Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part II

As you will remember from my last post, I was assigned the task of listing my top ten folk/roots albums of all time by Penguin Eggs Magazine. So far, I've got six on my list, and I will carry on here by telling you about the last four to make my top ten list.

My first six albums all represented music that I had absorbed pretty early in life. So for my last four choices, I thought I would pick some albums that I have come to know and love more recently. I stayed away from anything too new-- for me an album can't become a keeper until I've had the experience of listening to it intensely for a while, putting it away, and then digging it out again because I love it so much.

Linda Morrison is one of my favourite singers of all time. She doesn't perform too much outside her hometown of Montreal. Her album "Line By Line" lived in our car for many years and got played on every car trip. And I mean EVERY car trip. Her music is jazzy, bluesy, her voice is heavenly, and her writing is beautiful.

Every once in a while you hear an artist who redefines everything. Eliza Gilkyson is one of those artists for me. When I first listened to this album, I had to stop and repeat most of the songs because I couldn't believe what she was doing in the space of a few minutes. Her songs are tiny masterpieces.

Penny is one of my musical heroes -- she can sing the blues, she can sing old Scottish songs, heck she could sing the phone book and I'd sit at her feet and lap it up. This album, produced by Roma Baran, is a gem.

I miss Oliver, but I am grateful to have basked even a little bit in the glow of his incredible spirit and creativity. It was hard to choose one of his albums, but this one, recorded during the time he was ill, certainly stands among his best.

And that friends, was the end of my list. After I finished my painstaking process, I held onto the list for a few days, and returned to it a bunch of times to see if I wanted to reconsider any choices. And surprisingly, the list held up (at least for those few days). Without meaning to, I created a list that was exactly split down the middle in terms of American and Canadian albums, which seemed poetic and right (as someone who was born in the U.S., but has lived in Canada for many years). There are some artists that will be familiar to lots of people, and a few that will be complete unknowns, and I liked that. Lots of powerful women in the list, and I liked that. There's old stuff, and (fairly) new stuff. There are many genres and traditions represented. All in all, it seemed like a nice mix. So I held my breath, and sent it off to Penguin Eggs.

And that's the story of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time.

I already wish I could do it all over again, but so be it. I hope that it inspires you to check out some of this music. Here's the list all in one go:

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sad News: Taylor Mitchell

I woke up this morning to some very sad and shocking news. Taylor Mitchell, a young singer-songwriter who had just released her first CD, and was partway through her first tour of eastern Canada, died after being attacked by coyotes while out hiking in Cape Breton.

I met Taylor a few years ago when she came to the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference. She was part of the Youth Mentorship program of the conference, which pairs up young folk/roots musicians with more experienced musicians for skills building and career advice. I remember being blown away by her, both musically and personally. She must have been 17, and she was already writing incredible songs, performing, and seriously pursuing a career as a musician. It was obvious she knew what she wanted to do, and was already going about doing it. I can't imagine being so sure of myself at that age.

I've watched from afar as she made connections with some fantastic musicians, worked really hard to record and release her first album, and then recently started on her first big tour. It was so vicariously satisfying to see her incredible talent coming into bloom.

So this morning's news was a huge shock. It's a major loss for the folk community here in Canada. There is no doubt in my mind that she was on the path to success - it's just heartbreaking to think how young she was and how much she had too look forward too.

My condolences to her family and close friends. RIP Taylor, your star is still shining.

Here's a link to her website and her MySpace page, as well as a link to the Globe and Mail story.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part I

A few weeks ago, I posted the article I wrote for Penguin Eggs Magazine about Pete Seeger. When I submitted my article, the editor also asked me to send them a list of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time for inclusion in the front of the magazine. (Each issue of Penguin Eggs includes a top ten list from someone who is featured in that issue.)

My first reaction? You've got to be kidding! How would I boil it down to ten? And are we talking about my current favourites? The albums that influenced me most? The ones that I think are the most important? The ones that everyone else will think are cool? Each of those lists would be completely different. And, as someone with pretty broad taste, the thought of trying to represent that taste in a tiny list of ten CDs seemed completely impossible.

Not only that, but you don't get to write any explanation. They just print the list -- no context, nothing! At least if I could explain why I made my choices, I might be able to live with it. But noooo, I had to just send them the list in alphabetical order.

Of course, that's what blogs are for. So without further ado, here is the story of my top ten list, split in two parts for easier digestion.

After I foolishly said yes to Penguin Eggs, I began a week of feverish list-making. I started, off the top of my head, listing artists and albums who might be included on the list. The lists went on and on-- forty, fifty artists with no end in sight. I despaired at ever being able to boil it down.

So I started strategizing. First, I realized that I could kill many birds with one stone by including the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. It's kind of cheating because it's a three-CD boxed set. But it's an amazing collection of recordings and musicians that have remained touchstones through the years: The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Charlie Poole. So onto the list it went.

One down, nine to go.

I started thinking about albums that have stuck with me over time. Albums that I first listened to as a kid or a teenager and that I still love when I hear them now. That quickly generated a long list of albums. I looked at that list and thought about the different things they represented. Some were songwriters, some were singers and interpreters who left an indelible mark, some represented a particular style of music. So out of that list I picked five representative albums:

We listened to this album so much when I was growing up that I feel like it's in my genes. The band included a young Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), and her partner Geoff Muldaur, two musicians who are still amongst my absolute favourites.

Unfortunately I never got to hear Stan Rogers sing before he was tragically killed in 1983. Since then I've heard his songs sung by many, many other people, but for my money there's nothing like hearing him straight up, in a live situation, which is what you hear on this album.

I remember hearing Kate and Anna McGarrigle for the first time and being entranced by their mixing of musical styles, their unique harmonies, and their incredible way with words. This album still sounds completely fresh to me every time I listen to it.

My mom had several Hazel and Alice albums in our house, and it's probably because of them that I learned to love old-time music. It's not always "pretty" music. But their voices are haunting, and the music gets you right in the gut.

Sweet Honey in the Rock taught me the transcendent power of human voices raised in song. Although I believe the best way to appreciate them is in a live concert situation, the next best thing is their live concert album, "Good News."

That ended my list of albums that I've listened to since I was young. Six down, four to go.

Tune into my next post to see how the list ends...

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Friday, October 2, 2009

More on Pete Seeger

Hello friends,

I've been in blogger hibernation for a long time, but I haven't forgotten you! Sometimes it gets hard to pick up the pen and be creative on schedule, and sometimes life just takes us to other places for a while. But I've decided to plunge in again. I thought I would start by sharing an article I wrote for the latest issue of Penguin Eggs Magazine, a reflection about going to Pete Seeger's 90th birthday concert this past May. (By the way, if you are a fan of Canadian folk music, you should subscribe to Penguin Eggs.)

I can be pretty cynical about hero worship. I don’t have much patience with the impulse to elevate human beings to saint-like proportions. But a few months ago, I excitedly jumped in my car and drove to New York City for the weekend. My motivation: a chance to be in the audience for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens.

So what it is about Pete Seeger that overcomes my jaded cynicism? I guess I can’t imagine another musician who has influenced me more, or had more impact on folk music. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be performing and teaching all over Canada—indeed I wonder how many festivals, camps, concert series, and house concerts would even be here—if it weren’t for Pete Seeger.

Regardless of whether you are a fan of Pete Seeger, there is no denying his profound influence on all of us involved in folk music. There’s no way to sum up that influence in a short article, but here are some things that come to mind when I think of Pete Seeger:

I think of the many concerts I attended as a kid, where an older lanky guy with twinkly blue eyes—dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers—enthusiastically coaxed thousands of us to sing together in beautiful harmony. Sometimes he told stories, or played whistle, or sang in foreign languages. He had a casual, friendly way of speaking that made you feel like you were sitting in his living room. And he talked and sang about ordinary people from all over—people from the mountains of Appalachia, the mines of South Africa, the river valleys of New York State, or the cities of India and Northern Ireland.

He always had news to share, about striking farm workers, the struggle against apartheid, or the river that ran by his house in Beacon, New York. There were people to remember—Woody Guthrie, Jose Marti, Victor Jara. There was celebration, of simple things like maple syrup, or important things like the end of segregation in the south. And there was always more work to be done. So why not sing as we work?

I think of songs. Thousands of songs. Songs like “Guantanamera,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Wimoweh,” and “We Shall Overcome” that Pete helped spread around the world. I think of all the songs I learned from my mom, a red diaper baby from the Bronx who grew up singing folk music. I think of the songs I’ve learned from other musicians, or recordings, or Sing Out! Magazine—a magazine that Pete helped usher into being. And I think of informal gatherings across Canada and the US where people get together to sing, purely for fun.

I think of banjos. Lots of them. And all the people who were inspired by his book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I think of his banjo, inscribed with the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

I think of Pete, appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, refusing to discuss any people or organizations he had sung for, and insisting on his right to sing where and for whomever he pleased. And if he could just sing them a few songs, surely they would comprehend his love for his country.

I think of the college campuses and church basements and summer camps where Pete sang during the blacklist years. How he managed to survive those lean times and foster a new audience for folk music, creating a grassroots performing circuit in the process.

I think of the Hudson River, which used to be so polluted that you couldn’t swim or fish in it. And I think of the organization Pete founded in 1969 to save that river: Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. His idea: build a replica of an old river sloop, and sail it up and down the river, educating people about the river. Forty years later, the Hudson River is clean enough to swim in, largely due to the efforts of Clearwater.

Most of all, when I think of Pete Seeger, I think of an unflagging optimism that permeates everything he does—a belief that if we can somehow pull ourselves together, if each of us can do our part, we just might be able to save the planet and live together in peace.

It’s an optimism I find hard to maintain sometimes. And yet, here he was on May 3rd, at 90 years old, playing his banjo in Madison Square Gardens and leading 18,000 people in singing “Amazing Grace.” In the middle of the song, he paused, and told the story of John Newton, the slaveship operator who had a change of heart, found god, and became an anti-slavery activist. Newton eventually wrote dozens of hymns, among them “Amazing Grace.” If a man like John Newton can change, Pete seemed to be saying, surely there is hope for all of us. And if 18,000 people can sing together in harmony, surely we can overcome our differences and find peaceful solutions to our problems.

Amazing Grace, indeed. Thanks, Pete. Here’s to you and your 90 years.

Published in Penguin Eggs Magazine, Autumn 2009 issue

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