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Pokey LaFarge Mines His Midwestern Roots, Finds 'Something In The Water'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. You might’ve heard our next guest, Pokey LaFarge, on the soundtrack of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” performing from the 1920s and ‘30s, the era in which the series is set. He records his own albums, too, which include old songs, but mostly original songs, inspired by early blues, country and western swing. Jack White is a fan and produced a Pokey LaFarge recording and had Pokey open for him on a 2013 tour. LaFarge has a new album, his seventh, called “Something In The Water.” Terry talked to LaFarge in the spring, when the album came out. He was in a studio in Nashville. He also brought his guitar so he could perform a few songs. But before we hear him perform solo, let’s hear him with his band on the new album. It’s called “Knockin’ The Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight.”


POKEY LAFARGE: (Singing) Well, the lights are on. It's time to go - got to hit the stage for another show - knockin' the dust off the rust belt tonight. I started out all by myself, but I'm lucky now that I've found some help to knock the dust off the rust belt tonight. Have you seen what's happening around here? If you ask most people, they don't care. But now is the time we have to do things right, so we're knockin' the dust off the rust belt tonight. From the C-H-I to the S-T-L, I was born to raise a ruckus and do it well.



That's Pokey LaFarge from his new album, "Something In The Water." Pokey, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you, and thank you so much for bringing your guitar with you. So the song that you just did, "Knockin' The Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight" - do you think of yourself as being from the Rust Belt Midwest chapter?

LAFARGE: Yeah, definitely. We are from St. Louis, Mo. I grew up in between St. Louis and Chicago, spent most of my time in Chicago, you know, so right in between two of the major Rust Belt cities, so absolutely. It is - there's a point of pride to a certain extent.

GROSS: I want to ask you to perform a song for us. And this is an original song called "Close The Door," and it's about unaffordable medical bills after three weeks in the hospital. I hope this isn't from personal experience.

LAFARGE: Oh, thankfully no, but I'm sure that there's many people out there that, unfortunately, could relate.

GROSS: So this is Pokey LaFarge singing an original song called "Close The Door."

LAFARGE: (Singing) Oh, close the door. Close the door. Don't let that doctor come in. Close the door. Lock it tight because I've got no money for that doctor tonight. Three weeks I spent in the hospital left me with a stack of bills sky high. I'll never be able to pay them, I know. That's why I wish I would've stayed there and died. Tell me why. Yes, tell me why we must pay for the things that we need. Well, the doctor, he gets richer off me each day, and I barely have enough money to eat. That's why I'll never go to a doctor anymore, no matter how sick I get. No doctor will ever get my dough - why? - 'cause I work too damn hard for that.

GROSS: Yeah, that's great. Thank you.


LAFARGE: You're welcome.

GROSS: That's Pokey LaFarge performing for us. And he has a new album which is called "Something In The Water." You've got this kind of trill in your voice sometimes that I really like a lot and very few people sing that way anymore. And I was wondering if that was something you had to work on or if you found that you naturally had that in your voice.

LAFARGE: Well, you know, there's a way that, in traditional jazz and New Orleans jazz with clarinetists, they would have to have this - they came up with this really whiny, you know, tremolo - vibrato-type style…

GROSS: Yeah, like Sidney Bechet.

LAFARGE: …And it’s not - yeah, was, like, my favorite soloist of all time. They had to come up with this vibrato to compensate for the poor quality of the clarinet, you know, just, like, literally warping in the humidity there in New Orleans. And I think - I don't know, maybe it's the same thing with my voice. I'm compensating for notes that I can't hit cleanly. I'm certainly not a trained singer. I'm just kind of following a feeling.

GROSS: Oh, I don't see it - I don't hear it as compensatory. I hear it as...

LAFARGE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...As being - in keeping with the period that inspired you when, I think, a lot of singers had that kind of vibrato or tremolo or almost trill.

LAFARGE: Maybe so.

GROSS: Yeah.

LAFARGE: But you know, there's been some great singers even throughout - I mean, throughout the rock 'n' roll era and into now that are singing that way. I mean, even Tom Jones or, like, Morrissey, you know - they throw in this really cool vibrato. They just do it a little tighter, almost more like a, you know, a classical - more classical type of way. I don't know, vibrato's certainly a thing. Maybe you're saying the trill is more specific. And I think that it is definitely a big part of that - an influence from old singers, for sure.

GROSS: So was there - were there people in your family who had that kind of music in their record collection or who played that kind of music? Like, I think you had a grandfather who played banjo in a banjo club in St. Louis?

LAFARGE: I did. Yeah, my mom's stepfather, and he's also the guy who bought me my first guitar. He gave me his old banjo from 1900, his tenor. It was a plectrum banjo that he played in said banjo club. But my dad's dad was a sort of an amateur historian, a World War II veteran, was always, you know, playing me Westerns and World War II documentaries. And so - I don't know. It just seemed like history was very present in my family.

GROSS: And did you ever get into, like, racial insecurity? Like, I'm a white person - is it unauthentic if I sing this material?

LAFARGE: Oh, sure, absolutely. But at the same time, you know, country, blues, rock 'n' roll, these sort of - these are things that anybody can sing - male, female, person of color. From wherever you are in the world, you can sing this. At the same time, it is important to give credit where credit is due and remember that the people that sometimes, you know, gave their lives for this music.

But, you know, there's the blues, but then again, if you wanted to use a genre that's singing the blues - the white man's blues, if you will - that's country music. I mean, that's why I think Jimmie Rodgers was such an important thing for me. Jimmie Rodgers was sort of the bridge to a lot of things. And, I mean, he was singing blues. He was singing jazz. He had some of the first, you know, recordings with - of a white guy and a black guy in country music, you know, performing with Louis Armstrong in country music in 1931. So he was the father of country music. And so guys like that, I would always - wanted to emulate somebody who was genre-less, someone who invented their own things. And…

GROSS: Would you sing a Jimmie Rodgers song that influenced you a lot when you started listening to him?

LAFARGE: Sure, I can do that...

GROSS: And are you going to yodel? (Laughter).

LAFARGE: We'll see if my voice can do that. I don't know. I'll see how high I can get. OK. Let's see.

(Singing) For years and years, I've rambled, drank my wine and gambled. But then one day, I thought I'd settle down. I met a perfect lady. She said she'd be my baby, so we built a cottage in the old hometown. Oh, but I can't seem to forget them good old rambling days. The railroad trains keep calling me away. Yes, I may be rough. I may be wild. I may be tough and considered vile. But I can't give up my good old rough and rowdy way, well, my good ol' rough and rowdy way.

GROSS: Very nice. And you did some yodeling in there (laughter).

LAFARGE: There was a little touch in there for you (laughter).

GROSS: A little touch of that (laughter).

That's my guest, Pokey LaFarge, performing a song by Jimmie Rodgers, who is somebody who influenced Pokey LaFarge. I think this would be a time to take a short break, and then we’ll talk some more and hear more of your music. And my guest is Pokey LaFarge. He has a new album, which is called “Something In The Water.” This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is singer and songwriter Pokey LaFarge. He has a new album called “Something In The Water.”)

GROSS: I'd like you to do another song for us, and this is a song that you wrote and you perform on your new album "Something In The Water." It's called "I Wanna Be Your Man." And maybe you could tell us a little bit about writing this?

LAFARGE: Well, "Wanna Be Your Man" is one of those tunes where you just kind of write it, and it happens - boom, it's done, you know? Other songs, you write bits and pieces of, and you're kind of wondering where the hook is at. But with this one, you know, in respects to even the first verse - something's wrong honey, this I know, never seen me this way before. Hey baby, I wanna be your man. And even right then, I was like wanna be your man, that's the hook. So then I just wrote it from there and even automatically, the tempo - (imitating tempo) - just like that. And I was like, man, that will sound real good with a tuba. And if you listen to the record, you'll hear it with a tuba - and first song I've ever recorded with a tuba. It just worked out. So let's see if we can do this here - "Wanna Be Your Man."

(Singing) Something's wrong honey, this I know. I've never seen you this way before. Hey baby, I wanna be your man. I can tell you need a friend. Step aside, won't you let me in? Hey baby, who do you think I am? It's late and it's 'bout to pour. Your neighbor's tired of me hanging 'round your door. I'll say one thing and nothing more. I wanna be your man, wanna be your man, wanna be your man, wanna be your man.

That was a little taste there.

GROSS: Yeah. I like that. And I like it with the tuba, too. I like it with the full band. In fact, let's…


GROSS: …Hear a chorus of the song with your whole band from your new album "Something In The Water."


LAFARGE: (Singing) Something's wrong honey, this I know. I've never seen you this way before. Hey baby, I wanna be your man. I can tell you need a friend. Step aside, won't you let me in? Hey baby, who do you think I am? It's late and it's 'bout to pour. Your neighbor's tired of me hanging 'round your door. I'll say one thing and nothing more. I wanna be your man. Some people don't like me hanging around, but there's no reason for it that I found. Hey baby, please don't look so sad. When you're all alone and you need a hand, let me come into your house and be a handyman. Hey baby, what about the fun we've had? It's late and it's 'bout to pour. Your neighbor's tired of me hanging 'round your door. I'll say one thing and nothing more. I wanna be your man.

GROSS: That's Pokey LaFarge from his new album "Something In The Water." So there's something else about your performing style I want to ask about, and that is that you whistle.

LAFARGE: Yeah, a little bit, you know?

GROSS: That's kind of a lost art.

LAFARGE: (Whistling).

GROSS: There are some great recordings from the 1920s with this great…

LAFARGE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: …Like, warbly – warbling…


GROSS: …Whistling on it.

LAFARGE: So good.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you want to do a song with some whistling in it?

LAFARGE: Oh, gosh, OK. Let's see what I can do.

(Singing) Do they miss you?

Let's see.

(Singing) Do they miss you? (Humming). Can you get back in? What if I kissed you? Would you tell me if it would be, would it be a little sin? I'm only human, baby, but you are so divine. I want to know, when did you leave heaven? Oh, little angel of mine. (Whistling).

GROSS: Oh, nice. Thank you for that.


GROSS: That's Pokey LaFarge, and that's actually a song that he also does on his new album, which is called "Something In The Water." And that's an old song, I think, from the 1930s. It's actually from a 1936 movie. And the movie had like Tony Martin, Alice Faye, the Ritz Brothers, Patsy Kelly, who was in a lot of Gene Autry movies.

LAFARGE: Nice. You know your stuff, Terry.

GROSS: And the song - yeah, well, the song was - the melody was written by Richard Whiting, who wrote songs like...

LAFARGE: Richard Whiting.

GROSS: ..."On The Good Ship Lollipop" for the Shirley Temple movie…

LAFARGE: "On The Good Ship Lollipop," boom. You've got it.

GROSS: …"Ain't We Got Fun," "Hooray For Hollywood," "My Ideal." And it's such a great example of the kind of cross-pollination in American music. Like, how do you know that song? Probably not from the movie.

LAFARGE: It was from Big Bill Broonzy. And…

GROSS: OK. Great, so you know it as a blues song (Laughter).

LAFARGE: Well, yeah, but also there's a great singer - actually, I first heard it from Thomas Fraser, who's this crazy multi-instrumentalist from the Shetland Islands of Scotland, who first heard country music when USO Radio was being broadcast and you could pick up the waves over the Atlantic. I recommend anybody checking him out. You want to talk about a yodel and a whistle? This guy is insane.

But I'm a sucker for a good melody, a sweet sort of melancholic tune, like I did in that "Let's Get Lost." And that - I think I write - writing songs from that vein - it definitely has roots in the past, but I mean - you know, you hear that in today's music in different ways.

GROSS: Pokey LaFarge, thank you so much for talking with us and also for performing songs for us. It was such a treat. Thank you.

LAFARGE: It's been an honor, great talking with you.

BIANCULLI: Pokey LaFarge, speaking with Terry Gross in April. His new album is called “Something In The Water.” He’s currently on tour and his next few stops include Montreal, Rockport, Maine, Portland, Ore., Seattle and Vancouver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.