The Common Good
May-June 1996

Folk Music Stories

by Bob Hulteen | May-June 1996

Huey Long taught us that "all politics is personal."
1970s feminist activists showed us how "the personal is political."
Folk musicians remind us that personal stories have ...

Huey Long taught us that "all politics is personal." 1970s feminist activists showed us how "the personal is political." Folk musicians remind us that personal stories have political implications. But what's the best formula for these truths to be played out?

Multiple Grammy nominee Joan Osborne has

jumped from relative obscurity into the middle of the recording industry with her 1995 major-label debut, Relish (PolyGram Records). Hit single "One of Us" asks the incarnational question, "What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us/Like a stranger on a bus?"

According to Entertainment Weekly, "One of Us" almost didn't make the recording: Osborne wanted to highlight her own songwriting, and this pop tune was written by Eric Bazilian. Producer Rick Chertoff eventually convinced Osborne to include the song. Its wide exposure has given her original material a boost. Though the pop tunes on the recording have gotten most of the initial notice, the R & B material is actually musically more interesting.

Supported by daring instrumentation, Tori Amos purrs her way through much of her recent release, Boys for Pele (Atlantic, 1996). The recipient of critical acclaim, Amos' constant breathiness on this album is underscored by harpsichord, strings, and brass. But with lyrics that only Suzanne Vega could understand, I was left with the lingering question, Do her feet ever touch down on the real world?

The same is not true for Ani DiFranco. Her recent release, Not a Pretty Girl (Righteous Babe, 1995), doesn't fit neatly into any predictable musical category-rock, pop, folk. And the lyrics are so intimate (a la Sinead O'Connor) they're painful. At her best, DiFranco is intensely and "politically" personal. At her worst, she offers self-indulgent psychobabble, with each of her "insights" pushed upon us all. Unearthing deeply personal thoughts, she overlays her feelings to global proportions.

If you are comfortable with this level of lyrical intimacy, Not a Pretty Girl is a dynamite recording; if not, the ever-prolific DiFranco's next release, Dilate, is due out in mid-May.

LESLIE TUCKER is much more the contemplative folk singer. She writes convincingly about the stuff of life (heartbreak, the loss of a loved one, and love expressed), inviting listeners in without holding them hostage to her own emotions. The ensuing gentle rapport leaves the listener feeling the support of a close friend, rather than overly exposed or misunderstood (DiFranco and Amos).

The strongest cuts of In This Room (Compass Records, 1995) are the bluesy "One Step At a Time" and "Isn't Everything Enough" ("Well you wanted it all/And you heard those voices call/But you forgot the Golden Rule/You let all that glitter blind you/Now you're saying life is tough/Isn't everything enough?"). Tucker's more upbeat bluegrass offerings are a bit less interesting. But her voice, like that of a siren, is impossible to resist.

Kindred folkie Leslie Smith has recently offered her first CD, These Things Wrapped (Waterbug, 1995). Strong lyrical content accompanied by unintrusive guitar work adds a sense of immediacy to Smith's voice. Even a cynic must respond to the portraits of love's possibilities that Smith paints. Of the romance of an elderly couple, Smith sings in "Midnight Pirouette": "Her silver slippers, his goofy grin/He gave her wheelchair a spin/What a lovely waltz, you'd be surprised, time don't forget/The subtle turning of a midnight pirouette."

Smith's inspiration seems so genuine and insightful that I'd get nervous sitting next to her in a coffee shop for fear that some piece of my life would end up a song. But her words and melody are therapeutic; Smith can "cure what ails ya'."

Iris DeMent followed up her 1992 release, Infamous Angel, with her reflective My Life (Warner Bros., 1994). With a more intense country twang, DeMent sings a variety of songs, many with references to her father, who had recently passed away. (She concludes the extensive dedication, "He was an honest man, and in spite of any mistakes he may have made, his heart was pure. So I have no doubt whatsoever but that Glory is just exactly where he is. My Dad was not a rich man, but he left me a great treasure. These songs are for him.")

Like Tori Amos, the daughter of a preacher, DeMent's songs are peppered with Christian imagery. Unlike Amos, most are positive and offer new insights to those who have ears to hear.

The hottest commodity on the folk circuit these days is Dar Williams. Her Mortal City (Razor & Tie Entertainment, 1996) is arousing a passionate response from critics and fans alike...for good reason. This recording is a solid showcasing of Williams' accomplishments in the genre.

Williams wry yet poignant humor is most obvious; she doesn't make fun of our pain, but offers a light from the other side of it by making light of it. In "The Christians and the Pagans," she looks at a potentially uncomfortable family reunion: "So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table/Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able/And where does magic come from? I think magic's in the learning/Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning."

One effect of listening to this wide variety is to be reminded of the strength of the individual. Though very different, these women all express power and empowerment, in one way or another.

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