Saturday, September 12, 2009

Poverty: Hole in the Bucket

Michael Franti and Spearhead: Hole in the Bucket


With and without the sparse-but-funky backing soul of Spearhead, Michael Franti has staked his later career on proactive, politically sensitive songs which cry out to the listener to reconsider his or her relationship to society. Here, in their 1994 debut outing, he uses a chance encounter with a homeless street beggar to muse on the responsibility of the passerby: should we drop the quarter in the cup, and address poverty in passing, even if we have concerns about the recipient's ability to make appropriate choices about the use of that money to better themselves, instead of spending it on canned pork products and wine? Franti says yes. I agree.

Poverty : Pauvre Martin

Georges Brassens : Pauvre Martin


Great poet and folk songwriter Georges Brassens tells the life of Poor Martin (the most common name in France), an agricultural worker, and his resignation to his life and death :

Without letting be seen on his face, neither a resentful or bitter look
He turned over other's fields
Always shoveling, always shoveling

And when death called upon him, to work his final field,
he dug his own grave, quickly, hiding himself,
(...) And then laid down without a word, not to disturb anybody.

This song is part of his second album from 1954. You can find a video with English translation here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Poverty: This Ain't Living

G. Love and Special Sauce: This Ain't Living


I can envision G. Love and co-writer/co-vocalist Jasper driving around Philly listening to Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" when the line "this ain't livin'" jumped out at them, and a new song was born.

Whether it's early-'70s Detroit, mid-'90s Philadelphia, or present-day Your Town, the faces change, but the stories stay the same. This ain't living.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poverty: John Martin

Ben Weaver: John Martin


This one paints a heck of a picture in my head.. it has a kind of sick sepia colored feel to it. But this is just a great song, a narrative ala Tom Waits. This is the experience of one John Martin, and a ragged young man with an honest face he encounters while in Detroit on business for his wife. John learns first hand how it feels to be ragged and poor. From his 2004 album, Stories Under Nails, this is John Martin by Ben Weaver.

Guest post by Bert

Poverty: Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out

Eric Clapton: Nobody Loves You When You‘re Down and Out


My first thought when I saw the announcement of this week’s theme was, “I’ve got to post some blues this week.” Here’s a classic, made famous by the great Bessie Smith.

I have always thought of this song as a Depression era tune. Indeed, Bessie Smith recorded it on the cusp of the stock market crash in 1929, and it was one of her most popular numbers during the Depression. But Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out was written by Jimmy Cox in 1922 or -23. When you think about the words, this makes sense. Here we have a former millionaire who has fallen to the depths of poverty, but he still believes that he is one lucky break from returning to his former stature. This kind of thinking belongs to boom years, not to an era of desperation. During the Depression, a lyric that had originally seemed realistic became a last ditch attempt at hope.

When Eric Clapton chooses to be a blues musician, he is one of my favorites. Here, he eloquently conveys the emotion of the original song. And he does this in an acoustic setting, even though he is justly known for his skill on electric guitar.

Poverty: Coal Miner's Daughter

Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter

Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" paints an honest picture of the type of poverty that existed in many Appalachian coal mining communities in the early part of the 1900's.

We are all familiar with the stereotypes of Eastern Kentuckians living in places with no roads or electricity or running water. We've all heard stories of children who grow up in the mountains with no shoes, no education, and no food. These are stereotypes that, as a native of Eastern Kentucky (I was born and raised in the same small town as Loretta), I have spent a good deal of my life trying to disprove. I certainly didn't grow up that way, my parents didn't grow up that way, and I know few people who did.

Well... Loretta Lynn did. Her father worked in the coal mines in the small community of Van Lear, KY. He worked long, back breaking hours for very little pay. It was an environment that made it very difficult to provide for a for his wife and eight children. Loretta sings of drawing water from a well, selling a hog to buy shoes, and even going without shoes in the summertime. It was a life of poverty to be sure.

What I take away from this song, however, is how Loretta's family chose to view their situation. From a material standpoint, they had nothing. But from their perspective, they were rich because they had each other. As Loretta says, "We were poor, but we had love." It speaks to another stereotype of the people of Appalachia... a strong bond and connection to family. As cliched as it sounds, Loretta Lynn didn't have much growing up, but she never felt deprived due to the love of her family. That's why she's proud, and not ashamed, to be a coal miner's daughter.

Loretta talked about the song, and her life in an interview with NPR back in 2000.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Poverty: Breadline

The Wooden Soldiers: Breadline


A couple of weeks ago, I featured a few bands from the New Brunswick, NJ music scene. Here's another one important: The Wooden Soldiers. Formed in 1984, their first album, Hippies, Punks and Rubber Men (1987) is a New Brunswick classic. The original version of the band included two distinct singer/songwriters, Greg Di Gesu and Paul Rieder. "Breadline" is one of Paul's songs. It's from a second album, Lazy Man's Load, that never got released. Paul left the band around that time, and they released one more album without him, 1991's Roses of Steel.

"Breadline" is one of the catchier songs about poverty. "I'll meet you all in the morning / On the Breadline" sounds inviting until you listen to the verses, which detail a litany of troubles facing the financially challenged.

Paul currently plays mandolin and lap steel guitar in the band Clancy's Ghost. Greg performs as Sounds of Greg D and is also a respected studio engineer with two platinum records to his credit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Poverty: The Ballad of Larry

Jonathan Byrd: The Ballad of Larry


I've said before that Andrew Calhoun (singer-songwriter and owner/founder of Waterbug Records) is my personal E. F. Hutton in the music world - when he tells me to pay attention to someone, I listen!

Andrew gave me the heads-up on Jonathan quite a few years back... and I've had the pleasure of presenting JByrd in my living room as well as my concert series - he has segued from traditional to singer-songwriter to world-fusion to rock to Americana... and every time I think his music can't get any better, it does...

I've long thought that each new album is a re-invention... but now realize each is actually an extension... of his wisdom, experience and heart - The Ballad of Larry is beautifully crafted and sung, an always-wrenching yet never-maudlin portrayal of the title character, who may be on the edge of poverty but is oh so rich in other ways...

Poverty: Cash On the Barrelhead

Dolly Parton: Cash on the Barrelhead


Poverty is the knowledge that people take one look at you, and decide that it’s not safe to lend you money. That is Cash on the Barrelhead in a nutshell. I found an explanation of the term on Wiki Answers, as follows:

“... Picture a sea port and a ship is delivering barrels of salt or tar or some other item. The seller and the buyer stand facing each other with a barrel between them and strike a deal. The cash is put on the barrel, the seller takes the cash and the buyer takes the barrel after he paid for it ‘on the barrel head‘.”

The song was written by Charlie Louvin, and originally recorded by the Louvin Brothers. Dolly Parton’s is the only version I’ve heard, and it’s a good one.

Poverty: On The Wrong Side Of The Railroad Tracks

Dr. John: On The Wrong Side Of The Railroad Tracks


Looking at it from a perspective of not having to pay income tax. On The Wrong Side Of The Railroad Tracks is from the Dr. John album of Duke Ellington covers titled Duke Elegant. In a word, I'd call this song bittersweet.

Guest Post by Bert

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Poverty: Poor Man's House

Patty Griffin: Poor Man's House


The first folk album I truly fell in love with was Patty Griffin's rough-hewn, living-room recorded 1996 debut Living with Ghosts, a gift from my father and folkmentor in troubled times. I was back in college again, newly married, desperately in need of music as an emotional outlet but too broke to afford CDs, and from the very first note, I treasured that album like nobody's business.

This song, which appears alongside the equally powerful track Forgiveness, provides an aching centerpiece of despair to a haunting album. The rise and fall of its dustbowl strum and wail, delivered on the low, shaky end of Patty's breathy, slightly twanged vocal range, speaks of growing up as a child of the exhausted and sorrowful poor in ways that - although devoid of hope in the moment - still manage to anticipate the life of inner strength which will ultimately come to those who survive it.

The exceptionally well-grounded emotion of Living With Ghosts would set the stage for a long and happily still-growing career as a songwriter's songwriter, equally adept at loss and longing, hope and hopelessness, resigned determination and anger, celebrated in Americana and folk circles for an unparalleled sensitivity to the ways in which raw, intimate music and a confessional narrative can best reach a listener's heart. But I always return to this, her first, when I am in need. Thanks, Patty, for helping me find myself in the dark hours.