Norman Blake,
(Plectrafone, 2017)

Over the past half century Norman Blake, whose principal though not only instrument is the acoustic guitar, has been among the leading lights of American folk music. Starting as bluegrass picker in the 1950s, after a stint in the army Blake ended up in Nashville as a studio musician backing, among others, Bob Dylan and as a member of Johnny Cash's band. Three decades later, he provided music for the film and soundtrack O Brother Where Art Thou? One surmises that many more people have heard his music than know his name. This abbreviated biography, by the way, skips over a host of achievements.

To the present point, however: Blake has been issuing albums under his own name (sometimes in collaboration with others, most often his wife Nancy Blake) since 1972's Home in Sulphur Springs, a reference to the small Alabama town where he grew up. All of these have been worth hearing, and I have been a fan for a very long time. Blake, an engaging interpreter of traditional songs and also a first-rate songwriter, has produced an abundance of sterling originals -- "Billy Gray," "Fields of November," "Slow Train Through Georgia," "Chattanooga Sugar Babe," "Last Train from Poor Valley" and "Green Light on the Southern" are just a few titles off the top of my head -- the very thought of which never ceases making any Blake listener feel better.

Blake is no sentimentalist, though one senses that he is a man out of time, gazing back with clear eyes at the past that shaped him and the rural Southern life whose music holds his affection. (For many years he and Nancy have lived on a farm in the Georgia mountains.) Politically, unlike many (perhaps most) tied to an older South, he is no standard-issue red-state far-right neo-Confederate. To the contrary, he's an unreconstructed New Deal liberal of a kind that has almost entirely vanished from the white Deep South. That perspective, though occasionally implicit, has not been at the forefront of his songs.

Born in 1938, he's now an old man, singing in an old man's voice literally and metaphorically. Having given up touring awhile ago, he says he expects Brushwood to be his final album. I guess you could say it's sort of his last will and testament, in which he feels the need to say everything he still has to say even to those (surely a minority of his fans) who don't want to hear it. Weighing in at 65 minutes and 19 cuts, it features only Blake compositions; even if nothing is strictly traditional, tradition so defines Blake's music that you might not notice if you aren't listening closely.

All of Blake's work comprises, in my hearing, a single extended recording, each part of it fashioned on a modest scale but large in heart and sympathy for the non-famous, the non-rich and the non-powerful. But Blake never gives the aura of a fuzzy-minded Stalinist in the manner of the Popular Front balladeers of another generation. Brushwood tackles much of what a long-time listener will expect from a Blake album: story-songs, railroad ballads, flat-picking instrumentals, the occasional recitation, recollections of other days and ways, gospel affirmations. What makes it stand out from other Blake releases is the quantity of outspoken topical material. Though recording before last November's election, Blake at moments assumes something like the persona of an Old Testament prophet who foresees the looming apocalypse. "High Rollers" may not be explicitly about a certain orange-hued, money-grabbing narcissist of authoritarian disposition, but it could be.

"The Target Shooter" lambastes the gun lobby in general and the National Rifle Association in particular. "How the Weary World Wears Away" on one level laments corporate greed and environmental devastation and on another expresses sorrow that as one prepares to leave the world, the world being left behind is turning into a more hellish place than ever. In "The Truth Will Stand (When the World's on Fire)" Blake waxes as hopeful as he manages to get anywhere: maybe "fascist politicians ... war profiteers ... the billionaire brothers [presumably reactionary financiers Charles and David Koch] ... the blood-stained NRA" will fall because the truth always wins if only after all the lies have failed.

In the America of 2017, one can only admire Blake's uncompromising moral position. Perhaps the good news, if there is any, is that as a general principle bad governance makes for good music, and so perhaps we're in for a resurrection of pointed song-making.

While nobody will argue -- given the competition -- that this is Blake's greatest album, Brushwood is nonetheless a moving and haunting effort, sure to be commemorated on best-of lists at the end of the year. It attests eloquently to Blake's magnificent gift, his unique way of telling a story, his poignant guitar style, his commitment to personal and historical memory, his flinty integrity. His music will be a light in the coming darkness.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 January 2017

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