If the voice that is talking is never your own,
Then who’s going to tell you that you finally come home?
-from Never Your Own
If the world was fair and the acclaim an artist received was based solely on merit, Ferron would be a star. But, Ferron has never really seemed that interested in being a star. She’s certainly had her chances. A four star review in Rolling Stone of her 1984 release, “Shadows on a Dime” declared her a ‘cultural hero’ and called her music a ‘thing of beauty’ where ‘Cowgirl meets Yeats.’ Many other artists reading this praise would feel poised for the big time and jump right in and accept whatever compromises were necessary to achieve it.
Yet, much of the critical acclaim that Ferron has garnered over the years seems to have only brought disillusionment and strengthened her core resolve. Though she experienced several very successful years as a performer on the world’s stages during the late eighties, her commitment to artistic integrity has often been clearly at odds with the major labels that have on occasion courted her. Ferron remembers, “ Life was grand except for one thing... For me it was a time when I had to stop and take stock and remember myself and remember where I came from and find the deep well that I was used to tapping into and fight the urge to become a parody of myself. People would call with show ideas and I learned to say no, learned to make bread and walk all over the island I lived on. I learned to value myself off a stage. Learned to face some of my childhood demons.” Strengthened by bad experiences arising from a recording deal with Warner Brothers Records who released three of Ferron’s 1990’s albums, the singer eventually went broke and dropped out to live in places such as Vachon Island in Washington and with friends in Bodega, California to heal and reinvent herself and her art.
Moving on and having no money were nothing new to Ferron who first left her home in Vancouver, Canada at the age of 15 to pursue her destiny through a life on the road. Ferron was born Debbie Foisey into a mixed French Canadian – Cree and Ojibway family and was the eldest of seven children. But, her childhood was anything but idyllic and after a lot of being shuffled back and forth in and out of foster homes, she finally packed a shopping bag containing a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a Leonard Cohen album and never turned back.
At the age of eighteen, Ferron began writing her own songs and she put out two self-produced albums before recording Testimony, her breakthrough 1980 release on her own Lucy Records label. That album with its poetic lyrics and introspective melodies received a lot of critical praise in Canada and in women’s music communities throughout the western world. Even today, it remains a bold and timeless artistic statement. If Ferron had recorded nothing else, Testimony would be enough to secure her reputation as one of the very best folk based singer songwriters of the last century. As it is, her new album, Boulder is her fourteenth release and certainly ranks amongst her very finest recordings.
Ferron is no diva. She is a real salt of the earth singer who approaches her art with both sleeves rolled up, ready to dive in. She walks her talk with heart exposed and performs with a courage and commitment that few other artists ever muster. The songs don’t sound composed and sung as much as they feel wrung from the sweat and toil of hard fought experience. In Ferron’s world, the contents of her songs appear as if they’re lived out on the canvas of her life and not just inside the confines of her art.
In the past, few producers have been able to appreciate the subtleties of Ferron’s songs and midwife them into the world to give them the birth that they deserved. Her new album, Boulder was produced by the feminist singer and advocate, Bitch and mixed by Tucker Martine – the engineer responsible for popular releases by The Decembrists, Death Cab for Cutie and Laura Veirs. The result is the finest sounding album of Ferron’s career.
Ferron has never been a singer who could charm her audiences with the loveliness of her voice. She sounds a lot like Mary Gauthier (some would say Mary Gauthier sounds a lot like Ferron) so when she sings, no one can miss the gravity and weight inferred by her commanding alto voice. Supported by the likes of Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco and Sam Parton,
Ferron’s vocals have never sounded so good and her songs have never been treated with such reverence and respect as they are on Boulder. Though she is only 56 years old, the wisdom expressed on this album is timeless as river and stone. The words she sings sound ancient, irrefutable and significant. They resonate within the listener as if they have existed in our collective unconsciousness since a time long before any of us were born. Like Biblical psalms, they carry a weight and authority that Ferron is tuned in enough to recognize and capture in human language. Simple and profound like the wisdom expressed in the best Bob Marley songs, Ferron’s lyrics feel like instructions brought down from the mountain to enlighten the world’s first people. Like the west coast native myth where the raven steals the sun and releases it into the sky to warm the world, Ferron illuminates human experience in a way that few artists are capable of.
But you who dream of liberty must not yourselves be fooledBefore you get to plea for freedom,you have agreed to be ruledIf the body stays a shacklethen the mind remains a chain
- from ‘It won’t take Long’
When I first opened the envelope that contained Boulder and looked at the song list, I was a little disappointed. Ferron’s recordings are so infrequent that when I realized Boulder contained no new material and was instead a recasting and reinterpretation of some of her classic songs, I wondered if she had finally run out of inspiration. I felt a little cheated for about five minutes until I put the album on and listened to it three times in a row.
Boulder is an unqualified success. For new listeners, it is the perfect place to get a sense of Ferron’s work and recurring themes. For old fans, the versions of her earlier songs presented on Boulder are delivered with the same unhurried reverence that one can hear in Bob Dylan’s recent work. Just as Dylan didn’t sound as nimble when he intoned ‘Not Dark Yet’ or ‘Standing in the Doorway’ in 1997 as he did when he first sang ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ back in 1965, Ferron’s voice has been affected by the ravages of time. But, like Dylan, she has turned this into a strength. When she speak-sings the songs on Boulder, the words take on a sacred quality and sound as if they are being channeled from an ancient place.
Like fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, Ferron has such self-possession and intuitive command of her material that she can deliver lines that a less experienced singer would never be able to pull off. The weight, poise and gravity that she communicates with each word, each carefully annunciate phrase is something to marvel at.
They said some men would be warriors and some men would be kings
And some men would be owners of land and other man made things
False love is the eternal flame that moves man to think in rings
And gold would be our power and other foolish things
- from ‘It won’t take long’
When Ferron sings these words, they sound as radical, relevant and biting as they did in 1984 when she first sang them. There is a certain implied irony that humans are still trapped on the revolutions of the same wheel and that the passage of time has done nothing to wake us up or make us change. The starving are still starving, the lonely are still bereft as humanity keeps chugging forward with a broke down engine and a lunatic at the wheel. In the world Ferron describes there is nothing more one can do than dig in, hold fast and act with as much dignity as possible.
Are the new versions of the songs on Boulder better than the originals? It’s a hard question to answer and is perhaps beside the point. The original versions represented the work of an emerging artist expressing her truth in bold, carefully arranged and produced songs that were full of power and passion. The new versions are stripped bare and resonate with the voice of experience, hard won freedom and self-acceptance. One could argue, perhaps, that ‘The Cart’ a song off of Phantom Center – her 1990 release on Warner Brothers – can be finally heard as it was meant to sound. In its stripped down version, the song emerges as one of the most literate and moving descriptions of the spiritual challenges in modern life ever written. A more profound evocation of themes explored in ‘The Wheel’, The Grateful Dead song about loss of faith and renewal, ‘The Cart’ is a song for the ages that everyone with a heart and mind should hear and memorize.
These songs sound like they’ve always been with us. They are part of the fabric of the universe and like King David’s Song of Songs from the Old Testament they seem to originate from a place beyond time. Like a Zen koan they evoke part of an eternal riddle and express themselves as if they have emerged out of the soil itself. Ferron’s songs are battered and resilient like river stones worn smooth by the millennia old passage of water down a winding stream. The versions of her songs that she sings on Boulder are like the difference between the sculptor Michelangelo’s early and late carvings. As a teenage prodigy, he demonstrated a mastery of form that allowed him to breathe life into stone and create works as beautiful and perfect as Pieta and David. As an older man, Michelangelo learned that beauty had many faces as he felt he had learned to listen to the voices within the stones themselves and free the souls trapped inside of them. The figures that emerged from these roughly hewn blocks – though they lacked the accessible beauty of some of his youthful masterpieces, emanate a power that is missing in his earlier, more technically polished sculptures. Similarly, the economy that Ferron employs on Boulder reveals a newly discovered weight and depth resting inside of these early songs – some of which Ferron has sung and lived with for almost thirty years. As a young woman, she sang with a profundity and poise that belied her years. The passage of time has allowed her to catch up and inhabit these songs in a way that she has never quite reached before.
This is particularly evident in the new version of ‘Misty Mountain’, her near hit from 1980. The original guitar driven reggae tinged lilt has disappeared and this time the song is rendered as a spoken word poem above a bedrock of Native American drum and song. In this new casting, the song expresses a power and depth missing in the original. The same can be said of the new version of the autobiographical ‘Girl on the Road’ When it first came out in 1994 on the Driver CD, it was one of the most heartbreakingly bare songs of pain, release and rebirth ever committed to tape. On Boulder, the song loses the sparkling instrumentation and uplifting backup vocals that elevated the original version. To hear Ferron sing, one realizes there are some wounds that never heal; all one can do is pick up and carry on with as much strength and dignity as possible.
If one were to choose a standout track, it would have to be her new recording of ‘Shadows on a Dime.’ In some ways the version she presents here is a battered fragment when compared to the carefully produced title song of her 1984 album, but in the lyrics as they are uplifted by Bitch’s yearning violin achieve a world weary resonance that was only hinted at in the original. With its tale of working class dead ends and existing as ‘a stranger to the plan’, Shadows on a Dime is certainly one of the best songs of its type ever written, and in its way it is every bit the equal of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Hollis Brown.’ It is a song that still send shivers down my spine nearly a quarter century after first hearing it.
Fifteen years ago I worked the lineWith a thousand more all doing timeWhile a foreman smiled complicit crimeWe were strangers to the plan.An old old woman ran the gearsShe couldn't moveThey said she'd been there forty years...I think that's rude...'Cause forty years is forty yearsAnd I was only fifteen then.The work waged war upon our backsBut we gauged our steps and we didn't look slackOne day the old woman didn't come backI couldn't work so well and they let me go.
- from ‘Shadows on a Dime’
In the end, how a person feels about Boulder will depend entirely on what he or she looks for when listening to music. Ferron doesn’t write bump and grind pop radio singles, but there is a lot to smile at in the songs she performs. The poetry is beautiful and true and the melodies are catchy and direct. In every case, her voice perfectly mirrors the subject matter of her songs. There is no fancy playing or instrumentation to distract her audience from the words that she sings. The chords and progressions are nothing special. Like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan songs, with a little practice anyone can play them. These are songs to share, carved from the rock of life and culture. They are more beautiful, profound and resonant than words can convey. Their reach and importance extends far beyond the audiences of women who have been Ferron’s main fans up until now; this is music for the human race. Ferron’s words of truth and experience should be treasured, lived with, and learned from. Boulder is absolutely essential listening.
This article originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.
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