September 5, 2007

Live in Anabel Taylor, Your Radio

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Almost 40 years ago to the day, the first Bound For Glory radio show was broadcast on WVBR. Taking its name from Woody Guthrie’s biography, Bound For Glory utilizes an opportunity unique to public media: the live broadcast. The program works like this. Every Sunday night a performer visits the Cul-de-Snack in the back of Anabel Taylor Hall on the ground floor to play three half-hour to 40-minute sets for a crowd of once-hippies and a few straggling student folk fans. The audience, which almost always fills the room to capacity, about 50 people, is encouraged to sing along with choruses they already know and to learn the ones they don’t. In between the sets, which begin on the 30 at eight, nine, and ten o’clock, host and founder Phil Shapiro spins folk albums for the crowd and listening audience on vinyl. Though the musicians work for the love of folk music instead of big booking fees, money has nothing to do with the caliber of musicianship you hear on Bound For Glory; the performances are always outstanding, and always free.
I’ve been to an unremarkable amount of shows considering that it happens nearly every Sunday during the academic year, and this past Sunday I attended a broadcast featuring Jeff Warner, a solo act. Besides two microphones for voice and instrument, Warner’s stage was decked with a range of instruments: guitar, banjo, and something resembling an accordion. Musically, Warner plays each of them more than adequately but without virtuosic flair, placing more emphasis on precision in terms of chord construction and rhythm than technical feats. Warner introduced his songs sometimes with jokes about banjo players but at times he turned serious. In one preface, he talked about a problem facing many modern folk fans. Although the Library of Congress in Washington has spent a great deal of time, money, and scholarship on archiving the songs of Appalachia, rural New England, and the Deep South, bureaucratic red tape makes them almost impossible for the public to access. In this light, performers like Warner assume an important position as the emissaries of folk music by bringing them to the stages and recording studios around the country.
Warner’s biggest project is the preservation and performance of the songs his parents, Anne and Frank Warner, collected during their careers as musicians. In the course of this undertaking, Jeff also has collected a vast archive from different regions like Northern Ontario and English port cities. All these songs seem to express to same sentiment, though the narrators of each can be logger, sailor, or cowboy, namely, that working hard with jolly boys and spending all your money on whiskey and shanty girls is a lot of fun. Lyrically speaking, the songs offer a rich record of both industry and humanity. One, for example, works its way through all the letters of the alphabet describing different aspects of logging, like floating logs down the river as transport and working with the team to cut through a valley. The chorus declares, “No mortal on earth is as happy as me,” and while it’s hard to see why back-breaking labor would produce such a line, the words and the way they’re sung do a convincing job of presenting an authentic narrative that’s a sizable stich in the fabric of America.