The House at the End of the Block.

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Early in my explorations of Toronto and it’s old-time music scene, I was very lucky to meet Peter and Debbie, a couple who play together in the Square Peg Stringband. After a night of music at a local café, Peter and Debbie invited me and my wife Carrie back to their house to talk more about my interest in old-time music.  This was a thrilling moment for me, because I felt like I was both connecting to connected people, and being welcomed into the world of Toronto old-time.

We left the café, and as Peter and Debbie rode their bicycles back, Carrie and I drove west down Bloor Street to an area in north Roncesvalles Village, onto a dead end side street.  We were looking for a house which was described as, “one that looks like nothing else on the block.”

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From that night on, this particular house on the end of the block has served as the epicenter of my research in Toronto.  Peter and Debbie have welcomed me to stay the night when I’m in town. They’ve fed me (quite well). They have introduced me to all kinds of details of Canadian life, and every morning that I wake up there, Peter has made me a cappuccino.  This, in and of itself, makes me think I am the luckiest ethnographer on the face of the planet.

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The house itself is an accurate extension of Peter and Debbie as people.  It is stylish, warm, modern, hospitable, and welcoming.  There will be much more written here about both Peter and Debbie, but for now I’ll offer this 2010 article from Dwell Magazine about their house.

http://www.dwell.com/green/article/brown-green

In addition, this article was featured by the snarky website unhappyhipsters.com, which both Peter and Debbie were quick to point out.

 http://unhappyhipsters.com/page/65 (scroll down to April 14, 2010)

I find it refreshing that Peter and Debbie get such amusement from this send up, perhaps it’s because they are secure in the knowledge that it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  They derive great joy from their lives, and their home, and from the many friends they welcome into both.

Old-Time Music in Toronto: An Introduction

(The following is an abbreviated version of a paper I gave at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in New Orleans, LA.  October 2012.  It is the initial report of on-going dissertation research within old-time musical communities in Toronto, ON.)

With an urban population of 2.6 millions people, and a greater metropolitan area of 4.7 million, Toronto is nearly twice as big as Canada’s second largest city, Montreal, and more than three times the size of Vancouver, the third largest.  Toronto is home to the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays, and a massive identity crisis, fluctuating between the thought of as the country’s most cosmopolitan center, with the most diversity, economic productivity, international interest, and vibrant culture, and conversely as being the least Canadian city in Canada.  Even the city’s most recognizable landmark, the CN tower, was built out of a desire to have something; anything that distinguished its skyline cluttered with ever more and more glass condominiums.

Any given night in Toronto offers hundreds of choices for live music, aside from the offerings of theatre, sport, film, dance, and the bars and restaurants that fill such a large city.   A night out in Toronto offers a vast array of choices, a world’s buffet of options for pleasure and comfort.  So it should not be surprising in the least, that there is something for everyone.


One week at the Holy Oak Café on west Bloor Street offers music that ranges from Turkish songs to Tropocalia beats to a set by DJ Kosher Dill.

And that same week, though not on their announcement board, is a night of Appalachian old-time fiddle and banjo music from the Square Peg Stringband.

Not too far away on trendy Ossington Ave, the Painted Lady hosts the Lonesome Ace Stringband, comprised of three of the best and most well respected players in town, John Showman, Chris Coole, and Max Heinemann.  Again, there is no announcement of this show.  No sandwich board, and no flyer. Yet the place was packed that night.

Because of the size of the city, the old-time community in Toronto relies heavily on a Yahoo Groups email list to communicate about shows, jams, parties, and other topics of human interaction.  It’s through this list that I was first introduced to the old-time community, and how I heard about the first shows I attended.  On this night at the Painted Lady, I met a several members of the old-time community, who come out for each others shows as often as possible.  In several instances, the line between performer and audience member gets blurred, with several people sitting in.

Many people have said and agreed that while old-time music has a loyal and dedicated following in Toronto, it remains a hidden music and a hidden musical community. By the most generous standards, the number of people actively playing and listening to live old-time music in Toronto, the “old-time community,” constitutes no more than 200 people.  In a city like Toronto, that means this particular community accounts for less that one one-hundredth of the city’s population.  In other words, just like in America, the interest is nowhere near what it is for Hockey, Justin Bieber, or Nickleback.

Because of this, many of the core enthusiasts in Toronto have been making a yearly pilgrimage to West Virginia each August to the Appalachian Stringband Festival, colloquially known as “Clifftop.” 

The connection to West Virginia and the Clifftop festival runs deep in the Toronto scene, and has shaped the course of several lives, including Scott Prouty (an American with deep ties to Toronto), Anne Hartman, Erynn Marshall, and Peter Fleming and Debbie Adams, for each old-time music has become a central theme to their lives, and for some, a profession that has prescribed moving to the States.  Erynn Marshall, a native of British Columbia who lived in Toronto for decades now lives in Galax Virginia and works at the Blue Ridge Music Center, saying she probably wouldn’t be living in the states if not for West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine.

This past summer at Clifftop a remembrance concert was held for legendary Wine where Scott and Erynn were both on stage, sharing memories and tunes.  At one point, the moderated of the event said that Melvin Wine was born to play old-time music because of where and when he was born.  What Henry Glassie might call the “accident of his birth.”  The moderator suggested offhandedly, “What other kind of music was he gonna play?” My interest in Toronto old-time was born out of  a quite different perspective, one I consider to be a clear twenty-first century condition, that is, how and why do people adopt and use traditions they were not born into?

While I don’t fully agree with the logic, the idea of being born into cultural conditions that make certain traditional arts readily available is still prevalent, and such assumptions still dominate much of the discourse on American vernacular music and it’s plaguing issue of authenticity. My question concerns the adoptions and reverence of traditional arts – in this case old-time music – from a vantage point of overwhelming options.  Rather than the accident of birth, I find the choice to play fiddle music when fiddle music in not thrust upon you a compelling decision.

Of course, since the great folk revival of the 1960s there have been many old-time scenes that have developed in places outside the Southern Mountains of the US.  Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen formed the New Lost City Ramblers in the public parks of New York City. The Highwood’s Stringband emerging from Ithaca New York.  And on the West Coast the Portland Oregon Old-time music Gathering is about to celebrate its 13th year of old-time enthusiasm.  But for all of these important instances of old-time music outside the South, there still lacks a critical mass, which is for many, the appeal of a festival like Clifftop.

Clifftop is the antithesis of old-time being hidden in Toronto.  Here, for a week in August, nearly 3500 people come to camp and play together, all day, and all night.   It’s not only a gathering for people who live in and around West Virginia, but from all over the country, the continent, and the world – with a few but notable yearly visitors from Koyoto, Japan.

Ironically, amidst this sea of Americana, the Canadian contingent has developed a rather tongue-in-cheek nationalism in their camp, known as Camp Canada.  Here, Canadians from Toronto and Montreal come together to camp, jam, socialize, and reenergize their connections to each other and the music.  Over the years Camp Canada has served to introduce Canadians to Americans, Americans to Canadians, and Canadians to each other.  Two of the core members of the old-time scene in Toronto, Debbie Adams and Peg Evans, met not in Ontario, but in West Virginia.  They live on opposite sides of Toronto as Debbie said operated in “completely different worlds,” and but after meeting at Clifftop years ago have developed into the best of friends.  The Toronto old-time scene shares a symbiotic relationship with Clifftop.  As one Canadian put it, “There would be no scene in [in Toronto] without Clifftop.”  It has allowed Canadian players to learn from Appalachian masters, and has continued to nourish their interest and dedication, a spirit they bring back to Ontario year after year.

Over the years Camp Canada has also grown to be taken seriously at Clifftop.  While jamming is the order of the day, there are competitions in fiddle, banjo, band, and flat footing.  In 2008 Erynn Marshall was the first woman and the first Canadian to win first place in the fiddle competition.  In 2011, John Showman followed in her footsteps by taking first in fiddle.  That same year, 20-year-old Frank Evans from Toronto took second place in banjo.  Frank is a student of Chris Coole and something of a prodigy on banjo.  He has been coming to Clifftop since he was 12 years old.

This past summer, for the traditional band competition, a band was assembled with American and Canadian components, with Erynn Marshall playing fiddle, and Peter Fleming on bass.  Calling themselves “Nervous Tick and the Bites”  competition bands are just as often as not, assembled days if not hours before competition.  Nervous Tick and the Bites would go on to win second place in the competition after a “play-off” with a North Carolina band.  Or, as those in Camp Canada would say later that night, “They tied for first place.”

 The metaphor “tied for first place” stuck me as perfectly appropriate after my week in Camp Canada.  The Canadian contingent showed the same enthusiasm, talent, and dedication to old-time music, styles and traditions as anyone.  In fact, they have either ignored or renounced Canadian fiddling traditions in doing so.  Among those I’ve spent time with, I haven’t encountered anyone who plays Ottawa Valley Style, Métis, or French-Canadian music.  Yet many of the Toronto old-time players are quite comfortable in the bluegrass and honky-tonk idioms, crossovers that can be contentious in the States.  Yet this is not to say they aren’t proud to be Canadian, and have a healthy respect for their local culture.  Just as old-time is “hidden” in Toronto, their Canadian pride is sometimes “hidden” within the community.  Although there are clues if you look hard.  Peg’s mounty sticker on her Art and Luthier guitar – a Canadian company.

Arnie’s Romero banjo:

Dennis’s Romero with white trillium – the official flower of Ontario – on the headstock.

Mark’s Alister Miller built banjo, with “maple leaf star” inlay.

Peter’s guitar, built by Anne Hartman (a Toronto native):

Like any music scene, the level of activity of old-time music in Toronto is constantly changing.  While some lament the scene isn’t what it used to be, new comers suggest they cannot believe there is such a thriving community there.  Indications of the community’s vitality can be seen in its attraction of other across Canada.  Recently a fiddler from the Yukon and another from Winnipeg, Manitoba moved to Toronto because of the opportunities for old-time music, both professional and not.

What I have found in Toronto is that if you know where to look, old-time music is thriving in the exact modes and forms that has been its calling card for decades.  It remains community music, formed by a healthy respect for local variations, and thus sensitive to regional variation.  It is music played both in living rooms and intimate gathering spots.  And just as in areas where old-time music makes up a higher percentage of the musical output, Toronto’s musical community has various layers, from occasional jammers to dedicated professionals.  And they will continue to reorganize themselves, define and establish relationships, and hone their skills, throughout the cold Canadian winter, until the next summer, when they again gather, in the warm air, of West Virginia nights.

Border Crossing (briefly)

I live in Buffalo, New York, almost in sight of Lake Erie and the Niagara River that leads to the Falls and Lake Ontario (“farther below Lake Ontario, takes in what Lake Erie can send her.”)  Doing fieldwork in Toronto means lots of border crossing.  There are many things that one can do to expedite this process, both formal and informal.  You can  get an enhanced drivers license, or a NEXUS card.  You can clean out your car so there’s nothing to look through.  And, most importantly, you can have a simple answer to just exactly why it is you want to leave your country for another.

My first time to Toronto:

Border patrol: “Why are you coming into Canada?”

Me: “I’m doing research in Toronto.”

Border Patrol: “What kind of research?”

Me: “Ethnographic research. I’m a folklorist.  I’m going to spend the day driving around and getting to know the neighborhoods and pick up some local papers and maps, and stop in some music stores to better assess the local flavor of Toronto, in order to better understand the context for later, more precise research trips.”

Border Patrol: “Pull over to the side and go inside that door to be searched.”

Now what do I do?

Border Patrol: “Why are you coming into Canada?”

Me: “Visiting friends.”

Border Patrol: “Goaheadhaveaniceday.”

So while I’m happy to spent less time at the border, I can now add the border agents to the ever-growing list of people who aren’t interested in complicated, yet accurate answers.   Sigh.

Wedding Music: Rehearsal Dinner/ Ceili

Earlier this summer, I got married.

Technically we got married at City Hall in Buffalo, but being folklorists we have an acute appreciation for ceremony, ritual, and community, and without those elements we did not feel, or consider ourselves, married. The real wedding happened in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. An amazing number of our family and friends from across the country also descended on SLC that weekend.  This is normal for weddings, I’m told.  I was, nevertheless, overwhelmed.

The night before the wedding, Carrie and I held what we understand to be a ceili, the Irish tradition of gathering people together with performances involved.  Our version resembled a talent show, without exact rhyme or reason, that comprised a night of performances, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and a few that encompassed both. There are no recordings of that night.  It cannot be found on YouTube.  If you weren’t there, you don’t get to experience it.  That’s an integral part of the whole ritual thing.

The night of the ceili, we kicked things off with our own gift of performance.  We chose the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” as our song of commitment to the everyday reality and desires of love and marriage.

Carrie and I

One of my best friends from Los Angeles, George, sang an a capella version of the song “Frank Mills,” from Hair.  Perhaps the most amazing thing about this performance, other than George’s face when he reached for the high notes, was that he was totally unaware that this is a Richardson standard, and is sung quite often among country and folk songs around the house.  Clearly, there was some magical serendipity in the air.

George, indicating exactly where that high note resides

Our dear friend Una played two Irish reels, the first was called “Bonnie Kate” (which she chose to call “Bonnie Carrie”); the second was called “Last Night’s Fun.”  Last Night’s Fun is also the name of a great book by Ciaran Carson on Irish traditional sessions, the tunes, and the particular culture of sessions.

Una and her fiddle

While there are many memorable versions of the song “Satisfied Mind,” (my go-to is Gram Parsons with the International Submarine Band),  Carrie’s favorite (and Matthew’s) is Jeff Buckley’s version.  A clear front runner for singers, who enjoy the long jazz-like sliding phrases.  The best part was that most people there were enjoying a fantastic singer belt it for all he was worth, I was crumbling listening to my best friend sing a song he knew my girl loves, singing it the way she loves it sung.

Matthew, channeling Jeff Buckley

Leading up to the event, a few friends asked if we had any professional musicians performing that night.  Carrie and I lied and said “no.”  We actually have several friends who are professional or semi-professional musicians, and two of them performed that night.  Mike and Timon are two of the best guitar players we know.  Proof is here.  But this night wasn’t about their crazy-good picking, it was about their crazy-sweet gift to us: an homage to our nerdy roots–“At the Academic Conference,” and a tip of the hat to the greatest pop songwriter ever, Huey Lewis’s “Stuck with You”  (also an inside joke: an instructor at Berklee School of Music made Timon write out the harmonic progression of Huey Lewis songs – which Timon claims he never got right.)

Two of the four “fancy hair boys,” Timon (left) and Mike (right) singing a sensitive Huey Lewis tune

Chris treated us with a rare solo banjo tune.  The standard-turned-bawdy “Policeman,” which Chris sings with a few extra verses not commonly found on recordings.  Including my favorite…

“Two necrophiliacs lying in the bed this morning

Two necrophiliacs lying in the bed this morning

Two necrophiliacs lying in the bed

each one wishing that the other was dead, this morning”

Chris singing “Policeman”

Molly and Kate are natural easy performers with equal parts sentiment and humor.  They brought a song perfect for the occasion, Truckstop Honeymoon’s “Johnny and June,” which tips its hat to the sad nature of so much country music, but centers on the legendary relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter, who, if you don’t know, were married and worked together for 35 years, only to die four months apart.

Kate (subdued) and Molly (enthusiastic) – themselves a Johnny and June to be sure

There were many others as well.  Bill and Carol’s song from childhood, Michael and Gabi’s rap about our mutual love of roast pork and hatred for reggae, and a host of non-musical, yet nonetheless astonishing talents: poetry, drama, stories, dancing, athletic feats, and a Rubik’s cube solved in less than 90 seconds.

What truly proved astonishing to me was the talent, humor, and grace possessed by these people.  Many of these talents I knew, many I did not.  Had we not made specific requests that they share these things, I would have never known, and our relationships would be less rich.  Rituals and ceremonies are good for asking people for something extra, something not normally on display.  And while ritual takes its power from being a time-out-of-time, can’t we ask each other for more on a quotidian level?  Can’t we make celebration more daily?

One of our newest friends –  a woman we’ve met in Buffalo and known hardly a year – made the trip to Utah for our wedding with her new bride Kay (they were legally married this year after being together more than 20 years).  Susan “The French Waltz,”  from Nicolette Larson 1978 release Nicolette.

Susan reunited with the guitar

Susan’s reasoning for choosing this was a perfect instance of why to hold a ceili in the first place:

“When you and Carrie asked for a performance, I was stumped. My guitar and singing skills were very rusty, so I found I was unable to play many of the songs that came to mind. I practiced three that I thought I could do without humiliating myself, but none of them were exactly right. Then, a day or so before we left for Utah, I remembered “The French Waltz.” It was perfect – romantic and about a married couple, and it had French lyrics, which I knew Carrie would love.  An added bonus is that the line Je t’aime, je t’aime can be sung with either mon mari – my husband, or ma Marie – a woman’s name!

I practiced and practiced to the point where I thought I could just about do it. Though I know I croaked my way through the song, and missed some of the chords, and left one verse out, and was unreasonably nervous. It was an honor to be part of your rehearsal evening and because of you two, I have been playing almost every day. My skills are returning and I’m remembering more all the time.  It makes me happy to be making music again. I thought I had lost it. For this, I owe you both a big thanks.”

Clearly, it is us that owes thanks to you, our amazing talented friends.

All photographs here at thanks to the enormous talents of TALL & small photography.  

Josh Ritter

I’m back in Buffalo and it’s the dead of winter.  And it feels like it.  The wind is bitter.  The streets are empty.  And people seem to be happy holed up in their comfy homes until sunshine and warmth return.  I am reminded of how alive this city felt in the summer.  This is, after all, a city that hibernates.

This past summer I had the great fortune to see some of the best live music I’ve ever seen.  At the top of that list is the Josh Ritter concert I saw at Babeville, an stunning venue.

I first encountered Josh Ritter while working at Hear Music in Santa Monica, California.  His song, Me and Jiggs, was included on a compilation our shop released.  I was immediately drawn to the song from the line, “Sitting on our porch, singing Town Van Zant, we played guitar to burn off the hours.”  That sounded just right to me.

Years later my sisters reintroduced me to him through the epic, “To The Dogs or Whoever” on a mix CD they made for me.  I remember fondly the day when we decided/ figured out, that the song was all about love sought and found in the stacks of a library.  It remains one of my favorite songs to sing with my family.  Sometimes balls to the wall, other times slowed down to half speed, to appreciate every line, i.e. “Can you love me like the cross loved the nape of her neck.”

The night I saw Ritter at Babeville I saw someone who looked utterly happy and grateful to be doing what he’s doing.  I saw a man performing like a kid in a candy story, unabashed joy radiated from him the whole time.  He controled the crowd with the simplest, and most effective, dramatic guestures.  One song was played in complete darkness, other times he would kneel on the sage, letting his vocal mic pick up his voice from three feet away, creating an hauntingly distant echo which every quieted to hear.

But unquestionably, he gave the greatest encore of all time.  Seriously.  It is, without a doubt, the best encore I’ve ever seen.  Three songs:  The River/ Real Long Distance/ To The Dogs or Whoever. The first (one of the greatest Springsteen songs of all time!) he played acoutically, literally.  He steps away from the vocal mic with an unplugged acoustic guitar, causing, asking the crowd to close in to hear.  Notice on the video, there is NO other noise in the hall at that point.  The attention was direct, fierce, and palpable.  The later two songs he charged the audience, and let the energy explode in a fury of drums, guitars, and a catch-up-if-you-can sing along!

Ritter is a smarter artist than he seems at first, which is saying something.  He has a quiet and subtle control over everything he does, and seduced the crowd the whole time by his magnanimous attitude.  That fact that he does it without a hint of irony, instead glowing like he’s the one enjoying the show, sells the package that much easier.

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman’s recent albums

My review of the latest efforts by Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman are posted here, at blackgrooves.org.

“Everything’s Raisin’ But the Wages”

*The following is an adaptation of a paper I gave at the 2011 American Folklore Society annual meeting in Bloomington, IN.

The paper was titled:  “Everything’s Raisin’ But the Wages”: The poetics of class warfare in the work of two Hoosier songwriters.

From last winter in Wisconsin to last week on Wall Street, American has pricked up its ears to current extremes of class difference in this country.  Throughout the history of class disputes and labor struggles, music has had a place as a political and poetic form of communication.  Historically, songwriters like Sarah Ogan Gunning, Hazel Dickens, Joe Hill, and Woody Guthrie and many others have created an impressive body of songs that relate the woes of class warfare in America.  In more recent years, we’ve seen this mantle be taken up by folks like Billy Bragg and Tom Morello.  Here I draw attention to two native sons of Indiana, Otis Gibbs and The Reverend Josh Peytonthus far left out of this linneage, but nonetheless deeply connected.

Otis Gibbs promotional photo by Todd Fox

Rev. Peyton promotional photo by Todd Fox

Recently, with many citizen’s attention be held by the Occupy Wall Street movement, NPR music critic Ann Powers sought to find the musical voice of the protest, asking those on the ground, if a musician or anthem had arisen to give poetic voice to their concerns?

It didn’t shock me at all to hear that the consensus was that so far, the movement hadn’t seen its musical poet laureate.  As Powers observes, the era of the single voice of protest, the one people remember Dylan to be, isn’t suitable to the kind of diverse and poly-vocal crowd that makes up the Occupy movement.  But there’s another dimension to this lack of key-note singer, one that was observed by Archie Green and George Korson in their work on labor and mining songs.  Both scholars noted that the best songs of labor movements were generally written in times of general peace and harmony for the unions (and by extension, workers), for in times of desperate strife and political upheaval, people are too busy marching, picketing and sometimes fighting literally fights to sit down and write songs.  In view of this trend, while neither the Rev. or Otis are directly tied to current protests movements, they are the ones writing the songs day in day out that bring a sense of labor history and class consciousness to audiences year after year.

Here I devote most of my attention to Reverend Josh Peyton, (Rev. – as he’s called by family and fans alike).  I don’t mean to short change Otis Gibbs at all, but I feel the disciplins I am trained in (folklore and ethnomusicology) gain more from listening to artists and learning from them than from mapping grand theories over them.  Since I wasn’t able to do the kind of fieldwork I feel necessary to speak with any kind security about Otis’s process and motivations, I don’t care to speculate here.

I will mention that Otis, in a way, represents a more conventional type of labor songwriter, but even that doesn’t do his situation justice.  Born and raised in the township of Wannamaker Indiana, just southeast of Indianapolis, Otis now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.   It’s not exactly difficult to understand why Otis hasn’t found fame in the corporate sponsored world of Nashville, Tennesee, considering the titles of his last to albums:

Grandpa Walked A Picketline

and

Joe Hill’s Ashes

Otis, instead, has gained a loyal following in Europe, where he regularly tours with Billy Bragg, and sings in small folk clubs throughout the continent.

My concern here is to set an example of contrast, two artists with similar sympathies who’ve expressed themselves quite differently.  This is also interesting to see play out because Otis and Rev. are good friends, who constantly support one another and hold dear their Indiana connection.  While Otis writes songs to suit many occasions and themes, his political songs are overtly political and often specifically labor related.  Always performing in work boots and an ever-present IWW ball cap, Otis sings songs that evoke the names of Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the aforementioned Joe Hill and commemorate events like the 2006 West Virginia Sago Mine collapse that killed 12 men.  His merchandise quite consciously connect him to the images of labor history as created by Wobblie graphic artist Carlos Cortez.


While not operating strictly within the labor movement, Otis sings to people sympathetic to the goals of organized labor and generally on the progressive side of class reform.

Rev. Peyton walks a rather stranger and more complicated line of affiliations and styles, and for quite different audiences.

At Burt's Tiki Lounge, SLC, UT (photo by author)


I first met Rev. Peyton about four years ago while working with the public folklore agency Traditional Arts Indiana under the director of Jon Kay.  At the time I little about Rev’s work, but was awe-stuck at both his energetic stage show and deep commitment to his Hoosier identity.  One of the most personally gratifying aspects of being a public folklorist has been developing the tools to approach artists with the confidence to say, “Tell me more about what you do.”   The remarkable thing I’ve learned about survey work is how well it’s laid the foundation for deeper relationships to develop.  Over the years Rev and his wife Breezy and I have become friends, working on various projects together:  I write a paper about Rev. He teaches me to shoot a gun.

Author and Rev. in Brown Co. IN (photo by Breezy Peyton)

As opposed to Otis, who plays and sings songs in a country/bluegrass infused folk style, Rev. Peyton idiom is country blues.  He and his “Big Damn Band,” which consists of his wife Breezy on washboard and their cousin Aaron on drums, play up-tempo blues songs grounded by Rev’s impressive finger style, slide guitar.  More Bukka White than Woody Guthrie, I distinctly remember watching Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration on TV at Rev’s cabin when he exclaimed, “That dude’s awesome!  I always thought he was kinda of geezer.”

Musically influenced by artists like Bukka White, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton. Rev also acknolwdges that growing up in southern IN, he was raised on  “all manner of hillbilly music, from Hank to Bill Monroe to everything in between.”   This confluence has had direct impacts on his songwriting.

Often in blues in general, the idea of writing a song gets lost, in technical prowess or silliness or whatever, and I like to write songs.  Somewhere blues songwriting got lost.  But ultimately music is about songs, that’s what matters.

David Evans has written that the blues idiom is essentially one of deep subjectivity, “concerned with the self, though in relation to others.  Lyrics are realistic (as opposed to idealistic).”  Here, Rev. brings that personal touch to rural living, feeling a desire to fill a gap left by mainstream county music misrepresenting rural American life.

It was a response to country music radio.  They name drop things like pickup trucks, and mud and ‘we drink beer around the fire’ just really generic stuff.

So he ended up writing “Born, Bred, Corn Fed” (which is also a mantra his has tattooed on his right bicep.) Rev. considers the song “a wink to people who really grew up in the country,” where he could name drop things that were more authentically rural in his view.

Over this past summer I had the chance to catch Rev and Breezy on break from their near constant touring schedule, and I had Rev. play some songs in his cabin in Brown Co.  A fortunate and rare acoustic solo, personal jukebox kind of concert.

Here’s Rev. performing “Born, Bred, Corn Fed.”

While this is not an overtly political or class-conscious song, it represents Rev.’s attitude to write songs that resonate with him personally.   There’s an important connection here.  Rev. has often said he doesn’t write political songs, he writes “social songs,” He says his songs have no agenda, other than to, “Tell the stories of people I know, my family and friends, who’s stories aren’t told.”

Locality is key to him, saying:

I would never write about West Virginia miners, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a West Virginia miner.  I just want to write tell-it-like-it-is songs.  We all know the economy is messed up, and I’m not claiming to know why, and I’m not claiming to know how to fix it, but as I see it, everything’s raising but the wages.  That’s a fact you can’t argue with.

In the climate of endless political commentary about the economy, Rev.’s simple assertion is a statement of class-consciousness, without the alienating distance of polemical rhetoric.  Labor activist and folksinger Utah Phillips once said that labor songs are “a better and more accurate picture of who were are and where we have come from than the best damn history book you ever read.”

Rev. is simply making the political personal with his song, “Everything’s Raisin’but the Wages.”

Unlike Otis Gibbs, Rev. is often performing to fans who don’t listen to NRP, know who Joe Hill was, or give a damn about political movements. He plays blues festivals, punk clubs, Biker Ralleys, BBQ Fairs, and twice played on the Vans Warped Tour.  A common quip from the Rev. is that the hippie and the redneck have more in common that they realize, and he’s living proof of that.  Yet it’s his sympathy for the lives of others, and the basic human desire to feel good about themselves, that drives the social message of Rev.’s songs.  Yet while Rev. says his songs aren’t overtly political, he also hasn’t kept his views in check just to make an easier way for himself commercially, his song “Walmart Killed the Country Store,” has guaranteed that his records will never be stocked by the countries largest music retailer, but he feels okay about that, saying, “I don’t ever want to write a song that makes people feel stupid.  Well, unless you’re the head of a major corporation, then I don’t care.”

But he goes on:

I like to not state what I would believe politically, but state it socially.  I get people coming up to me at shows wearing Obama shirts or Palin shirts who’ll say ‘I hate Walmart too.’  I want to take things that matter to me, and not paint them politically, but paint them plain.  Local businesses don’t get a fair shake because of Walmart, and that’s not fair.  And if you state it like that, you can turn more people onto it.

While these videos help get at the poetics of Rev.’s songwriting, but they misconstrue the performance context for the vast majority of Big Damn Band shows.   As I’ve said, most commonly, Rev. will be playing to large, rowdy crowds, either in small clubs or large summer festival stages.

For example (video not by author):

His songwriting, however, reveals an important dimension to Rev.’s work, and his efforts to present something more complex, accessible, and durable than the party band they show onstage.  In this regard, Rev.’s work is social in both the sense of offering a common ground for people to enjoy music, food, drink, and fellowship. And the more politically charged sense of socialism – believing music and song should include the perspective of the diverse individuals who populate the world – not unlike the current slogan, “We are the 99%.”

Rev. often quips that he believes the hippy and the hillbilly have more in common than they realize (he’s living proof of that), and as we were discussing this project, Rev. sent me this text message:

What do you think of all this occupy stuff?  What’s your gut saying?  Real thing or just the tea party equivalent of the democratic party.  I want to back it so bad.  I would love some real populist movement.  Not something cooked up in the board room, and not something that ends up being hijacked by the powers that be.

I think this speaks to exactly what he wants to see in the world.  A kind of 21st century, political minded, socially grounded version of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.”  A good reminder when one sees this finger-style blues playing hillbilly playing music with punk rockers, a reminder that people are more complicated than the political pundits would like, and that complexity is a good thing.