Thursday, 15 July 2010

Not another generic folk artist, Gregory Alan Isakov

Folk music has the ability of capturing certain moods particularly well (yearning, melancholy or contentment). Historically, folk music dates back prior to the recorded media, and thus formed part of a society's oral tradition. In America folk musicians like Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) and Leadbelly (1888-1949) sang about people and stories that were deeply rooted in the American psyche. Themes sung about included those of war, work, civil rights and (lost) love. Because the origins of the genre lay in the working class, it was a type of music appreciated by most.

Three periods in American folk history can be mentioned: Early modern folk, grounded in the toils of Southern slave's struggle to survive (We Shall Overcome, Down by the Riverside, etc.) before and after the American Civil War (1861–1865). With the advent of the Industrial revolution and Fordism, the genre focused around worker's conditions and struggle for child labour laws and the eight hour work day.

Middle modern folk music in the 1930's centered around the Depression and the crash of the stock markets in 1929. Folk music experienced a revival in popularity with folk musician Woody Guthrie (who later inspired Bob Dylan).

Late modern folk in the 1960's was concerned mostly with civil rights. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and others found inspiration in the black's fight for equality in a society that blindly would not recognize this. Karen Dalton revisited folk tales of the 18th and 19th century with haunting vocals (Katie Cruel dates back to the American Revolution of 1775–1783).

Contemporary folk has been accused of being revisionistic, lacking in innovation and excessively naturalistic for its time. Let us consider this: Today folk music certainly looks back for inspiration, but that is also allowed! New genres like alternative and indie folk are thriving and pushing boundaries in their own way: The New Weird America movement encapsulates some of the good ideas currently resurging (though plagued by hipsters like Devendra Banhart who try a bit too hard to be alternative, see my previous rant on this). The music is still heavily naturalistic (depicting life as it is) but that has also always been the essence of the genre.

Today I look at Colorado traditionalist Gregory Alan Isakov, whose album That Sea, The Gambler from 2007 has come to my attention for its lyrical purity. In the classical tradition of the genre, the album is heavily naturalistic, rooted in American rural life and beautifully delivered with banjo.

"Ring like silver, ring like gold
Ring out those ghosts on the Ohio
Ring like clear day wedding bells
Were we the belly of the beast, or the sword that fell?
We'll never tell"


Stable Song: Grounded in lyrical prowess, the song centers around the classical motif of lost love, which pains the artist in the night "And I ached for my heart like some tin man". There is a lyrical subtlety in this (his best) song that makes it hard to put down. I found the mood to be haunting and in proper tradition of seminal folk artists like Leadbelly or Karen Dalton, with infusions of modern folk artists like Leonard Cohen and the gravitas of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. However, Gregory is himself, not another Jeff Buckley-lookalike. His unrequited yearning lands him a place amongst other contemporary artists like Andrew Bird.

3 a.m.: Touching on classical notions of the American psyche (yearning to be home while driving across the expansive American territory). Driving is a central action of the song, as it is a central part of being American.

"well its 3 a.m again, like it always seems to be
drivin northbound, drivin homeward, drivin wind is drivin me
and it just seems so funny that I always end up here,
walkin outside in the storm while looking way up past the tree-line
its been some time…"

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