These Are Old Blues

NY SUN | by Martin Edlund

Rejoicing in the Hands

The term “folk music” has many meanings, most of them wrong. To casual listeners, it calls to mind soothing singer-songwriters like Carly Simon and James Taylor. To satirists, it inspires the flaccid boomer-generation musicians of “A Mighty Wind.” To romantics, it still evokes the ideal of the scruffy troubadour — an old Guthrie or a young Dylan — belting ballads in Greenwich Village Cafés.

What it literally means, though, is the music of the folk, the music of the people. At times in the United States, it has taken on political coloring, often a shade of red, as people have argued that folk music is the exclusive province of the proletariat. But most broadly and most accurately, it describes the music of any culture with its own customs, traditions, practices, and beliefs. The term “folk music” applies equally to Jewish klezmer music, qawwali music of Pakistan, and in America, Appalachian music, zydeco, and the blues, among other styles.

By this definition, folk music is a living tradition. Like myth, it needs to be constantly refreshed in order to retain its relevance and cultural power. As soon as people stop adapting verses to their own needs, writing new words over the old, it ceases, for all intents and purposes, to exist.

Which is precisely what has happened in America over the course of the last century. With the loss of local identity and the persistent, homogenizing creep of popular recorded music, folk music withered on the vine. By the time we came back to it — in the 1940s, the 1960s, and again today — it had fossilized.

What once was a living tradition is now locked safely in the past; we call it roots or old time or prewar blues. Those that continue to play the music learn it by rote. They play it note for note, word for word, taking special care to replicate the mistakes, accents, and garbled words of the old records. We no longer play folk music, we curate it.

But there are those breathing new life into the tradition. A smattering of young artists are recapturing the spirit of the music, if not reviving it altogether. Two of the best are Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, both of whom just released new albums: Banhart’s “Rejoicing in the Hands” is out today on Young God Records, Newsom’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender” came out last month on Drag City Records. Between them, they’ve done for American folk music what Sigur Rós and Björk did for Icelandic music: reopened its dusty books and begun scrawling on the blank pages at the back again.

Both singers acknowledge their debt to the folk tradition. Banhart adores the old country blues men like Fred McDowell and John Hurt, as well as folk curiosities like Joseph Spence. He reveres marginal 1960s folk figures like Vashti Bunyan, who performs a duet with Banhart on his new album. Newsom, too, is a lover of minor folk music figures (but major talents) like the ballad singer Texas Gladden, whose songs she covers and whose pinched voice she imitates.

Musically, they both fall squarely within the tradition they so admire. He plays finger-picked guitar in the style, alternately, of Nick Drake and John Hurt; she is more of a tinkerer, playing harp and harpsichord and Wurlitzer. What separates them from the hordes of reverential folk imitators is the talent and originality they bring to the process.

In the absence of a living folk tradition, our culture has turned to the fringes — naïve music, primitivism, folk art, art brut — for authenticity. Banhart and Newsom incorporate elements of these outsider traditions into their music. They both sing in garish voices somewhat like Karen Dalton’s and Tiny Tim’s — in spirit if not in fact. They sound wild and slightly mad, maybe willfully so. But what better way to wipe away the residue of so much stagnant, earnest folk music? The result is a postmodern folk music, perfectly suited to our time.

Banhart’s much-celebrated 2002 album “Oh Me Oh My…” was a journey of magical realism. His songs were shamanic, telling tales of anthropomorphic teeth, beards, snails, birds, hands. Magic, terror, and humor were present in equal parts. The new album is much more grounded in the mundane (though beards and teeth and hands do make cameos). Still, it infuses everyday concerns — friendship and love — with a magic of their own.

“Will Is My Friend,” a touching song about a friend who lives across the country, blends straightforward declarations of love with allegory and allusion: “the lemon tree / it laughs at me / it’s growing beautifully / the little vine / it won’t unwind / and it will wrap you whole in time,” he sings.

Newsom’s songs cleverly combine youthful delivery with aged prose. On a song called “Inflammatory Writ” she sings: “you dirge for the dead / take no jam on your bread / just a supper of salt and a waltz / through your empty bed,” in a childish caterwaul. “This Side of the Blue” is a tender song which blends metaphysics and nonsense: “Svetlana sucks lemons across from me / and I am progressing abominably / and I do not know my own way to the sea / but the saltiest sea knows its own way to me,” she sings.

Despite the gap in time Banhart and Newsom perform their music as if folk never missed a beat. In “A Sight To Behold,” Banhart sings of “finding home / in an old folk song / that you’ve never ever heard / still you know every word / and for sure you can sing along.” Newsom echoes the sentiment in her song “Sadie”: “This is an old song / these are old blues / and this is not my tune / but it’s mine to use.”