Folk song embraces politics, but not always audience
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., May 31, 2004) – The tradition of political folk song was center stage in the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA on Saturday night, in a concert by Steve Earle, Odetta and Carl Hancock Rux that kicked off the museum’s fifth anniversary season devoted to “art in the social sphere.”

As heard throughout the evening, that tradition is manifest in various ways and to various effect, ranging from the outspoken folk protest of an Earle song condemning capital punishment to the spiritual utopianism of Odetta’s “This Little Light of Mine,” echoed by Earle’s own utopian vision of world peace, “Jerusalem.”

They made for good bookends, and in large part they made for good listening over the course of a long, holiday-weekend night – a four-plus hour event that wanted as much to be a union rally as a vibrant concert and might have fallen shy of both.

If Earle’s closing set was a revelation, it was in the matter of form more than content. Performing solo with just his own accompaniment on acoustic guitar and harmonica – with a few brief turns on mandolin and banjo – Earle, ordinarily considered a rocker in country clothing (or vice versa), revealed himself to be a folk troubadour at heart.

He acknowledged as much right from the outset, kicking off his set with a version of the old folk standard, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” that he said he learned from Bob Dylan (and which prompted one of his funniest shpils of the night, involving the folk process, Eric von Schmidt and Mexico). Earle’s acknowledgment of his indebtedness to Dylan informed what was to come, and with his Texas drawl, his harmonica – which, like Dylan, he played more functionally than virtuosically -- wrapped around his neck on a holder, and his mixture of hard-knock portraits, story songs and love songs, he came across as a Southern cousin to the Midwestern folk-rock bard.

Like Dylan, Earle at times could be apocalyptic, and an early highlight was his “Ashes to Ashes,” a narrative recounting the Biblical story of Creation, running through evolution, and winding up where humanity makes a total mess of things. Of course both Dylan and Earle hearken back to Woody Guthrie, and nowhere did Earle seem to pay more of an unconscious debt to the original folk-protesting cowboy than on his “Steve’s Last Ramble” and “Taneytown.”

Over the course of his lengthy set, however, Earle established his own persona through his hardscrabble tales of unemployed blue-collar workers, Vietnam veterans, prison guards and Civil War soldiers – sort of a Texas-folk version of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.”

Performing without the guitar that has seemed forever glued to her, Odetta nevertheless was a regal presence and in strong voice. It hollered and whooped when it had to, and moaned and groaned on the blues. Accompanied by pianist Seth Farber, who lent a jaunty, New Orleans roadhouse feel to many of her numbers, Odetta drew on early blues and spirituals in a set that made clear how those genres – in the form of Victoria Spivey’s “TB Blues” and Bessie Smith’s “Weeping Willow Blues,” for example -- were at heart as political as any topical folk-protest.

Carl Hancock Rux’s opening set brought folk protest into the 21st century in its use of live video manipulation, provided by Jaco Van Schalkwyk, and computerized sampling and percussion, by Jason Finkelman. Rux alternated readings from his novel, “Asphalt,” with spiritual-style chants. Unlike the performances that followed his, Rux’s did not embrace the audience as a partner in the event.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 1, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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