Tag Archives: Folk Music

Sibylle Baier – Colour Green (1973; 2006)

Driving home one evening, I recalled it had been about a month and a half since I’d stumbled across Sibylle Baier’s lost 1970s gem Colour Green. I listened with earphones that first time. But now, in the velvet darkness of the car, with barely another vehicle on the road, it was time to explore how Colour Green could transform space.

The effect proved both evocative and surprising: Baier’s songs seemed to fill the space as much as they revealed a gaping void as bottomless as her melancholy. As the tracks played, the quietness of my tiny Toyota seemed to swell beyond its tangible proportions. Baier’s soft, melancholic voice and guitar, reminiscent of Nick Drake, entranced me. Her songs transported me to the sepia-toned backdrops of her life: wintry domestic evenings, road trips to the shore, distant hillsides. I had spent some time away from the album, but now I was rediscovering each delicate note in a quiet, malleable environment, in which the songs could fully unfurl like crisp leaves slowly flattening between the pages of a book.

Baier’s compositions are cyclical. Refrains melt into verses. Songs bleed sadly into each other like watercolors running down paper. The fourteen pieces unravel as a singular composition, a long, winding exploration of the young woman’s life. Baier’s angelic vocals and acoustic technique navigate ghostly arpeggios and seamless key changes in a seesaw rhythm. The songs are intimate. Her lyrical style mimics the cyclical pattern of her sound; she releases each syllable in a rolling motion, some clauses spilling over their lines and reinforcing the song’s circular movement. This effect becomes particularly noticeable in “The End,” when she leaves the word end hanging, tacking on an extraneous vowel to round out the word and produce a lingering effect. Baier clings to the word’s finish with the same heartbroken hesitation that she conveys throughout the song, as she struggles to grasp the painful reality of a failed relationship. Even as she admits in the refrain: “It’s the end, friend of mine,” she holds fast to the notion that “life is short but love is old.” Within the circular rhythms of the notes, Baier swings, distraught, between grief and disbelief.

Many of Baier’s lyrics employ internal rhymes and repetition to maintain this pendular rhythm. In “I Lost Something in the Hills,” Baier reflects: “Oh what images return oh I yearn/ for the roots of the woods/ that origin of all my strong and strange moods.” For the first seven syllables, her voice carries the weight of deep-set nostalgia in a monotonous tone reminiscent of a medieval church choir hymn. Her rhythmic utterance of the words, coupled with the internal rhyming scheme, conveys a circular motion that transports the listener through the gloomy, atmospheric space to which she seeks return throughout the lines of the song. In “Softly,” markedly more buoyant but still reflective, Baier’s experiments with repetition and pendular rhythms become fully realized within the song’s reiterated refrain, sung in syncopation. She playfully swings between keys throughout the song in a jazz-esque dance.

This particular track, as well as the whimsical numbers “William” and “Wim,” evoke Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Drake and Baier recorded remarkably similar albums in the early 1970s; Drake’s a skeletal, stripped-down sound that diverged from his earlier work, Baier’s a series of reel-to-reel tapes recorded from home over the course of three years. While their contemporaries produced music with full, often horn-heavy instrumentation, Drake and Baier composed acoustic songs that transcended their own cultural-historical context, achieving a sense of timelessness. In Baier’s case, the belated release of Colour Green in 2006 emphasizes the album’s enduring quality.

Baier delicately bends syllables and plucks threadbare melodies that paint the vivid motifs of Colour Green. The songs are a collection of melancholic snapshots, quotidian events colored by a sweeping existential sadness. Many of Baier’s lyrics are rooted in domestic scenes. A working woman slices bread for her children; glimpses of a wintry atmosphere, a “painful February mood,” emerge above the watery surface of the lyrics. A lover sitting in his “lazy chair” asks Baier “what sorrow you bear” as she sheds tears after a harrowing workday. Interspersed between the lines of domestic imagery are small anecdotes of Baier’s travels and revelations as a young woman. In “Remember the Day,” she speaks of a moment in her life when she hovered on the brink of suicide, “considering if one shouldn’t die or if one should,” contrasting this dark contemplation with a stark image of a midday sun. Suddenly, as she recalls mustering the will to “just buy some food,” the song’s rhythm shifts and gathers tempo. She recounts finding herself heading in an unexpected direction toward Genoa, Italy. “Did you ever drive in a moonstruck constitution/ and find to reach a seaport and down there is a solution/ you should if you could,” she tells the listener. By the shore, where “there simply was the water’s smell and remoteness,” she retrieves herself, reflected in the waves of the “old cold ocean.” The visual motifs of a wintry, domestic life and thematic iterations of loss, self-discovery and nostalgic reflection unravel in a cyclical fashion reinforced by her ghostly vocals and acoustic technique.

The most evocative imagery of the album appears in “Elliott.” Long, round phrases with oddly placed emphasis unfurl monotonously from her lips. The only pause in the refrain occurs after the first three words, creating the impression that Baier’s sentences possess little to no punctuation. “I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled says Elliott.” Her use of the present tense thrusts the listener into the midst of the subject’s sad contemplation. The song revels in the melancholy persistent throughout the entire album: “Gayly clad sadness is a radical quantity says Elliott/ sadness is a long brown ribbon says he/ sadness is beautiful.” The singular image of the ribbon, haunting and mesmerizing, mimics the greater aura of the album in a micro moment of self-reflexivity.

Baier’s poetic command of language and skillful rendering of atmosphere transports the listener through the strange and dark spaces of her life. Within haunting lines depicting the grayness of existence, she provides glimmers of revelation that enlighten and cast meaning. Colour Green unravels as a manifestation of nostalgia, timeless and heartbreaking, a testament to the spiritual fortitude of a woman perpetually “seeking for return.”

Guest post by Elizabeth Hopkins.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a writer, artist, and part-time anthropologist. In her free time she likes to take photographs, eat delicious food, and jam out to good tunes, among many other things. A graduate of Skidmore College, Elizabeth is a Program Coordinator at the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, where she works collaboratively to advance environmental conservation and stewardship.

More Than a Record, Less Than Your Soul: On the Preservation of Culture

A good friend of mine owns a 1985 Plymouth Voyager woody. It was one of the first mini-vans ever produced or so he tells me. I don’t know enough about cars to say. Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments section. It has a nice look; I’ve always liked woodies. But the paneling is very worn. The car is worth about $2000 according to the Kelly Blue Book.

Already in his 60s, he’s grown understandably attached to whatever objects survived their predestined ephemerality; despite meager means he’s looking to restore the Voyager to something resembling its original state so that his 92 year old mother can take one last drive in it before she dies. This will take several times the amount of money the car is worth. The car is a model that’s been lost to time, little remarked upon, not saved in any particular quantities. In a similar vein, when he visits my apartment he seems disappointed that I’ve pulled tear-sheets out of a collection of old McCall’s magazines I bought years ago. He’s afraid that someday, as a species, we will run out of McCall’s back issues.

And in a larger but related vein the study of folk cultures there is a dialectic of the precious; the ephemerality of it all framed in a barely repressed psychosexual dynamic of the damsel in distress, the Victorian maiden so fragile they can’t be let out into the sun. Of course, this is a framing that allows for a performance with another side to it. The concern isn’t any more purely nostalgia at the loss of artifacts and places than the locomotive approaching the tied down displayed and distressed damsel is just a train. The hilariously maudlin nostalgia with which old white men now approach the Delta blues would have confounded a Charley Patton. Early field anthropology was done, intentionally or otherwise, toward an endgame of taxidermy.

Last copies of objects forgotten or otherwise disappear every day; as in the prior reversals that have defined our epoch, the right to be forgotten has replaced the quest to be remembered and our collective cultural memory is determinedly focused backwards. If there is in fact a collective consciousness we now possess the storage capacity to make its life flash before its eyes with time left to display a replay button; the development that now seems questionable is the capacity to cease the ruminating.

“Folk” of course has always been a word used to denote the “primitive” or “noble savage” strain on the domestic front; its self-awareness places the experience of it inescapably in the realm of nostalgia for its own imprecisely dated demise. Folk culture in the age of the internet is logically impossible; no one can obscure their connection to a contribution long enough to pull off the old trick of dying anonymously. The lament that the author of a folk dance or joke or tall tale died without having been acclaimed and the lament that the quaintness of some past age has deserted us reveal the circularity of this vernacular line of thought; man as lamenting machine.

The recording device destroys “folk” culture and we collectively know this even if we’re hesitant to admit it; in any catalog of musical albums the stuff labeled “folk” generally means “played on instruments and styles that predate or evoke the period before the advent of recorded sound.” Musicians hung up on the “realness” of “actual” instruments that has been “lost” in a sea of synthesizers and god knows what, complaints we’ve all been hearing since at least the 1980s, neglect the inverse complaint, the actual perversity of the act of recording a thing defined by how it wasn’t meant to be recorded or was conceived without considering any possibilities other than its own floating transience.

There aren’t regional traditions of music at this point; why should there be? You can learn it off recordings. You’re not stuck with whatever players happened to crawl through town or play the local square dance as the basis for learning how to play or compose. Life goes on. Rock and roll is dead. Rock and roll probably died around 1980. Rock and roll needed to die. The last true rock and roll band were the Rock-afire Explosion. They hit the trick first of being animated dolls that weren’t actually alive. That was the last trick rock had up its sleeve. Many rock acts after have repeated that trick unaware they’re doing it. Some have managed to make Frankensteins that walk convincingly; some may even have, on occasion, risen the dead. But the dead risen are still but the still dead, now walking.

So what is the thing after folk culture and regionalism? After the old authentic?

We’re living in it it. It will be quite some time before anything on it can be said with much of any certainty.

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)

In 1948, four folk singers, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger came together to form a group called The Weavers, the name taken from Gehart Hauptmann play about the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844. Seeger and Hays had previously worked together in the anti-war, Communist Party affiliated Almanac Singers, which disbanded after the United States entered the war on the side of the Soviet Union, but, for the first two years, Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert considered themselves to be dilettantes and amateurs, not professional musicians.  In 1951, however, they released a cover of Leadbelly’s song Goodnight Irene, which became a number one hit, and stayed there for a remarkable 13 weeks.

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! is a wispy little documentary about their reunion in 1980 at Carnegie Hall, which was itself a nostalgic sequel to another concert they did at Carnegie Hall they did in the middle of the Red Scare in 1955. It’s deceptively simple, showing the now elderly Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert discussing how they got together after 25 years to play a sold out show. Seeger had left The Weavers in 1958 after a dispute about letting a cigarette company license their music. They disbanded in 1964. We see Lee Hay’s struggle with diabetes. He had both his legs amputated in the1970s and died in 1981. There are interviews with Don McLean and a young Holly Near, who talks about how Ronnie Gilbert had been her inspiration to become a professional musician. They spend a lot of time playing their instruments, chatting amiably, and reminiscing about the past. They talk about the Red Scare and Seeger’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I remember seeing advertisements for The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! on PBS when I was back in high-school. The impression I have now is just how old they all looked. Who would have imagined that Pete Seeger would have lived for another 32 years? He was already middle-aged before I was born. The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! and the 1980 concert at Carnegie Hall were supposed to be valedictions, a farewell to music. Yet, for Seeger, the documentary seems like a pause in mid-career, a brief, nostalgic look back at his youth before he began the final third of his long life as a musician and a political activist.

The day after Pete Seeger died, the Internet and the social media exploded with articles and postings about his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.


The transcript of Seeger’s testimony is not only a master-class in how to face down school-yard bullies armed with state power, but also evidence of a kind of manliness that speaks with in a civil manner and with a soft, polite voice. These days we’re taught to admire jerks like Chris Christie and Donald Trump. It’s almost a truism that “nice guys don’t get the girls.” Yet Seeger faces a Congressional Committee that had not only destroyed the careers of men and women far better known than he was, but also had the power to lock him up in a cage, and never loses his civility or good humored contempt. Again and again the inquisitors badger him. Again and again, he stands his ground, and even laughs at the thugs trying to break him on the witness stand.

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature,” he says, ”and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Unlike Lee Hays and unlike most of the leftist political and cultural figures called before HUAC, Seeger not only refused to “name names,” but even to invoke the Fifth Amendment, maintaining that the committee had no legitimacy or authority even to question him, genuine “contempt of Congress,” for which he was sentenced to a year in prison. That conviction wound up being overturned on appeal in 1962, but during the 7-year time-span he was essentially on probation. He had to register his comings and goings with the government. His career was profoundly damaged. He finally made it back on TV in 1967, but had to make his living as a music teacher in schools and summer camps and performing on the college campus circuit.

In these days of recession, NSA spying, and police repression, perhaps Seeger’s later years can teach us how he was able to weather those 7 years during which the state was trying everything in its power to destroy him, and come out almost unscathed. Folk music, unlike film or theater, is a very simple, bare bones form of expression with a low barrier to entry. You can blacklist a Hollywood film director. You can’t really blacklist a folk singer. Seeger lived a harsh, simple life, dwelling for years in Beacon New York in an unheated log cabin built with his own hands. He was preoccupied with saving the Hudson River from pollution, not with material possessions or with mingling with the rich and powerful. He was, to put it as briefly as possible, the anti-Bono. There’s very little that can touch a man who lives his life like Henry David Thoreau, who doesn’t get into debt, hooked on drugs, addicted to fame and adulation, who stays close to the land and who takes care of his already rugged body in a way that allowed him to reach his 90s without needing extensive medical care.

In the end, the only thing that took him down was the death a few months before of his wife Toshi, with whom he had lived for 70 years. He had remarked, in 1943, that she had made the rest of his life possible. After Toshi Seeger died, Pete Seeger didn’t so much expire as decide that he had lived long enough, that it was time to turn out the lights, and go to sleep.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Halfway through the Coen Brother’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis, a folk singer played by Oscar Issac, travels to Chicago to meet with an music producer named Bud Grossman. As he strums out The Death of Queen Jane on his guitar, and as Grossman looks on without expression, we realize what the stakes are. Grossman can make or break Llewyn Davis’s career. We also realize that there’s something very familiar about the actor who plays Bud Grossman. It’s F. Murray Abram, Antonio Salieri himself, the iconic character from Milos Foreman’s classic film Amadeus.

Llewyn Davis is no Mozart, but he’s no Salieri either. Rather, he’s a combination of the worst qualities of both. Like Salieri, he’s a competent, if uninspired musician. Like Mozart, he’s an obnoxious social misfit. This makes him that most unhappy of mortals, a man with no real artistic talent, no inherited money, and yet, in spite of it all, a man with a genuine artistic calling. Llewyn Davis drifts through Greenwich Village sleeping on friends couches, borrowing money, picking up a few dollars here and there with an “open hat” gig at the Gaslight Cafe, and periodically toying with the idea of going back to sea as a merchant seaman. He’s a loser, and he knows it.

But is Llewyn Davis a fake? Is he a sincere artist who simply lacks talent, or is he a genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction? You can make the case either way.

On the side of “genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction,” you can argue that he has no real enthusiasm for folk music, an art form that, unlike Jazz, has a low barrier to entry. All you really need is a guitar, three or four chords, and a few sincere ideas. Davis has three or four cords, and he can hold a tune, but he seems to be without politics or any desire to uplift the world around him. When Bud Grossman rejects him as a lead singer, he’s easily discouraged and decides to give up the profession altogether. That’s not what a real artist does. Music, for a real folk singer, wouldn’t be an end in and of itself. It would be a way of expressing an idea. A real artist wouldn’t care what a Bud Grossman thought.

Sadly, however, Llewyn Davis isn’t a fake. That would make it too easy. He could play the guitar for awhile, take advantage of some no strings attached sex, then get a real job and work his way into the middle-class. Davis does, in fact, have one sincere idea, the idea of himself as an artist. He has no idea what he wants to say, but he wants to say something, and he wants to say it now, or tomorrow, or whenever he can figure it out. He’s damned to the hell of an unsuccessful music career, which he cannot escape, however hard he tries. However abrasive he becomes, his friends always forgive him. He can always find a couch to sleep on. He loses his temper at The Gaslight Cafe, heckles another performer, gets tossed out onto the sidewalk by the bouncer, but, a few days later, the owner welcomes him back with open arms. Even Bud Grossman, as discouraging as he is, still offers him a job as a backup singer for another act. And then there’s the cat.

Ulysses the cat, the orange tabby who belongs to Davis’s friend Mitch Gorfein, a Columbia professor who lets him sleep on the couch in his apartment on the upper west side, is arguably the star of Inside Llewyn Davis. If Davis has a spirit animal, it’s Ulysses. He’s dependent on the kindness of his friends, yet an uncontrollable free spirit. He periodically runs away, yet always comes back. He’s that annoying presence Davis constantly feels compelled to chase down and protect, the symbol of his artistic calling, the one thing that humanizes him.

Llewyn Davis is the artist as house cat. Jean, another folk singer played by the bitter, and almost unrecognizably American Carey Mulligan, has had an affair with Davis. She’s pregnant and needs the money for an abortion. She spends so much time verbally abusing Davis, the abortion also serving as a metaphor for his artistic sterility, that we begin to wonder why she ever slept with this aimless loser in the first place. But then Davis spies Ulysses, who had escaped from Jean’s downtown apartment the previous day. Davis takes off after him, scooping him up off the sidewalk, and bringing him back inside the Greenwich Village cafe where the pair had been fighting. Jean’s features soften. Running after Ulysses was an act of spontaneity that makes it impossible for her to continue to abuse Llewyn Davis. We begin to understand why, perhaps, she may have slept with him after all.

It is, in fact, Davis’s temper, his spontaneity, his inner, selfish, petulant grumpy house cat that redeems him. He may be thoroughly intimidated by Bud Grossman, devastated by the powerful man’s rejection, but, after Grossman throws him a bone, offers him the job as backup singer, he has enough character to turn it down. When Mitch Gorfein’s wife, the source of an occasional free meal, patronizingly demands that Davis sing on demand, Davis loses his temper and insults them both, thus giving up the free meals and the place to crash. After Pappi Corsicato, the owner of the Gaslight Cafe, lewdly suggests that he made Jean sleep with him in order to secure the privilege of singing at their open-mic shows, Davis explodes in a jealous rage and makes a spectacle of himself.

Inside Llweyn Davis is bracketed by two, almost identical scenes. Davis is performing in the Gaslight Cafe. Pappi Corsicato informs him that a “well dressed man” is waiting outside. Davis goes outside to see what it’s all about. The well-dressed man punches him in the face, kicks him in the stomach, throws him to the ground, then gets into a taxi cab and drives away. We realize that if Ulysses is the undaunted artistic drive that keeps Llweyn Davis playing his guitar, singing in tiny venues, and sleeping on friends couches, then the “well-dressed man” is the spirit of rejection, of self-doubt, of criticism, of all the forces in the world trying to shut him down and silence him. After Davis goes out the second time to meet the “well-dressed man,” we know that somehow, he’ll find the strength to continue. Somehow his friends will always forgive him. For some reason, he’s never going to quit playing music. He’ll work through the pain and pay the price. Whether or not that’s a good thing, whether he’ll eventually triumph or stay inside his constantly broke, couch surfing hell we can only guess at. More likely than not it will be the latter. Yet we applaud him anyway.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Dave Van Ronk, folk revival legend and at least partial inspiration for the most recent Coen brothers film, used to come in to the book store I work at. His visits were frequent and fondly remembered. This was many years ago when Lena Spencer was still alive and running Caffe Lena, and if Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger, ever did claim a permanent address it was likely “Caffe Lena, Couch, c/o Lena Spencer.” The owner of the store remembers Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger a devout socialist, even if he never took it onstage with him, complaining “Those Leninists and the Trotskyites are still bitching at each other in the park all the time.”

Llewyn Davis however, never seems to take on any sort of political stance. Sure, he’s disdainful toward a fellow folk singer who happens to be in the National Guard, but the Coen’s can only come to an understanding of his disdain for the soldier as a sort of aesthetic disgust at the grotesque blandness of his person, the loud way he eats cereal and his dumb eyes, the dumb eyes of a wild animal wandering at the edges of the free way. The Coens, if they have a political side, have never adequately expressed it; my suspicion is that they haven’t one.

And besides, the connection to Van Ronk is tenuous at best, because in Llewyn Davis we have just another archetypal Coen cypher meant to wander about a shifting landscape of grotesques. One might as well call him Llewyn Davis-Fink-Lebowski. This is standard operating procedure in Coen brothers films, and if you like them as many people seem to, then you’ll love this. If like me, you aren’t especially impressed by a general hatred of everything redeemed only by a dry sense of humor and some indication of a specter of anxiety at being a failed artist, then you’ll likely be mildly entertained, mildly impressed at the same confident control of the medium they’ve always had, but walk away thinking “Ok, so what was the point?” Which is exactly what I did.

The film ends with a scene of meaningless repetition underscoring the meaningless repetition of the protagonist’s life; he’s trapped in a floating existence. In some circles this could pass for meaning something. The early 1960s folk revival, interesting for other reasons, mostly involving race politics and class privilege, is here merely a convenient backdrop and a set-piece to inspire subtle visual gags. A running one involving Davis taking care of two cats and carrying them around with him everywhere scores periodically, though it eventually becomes another way to underline the theme; though he’s killed one cat with his car, Davis, upon returning to New York after a failed sojourn to Chicago, encounters the first cat again. The folk cafe where he was playing in the beginning of the film takes him back after he fails to get work on a merchant marine. The cycle repeats finally shot for shot. We get it.

I will give the Coens credit for their location shooting; New York City looks like New York City, when people go from one place to another they do so in a time frame that makes sense given the distance between the two locations, and the characters have a relationship to each space that suggests they live in the city and are familiar with it. Perpetually broke people’s apartments are in buildings that look like they’re buildings where people would live if they were perpetually broke, and they pass the Don McKellar test-the couch is against the wall. Woody Allen would do well to take note of this.

Shout-out to earlier blog supporter and fan Yvonne Davenport! She gave us our first nudge to embark on this endeavor. All the best.