Larry Kaplan – Songs for an August Moon
It’s been over 20 years since Larry Kaplan’s last album (Worth All the Telling, 1993)–and while, as someone who greatly admires his work, that’s far too long, I can also state that the quality of the music on this new album makes it well worth the wait. I’ve always gotten the sense from listening to Larry’s songs that he knows his subjects personally, whether it’s a contemporary he admires (such as the late Sandy Paton, founder of Folk-Legacy Records, for whom “Echo on the Mountain” was written) or people from the rich history of New England. He has a deep, natural affinity for their struggles, joys and sorrows, and for the lives they have lived.
“Feet on the Bluff,” which leads off this great album, is made up of musings of a farmer whose livelihood is affected by the floods that come from time to time to wash away his hard work. It harkens back to “Aroostook” on Worth All the Telling–both songs feature a character who has his eyes wide open to the hardships he faces, but who at the same time is both dedicated and resigned to carrying on. Disaster and plenty are two sides of the same coin; it’s all part of life and reality. History from a different angle–that of the Native Americans–offers powerful insight to life’s events and meanings in “Joshua’s Rock,” as Chief Attawanhood (known by the settlers as “Chief Joseph”) sits on a cliff he used to call his own and surveys the land that he loves.
“Emma’s Attic” is a great example of how Larry gets inside his subjects. The lyrics paint a vivid (if impressionistic) picture of a life viewed through the objects they have chosen to keep and store away over the course of their existence.
Pictures of aunts and uncles down at the shore
mothers and daughters, and one of her father when she was just four
Long-winded letters from a restless young man
pleading to take her away from this place to a different land…
A list such as that contained in this song blossoms into a poignant glimpse of the days of a real person’s life.
Many of Larry’s songs deal with the sea, and with those who make their living upon it. “Too Late for the Breaking Yard” and “Selling of the Isabel” relate stories of ships past their prime; “Bushnell’s Infernal Machine” is the tale of the first U.S. submarine, narrated here in the words of Ezra Lee, who piloted the ungainly vessel in the Revolutionary War. It was a frightening task, but there is humor here as well. “The Catherine Doyle” and “Cape Breton (Yes, I’m Coming Home)” reflect the voices of sailors who are ready to be done with the sea, and long to come home.
Two of the most moving songs on the album address lives many years apart. “Teaching My Son How to Sail” is about just that–passing on skills and, hopefully, the love of the sea, to the next generation, and finding, hopefully, a bit of sanctuary and refuge and bonding in the process. “When We Danced at the Farewell Ball” recounts the true story of a couple who, as teenagers, shared a dance at a ball commemorating the forced relocation of four towns that were to be inundated by the Quabbin Reservoir. The ball was in 1938, and they danced again at the Reunion Ball in 2013.
There are other songs on the disc, as well, and they’re all touching and powerful at the same time, but never maudlin. Accompanying himself beautifully on guitar, banjo and harmonica, Kaplan delivers these stories–glimpses into lives past and present–gently and honestly. The writing is skillful and heartfelt, and the listener will, I have no doubt, come away richer for the experience. This is a recording that any lover of wonderfully well-crafted songs should not be without. Larry tells me he has enough songs for a third CD, and that he’s already begun working on it. Personally, I can’t wait. One can never have too much of this sort of good thing.
Songs for an August moon is available from Folk-Legacy Records
Larry Kaplan’s website