ALBANY – Two events happened last Thursday that brought me into the world of folk music.
It was a day that honored the 60th anniversary of the opening of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. It was also the day the Albany Symphony Orchestra held a CD release party for their new album, “This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie.”
Both show the importance and diversity of folk music to those who want to touch our emotions through musical story-telling.
The fact that Michael Daugherty, one of our nation’s more important classical composers, has looked to Woody Guthrie, a 20th century folk icon for inspiration, is a sign that these folk songs are both timeless and timely.
Daugherty is a unique individual who is as fascinated by pop culture as he is the music of Mozart. He admires the songs of Bobby Darrin and was so fascinated by the myth of Superman it inspired him to write his “Metropolis Symphony.”
As for the works of Woody Guthrie, he says it is his hope that anyone listening to “This Land Sings” will realize that “the issues that figures of the past grappled with are still with us today.”
Guthrie usually used familiar folk tunes to which he added his own poetic words relating to social issues. Daugherty composed his own music, but to make connections with the universality of the same social issues he incorporated pieces of 20th century literature into his lyrics.
The cut “Graceland” uses a bit of whimsey through a touch of music associated with Elvis Presley. It also includes excerpts of Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem of the same name that emphasizes the issue of exploited workers by greedy bosses.
The piece “Bread and Roses” takes some of its lyrics from James Oppenheim’s 1911 suffrage poem pleading for equal rights. And “Forbidden Fruit” uses the wry humor of Mark Twain to give a twist to the moral of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve.
Arguably, “Hot Air”, which deals with the intolerance of bigoted AM radio talk hosts, is the most pointed. It was, in the 1930s, people like Father Coughlin whose racist-talk was a target for Guthrie. This piece lets you choose your own contemporary talk show host. It proves the names of personalities change, but the hatred remains the same.
“This Land Sings” was recorded with the ASO’s 18-piece contemporary ensemble, the Dogs of Desire, with David Alan Miller conducting. Adding another local connection, it was recorded at EMPAC on the RPI campus.
“This Land Sings” is a wonderful example of how classical music can make every day social issues seem cosmic in scope. It makes one understand that issues of human rights, bigotry, suffrage, sexual exploitation and greed are, indeed, large in scope and complicated by nature.
However, if you want to experience the simple, human reaction to those problems that cause such pain and hurt, there is nothing more personal that a single performer with a stringed instrument offering a lament about the pain of injustice. Add a harmonica in the background and, oh my.
Caffe Lena has been doing that for 60 years. It is the longest continually operated coffee house in the United States.
Many of the people who played there, like Bob Dylan, have gone on to become nationally-known figures. But mostly the stage is occupied by individuals or small groups that have a need to express their joys, sorrows, fears and hopes through music.
It is a small space, ideal for the expression of intimate stories and songs. It is significant that they call their performance area “a listening room”
Caffe Lena in Saraoga Springs is a humble but important cultural institution that is always in need of support.You can’t visit it at this time, but they continue to stream live performances nightly through their YouTube site. Go to website at caffelena.org.
For more information about the Albany Symphony Orchestra and “This Land Sings” go to albanysymphony.com
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.