Friday, 21 September 2007

John Train

Jon Houlon was already thinking about writing political songs when Neil Young gave him a kick in the pants with Living with War last year.

"I'd already written a few hundred songs about myself," Houlon, the leader of John Train, says with a laugh. The country-flavored Philadelphia folk-rock band has just released its fourth album, the sterling life-during-wartime song cycle Mesopotamia Blues, and will hold down its regular Friday happy-hour slot at Fergie's Pub in Center City tonight before going over to Johnny Brenda's to open for Frog Holler.

"But I'm a student of folk music, and a lot of the people I admire from the '60s, like Dylan and Phil Ochs, wrote about what was happening in the world around them," Houlon continues. "Plus, I'm a huge fan of the Clash. So I thought it was time to start looking outward, instead of inward."

When Young put out his sonic salvo against the Bush administration, he challenged young songwriters to write antiwar music of their own. So Houlon, 39, who works as a lawyer for Philadelphia's Department of Human Services by day and leads John Train and the garage-rock outfit the Donuts by night, figured that was his job.

"I love Neil, but I thought that album [Living with War] was a little ill-considered, a little too from-the-hip," says Houlon, who lives in Mount Airy with his wife and stepson. "I wanted to dig a little deeper."

He read Jon Lee Anderson's The Fall of Baghdad, which pointed him to Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mesopotamia," a protest directed at bungling British leadership in what is now Iraq in the early 20th century, which Houlon put to a piano melody. He read a book of Iraqi folk tales, which inspired the steel-guitar-kissed "The Kind Merchant."

And to broaden the album's perspective, he included songs by his favorite Texas songwriters Butch Hancock and Terry Allen, and reached back to cover Vietnam-era songs such as Tom T. Hall's "Mama Bake a Pie" and John Stewart's "Draft Age," which in turn compelled Houlon to write the Iraq war sequel "Mulloy 2006."

Though between John Train and the Donuts, he's released 10 albums in the last decade, Houlon calls himself an "amateur musician." There's nothing amateurish about Mesopotamia Blues, however. The production by Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner of the album recorded at Fishtown's Miner Street studio brings a skilled and versatile roots ensemble to life, and Houlon succeeds at writing story songs, not screeds.

"I can't really say there's a message in the songs," Houlon says. "I'm writing more descriptively than prescriptively. I'm trying more to make a painting than make a point."

- Dan DeLuca

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Wall-to-wall music drives 'Seeger' film


Unlike Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger is not about to apologize for his trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

One thing that comes across strongly in Jim Brown's documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," is the consistency of the folksinger's beliefs throughout a long and turbulent career. He didn't quit The Weavers when they were blacklisted for their leftist politics; he quit when they did a cigarette commercial.

Whenever Seeger came up against a wall, he opened a door. Banned from network television, he produced his own folk music program for public TV. When the FBI made it difficult for him to perform in commercial venues, he took to the schools.

The film is an illustrated oral history of Seeger's life and work, driven by wall-to-wall music, most of it written and performed by Seeger. Exceptions include a rare clip of Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind" from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, and Elizabeth Cotton performing "Freight Train" on Seeger's television show, "Rainbow Quest."

The music is always well integrated into the biographical material. The lovely "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" accompanies a collage of photographs picturing Seeger and his wife, Toshi. A clip of Paul Robeson singing "Joe Hill" introduces the beginning of Seeger's problems with the anti-Red movement.

Although Seeger was among the leading forces of the 1950s and '60s folk music revival, the film mistakenly credits him as its sole instigator. No mention is made of the political refugees from South Africa, such as Miriam Makeba, who fueled the civil rights movement with their forceful protest music. Also significantly absent is any reference to Phil Ochs, the country's most important topical songwriter since Woody Guthrie.

Director Brown has made a career of chronicling the history of American folk music, and "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" is a worthy companion piece to his 1982 debut, "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time?" Somewhat compromised by an reverential tone, it is most successful when approaching its subject as a man, not a saint. Seeger's greatest attribute as a performer was his ability to get an audience to sing along, even when they didn't want to. Two years shy of his 90th birthday, he sums up his philosophy in these words: "Participation is going to save the human race."