Thursday, July 24, 2008
My friend Carly sent this spoken-word record to me, and I was stunned.
The two faces on the cover were distant and somewhat obscure in that old monochrome photograph.
What gets remembered and passed down through the years are the things that people think are important. And thus, all sorts of greatness gets tossed away and forgotten. This is one of those albums. There is nothing on here that is truly important or vital. That is one of its greatest virtues – it seems an accident that Newt just happened to be passing by the workshop on his way to dig a hod of clams. And old John Gould just happened to have a tape recorder to turn on as they sat for a spell and talked.
That’s all this is – 45 minutes on 33 ½ inch vinyl of conversation. These two old timers trade town gossip, exchange pleasantries, gently mock the summer tourists, and ruminate on the lost gems of their own history.
The record itself appears to have been a private label release by the Friendship, Maine Folklore Society. No doubt John Gould was affiliated with them. He is the brains behind the operation, but is much more than a simple rustic farmer.
In reality, Gould was a celebrated writer, historian, humorist, and essayist. Born in 1908, he penned some forty books and wrote a weekly column for the Christian Science Monitor for sixty years, from his farm in Friendship. His writing covered the totality of life in the Great Northeast, from sweet memories to trying times of hardship and darkness. He had the detailed focus of a veteran newspaper man, flavored with wry humor and rustic folklore. In one of his last books, at the age of 92, he turned to the bittersweet adventure of growing old, candidly chronicling his move from farm to retirement home. He died in 2003.
Listening to John Gould, I can’t help admiring him. His measured enthusiasm for life is infectious. And, although I never knew him, I get the sense that he moved forward through life with grace and curiosity and intellect. In him, I think I see some of the balance between the rural and the urban life that we have lost, that has eroded thanks to stereotypes, cultural polarization, the loss of dialog, and the decreasing social value placed on learning. Gould exemplifies the Jeffersonian archetype of the scholarly farmer, and I think we have tragically lost that ideal.
Overshadowed by the more talkative Gould, Newt Hinckley is the great mystery of this album. What his story is, and what his fate was, I do not know. I’d have to find someone from Friendship who could fill me in.
In researching this on the web, I basically found nothing. An ebay search revealed another album, with Hinckley reciting a story written by Gould. If any other such recordings exist, I would certainly love to know.
I wondered through the course of listening to the album how much was staged. Gould certainly sounds like he was playing a part. That seems to make sense – the learned historian adopting tropes in the way a historical re-enactor dons colonial garb at an old stone fort for an ice cream social. Except…he was the real deal. What’s so jarring, I realize, is that I expect artifice. I am consciously seeking out the hidden structures that lie behind all media, the structures we were taught about in school. The same structures and biases that we aren’t taught enough about, that some take for granted, that we must be vigilant against. And probably there are some hidden structures here. But – what a cynic it seems I have become.
The conversation reminds me of listening to my aunts and uncles talk and tell stories. My father’s two brothers get fired up at Christmas and launch into rambling narratives about Old Man So-and-So who lived in Old Somebody’s house down by that dirt road that leads to Somewhere. My mom’s brothers and sisters are that way too, though louder. It’s my dad and his two brothers, though, which really makes me think. So few of that family left alive, and fewer still that I have any memory of. Their stories are populated by such ghosts! These specters vaguely cling to life in each one of those three men. A jumbled piece of story survives. Put the three guys together, and you have the sum total of a little world of people that we will never know.
I’m astonished how quickly we forget. The family that built the farmhouse I grew up in, for example – they’ve been gone for decades. Nobody even remembers their names. They probably aren’t even recorded anywhere. Or, if they are, maybe in a few letters in some attic, or a yellowed deed in a town hall basement to a hayfield that long ago became a forest. And in that forest, near the cliff’s edge, the winding road and the stone wall lanes and the cedar posts, still standing, carrying the remnants of rusty barbed wire in between the thick tall trees. Maybe a deed could explain who owned something, but not why.
My grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Pontiac, Illinois, came east to Amsterdam, New York. There he met my grandmother and started a family. But nobody knows why. I guess that’s what I see in this simple little conversation – a reminder of the lost opportunity to chronicle the why of things.
Crackle and pop. Hiss of vinyl. Hello and goodbye, John Gould.
Download the album here
John Gould on Wikipedia
An Interview with John Gould
Monday, July 14, 2008
"Ferron" by Ferron, Lucy Records 1977
Canadian Lesbian Folk Music
Let’s set this into context. By the 1970’s, the folk revival of the 60’s, with its combination of new, lyrically driven poetic songwriting and socially conscious topicality had morphed into the lush produced sound of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. The Women’s Music movement sprang up around the same time, partly in response to the fact that women’s issues were not being covered by the mainstream music of the time. Women like Holly Near, Meg Christian, and Cris Williamson were feminists, openly gay, and making a new type of music by and for women.
Ferron debuted at a benefit concert in 1975. She had lived a hard life – running away from home when she was 15, supporting herself and learning write and sing. Her first two albums, in 1977 and 1978, were self-produced and financed, and enabled her to record a string of critically acclaimed, professionally produced albums starting in 1980. She toured extensively and built up a large following in
North America. One night, she was playing a show in Pennsylvania, and a scruffy girl in army fatigues opened for her. The girl asked Ferron if she had any advice for starting out in the music industry. Ferron said “don’t ever sign with a label.” A few years later, Ferron signed to Warner, and a few years after that, wound up broke, her albums owned by Warner, her career in ruins. The girl in army fatigues was Ani DiFranco, who of course, founded Righteous Babe Records in 1989.
Ferron’s self-titled debut was self-released on Lucy Records in 1977. Only a thousand copies were pressed, and she has since expressed her dissatisfaction with it, and her second album, “Backed Up.” I do not know what the exact status of the album’s future is, but it seems highly unlikely that it will ever be re-released. I would be curious to know if she even still has the master tapes, and what state they might be in after thirty years.
Now, to the album itself. I’ll describe some of the technical stuff, and then give a brief review of the content.
Since it was only released on vinyl, I knew that it would be a somewhat tedious vinyl-to-mp3 ripping process. Things got even more complicated when I went to actually listen to it. According to her website, Ferron recorded the album with the help of some friends in a radio studio, using either a 2 or 4 track recorder. She’s right when she says that it was technically very limited. I don’t think they have much, if any, vocal compression at all. It doesn’t appear to have been mixed to vinyl properly, either. The engineer added a few reverb effects, and that’s about it.
Usually, for commercial vinyl releases, there’s a lot of engineering that goes on in order to get the sound waves to fit properly onto the vinyl surface. The RIAA standard is to cut the low frequency waves (which take up too much space) and then boost the upper waves. When played back in a stereo system, this effect is compensated for, which is why older stereos all have a phono input – that particular circuit pathway reconstitutes the signal from the turntable by amplifying it, and cutting the highs and boosting the lows.
I have some technical limitations with my ripping process. I don’t have a stereo receiver, so I don’t have a simple way to compensate for the RIAA compression methods. What I do is plug my turntable (with my Ortofon cartridge) into my m-audio box, which interfaces with the USB on my laptop. The m-box has a built in preamp that is usually good enough to get the levels I need. I recorded to my hardrive as a high quality wav file, and only downconverted to mp3 after the signal processing was done.
After recording the album onto my hard drive, I then applied some noise reduction, and cut the highs and boost the lows using the graphic EQ settings on CoolEdit Pro. Now, if I had a better signal chain for all this, with more powerful sound processing software, I think the final product would have come out a lot better. I don’t pretend to know all of this stuff.
One of the problems is that I don’t want to overplay the record itself in order to experiment with a bunch of different configurations. The vinyl surface is far from perfect, and seems to have a decent amount of wear on it. In addition, the low audio levels and lack of vocal compression and engineering means that what I got out of the rip was extremely noisy. It was barely listenable. In order to get enough volume, I had to crank the preamps all the way up, and this magnified the noise from the vinyl surface tremendously. To get around this, and to correct some very significant scratch sounds, I sampled a piece of ambient record noise and used the noise reduction plugins to get rid of that, and then pop/hiss eliminators to try to smooth the pops and crackles, of which there were many. You can still hear some noise, but most of the tracks are now pretty clean. The problem is that there is now some vocal distortion. In trying to cut the offensive frequencies, the noise reduction software got some of the good frequencies as well. More fine-tuning could eliminate this problem, but at this point, I had to basically give up.
There are a lot of ways to do a better job with this restoration work. All of them include money and equipment I don’t have. The vinyl could use a good cleaning, too. The best case scenario would be to find some enormously wealthy audiophile who has a laser turntable – the kind that uses a laser to read the disc surface and then reconstitute it as a sound, rather than trying to trace the path of the original cutting head with a mechanical stylus and cartridge.
The songs themselves are brilliant and touching. A few of them are classics that have endured on her repertoire, like “Who Loses,” “I Am Hungry,” and “Borderlines.” Others have never been re-recorded, and I don’t know if they are even played in concert at all, such as ‘Under the Weather,” and “Bourbon Street Vision.”
The overriding factor in these songs is starkness. It’s just Ferron and her guitar, which I think is really the way it works best. “Not A Still Life,” her live album from 1992, is my favorite album of hers. The emotional accessibility of her live performance is touching. Here, on her debut record, you can see that same charisma. Her voice is earthy and expressive, without needing to resort to pop star tricks – modulations and high notes and perfect autotune pitch.
Her lyrical content is raw, and often openly gay. Singing a love song about a woman in 1977 was cutting edge, and as she remarked recently in an interview, her music has since come to seem squarer than it was. In Bourbon Street Vision particularly, she grapples with her sexuality with an encounter with an older woman, who is clearly coming on to her:
She said “aren’t you in to a good time tonight?”
As the moon, badly placed made me feel so uptight
“Are you looking for something to make it all right?”
“No,” I said
She said “Look yourself in my eye, see how you lie,
I’ve been following scatters of heart-shapes to find you
And you’re in tune to color, you always have been
Mostly known for your crying for practice
Ferron in this song is scared and unsure, her fear palpable and confusing. In “Freedom,” she talks about this conflict from an early age:
Little girls in their dresses and boys in their guns
And me in some center just sitting
I’m neither the other nor neither this one
And I feel like a poem half written
There is always an undercurrent of paranoia and fear in her songs. Reviewers tend to emphasize her poetic imagery, or her graceful depictions of love, but to me what sets Ferron above the rest is the unsettling aspect to her songs. “I Am Hungry” is filled with an intense awareness of what she does not have. And even the bittersweet “Borderlines” is filled with confusion – sung with sweetness, but tinged with anger. These are uncomfortable emotions, not pat love songs. Relationships have always dominated the subject matter of her songs, as we can see here, but they are rarely straightforward. Seldom in her songs does she get what she wants.
She also doesn’t sing directly about things. I read a critic once who praised her directness, but I don’t see that being the case at all. She is direct with the imagery and the statements she makes, for sure. At the micro level she is direct. But stepping back and comprehending the totality of the songs reveals greater meaning and complexity.
This album, though rough and imperfect, shows her talent from the very beginning. In fact, its imperfections make it all the more endearing. Ferron has never been about creating a distancing polish. Instead she creates an accessible intimacy that few performers have achieved. And this little album, recorded at some radio station somewhere and sold out of her basement in
Canada, is where it all began.
- O Baby
- Slender Wet Branches
- Who Loses
- Dead Men and Lovers
- Under the Weather
- Fly on My Nose
- Just the Wind
- Bourbon Street Vision
- I am Hungry
- In Retrospect
- Wind Blown Leaf
You can find out more about her at Ferron's official website. Please support this living legend! She and Bitch (one of Ani's crew, also in Shortbus) have just released an astonishing new album called Boulder.
Ferron's Official Site