Saturday, July 28, 2012

Get well, Ron Hynes!

My thoughts and best wishes are with good friend Ron Hynes as he battles cancer of the throat.

Ron has cancelled his concert schedule for the rest of 2012 while he undergoes treatment.

As I noted in my review of Sealing Genius, Ron’s most recent album, he is “without question, one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters – a writer whose genius can be found in decades worth of great songs.” I referred to Stealing Genius as the finest set of original songwriting released in Canada in 2010.

I’ve always enjoyed Ron’s company. The first time we worked together was in 2002 in a main stage workshop I hosted at the 2002 Ottawa Folk Festival called Short Stories That Rhyme which also included the late Bill Morrissey and Cliff Eberhardt. Five years later, Ron was one of my final studio guests on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show in 2007.

Ron was in excellent form when we visited and I saw him perform at Irene’s Pub in Ottawa just five months ago. I know that I speak for all his friends and fans in wishing Ron a speedy recovery. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before he’s healthy and back on stage.


Ron Hynes performing; and Adrien Doucette, Ron Hynes and Mike Regenstreif at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival in Ormstown, Quebec.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ian Tyson – Raven Singer

Raven Singer
Stony Plain

In 2008, in my Montreal Gazette review of Ian Tyson’s then-new album, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories, I wrote, “For more than 40 years, from the first Ian and Sylvia LP in 1962, through 2005’s Live at Longview, Ian Tyson consistently sang with one of the finest male voices in folk and country music. But now, at 75, vocal cord scarring and a bad virus have given the old cowboy what he calls his ‘new voice.’ It’s hoarse and gritty, even whispery à la Dylan or Waits. But Tyson pulls it off. He remains one of the greatest songwriters ever and he still knows how to communicate the essence of a song.”

The next year, reviewing an Ottawa concert, I noted my at my surprise at “how strong Ian’s singing seemed to be. While it was certainly not what it was back in 2006, Ian’s voice seemed to be considerably stronger than it was on Yellowhead to Yellowstone and other Love Stories… Ian’s unique timbre and vocal inflections were there. There was no mistaking the singer.”

On his new album, Raven Singer, recorded song-by-song over the past three years, Ian has fully grown into his new voice and uses it to great advantage in communicating a mixture of six new songs (there is also a CD-concluding instrumental) and three older, reimagined songs that continue to distinguish him as one of the greatest folk and western singer-songwriters of all time. Now closer to 80 than 75, Ian’s ability to tell a story in song, to produce new material and to infuse new vitality into older songs is undiminished.

Among the new songs are such gems as “Charles Goodnight’s Grave,” inspired by the legendary cattle rancher who forged the Goodnight-Loving cattle drive trail in 1866 (Ian recorded Utah Phillips’ song, “The Goodnight-Loving Trail” on one of his Columbia LPs, but it was one of the songs unfortunately left off the CD compilation, Old Corrals and Sagebrush & Other Cowboy Culture Classics), and “Saddle Bronc Girl,” inspired by Ian’s daughter, a rodeo barrel racer.

Among the older songs given new life is “Blueberry Susan,” which was on Ian’s first solo LP, Ol’ Eon, almost 40 years ago. As on the earlier version, Ian begins the songs as a tribute to the first guitar player he ever knew, and an early love, but on this new version he also pays tribute to Red Shea, Monte Dunn and my old friend David Rea, three great guitarists Ian worked with in the old days who have passed away in recent years.

Other highlights include “Rio Colorado,” “Back to Baja,” and the new versions of “Under African Skies” and “The Circle is Through.”

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--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mike + Ruthy – The NYC EP

Humble Abode Music

“My New York City,” the lead track on Mike + Ruthy’s new and all-too-short six-song set, The NYC EP, is yet another great and previously-unheard song from the Woody Guthrie Archives. It’s a beautiful love song that celebrates New York City, and more particularly celebrates New York City as the place where Woody met his second wife, Marjorie (Greenblatt) Mazia, and where they lived and raised their young family. Listening to the lyrics, which are not currently listed at, I assume they probably date from the mid-to-late-1940s when the family was living in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

Interestingly, the songwriting credits list words and music by Woody Guthrie with additional music by Michael Merenda and Ruth Ungar. This suggests there was a known tune that Woody used for the song – as opposed to most of the previously unheard songs from the Archives that various artists have been setting to music over the past two decades. In any case, it’s a lovely song, perhaps the best track yet from Mike and Ruthy.

In fact, the EP is probably the best CD yet from Mike and Ruthy in their post-Mammals career as a duo. Another highlight is their version of Lil Green’s 1940 classic blues, “Romance in the Dark,” featuring a sexy vocal by Ruthy and her nimble playing on a resophonic uke while Mike backs her up on harmonica.

The other four songs are originals, three written by Mike, one by Ruthy. My favourite of these is Mike’s “On My Way Home,” a banjo-driven, old-time-meets-rock-‘n’-roll arrangement which uses home as a metaphorical place to return to after a difficult period in life.

Another favourite is Ruthy’s “Oh Mama,” a fun-blues seemingly inspired by their infant son’s not wanting to take a nap.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, July 9, 2012

Woody Guthrie – Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection

Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection
Smithsonian Folkways

Woody Guthrie, one the most important, most influential and most inspiring folksingers and songwriters of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago this week on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. It is with good reason that all those who have followed in his footsteps – and by that I mean virtually every singer and songwriter not bound up in navel-gazing – are referred to as “Woody’s Children.”

For the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birth – he died October 3, 1967 after a 13-year hospitalization for Huntington’s disease – Smithsonian Folkways is releasing Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, a magnificent box set with three CDs of vintage recordings, including 21 previously unreleased performances, of which six are previously unheard original songs, and a beautiful 150-page book with essays, photos, Woody’s drawings, letters, original song lyrics, detailed information about each of the tracks, and fascinating listings of much of Woody Guthrie’s commercially available recordings and his known recording sessions. The project was assembled by archivist Jeff Place of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Robert Santelli, author of This Land is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song.

My comments on the first two CDs will be brief as all of the songs will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to Woody Guthrie over the years. Indeed, I already have all of these songs and almost all of these recordings – including the version of “I’ve Got to Know” which was previously released only on Bear Family’s 10-CD collection, Songs for Political Action – in my collection.

(By the way, “I’ve Got to Know” comes from a collection of more than 200 demos that Woody recorded for his song publisher in 1951. Few of these recordings have ever been widely heard – I have to wonder if there’s a future release, à la Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos, in the pipeline.)

However, despite my familiarity, I will say that I’ve listened and re-listened to the first two CDs with great enjoyment. Like the My Dusty Road collection released in 2009, the sound quality on many of the recordings is greatly improved over previous releases, and the selection and sequencing is superbly done. Just a few of the highlights are “Jarama Valley,” Woody’s song about the Spanish Civil War; “Better World A-Comin’, a hopeful song that followed the defeat of fascism in World War II; “Hangknot, Slipknot,” inspired by a KKK lynching that took place near Woody’s hometown in Oklahoma a couple of years before he was born; “Jackhammer John”; “Pastures of Plenty”; “Hard Travelin’; and two versions of “This Land is Your Land,” his best-known song.

Woody wrote “This Land is Your Land” as a response or alternative to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and the two versions include the standard, universally-known version, and an alternate rendition which includes one of the two politicized verses – the one about private vs. public property; the other was about solidarity with the people waiting on breadlines during the Great Depression – which were, early on, edited out of the standard version.

Among the other highlights are Woody’s versions of songs he borrowed or adapted including “Buffalo Skinners,” “Gypsy Davy,” “Bad Lee Brown,” and “We Shall Be Free,” a 1940s folk-supergroup collaboration between Woody, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry.

Along with the book, it is the third CD in the Woody at 100 set which make it an essential item for Woody collectors.

The third CD begins with four songs comprising Woody’s earliest-known recording session. The recordings, dated 1937 (although essayist Peter LaChapelle makes the case that they were probably recorded in 1939) were made on a Presto disc-cutting machine in Los Angeles and include two songs, “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Do-Re-Mi,” which would later form part of the classic Woody Guthrie canon, and two others, “Them Big City Ways” and “Skid Row Serenade” which have never been released before in any form. All four of these songs reflect Woody’s concerns with the exploited underclass of migrant workers. And, in the introduction to “Them Big City Ways,” we get a taste of the Will Rogers-influenced philosophizing what Woody was doing on the radio in Los Angeles during this period.

Speaking of Woody on the radio, there are recordings of several radio shows on the disc. The earliest is Woody’s 1940 guest spot on Lead Belly’s WNYC show, Folk Songs of America. Woody sings three songs: the traditional outlaw ballads “John Hardy” and “Jesse James” and his epic “Tom Joad,” a seven-minute encapsulation of John Stenbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for which Woody used the melody and structure of “John Hardy” as his template.

The strangest of the radio shows is Woody’s appearance on the BBC Children’s Hour which took place in 1944 when Woody was put ashore in London when his Merchant Marine ship was torpedoed. The befuddled host, who was obviously unprepared, announced Woody was going to do a program of train songs. He began with “Wabash Cannonball” and “900 Miles,” which did fit the bill, but then shifted over to a couple of outlaw ballads, “Stagger Lee” and his own “Pretty Boy Floyd,” violent songs you might not expect to hear on a children’s show. Just a couple of years later, Woody was writing and singing some of the greatest kids’ songs ever heard – some of which are included in this collection.

The other radio show was a 1945 episode of The Ballad Gazette with Woody Guthrie on WNEW. On that show, Woody – referred to by the announcer as the show’s “editor-in-chief” – would do 15-minute medleys of songs on a particular theme. On this particular show, the theme was sea chanteys and was a mixture of traditional songs, including “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” “Blow Ye Winds” and “Blow the Man Down,” and three of Woody’s own songs: “Trouble on the Waters,” and “Normandy was Her Name,” both of which have never been previously released in any form, and “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

I’m guessing that the brief “Trouble on the Waters” was probably inspired by Woody’s experiences in the Merchant Marine during World War II while “Normandy was Her Name” tells the story of a French ocean liner ship that was being refitted as an American troop ship when it sunk in New York Harbor in 1942 after a fire caused by a welder’s torch.

Another fascinating track is a nine-minute segment recorded at a People’s Songs Hootenanny, sometime between 1945 and 1947. Woody begins with his short knock-off “Ladies Auxiliary” and then engages in hilarious banter with former Almanac Singer and future Weaver Lee Hays before they sing “Weaver’s Life.” Another former Almanac Singer and future Weaver, Pete Seeger, can be heard playing banjo on the song.

The hootenanny track is followed by “Reckless Talk,” a Woody Guthrie war song from the early-1940s that has never been released before. This version, recorded in 1944, is a duet by Woody and Cisco Houston.

The album ends with three, fairly obscure, examples of the children’s songs Woody was writing after the war: “All Work Together,” “My Little Seed” and “Goodnight Little Cathy.” Woody’s recordings of “All Work Together” and “My Little Seed” were only previously released on a 78 rpm disc in the 1940s.

The previously-unreleased recording of the lullaby “Goodnight Little Cathy” was written for Woody’s daughter Cathy, who died in a tragic fire in 1947. He later remade the song as “Goodnight Little Arlo.”

I mentioned that the book and the third CD make Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection essential for Woody collectors. The entire set also makes for a great introduction for Woody novices to the great folksinger and songwriter.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Congratulations to Arthur McGregor and Grit Laskin

I’ve just returned from almost three weeks away and among the news items waiting for me were reports that two of my folk music friends are being significantly honoured.

Arthur McGregor, a multi-talented folk musician, proprietor of the Ottawa Folklore Centre since it’s founding in 1976, and organizer of myriad folk-related endeavours over the decades, is the 2012 recipient of the Ontario Council of Folk Festival’s Estelle Klein Award. The award is given annually to “an individual or group that has made significant contributions to Ontario’s folk music community.” I have certainly been aware of Arthur’s lifetime of contributions to the folk music scene since his days running the Rooster’s Coffee House at Carleton University in the early-1970s. Under his direction, the Ottawa Folklore Centre quickly became – and has remained for more than 35 years – the focal point of Ottawa’s folk music scene.

William “Grit” Laskin, the 2010 recipient of the Estelle Klein Award, has been named a member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions as a musician and internationally recognized instrument builder and his promotion of folk music in Canada.” My first memories of Grit date from the early-1970s when he was the only Canadian-born member of the Friends of Fiddler’s Green, purveyors of mostly-traditional music of the British Isles operating from their home base at the Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto. Since then, Grit has become an important folk-rooted songwriter, and, as noted, a world class luthier. Grit’s guitars have been among the most sought-after handcrafted instruments for decades. Grit is also a partner in Borealis Records.

Both Arthur and Grit are among the founders and organizers of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Congratulations to Arthur and Grit for these well-deserved honours.

--Mike Regenstreif