essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Once again I discovered something that everyone else has known about for some time: at least I’m consistent. I first came across Po’ Girl while watching the 2008 documentary Down the Tracks: The music that Influenced Bob Dylan (aka, The Roots of Bob Dylan). Po’ Girl played a version of Mississippi John Hurt’s My Creole Belle that stopped me in my tracks (59:15-60:45). A minute and a half of bliss.
My Creole Belle
I loved her well
My darlin’ baby
My Creole Belle
When the stars do shine
I’ll call her mine
My darlin’ baby
My Creole belle
Po’ Girl were in the film to illustrate how Dylan’s success bought a lot of earlier music to popularity, which in turn influenced later artists. The film’s point about Bob Dylan was that he broke a lot of musical barriers (right time, right place etc). Others have been doing it ever since. Dylan is important to all who listen to music today. He mixed music, like Elvis mixed Blues and Country. But he also mixed folk music, political comment and symbolist poetry, country music, and religion. He took all those neat little containers that separated cultured folk from Communists, from lovers of blues and jazz, from people who danced and loved good times. Like a kid in a lolly shop, Dylan absorbed everything, and it came out pop music post-1963.
Roots and sources
Like Dylan, Po’ Girl aren’t tidy about where their music comes from. It’s creole music (‘creole’ was first Afro-Brazilian, then Afro-French, then mixed anything). And ‘creole’ comes from a Latin word for ‘create’. Their music could be described as folk, or country, or bluegrass, but think again. Po’ Girl sound like Appalachian traditional folk one moment, then bluegrass, straight country, cajun: but throw in rap, jazz and blues while you’re at it. Definitely Post-Dylan. Instruments range from acoustic guitar, banjo, slide guitar, slap bass, violin (called ‘fiddle’ in America for some reason), accordion and clarinet (clarinet!). Singers all have memorable voices, and they can sing as a group, rare when many singers don’t listen to what’s going on in the group unless it’s something that hampers them.
The group is just as untidy as to who they are (I bet their rooms are a real mess). Checking it out I ended with not just Po’ Girl, but three groups, four lead singers and three solo artists. Six musicians in all: Frazey Ford, lead singer for the Be Good Tanyas 1999-2007, then solo; Trish Klein, singer in the Be Good Tanyas, then Po’ Girl 2003-2009; Sam Parton, of the Be Good Tanyas; Allison Russell singer in Po’ Girl, then Birds of Chicago; Awna Teixeira singer in Po’ Girl, then solo from 2010; and Jolie Holland, singer in the Be Good Tanyas, then solo from 2003. Six extraordinarily good singers, most of them multi-instrumentalists, and among the best composers of modern pop music I’ve heard for a while. Because many of these come from Canada (Vancouver) could it be argued there is a school here, a distinctive style? Apart from the fact that many of the musicians have influenced each other, I don’t like that kind of categorisation. Just get on with the music and see what happens next.
It’s just as well to mention that the music of Po’ Girl etc is pop music, not folk. Or rather, folk music is now a category of pop music. Another similar category is singer/songwriter. But it’s all marketed as pop. The encyclopaedia wants to call the music of Po’ Girl ‘urban folk’ or ‘urban roots’, but who needs labels? Even though written by the lead singers, in a convention that’s post Dylan too. Just as once it was a convention that songs came from Tin Pan Alley, now there’s one that they come from within the group. You can’t do covers for some reason or no reason. It’s what the record companies believe the market wants. With Po’ Girl it works.
If you want to follow the songs Po’ Girl sing you will need the lyrics, available under the ‘Music’ tab on their website at http://pogirl.greystars.co.uk/index_brick.php. No way can you follow them while listening to the songs. For some reason these girls sing in a local patois (or medieval Tibetan). Same goes for the Be Good Tanyas. Luckily, their lyrics are available from their website at http://www.begoodtanyas.com/ under the ‘Music’ tab (and they are written in English). Click on titles to see words and credits. The Tanyas give a mix of traditional and contemporary song writing, a lot of it from Frazey Ford (Just noticed a new CD, Collection, a kind of ‘best of’ now available, with the Tanyas looking like Dust Bowl divas on the cover. These girls make dowd a fashion statement). Po’ Girl is more focused on the work of Texeira, Russell and Klein. In both groups it’s the melody that leads, and the melody is often sublime. This is what I found when I listened to a CD or two.
Home to you
Po’ Girl’s Home to you CD came out in 2007 and saw Awna Teixeira join the duo of Trish Klein and Allison Russell. I think Roey Shemesh on bass and John Raham and Shelley Okepnak on drums still. Of the 14 tracks, 5 are written by Russell, alone or in collaboration, and Klein contributes three, as does Teixeira. I thought the standout tracks, melody wise, were the three songs written by Teixeira, Go On and Pass Me By, Drive All Night https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cD-dZbmm8cc and Old Mountain Line. There’s definitely a composer to watch here. Two tracks written by Klein come close to these though, Angels of Grace and So Lazy. Some of the rest of the songs seemed the kind of material musicians can over estimate simply because they have such a great time playing it. Still, five standout compositions is good for an album. Mind you, by the time a band plays a number through to work it out it must be hard to assign definite credits. In terms of performance the whole album is little short of terrific. Three great voices, all different, singing together to complement each one. I think I prefer Russell’s voice, much the most flexible, and she should go far (provided she’s in the right place at the right time). Russell’s clarinet livens up quite a few tracks, and one of the girls is great on banjo. Otherwise, this was not an album of standout solo instrument playing. What I noticed was the great way the three leads worked together, not the smooth result of a mixing console, because they can do it live as well. I appreciated while i was listening how studio recording differs from live performance. More consideration, a touch on the harmonies there, or a guitar lick, and it sounds better. Overall not a little to remind me of Mississippi John Hurt and Creole Belle, melody to the fore and unobtrusive virtuosity in the playing of a surprising range of instruments, in a low key rendition you somehow remember for quite a while. Here’s a song by Teixeira on Follow your bliss of 2010 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uVA2XH8WeM.
Be Good Tanyas released Chinatown in 2003, their second CD. The album is dominated by the voice of Frazey Ford, and rightly so. She has a distinctive voice that reminds me a little of the young Van Morrison, but held a little back and expressed in breathy tones that don’t do it full justice. But the other vocals on the album are interesting too, and I wanted to hear more of them. There are four songs written by Ford, and two by Sam Parton as well as a handful of traditional songs given quite distinctive arrangements. The high points for me were the songs by Parton, Dogsong 2 and Lonesome Blues, which I loved, even though I don’t like country music. The group’s version of Reuben Reuben and House of the Rising Sun were exceptionally good, and Ford pulls out all the stops on vocals to show what a great singer she is. Overall this a great album bursting with potential. Exceptional vocal and instrumental performances, held back by some pedestrian material (in my view).
It’s a cruel world out there for performers. The record companies want product, but are focused on what is currently selling. They want something new, but a little bit like last year’s hit as well. But without a record company to handle PR, publicity and distribution a performer can be as good as can be and make no impact on anyone. And the market is fragmented like never before, over exploited. There’s too many songs, Bob Dylan said. Talent is only part of the story, the rest is hard work, a good head for business, and lots of luck (a gimmick helps a lot too, the journalists really like it). But the music a performer makes is somehow just as important as the money they earn. Maybe Kickstart and the internet will make a difference. The big question is, is the CD dead? I’ll be watching the performers mentioned here. They will turn up, probably in some other group, maybe as a solo artist. And they’ll be worth listening to.
2003 Po’ Girl
2004 Vagabond Lullabies
2007 Home to you
2009 Deer in the night
2010 Follow your bliss
The Be Good Tanyas
2000 Blue Horse
2006 Hello Love
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.