home-grown artists. I’m really proud of them and the job they’ve done and continue to do.
Matt and Rebecca have announced an incredible line-up of concerts for the coming months. You can see their up-to-date concert listings on the Hello Darlin’ website. I urge you to get out and support as many of those concerts as you can. They’re all worth it and I’ll be blogging more extensively about some of those concerts in the weeks and months to come.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
It’s the middle of August and we’re finally getting some sunny and warm-to-hot July weather. According to a meteorologist I heard on the CBC today, they’re expecting this new trend of nice summer weather to last into September. That’s good because next weekend, Friday August 21 to Sunday August 23, is the Ottawa Folk Festival and it would be nice if it’s rain-free and warm.
The folk festival has long been my favourite Ottawa festival. Years before I actually started working in Ottawa in 2007, I was making an annual trip to the nation’s capital for the Ottawa Folk Festival.
The main headliner this year is Bruce Cockburn – a hometown hero in Ottawa. I’ve known Bruce for a long time and first saw him perform at the Back Door, a little coffee house in Montreal circa 1970. He’s been a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches and I did a big cover feature on him for Sing Out! Magazine back in 2002. My review of Bruce's latest album, Slice O Life: Live Solo, is in the current issue of Sing Out! He’s a great songwriter, a highly creative guitarist and a charismatic performer. Bruce will be headlining the Saturday evening concert and doing a workshop on Sunday afternoon.
The other headliner is Steven Page, now out on his own after splitting from the Barenaked ladies. Steven will close out the Friday night concert.
There are a bunch of other artists at the festival I’m looking forward to seeing. Some of them – including Ray Bonneville, Penny Lang, Michael Jerome Browne and James Keelaghan – are veterans of multiple visits to Folk Roots/Folk Branches. Others that are high on my list include Amelia Curran, who is one of the most impressive new artists I’ve heard in years; the incredible ukulele-cello duo of James Hill & Anne Davison (I’ve just reviewed their new CD for the Fall issue of Sing Out!); the old-time and Cajun duo of Dirk Powell & Christine Balfa; The Good Lovelies, a delightful trio of fine singer-songwriters and harmony singers; Radoslav Lorkovic, an excellent pianist, accordionist and musical catalyst; Sheesham & Lotus, a duo who do wonderfully entertaining things with old-time music; Bryan Bowers, probably the world’s greatest autoharp players; and Ball & Chain, who do great things with real-deal country music.
Something that I've come to really anticipate over the past couple of years at the Ottawa Folk Festival is the Cross-Cultural Artist Collaboration, in which artists from varied traditions get together and let the music take them to new and unique places.
The festival is also doing some interesting thematic programming centred on gardening and the environment and has a lot of participatory opportunities.
You can explore it all on the Ottawa Folk Festival website. Hope to see you next week at Britannia Park.
Monday, August 10, 2009
It’s been a hard summer in the folk music world watching the likes of Jackie Washington, Sandy Paton and Mike Seeger pass away. Jackie and Sandy were elderly and in poor health, and Mike had decided to stop treatment for the aggressive cancer he'd been battling, so all three deaths, sad though they were, were not unexpected.
The sudden death, though, of Suzi Wollenberg, folk radio host at WVUD in Newark, Delaware, and organizer of the Green Willow Folk Club, on Saturday, from a pulmonary embolism, shocked and deeply saddened all of us who knew her.
Suzi, just 56 years old, was a wonderful person. An open and friendly woman motivated by the great joy she found in folk music and in the people who made and loved the music.
Mostly, I knew Suzi as an online colleague on the FolkDJ-L discussion group since back in 1990s. I was one of the four FolkDJ-L list moms for several years and when I stepped down a couple of years ago, Suzi stepped up and took my place.
The times I got to hang out with her – mostly at Folk Alliance conferences – were always a lot of fun. The last Folk Alliance conference I went to was Montreal in 2005 and I have a vivid memory of hanging out with Suzi and having a great time at a late-night Uncle Earl showcase.
My thoughts are with Suzi’s husband, John Lupton, also a friend and long-time colleague in folk radio and at Sing Out! Magazine, at this terribly sad time.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
I’m saddened to report that Mike Seeger passed away last night, just a week shy of his 76th birthday. He’d been in hospice care at home in Lexington, Virginia since deciding to end the cancer treatment he’d been undergoing.
Mike's contributions as a musician, singer, member of the New Lost City Ramblers, folklorist and much more cannot be underestimated. His recordings – solo, various collaborations, and, of course, with the Ramblers – are essential to anyone interested in the traditional music of the American south.
I had the great honour of working with Mike a couple of times at festivals. He was always very gracious and a pleasure to interact with. He was also a great resource to turn to when researching anything to do with old-time music.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
My copy of the Summer 2009 issue of Sing Out! Magazine arrived in today’s mail. The cover story is on Feufollet.
As usual, this issue of Sing Out! has a bunch of my CD reviews including:
Bruce Cockburn- Slice O Life: Live Solo (True North/Rounder)
Debra Cowan- Fond Desire Farewell (Falling Mountain)
Guy Davis- Sweetheart Like You (Red House)
Ray Doyle- The Emigrant Trail: A Journey West (Emigrant Trail)
Justin Townes Earle- Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot)
Flatlanders- Hills and Valleys (New West)
Good Lovelies- Good Lovelies (Good Lovelies)
Eddie Holstein- Eddie Holstein (Eddie Holstien)
John Lee Hooker- 50 Years: John Lee Hooker Anthology (Shout! Factory)
Eilen Jewell- Sea of Tears (Signature Sounds)
Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell- One to the Heart, One to the Head (Frontera/Scarlet Letter)
Harvey Reid- Of Wind and Water (Woodpecker)
Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women- Havin’ the Last Word (Alligator)
Sometymes Why- Your Heart is a Glorious Machine (Signature Sounds)
Various Artists- Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective (Red House)
Various Artists- Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips (Righteous Babe)
William Elliott Whitmore- Animals in the Dark (Anti-)
Jesse Winchester- Love Filling Station (Appleseed)