Several years ago, when the economy collapsed, there was a communal need in our country to revisit our roots culturally and to seek wisdom, guidance and comfort in the things that our predecessors found solace in. Bands like The Blueflowers, The Great Tribulation, The Grahams and Jared Grabb came to be grouped in – what we called – the New Rustbelt Sound. Bringing back musical memories of the dust bowl and the lonely sounds of dark heartland artists like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison, these new voices joined a long and distinguished lineage of poets and rebels disenchanted with the shine and finding substance in the shadow.
Of course, these voices were never silent. They never have been and the never will be. But this new generation of musicians were doing amazing work at a time when their relevance, which had been neglected while the world was distracted with other fads, suddenly became essential. It’s been a few years since then and there has been a continuation of the development of Great Americana music with bands like The Fugitives, The End Times, Sean Watkins and Cabinet merging the country and the city, and the new and the old into fresh, vibrant, relevant music.
Last year, we picked Matt Turk’s Cold Revival as our album of the year. Like the other current and historical works that defined the American, and the human experience, Matt delivered a unique, personal and superb collection of music in the classic American singer-songwriter space. One of the other people involved in that album, and a co-creator and performer with Matt is Fred Gillen Jr. who is about to release his new album Wage Love, and it’s going to make history.
Or perhaps it’s going to join other great works in the endless history of our world. Reaching back to those first definitive union anthems, Wage Love bridges the generations and eras of our shared culture to find profound truths both new and old in the quietness of poverty – either fiscal or philosophical. Matt also joins Fred on this album playing mandolin, and just as with Cold Revival, a dedicated core group of people have helped Fred realize this expression of his music.
A prolific poet and musician, Fred Gillen Jr. has an archive of work going back almost 20 years. He’s released solo albums as well as working with groups like Hope Machine and he’s been heavily involved with the arts community in his home region of upper New York. Wage Love is focused more on political and social issues than his previous work, and it gives the album a specificity that accentuates it’s relevance and timeliness. This is an album with something to say. It has a self-evident importance and clear identity. RUST Magazine gives it our highest recommendation, but we wanted to hear from Fred about what he thinks about it himself and he graciously answered a few questions for us:
RUST: A few years ago, there was a big resurgence in what might be called Americana Roots music, while it is now becoming somewhat less present in the public space. Perhaps times aren’t as profoundly hard as they were a couple years ago, maybe people have adjusted to a new normal. You finely interpret the spirit of that moment with the song Occupy Your Own Mind, did you write this as a cautionary message not to forget the occupy movement as well as the other moments that inspired other people to write about their times?
FGJR: We definitely do quickly adjust to a new normal. I think Occupy Your Own Mind was more of a “here is what is” song for me. I had that word occupy rolling around in my head for a long time. I set out to write a very “political” protest song, but wound up with something else. The two verses are about two things I think about a lot. We’ve wound up in a situation where our so- called leaders can only get elected by coming up with a whole lot of money. Citizens United made that even worse- now corporations can “donate” so much money anonymously. In Germany where they have publicly-funded elections they’d call a private donation to a candidate a bribe! Duh! Also every President has been a male over 6 feet tall who was educated at one of just a few colleges. We elected a black man president, which to me was frankly surprising and great, but we did it before we ever elected a woman. Twenty years ago I would have said you were crazy if you told me that would happen. With how racist this country seems to be I think this illustrates how sexist it also still is. Woman still don’t have equal pay for equal work, and are still culturally treated as objects pretty easily in the media and in our daily conversations. In the midst of all of this, in the northeast we had a big hurricane a couple of years ago and the reason that seniors and disabled people without electricity got meals and heat was because Occupy Sandy organized and made it happen. They had a lot of help from churches and synagogues and other organizations, but Occupy were the organizers. This gives me great hope! The Occupy movement was bigger, more organized, and accomplished more than the mainstream media, which is owned and run by the Wall Street folks, showed us. The great thing is that the occupy movement didn’t go anywhere. They’re still here!!!
RUST: As a whole culture, with hindsight it appears that America lost some of it’s own self-identity in the gilded age before the crash and they looked to the music of old – as you might phrase it – to regain that sense of cultural pride when hard times returned. Perhaps people felt that they had to now earn that which was previously so easily bought, and they had a new appreciation for it. Are you wary that this righteous message is beginning to again fade as times continue to change?
FGJR: Living in the Hudson Valley I guess I don’t see this as much, because it has not faded here at all. I don’t think it ever fades anyway – I think it just stops getting televised for a while until it becomes sexy again. But I do think that the hard times give it a sense of urgency. The thing about this music is that it is a community-building thing, and in hard times we all need community in a more urgent way. I think American cultural pride is still out there, but it is more underground, or perhaps more local.
RUST: But I’m making it sound as though this style was sealed away in a “break glass in case of emergency” container, and of course it wasn’t. You’ve been active for about 20 years, as have fantastic artists like Matt Turk. You must have met some amazing people along that journey, can you share a story with us about one person that inspired you along the way?
FGJR: Of course the first person who comes to mind is Pete Seeger. The last time I played with Pete was after a parade in Beacon with a group of school children. The event was “Spirit of Beacon Day.” Pete had helped create this event because he observed, many years ago when he moved to Beacon, that the town was basically segregated, and he wanted to for at least one day a year integrate it. He and some other folks created this event in September every year. Anyhow, here was the guy who co-wrote Turn Turn Turn and If I Had A Hammer playing on the street after a parade! This is very inspiring. When Pete’s career and livelihood were taken away from him by HUAC and the black-listing, he took it to the streets and schools, and I think he found out that that’s where it belonged! I was fortunate to get to spend much more than my share of time with Pete, because of a few people who seemed determined to put me in the room with him. Matt Turk, David Bernz, Susan Wright, Rick Rock of Tribes Hill- they all put me in the room or on stage with Pete, along with a few other folks, over the years. Knowing him and having spent some quality time with him it is hard to imagine him on the mall with Springsteen at the inauguration. That last time I played a gig with him he taught us a new verse he’d written for “This Land” about fracking. He said “last week I sang this at Farm Aid with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and that nice young man Bruce Springsteen.” Sure enough I looked it up, and there it was on Youtube. Dave Matthews and Mellencamp were also there. “NY is your home, NY is my home, from the upstate mountains down to the ocean’s foam, with all kinds of people, we’re all polychrome, NY was made to be frack free.” Polychrome- such a Pete kind of word! I wasn’t close to Pete the same way Turk was, but boy do I miss him. We all do!
RUST: It’s just the new year. Hello 2015. As another new year begins, do you have hope that a new generation of musicians has looked to people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to inspire them as they grow as musicians?
FGJR: Hope Machine did a lot of work with the Woody Guthrie Foundation/ archives. Anna Canoni, Nora Guthrie’s daughter, got us a lot of gigs playing Woody songs. It always struck me that the “myth” of Woody Guthrie was very appealing. He is really kind of a classic outlaw/ underdog. I think one of the things that they do at the foundation is attempt to tell the real story without undermining the myth. Kind of interesting. When I consider that This Land was never on the radio or television (until the Obama inauguration) but almost everyone in this country knows the song, I’ve got to figure that something big is going on. I talked to Cy Hamlin, the guy who designed the Clearwater Sloop, on the phone this summer. Some story about Pete and the Clearwater came up and he said “that’s not how it happened but it is a good story so let’s let it stand.” At 94 he had the wisdom and humility to let the myth be built, and to know he was a little part of it. He understands that the Clearwater is not just a boat and not just a currently active vehicle for change, but also a part of a mythology. It helped get the Clean Air & Water Act passed, after all! So it is with Woody and Pete. I think some of what happened in their lives is just what happened, just the chaos of life. I also think they made large and small choices which changed the course of their lives, and therefore changed their legacies. Woody left a good-paying radio job because he was censored there. In the moment the impact it had on his life was that he was broke but had his integrity, but in the long term it changed everything. This was a very difficult choice. Woody met Will Geer and Will brought him to see the jungle camps, and this politicized him. Was this luck? Maybe they were “meant” to meet. Maybe it was inevitable. In any case, Pete and Woody’s decisions made a difference. What strikes me is how many of these decisions were made for the sake of integrity. More than the music, this is what I hope young musicians get out of their stories. Integrity is something worth fighting and suffering for, in my opinion. If Wall Street had more of it we wouldn’t need an “Occupy” movement! Now we’ve got “B-corporations,” and I’m hopeful we’ll have more humane capitalism in the future! But there are a handful of people grasping a big pile of money and they’ve been pulling strings, greasing palms, and even breaking laws for a long time to get it. We don’t have to ask what Pete would do, because he was at Occupy Wall Street, at 93 years old! Pete and Woody were human and flawed, but they are also archetypical heroes, and both were very stubborn about their integrity. I think a lot of young artists recognize that about them.
RUST: So, we’re both big fans of Matt Turk. You’ve worked with him and toured with him. We gave him album of the year. Do you have a funny (and hopefully mildly embarrassing) story to tell about your mutual adventures?
FGJR: Most of the funny stories I have from touring with Turk I don’t want to tell in print because it could hurt the other people involved. Suffice it to say it is always an adventure. The thing I love most about Turk is that he isn’t necessarily as happy-go-lucky as he appears, but he WORKS at being positive, I’d say at all times. I think if it came as easily as it appears it wouldn’t have the impact it has. He brings positivity everywhere he goes. He manifests it in the world. It is the same with the music- he makes the mandolin sound easy, but I can tell you he’s worked very hard at it, studying with Barry Mitterhoff of Hot Tuna and practicing many hours a day. Our Spring tour is going to be called the “Love Revival Tour.” Wage Love, Cold Revival. But that’s kind of who Turk is- a walking love revival. He sort of refuses to accept negativity! A great friend. Actually he’s more than a friend, he’s family.
RUST: Who are some of the other people who helped make Wage Love? What about them made them right for this album?
FGJR: It’s funny. When I first started working on the album, Tom Kristich, the photographer, called me. He said he wanted to shoot some photos of me at an abandoned Department of Public Works garage near his house. We had to climb through a fence, and walk past broken bottles and a fire pit where kids hang out and drink at night, and there we found the torn American flag on the ground. I picked it up and brought it with us for the shoot. I know a whole bunch of great singers, including great folks like Abbie Gardner and Laurie MacAllister of the band Red Molly and Brooke Campbell, who have sung on my records. I met Laura Bowman when my cousin jazz drummer Brian Woodruff suggested I call her to play at a songwriters night in Astoria, Queens that she hosted. She turned out to be really community-oriented and we kept in touch. Last year she did a project called “Busk or Bust,” where she planned to busk her way across the country until she ran out of money, and make a documentary about it. It was supposed to be a film about not being able to make a living as a musician, really about having to go home out of money. She wound up on the road for the whole summer, going to the West Coast and back. I think this really transformed her. So though I really like her singing, I called her for more personal than musical reasons, thinking that she was right for this record in a personal sense. About 95% of what she sang she arranged. “I Dreamed I Saw Pete Seeger” I wrote at the last minute, so Laura heard it for the first time just before she sang it! Talk about a home run! She put out a great ep recently called “Troubadour.” Paul Magliari is just groovy as a drummer. He made “We The People” less square, and “Election Day” more musical. I’m currently recording, at my studio, an album with him of his music. His music is a bit like early Genesis. He calls it “conceptual pop.” I thought of Turk as soon as I wrote “Ghost of Joe Hill.” He says he thinks he went to a new place singing on “Freedom Highway,” and I agree. He also helped me work out the arrangement for that, because we’re singing what the audience usually sings. Lastly Jeffry Braun, who designed the cover, named the album. I’ve been giving away “Wage Love” stickers for almost 15 years now but I never would have named the album that!
RUST: We The People is *one* of our favorite songs on the album, can you tell us a little about it?
FGJR: I wrote what I’d call the first finished drafts of that and Killing Machine in 2003, after the war in Iraq started. Killing Machine didn’t undergo much revision after that. That one wrote itself. I made a quick, limited-run e.p. called “We The People” that summer because I was angry about the government’s reaction to 9/11. The first concert I ever played with Pete Seeger probably in 2005 I sang that version of We The People, and he told me it was important and I should keep working on it and keep singing it. I’ve been revising it since then. Ten years! I’d thought about including it because I knew it sort of fit, and when Pete passed away last January I kind of felt a sense of responsibility for the song, because Pete told me to work on it. I think a lot of songwriters in the Hudson Valley feel a similar sense of responsibility, because it will take all zillion of us to do anything like what Pete did. When I get really down and cynical I pick up my little paperback of the constitution and Declaration of Independence, and remind myself that the constitution and the people are the country, not the current politicians. We the People! It is our country! When you join the Army you swear an oath to uphold the constitution. This is bigger than any political party or person!
RUST: The album isn’t out yet, but maybe you have you heard from some people about it already? Which songs seems to be the ones other folks like the best?
FGJR: Well, “Killing Machine” has been around a while, and I’ve heard from a lot of veterans and other people over the years about that song. That song seems to really work. It is a difficult story to hear but the music seems to open people’s ears to it. “Walking Down That Freedom Highway” has been a big song for me live since I wrote it, and is already being covered by local Hudson Valley songwriter Scoot Horton. (We cover a lot of each other’s songs up here!) “Election Day” nobody seems to want to hear, though it is probably my favorite song on the record. I know it is a tough one, but I think it speaks the truth. I’ve just started singing “Cost of War” live and that one has also been well-received. “I Dreamed I Saw Pete Seeger,” though the closing song on the record, has been a great opening song at solo shows. It really brings everyone into the room, so to speak.
RUST: Thanks Fred, one last question, is there one artist out there right now that people should be listening to?
FGJR: Well- the first person I thought of was Chris Moore. http://www.mooresong.com/ I’ve been a fan for years and we’ve gotten to know each other and played some shows together. He’s out of Brooklyn, but was the drummer of the 80’s Detroit hardcore/ punk band Negative Approach before he became a singer/ songwriter. He’s got a new ep and a new full-length album out.
Get more info at http://www.fredgillenjr.com/
Also recommended: Pete Seeger: Pete Remembers Woody (2012) featuring Fred’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” from the debut Hope Machine album. This two CD set is a collection of Pete Seeger’s spoken-word stories about Woody Guthrie, interspersed with various artists’ versions of Woody’s songs. This collection was produced by David Bernz, producer of “Pete at 89,” and released to coincide with Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. Order Here: http://www.appleseedmusic.com/peteseeger/peterememberswoody.html