Eric Andersen,
Waves: Great American
Song Series, Vol. 2

(Appleseed, 2005)

Eric Andersen is a folk singer of the old school. That is, if you define "old school" as that glorious class that met in the Village in the 1960s to link traditional-song structures and Guthrie-style left-liberal politics to Beat poetry and modern consciousness. The result was a new kind of song. When folk sounds were urbanized, even music that by the most generous definition could not be labeled "folk" was changed ever after, if only because it was liberated from the sentimental cliches of romantic pop and freed to embrace a wider vision of the individual in the world.

Andersen has never strayed far from those roots, even if he has added modern sonic textures to melodies that often echo ones that could have been heard in the East Coast folk clubs and, before that, in ballad traditions. In those days, when the Village folk scene was in full flower, Andersen seemed a fairly minor figure, lost in the immense shadows cast by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell and Fred Neil. His was also a keenly romantic sensibility, eschewing the ironic distance that inflected the period's performance and composition after Dylan elected not to be the new Woody Guthrie. While they had their moments, Andersen's Vanguard albums tended to be jarringly uneven; a few songs were excessive even by era standards (e.g., the notoriously overripe "Violets of Dawn"), and some felt just not terribly inspired. In the 1970s, when he was signed to Columbia, an effort was made to market him as a sensitive hunk/pop-rock star, but circumstances colluded to make that not happen. Andersen, however, plunged on and in recent years has been having a solid run on the independent folk label Appleseed.

It is clear by now, has been for a long time, that Andersen is a significant talent. He is a wonderfully affecting singer (only Fred Neil surpasses him), a composer of mature songs that can be beautiful one moment, startling the next, cutting another, never missing their target: the heart. (In his strangely ill-considered liner notes, Robbie Woliver does Andersen no favor when he compares him to current pop-fad-of-the-month, sensitive-geek "emo" acts. Andersen is a grown-up.) In the early 21st century, as one consequence of Dylan and the Village mafia's efforts all those years ago, we are afflicted with a singer-songwriter overpopulation crisis. You will forget all that, however, when you hear Andersen, whose voice, literal and metaphorical, will gratify any discerning listener. He shows how it's done, and he'll spoil you for the lesser ones, which means most of them.

His previous recording The Street Was Always There, to which Waves is a sequel and bookend, was among my top favorite CDs from last year. As with its predecessor, Waves pays tribute to the artists with whom Andersen roamed Village streets and shared club and festival stages. Pieces by Dylan, Ochs and Neil are represented again, this time in the company of songs from Tim Buckley (now, there's a proto-emo act), Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Happy Traum, John Sebastian and Lou Reed (whose secret folk-singer identity Andersen handily exposes). Robert Aaron, ordinarily associated with rock and hip-hop acts, produces once again. As before, Andersen's principal instrument is the electric guitar. Even so, this is not really a rock album and only at times a fully folk-rocking one. The emphasis is -- just as it was 40 years ago -- on voice and melody.

Andersen believes, and I fully concur, that the best of the '60s songs from the Village crowd are the equal of any songs written in America. In his (and my) view they ought to be fixtures in the American Songbook. The two tribute albums amount to a brief, and a persuasive one, for that claim.

Though its composer -- more than Dylan -- personified the notion of "protest singer," Phil Ochs' "Changes" expresses no political point of view. It also happens to be his most elegant and unforgettable composition, built -- like an authentic traditional folk song -- to last as long as human beings dream and sing. Andersen's version is if anything even more compelling than Ochs'. He transforms Richard Farina's "Bold Marauder," which is a protest song, into the fierce and lacerating anti-war/anti-imperialist anthem that Farina himself, whose vocal and instrumental gifts were modest, never managed to put across. Until I heard Andersen's version, I'd always thought of "Marauder" as a mediocre imitation-Dylan song.

Though recorded more times than probably even his publishing company can count, Paxton's anthemic hobo ballad "Ramblin' Boy" is always a warmly pleasurable aural experience. In our perhaps more sophisticated age, however, it's hard not to notice its naively homoerotic subtext. In "Golden Bird" Happy Traum deftly steals a theme from old-time supernatural balladry to conjure up a striking, but not annoyingly preachy, feminist parable.

On the other hand, while I appreciate Andersen's desire to show how topical these songs, nearing the half-century mark, remain, Dylan's "John Brown," a grim, unflinching assault on the vile mythology of soldier's glory, is -- not to mince words -- unlistenable. It is the work of a very young man who has yet to master the alchemical secrets that turn anger into art. It is, as well, the most egregious and inexplicable misstep on the album. Less importantly, Andersen might have chosen a better song by Tom Rush than the merely OK "On the Road Again" (could a title be any more hackneyed?). Why not the less ephemeral and melodically richer "No Regrets" or "Merrimac County"? Andersen's reading of "I've Got a Secret" is not substantively different from its model, Fred Neil's. The composer credit is given solely to Neil; yet this is only a slight rewriting of Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree." Shouldn't she be getting at least co-writer's recognition (and her estate the resulting royalties)?

Still, when the time comes, Waves -- if there's any justice in this world (pause for raucous laughter) -- surely will be in competition for a Grammy and whatever other awards are bestowed annually for best contemporary-folk recording. I ought, too, to observe that the two finest cuts, "Today is the Highway" and "Hymn of Waves," are Andersen's own creations. On this and on Street he stands among giants, and he doesn't have to look up.

by Jerome Clark
12 November 2005

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