Wednesday morning! Better get up and see what you can pitch to Pat. Then you remember. After 34 years, there is no more tempting your editor with tidbits of roots music. Philadelphia City Paper has been purchased by the competition and put down.
But why, why would I put in 34 years in the first place? It wasn’t the next-to-no money nor the non-existent recognition. (“Hey, are you still writing for City Paper?” asks an old friend who should know.)
No, it was purely to share the joy of music that is made by the people and for the people. What is Roots music?
Think the old story songs and ballads of an Appalachian town.
The community of union organizers like Joe Hill, who would write barbed anti-boss lyrics to familiar tunes. Hill’s memory is being recalled this year on the 100th anniversary of death.
The Freedom Singers who were invaluable aid to civil rights marches of the 60s. They, too, would take a familiar melody, gospel especially and lead the crowd in unison, adding new lyrics as needed.
Roots Music is derived from folk, but constantly evolving, living, unifying communities and drawing unsuspecting newbies. Musicians know it, studies show it: Music changes brains. The stealth do-gooder in me hopes to entice people to dare to enjoy other communities via common celebration. Roots music asks no approval of the promoters and tastemakers — the dancers and voices joining in on the chorus are affirmation enough. Many times, roots/folk/traditional players are even hoping, just a bit, to irritate the powers that be with their stubborn insistence on the right to be themselves.
Remember when Cajun music was the soundtrack for commercials everywhere, not just southern Louisiana? That wouldn’t have happened without players like Dewey Balfa, who recalled in unflattering terms how his people were treated. French was forbidden in schools when he was coming up! Yet he and his family kept the French music and language going strong. The next generation, people like BeauSoleil, mixed it irresistibly with rock and, following the Balfa lead, toured it outside Louisiana to let the whole world hear how much fun could be had. Now working on your French doesn’t seem such a chore.
Roots music implies a sense of being comfortable in a particular community. Many groups use that comfort to urge a bit of reflection. Conjunto Aztlan has been around for decades, playing traditional sounds to support lyrics that assure the community that asserting power does not mean a loss of identity.
Segueing these cultural expressions as described above so the commonality was audible — that was my meat for 14 years at radio station WXPN. When the station launched a radio guide, copy was needed and my writing career launched as well. When the station changed format, I swore I’d continue to promote roots music in any forum available. Thus my dogged contributions to City Paper. Philly is a place where people still say, “Hey, what are you?” and it is meant to be answered with pride; Syrian, Irish, Polish, Mexican, Liberian, Brazilian. American is too obvious — people want to know what they can learn from you.
Where do alt-weeklies fit into this? There is a world of people out there looking for alternatives who can’t stand the bland, who do not want things that have the compression on the highs and the lows — people who want to have ideas in their music but not at the expense of having a good time.
Before there were newspapers there were troubadours and griots. In Puerto Rico today plena is still referred to as the newspaper of the people for the almost instant setting of the latest news to music. Philadelphia is home to a large Liberian community, blessed with singers who brought the old songs with them as well as the custom of calling out changes that need to be made in communities.
The pay-off for writing about these small events is getting to be a fly on the wall, watching the grins spreading across adventurous outsiders faces as they get into the groove and recognize that we have more in common than we realize.
Finally, here are a few of my favorite and up-and-coming roots artists, albums and a film you should check out in your travels:
Toshi Reagon‘s work-in-progress, a gospel-opera setting of Octavia Butler’s novelThe Parable of the Sower, is a powerful invitation to work together before we are slowly, painfully divided and conquered. Reagon is the daughter of two of the original Freedom Singers and continues to assert that freedom in her life and work.
Sam Gleaves should calm the minds of those who worry that the New South has gone retrograde. Here is a young man who has the perfect sound of Appalachia and claims his right to be himself, as an out, blue-collar man. His next album, Ain’t We Brothers, will be released next month.
West Philadelphia Orchestra is roots music that will reach out and adopt you. When you go to see them ask how many of the players actually grew up in a Balkan community versus how many simply know a good time when they hear it —and get to play it.
Phyllis Sinclair is a First Nations (Cree) woman who was born and partly raised up on Hudson Bay. This song captures the drudgery of marginal work. I met her at the Folk Alliance International several years ago. She’s a good soul as well as good songwriter.
Les Poules à Colin call themselves “the new face of folk-trad of Québec.” They very generously permit listening to their entire new release, Ste.Waves, here:
A personal favorite among the young chicano groups, Las Cafeteras, needs to release a new recording! Until then, here is one of their best, a sassy pro-immigrant version of La Bamba.
Something on the horizon to see and hear, the film, They Will Have to Kill Us First. The film captures Malian musicians resisting the jihadis’ attempts to eradicate them. The trailer looks both infuriating and inspiring.