Fran Pérez “Narf,” Galician Guitarist, Composer and Vocalist

“A Flor de Pel”–Watch on YouTube

Fran Pérez, who performed as Narf, was a guitarist from Galicia, the autonomous region of Spain. He composed over 30 soundtracks for theater productions in Galicia and Portugal, as well as for the animated children’s film, The Labyrinth of Dreams.

He performed with both electric and acoustic guitars at festivals around the world. In the past year, he toured in the U.S., performing with the Galician singer Uxía at venues such as the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The duo paid tribute to their roots by performing Galician classics and adaptations of “alalás,” the oldest know form of Galician music.

Pérez (1968-November 15, 2016) was a musician of the world, incorporating styles he picked up from performing with artists from Angola, Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina and Guinea-Bissau.

“Sempre En Galiza/Galician Lullaby” on Spotify

Leonard Cohen, “Master of Erotic Despair”

“Suzanne” Live–Watch on YouTube

I have to admit I was never a big fan of Leonard Cohen’s. I found him to be a tad morose, and I (at least at the time) was more drawn to driving, uptempo beats. But I tolerated him to get close to a girl I had a crush on and who would subject me to side after side of Cohen.

I did like “Bird on a Wire,” a song my rock hero Joe Cocker recorded beautifully in spite of his croaky voice. And, of course, Judy Collins had turned the world on to Cohen by recording her own version of “Suzanne.

Over the years, I have warmed to Cohen. One of the most moving performances I’ve ever heard was k.d. lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” which she sang at, of all places, the Target National Sales Meeting. At 10 in the morning, in front of thousands of rowdy store managers and caffeinated executives, lang walked out in bare feet and began to softly sing to the accompaniment of a piano. The audience was more accustomed to cheerleader acts like Black Eyed Peas at their annual shindig, and I thought, “Oh God, this is going to bomb.”

But lang, lifted by Cohen’s amazing lyrics, completely captured the crowd. As her voice crescendoed through the verses, the basketball arena where we had gathered grew silent in awe. I could feel the hair on my arm stand on end, and as I looked around me, I sensed others felt the same way.

“Hallelujah” Live Verson by k.d. lang on Spotify

Angus R. Grant, Scottish Fiddler for Shooglenifty

“Da Eye Wifey”–Watch on YouTube

Angus R. Grant (February 14, 1967-October 9, 2016) was the leader and fiddler of the Scottish band Shooglenifty, a band that defies easy description. It has been variously categorized as Scottish traditional, folk rock, “acid croft,” Celtic fusion,  techno ceilidh and hypnofolkadelia, with influences from alternative rock, electronica. The term “acid croft” was coined by Shooglenifty to describe a blend of traditional and modern music.

As for the band’s unusual name, Grant’s explanation appears in his obituary in The Telegraph: Shooglenifty is “just two nonsense Scottish words thrown together–’Nifty’ is obviously just nifty and ‘shoogle’ is to shake something. It’s saying you can have a good dance to it or have good sex to it.”

Grant learned to play fiddle from his father, a well-known traditional Scottish musician. The young Grant decided to move in new directions and became part of the band Swamptrash. Some of its members would eventually form Shooglenifty. The band has toured internationally, including a performance before Nelson Mandela.

“Two Fifty to Vigo” on Spotify

John D. Loudermilk, Wrote “Tobacco Road” and “Indian Reservation”

“Tobacco Road” Performed on BBC, 1984–View on YouTube

John D. Loudermilk was a prolific singer and songwriter of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, penning hits for a wide range of artists, from Johnny Cash to the Blues Magoos. Although he recorded many of his songs himself, his best-known hits were recordings by others.

The Nashville Teens, a British garage rock band, brought “Tobacco Road” to fame in the 1964, and “Indian Reservation” was a #1 hit by Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1971. Loudermilk (March 31, 1934-September 21, 2016) recorded both songs originally.

Loudermilk was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1976 and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2011. He was a cousin of the country duo The Louvin Brothers.

“The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian” on Spotify

Fred Hellerman, Last Surviving Member of The Weavers

“When The Saints Go Marching In”-Live, YouTube Video

Fred Hellerman was the guitarist and baritone voice of the Weavers, the folk revival band that formed in 1948. Hellerman (May 13, 1927-September 1, 2016) was credited with coming up with their name, borrowing it from a pro-labor play of the 19th century. Last year, another member of the Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert, also passed. You can read my post here.

The Weavers rose to national fame in the early 50s, propelled by their #2 hit rendition of the Hebrew folk song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” Their active support of labor and civil rights movements put them on the wrong side of the House Committee of Un-American Activities, and they were blacklisted from TV shows and radio until the end of the McCarthy era. A celebrated Carnegie Hall concert in 1955 reignited their career.

Hellerman played a significant, if less known role, in folk music beyond the Weavers. He was producer of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant album and was a credited session guitarist on Joan Baez’s debut album. He has many songwriting credits: perhaps his most lucrative is “I’m Just a Country Boy,” which he co-wrote for Harry Belafonte under the pseudonym Fred Brooks. Hellerman songs have been recorded by Don Williams, Tony Bennett, The Kingston Trio and Roberta Flack, to name a few.

“Sixteen Tons” The Weavers at Carnegie Hall” on Spotify

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Glenn Yarbrough, Had Hit With “Baby The Rain Must Fall

With The Limeliters (1963)-Video

 

I remember Glenn Yarbrough from his mid-60s solo hit, “Baby The Rain Must Fall,” the title track of the Steve McQueen-Lee Remick movie of the same name. The movie was a commercial and critical flop, but Yarbrough’s recording was not, making it to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 List in 1965. (And it’s still bouncing around in my brain 50 years later.)

Before this, he had already tasted success with The Limeliters, a folk group formed in 1959. Yarbrough, a guitarist and tenor, and Alex Hassilev, a bassist and bass-baritone, were performing together at Hollywood’s Cosmo Alley nightclub, where they were seen by Lou Gottlieb, a composer, arranger and newly-minted musicology PhD. He suggested they join up and make some demos for The Kingston Trio, but they liked their own output so much, they decided to go it alone as a trio.

Before long they had a string of well-received albums, TV appearances and as many as 310 live performances a year.

Yarbrough (January 12, 1930-August 11, 2016) also collaborated with pop-poet Rod McKuen. Among their projects were  The Lonely Things and Glenn Yarbrough Sings the Rod McKuen Songbook.

Yarbrough was ambivalent about fame and on several occasions retreated from the music industry altogether. In a 1961 interview with Saturday Evening Post, cited in his New York Times obituary, he said “The only thing that success has taught me is that success is meaningless…An audience is like a lynch mob. Three years ago they were walking out on me. Now that they know we’ve been on the Sullivan show, they come and cheer.”

“Baby The Rain Must Fall” on Spotify

Penny Lang, Canadian Folk Legend

“Ain’t Life Sweet” video

Penny Lang was a fixture of the 1960s folk scene, but did not break through into mainstream popularity, perhaps due to her unwillingness to follow musical fashion. When MCA Records approached her to do a recording of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, she declined because they insisted on electric instruments being part of the arrangement. (Judy Collins would later record the song and boosted both her–and Cohen’s–fame.)

Lang (July 15, 1942-July 31, 2016) began her career backing up her father on rhythm guitar. They played Legion halls in Montreal, prisons, hospitals–wherever their variety act could get gigs. As a young woman, she went solo and performed in many folk clubs in both Canada and the US, including Montreal’s Café André, New York’s Gerdes Folk City and the Bitter End, Toronto’s Riverboat and Ottawa’s Le Hibou. She also appeared at major folk festivals such as Mariposa and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

As folk gave way to rock in the 1970s, Lang took a hiatus, but returned to performing, writing and recording in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Beginning in 1989, she recorded nine albums with the She-Wolf and Borealis labels.

“Gather Honey” on Spotify

 

Leon Bibb, Baritone Broadway and Folk Singer

“Rocks and Gravel” Live

Leon Bibb was a Broadway music performer who turned to folk singing after having difficulty finding roles for African-American men on the stage. This switch occurred as the Civil Rights movement expanded the audience for folk music. He performed at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959.

“Sinner Man” in Luis Bunuel’s The Young One

Bibb (February 7, 1922-October 23, 2015) was a contemporary and friend of  Paul Robeson, who was godfather to his twin son and daughter. He performed frequently on Hootenanny and was host of a 1960s Someone New, a New York-based TV show that featured up-and-coming artists.

“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” with Son Eric Bibb

Bibb is the father of Eric Bibb, a noted acoustic guitarist now based in Finland. Father and son occasionally recorded and performed together.

Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers

VIDEO: The Weavers in 1951

Ronnie Gilbert is best known as a member of The Weavers, the influential folk group of the early 1950s, whose popularity soared only to plummet as a result of the anti-communist mania that swept the country. The group’s concert bookings dried up and stores pulled their records from the shelves.

In addition to Gilbert (September 7, 1926-June 6, 2015), The Weavers were Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman. They paved the way for other popular folk groups such as The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Mary Travers credited Gilbert’s contralto with giving her confidence in her own voice. In a companion booklet for a boxed set of The Weavers recordings, Travers noted the popular female folk singers of the day had “Kentucky mountain sopranos. I was anything but a soprano! So when I heard The Weavers I found another voice, one that was definitely the voice of a strong woman, someone able to stand on her own two feet and face adversity.”

VIDEO: The Weavers Carnegie Hall Re-Union Concert “Goodnight Irene”

Jean Ritchie, The “Mother of Folk”

Jean Ritchie’s 1998 Folk Alliance International Lifetime Achievement Award

In the 1970s there was a growing interest in all things Appalachian. There was the popular Foxfire magazine, the project of a teacher and his students in Rabun County, Georgia. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band revived old-time music and introduced legendary musicians to a new audience through their seminal album “May The Circle Be Unbroken.”

In West Virginia, where I lived, college campuses held Mountain Music Festivals, where modern balladeers performed and dulcimer-makers demonstrated their craft.

The seeds of this interest were planted in large part by Jean Ritchie (December 8, 1922-June 1, 2015). The Kentucky-born Ritchie was part of a family famous for preserving the old British ballads that had echoed through the hills and valleys of the south for centuries.

When she moved to Manhattan in the 1940s to become a social worker, she took her music and dulcimer with her. According to Wikipedia, she met the folk legends Pete Seeger and Lead Belly, shared the stage with The Weavers and Woody Guthrie, and was befriended by the folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded her songs for the Library of Congress.

She was a frequent performer at the Newport Folk Festival and the very first artist to appear on the Elektra label.

She even helped spark a revival of the dulcimer by making dulcimers at a workshop in Brooklyn that she operated with her husband George Pickow.

Jean Ritchie sings “Shady Grove” on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest”