Wednesday Music Interlude — Homage to Guy Clark

Guy Clark, famous luthier, songwriter, and singer died last week while I was on travel, and so this tribute is somewhat late.  I had heard Clark’s songs through other artists but came late to his music, being a sailor and preoccupied with other concerns.  But finding myself on dry land one day I picked up and listened to a copy of Dublin Blues.   The title song froze me in my tracks and I was hooked.

Here was a man with the ability to take the internal voice that animates and provides narrative to our everyday lives and put it to song with all of its emotional rawness and nuance intact.  That ability in itself marks a true artist.  To sing that way in front of others requires emotional honesty and courage that few possess.  Using that same courage he could also be topical, and his songs “El Coyote” and “Heroes”, both from 2013, are as topical as anything done by Guthrie, Seeger, or Dylan.

To me Clark was a folksinger–one of the most important this country has ever produced.  He led the Nashville progressive country music scene and was one of the leaders of the Outlaw country movement along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, among others.  His musical approach was deeply influenced by Townes Van Zandt, and you can hear his influence in the songs of both Steve Earl and Lyle Lovett.  A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing him, along with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and John Hiatt in concert, unplugged as they say.  Just four old boys playing heartfelt music, like sitting around the campfire.  Waiting for Woody and Pete to show up; and maybe Doc and Hank Sr. too.

His voice will be missed.  Here he is singing the song that introduced me to his music.

Sunday Early Morning Music — Steve Earle Performing “King of the Blues”

Originally a roots rocker from the mid-1980s Steve Earle has become an American treasure, singing songs that cross genres that include folk, protest, country, rockabilly, Americana, and roots music.  Born in Fort Monroe, Virginia, but raised outside of San Antonio, Texas, independent-minded and rebellious, Steve Earle has always followed his own musical vision.  Since the appearance of Guitar Town in 1986, he has produced one milestone album after another, many of them scorned and ignored when first released.  When I first heard his first album he seemed to possess a combination of the east coast attitude of Bruce Springsteen combined with the mid-west swagger and rebellion of John Mellencamp.  Then came the neo-traditional country that was reminiscent of the songs of Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, and Randy Crowell.  Then from there he was off on his own and I have followed him and his muse ever since.

This should have been no surprise.  He met and was influenced early by Townes Van Zandt and, after moving to Nashville, was part of Guy Clark’s backup band in the 1970s.  He has since incorporated those influences and pushed the music forward, honoring the tradition, but incorporating new elements.

Steve Earle produces story-songs that trace and record the life of the common man and woman.  His songs embody the hopes, joys, sadness, disappointment, and sometimes anger that is part of American life.  His character role in the TV series Treme’, which itself was an artistic achievement that represents an archive and testimony of our own time: a view of early 21st century America as seen through the lives of the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the indifference, vicissitudes, day-to-day struggles, and political corruption they overcame in its wake.  His song “This City” still rings in my mind.  Aside from music and occasional acting, Earle also is a talented novelist.

His latest album, released last month, is entitled Terraplane.  The song that follows is “King of the Blues.”

Weekend Musical Interlude — Guy Clark performing “El Coyote”

Not much more can be said of Guy Clark that has not already been written.  I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and John Hyatt a few years ago as they toured the southwest.  Clark embodies the best of folk and what was called “country and western” music, with emphasis on western.  His songs tell stories that are genuine and organic to their surroundings, embodying the best of what pure art should embody: clarifying and transforming what is apparent into something else–an insight into the human condition, recording it with all of its imperfections and in all of its embodiments.

“El Coyote” tells a story that has been much in the news the last few years, generating outrage and suspicion: the emigration of people into the United States from south of the border.  There are many reasons for the migration just as our forebears had their reasons for coming to this land.  The reasons in the American southwest are a bit more complicated than many would acknowledge, the border being somewhat fluid over the last 160 years, with trade and movement flowing both ways, which I learned first hand when I resided for many years in New Mexico.  Clark’s story song is told in the third person, but from the perspective of the campesinos.  As such, it harkens back to the music of Woody Guthrie, telling the story from the perspective of those whose lives and destinies are being recorded in song.

A few days ago I viewed for the first time the excellent biopic of Hannah Arendt starring Barbara Sukowa.  Arendt is a philosopher whose intellectual power and influence marks her as the essential source for understanding the human capacity for doing evil.  Her clear-eyed observations of people in extraordinary times and circumstances disturbed many of her contemporaries, but it is this intellectual honesty that marks her as one of the giants in recording and understanding human nature.  Her first-hand insights confirmed what Joseph Conrad wrote sixty-three years before in “Heart of Darkness,” that “The mind of man is capable of anything–because everything is in it, all of the past as well as all of the future.”

Arendt’s insight in her work, but most especially in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was that human evil is not only banal, but in its most common form is derived by the denial of thought, which is the most basic human activity that defines each of us as human.  By refusing to think about (and therefore take responsibility for) the consequences of his actions, Adolf Eichmann, a petty bureaucrat, was able to commit a very great evil, a horrendous crime.  The humanity of the people being led to their slaughter became unimportant–a commodity–and so it became easy to do what he was ordered to do because they were stripped of their humanity by the absence of thought.

We must be mindful as a people, I think, that thought leads to the acceptance of the humanity of others, which leads to empathy, sympathy, and–eventually–to basic human compassion and decency.  Stereotypes, euphemisms, and slogans are evils designed to deny people their basic humanity and there is no doubt that the purveyors of such devices do so with that harmful intent.  We must resist the easy path of thoughtlessness, and appeals to fear and tribal loyalty.

People can be undocumented in coming into a strange land, but people can never be “illegal.”  It wasn’t too long ago when my own swarthy forebears were pejoratively called “W.O.P.s”–a term that is derived from the acronym “with out papers;” that is, those of Italian descent who were undocumented and therefore, “illegal.”

We are a nation of immigrants.  My sympathy and advocacy for decency is with the campesinos and with the children seeking safety in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  We simply need to live up to those words which, in the end, is what defines a people as exceptional, given the all too common penchant for cruelty in human history.