Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tom Russell – The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West
Frontera Records

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West is the third in a series of extraordinary concept albums Tom Russell has delivered in addition to the many other superb albums he’s recorded over the past three decades.

The first release in what should now be regarded as a trilogy was The Man from God Knows Where, a brilliant folk opera, released in 1999, about immigration and the American dream partially based on Tom’s own Irish and Norwegian ancestors and the generations that followed. Then came the equally-brilliant Hotwalker, released in 2005, an audio collage of original songs, poetry, stories, rants and outside voices that paid tribute to forgotten aspects of real American culture.

Expanding on the forms he developed in the two earlier works, The Rose of Roscrae, running two-and-a-half hours on two CDs, is perhaps Tom’s most ambitious work yet, a folk opera whose plot, although fictional, incorporates ideas and experiences drawn from a number of historical figures and from Tom’s real life sister-in-law who spent decades running a ranch on her own.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of the main protagonist, Johnny Dutton, an old man looking back on a life of adventure and misadventure that began in Ireland in the 1880s when the teenaged Johnny is beaten up by his girlfriend’s father and he escapes to America to become a cowboy and outlaw in what was by then the rapidly dying old west.

As the plot unfolds, Johnny works as a cowboy for the legendary real life trail boss Charles Goodnight, escapes the gallows with the help of a crooked judge, reunites with his Irish girlfriend, Rose Malloy – the Rose of Roscrae – and then marries and loses her due his philandering ways, outruns the lawman/preacher on his trail, and becomes enraptured with the story of Father Damien and his leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Johnny’s travels also take him south into Mexico and north up to Canada. As a prisoner in Louisiana and Texas he encounters the likes of Lead Belly and other prison singers recorded by folklorists like John and Alan Lomax.

Other parts of the story are told through the eyes of Rose. How she follows Johnny to the American west, marries him, throws him out, and spends decades as a woman alone running her ranch. Some of the specific things that happen to her are based on the experiences of Tom’s sister-in-law, Claudia Russell.

Eventually, the elderly Rose returns to Ireland and Johnny follows – no longer as her husband, but as her old friend.

Tom’s performances are riveting throughout the long piece. So, too, are the other singers who take on various roles in the folk opera. These include Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Jimmy LaFave, Thad Beckman, Sourdough Slim, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, and Gretchen Peters. The orchestral overture, incorporating melodies from traditional folksongs, is played beautifully by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, the orchestra that Tom collaborated with a couple of years ago on the Aztec Jazz album.

There is an embarrassment of riches among the songs Tom composed for The Rose of Roscrae but I’ll mention that some of the standout moments include Tom’s performances of “The Rose of Roscrae,” “Johnny Behind the Deuce,” the several soliloquys, “Poor Mother Mexico” “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water),” and “The Bear,” sung as a duet with Eliza Gilkyson.

Two of the most stunning performances are by Maura O’Connell singing “I Talk to God” and Gretchen Peters singing “When the Wolves No Longer Sing.”

As well as vehicle to tell the story through about 25 new songs written or co-written by Tom for The Rose of Roscrae, the piece also serves as a homage to traditional folksongs and to the singers who sang them on field and commercial recordings – as well as to some contemporary singers and songwriters who have added to the tradition. Among the borrowed voices we hear singing songs or fragments of songs are Johnny Cash, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jack Hardy & David Massengill, Tex Ritter, A.L. Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Blackie Farrell, Ross Knox, Glenn Ohrlin, Henry Real Bird, John Trudell, Ana Gabriel, Ian Tyson, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark and Dan Penn.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Russell in Montreal (2012).
In addition to the 2-CD set, Tom has released an almost essential companion book which includes the folk opera’s libretto, as well as extensive background information on the piece, all of the songs and the many contributors.

The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West is yet another masterwork by Tom Russell. It is a work of rare ambition and rare brilliance that is beautifully and artfully executed. Bravo to Tom and to his many collaborators on this project.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 21, 2015

David Amram – This Land

This Land
Newport Classics

In a review last week, I referred to the late Dave Van Ronk as one of my teachers. Another was David Amram who I first encountered in 1974 when he was performing at the Mariposa Folk Festival and I was an area co-ordinator (stage manager).

Never before – or, for that matter, since – have I ever met anyone like David. I’ve seen him conduct symphony orchestras, play folk music at jazz festivals, jazz at folk festivals, and music from around the world everywhere. He’s composed all manner of musical works from symphonies and operas to jazz to contemporary folk songs to film and theatre scores. His books are fascinating reads. He’s worked with many of the greatest orchestras and with people ranging from Leonard Bernstein to Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus, and from Bob Dylan to Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac and me (David has brought me up on stage to read from Kerouac’s On the Road while he leads a jazz group).

At the age of 84, David has more energy than most people half his age and maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing in all kinds of contexts.

Something I learned from David more than 40 years ago is the concept of ‘no more walls’ in music and I’ve seen him approach late night jam sessions at a folk festival with the same enthusiasm he brings to conducting a symphony orchestra, playing with jazz musicians or a small folk gig. I still remember what a great time I had, and what a great time the Montreal musicians I arranged for him to play with had, when I produced his first Montreal concert in 1979 or ’80 and, years later being backstage with David at Place des Arts in Montreal after he’d conducted the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and have musician after musician walk over to say they’d never had such a good time.

On This Land, David’s new CD, he conducts the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on two of his compositions: “This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” and “Theme and Variations on Red River Valley for Flute and Strings.” Both are beautiful pieces that combine folk music and classical music in the tradition of Aaron Copland pieces like “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo.”

On “This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie,” which was commissioned by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who runs Woody Guthrie Publications and has been the catalyst for bringing so many “new” Woody Guthrie songs to our attention over the past two decades, David uses Woody Guthrie’s melody from “This Land is Your Land” as the starting point to chronicle some of Woody’s travels – and the folks he encountered – from his childhood in Oklahoma through his last creative years in New York City. The variations – there are six major parts – use both “This Land is Your Land” and David’s own melodies that flow organically from Woody’s. 

The piece begins with “Theme and Fanfare for the Road & Variation I: Oklahoma Stomp Dance” which imagines Woody as young boy in Okemah hearing the music of the Cherokee on a Saturday night.

The exuberance of Saturday night in the opening section turns to quieter reflections in “Variation II: Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah.”

By his late-teens in the late-1920s, Woody was living in Pampa, Texas and beginning his life as a musician. Those days are reflected “Variation III: Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance.” This section has a distinctly Celtic feeling from its contemplative opening through the livelier, brassier barn dance.

In “Variation IV: Sonado con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico),” David reflects the music of the border areas, and the lives of the Mexican migrant workers Woody wrote about in many of his songs. Whether recalling a bullfight or polka dancers, this is one of the most exciting parts of the symphony.

Woody, of course, lived through the Dust Bowl era and chronicled the devastation of the period and the resilience of the people of the American southwest who lived through those times in Dust Ballads like “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Dust Bowl Refugee,” I Ain’t Got No Home,” and many others. That pivotal time is reflected in the saddest part of the piece, “Variation V: Dust Bowl Dirge,” built around the string section.

By 1940, having written “This Land is Your Land,” Woody was in New York City and it is there, after the sadness of the Dust Bowl, that the piece is at its most joyous in the concluding “Variation VI: Street Sounds of New York’s Neighborhoods,” which reflects some of the many ethnic cultures that contribute to the metropolitan culture. Listening to the orchestra play is akin to walking with Woody through the neighborhoods hearing the musical sounds of Caribbean immigrants on one block, of Eastern European Jews on another, of Salvation Army bands playing on busy street corners, and of the celebrations at the end of World War II.

“This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” is a magnificent achievement. And, although the words are never sung, we are constantly reminded of Woody’s vision – that “this land was made for you and me.”

The CD release, by the way, celebrates the 75th anniversary of when Woody wrote“This Land is Your Land.”

“Theme and Variations on Red River Valley for Flute and Strings,” featuring flute soloist Brook Ellen Ferguson, is a lovely, 14-minute piece built around the melody of the cowboy folksong popular in Texas (although folklorist Edith Fowke traced the song’s 19th century origins back to the Red River Valley in Manitoba). As on “This Land,” David’s no-more-walls blending of classical form, folk melody and regional sensibility is absoluty seamless.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and David Amram at the 2004 Montreal International Jazz Festival. (Photo by Ron Petronko)

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--Mike Regenstreif