SST CD press ('89)
The Austin Chronicle
The Ward Report by Ed Ward
It's sorta like 1962...
That phrase kept going through my mind on Mardi Gras evening,
as I celebrated that most orgiastic if holidays pretty much by
myself at the Cats Cafe. The attraction was Roger Manning,
a young folksinger who's gone from the subways of New York to s
record deal with SST-not the first label you think of when the
subject is folk music. But Manning is folk music 1989, in a strangely
pure sense: he knows traditional songs, he can do fancy picking when
the occasion merits, and he writes plenty of his own material. From
the sounds of things, he's part of a "folk scene" too, a bunch of
people who do things acoustically.
And behave pretty much like 1962.
Which is not to accuse anybody of being a retread of anything.
A performer's only good if he or she reflects the here and now
(or admittedly, evokes the past so scrupulously that it's scary, but
that's another kind of art). In 1962,the folk scene was both a place
of great excitement, something old before it's time. The thing was to
be "authentic", the thing not to be was "commercial." This was the difference,
for instance, between the New Lost City
Ramblersand the Kingston Trio. Let's face it, the "authentics"
were the hip ones.
Trouble was, they liked to sit around and be pseudoethnomusicological.
Talk about banjo styles, regional blues types, compare vintage instruments.
When they played they tried as much as possible to sound like an 80-year-old
Appalachian man or an 80-year-oldblues singer, or a 35-year-old 78 rpm record
of the same guy at 45 years of age. Not that they were't fun, from time to time.
Alan Block'ssandal shop in the Village as a hotbed of string bands, and
on Saturdays, if enough of the right people showed up, Block might abandon the
custom orders he always had piling up and start picking, and these sessions could
last well into the night. (I find it chastening to realize that his daughter,
Rory , has on her latest album a song written in tribute to her son,
who died at the age of 19 when he drove into a tree one night.)
Similar scenes were going on in Boston, I know because I used to read about
them in the folk magazines. And what Roger Manning put me in touch with was the way
things started to change back then. In Boston, it was people who'd wander into hoot
night at the club, odd folk who'd been involved in the
Leary-Meztner experiments at Harvard and were't the least "authentic."
Or "commercial," for that matter. They polarized the audience right away.
In New York, it was this guy who made the couch circuit, who'd wake up in the
morning, and go out and buy the New York Times, read through it , and
whip out his guitar and start to make songs about the stories he'd read. He
also played "authentic," but he was a lousy instrumentalist, and could't
sing very well. But he tried at least.
Most of the Boston crowd faded away; being musicians wasn't the central
activity for most of them anywise, and the rest were more audacious than
talented. The New York guy was in the right place at the right time, a
trendsetter, and pocessed of an awe-inspiring amount of ambition. Thanks in
large part to him, the times, as he was later to write, were a-changin'.
As, I suspect, they are nowadays. And I further expect that performers like
Manning are part of the change. Not to compare him to Bob Dylan - Manning himself,
if nobody else, will happily disabuse you of that notion - but he's a symptom
of the change at least, and possibly a part of the cause. Hearing him thrash
his way through bluegrass standards in-between his own songs, which if you
were inclined to dis them, you would say that they are tuneless, don't rhyme,
and refer a little too often to his in-group or folk-scene buddies, it's
impossible not to realize that the elements are being recombined yet again.
Oh sure: oldsters may say that it was different when we did it; it was new ,
it was exiting, it had never been done before. But that's just hot air.
Anything's new if you've never done it before, and a significant number
of the people who saw Manning hadn't even been born in 1962.
Quite frankly, I think things are pretty boring at the moment. It's not
just boring here; it's everywhere. Where-ever we are, as Simon Frith
argues cogently, at the end of the rock era, at the end of the moment where
youth culture rallies around it's music, or is this just another period of
quiet in the cycle I've seen come around three times before (which doesn't
exactly negate Frith's argument, either, come to think of it), I don't know.
It's just that, the other evening, I saw something that felt like I'd made
contact again. It felt good.
Dallas Observer 9/89
Left ear open:
Say a musician was granted just one song
a career, one 2.5 minute crack at laying it
all on the line, and after that - pfffft!
the dude had to become a mechanic or something
and the song was left to stand, nakedly, on
it's own merits. If that as the way of the
world, Roger Manning would of been back on
the chain gang by now. This beat poet and
neo-traditionalist fragmented post-modern
suterranean-homesick folkgrass thrash-flat-picker
from New York's East Village pretty
much sums it all up - eloquently, passionately,
confessionally - with the song "The Lefty
Rhetoric Blues" from his self titled SST
Lefty folksinger rhetoric has such a boring ring
Satire, spoof, autobiography, fable,
storm warning - Manning's song hits all the
high notes in the shortest time imaginable,
perfectly etching the fate of a movement,
and the fury of a backlash, with 86 spare
words. This gentle scream in the dark,
layered over the barrelhouse boom of his
churning acoustic guitar, attest to the
absolute power of the simple marriage of
words to music. People have written socio-
logical treatises on the subject of "The
Lefty Rhetoric Blues", but Manning gives us
something new and momentous in his min-
They make me sick
They oversimplify everything
But then on the other hand
They were right about Vietnam...
Ever since Vietnam, I keep my left ear open
The busker from the subways of SoHo
reads, in fact, like a good book. Manning
-who, reasonably enough, defines folk as
"music that serves a purpose" - is a story-
teller in the vein of America's roaming,
Depression-era voices of dissent; he's
soul-mate to Cindy Lee Berryhill, cousin
to the Michelle Shocked of The Texas
Campfire Tapes, distant relation to
The Clash of Sandanista and the
Sex Pistols of Never Mind The Bollocks...
Lurking around every corner of every
song, from "the #14 Blues" to "The
Sicilian Train Blues", is a quiet revelation of spirit ("I wish I had some
money so I could buy some time") or a
clanging, head-on collision of anger and
apathy ("Proud to be an American/Clinging
to the suburban way/The I can't be bothered
state/Who cares about others when you've got
it made..."). The result is a ragged but
richly realized panorama of ourselves and
our times, from an artist who views the
world with special eyes.