Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mike Seeger & Peggy Seeger – Fly Down Little Bird

Fly Down Little Bird

Siblings Mike Seeger (1933-2009) and Peggy Seeger (born 1935) came from one of the most important American musical families. Their parents were the pioneering musicologist Charles Seeger and the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger – both of whom became deeply involved with traditional folk music in the 1930s; their older half-brother is legendary folksinger Pete Seeger.

Both Mike and Peggy have had long, important careers in folk music. Mike was a traditionally-based solo singer and multi-instrumentalist, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a folklorist and collector, and a collaborator with countless artists ranging from Jean Ritchie to Bob Dylan. Peggy is a singer of both traditional and contemporary songs, an important songwriter, and was, for many years, the musical (and life) partner of the late Ewan MacColl, one of Great Britain’s most important and influential folksingers.

Growing up in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, surrounded by traditional music and musicians, Mike and Peggy were each other’s first musical collaborators. Although they collaborated on a few occasions over the years, their musical careers – and bases-of-operation – diverged over the decades. But they still always looked forward to making music together and less than a year before Mike passed away from a fast-moving cancer, they recorded this set of traditional folksongs they remembered from their youth.

The album opens with Mike and Peggy’s a cappella sibling harmonies on “Old Bangum,” an old ballad about a hunter and a wild boar, the kind of animal whose accomplishments are purely the province of tales and ballads. Their singing sure sounds like it comes from a lifetime of familial harmonizing.

Save for “Red River Jig,” a Canadian fiddle tune and the album’s lone instrumental, the songs are all rooted in Southern Appalachian song traditions. They include versions – great performances all – of such familiar songs as “Cindy,” “The Dodger Song,” “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Little Birdie.” Mike and Peggy know just how to communicate the essence of these songs so that they seems as relevant now as they did 60 or more years ago when they first sang them, or in the lost times and places in which they were first sung in the kitchens and on the front porches of the rural South. 

In addition to their singing, both Mike and Peggy play instruments that vary from song to song. Mike is heard on banjo, harmonica, banjo-guitar, fiddle, Hawaiian guitar, cello-banjo, guitar and mandolin. Peggy variously plays guitar, piano, banjo and dulcimer. A bassist, Leo Lorenzoni, who plays on just one song, is the album’s only other musician.

I’ve always enjoyed both Mike and Peggy in their individual musical pursuits – this collaboration, though, is something very special. I know Peggy. I’ve written about her often and she was my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program a couple of times during her visits to Montreal. I also knew Mike a little bit and got to work with him several times over the years at folk festivals. I wish I’d had opportunities to hear them sing together in person.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, March 21, 2011

Enoch Kent – Take a Trip with Me

Take a Trip with Me

As I noted in Sing Out! in 2008, “Enoch Kent was an established folk singer – a colleague of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in the Singers Club – when he moved to Canada in the 1960s. However, he didn’t record for more than three decades while working in the advertising business and singing occasionally at folk festivals and at Toronto folk clubs like Fiddler’s Green. In retirement, though, Enoch has become a prolific recording artist;” Take a Trip with Me is his sixth album since 2002.

The album title is taken from the first line of the opening track, Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre,” a vivid description of a Christmas party being held for the families of Michigan copper miners at which company thugs screamed “Fire” and then locked the doors so people couldn’t get out leading to the smothering deaths of 73 panicked children on the stairs in front of the locked doors. Enoch’s version of Guthrie’s memorable song is as riveting as any I’ve ever heard.

In fact, Enoch – as on his previous releases – is never less than riveting as he explores a repertoire of traditional folk songs and contemporary compositions – his own and by others – steeped in the timelessness of traditional songs and working class life. As a singer, I’ve always thought of Enoch as being quietly powerful as he draws listeners into the compelling stories that he’s singing.

Among Enoch’s best original pieces are “The Pawnshop Window,” in which he describes many of the items for sale in a Toronto pawnshop and speculates on what the items may mean to the people who brought them to the shop or who may be buying them, and “The Murder of Ginger Goodwin,” the story of a legendary B.C. labour organizer who was murdered in 1918.

Among the other highlights are great versions of two powerful Australian songs. “Travelling Down the Castlereagh,” written by Banjo Patterson (best known for “Waltzing Matilda”) is about a farm worker who wouldn’t work with scabs, while Judy Small’s “Mothers, Daughters, Wives” is about a generation of women who saw their fathers, then husbands, and then sons, go off to successive wars – and then saw their daughters redefine their roles as women during the first wave of the modern feminist movement.

Of the traditional songs, I particularly like Enoch’s version of “Off to Sea Once More,” a ballad about a sailor forced to go to sea again after losing everything to a swindling prostitute, and “A’e Fond Kiss,” a beautiful parting song from the Robert Burns canon.

Although I’ve only highlighted half of the album’s 14 songs, I could, just as easily, have chosen any of the others to call attention to.

Enoch is also a compelling concert performer and will be in Montreal on Saturday, April 9, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East, as part of the Wintergreen Concert Series. Call 514-524-9225 for tickets or information.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jack Hardy 1947-2011

I got into Montreal from Ottawa late Friday afternoon, logged onto my e-mail to find several messages letting me know that my old friend Jack Hardy had passed away after a short battle with lung cancer. I didn’t know that he was sick. Apparently, he’d been diagnosed just a few weeks ago and only his family and just a few of his closest friends knew.

I first met Jack sometime around 1977 or ’78 when I used to spend two or three days at a time, two or three times a year, in New York City. Dave Van Ronk introduced us late one night and I learned quickly that Jack was a brilliant guy, a dedicated songwriter, and, perhaps, the world’s greatest champion of the art of songwriting. He was already on his lifelong mission to help anyone dedicated to the art of song-craft find and develop their voice. He was the guiding light, the guru, of the new song movement in New York City.

For almost as long as I knew him, Jack hosted a Monday night songwriters’ exchange in his flat on Houston Street. He’d gather songwriters there, feed them a pasta dinner and then they’d exchange brand new songs. He had a rule that the songs had to be less than a week old. Hundreds of songwriters – including some of the most respected songwriters of our time – passed through Jack’s apartment on Monday nights over the past 30-plus years.

Early on, though, those Monday night songwriters’ exchanges were held at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and I remember sitting in one night and listening. One of the songwriters there was a very young Suzanne Vega. Jack pointed her out to me as someone to watch out for. I think it was about five years before her first album would come out. He knew.

Those were the years that I was working as a booking agent on the folk scene. Although he wasn’t one of my clients, I did a little work on Jack’s behalf getting him a couple of key gigs and trying to get a couple of the important folk labels that I worked with interested in him. I really thought then – as I have continued to think over the years – that he was a great songwriter.

One of my fondest memories of Jack was when I booked him to perform at the Golem, the folk club that I was running in Montreal. It must have been sometime in 1982 or ’83. Jack came up to Montreal with two sidemen – his brother, Jeff Hardy, on bass, and guitarist Frank Christian. They did a wonderful concert for a modest audience and we all had a great time crashing at the small apartment I had then and seeing the sights of Montreal.

I saw less of Jack in the 1990s and 2000s; probably no more than two or three times each decade. I wasn't going to New York City anymore and Jack never made it back to Montreal. But we’d cross paths occasionally at a festival somewhere and it was always great to see him. Those were the years that I was hosting Folk Roots/Folk Branches on CKUT and I played his songs a lot over the years – including an extended feature in 1995.

After Jack’s brother Jeff died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, I wrote to him to say how sorry I was. I think several months had passed when Jack called to thank me for writing. We spoke at length that night; a conversation I treasure having had.

Jack died much too young and with many more songs to write. He will be missed. But he does live on in the songs he left for us and in the influence that he had on so many of his contemporaries and on the countless songwriters who have followed in his wake.

My condolences to Jack's family and to all of his friends.

“But I might shorten the road
With a story or two
What the frost might show
If you dig right through
Something buried inside
It’s your own sweet song
In the blink of an eye
So long, so long.”   -Jack Hardy, “Singer’s Lament”

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort

Small Source of Comfort
True North

Listening to Small Source of Comfort, Bruce Cockburn’s compelling new album, it occurred to me that his music has been part of my life for a very long time. I think his first LP, just called Bruce Cockburn, had just been released when I saw him at the Back Door, a short-lived Montreal coffeehouse, circa 1970 or ’71. Since then, every one of his 30 other albums has been added to my collection, I’ve seen him perform many times in venues large and small, and I’ve interviewed him several times for newspapers, magazines and radio including a memorable guest spot on Folk Roots/Folk Branches and a cover feature in Sing Out! magazine.

As would be natural with an artist whose body of work is as large and as varied as Bruce’s, there are some of his albums that I’ve liked more than others. Small Source of Comfort, I’m pleased to report, quickly assumed its place among my favourites of Bruce’s albums. I’ve always preferred his more acoustic and intimate sounding records (and concerts) and that’s the mode he’s in here.

There’s a highway or travel motif to many of the songs and instrumentals – there are five instrumentals among the 14 tracks – on Small Source of Comfort borne, as Bruce notes, from frequent long distance drives between Kingston, Ontario, where he’s lived in recent years, and Brooklyn, where his girlfriend was living. Bruce “crossed the border laughing,” in the first line of the first song, “The Iris of the World,” describing an encounter with the U.S. border officials. Other highway and travel references include a woman who “strides across the blacktop” in “Radiance”; the urban traffic congestion in “Five Fifty-One”; the images reflected in the titles of “Driving Away,” one of two fine collaborations with Annabelle Chvostek, and “Lois On the Autobahn,” a nifty instrumental conversation between Bruce’s baritone guitar and Jenny Scheinman’s violin; and the scenes and signs from the road in “Boundless,” the other collaboration with Annabelle.

Among the other songs are “Call Me Rose,” in which Richard Nixon is reincarnated and rehabilitated as a poor single mother; “Called Me Back,” an hilarious blues tune about assumptions and missed communication; and “Gifts,” a lovely old song of Bruce’s that he’s never recorded until now. It’s a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on early albums like High Winds White Sky or Salt, Sun and Time.

The album’s most compelling and poignant moments are in “Each One Lost,” inspired by a ramp ceremony for two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan that Bruce observed on a trip there. It’s hard not be moved by the sincerity of the grief that Bruce expresses, as well as the critical understanding of the motivations of the soldiers who are over there. A companion instrumental, “The Comets of Kandahar,” also has much to say despite having no lyrics.

In all, Small Source of Comfort is Bruce Cockburn at his most intimate, his most musical, and his most incisive. Kudos, too, to producer Colin Linden who also contributes some fine playing on several songs.

--Mike Regenstreif

Ottawa Folk Festival update #3

The Ottawa Folk Festival has just announced the festival will add an extra day this year and will run from Thursday August 25 through Sunday August 28. They’ve also announced the new festival site will be at Hog’s Back Park. Click here for a Google-eyed view of the park.

The artists’ line-up will be announced on May 25.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Sonny Ochs at the 2009 Ottawa Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Lost Highway

I read a review of Blessed, Lucinda Williams’ new CD, before I had a chance to actually sit down and listen to the album. The critic gave the album a lukewarm review, damning it with some faint praise while seeming to lament that Williams is currently happy in her life; suggesting that she writes much better songs when she’s unhappy.

Reading the review, I worried I wouldn’t like the album. I needn’t have. Blessed – like virtually every other album Williams has released – is a superbly crafted set of songs. Being of a similar age to Williams, it’s more than OK with me that she’s writing mature songs that reflect the life experiences of our generation.

And, in any case, many of the songs on Blessed do reflect the kinds of themes of anger and sadness that Williams has always dealt with so brilliantly.

The CD opens with “Buttercup,” an angry kiss-off to a former lover or friend set to an intense, rocking arrangement. It’s followed by the quieter “I Don’t How You’re Livin’,” in which Williams expresses sadness at the fact that the person she’s singing about – perhaps the same former lover or friend of the previous song – has isolated him or herself from her.

Several songs deal with questions of mortality and death. In “Copenhagen,” she’s far from home trying to make sense of a death of someone who was obviously close. In “Seeing Black,” apparently inspired by the death of songwriter Vic Chesnutt, she addresses a series of rhetorical ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions to someone who has committed suicide; while in “Soldier’s Song,” Williams movingly contrasts the life of a soldier about to die in battle with that of his wife and child waiting at home.

I also really like the more positive songs on the album. “Born To Be Loved,” is kind of a love song, but, more than that, it’s a song of affirmation about what it means to be human. “Blessed” and “Awakening” continue that affirmation finding life’s blessings in all of the ordinary and extraordinary encounters that we experience in life.

And in a pair of beautiful love songs, “Sweet Love,” and “Kiss Like Your Kiss,” Williams reflects the happiness that comes with true and lasting love.

Williams only rocks hard on a couple of the dozen tracks. Most of the arrangements are the kind of trademarked acoustic settings that allow a listener to be transported by Williams’ luxuriant voice, and by her perceptive words and sweet melodies.

--Mike Regenstreif