Ed Kohn's fitting folk legacy
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 22, 2004) – A new 23-song CD captures the terrific singing and songwriting talent of the late Berkshire singer-songwriter Ed Kohn, who died too young and too early in the summer of 1999.
Put together by Kohn’s wife, Valerie, and Keith Forman, who recorded about half the tunes in his home recording studio in Williamstown around the time that Kohn began suspecting his days were numbered, “Times Gone By” is a fitting testament to Kohn, vividly portraying his deft skill as a writer of nature ballads, family epics, break-up songs, children’s songs, and topical numbers – in particular, satirical tunes that sent up socio-cultural trends, like Internet dating (“A Ten”), grade inflation (“Grades in D”) and psychopharmacology (“Prozac”).
If time is the true test of greatness, then hearing Kohn again nearly five years after he passed away proves how terrific he really was. It wasn’t at all an exaggeration to call him “the Berkshires’ answer to Tom Paxton” – he was simply that good. As much as his material was rooted in the particular, with carefully observed detail, he also tapped into the timeless. Lines like, “If the FBI should ask you any questions/Tell them you don’t know anything,” leap out of the speakers for their contemporary relevance, while other lines, like “Riches may not come our way, and health will not endure,” are shocking for their personal prescience.
Kohn, who lived in Windsor and who variously worked as a college financial aid director, a city redevelopment planner, a teacher of English as a second language, and a family magazine editor, was a prolific writer, completing about 115 songs in the last decade of his life. He released several cassette recordings, including “Pressure-Treated Town,” “The Greens,” and “Double Yellow Line,” and he was a ubiquitous figure on the local folk scene, a regular at the Acoustic Brew song-swaps in Williamstown and hootenanny nights at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket. Towards the end of his life, he even began garnering some national recognition. One of his best-loved songs, the novelty number “Six,” was recorded by Trout Fishing in America, and “The Greens” won a “Parent’s Choice” award.
But Kohn was always modest about his accomplishments. You can hear it in his performances on “Times Gone By.” Not that he was self-effacing – he comes across as knowingly confident about his material. But he let his songs stand for themselves, and never expressed the need or desire to confuse the songs with the man.
In the end, Kohn made it easy for those he left behind by writing his own epitaph in the title track: “Still what we can embrace with ease, and hold dear to the end/A song we’ve shared, a laugh or two, will satisfy us then.”
The CD is available at Wood Brothers in Pittsfield and Toonerville Trolley Records and Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, or by visiting www.edkohn.com.
Years before Norah Jones ever dreamed of combining soft jazz textures with folky roots music, Rickie Lee Jones was blazing a career trail consisting largely of the same elements. As if to underline this, several tracks on Rickie Lee Jones’s latest album. “The Evening of My Best Day” (V2), include a few musicians who played on the other Jones’s breakthrough album (they are no relation). Maybe it was the incredible overnight success of her younger namesake that inspired Rickie Lee Jones to come up with her best album in years -- her first recording of new songs in six years and a return to form that finds her at her most jazzy, melodic, and swinging in a long time. And if you listen closely, you’ll even make out some of the harshest, anti-George Bush screeds this side of Ani DiFranco. The album is dotted with guest appearances by the likes of Bill Frisell, Ben Harper, Syd Straw, Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo, Mike Watt, and Grant Lee Phillips, but it’s Jones’s show all the way. And it’s Jones’s show tonight at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton at 8.
Ukrainian surrealism meets Iggy Pop in the exotic, Eastern European-flavored punk-rock of Gogol Bordello. The internationally-flavored octet, led by Eugene Hutz and his band of Gypsies, Russians, Romanians, Israelis and a few genuine Americans, performs its anarchic, post-modern cabaret at Club Helsinki tomorrow night at 9.
Hints of India and the Middle East find their way into the female-fronted, acoustic rock and modern folk music on Project Mercury’s new CD, “Light This Candle.” The group is led by singer-songwriter/guitarist Marian Mastrorilli, winner of the 2002 New Songwriter Award at the New Jersey Folk Festival. Rounding out the ensemble, which performs tomorrow at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs at 6, are violinist/vocalist Charlene Donohue, drummer Mark Arnold and guitarist Craig Fox. Think 10,000 Maniacs meets Nirvana.
(Club Helsinki, 528-3394; Caffe Lena, 518-583-0022; Calvin Theatre, 413-586-8686.)
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 23, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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