Larry Kaplan’s ‘Worth All The Telling,’ 20 years on
‘Good times and hard times,
they’re worth all the telling;
it won’t matter to me
if you sing ‘em that well.’
In his notes to Larry Kaplan’s Worth all the telling, Sandy Paton (of Folk-Legacy Records) quoted the first two lines of the above quatrain from ‘Song for Gale’ to describe the storytelling ethic that is at the heart of Larry’s music. This is ‘folk music’ in the truest sense of the term, ballads telling stories of real people, past and present, seemingly simple but truly profound observations of history and contemporary life and the people who live it. The fact that these songs are contemporarily written – and written so well – illustrates how the tradition can be taken into the hands of a skilled songsmith, with love, respect and care, and passed along to the listener with the values and lessons they embody. The people in these songs work hard, have no pretentions, and often struggle to survive – but they keep moving, making the best of their situation, dedicated to their families, their work, their beliefs and traditions. As in life, there is sadness along with joy, trials along with humor – ‘good times and hard times’, as the song says.
‘Song for Gale’ was written for E. Gale Huntington (1901 – 1993), fisherman / sailor / farmer / historian / fiddler / folklorist (just a few of his many hats) from Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a priceless portrait of someone who bequeathed us vibrant links to a rich past we would do well to honor and remember – and, as best as can be managed, preserve. ‘Old Zeb’ was written about Zebulon Northrop Tilton (1867 – 1952), a Massachusetts fisherman who bore witness to the transition from the era of coastal schooners to modern times. Listening to Larry sing this song, it’s easy to close one’s eyes and hear Old Zeb speaking of his life, and it becomes very real for the listener.
Some of the songs reflect more contemporary situations – ‘Turn the boat around’, ‘My brother Mike and me’ and ‘Aroostook’ paint vivid pictures of people trying desperately to make ends meet in difficult times. They see and recognize the hardships before them, but are determined to press onward. They see the obstacles they face with no illusions, but they’re also keenly aware of the simple treasures and satisfaction that can be enjoyed in the course of their work and their lives. In ‘My brother Mike and me’, the singer acknowledges the negatives – the big company ships edging out the smaller boats operated by independent fishermen, along with the sheer back-breaking nature of the work itself – but also celebrates the camaraderie he shares with his brother and son at his side: ‘’…but it’s the best job that a man can do, when his two best friends are his only crew, and his own son says he’s glad to take the wheel’. The farmer in ‘Aroostook’, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, is determined to stay on his land and work it, even if his family decides they can’t take it anymore, working outside jobs if need be to make it possible: ‘Everywhere you look, you see another farm go down. The banks are tight on credit, and there’s no help from the town. Something just ain’t right here, when the world still needs to eat, and we grow the crops to feed them, but we still can’t make ends meet.’ There’s a sadness here engendered by changing times and dying ways, but there’s a real sense of pride in honest work and partnership with the land itself.
There are also songs about notable historic characters and events, wonderfully written in a way that draws the listener into them, making the stories real. ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts’ is a poignant look at the death of Stephen Foster, whose songs were known by so many while he was alive, but died in poverty, alone, in New York City. ‘The hard way to Peacham’ is based on the true story of a homeless family who froze to death in Vermont in 1869 because they were looked upon with suspicion and derision, and were denied shelter. It raises real questions of the responsibility we bear as a society for the well-being of each other, especially of those in need, and makes it clear that any one of us could find ourselves in just such a desperate situation. There are lessons to be learned from history, if we’ll only pay attention. This is also addressed by ‘The perfect fields of Fredericksburg’, inspired by a visit Larry and his family made to the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The scene is idyllic on the surface – a quiet morning, meticulously manicured grounds – but the reality hidden beneath this beauty is harsh: ‘…the perfect fields of Fredericksburg hide blood and bones and tears’. The lesson from the past that is in danger of being missed completely is embodied in the observation that ‘…the broken walls, the soldiers’ calls, the frightened guns are gone. Still, shows that sell the souvenirs say “Choose which side you’re on”…’, lending a sense of unreality to something that was all too real and should neither be forgotten nor reduced to a game populated by mantelpiece knick-knacks.
Personal relationships and the responsibilities (and joys) they bring are featured in a pair of wonderful songs, ‘Meadowlark waltz’ and ‘Belle, is there music tonight’. The former illustrates the dangers of losing touch with old friends, celebrating cherished memories in a conversation colored by gentle regret, noting that time passes differently for old friends when they’ve grown apart. ‘Belle’ reminds us, by way of a beautiful song, that we can never show and tell those we love how dear they are to us too often. Any couple who can keep the gentle flame of courtship burning can look forward to a lifetime of love and devotion.
‘The wreck of The Bay Rupert’ and ‘Song for The Bowdoin’ recount the lives of two ships from bygone days. The story of The Bowdoin had a happier ending, at least – she fell into disuse and was falling apart, but was later restored to sail again. Like many of the songs on this disc, these two celebrate lives well-lived, and the second shows there’s always hope if people will only put their hearts into the cause – rather like the determination depicted in Stan Rogers’ famous song ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’.
photo © 2013, Joe Pecoraro www.josephs.com
Larry’s songs have been recorded by many respected performers – Gordon Bok, Cindy Kallet and Anne Dodson, for example. I first heard his work sung by Gordon Bok, and I feel very fortunate to have made that discovery. There is a richness to his songs, coupled with a gentleness that brings with it the comfort of sitting around a table with friends, sharing songs and stories to pass the time. The arrangements are simple and perfect, never getting in the way of the song. For me, one of the most telling traits of true ‘folk music’ is how it induces the listener to sing along. After listening to this recording for 20-plus years, I can honestly say that each time I put it on, before I know it, I find myself joining in on a chorus. The melodies and lyrics get into my mind and my heart, and I’m drawn into them as if I belong there. They inhabit me, and I them, and this recording resonates within me like only a select few have done in my life. Larry has been writing steadily, and working on recording more songs, some of which will be on a CD that is now in the final stages of production. I have no doubt that I’ll treasure it just as much as I do this one.
If you’ve never heard Larry’s music, take a few moments and have a listen. You can find songs from Worth all the telling on YouTube, along with a selection of his other works.