With the month of December officially in full swing, there is no denying the onslaugh of the winter holidays. From Hanukkah (which just passed) to the Solstice, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Year's and so forth, the month ahead has a whole lot of celebrating in store. Generally, the first thing we all do with that increasing awareness, is to go down in the basement (or whatever closet is packed away) and pull out all the holiday decorations we've been accumulating through the years.
So, in the interest of decking the halls, it seemed like an optimum time to consider that old Welsh winter ballad whose lyrics were completely reimagined by a Scottish folk songwriter back in the nineteenth century. "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly" has an interesting and somewhat convoluted history that ranges from Welsh secular winter celebration to Wolfgang Mozart and various touches by folksingers along the way... right up to your typical American front stoop, where carolers show up and spread the cheer. Learn more about "Deck the Halls" with this folk song history.
photo: Getty Images
As the rest of the world became ever more aware of the vibrant energy fueling American folk music these days, the artists and songwriters who have been deeply rooted in traditional American music all along have only benefitted. While talking heads debate whether what's happening with the milennial folk boom can even be considered "folk," here in the folk world we're well aware that the music is just as lively, creative, imaginative, and honest as it's ever been.
This year's finest albums include efforts from long-time favorites and a handful of newcomers. They encompass progressive bluegrass stringbands, aging mid-Century Revivalists, contemporary folk-pop trouabdours, conservatory grads, and one Gulf State alt-country rocker who stripped away the filigree and laid the truth down hard. So, without further ado, check out these Best Folk Music Albums of 2013. See any glaring omissions? Tell me about them in the comments.
image © Southeastern/Thirty Tigers
There's no denying it any longer, folks. The season of giving is upon us and the time has come to gather some gifts for loved ones in the name of whatever year-end holiday you choose to celebrate. Hanukkah is already in full swing, so you may already have some gifts out of the way if you celebrate that one. But there is still time to stock up for that and other winter holiday celebrations.
If you have any folk music fans in your life, and are looking for something other than your standard run-of-the-mill CD gifts (although those are perfectly acceptable), check out this gift guide for picky folk fans. It covers everything from big-ticket items like a trip to a folk festival, to smaller more portable things like books and movies. What's your favorite gift for folk fans? Leave ideas in the comments.
image © Rounder Records
Spotlights have been turning on folksinger Dave Van Ronk recently, as the Coen Brothers have teamed up with T Bone Burnett (who has teamed up with Marcus Mumford) for a new movie based on the vibrant tradition of American folk music. This time, the team has focused their efforts on adapting the story of Van Ronk to film, and the result - Inside Llewyn Davis - hits theaters next week, Dec. 6, 2013.
Ramping up to that release, the folks at Smithsonian Folkways first released a new collection of everything they had on hand form Van Ronk's years recording for that label - Down in Washington Square. The memoir from which the Coens pulled, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was reissued with a new cover stating that it was the book that inspired the movie. And now, the folks at Fantasy Recordings are reissuing Van Ronk's 1964 classic Inside Dave Van Ronk album on vinyl.
According to a press release:
Recorded in April of '62 during the same bountiful sessions that produced his first Fantasy album, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, this solo set comprises a dozen songs weighted heavily toward traditional themes ("House Carpenter," "Lady Gay," "Kentucky Moonshiner," "He Never Came Back"), many of them acquired from his folk-singing peers during the days when he was a regular presence playing al fresco in Manhattan's Washington Square. There's also an up-to-the-minute "Talking Cancer Blues" that humorously explored the evils of smoking prior to the Surgeon General's original report. In addition to wielding his trusty six- and 12-string guitars, Van Ronk exhibited his skills on banjo, dulcimer, and autoharp.
image © Fantasy Records
For 23 years, Ani DiFranco has been dropping albums at a remarkable rate, filling the world with feminism, challenging patriarchy through folk songs, and even occasionally writing a gut-punching, heart-breaking love song or two. She's performed around the world as everything from a solo artist with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, to a sizable band featuring rhythm, keys, vibes, and horns. And, she's developed a style of guitar playing that has influenced countless young folksingers to pick up the instrument and attack it with a certain rhythmical ferocity.
So, it was only a matter of time before someone gave her an honorary Doctorate and music organizations started recognizing her for lifetime achievement. Both are happening this week in Canada, as the Winnipeg Folk Festival awards her the Artistic Achievement Award and the University of Winnipeg presents her with an honorary doctorate of letters. Both are incredibly well-deserved, when you consider her discography and some of her finest songs. So, congratulations to Dr. DiFranco!
image © Mark Dellas
Two notable news items have popped up in the folk world this past week. The first is a remarkable new video - at long last - from Bob Dylan. The video for his 1965 song "Like a Rolling Stone" (from Highway 61 Revisited) premiered this week, featuring an interactive element that allows viewers to change the channel. No matter what channel you change the video to - the financial news network, a cooking show, a movie channel, etc. - the people on the screen are lipsynching to the song. It's entertaining and engaging, and plays out like an old-school "choose your own adventure" story, allowing you to watch over and over and never get the same video twice. Check it out at Bob Dylan's video page or learn more about the history of the song.
Meanwhile, the folks at Daytrotter have posted a recording they made of Mumford & Sons collaborating with members of Old Crow Medicine Show, Those Darlins, Willy Mason, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and others. The session was recorded during the Mumfords' Gentlemen of the Road Tour - the traveling festival they took across the contiguous 48 this summer. It includes seven songs and is well worth your time and energy.
image © Sony/Columbia
Continuing my ongoing quest to provide music and American history students far and wide with great study guides for their exploration of the history of folksingers and protest music, I decided to turn a spotlight on some of the great documentary films available.
Granted, many of the documentaries exploring American folk music focus specifically on the artists and styles that characterized the mid-20th Century folk revival. From the music of the civil rights era to individual studies of specific artists, these films are great but only scratch the surface of folk music history. When I started pulling this list togehter, I was hard-pressed to find documentaries that weren't focused on the artists who have sold the most records (ahem Bob Dylan). But, when I really honed in, I realized the history portrayed in this list of the best folk music documentaries includes information about the long history of folk music which preceded these artists, and they way their influence has ingnited other generations' interest in the form.
I also included a study on the way oppressed communities in the South employed folk music to lift them up during the apex of the struggle toward integration. (I hesitate to call it the civil rights movement, because that is something that is still going on, though the music has in some cases stayed the same.) I also included a brand new documentary that's making the rounds of arthouse movie theaters across the country, spotlighting the current American folksinger circuit and Folk Alliance gatherings, following some of the most talented, little-known artists.
image © Shangri-La Entertainment
I'm not exaggerating when I say one of the best shows I've ever seen - and I've seen many - was Nickel Creek live in Seattle, about two months before they split up. This should't be surprising. The progressive bluegrass trio had been together a whopping 20 years at that point - a feat, considering they were all in their late 20s or early 30s. They had grown up together, figuring out music together along the way. Their synergy was twin-like (or, rather, triplet-like), not just because two of the members (Sean and Sara Watkins) are siblings; but because the musicianship of all three was so beautifully matched.
But, no good thing can last forever, so Nickel Creek split up and went their separate ways. Sean and Sara Watkins persisted as a brother-sister duo, performing Watkins Family Hour shows in Los Angeles, featuring some of their incredibly gifted, famous friends. They also both joined the Works Progress Administration with Benmohnt Tench, Luke Bulla, Glen Phillips, and Greg Liesz - one of the best little-known bands of recent years. Sara Watkins put out a couple of solo albums that were both stunners. And Chris Thile spun off onto solo projects, eventually forming the freakishly formidable Punch Brothers, who were so heavily involved in the Llewyn Davis soundtrack.
So, it makes sense that such an event as a film about the folk music revival, should spur the reunion of one of the finest acoustic bands to have emerged since Greenwich Village gave way to similar scenes across the country. The trio came together in Santa Monica this week, as CBS Films - the folks behind Inside Llewyn Davis - threw their second giant concert to promote the film's release (the first was in New York City earlier this autumn, featuring Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Milk Carton Kids, and more). According to Billboard, the troupe is planning to release a new Nickel Creek record in Spring 2014, followed by about a dozen dates across the country. And, trust me, those, you won't want to miss.
photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Earlier this year, Anais Mitchell released an EP with Jefferson Hamer, where the pair revived some of the ballads collected and popularized by James Child. Mitchell and Hamer's Child Ballads were a beautiful, if brief, collection, which followed last year's Young Man in America - her follow-up to the folk opera she wrote based on the Orpheus myth, Hadestown. In fact, for the past many years, Anais Mitchell has been delivering music that has solidified her footing as a songwriter's songwriter, the type of artist other artists look up to for her remarkable command of her craft.
Another such artist is, of course, Patty Griffin, whose songs are not only beautiful coming form her mouth, but have been picked up by everyone from Emmylou Harris to the Dixie Chicks. In fact, the Dixie Chicks recorded a couple of songs from Griffin's long lost album Silver Bell, which has just seen the light of day, at last, this year. Originally intended to follow the release of her gritty rock record, Flaming Red, the long lost record fits just as snugly in today's market, at this end of Griffin's remarkable career.
In January, these two ladies will join forces for a tour that starts and ends in Texas, traveling up through the center of the country in the middle. Tickets for all shows will be less than $20, making it one of the most affordable awesome shows you'll see this year. If you live in the center states, you'll want to mark your calendar for these performances:
Jan 23 - Dan's Silverleaf - Denton, TX
Jan 24 - The Blue Door - Oklahoma City, OK
Jan 25 - The Bottleneck - Lawrence, KS
Jan 26 - The Waiting Room - Omaha, NE
Jan 28 - Engler Theater - Iowa City, IA
Jan 29 - High Noon - Madison, WI
Jan 30 - Shank Hall - Milwaukee, WI
Jan 31 - The Metro - Chicago, IL
Feb 1 - Ann Arbor Folk Festival - Ann Arbor, MI
Feb 4 - Buskirk-Chumley Theater - Bloomington, IN
Feb 5 - The Canopy Club - Urbana, IL
Feb 6 - The Blue Note - Columbia, MO
Feb 7 - George's Majestic - Fayetteville, AR
Feb 8 - The Live Oak - Fort Worth, TX
image courtesy Righteous Babe Records
If you check this site often, you'll know I've been on a tear of sharing some great reading lists for folks who are just learning about folk music or who, perhaps, are looking further into the form for a class or project. I hear from students all the time who are trying to find great books to read as a resource for a school project, so I'm trying to deliver with a series of study guides.
Recently, I shared study guides for protest music and artist biographies. But, sometimes it can be more interesting to read about the history of the music, straight from the people making it. As first-hand accounts always go, not everything in these books is firmly historically accurate, but it'll give you the best image you'll find beyond the music itself, as to how the artist experienced the events in the books. From a collection of Pete Seeger's letters to the autobiography of one of the most successful folk-pop singer-songwriters of the 1960s and '70s (Janis Ian, pictured here), to Greenwich Village and a firsthand tale from the great Woody Guthrie, here's a look at some essential folksinger memoirs.
image © Penguin Group