CD PREVIEW–Chico Schwall: Traditional Meets Original Folk Music
By Nathan Moore
“I remember you playing in Eugene thirty years ago,” an audience member recently exclaimed to folksinger and multi-instrumentalist Chico Schwall after a performance at the Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Oregon. The elated man then turned to his friends and said, “This guy was an institution in the music scene all the way back then.” There is perhaps no better way to describe the influence that William “Chico” Schwall has played in Eugene’s folk community.
Originally from the Midwest, Schwall has immersed himself in the musical life of the Pacific Northwest as a solo performer and as a sideman in numerous roots-based bands. He has also worked with the Eugene Symphony and has taught guitar, banjo, and mandolin to countless students. Influenced by everything from bluegrass, Celtic, klezmer, and blues to modern indie-rock and alt-country bands, he keeps one foot solidly planted in traditional folk music and the other foot in the realm of the contemporary songwriter. Schwall’s newest album, entitled Then What’s It For? is a heartfelt and elegant exploration of his eclectic musical tastes and what he describes as his “crazy role in the folk music world.”
According to Schwall, traditional folksingers “seek to disappear when singing a song” whereas modern songwriting is often driven by the artists’ personality and concerns. Schwall, familiar with both tendencies, weaves them deftly together throughout Then What’s It For? With classic folk pieces like the pensive “Diggin’ on the New Railroad” and newly penned original songs like “Cardboard Signs,” a topical piece dealing with the rise in homelessness in the U.S., listeners are treated to a big slice of folk music history as well as lucid commentary on modern social issues. While Schwall is probably right in claiming that contradictions and tensions exist between old and new music, his choice of songs also underlines the similarities between previous musical generations and today’s writers. After hearing Schwall sing about a broken, world-weary traveler in “Diggin’ on the New Railroad” and about a homeless man who sits “beside the street with his belongings at his feet” in “Cardboard Signs,” one can easily see that modern protest songs have their roots in older lyrical expressions of hard-times and desperation.
Along with “Cardboard Signs,” Then What’s It For? contains some of Schwall’s best social and political songs. He includes a forceful banjo-only version of “Joe Hill’s Will,” the final poetic statement from the famous IWW member and songwriter alongside “I Am Not Free,” an original tribute to the life of Eugene V. Debs. The crown jewel in the collection, though, is Schwall’s “Folded Arms,” an expression of his belief in the ability of working people to organize and change society for the better. The mark of a good labor song is that it is both insightful and catchy enough to get folks to sing it on picket lines and at rallies, and “Folded Arms” does both of these things. In fact, Schwall has performed this song a number of times at labor gatherings in Eugene and there’s usually a bunch of audience members singing along at the top of their lungs: This revolution is a new kind of fight/ And it won’t be decided by guns/ We will have justice when we fold our arms/And declare that no work will be done.”
Like his previous two albums, Schwall makes sure to balance his political songs with a wide variety of other material. “Praised the Plainest Stone,” for example, is an introspective piece that he wrote his for daughter, and anyone who has experienced a child growing up and leaving will understand the sentiment behind lines such as Now that you live far away, I talk to you when you’re not here. He also pays homage to his musical predecessors with his upbeat take on K.C. Douglas’ “Howlin’ Blues” and his warm arrangement of the Bentley Brothers’ “Down on Penny’s Farm.” In addition, his instrumental composition “W. 4th Alley” demonstrates how beautiful the banjo sounds when played in a slower, melodic style.
Then What’s It For? also features a handful of songs from the British Isles, and their inclusion add a unique layer to the album. The medley that includes the Breton and Cornish pieces “Dans An Dro” and “Sir Anthony Payne of Stratton” showcases his mandolin playing while his version of Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan’s “Colonel John Irwin” throws a gentle and elegant banjo and guitar arrangement into the mix. However, it is his version of “Da Slockit Light”—a renowned composition written by the late Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson—that highlights Schwall’s subtle and tasteful approach to interpreting another musician’s work. His arrangement is characterized by intricate guitar phrasing that brings out the emotional textures of the piece and makes it one of the standout tracks on the album.
In comparison to his last release, Driving By Moonlight (2004), Then What’s It For? is a stripped-down affair. When recording the album, Schwall deliberately avoided what he refers to as “obligatory, knee-jerk accompaniment.” The focus here is on the essence of the lyrics and melodies. He adds percussion, cello, bass, and other instruments to his songs only when it adds to a particular track. “It’s about being more confident when it comes to presenting myself as I am,” Schwall remarks when asked about his new bare-bones approach. The less-is-more approach definitely makes for a more intimate listening experience and adds a down-to-earth sense of continuity to the album as a whole.
While Schwall humorously characterizes himself as a “genre-defying tight rope walker over folk music falls,” he has become a highly-respected player and teacher in the Eugene music scene. With the release of Then What’s It For?, he hopes to tour more throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. For those who get a chance to see Schwall perform live, his shows are full of warmth and humor, and he makes a point of trying to bridge the gap that often develops between musicians and audiences. When asked to impart advice to younger songwriters and performers, Schwall characteristically offers an accessible prescription for success: “Listen to a lot of good songs!” When searching for those good songs, Then What’s It For? is a great place to start.
For more information on Chico Schwall or to find out how to order a copy of Then What’s It For?, visit his website. Sound samples from his previous recordings are here.
Originally Published in NW Hoot, the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society’s e-zine (http://pnwfolklore.org/nwhoot/), Vol. 3 No. 1