Folk music to preserve, protect and remember
Larry Kaplan’s new release, True enough, is an exceptional recording and a fine example of what ‘folk music’ can be – an art form with the power to preserve and protect our culture and traditions. More than just entertainment, it’s a force that rivals the muscular, heartfelt work of artists such as Pete Seeger, and as such it stands head and shoulders above so many of its contemporaries.
Larry Kaplan is a fine songwriter – his work has been recorded over the last 45 years (or so) by the likes of Gordon Bok, Anne Dodson and Kallet / Epstein / Cicone. He is also a folklorist, collecting stories from colorful New England history, carefully forging its characters into songs that allow the traditions they embody to be passed along to new generations – traditions that have the power to restore, renew and strengthen our way of life, that otherwise might be lost. These traditions include a wide range of values that arc across our lives – from the ‘practical’ things like a strong work ethic to building a sense of community through the sharing of music and song. Don’t dismiss this latter ingredient as ‘mere entertainment’ – that feeling of belonging enriches lives and encourages folks to reach out across the lines that could divide us, leading us to lend a hand and support to those who could use it, in hard times as well as good.
‘River up, river down’ is a great example. The singer works hard at a trade that has all but disappeared. There are other ways to make a living, but it was a job that needed to be done, and the skills required to keep boats moving and off of the sandbars. He curses the difficulties, but perseveres – he recognizes the need, knows the work, and does his part to keep commerce flowing. ‘John J. Harvey, fireboat’ is another great example of a song about a way of life that is fading, that has been left behind by ‘progress’ – it tells the story of a fireboat that has been taken out of service, then restored by those who love it. Larry relates the history of the vessel from its birth to her heroic efforts after the 9/11 attacks in helping to put out the resulting fires. It’s a bit like people – they may get older, but they usually have something vital that they can still make a valuable contribution.
There are songs recalling Larry’s childhood – and those of others who grew up in the same era – that elicit a warm glow that through the skills of the writer avoids any maudlin echo. ‘Flying horses’ evokes the oldest carousel in America, still in operation on Martha’s Vineyard. The joy he describes causes time to practically stand still – and don’t we all need things to at least slow down a bit now and then? ‘Muddy old river’ also addresses the need to slow down and simply experience our lives at a pace that allows us to absorb and appreciate the world around us.
That world includes strife and conflicts, of course, as well as gentle times, and there are wonderful songs here recalling memories that we find less than idyllic. ‘Memorial Day photograph’ was written at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, telling the story of one soldier among the many represented there. A grown son is visiting the Wall with a photograph of his own newborn son, in order to introduce the child to the grandfather he never knew, memorialized in black granite. I’d place it right up there with another of Larry’s fine songs, ‘The perfect fields of Fredericksburg’. Only in remembering the past can we hold any hope of not repeating it. ‘The flowers of Littlepage Street’ also honors those who have lost their lives in battle – in this case during the American Civil War. It tells the story of the great-granddaughter of a caretaker at the Fredericksburg battlefield, who continues to care for the grave of one of the fallen there, whose family was never found. One more example of the decency and work ethic that have built this nation.
There’s also a wonderful song that combines the importance of knowing our history, maintaining our sense of community and caring played out in a contemporary setting, ‘God bless America’. It’s a gently insistent reminder that we have to remain vigilant if we want the things we value about our nation to be preserved.
The songs here are all finely crafted with great skill and feeling – there’s that work ethic again, a vocation if you will, that calls upon those who have the ability to pass down the traditions and the stories. The players are all stellar, and represent some of the finest New England has to offer. They lend their talents generously and deftly, never overshadowing each other, but rather fitting together the pieces into a seamless whole, shading their offered colors into a complete picture. You can feel their empathy with every well-placed note.
Larry Kaplan is a fine songwriter, one with a caring heart and sharp mind. He’s a giver, and it’s his gift to us all to pass along these stories in the form of songs so that we may, in turn, pass them along, either directly or in the way in which we’re called to spend our lives.
You can read more about Larry, as well as purchase his music on his website. If you love great folk music, I can’t recommend him highly enough.