Best of 2014: Hurray for the Riff Raff – “Small Town Heroes”
There was a time, before Hurray for the Riff Raff had built anything close to a national audience, when frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra and longtime fiddler/drummer Yosi Perlstein would hop trains, busk on street corners, crash with scruffy, activist punk kids, and perform at an annual queer and trans music festival held at a rural Tennessee commune. In such radicalized settings, where mainstream commercial pressures were next to nil, you’d almost expect a singer-songwriter like Segarra — who’d given her shifting cast of collaborators a name signaling solidarity with people on the social margins — to confront the status quo head-on in her music.
And she did, but not until the commercial stakes in her career were considerably higher. Small Town Heroes was released in February, and on it was something the four HFTRR albums before it lacked: message songs explicitly reflecting Segarra’s convictions. There’s a distressed, doo-wop-style testament to violent deaths in New Orleans titled “St. Roch Blues,” and “The Body Electric,” an elegant, quietly unflinching interrogation of typically woman-victimizing murder ballads. Another she’d written, the somber folk meditation on racial profiling “Everybody Knows (For Trayvon Martin),” didn’t make the album but was in the live rotation. By this time, the band had graduated from self-releasing albums to a deal with ATO Records, home to My Morning Jacket, Patty Griffin, and the Alabama Shakes; interview requests were streaming in from outlets like NPR, Spin, and The Guardian; and desirable club, theater, and late-night television bookings were crowding the calendar. Amid the buzz, Segarra began promoting “The Body Electric” as persistently as an act in a more chart-driven format would a rising single.
“She already knew what she was doing as an activist and a musician, but it crystallized exactly the moment when she was moving more into the mainstream,” NPR pop critic Ann Powers, an early HFTRR supporter, says of Segarra. “It was a way of making a very overt and confrontational political statement at a moment when you might expect an artist to kind of pull back and compromise. So because of that, I think it’s really a central moment in her development as an artist.”
It’s not like Segarra had consciously resisted taking political stances in songs since launching the band in New Orleans in 2006. The year before Small Town Heroes came out, she spoke with anticipation about finally wading into statement-making territory. “That’s a place that I’ve never really been able to go in my songwriting, is trying to write a political song that I didn’t feel like was really corny, because it’s just so hard,” she told me in April 2013. “But I also feel like it’s really important. So I’ve been really trying to go there and see what comes out. And lately I’ve been feeling like that stuff that’s coming out is pretty good.”
A singer and songwriter engaged with the contemporary American roots scene is likely to run up against the heft of folk tradition, including the inheritance of generations-old Appalachian murder ballads, many of which share similar plot features: the young man who perceives a threat of sexual impropriety from his lover, has maybe even put a baby in her belly himself, and responds by running her body through with a knife or bullet and tossing it in the water or a hole in the ground. The old songs are still sung and the ancient templates are recycled in new compositions, with the expectation that the sophisticated, modern audience will take them as the telling of a story, the playing of a character, certainly nothing more personal than that.
But as Segarra explained during an interview for CMT Edge, “[My] murder ballad song is a really good example of me being at a show and hearing somebody play a new song that they wrote, and it’s just so casually about killing their girlfriend. I’m like, ‘Do you even know what you’re saying?’ They put it in this form: ‘Oh, it’s kinda like a traditional song. So you can detach yourself from it,’ and it’s that detachment that I really want to break down. With [‘The Body Electric’], I want it to be like, ‘This is what it sounds like to me when you stop detaching yourself from a song like that. You’re saying that you want to hurt me because I’m a woman.’ [I’m] just trying to break down those barriers and have people really hear it from this feminist filter that I can’t help but hear things through.”
In the first verse of the song, she casts herself as the murder ballad victim, reciting her fate aloud to confront her killer and an army of seemingly unaffected narrators:
Said you’re gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river
Shoot me down, put my body in the river
While the whole world sings, sing it like a song
The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong
By verse two, she’s playing the part of a mourner, insistent upon recovering both the woman’s ravaged body and her untold story:
He shot her down, he put her body in the river
He covered her up, but I went to get her
And I said, “My girl, what happened to you now?”
I said, “My girl, we gotta stop it somehow”
Even though Segarra’s target is cultural, she comes at it in a way that doesn’t feel abstract.
“She has that gift of being such a strong persona and personality that she can force us to put the ‘I’ back in it, put the first-person back in it, which isn’t always easy,” Powers observes.
Besides that, Powers adds, “Radical feminism took as part of its mandate challenging our most beloved narratives and forcing us to realize that those narratives are based on violence against women, and that’s what Alynda’s reminding us of. It’s so easy for us to step away from that, because, you know, who doesn’t love Jane Eyre? Who doesn’t love “Little Red Riding Hood”? But those stories, violence is embedded in them. And it’s important that we keep coming back to that understanding, even if we think we already know that.”
When Myth Meets Real Life
While Segarra doesn’t go around fingering the new-school murder ballad that triggered her response, she did include a pointed reference to a ballad that Johnny Cash recorded in the ’60s and again in the ’90s: “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.” “The Body Electric” also soundtracks a video comic book depicting the plight of Marissa Alexander, a young wife and mother fighting a heavy sentence for firing a warning shot into the air to fend off her abusive husband. Synced up with Segarra’s “Delia’s Gone” lyric is a scene showing Alexander on house arrest with Cash’s chilling “Delia’s Gone” music video on TV.
“Delia’s Gone” merits its own chapter in the book The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. In a move Segarra would probably appreciate, historian Sean Wilentz uses it to highlight the chasm between the spirit in which the song’s been performed — not only by Cash — and the flesh-and-blood people on whom it’s very liberally based, young teenagers Delia Green and Cooney Houston.
Wilentz writes: “Cooney’s murder of Delia was not simply a crime of passion arising from a lover’s quarrel; it was a crime of passion involving two lovers barely out of puberty. It was a childish murder. It was precisely the opposite of Johnny Cash’s deliberate mayhem, engineered by a cold-blooded killer.”
“The Body Electric” is, in a sense, Segarra’s attempt to hold her big-picture critique of systemic violence in tension with her visceral responses to real-life tragedies, like the murder of an acquaintance her age named Sally Grace. “I knew that it was going to affect me artistically,” Segarra said in September. “I kind of made a promise to myself that it would, but it took me a while to really, fully sit with it and really think about the way that it changed the way I saw the world.”
Baked into the song title itself — not to be confused with a prog rock tune by Rush or a number from the musical Fame that share the same name — is a tribute to a 23-year-old medical student from Delhi whose gruesome death Segarra learned of through news outlets and social media.
“Originally what drew me to that name was actually me reading a lot about the woman in Delhi who was gang raped on a public bus and she died,” Segarra explained late last year. “I was reading so much about her, and a lot about the protests that were going on in her name. …People were calling her ‘The Lightning.’ ‘Damini,’ I think, is the word that they used. They just gave her this name ‘The Lightning,’ saying that that happened and it struck this response of everybody just kind of waking up and saying, ‘We can’t live like this anymore.’ Going from there to the Walt Whitman poem [‘The Body Electric’], I was trying to weave it all in together. It’s basically a really long poem all about how every body is beautiful and every body is necessary and magical. That’s, like, how my brain works — a lot of different things going on.”
Promotionally speaking, too, Hurray for the Riff Raff has had a lot of different things going on this year, and nearly every time the group’s given a mini-performance at a public radio station or the offices of some magazine or blog, “The Body Electric” has been a go-to. Even on occasions when there was time to do just one song, like the Americana Honors & Awards Show and the Late Show With David Letterman, it was the one Segarra sang.
A slot on Amos Lee’s tour last fall was one of the first times the band had played to an audience more well-heeled and settled in life than its own at venues like the venerable, 2,400-seat Ryman Auditorium. Afterward, in an interview for another publication, Segarra said, “We’re learning how to be more confident, like ‘This is who we are.’ That’s been a good lesson for me as a front person: ‘Okay, we’ve got five songs, and in those five songs, we’re going to play a lot of our feel-good numbers, but we’re always going to play our anti-murder ballad. Just let people know from the very beginning this is what we’re about.’”
‘Just Not Be Afraid’
As for how she’s navigating professional realities that take her further and further away from her off-the-grid roots, she said, “Yosi is such a good partner in crime for all of that. We’ve talked a lot about it. A lot of it is just being like, ‘Okay, we’re heading in this direction, and the only thing we can do is just not be afraid, and be confident enough in each other to know we’ll keep each other in check and we’re always just gonna do what we know in our hearts is what’s right for the music.’ I think a lot of it is just believing that we can progress as a band and get more popular, get more successful, and just be more awesome in everything that we’re doing. I look at Ani DiFranco a lot for that. She got really popular, and she’s still a badass.”
Of course, Segarra has a style of communicating that’s markedly different from that of her political folkie heroines and heroes. She’s 27 years old and quite aware of what her 20-something peers deem inaccessible or unconvincing.
“At some folk festivals,” she told me in September, “I’ve found that there’s some people that are really trying to hold that tradition down of writing political songs or doing social commentary. And maybe sometimes I feel like the language is a little too literal, and then it turns people off. In my opinion, it’s really gotta be put in this more artistic way. Just trying to make it a little bit bigger than just a direct account of what happened. I think that’s something that Woody Guthrie was so great at. He was writing these songs that felt like you were reading the newspaper, and that was really important. But now I feel like you need to bring a little something newer to the table and just kind of stir the emotions a little bit more. I feel like sometimes just stating what happened isn’t really gonna do it.”
Segarra has used her generation’s new media tools to extend the activism of her songs. In late September, she announced an Indiegogo campaign for The Body Electric Fund, set up to funnel money to The Trayvon Martin Foundation (which advocates for the families of violent-crime victims), Third Wave Fund (which supports youth-led efforts toward gender justice), and the making of a music video for “The Body Electric” (which will reportedly become an avenue for further fundraising). All donors received a download of her song “Everybody Knows (For Trayvon Martin),” among other perks, and before it was over, she’d also released the comic book-style lyric video that detailed Marissa Alexander’s story and directed viewers to Alexander’s legal defense fund.
If YouTube covers of “The Body Electric” are any indication, the song has been claimed most readily and feelingly by millennial women. The politics of it were what grabbed New Jersey-based singer-songwriter and college student T.H. Jordan. She writes in an email of being struck by the lyrics’ “message of empowerment for my identity as a Queer Person and a Feminist.” In her video, she strums a guitar and sings those words seated in a chair in her backyard, with a punchier, more rhythmically freewheeling delivery style than Segarra’s.
“The song is indeed an outlet for my emotions,” writes Jordan, “because it reflects how racism and sexism is still a very crucial and damaging issue to our society. From my own personal experiences, I have encountered discrimination against my sexuality, gender expression, and being female. The increasing violence and hate towards minorities in this country is vile and tragic. I want to thank Alynda Lee Segarra for her courageous efforts and bravery writing this one-of-a-kind song.”
Fellow collegiate singer-songwriter Angela Mignanelli filmed her cover in the dorm laundry room, fingerpicking the intro, inserting harmonica interludes, and playing up the pathos in particular lines. “For me, when I sing the song,” she says in an email, “I feel like I’m putting on a different character — one who is speaking up for a dead sister, friend, or even myself, had I been the one killed.”
At first, the message hit her as being more particular than meta: “Originally, I did not picture the song being written as a response to male, folk murder ballads. Rather, I saw it as a personal narrative about one murder in particular. Alynda Lee Segarra is brilliant, though, for writing it as a response to gender and racial-based violence. After learning this fact (which I gathered about a week ago through numerous interviews online) I cannot listen to the song without thinking what a strong message it carries!”
New Takes on an Old Topic
It’s worth noting that Segarra isn’t the only woman in contemporary roots music who’s toyed with, tweaked, or subverted the traditional murder ballad form. In the late ’90s, Gillian Welch and her sympathetic, constant collaborator Dave Rawlings spun a harrowing tale of a resourceful mountain woman who took a bottle to the jugular of a would-be rapist. Titled “Caleb Meyer,” their song has since joined the latter-day old-time canon and been recorded by Joan Baez, Peter Mulvey, The Greencards, Red Molly, and others. Just in the past few years, Nora Jane Struthers made listeners feel the fear of a woman at her sociopathic lover’s mercy in “Willie,” Valerie June put a gun in the hands of an ice-blooded woman who’d been romantically betrayed in the eerie, creeping country-blues “Shotgun,” Abigail Washburn chased the trad tune “Pretty Polly” with her droll, murder ballad takedown “Shotgun Blues” on her album with husband Béla Fleck, and Dolly Parton exerted her writerly prerogative to reframe the old-as-the-hills “Banks of the Ohio.”
When I asked in September, Segarra said she wasn’t aware of all of those songs, but she was glad, and not the least bit surprised, to hear that many of them had been written around the same time as hers: “Yeah, I definitely feel like there is such a mass response to women feeling unsafe, and just feeling tired of feeling so unsafe, and feeling the burden of having to constantly watch their backs. You know, they’re coming up with nail polish that women can use to test their drinks to see if they’re drugged. With stuff like that, it’s like, ‘Oh my God. How do I add another daily routine to try to feel like I’m not gonna get killed?’ I think there’s been such a mass response of, ‘We’re really tired of this.’ And it’s just coming out in all different sorts of artistic ways, which is really exciting.”
As critic-turned-academic Eric Weisbard pointed out in his contribution to The Rose & the Briar, whether or not it’s evident from Parton’s available greatest hits collections, she’s well versed in mournful mountain balladry, having sung it from the cradle and penned it throughout her career. For this year’s Blue Smoke, which split the difference between a down-home, bluegrass attack and zippy, digital, country-pop gloss, she decided to give “Banks of the Ohio” a new narrator — a woman in the position to grill the incarcerated murderer.
“Well, I grew up singing that song,” she explained during a roundtable interview in April. “I heard that all my life. And it was always such a man’s song. I wanted to record it years ago, and I thought, ‘I don’t like to sing a song that’s just like a man, you know, just from a man’s standpoint.’ Because it was really about a guy that really killed his girlfriend.
She went on: “So I thought, ‘I’m clever. I’m a writer. So why don’t I just kinda box this in a little bit and just kinda present myself as a reporter or a writer that goes into prison to talk to this guy?’ So I wrote that little part of [it as though] I went into his prison cell to [get him to] tell his story. … Any girl now that ever wants to record that song, I hope she can use that.”
Just as much can be done with tone as vantage point. Washburn was quite familiar with the abundance of ballads featuring violent men and helpless women, having played with the all-female, old-time string band Uncle Earl, whose fiddler, Rayna Gellert, searched high and low for tunes that flipped the gender script and brought one such song, “Willie Taylor,” to the group to record. In this year’s dueting banjo collaboration with Fleck, Washburn brought her nonviolent and feminist convictions into conversation with the violent, male-dominated tradition by selecting a version of “Pretty Polly” in which Polly actually gets a speaking part and chasing it with a wryly threatening rebuttal.
“Mine is ‘Shotgun Blues,’ which isn’t actually a murder ballad,” Washburn notes. “It’s a response to murder ballads, obviously, because I just give the guy a good talking-to, which is where I come from. My background is definitely a peaceful one.”
Washburn breaks up each line of the verse with a playfully pregnant pause, setting up a scenario where her female protagonist’s toting a 12-gauge, hunting down a guy who’s got it coming, and letting the suspense build for a bar before revealing that the punishment meted out is a lecture at gunpoint.
Says Washburn, “There’s a side of it that is in jest, that’s like, ‘Oh my God. It is just so ridiculous that it’s always the woman that dies. So this time it’s gotta be the man who’s weeping and scared and freaking out, afraid for their life at least.’ The tables need to be turned at least emotionally, right? So that’s what I’m doing there. But there is a little side of it that’s so furious. It’s like there are some terrible, terrible men out there that are just perpetrators and they can’t hear you. They don’t listen. … And that’s part of what I had in my mind, is that perpetrator that you hear about in these old murder ballads, and trying to stop violence to be heard.”
She chuckles, “I really want it to be funny to people. It’s this strong girl that’s kind of being silly and tough at the same time. But I don’t know if I always get that off to audiences. There’s always three or four women who laugh really hard, and then it seems like everybody else is kinda stunned.”
When we spoke, Washburn hadn’t yet heard Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric,” but she later sent a text sharing her impression of Segarra’s kindred composition. To Washburn, it came across not strictly as an anti-murder ballad, but “more of a groovy, alt-protest song, perfect for anti-gun legislation.”
The “alt” part of that description deserves emphasis. One of Segarra’s most important contributions to political folk discourse, not only in “The Body Electric” but “Everybody Knows (For Trayvon Martin)” and “St. Roch Blues” as well, is her tone. Instead of the righteous anger or rousing call to action one might expect from a singer-songwriter focused on race- and gender-based violence, she sounds profoundly grieved, as though she’s bearing up beneath the terrible burden of clear-eyed, plugged-in awareness, steadying and steeling her narcotic alto, giving in to only the slightest hint of quavering vibrato. An edge creeps into her singing as she lets her rhetorical questioning of the killer ring in the air, but it doesn’t break the smooth surface of her melancholy.
“I mean, I guess it just felt more natural to me,” she offered in an interview for The Nashville Scene. “And maybe it’s even because I’m dealing with my own inner critic and my own inner, jaded 20-something. That was just the only way I felt like I could really say what I needed to say and get through to myself, I guess … I found that putting it in a more grieving way was just more natural to me. I feel like I’m getting in touch with my anger still, basically. It’s a path that I hope to go down. For now it’s just been dealing with grief. And I think living in New Orleans really taught me how to actually mourn for people, and how to mourn in a more communal way — not just grieving for one person, grieving for many people, and being public about it. New Orleans really taught me a lot about that. But hopefully the anger will come.”
Anger, along with humor, theatricality, and high camp, has been the expressive fuel for a couple decades worth of murderous radio singles in mainstream country music, from “Independence Day,” Martina McBride’s vignette about an abused wife pushed to the limit, to the Dixie Chicks’ rollicking ode to sisterly self-preservation “Goodbye Earl,” Miranda Lambert’s wild-eyed promise of revenge “Gunpowder & Lead,” Carrie Underwood’s Southern gothic power ballads “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs,” and “Stripes,” Brandy Clark’s sartorially circumscribed threat to a cheater. (Beer koozies dispensed at Clark’s 2013 release party sported the only-reason-she-hasn’t-resorted-to-violence money line: “I don’t look good in orange, and I hate stripes.”)
Powers sees a stark contrast between the emotional catharsis those songs offer and the conscious resistance to resolution in Segarra’s “The Body Electric.” “You look at those songs,” says Powers, “and it’s like a big explosion, and then you’ve moved on. You’ve solved the problem, even if it’s like in ‘Goodbye Earl’ — it’s funny. And I think [Alynda’s] message is that we haven’t solved the problem, that we’re not maybe gonna solve this problem. That it’s so deep, it’s just something we have to deal with, rather than solving, over and over again.”
This month, we’ll be profiling selections from the Top 5 Albums of the Year according to ND’s commissioned writers and critics. Each writer was asked to write about the parts of the album that were most striking to them, and Jewly Hight’s exploration of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes is the first in that series. The final results of the ND Critics’ Poll will be published along with the final profile, on Dec. 26. Our Readers’ Poll will remain open until Dec. 12.