Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part II


As you will remember from my last post, I was assigned the task of listing my top ten folk/roots albums of all time by Penguin Eggs Magazine. So far, I've got six on my list, and I will carry on here by telling you about the last four to make my top ten list.

My first six albums all represented music that I had absorbed pretty early in life. So for my last four choices, I thought I would pick some albums that I have come to know and love more recently. I stayed away from anything too new-- for me an album can't become a keeper until I've had the experience of listening to it intensely for a while, putting it away, and then digging it out again because I love it so much.


Linda Morrison is one of my favourite singers of all time. She doesn't perform too much outside her hometown of Montreal. Her album "Line By Line" lived in our car for many years and got played on every car trip. And I mean EVERY car trip. Her music is jazzy, bluesy, her voice is heavenly, and her writing is beautiful.


Every once in a while you hear an artist who redefines everything. Eliza Gilkyson is one of those artists for me. When I first listened to this album, I had to stop and repeat most of the songs because I couldn't believe what she was doing in the space of a few minutes. Her songs are tiny masterpieces.


Penny is one of my musical heroes -- she can sing the blues, she can sing old Scottish songs, heck she could sing the phone book and I'd sit at her feet and lap it up. This album, produced by Roma Baran, is a gem.


I miss Oliver, but I am grateful to have basked even a little bit in the glow of his incredible spirit and creativity. It was hard to choose one of his albums, but this one, recorded during the time he was ill, certainly stands among his best.

And that friends, was the end of my list. After I finished my painstaking process, I held onto the list for a few days, and returned to it a bunch of times to see if I wanted to reconsider any choices. And surprisingly, the list held up (at least for those few days). Without meaning to, I created a list that was exactly split down the middle in terms of American and Canadian albums, which seemed poetic and right (as someone who was born in the U.S., but has lived in Canada for many years). There are some artists that will be familiar to lots of people, and a few that will be complete unknowns, and I liked that. Lots of powerful women in the list, and I liked that. There's old stuff, and (fairly) new stuff. There are many genres and traditions represented. All in all, it seemed like a nice mix. So I held my breath, and sent it off to Penguin Eggs.

And that's the story of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time.

I already wish I could do it all over again, but so be it. I hope that it inspires you to check out some of this music. Here's the list all in one go:

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Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part I


A few weeks ago, I posted the article I wrote for Penguin Eggs Magazine about Pete Seeger. When I submitted my article, the editor also asked me to send them a list of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time for inclusion in the front of the magazine. (Each issue of Penguin Eggs includes a top ten list from someone who is featured in that issue.)

My first reaction? You've got to be kidding! How would I boil it down to ten? And are we talking about my current favourites? The albums that influenced me most? The ones that I think are the most important? The ones that everyone else will think are cool? Each of those lists would be completely different. And, as someone with pretty broad taste, the thought of trying to represent that taste in a tiny list of ten CDs seemed completely impossible.

Not only that, but you don't get to write any explanation. They just print the list -- no context, nothing! At least if I could explain why I made my choices, I might be able to live with it. But noooo, I had to just send them the list in alphabetical order.

Of course, that's what blogs are for. So without further ado, here is the story of my top ten list, split in two parts for easier digestion.

After I foolishly said yes to Penguin Eggs, I began a week of feverish list-making. I started, off the top of my head, listing artists and albums who might be included on the list. The lists went on and on-- forty, fifty artists with no end in sight. I despaired at ever being able to boil it down.

So I started strategizing. First, I realized that I could kill many birds with one stone by including the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. It's kind of cheating because it's a three-CD boxed set. But it's an amazing collection of recordings and musicians that have remained touchstones through the years: The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Charlie Poole. So onto the list it went.


One down, nine to go.

I started thinking about albums that have stuck with me over time. Albums that I first listened to as a kid or a teenager and that I still love when I hear them now. That quickly generated a long list of albums. I looked at that list and thought about the different things they represented. Some were songwriters, some were singers and interpreters who left an indelible mark, some represented a particular style of music. So out of that list I picked five representative albums:


We listened to this album so much when I was growing up that I feel like it's in my genes. The band included a young Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), and her partner Geoff Muldaur, two musicians who are still amongst my absolute favourites.


Unfortunately I never got to hear Stan Rogers sing before he was tragically killed in 1983. Since then I've heard his songs sung by many, many other people, but for my money there's nothing like hearing him straight up, in a live situation, which is what you hear on this album.


I remember hearing Kate and Anna McGarrigle for the first time and being entranced by their mixing of musical styles, their unique harmonies, and their incredible way with words. This album still sounds completely fresh to me every time I listen to it.


My mom had several Hazel and Alice albums in our house, and it's probably because of them that I learned to love old-time music. It's not always "pretty" music. But their voices are haunting, and the music gets you right in the gut.

Sweet Honey in the Rock taught me the transcendent power of human voices raised in song. Although I believe the best way to appreciate them is in a live concert situation, the next best thing is their live concert album, "Good News."

That ended my list of albums that I've listened to since I was young. Six down, four to go.

Tune into my next post to see how the list ends...

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Friday, October 2, 2009

More on Pete Seeger

Hello friends,

I've been in blogger hibernation for a long time, but I haven't forgotten you! Sometimes it gets hard to pick up the pen and be creative on schedule, and sometimes life just takes us to other places for a while. But I've decided to plunge in again. I thought I would start by sharing an article I wrote for the latest issue of Penguin Eggs Magazine, a reflection about going to Pete Seeger's 90th birthday concert this past May. (By the way, if you are a fan of Canadian folk music, you should subscribe to Penguin Eggs.)

I can be pretty cynical about hero worship. I don’t have much patience with the impulse to elevate human beings to saint-like proportions. But a few months ago, I excitedly jumped in my car and drove to New York City for the weekend. My motivation: a chance to be in the audience for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens.

So what it is about Pete Seeger that overcomes my jaded cynicism? I guess I can’t imagine another musician who has influenced me more, or had more impact on folk music. I honestly believe I wouldn’t be performing and teaching all over Canada—indeed I wonder how many festivals, camps, concert series, and house concerts would even be here—if it weren’t for Pete Seeger.

Regardless of whether you are a fan of Pete Seeger, there is no denying his profound influence on all of us involved in folk music. There’s no way to sum up that influence in a short article, but here are some things that come to mind when I think of Pete Seeger:


I think of the many concerts I attended as a kid, where an older lanky guy with twinkly blue eyes—dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers—enthusiastically coaxed thousands of us to sing together in beautiful harmony. Sometimes he told stories, or played whistle, or sang in foreign languages. He had a casual, friendly way of speaking that made you feel like you were sitting in his living room. And he talked and sang about ordinary people from all over—people from the mountains of Appalachia, the mines of South Africa, the river valleys of New York State, or the cities of India and Northern Ireland.

He always had news to share, about striking farm workers, the struggle against apartheid, or the river that ran by his house in Beacon, New York. There were people to remember—Woody Guthrie, Jose Marti, Victor Jara. There was celebration, of simple things like maple syrup, or important things like the end of segregation in the south. And there was always more work to be done. So why not sing as we work?



I think of songs. Thousands of songs. Songs like “Guantanamera,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Wimoweh,” and “We Shall Overcome” that Pete helped spread around the world. I think of all the songs I learned from my mom, a red diaper baby from the Bronx who grew up singing folk music. I think of the songs I’ve learned from other musicians, or recordings, or Sing Out! Magazine—a magazine that Pete helped usher into being. And I think of informal gatherings across Canada and the US where people get together to sing, purely for fun.

I think of banjos. Lots of them. And all the people who were inspired by his book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.” I think of his banjo, inscribed with the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

I think of Pete, appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, refusing to discuss any people or organizations he had sung for, and insisting on his right to sing where and for whomever he pleased. And if he could just sing them a few songs, surely they would comprehend his love for his country.

I think of the college campuses and church basements and summer camps where Pete sang during the blacklist years. How he managed to survive those lean times and foster a new audience for folk music, creating a grassroots performing circuit in the process.

I think of the Hudson River, which used to be so polluted that you couldn’t swim or fish in it. And I think of the organization Pete founded in 1969 to save that river: Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. His idea: build a replica of an old river sloop, and sail it up and down the river, educating people about the river. Forty years later, the Hudson River is clean enough to swim in, largely due to the efforts of Clearwater.

Most of all, when I think of Pete Seeger, I think of an unflagging optimism that permeates everything he does—a belief that if we can somehow pull ourselves together, if each of us can do our part, we just might be able to save the planet and live together in peace.

It’s an optimism I find hard to maintain sometimes. And yet, here he was on May 3rd, at 90 years old, playing his banjo in Madison Square Gardens and leading 18,000 people in singing “Amazing Grace.” In the middle of the song, he paused, and told the story of John Newton, the slaveship operator who had a change of heart, found god, and became an anti-slavery activist. Newton eventually wrote dozens of hymns, among them “Amazing Grace.” If a man like John Newton can change, Pete seemed to be saying, surely there is hope for all of us. And if 18,000 people can sing together in harmony, surely we can overcome our differences and find peaceful solutions to our problems.

Amazing Grace, indeed. Thanks, Pete. Here’s to you and your 90 years.

Published in Penguin Eggs Magazine, Autumn 2009 issue

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pete's "Nobel" Work


There's a campaign in progress to get Pete Seeger nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Find out more and sign the petition here.

Pete's been in the news a lot recently. As I mentioned recently, he won the Best Traditional Folk Album at the Grammys for his album "At 89."

He got a whole jaded New York TV audience singing along on Late Night with David Letterman a little while ago. And he performed at the 2009 Inauguration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Bruce Springsteen.



It's hard to imagine a living musician today who's had more influence on the social movements of our times. If anyone deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, it's Pete Seeger. Go sign the petition.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Picture In Your Head

Over on Maplepost, the Canadian folk music email listserv, there's a conversation going on about the fact that iTunes recently deleted "folk music" from it's list of music genres, choosing instead to use the label "singer-songwriter."

For some people the term "folk music" is, well, corny. They argue that "singer-songwriter" is a term more likely to resonate with younger music fans, and presents a new opportunity for those of us toiling away in the margins of the music industry.

Leaving aside the question where people are supposed to find traditional fiddle music or The Watersons on iTunes now, the move somehow symbolizes the basic identity problem that folk music suffers from in the twenty-first century.

Personally, I can't help but feel disappointed that iTunes did away with the "Folk" category. Call me corny if you want, but I feel like "Folk Music" is the label that best defines what I do.

Yes, I write songs, and I sing, so I guess that makes me a singer-songwriter. But I also feel like I'm a musician connected to a wellspring of music that is part of our common heritage, songs created and shaped by masses of ordinary people passing tunes and words back and forth in an oral tradition. I'm also connected to contemporary musicians who created new music inspired and influenced by that wellspring. I don't know what else to call that wellspring except, "folk music," so I call myself a "folk musician."

But at the same time, there's a dilemma in calling myself a folk musician, which has to do with the picture people get in their head when they hear the term "folk music." And unfortunately, the picture people get in their head doesn't correspond at all with what I know and love about contemporary folk music and the folk tradition. Here's a paraphrase of a conversation I have actually had a few times:

Me: Do you like folk music?
Them: No, I don't like folk music at all. But you know what I really like? Traditional Quebec music, and gospel music, and east coast music, like the fiddle and the step dancing. And I like Bob Dylan a lot.

You get the picture.

So what do I do about this dilemma? Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, and I intersperse terms like "roots music" or "acoustic music" when I'm writing or talking about my music. But frankly, I don't find any of it satisfactory. Mostly, I just wish people got a different picture in their head when they heard the words "folk music."

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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Story of Josh White's Guitar

Ron Olesko's blog alerted me to a PBS TV program that might interest folk music fans. It's about Josh White's guitar. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to determine when it will be on in my area. Here's the description:
JOSH WHITE GUITAR
AIRING: Season 6, Episode 11
THE DETECTIVE: Elyse Luray
THE PLACE: New York City and New Jersey
THE CASE: A Michigan man owns a Guild brand acoustic guitar that he says once belonged to legendary African-American folksinger Josh White, who is credited with introducing black folk, gospel and blues music to a world audience in the 1940s.

Our contributor met White after a concert when he was a kid, and the guitar reminds him of a confidence White had shared with him: the Guild Company was talking to White about making a signature guitar built to his specifications and to be marketed under his name.

If this is the guitar White had spoken of, it would be the first signature guitar ever created for an African American musician in the United States.

History Detectives explores the crossover appeal of Josh White’s music and his ability to win over a racially polarized music industry.
And actually, there's more. It looks like this episode of the show also has some other interesting folk music-related stories:
Special Edition: Slave Songbook; Josh White Guitar; Birthplace of Hip Hop

An 1867 book titled "Slave Songs of the United States" that may be the first published collection of black spirituals; a possible prototype for a Josh White signature guitar made by the Guild Company in the 1940s; the birthplace of hip-hop.
Now if I could just figure out when to turn my TV on...

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's amazing what you find...

...surfing around the internet.

Check out this site of bad album covers.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Recent Reading List

I've recently been reading a lot, indulging my interest in music history, creativity, the brain, and community. Here's a list of what I've motored through in the last few months:

The Gift, by Lewis Hyde: I loved it. For anyone who works in a creative field, it's a must read. It's hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but basically it's about the value of creative endeavor in a modern society defined by money and commodification. The book has been out for 25 years-- not exactly new on the scene-- but it's central theme doesn't seem dated at all. It was hard slogging in some places because the writing is densely packed and the ideas are pretty heady. But I found myself constantly underlining passages and reading parts aloud to my partner. And I'm still thinking about it, almost a month later.

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song by Steve Turner tells the history of this seminal song, from a detailed biography of the song's author John Newton, to a history of the song's rise to iconic status. Over the years, the myth of the song has grown, but Turner does a good job of clearing away the mythology and establishing the facts of Newton's life, as far as we know them, and putting the song in a historical context.

Continuing on my music history kick, I also read White Christmas: The Story of an American Song. Author Jody Rosen tells the compelling story of the most recorded song in musical history. There's a lot more meat to this story than you might think - the song's creation was anything but straightforward, and it did not become an instant classic. Although it's a short book, Rosen packs in a lot of insight into the life of Irving Berlin, the workings of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, social mores of 1940's America, the birth of Christmas music, and more. Highly recommended.

And, moving to my interest in music and the brain, Daniel Levitin's latest book, The World in Six Songs is a fascinating look into how humans evolved into musical beings. I loved Levitin's first book, This is Your Brain on Music, and the new book did not disappoint.

And finally, right now, I'm reading Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Academic, but very juicy. I'll try to report back on that one when I'm done.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Music is a Natural Human Activity

Since my idea for a slogan for Toronto went over like a lead balloon, maybe I'll return to writing about something I know. Recently, over on the Maplepost (the Canadian Folk Music listserv) there was a discussion about open stages, "good" and "bad" music, and whether it's okay to judge or evaluate someone else's music. I posted a response, which I'm dividing into two blog entries, because I want to elaborate on the second part a bit more. But here's the first part of what I posted:

Once upon a time, in almost every society in which you can trace cultural history, music was a collective activity that was part of the life of a community -- pretty much everyone sang and danced, and there were special songs and dances for life events like birth, reaching adulthood, celebrating the harvest, the turn of the seasons, marriage, and death. Music and dance was an important part of the fabric of communities because it brought people together, passed on information, helped create a feeling of cohesion and social unity, and so on. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied these things have noted that one of the things that marked this kind of activity in a community is the lack of separation between the singer/dancer and an "audience." In other words, there was no audience, it was a participatory activity that everyone did. The idea of whether you are "good" or "bad" at it didn't even make sense. There are some parts of the world where this is still true.

Today, we in North America live in a very different society. Music is generally not something that is woven into the fabric of most people's lives anymore-- it's something that we purchase, listen to, watch, but it's not something that everyone is expected to participate in on a regular basis. There is a clear separation between performer and audience. And we grow up with the idea that if we aren't brilliant singers (or dancers or players or writers or...), then we should keep our mouths shut. And many of us do. We get the message that singing is a talent, some people have it, and some don't, and if you don't have it, you are out of luck. I think this is a tragedy. It means many people are alienated from their own musicality and creativity, they never get the chance to try out their voices, or have the transcendent experience of being part of a large group making music together. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in music and other creative pursuits without being judged in some way.

In that context, I think it's critical that we create places and spaces where people can make music together without the expectation of perfection, places where people can sing or play purely for the joy of it, rather than for applause or adulation. Places where it doesn't matter what your skill level is. Where, even if the singer needs some work on their musical skills, their contribution to the spirit of the event will be recognized and appreciated. This might be a song circle, a jam session, an open stage, or some other kind of friendly musical exchange. We need these kinds of spaces because we need to bring back music-making as a natural human activity.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Modern Day Collectors


When I think about folk music collectors, I usually think of early musicologists tramping through the Appalachians to document traditional ballad singers in the 19th century. Or maybe John and Alan Lomax, carrying an acetate disk recorder in the back of a station wagon to rural parts of North America.

But even today, there are dedicated musicians who are tracking down older musicians and recording their songs, stories, and tunes. Here's a link to an NPR piece about one group of modern day collectors. Good to know that there are people out there preserving some of our rich musical heritage.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remembering Estelle

Last night I was part of a wonderful evening at Hugh's Room celebrating two of my musical heroes and friends-- Ken Whiteley and Estelle Klein-- as they were inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

Estelle was the visionary programmer of the Mariposa Festival for many years, during it's "golden era." She is widely credited with developing the idea of the folk festival workshop to it's apex, and she's had a huge influence on folk festivals across North America. Ken Whiteley has been a driving force in the Canadian folk and roots music scene since the late 1960's, as a multi-talented musician, producer, children's performer, mentor, and organizer. I will write more about Ken in a future post, but today I want to focus on Estelle.



I moved to Toronto after the heyday of Mariposa, but I was fortunate to get to know Estelle a little bit in the few years before she passed away. My friend Dave Barnard and I were the honoured people who got to interview her on stage at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals when the Estelle Klein Award was established and she became the first recipient. We spent many hours in conversation leading up to that interview. We talked about her early life and introduction to folk music, how she thought about programming the festival, and her work after leaving Mariposa. In truth, we barely scratched the surface, but those conversations opened my mind to the many possibilities in programming an event like Mariposa.

What came through to me was about more than workshop titles or who she put on a stage together. It was about a whole way of looking at culture, not just as entertainment, but as a vital, living expression of people's lives and experiences. She was genuinely curious about the connections between music, art, crafts, language, food, dance, history, and politics. When she brought performers, crafters, and dancers to the festival, she wasn't just interested in the final product they were presenting (the song, the dance, the craftwork). She was interested in the context of their artistic expression-- where their sensibility came from, the community that they lived in or were raised in, how they learned to sing/play/write/paint/dance etc., what historical or personal events influenced their art, and how all of that might be connected to someone else's life experience or artistic expression-- and to the life experience of her audience. Her choices about workshop programming grew out of that curiousity and that impulse to connect different threads of people's music, art, and dance.

She thought about themes that could carry through the programming and connect different elements. She was as interested in craft, dance, and storytelling as she was in music, and she worked hard to integrate each of those elements into the festival in a way that was respectful and joyful. She helped develop an extensive First Nations area at the festival that was far ahead of its time. Similarly, she brought "world music" to the folk festival long before the term had even been invented. And as Ken Whiteley noted last night, her commitment to equity carried through every aspect of the festival-- from the standard amount that all performers were paid (regardless of stature) to the respectful treatment given to everyone involved with the festival, whether they were performers, crafters, or volunteers.

The result of her vision and her creativity was an absolutely incredible event that had a profound influence on all of the people who participated - artists, volunteers, and audience members. When I speak to people who attended Mariposa during those years, there's an almost universal sense that it changed their lives in some way or another. Some talk about seeing musical influences like Mississippi John Hurt or John Prine. Others talk about making lifelong friendships and becoming part of the folk community. Still others listened and learned from the ideas at Mariposa and went on to produce festivals and events of their own.

It's hard to overestimate the influence of someone like Estelle. There is much more that could and should be said. I'm just grateful I got to know her a little bit, and happy to have been part of last night's moving tribute to her lasting legacy. Thank you, Estelle Klein.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I Need a Nickname

I love nicknames. I've never had a nickname, and I'm thinking if I could find the right nickname, I could ratchet up my "cool" factor. Think about it. Having a nickname gives you a mysterious quality. A musician with a nickname obviously has friends, because who else gives you a nickname? But more importantly, it means you have some unmistakable quality that deserves to immortalized -- think Duke Ellington, or Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Some nicknames describe a physical attribute -- like Fats Waller, or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Sometimes it has to do with where the person is from (Mississippi John Hurt), or the fact they aren't really from anywhere (Ramblin' Jack Elliott). Maybe some habit or style they have (Ringo Starr).

Even some of my folkie friends and heroes have nicknames: Curly Boy Stubbs (Paul Mills), Utah Phillips, Libba Cotten.

Then there are the honorific titles that people are given -- Queen of the Blues (Dinah Washington), Queen of Country Music (Kitty Wells), or Little Miss Dynamite (Brenda Lee). I could live with something like that.

But I think the best nicknames are the ones that are just completely unexplainable, like Satchmo (Louis Armstrong). You can't tell exactly where that came from (actually, here's the story), but it just sounds very cool.

That's the kind of nickname I'd like.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The People's Music

There is a wonderful five-part series airing on CBC Radio's "Inside the Music" right now. Narrated by Gary Cristall, "The People's Music" is a look at the history of folk music in English Canada.

It's about time we had a program like this in Canada -- up until now, it seems like we've been sadly lacking in documentaries that trace the history of folk and roots music in Canada. I've only caught one episode so far, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into the developing folk scene in Canada in the 1950's. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

Now, when are we going to get a film version?

THE PEOPLE’S MUSIC

A 5-part documentary series on CBC Radio
on the history & development of Folk Music in English Canada
with Gary Cristall

Airing Sundays: July 6, 13, 20, 27 & August 3 on “Inside the Music”
Noon – CBC Radio Two
8pm – CBC Radio One (1/2 hour later in Newfoundland)
& on Sirius Radio (check schedules)

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Monday, June 30, 2008

On Freight Train

"Freight Train" is one of those songs that every acoustic guitar player learns at some point. I learned it as a kid when I was taking guitar lessons, but I don't think I truly appreciated it until I became a guitar teacher myself. Now, it's one of the first tunes I will teach to a student who wants to learn how to fingerpick a melody. The beauty of "Freight Train" is that it's deceptively simple. You can play it completely straight -- with no syncopation or fancy licks, which is what makes it so perfect for teaching fingerstyle guitar. And it's great for learning how to syncopate and interpret a melody in different ways. Somehow even though I hear it almost every week, I never get tired of it.



I once saw Libba Cotton, the author of "Freight Train," perform a concert at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. She must have been at least 92. She had recently fallen and broken her ankle, so she performed the entire concert with her foot in a cast, propped up on a chair in front of her. She was one of the most down-to-earth, personable performers I have ever seen. I feel lucky to have seen that concert.

Today I learned "Freight Train" has been inducted into the Library of Congress as one of the most important recordings ever.

Congratulations to Libba Cotton, and here's to one of the seminal folk songs of our time, "Freight Train."

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