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In Praise of Riff Raff

Those who love to disparage younger musical artists and say that generation has no connection other than digital, say they have no nod to history–well, I’d say that Alynda Lee Segarra has a few things to clarify for you. And she will say them in a  voice that flows out of her like a languid Southern river. Her layered voice is at once full of musical history and has a pull of genteel persuasion, sounding a call for humane treatment of each other. Add this to a mix of folk, blues, country as well as something astonishing and new.

Segarra is the voice of “Hurray for the Riff Raff”, the New Orleans based group releasing “Small Town Heroes” this week.  So often a melody that that pulls at your core has an unsatisfying lyrical accompaniment. Yeah, it sounds great, but don’t think too much about what they are saying, if you can even understand the lyrics. This is not the case here.

Segarra gave the motivation behind the distinctly humane inclusiveness that is behind “Small Town Heroes”. In an NPR interview, she voiced support for the Occupy Movement and subsequent inspiration from that worldview. She has a palpable affinity for the downtrodden, the outcasts—the “riff raff”. She set out on the road when just a teenager, eventually becoming a Busker, playing and singing for cash on the streets.

Her riff raff are the wanderers, the outcasts that folk music has always revered, but with this group, the riff raff becomes even more inclusive, making sure to be friendly to all who feel tossed out; she is clear that this includes  the movement she includes herself in, the queer movement. The tradition of folk music clearly leans to the underdog, it’s natural to broaden that definition and serve others who are certainly not party to being the chosen glazed and chosen few. Even if not a sexual orientation, being an outlier comes in so many forms. There’s a gorgeous pull and comfort of inclusiveness present here.

The song to begin with would certainly be “Good Time Blues (An Outlaw’s Lament)”. The sparseness of instrumentation in this offering frames Segurra’s voice perfectly. There’s a percussion layer that mimics a drenching summer rain—the  kind that come without the fury of storm, just sheets of water, coming in waves. You just see the glistening drops roll down the Spanish Moss. I’m taken there with this song. She sings with restraint, with a measure of control—it’s an awareness of held power, not tossed out as a gimmick. This is the song that will pull you in, will make you ready for deeper exploration of the folk tradition.

“The Body Electric” is a nod to another riff raff of his time, Walt Whitman. It’s title coming from his poem that declares the sacredness of the human form. Segurra noticed the bizarre incongruity in the enjoyment of woman murder songs, songs like “Delia’s Dead” from Johnny Cash. The name Delia shows heavy in folk tradition and there are a couple of Delia’s—a Delia duality, I guess. Folk and Blues had their own version of going viral, in the early 1900’s, the Delia character found its way to all manner of songs. Generally about a woman being killed for some transgression in regard to social mores.

The original Delia seems to have been a 14 year old killed in Savannah by her boyfriend, possibly for calling him a “son of a bitch”. The other folk Delia is the wife of Billy Lyons, shot by Stagger Lee for a Stetson hat. The Stetson hat murder seems to have really happened, the Delia part—not so likely. She is  the avenging Delia, getting revenge for her husband’s death. The name Delia only being outdone by Stagger Lee in the folk/blues tradition—around 300 songs refer to him! A recent enjoyable addition being “Folk Bloodbath” by Josh Ritter. He kills ’em all—Delia, Stagger Lee, a guy named Louis. And with all the fuckery inherent to their lives, Ritter sings “And I’m lookin over rooftops, and I’m hoping it ain’t true, that the same god looks out for them, looks out for me and you.”

In the same weary manner, Segurra asks in her Delia song: “Oh, tell me what a man with a rifle in his hand is gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad?”. She can’t understand the disconnect, the lack of awareness that the body is sacred, that the man doesn’t have the right.

It’s a rich tradition, given new eyes and needed perspective.  All tracks have a unique quality, not disjointed, but very much their own identity.

At this point you should be ready to try “Blue Ridge Mountain”. It is full-on Appalachia. A beautiful marriage of Segurra’s voice with the violin. Her voice mirrors the rise and fall as well as the staccato moments. Admittedly, this style is a sweet spot for me, the last delicious foray into it being “God Bless You Amigo” from the Felice Brothers.

“The New San Francisco Bay Blues” is another gentle handed,  showcase for her ageless,  cascading voice. “St. Roch Blues” ventures into the sadness of location, a spot plagued by violence in the Crescent City. All of the songs have a distinct pull, but the one thing that is continuous is the considerable restraint exerted. These songs have power without the need to stomp and glare.

“Small Town Heroes” is a lovely way to remind yourself that delineations don’t  count—that there are beautiful souls out there, pulling in the outcasts of all types. This work is a compelling unification—of ages, styles and love.  For all of us, for the riff raff.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net

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Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net

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