Randy Browning,
Radical Rags
(independent, 2007)

Randy Browning, who lives in Maine, ordinarily performs and records with Brett Kinney in the duo Late Bloomers. Radical Rags, however, is a solo outing -- just Browning, guitar and banjo. As the title would lead you to believe, it's a collection of politically themed songs, mostly originals. If Browning doesn't sound particularly like the late Phil Ochs, it's the same basic idea: a folksinger protesting the rotten state of the nation. Or as Browning expresses it in the title song:

One day people might look back to the way things used to be:
the empty plates, the fear and hate, corporations raping our democracy,
and proudly remember how we stood and sang
good old-fashioned, all-American, left-wing radical rags.

Yeah, good old-fashioned, all-American, left-wing radical, crazy and fanatical,
folk-singin', hammer-swingin', tree-huggin', earth-muffin, homosexual agenda ... rags.

Unless you think George W. Bush is the greatest president since Richard Nixon or Herbert Hoover, you are unlikely to find anything objectionable in such sentiments, which owe more to wit and celebration than to sermon and lefty piousness. Just about everything about Radical Rags rubs me the right way, not least its attitude of patriotic protest. The title song joyously recalls America's homegrown radical tradition, which we have to thank for movements that have immeasurably improved our lives and forced all of us to live up to our best selves: civil rights, civil liberties, unions, environmental protection, feminism, gay rights and all the rest, currently endangered and well worth marching and singing for again.

But of course this is not just a commendable conviction. It's music, and it's the music that a singer must answer for to his or her listeners. Happily, Browning is a decent guitar player, picking with rag and jazz accents, and a capable banjo picker. He can sing, and he can write, and he offers up satisfying covers of songs by Jean Ritchie, Lead Belly, Dave Gordon and Randy Newman. Though written in the 1970s, Newman's "Political Science" sounds unsettlingly current, with its tag line "Let's drop the big one" on ungrateful foreign nations that fall short of proper gratitude for our wonderfulness to them. "Science" even anticipates Dick Cheney's notorious expression of scorn for "old Europe." I suppose it's possible Cheney was deliberately quoting Newman. But that's not the Big Dick we all know and love, is it?

Besides "Radical Rags," my favorite of Browning's originals is "Kings of the Midway," a nicely executed extended metaphor in which America's corporate and/or political elites are imagined as cynical carneys scamming the rubes.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

15 March 2008

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