News & Reviews
Review: "America Come Home"
by Magnus Eriksson, www.rootsy.nu, Sweden
Joel Rafael is one of today's best interpreters of Woody Guthrie's songs. He has recorded two fine albums with songs of Guthrie, "Woodeye" and "Woodyboye". On the first one of these we find "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son", a song about the lynching in Okemah in 1911 of Laura Nelson and her fifteen year old son Lawrence. It's believed that Woody Guthrie's father, who was a Democrat as well as a segregationist, could have participated in the lynching.
Joel Rafael found the lyrics to the song in a dusty collection and performed it on a Guthrie festival in Okemah in 1998. Not even Arlo Guthrie knew about it.
But Joel Rafael has also released five albums with mostly original material. The new one, "America Come Home", is neither better nor wrose than its predecessors. It't thus exquisite. The title track is typical of Joel Rafael's method as a lyricist commenting on social issues. It opens with some beautiful impressions of the natural scenery:
"The morning mountain lingers, the day keeps moving on
The sun extends its fingers out into the dawn
I'm thinking as I travel, life's mysteries unravel
Only the air around me knows what's going on"
Then follows the chorus with its apostrophe of "this land we call our own", before the second stanza opens with the verse "The city lights are glowing, yet the homeless number's growing."
After that the impression of the scenery unites with the critical commentary:"The desert moon is sleeping while refugees are creeping
Sing songs without voices, tearing down the wall"
The lyrical methos is not new. It has always been handy for song poets and agitators that have been moving across thr American continent, for Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie as well as Bob Dylan and latter successors.
But I especially apprecdiate the mildness in Joel Rafael's way of using it. The scenery gest a lyrical existence in its own right, as with the early symbolist poets, before it is woven into a another level of significance as a symbol or a projection. It does not make the commentary less effectice, it is rather emphasized.
Also the song "Dharma Bums" is a masterpiece in its unifying the allusion of Kerouac and the Beat generation's slighly blurred politics with a visual and concrete social reality. That "Indian Summer" is a love song with an impressive scenery just underlines Joel Rafael's lyrical sensibility. The lyrical mildness connects to Joel Rafael's softly furrowed [well, Swedish is a language dependant on metaphors which means that the word makes sense at least in its original context] in a way perfect fot the interpretation of an experience that combines atonement with a sharp social criticism. The instrumental arrangements is finely interwoven with Rafael's singing. They are discreet, and the solos are tasty in the musicians' laidback feeling. Guitarist Mark Goldenberg's solo in the titel track is solemn and clarified [I'm not sure if that's the right word, tho'], each and every note gets the time to rest in its own expressivity. The attitude contributes to the maturity and the relaxed freedom of the music, which beautifully blends withe the feeling without reducing the sharpness of Joel Rafael's lyrical song art.
Maybe I should also mention that David Crosby and Graham Nash sing harmony in "America Come Home". [Note: this by-the-way passage is motivated by the site where I publicized the piece, since West Coat country rock is held in high esteem there].
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