Friday, August 22, 2008
The Great Troubadours and their Albums
One category we haven't much talked about are the balladeers or troubadours. Some of these artists would be categorized as folk, some as country, some as bluegrass, some as folk rock, but they are certainly all on the penumbra of rock n' roll and deserve some discussion. These are our master story tellers and lyrical writers. Here is a list of some quintessential examples:
Recently honored precisely for these sorts of skills, Paul Simon has to be at or near the top of this list. To get a sense of his lyrical gifts checkout:
1) from the Simon and Garfunkel era--- the Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Bookends, and the Bridge over Trouble Waters lps
2) from his solo career there are many to mention--- the Rhymin Simon, Still Crazy after all these Years, Graceland, and most recently the Surprise lps.
Equally talented as a songwriter, singer in this sort of tradition is of course the late lamented Dan Fogelberg. The best way to sample his work now is the Portrait box set which has most of his classic tunes. James Taylor absolutely falls into this category, but since I have already done a blog post on North Carolinian musicians, I will just mention from his early work, Sweet Baby James, Shower the People, and from more recent years lps like Hourglass or New Moon Shine. These sorts of artists are quite intentionally continuing a tradition of folk music that ultimately goes back to English, Irish and Scottish folk music brought over by the immigrants to this country.
There are midwestern versions of these sorts of artists, for example some of John Mellencamp's work especially Scarecrow or my favorite Lonesome Jubilee, and several of the important more folk oriented albums of Bruce Springsteen belong in this discussion--- The River, Devils and Dust (and the recent tribute lp to Pete Seeger), and especially The Ghost of Tom Joad. Of course some of these artists were capable of doing straight ahead rock n' roll as well, but my concern is here with the more folk side of things. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead belong in this conversation when you think of lps like American Beauty or Working Man's Dead. If one wants a more urban version of a troubadour whose music was often stark and dark, and very influential in this whole sphere of music, check out Leonard Cohen.
Of course no discussion of this matter could even be undertaken without considering the overwhelming ouevre of Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan. In general, it is especially his early material that most would mention, and you already see what he is capable of in the Free Wheelin' lp. We could probably list ten lps, and notice that Bob has always been willing to push the envelope, dabbling in country briefly in the wonderful Nashville Skyline lp, or in more rootsy sounds like in his Time Out of Mind lp, and I would add that even his Gospel lps such as the marvelous Slow Train Comin' are essentially folk done in a Gospel mode.
Of the female troubadours early on Joan Baez had the best voice, but she was not the songwriter that Joni Mitchell was. Joan was at her best singing protest songs, and wonderful renditions of Bob Dylan tunes, but she did have some fine original numbers like 'Diamonds and Rust'. I love her tribute to William Blake lp on Vanguard, but unfortunately it and many other great old Vanguard lps are no longer available. The second best voice of this whole group of female troubadours was Judy Collins, no question, and I still get chills hearing her version of Amazing Grace. Wildflowers is perhaps her most lyrical lp. She did have some gift for songwriting for sure, but it was her versions of Joni Mitchell tunes (like 'Both Sides Now') that were most popular. I once saw her in the Kennedy Center in D.C. and she was just magical. To this I would add the wonderful work of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman who belong in this discussion.
Joni Mitchell was by far the greatest of these female balladeers, and she also had the most scope to her work, even going into jazz and jazz rock (listen to her Mingus CD or Court and Spark and the Hissing of Summer Lawns), but her very firstlp, simply called Joni Mitchell (produced by David Crosby no less)is absolutely lightning in a bottle and proved what she could do. The Both Sides Now and Blue lps were natural developments of her more folk side. Most of her most recent work has combined the jazz and folk sides of her interests and she has many wonderful more recent Cds-- Try for example Taming the Tiger. On top of all this, she was a wonderful painter as well. I even love her recent ventures into singing old classic show and jazz tunes.
There are of course many more male and female folk artists that deserve mention in such a discussion, people like Leo Kottke, Tom Rush, and on the more country side of things John Prine, especially his early stuff.
Of the country folk rockers several artists stand out above the pack--- Poco for example. Check out the lp with the Big Orange on the front, or their live in Boston CD, or their Good Feelin to Know Cd. Even more country was NRPS, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the later incarnation of the Byrds ala Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Jimmy Messina was essentially a country rock artists, and one can see this in the wonderful Loggins and Messina 'Sittin' In' lp. I saw them with full band at Duke, and they blew us right on out of the building with songs like Vahevala, or Peace of Mind, or I Don't Want Nobody but You.
If one wants to push a bit further one has to talk about artists who were influenced by blues and early rock, but were essentially country artists, like Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. Both of these artists had good gifts of singing and songwriting, especially Willie who is indeed mainly a ballad writer and acoustic guitar player in a Texas kind of mode.
If we move even further into Bluegrass then we have to talk about artists ranging from Doc and Merle Watson, to the more recent work of Allyson Krauss and Union Station, or Ricky Skaggs. Bluegrass Gospel is wonderful as well, as Allyson Kraus' early work with the Jones family shows. There are many more such talented folks, who could writer ballads and sing but this list will have to do.
If we look at all of this music from a broader perspective, what they all share in common is: 1) a commitment to acoustic music; 2) a commitment to quality song writing and close attention to the lyrics; 3) a commitment of harmonies; 4) a commitment to telling honest stories of real life. This is indeed blue collar music, vox populi, and it could be urban or rural in origins and focus but it reflected the wide open spaces of North America and the day to day tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people.