folk

Rollin' on Down the Highway

Peter Case
Peter Case

HIGHWAY 62 runs from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to El Paso, Texas, and is the only U.S. highway to connect Canada and Mexico. In my home state of Kentucky, it passes the Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg and the state maximum security penitentiary at Eddyville.

Further north it takes you to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of roots music singer-songwriter Peter Case. That’s why he picked HWY 62 as the title for his latest album, a collection that can be taken as a sort of “state of the nation” recording. The Christian Science Monitor even said that the album “plays like a John Steinbeck novel set to music.” And they have a point. Most of the album’s 11 songs are peopled with prisoners and deportees, the evicted and the gentrified, and other 21st-century American outcasts.

Unlike many folkie populists, Case comes by his sympathy for the down-and-out honestly, if a little foolishly. Back on that lost planet that was the1970s, he dropped out of high school to become a musician and eventually landed on the streets of San Francisco, hungry, homeless, and frequently drunk. This part of Case’s life is covered unsparingly in the blog/memoir that he keeps at petercase.com, some of which has become a book, As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport.

After a near-miss with the poppish-punk band The Nerves, Case got his ticket to the music business punched with The Plimsouls, whose hit, “A Million Miles Away,” was one of the high-water marks of jangly 1980s New Wave rock. But then, just before he could become really rich and famous, Case’s contrarian streak reasserted itself. He left the band and started what now looks to be the rest of his life as a singer-songwriter who sometimes records with the likes of T Bone Burnett and Ry Cooder, but most often performs solo with his own acoustic guitar and harmonica.

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New & Noteworthy

GOING IT ALONE
Carolina Chocolate Drops front woman Rhiannon Giddens’ new album Tomorrow Is My Turn is sometimes folk, sometimes gospel, and occasionally haunting. But whether Giddens is singing of the beauty of black skin, the presence of God, or the love of a partner, she sounds like pure talent and soaring power. Nonesuch
 
VERSES VS. DEATH
In settings from Abu Ghraib prison to a Quaker meeting to memory, where his father says “My son, you are Arab, be proud of it,” Philip Metres’ newest poetry collection, Sand Opera, expresses elegant sorrow and rage at torture, war, the military-industrial complex, and bigotry. Alice James Books
 
INSIDE U.S. TRAFFICKING
Tricked, Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson’s 2013 documentary about the U.S. sex industry is now available on DVD. It shows us exploitive pimps, the cops who battle them, impenitent johns, and prostituted women and girls who are younger, more vulnerable, and more abused than we might imagine. First Run Features
 
TRANSITION WITH MEANING
In Tailings: A Memoir, Kaethe Schwehn skillfully describes life in intentional Christian community by narrating her year at Holden Village, a remote Lutheran retreat center. This is a sincere, at times irreverent, chronicle of one woman’s time in between places, careers, relationships, and faith ideologies. Cascade Books
 

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People Love Their Nickel Creek

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez
Nickel Creek. Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

The last time I listened to Nickel Creek was to analyze their adaptation of Robert Burns’ poem, “Sweet Afton,” in my English literature class in college three years ago. Indeed, the waters of Nickel Creek flow gently, a trait reflected in “Sweet Afton” and many other Nickel Creek staples. And that general lack of bite, paired with an almost robotic mastery of each band members’ respective instrument, pushed me away from the band.

So it was strange that, with no expectations and an arbitrarily negative perception of the classic folk band, I really enjoyed seeing Nickel Creek reunite in Washington, D.C. after a six-year hiatus. The show, in sum, was really, really good.

Singing in Pete Seeger's Choir

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

WHEN I MOVED out of my Sojourners magazine office in 1988, I took with me two signed review copies of books. One was Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. It was inscribed to me personally by H.L. Mitchell, a founder of the STFU, so I felt entitled to keep it.

The other book bore no inscription, just a simple black ink signature above the Simon & Schuster logo. It was called Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of America’s Working Men and Women, and the co-author who signed it was Pete Seeger. I’m looking at that signature now, as I write this on the day Seeger died.

I told myself that I kept that book because I thought it might come in handy. After all, it had 11 translations of “L’Internationale” and all the words to “Solidarity Forever.” But really I kept it for the signature. I liked the idea of having something that I knew had come from the hand of someone who had ridden the rails with Woody Guthrie. Seeger was our living connection to the culture of the 1930s when, for a moment, radical dreams about a country owned and operated by its ordinary citizens seemed almost ready for prime time.

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Not Afraid of the Dark

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the new Coen brothers film, is the mournful tale of a folk musician too dedicated to his art to make money or to accept love when it’s offered him. It has gorgeous music, performances that are like watching characters step off the pages of a Joseph Mitchell New Yorker story, and language that is exquisite, but not so much that we don’t believe it. A common response to Inside Llewyn Davis is that it’s a pessimistic film, with characters so self-centered and worn down by money and the lack thereof that they cumulatively produce a world of no hope.

Many assert that the Coen brothers have pitched their tent as the anchor tenants of cinematic melancholia—Fargo’s bleak focus is a family utterly destroyed by financial pressures and the inability to know where or how to ask for help; Barton Fink’s eponymous protagonist finds his dream writing contract ends up a descent into hell; and The Man Who Wasn’t There is finally executed because he doesn’t see the point in defending himself. Llewyn Davis is an impetuous man in a fickle industry, too out of touch with his own humanity to want to see his own child, and he is beaten up for heckling a fellow musician. And so people come out of this film depressed. To which my minority response is simple: Look closer. Inside Llewyn Davis is full of life and second chances and, yes, hope for artists. Davis has friends who care, and there are people who get what he does. Who cares if the world isn’t listening? That was never a measure of great art anyway.

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Noah and the Whale: Simple but Delightful Rock n' Roll

Photo Courtesy of Noah and the Whale
Check out Noah and the Whale's latest album, 'Heart of Nowhere.' Photo Courtesy of Noah and the Whale

 “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” Lou Reed, who just this past week passed away, once told the journalist Kristine McKenna.

English band Noah and the Whale take that observation and run with it. I had the opportunity of seeing the band live last week, and the show — and their sound — was simple, as nearly every rock song is, yet cathartic and delightful. It mixes elements of Reed and his sixties and seventies peers with Springsteen and sprinkles on touches of indie-folk that’s flourished over the last decade. And the results are marvelous.

Stornoway: Hopeful and Honest

Photo courtesy of Stornoway
Stornoway deliver with hopeful songs about life, love, and everything in between. Photo courtesy of Stornoway

I first got wind of Stornoway back in 2011 when Izzy Westbury was president of the Oxford Union during the Michaelmas term of 2011 at Oxford University while studying abroad. The group of Oxford natives were Izzy’s favorite band at the time, and she made sure to give them a chance to play that I regretfully passed up to grab a pint with some friends.

So when the opportunity arose to see Stornoway in Washington, D.C., envelope myself in Oxford nostalgia, and enjoy some good tunes, I couldn’t pass it up.

And Stornoway delivered with hopeful, honest songs about life, love, and everything in between. Delightful is probably the best word to describe their music and the experience of seeing them live. It’s like taking a deep, refreshing breath. The British quartet mix elements of beach boys-esque pop with fleet foxes’ harmonies and a low fi, organic feel.

Sojo Stories: The Last Bison

Brandon Hook/Sojourners
The Last Bison talked with Sojourners about music, creativity, and God. Brandon Hook/Sojourners

Chesapeake, Virginia-based folk band The Last Bison talked with Sojourners about music, creativity, and God before their show in Washington, D.C. a while back. Be sure to listen to their recently released debut album Inheritance and catch them while they're on tour in the U.S.! Their music is definitely worth a listen.

Sojo Session: Branches

Our friends and up-and-coming musicians Branches trekked all the way from California and stopped by our office in D.C. last week to play a couple of their songs during their East Coast tour! 

Their songs explore the ideas of doubt, faith, loneliness, love, and above all, hope for life as it was meant to be.

Best friends turned band-mates, the lady and gentlemen of Branches are an independent, self-writing and self-producing collective. Birthed in a living room in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2010, Tyler, Natalie, Jacob, Mitch, Tyler, and Mike have since spent their time together making friends, playing shows, and writing and recording the songs for their EPs ("O, Light!", "Cabin", "Covers", "Songs For Christmas") and their full-length ("Thou Art The Dream", released 2/12).

Folk Artist Noah Gundersen Talks with Sojourners

Up-and coming-/singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen stopped by the Sojourners office to talk with our Brandon Hook about music, his new album Family, God, and creativity.

The Seattle-based folk artist was recently featured on Spotify’s Emerge app, which pits rising artists against each other based on play frequency, and is currently on a U.S. tour.

Special thanks to Noah for stopping by and being so open with us!

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