Music

Rich Songs of Economic Despair

OUT WHERE Kentucky meets West Virginia, you’ll find one of America’s cultural seedbeds, where Scotch-Irish immigrant traditions took root in the New World. But on her debut album, American Middle Class, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, a daughter of the Kentucky mountains (and no kin to The King), paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

The people of this region were once mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers. In the early 20th century, they were drafted into the coal mines but brought their pride and independence with them, waging often-bloody battles to establish the United Mine Workers of America. For over a century now, the region’s economic fate has been hostage to the ups and downs of the energy market. As a result, the coal fields have become one of the poorest parts of the country.

The music that flourished in this region became, along with that of low-country African Americans, one of the two great pillars of American popular music. So many country music greats have come from here that Kentucky has a “Country Music Highway Museum” just to honor all the stars (Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, and many others) born along U.S. 23.

In short, this part of Appalachia is sort of the Mississippi Delta for white people: A place of dire economic poverty and vast cultural riches, where the art and spirit of a people has found its most intense expression.

Angaleena Presley seems to know all this. The woman from Beauty, Ky., with the perfect country music name is a pure product of hardcore Appalachia. A miner’s daughter, during high school she would cut class, drive to the old house that Loretta Lynn wrote about in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and try to write songs.

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New & Noteworthy

A Good Neighbor
Children’s television host (and Presbyterian minister) Fred Rogers was known for his gentle, soft-spoken manner. Michael G. Long argues in Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers that Rogers was also a radical, imbuing his show with nonviolence and care for creation. Westminster John Knox Press

Be a Man
The creators of Miss Representation bring us The Mask You Live In, a portrait of masculinity in the U.S. through the eyes of young boys, educators, and social scientists. The documentary argues that hyper-masculine cultural messages manifest in violent, isolating, emotionally stunting ways. The Representation Project

All in the Family
For 10 years Patricia Raybon and her daughter Alana didn’t talk about faith—because Alana had become a practicing Muslim. In Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, they tell about their search together for healing and understanding. W Publishing Group

Americana Moses
In Leave Some Things Behind, the Steel Wheels use mandolin, fiddle, and bass to bolster a lyrical theme of “Exodus.” The foursome reflects on the joy and consequences of leaving home for an abstract promised land, singing, “It makes a difference where you go. It makes you different where you go.” thesteelwheels.com

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A New Hymn on Jesus’ Protest: When Christ Went to the Temple

Photo via Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com
A painting of Jesus using a whip in the temple. Giovanni Antonio Fumiani, 1678. Photo via Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

When Christ Went to the Temple

LLANGLOFFAN 7.6.7.6 D (“Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)

When Christ went to the Temple to worship God one day,

He entered through the courtyard where anyone could pray.

That court was for the nations--and all could enter in.

But Jesus found a market, a shameful robbers’ den.

 

There, cattle, sheep, and pigeons were sold for sacrifice,

And moneychangers shouted of quality and price.

Outsiders could not enter the inner courts for prayer.

Their only place to worship was in the courtyard there.

...

SONG: 'Don’t Shoot!' – A Lament

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch stood at the podium three nights before Thanksgiving and announced the St. Louis grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Moments after the announcement, Ferguson exploded in protests, then rage, then flames. Spontaneous protests also broke out in cities and towns across the country and carried on through the Thanksgiving holiday.

The morning after the announcement I received an email from friend and colleague David Bailey, who shared this song, “Don’t Shoot.” It was written and performed by students at Berklee College of Music, who go by the name Fleeceboi. They were so grieved by the announcement that they stayed up all night writing the song. I listened and wept.

Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow: 50 Years of Song in 'Love of Community'

Photo by Sylvia Plachy via Peter, Paul and Mary Facebook page

The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had almost 50 years together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey continue as musicians and activists, and have reflected on their experiences in a new a photo-filled book Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Life and Song (Imagine/Charlesbridge). A just-released album, DISCOVERED: Live in Concert, includes 12 live songs never before heard on their albums. And on Dec. 1 (check local listings), PBS will air 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary — a new documentary with rare and previously unseen television footage and many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs.

I spoke with Yarrow and Stookey this week about music, movements, and the spiritual aspects of both. (Stookey had what he describes as a “deep reborn experience” as a Christian around 1969 or 1970; Yarrow doesn’t affiliate with a specific religious institution, but describes much of what motivates him in spiritual terms.)

Stookey describes how all three of them were drawn to carrying on the precedent of folk forebears such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to make music “in the interest of, and love of, community.” Their appearance at the 1963 March on Washington was, he says, “the galvanizing moment” for their activism, the beginning of a trajectory that would engage them in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, environment, and immigration movements, and “less media-covered causes and events — a rainbow of concerns that we were inevitably and naturally drawn into.”

VIDEO: Parker Millsap Performance

Parker Millsap is a talented newcomer to the Americana music scene with a Pentecostal background, a grizzly, soulful voice, and the ability to develop complex characters in four-minute songs. He’s just 21-years-old, “and yet he’s pulling this song from some secret, battered place inside him that’s far older than his years, and matching it with a sensual intensity that sizzles in the audience.”

His songs about a trucker evangelist (“Truck Stop Gospel”), a gay preacher’s kid (“Heaven Sent”), and meth cookers (“Quite Contrary”), brought New York’s Town Hall audience members to their feet. Read more in Jason Howard’s “You Gotta Move” (Sojourners, December 2014).

Watch this KEXP video to see Millsap perform four songs and talk about Pentecostalism, folk music, Pawn Stars, and his 21st birthday.

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New & Noteworthy

Calling to the Deep

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You Gotta Move

INSIDE TOWN HALL, New York’s legendary concert venue, the dusty twang of a harmonica slices through the low din of the crowd filling the 1,500-seat auditorium. Most are likely here for the headliner, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, who will take the stage after this, a performance by her opening act, Parker Millsap.

The bluesy riffs from Millsap’s harmonica are intense, long and wailing, before fading into the slow, dirty licks of a slide guitar. Then a voice, old and soulful, throbs through the room, crying out the first line of the old gospel standard “You Gotta Move” and shocking many in the audience, residents of a city where very little is shocking. You can see the wave of surprise move like a serpent across the room, with people turning to their companions, eyebrows raised and a whisper on their lips.

It’s the age that gets them—the man standing at center stage, flanked by two bandmates and looking like a rockabilly idol, with his gelled quiff and rolled-up shirt sleeves, isn’t the 60-year-old blues singer he sounds like. No, he is baby-faced, young—barely even 21—and yet he’s pulling this song from some secret, battered place inside him that’s far older than his years, and matching it with a sensual intensity that sizzles in the audience. By the time Millsap allows the last note from his weathered voice to fade, he has commanded the undivided attention of one of the world’s toughest crowds.

And they are raring for more.

Such a reception is not a surprise for this newcomer on the Americana music scene, whose self-titled album was released to critical buzz in February 2014. Since the album’s release, Millsap has played on the same bill as artists including Griffin, Jason Isbell, and Old Crow Medicine Show; nabbed a nomination for Emerging Act of the Year from the Americana Music Association; and counted Rosanne Cash as one of his admirers.

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U2's Songs of Transcendence

How does Songs of Innocence stand up to U2's second album, October? Photo via Cathleen Falsani

Sunday evening I did something I haven't done in close to 30 years: I went to an actual record store and bought a brand-new U2 album on vinyl, took it home, pulled out the turntable, put on my headphones, sat on the floor, and stayed up way too late reading the liner notes and listening to the songs over and over again.

Lord, how I've missed this particular ritual.

When I was a teenager, late Sunday nights were when I indulged my secret pleasure by listening in bed (clandestinely so as not to incur the wrath of my parents for being awake well past my bedtime) to the "King Biscuit Flower Hour" on WPLR, the classic rock station in New Haven that was one of two (the other being a horrendous pop-40 station) that came in clearly on the FM stereo in my upstairs bedroom.

I listened, religiously, every Sunday night for years, hoping to hear a song by one of the British New Wave bands of which I was fond, or, if I was particularly lucky, by my favorite band on the planet: U2.

Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing a U2 song on those late Sunday nights, my ear pressed to the transistor radio secreted next to the pillow on my twin bed. But then, like a bolt of lightning  I'd hear Bono's voice or Edge's guitar begin to keen. It was a wee bit magical, although in retrospect today I might call it sacred.

All the waiting and listening was worth it. Always.

How Lecrae Mixed Rap and Theology to Find Huge, Mainstream Success

Lecrae’s album “Church Clothes” cover photo. Photo courtesy of www.lecrae.com/RNS.

He’s been crowned the “new hip-hop king” and his newest album, “Anomaly,” topped iTunes and Amazon charts the day of its Sept. 9 release. He’s been invited to birthday parties for both Billy Graham and Michael Jordan and riffed on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with host Jimmy Fallon.

It’s the kind of mainstream success that has eluded most Christian rappers. Then again, some people are still trying to decide if hip-hop star Lecrae is a Christian rapper, or a rapper who happens to be Christian.

It depends who you ask, including Lecrae himself.

“God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things,” Lecrae, 34, said in an interview. “We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.”

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