My computer was recently in for repair. For over a week, I couldn’t access my digital library. I couldn’t dial up my playlists and change them on my iPhone. I was adrift, but only briefly, because I still had music. I walked over to my bookshelf, scanned the shelves, and pulled out an album. Taking the album out of the sleeve, I noticed its weight, it’s color, it’s feel. I pondered the object. I remembered where I got it, why it was important, why I wanted it in my collection, this album that I held in my hand, this object, an artifact. Objects can hold a frozen piece of memory and even trigger feelings long ago forgotten.
In the digital age we find ourselves in, we’re losing objects at a fast pace. The Kindle may hold 3,500 books, but we really don’t own, can’t hold, can’t appreciate the book as artifact on a Kindle. Don’t get me wrong﹣I love the convenience that technology brings, but there is a cost. I predict that one day simply owning such objects, using them in our daily lives, holding them in our hands (whether vinyl records or printed books or photographic prints or things DIY or physical or secondhand), defining our lives by them, will be an act of rebellion.
Some artists use artifacts from the past to unlock their aesthetic. I’m not talking about fads or fashion﹣it’s something deeper. Pokey LaFarge is one of these artists.
I first discovered the music of Pokey LaFarge at a Jack White show in Portland, Oregon, and from LaFarge’s record “Middle of Everywhere” (Free Dirt Records, 2010) and his 78 R.P.M. single with just two songs (“Fan It” and “Shenandoah River”). His 78 R.P.M. record (the way record labels released music before the “long playing” 33 R.P.M. record was introduced in 1948) was released by the Evangelist Record Company in Camden Town, London, which has to be one of a handful of record labels that still possess the capability of mastering and releasing 78 R.P.M. records. Evangelist has its own mastering facility and uses an Ampex 300-81 8-track recorder that was built for Ahmet Ertegun and his Atlantic Records label back in the day. Recording and manufacturing with these kinds of machines takes dedication and passion; it takes effort and skill to keep them running. And it’s all driven by a personal connection between the artist and the object of the record itself.
If you love music and vinyl records, you know about Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville, Tennessee, probably the most exciting new record label working today. LaFarge and his band, The South City Three, opened for White on part of his “Blunderbuss Tour” in the spring and summer of 2012. When they took the stage it was a shock, trying to understand the pairing of Pokey LaFarge and the music of Jack White. At first, it was a challenge, like a musical puzzle that needed solving. Then, I got it. Like finding Jack White’s aesthetic rooted in the music of American blues masters such as Eddie James “Son” House, Jr., The Mississippi Sheiks, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and many more gems from the Document Records vintage jazz and blues catalog, LaFarge’s sound is the sound of St. Louis river culture, made to be played in close, in clubs and bars and fairs and festivals. Though radically different from the work Jack White is developing for his records, LaFarge’s songwriting and style are entirely sympathetic to White’s notion of contemporary songwriting based on past musical traditions.
“At the heart of my music is the rhythm, which is most deeply and consciously influenced by pre-WW II music and its descendants…. Here in St. Louis, we literally have a river of influence to draw from. It’s part Midwest, part South. Part city, part country. Its geographical location has nurtured the music for over a century. We are right in the middle of this great country, at the confluence of the two mightiest rivers, at a place where American ideas meet and flourish,” LaFarge writes in the liner notes of “Middle of Everywhere.” American swing, jazz, country blues, and even a little of the folk tradition blend into LaFarge’s unique sound, carried on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and mixed along the journey with the stories of the townspeople all over the region. Like Jack White, Pokey LaFarge has taken these starting points and extended them, record after record, into his own sound and style.
My copy of LaFarge’s newly released and eponymous “Pokey LaFarge” (Third Man Records, 2013) just arrived in the post. This new record builds on the themes of what his previous records have done, delivering an oral tradition of storytelling, with tales of rural life and city life colliding, of hard times and bad luck, creating an identity that speaks to a kind of universal America, though very much Midwestern (St. Louis), and belonging to traditions that have influenced popular culture in America for decades. The new LP doesn’t call out the band’s name (The South City Three) as he’s done before, but the same musicians are present: Joey Glynn (upright bass & backing vocals), Ryan Koenig (harmonica, percussion, & backing vocals), and Adam Hoskins (guitars & backing vocals), along with Chloe Feoranzo (clarinet), Teddy Weber (cornet & lap steel), and Justin Branum (violin & cello). The sound in these 12 new songs is all LaFarge, with his distinctive, wry songwriting and singing style, a sound that’s both a time machine back to the early twentieth century, yet that remains contemporary with this sharp studio recording with lyrics that include sly jokes, wordplay, tall tales, and daring deeds (escaping any consequences, mostly).
Lest you think Pokey LaFarge’s music is some kind of sugar-coated American theme-park escapism to yesteryear, beware: This music isn’t without an earthy, bawdy connection to real people and real lives lived. Songs like “Won’tcha Please Don’t Do It,” with the opening line: “My girl’s rose on another man’s vine.” Or “Bowlegged Woman” with “She buys her bobby pins by the pound just to keep that big hair down.” And a spirited cover of the 1947 song “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” written by Nashville songwriter Fred Rose and first performed by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (Fred Rose was a country music legend who famously wrote hit songs for Hank Williams).
I saw LaFarge and his current band play live at The Tractor Tavern in Seattle in May, a much closer encounter than I had at Jack White’s show at The Rose Quarter in Portland. The Tractor is an intimate bar space with a small stage and personal atmosphere. Patrons drink, talk, dance, and carouse. It was a packed house on a warm night. Seeing LaFarge play in this setting reminded me of something the late great Levon Helm said about the “midnight ramble” in the film “The Last Waltz” (1978). There’s a direct connection between bar shows and traveling tent shows, modern minstrels singing about hard times and a 1930s sensibility that’s faint but still present. After the main show is over, after the finale, after the children go home to bed, the music changes pace, the songs get a little juicier, and the jokes get a little funnier. LaFarge is a skilled performer in that American tent-show tradition, and he wants his audiences engaged and dancing to his music. He frequently spoke to the audience, telling stories, and mentioning the sources for some of the songs. He worked the audience as he spoke about the smell of the bar, the bodies, and the booze (which the Tractor has plenty of), which make his music better.
I took a lot of pictures that night, and maybe they reveal the real energy and stage presence of this musician better than just talking about it. Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, which remained in place throughout his entire set (even though the bar was very hot that night), LaFarge is pure showman and consummate band leader.
The songs played live are rendered with a studio accuracy. His band followed his every move. The only thing missing was his signature felt hat (he seems partial to the wool fedora). Having and playing his records (at any speed) is just plain fun, but seeing Pokey LaFarge live is a must if you’re into artists who are re-creating and preserving musical traditions. He’s a road dog, in motion and traveling widely the rest of this year.
So I return to the artifact or object. The clothing, the vocabulary, the vintage acoustic instruments, the overheated bar and stage show, the 33 1/3 and 78 R.P.M. records, washboards and harmonicas. This is an artist making music and making a point: No matter how modern we think we’ve become, we still have roots, we still come from a place and belong to a world of things made to reflect who we are or who we want to be. Part of the journey of life has to be about getting in touch with those things that shaped our families’ earlier experiences in America, making a living and belonging to the homes they made. Watching Pokey LaFarge do what he does is a reminder of how American music grew out of a physical relationship to life and work and place.
Music is a living thing, and the music of Pokey LaFarge is a kind of rebellion against those forces that want us to forget the past and embrace only the latest innovation. I just wish I’d taken one of my restored, 1930-era Corona portable typewriters to his show at the Tractor, pulled up a chair at a table in the back of the bar, and rattled off a review right there, on the spot, pecking away at the keys and sipping a cool drink while watching the dance floor and the moves and the bodies and the heat rising. In fact, next time Pokey LaFarge comes through town, I will. I might even wear a vintage jacket and a tie. But not a hat. Just too hot for a hat this time of year in this part of the country.