By Daniel Garrett
The Village: A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village
Executive Producers: Stu Fine, Jared Levine, Steve Vining
Mastered by Greg Calbi
429 Records/SLG, 2009
New York’s Greenwich Village is admired and loved for its liberal intellectual and social atmosphere, for its resources for learning and film and theater and jazz and poetry, for its restaurants and parks and stores for books and music and clothes. It is not as free as it once was—everyone says that, and it is true, but it is still more free than many other places. The city and its population do change. He not busy being born is busy dying. I was not in Greenwich Village during the 1960s, but the myth of what it was like then intrigued me, inspired me; and I thought that the accomplishments and ideas of that time would be the foundation of much to come. Civil rights. Art, Music, and Plays. New communities. Those things were signs of progress, right? I did not think that accomplishments or ideas could be annihilated; and who would want to destroy progress? History does not end; and each day is a new lesson—and old battles, even when won, sometimes must be fought anew. Some of the songs on the collection titled The Village are from that promising time, when freedom and love and peace were on banners and in many, but not all, hearts.
The compositions of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley gave voice to new attitudes, feelings, and visions; and they could be sung during days and evenings when older folk songs—of spirituality, love, and work—were sung because they shared an honesty and passion that made origin and time seem less important than one human voice. (“The rise of folk music and the birth of rock and roll were a direct reaction to the saccharine pop of the 1950s—the soundtrack for a vacuous and repressive decade,” asserts Suze Rotolo in the liner notes of The Village, before citing as beacons the singer-songwriters Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and folk music archivists Harry Smith and John Lomax.) It is never too late to salute something good, and I doubt it can be done too much: it is always news for someone; and it is gratifying to hear the songs of The Village, featuring Rickie Lee Jones, The Duhks, Lucinda Williams, Sixpence None the Richer, John Oates, Los Lobos, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Hornsby, Amos Lee, Shelby Lynne, the Cowboy Junkies, Rachael Yamagata, and Rocco DeLuca.
“Every tune is transformed from something I knew into something I didn’t,” claims Suze Rotolo, an intimate friend of Bob Dylan in the 1960s, in TheVillage’s liner notes. In a low, growly voice, chewing through the rhymes of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Rickie Lee Jones begins the album TheVillage. I recall “Chuck E.’s in Love,” the bouncy Rickie Lee Jones song from the late 1970s, and my enjoyment of her early albums—she had a nice vocal range, with a lot of high notes, a tone both street and sweet, and her songs were about friendship and love, alienation and trouble, and one could hear the bustling rhythms of town and neighborhood life in her songs. Some of her later albums were eclectic (I liked her recording of American standards and was amused by her interpretation of David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel” and regret not hearing her last album, which I was told had a spiritual theme). On guitar and sometimes whistler, with Chris Joyner playing organ, Rickie Lee Jones sings, “Don’t follow leaders and watch those parking meters” and the other memorable lines in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and, while I appreciate her performance, she—like many other singers—does not go far enough away from Dylan’s original interpretation. The confident, soulful voice of Sarah Dugas of The Duhks goes farther in “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” a song of observation, trepidation, turmoil, and false assurance (and the reminder that “even the president of the United States must have to stand naked”), but The Duhks—even with admirable banjo, fiddle, and guitar—remain in Dylan’s shadow, despite the band’s suggestion of a combustible momentum. It is easy to see why Dylan himself sometimes has played what his audience considered deformations of his songs. To allow something different to be heard in them may require a radical interpretation.
Lucinda Williams has one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music—one hears sorrow and cigarettes in it, exasperation, late nights, whiskey, and wisdom that cannot be forgotten. That helps in “Positively 4th Street,” which is infused with awareness of the hypocrisy of an associate, the pain of the narrator leading to harsh judgment. (Hearing the song now, I think of someone I used to know—not a friend, but, unfortunately, an associate—whom I met in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and who disliked my intellectual interests and political inclinations and would frown whenever he saw me introduced to someone who might share them, afraid that my resolve would be strengthened. “You know as well as me you’d rather see me paralyzed,” Dylan wrote. Some people are just no good.) In what might be exhausted despair rather than contempt, Lucinda Williams closes the song with, “I wish just one time you could stand inside my shoes. You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” I laugh—I recognize that: the contempt, the despair, the exhaustion.
Evoking family, travel, and a final destination that could be home or heaven, “Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the favorite traditional spirituals of this atheist, your writer: “I know dark clouds will hang around me, I know my way is rough and steep” are simple words with metaphorical weight; and could relate to a long life, difficult work, a journey, or a final illness. The band Sixpence None the Richer performs it, and its singer Leigh Nash has a delicate and sincere voice; and in the song comfort and welcome are promised for the end. “I’m going to see my mother—she said she’d meet me when I come.” That song is followed by “He Was a Friend of Mine,” a lament for a dead friend, a song which has the lines “he was just a poor boy, such a long way from home” and “he died on the road.” It is sung in a voice both grave and gravelly by John Oates of the great popular music duo Hall and Oates, two men who lived in Greenwich Village while their work reached the world. I would not expect the voice of such a cosmopolitan man to have a melancholy country feel to it, as it does.
“Guantanamera,” by J. Marti, has a warmly celebratory tone in the hands of Los Lobos, with the harmony of David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and Louie Perez; and listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s interpretation of Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” which is sung in a caressing deep voice, I can imagine a quiet early morning in the city—the traffic lights blinking, few cars on the street, solitary figures arriving home after a late night, shopkeepers opening their doors to straighten things before opening. There is great intimacy and consequently charm in “Darlin’ Be Home Soon,” written by John Sebastian and performed here by Bruce Hornsby, a love song that makes me think of friendship (I have been more inclined to think well of friendship rather than romance, but affection, conflict, treachery, and understanding might be found in either kind of relationship). “The time I spent confused was the time I spent without you,” sings the narrator.
There is a lot of character in Amos Lee’s voice, making it a good fit for The Village and the song “Little Bit of Rain,” written by Fred Neil, who wrote “Everybody’s Talkin’.” (In “Little Bit of Rain,” the sound of Michael Bellar’s keys—notes both dark and sparkling—are like pools of water shimmering, moved by the wind, on black pavement.) That is followed by another great voice, that of Shelby Lynne, in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Here, Shelby Lynne’s large voice sounds both plain and plaintive, which is not to say it lacks beauty (it is a beauty without prettiness). It is a song of goodbye, a goodbye full of pain and rage, regret and self-awareness. Lynne sings, “It ain’t no use in turning on your light, a light I’ve never known.” She does not change the pronouns (“she”) in the song, which could address a sister, a friend, or a lover. It is a leave-taking without mutual understanding. The denouement is, of course, bitter: “You just kind of wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s alright.” In Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” a song that asks for remembrance, the voice of Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies—focused, tender, true; a voice that could sing a country ballad or a classical composition—leads that band.
It is hard not to hear Joni Mitchell’s voice when hearing a Joni Mitchell song, almost no matter who is singing it; and that may be especially so with her “Both Sides Now,” a song of innocence, maturity, and skepticism: “I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give to take, but still somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know love at all.” Singing the song, Rachael Yamagata sounds as if she is murmuring to herself as she muses. Finally, the set of songs, The Village, is given as dramatic an end as possible, a chilly, deliberate, and devastating interpretation of the “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” sung by resonator-guitarist Rocco DeLuca in his beautiful, spooky voice. It is the kind of song that more people understand during times such as these, when banks tremble, factories and stores close, and jobs and homes are lost. The song describes the kind of dire experience—“all your children are so hungry, they don’t know how to smile”—from which it is difficult to recover, when pain and poverty gnaw into the spirit, when “your baby’s crying louder now and it’s pounding in your brain,” and a man in a family of seven then buys, with his last dollars, seven shotgun shells.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.