When New York was the Place

DVD Documentary: New York in the Fifties — The bohemian undercurrents underneath the seemingly conservative Eisenhower era percolated strongest in Manhattan. This film by Betsy Blankenbaker, based on writer Dan Wakefield’s book of the same name, captures the bracing new consciousnesses that led to later alternative movements, warts and all, via interviews with Wakefield, Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin, Joan Didion and others alongside archival footage and photos. The film may focus on certain literary, cultural and social facets and give short shift to others (like the vibrant folk and jazz musical scenes in NYC as well as the Abstract Expressionist reconfiguring of art), but it evokes a you-are-there feeling and accents sometimes overlooked skeins in the rich tapestry of American history.

CD: A Stranger Here by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot — Speaking of New York some five decades ago, it was the same time that Brooklynite Elliot Charles Adnopoz morphed into a dusty folk music icon in the mold of his hero, Woody Guthrie. And now at the age 77, he delivers what is likely his finest album, thanks in large part to producer (and singer-songwriters in his own right) Joe Henry, who has previously performed such delightful musical alchemy for other classic artists, such as Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. He gathers a wondrously sympathetic crew of players to back Elliot on a set of Depression-era country-blues songs to create a work that has the funkiness yet resiliency of worn old shoe leather, and evokes subtly stunning performances from the veteran folk singer’s laconic vocals. It’s a set of music rich with the spirit of a bygone age yet still brimming with relevance for the current economic downturn.

CD: Sara Watkins — What is it with former members of Led Zeppelin and young female bluegrass fiddler/singers? In the wake of the Grammy-sweeping Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, Zep bassist produces the first solo disc from Sara Watkins of the delightfully musical and—before their split—imaginatively progressive group Nickel Creek. Jones may have anchored one of the hardest rocking bands ever, but he fashions a delicate and lovely sound for Watkins in the netherworld between bluegrass and largely acoustic country that frames her honeyed voice beautifully. If you are among the many who enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this is another gem of traditionally-based American music you should find as charming as I do.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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