Folk music can mean many things. It can be songs one learned as a child from a record or a musical relative. The songs can be classic tunes with words as old as the songs themselves or the songs can be old tunes with brand new words. Or the entire tune can be a new creation. The singers can be acting as curators of a past or they can be harbingers of a future. Or they can be both. A couple newly released CDs represent all of these possibilities and more.
Inspired by the Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger folk music collection titled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People published in 1967, a newly released CD and book package titled Working Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song is all about proletarian music. In tis package, the songs on the CD are performed by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore. The songbook is narrated by Callahan, a long-time leftist organizer, musician and writer, who introduces the collection by emphasizing the songs in the collection are more than tunes from what Greil Marcus calls the “old weird America.”. In other words, they are not just snippets of song from America’s popular history of derelicts, squatters, hoboes, prisons, and murder. This is not “Pretty Polly” or even “Pretty Boy Floyd.” These are political tunes that are battle cries and expressions of defiance. The songs live on in today’s struggle against capitalism and its various scourges. Callahan follows the introduction with short biographies of the songwriters. Given the nature of the text, these emphasize their politics. Callahan and his fellow musician Yvonne Moore then introduce the songs. Each time is transcribed, making the song available for the musicians among their readers.
Now, imagine you are at a political rally to support a strike. It could be a miner’s strike for better working conditions or a food service worker strike for union representation. After a short march, the rallygoers have ended up at the building housing the owners of the industry being challenged. Naturally, all the doors to the building are locked and uniformed security guards stand in front of them, trying to look bad-ass. County sheriffs or some other official organs of the state are hanging out nearby just in case trouble erupts. Different speakers take the microphone and give their talks, alternately rousing the crowd and calming it. As a supporter of the strikers, you hang around but the speechmaking is starting to go on a bit too long. Other rally-goers are talking among themselves. Then, the speeches end. The emcee asks people to wait a few minutes while a couple musicians set up. The crowd cooperates; Nobody leaves and the musical duo sets up. Once everything is hooked up, they began their performance without an introduction.
The first song is John Handcox’s “There is Mean Things Happening in this Land.” Its politics are clear, the sentiment is militant and the music is direct and emphatic. It’s classic and it’s wonderful. The song ends with a verse you aren’t sure you’ve heard before: “There’ll be good things happening in this land/ There’ll be good things happening in this land….” When the duo is finished with Handcox’s tune, they go right into “I Hate the Capitalist System,” a tune from Sarah Ogan Gunning that leaves nothing obscured, nothing hidden. Then, the duo introduces themselves. They say something like “Hi, this is Yvonne Moore and my name is Mat Callahan. We want to sing a few songs for you.” The concert continues. The crowd is responding, clapping hands and even singing the words they know.
That imaginary scene describes the feeling one gets listening to the CD of Working-Class Heroes. It’s as if a political rally was in your stereo or whatever device you use to listen to music these days. Ideally, listening to it will get you just as fired up as if you were at such a rally.
I See Hawks in LA have a new disc out. This musical group have been writing and playing music for two decades. Generally classified as Americana in industry and fan journals, the music they create competes with the sweetest songbirds on earth. Their new album is no different. Titled Hawks with Good Intentions, the disc is classic I See Hawks in LA. It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock, a little bit folk and a lot of heart. The musical expertise of this band exceeds itself with each release. Rob Waller’s singing on the song “Things Like This” does more to remind me of why I think this band is one of the best ever to come out of Los Angeles and its environs. That’s some heady competition, but I say this because its sound is unique. The listener might hear a lot of influences in I See Hawks’ music, but the end result is that no other band sounds like I See Hawks. That’s the definition of unique and the music of I See Hawks in LA.
The album is a bit different from previous discs in their catalog. Yes, the guitar playing is still exquisite, the vocals are perfectly rendered and blended, and the lyrics reflect the social consciousness, sense of humor and worldliness of the group. However, on Hawks with Good Intentions, the Hawks are joined by a duo they met on tour once and became friends and collaborators—the Good Intentions. Hailing from Liverpool, the Good Intentions are Peter Davies and Gabrielle Monk. To quote the CD’s press kit: “What emerged was a song crafting process more deliberative and careful than the Hawks have ever been disciplined enough to undertake. Where (I See Hawks composers) Paul (Lacques) and Rob Waller) often revel in their reckless irreverence for traditional forms, Peter employs a more careful and thoughtful process. The results were different from songs either group had written before.” The result, which I cannot emphasize enough in this review, is a collection of well-crafted songs that blend country, folk and a little bit of rock and blues. It’s an almost perfect California record.