Monday, January 19, 2009

This Land Is Your Land at the Concert for Obama

I just had to post this, one of the most meaningful moments of the big concert for Barack Obama held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on Sunday.

Bruce Springsteen backing the folk music legend Pete Seeger, leading hundreds of thousands of people in Woody Guthrie's anthem, This Land Is Your Land.

Seeger is 89 years old. He looks spry and delighted -- and, as a friend of mine put it, as if he had been waiting all his life for this moment.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Australia -- Tamworth Time. The World's Biggest Country Music Festival?

What's the world's biggest country music festival? According to Australia's ABC News it's the annual Australian Country Music Festival in Tamworth, New South Wales, which began on Friday. It's a showcase and celebration of a thoroughly local scene, with more than 600 performers and 2,500 events staged during the 11 days of the festival.

The camping sites are filled with tents and motorhomes while the streets are full of buskers hoping to be discovered.

About 50,000 people will come into Tamworth to see everyone from local country music hero Troy Cassar Daly to the Dolly Parton Tribute Show.

This year's festival is the 37th edition of the event, one of Australia's stand-out summer entertainment attractions. According to a history of the festival on the festival web site

Tamworth has been home to country music since 1973 when the city snapped up the label of Country Music Capital, stuck to its advertising guns and staged the first ever Australasian Country Music Awards.

But even before then Tamworth was hosting special country music sessions and concerts. The CCMA or Capital Country Music Association has been spotlighting new talent in country music for 40 years from Tamworth. There's a deep heritage and culture of country here.

It had come on the back of the radio tradition of playing hillbilly in the middle of the night and a radio transmission signal reach all over eastern Australia and even to New Zealand.

It was Max Ellis and John Minson and their marketing mates from radio station 2TM who pushed the new brand.

Reading the web site is like reading a report from a parallel universe: the language is English and the pictures of guitar-strumming dudes and dudettes in cowboy hats could be from the U.S., but the names of the performers are other specific references are totally down under.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pete Seeger for Nobel Prize?

There's a movement on to nominate the legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger for the Nobel Prize...

I'm posting this here, as Seeger was incredibly influential in sparking the rich country and bluegrass scene that developed in what was then communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s.

To the hundreds of young musicians who play bluegrass in the Czech Republic today it may seem like ancient history. But a series of concerts Pete gave in CZ in March 1964 were almost legendary as a catalyst.

Seeger, an avowed leftist who was blacklisted for a time in America, was on a world tour, and he was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency in part because of his politics. He was allowed to perform, his friend Gene Deitch recalled to me in 2007, "an example of a 'progressive' American performer, singing for the rights of the 'oppressed American masses,'" and "all those living in the darkness of [the] 'imperialist' American society."

At his Prague concert -- which Deitch recorded and released on CD (issued in 2001 as Pete Seeger in Prague 1964, Flyright FLY CD 68) -- Seeger played a mix of traditional American folk songs, songs from other cultures and even a few folk revival protest songs. His performances electrified his audiences of fans of tramp music, the acoustic music that was part and parcel of the "tramp" outdoors movement that grew up in CZ after World War I, and changed the face of the Czech acoustic music scene.

My friend Lilly Pavlak saw him in Brno. Seeger, she told me, "sang a lot of songs we knew from tramp music, and so I realized that they must be American originals, not just tramp songs. That was the defining moment not just for me, but for the entire bluegrass movement that followed."

Seeger described one of the concerts in a letter: "Last night I had my first concert [in Czechoslovakia], with a shaky weak voice. Plunged bravely on, with help of a very nice woman interpreter. Audience exceedingly friendly, but very shy. Like blues especially. Listened politely through my singing of strange and unfamiliar things. Stood clapping for ten minutes at end. O, maybe seven. But I was mightily flattered. Maybe partly it was because I was the first American
performer in 18 years to have sung in Brno. But I could not get them to open up and really sing." (Quoted in Todd Harvey and Steven Winnick, "The Incompleat Filmmakers: The Little-Known Career of Pete and Toshi Seeger," Folklife Center News, Winter/Spring 2006, pg. 7. )

Click HERE to see an article I wrote about the Czech bluegrass scene.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

South Africa -- Country Music's Comeback?

Country music is making an "enormous comeback" in South Africa, according to an article in the Limpopo Informant.

I don't know enough about country music in South Africa to have any inkling where it's coming back from... still, as the article puts it "it is fabulous that Limpopo also has its share of country singers." The article, a little profile of a local singer, Will Jordan, traces a totally new geography....

Will Jordan is one of country’s “old-timers”. He works part-time in Polokwane and lives in Mokopane. Country music is, however, not Jordan’s only claim to fame. This is a multi-talented entertainer who has much to offer his audience.
Besides country music, Jordan also sings opera, gospel and Afrikaans hits. He plays various musical instruments including the piano and guitar. He also does over 25 impersonations including Gé Korsten, Elvis Presley and Willy Nelson.
And he finds time to write songs for himself and others. “I have always had a love for country music. I grew up to the music of Elvis Presley and always admired Gé Korsten and Engelbert Humperdinck.” Jordan is definitely one of SA’s country stars.
When the Angola war was still on, he performed for the “manne” together with Al Debbo. He has been on programmes such as Voorblad, Geraas, Maak ‘n Las (in Tolla’s time) and Front Row. This year he will appear on an exciting new programme on Kyknet called Kyknet Country, which is hosted by Juanita du Plessis.
Jordan says it is about time that country makes a comeback and reckons there has been no country music show on SA television for just over ten years. Jordan has performed with the likes of Lance James, Bobby Angel, Matt Hurter and Billy Forrest and says these gents have inspired him. He also expressed his gratitude to Kallie and Marianne Snyman for their support. His CD, titled For You, that was released last year is currently available at music stores or can be ordered by internet. This CD follows his first two CDs, Love Changes Everything and So Veel Jare is Verby.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Keith Urban -- From Outer Rim to Inner Circle

In 1997, Australia's not-yet-country-superstar-husband-of-Nicole-Kidman Keith Urban told the Sydney Morning Herald:
"I was raised on 100 per cent American country music. My intention has always been to improve the quality of Australian country music and to use the quality of American country music as a benchmark for that."
Urban may or may not have improved the quality of Australian country music, but he did move to Nashville and become an international star, crossing, as his biographer Jeff Apter put it "the great divide that separates rowdy outback pubs from the red carpet of the Grammys."

The Sydney Morning Herald now has an article reviewing Apter's new book, Fortunate Son: The Unlikely Rise Of Keith Urban, that tells how one of Australia's most famous cultural exports did it, moving from the backwoods to the center and making compromises to achieve success.
This is a story about the tension between artistic integrity and commercial success. It is the story of how individuality was crushed and an Australian country singer became a superstar. Oh, yes, and got the girl in the final reel.....

When Urban arrived on the Australian country music scene he was a true renegade. At the time country music was about bush ballads sung by Slim and Smoky in very Aussie accents.

Urban, looking like a countrified version of Billy Idol, wanted to reinvent the genre...

So, after Tamworth [Australia's major country music festival] rather begrudgingly acknowledged his talent (he had won a Tamworth Golden Guitar award for best new talent and, at 16, had won best junior male vocalist), Urban headed for Nashville.

What no one realised at the time was that Urban was so driven and focused that he was prepared to stay in Nashville until he succeeded and, as he would eventually discover, he would do anything, including making a truly Faustian deal with his record company, to achieve success.

To understand the choices that Urban confronted it is necessary to realise that country music in the United States is an eternal battle between pop country and trad country.