Saturday, March 15, 2014
Track of the Week: Jackson C. Frank, "Blues Run the Game"
I finally got around to watching Inside Llewyn Davis, a film I'd put off seeing despite anticipating it so much. I love the Coen brothers and classic folk music in equal measure, but knowing that its story concerns the trials of someone who must suffer because he is good but not good enough to make it at what he loves meant that I was hesitant to rekindle certain regrets of my own.
It's a great film, of course, not least because of a fine soundtrack of modern versions of the type of songs that defined the folk genre back in its early-60s Greenwich Village heyday. Today we tend to remember the great artists that came out of that scene, like Bob Dylan, or the cheesy popped-up folk hits from the likes of the Kingston Trio or the New Christie Minstrels. In recent years I have been looking deeper into the genre at great performers who don't quite fit either category, since they are too genuine for pop, but never achieved the fame of Dylan or Gordon Lightfoot. Some cherished examples are Richard and Mimi Farina, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Jackson Frank.
Frank had a tragic and difficult life, a tale of woe that makes for some painful reading. It's hardly surprising that a man with these experiences could pen a song as melancholy as "Blues Run The Game." I find its matter of factness to be its most striking element. Frank sings of a broken world where nothing ever turns out right, but does so with a tone of voice that implies that we could hardly expect any better in this life. "Are you really surprised that the blues run the game?" is what he's really asking here. Because if we were to be honest, with all the of the cruelty and suffering in the world, there's no way we could say no.
The earnestness of folk music is easy to parody, and some performers can turn the genre into an exercise in solipsistic emoting. However, when put in the hands of poet, it is capable of beauty and meaning that few other forms of music can match.