It is ironing day, one of the Kennedy years, and the tubes on the Fisher Hi-Fi smell like burning dust or outer space when they warm up. A handful of monaural LPs, the detritus of graduate school, is lovingly stacked to the side of the big speaker, chosen depending upon mood and the count of white shirts. And the audience, for the music will soothe and enchant the little boy, too, who sits at the center of the couch as quietly as a little boy can sit: Peggy Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Oscar Brand, Odetta, perhaps the Clancy Brothers, Cisco Houston because Woody’s voice is too rough, Ed McCurdy. “The Cat Came Back,” “Rye Whiskey,” and “Deportees.”
David Rawlings wasn’t born then, but Poor David’s Almanack would have played happily on that turntable, on his parents’ turntable. Over and over again, the little boy (either of us) smiling and kicking his heels into the couch.
The sound of fun being had. “So long, it’s been good to know you.”
As Squeeze sang, “Singles remind me of kisses, albums remind me of plans.”
What folk music was: deeply rooted songs with effortless melodies, the best lines repeated so often one cannot help but to sing along. Except that Rawlings and his confederates have access to a century’s accumulated tradition, technique, and technology, and all the loss which attends that.
The legacy of Harry Smith and Alan Lomax and John Work, and all the smart young people who found in that music a way to tell their own stories. To make a living.
Pause, please, to remember that Shakespeare stole his plots and wrote scenes to compete with the sounds of dogs fighting bears next door.
Which leaves out the other piece of it, the irreconcilable arguments about authenticity and cultural appropriation, for all those smart young people came principally from affluence and education and had not been obliged to walk the hills of Virginia selling fruit trees. Nor served time at Parchman Farm.
Does “Sixteen Tons” sound real, even if Merle Travis made the whole thing up? Is the keen longing, the hope and loneliness resplendent in the chorus of “Cumberland Gap” any less powerful because David Rawlings and Gillian Welch have never been obliged to harvest dinner with a flintlock? To say nothing of Woody Guthrie’s debt to the Carter Family, nor their debts.
Folk music, then, by which is meant all the fragments of songs one sings and whistles and remembers, irrespective who holds the copyright or whether the singer wore the glad rags of fame. A dense bramble, our music, largely untended, grown wild across an obscure patch of imagination about which nobody much cares. Weeds and hot house roses cross-pollinating. Its fruit is often picked and taken to market, and very occasionally it flowers.
Flowered into a full bouquet for one singular instant, when Little Richard found God and Buddy Holly plunged to earth and Chuck Berry did Mann Act time, the moment when earnest sweater folk came to Camelot. Such bland hope, and yet it was also the punk of its season, frat boys covering Tom Lehrer and pink Pete Seeger, borrowing from Tin Pan Alley, concealing authorship because true folk music had only vague, pre-literate sources. Love and theft.
Wait. “Sweater folk.” Do we undercut the singer or the audience with that epithet? Both. Artists are also performers who wear costumes, tailored so as to meet their audience’s expectations. And the audience, moved by the sing-a-long politics of those songs, really did rise up and change the world, for a time. The music — the art — they made popular created a commercial platform upon which Bob Dylan and John Prine and Joni Mitchell could stand.
Those silly songs really were about…something…that really was blowing in the wind.
And, so, back to this new Almanack singing.
Back to David Rawlings’ album in which the principal argument is not at all political — not at all — simply the artist’s complex meditation on the nature and process of creativity, on the illusion of originality, on the folk process itself. And his affection for a certain kind of song, long out of fashion. Poor David’s Almanack is either David Rawlings’ eighth album, counting the five he’s made with Gillian Welch, or his third, including two released by the Dave Rawlings Machine. Or his debut.
In any event it is the first public release of songs he did not co-write, a collaborative intimacy Nashville appointment books have given a bad name, but a rare skill nevertheless. (Gillian Welch did co-write half the album. There is no subtext, no drama.) “I didn’t do it by changing my process,” Rawlings says, “so much as I did it by finding little pieces of things in the world to co-write with.”
Little pieces of things.
Rawlings encountered his new songs while rooting among the ancient vines of folk music, the oral traditions of the blues and Bible stories, nonsense and tall tales. Fragments of things he could improvise around, improve, make new.
“It felt important in some ways to have written these things ourselves,” he says, “as opposed to playing Woody Guthrie’s version of a traditional song. This is the world of old folk music. These melodies have a strength in their simplicity. If you don’t want to sit and sing it around in circles ten or twenty times, it’s not doing the job.”
Yes, other people have set the devilish Child ballad behind “Yup” to music (the story apparently goes back to a sixth century Hindu text), recorded songs titled “Midnight Train,” or told the story behind the modern spiritual “Good God a Woman” (with its nod to Lead Belly). They simply didn’t sound like this, because that’s the folk process. And because David Rawlings is very, very good at what he does.
“Most of the good art I can find seems to be derived from something, more than I ever expected,” he says. “It all comes from somewhere, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. When I really evaluate art I like, I think, gee, the author added 30-some percent to that [source]. Maybe it’s the golden mean; you’re the little part. Maybe that’s what great art is.”
Almanack has all the simplicity and understatement of a debut, of an opening statement in which one can hear future echoes of all the complexities and nuances which might follow, except the reverse is true. It has taken twenty years of musical and recording knowledge to prune to this particular essence. During that time Rawlings and Welch have worked a comparatively narrow vein of Appalachian folk tradition, piling words and modern ambiguities upon familiar frames.
The frame beneath Almanack is different. To begin with, there is a dry, laconic northeastern humor lurking at its margins, betraying Rawlings’ Rhode Island origins (“Lindsey Button” sings like “Lindsey Burton,” just the edge of a burr there). And then, again, it is rich with participatory choruses your second grade teacher — the one with the big round glasses — would strum on her guitar. An audience of ghosts in sweaters, perhaps.
“All musicians have a much wider strike zone than their audience,” says Rawlings, having just conducted an eloquent disquisition on the musics of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and the Pixies. ”Go listen to ‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton, and listen to Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’ ‘Heart of Glass’ happens two years earlier, and it’s a massive hit. And I think that’s completely intentional, but whether it is or not, it make no difference. There’s her source, there’s her new song.
“Woody Guthrie, the sun that Bob Dylan revolved around, realized that there wasn’t enough time in the world to write melodies for all the thoughts in his head,” says Rawlings. “A month doesn’t go by that I don’t bump into another source for a Bob Dylan song, which is a complete set of melody and chords that he wrote words to, and we all think of as a Bob Dylan song.”
Or, put more directly: All popular music is by definition folk music, even though purists and academics and copyright attorneys can argue the point endlessly.
It’s the songs, always. The glorious nonsense of “Money is the Meat in the Coconut” (Roger Miller, minus the little white pills), the toe-dragging love behind “Come On Over My House,” the sad peace underlying “Put ’em Up Solid.”
And the way they’re played, because only friends can play with such precise simplicity, with such glorious intimacy. They recorded in the familiar confines of East Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studios, the Machine (Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, Willie Watson, and Gillian Welch), augmented by Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (Dawes), with a handful of guests dropping by, because somebody’s got to play the saw.
“The album has got a certain color to it because it was made quickly,” Rawlings says. “It was a bit of an editing puzzle because there weren’t a lot of takes to choose from.” Luckily the songs announced themselves to be unfussy and durable things.
“In some ways,” Rawlings says, “this record feels to me like we’ve been living in this house for 20 years and we finally decided to open the back two rooms. We were leaving these rooms because we figured some other people would move in the back…expecting company, but nobody came.”
He pauses. Thinks some more. “Yes, this is folk music,” he says. “And we really have spent our lives doing it.”
All of which begs the central question, what it means to craft folk music…today? When almost (but not quite; far from) every ancestral song can be listened to online, when there can be no pretense of artistic innocence unless it be willful, when the habit of listening has become such a private headphone withdrawal and not a public celebration of transcendent joy.
It is a quest for a nonspecific kind of immortality. For a song or a phrase or a singular guitar line which survives past even the memory of your name.
It is the plain, simple truth of fun. Of human connection. Of shared emotion, even the hurting part.
It is the search for another song which makes a little boy sit on a couch quietly pounding his feet in time with a chorus he wants to hear over and over again. All his life.