We Came to Sing!
Holly Near with emma's revolution,
Calico Tracks Music, 2009,
Perhaps the term "contemporary folk" is an oxymoron; what do I know? But the apparent conflict in such a description speaks volumes about We Came To Sing!, an album that pairs an acoustic stalwart whose been at the top of her game since the early ‘70s with a duet that stands on the cutting edge of protest song today. Here's an ensemble of equal parts ideology and raw musicality.
Over the years, singer, actress and activist Holly Near has been a stirring voice for peace, women's rights and the LGBT community, first leaping into the movement as the Vietnam War raged and its fallout permeated all walks of life. With news of the Kent State massacre arriving at the Broadway theatre where Near was then performing in the musical ‘Hair', she and the rest of the cast took part in a job action wherein the show was stopped just before the finale in order to speak directly to the audience about the awful injustice in Ohio-and that going on a world away.
This led her to embark on the ‘Free the Army Tour' organized by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, performing songs of peace outside of military bases. The media all but ignored this tour in order to effectively disappear it, this as reactionary television broadcasts nightly paraded footage of anti-war protests, fomenting fear of radicals and maligning activists at every turn. No matter, Near also performed in Vietnam at the behest of the Hanoi Musicians Union and sang with the cultural workers of a people known in this nation as "the enemy" at best; damn the evening news. Since that time, Holly Near has made a habit of singing the songs that would lift us to action and social awareness. "These songs get through borders", Near reiterated recently.
Holly Near's latest release is one recorded in partnership with Pat Humphries and Sandy O, better known to progressives as emma's revolution. In recent years the duet, so named in accordance with the famed Emma Goldman quote ("If I can't dance, it's not my revolution"), has graced many a demonstration and performed for an endless stream of progressive events, touring the nation with their songs of justice. The combination could not be better suited.
We Came To Sing! offers the listener an amazing tapestry of sound, at once beautiful and agitating. One can hear strains of classic Folk Revival here, but then there's also the obvious influence of Sweet Honey in the Rock on "Study War No More", strains of pop, R&B, perhaps calypso; there's singing inspired by both Odetta and Anne Murray, and there's trad country which could have climbed out of the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou'. More so, out of the legacy of Sis Cunningham, Aunt Mollie Jackson and Mother Maybelle Carter.
"Listen to the Voices" opens up the disc with only the first glimpse of acapella we'll get here, but surely not the final example of it. Moving easily from tonal droning to melisma, the trio fills the sound space with strength as they sing of the First Nation and its legacy. This is followed by the old-time standard "Sail Away Ladies" in which the vocalists present mountain music for contemporary ears, and then move on to a song by Native American poet Jimmy Durham and Puerto Rican composer Roy Brown, "Sky Dances", which allows the vocalists to cascade and merge in glorious harmonies. This is not just didactic verse recited for our moral betterment; the listener is treated to a tight harmonious presentation throughout, that which envelopes the radical cultural work herein.
Another selection, "Ministry of Oil", stands as a greatly relevant topical song of this time. Written by Rick Burkhardt (of the duet the Prince Myshkins), it speaks of the invasion of Iraq with a stark reality, blatant and pointed, regardless of which administration leads the charge. The group performs it with a sense of ownership:
"The medicine has all been confiscated and soon there won't be water left to boil,
and one might wonder who'd think up names like ‘food for oil'
when what they mean is ‘ministry of oil'"
Many of the works represented were composed by the performers, as with Pat Humphries' lilting "Swimming to the Other Side"(where the influence of Bev Grant appears evident) and Near's own "1000 Grandmothers" which is performed here almost like a madrigal, with inner rhythms and lines moving through the gorgeous ‘early music' harmonies. The song's lyric is very strong, a portrait of the wisdom and struggle of women in society. But then we'd expect nothing less from such a gathering of voices.
In the midst of economic disaster, these women share their sonic offerings as just so much social change. And damn don't we need it just about now.