On the one hand, I too feel in over my head, and admire the urge to return to something simpler, something most of us understand as "behind" us in time. On the other hand, we can't turn this car around – in the words of Winston Churchill, "When you're going through Hell, keep going." The way out isn't back, it's through. The big questions deserve equally big answers – or, at least, an honest admission of their tremendous and terrifying unansweredness. The mystery of life isn't going away...and more and more, I find deeper solace in acknowledging this than by burying my head in familiar sand.
Broadly speaking, folk music's recent evolutions haven't brought the genre any closer – neo-folk and anti-folk drape themselves in old clothes but either indulge in absurd over-the-top romanticism, wooly pagan freakishness, or insensible deconstructed hipster chic.
Anyway, folk music, like every other genre, is merely a vehicle. If Matisyahu can use rap and reggae to preach the principles of his Jewish Orthodoxy, and Ween can write country tunes that spin out into vulgar surrealism, there is no reason why someone can't offer real depth through the idioms of folk music. And every once in a while, I get to rejoice at finding someone who does just that.
Luke Redfield is one such artist. His earnest, half-broken voice and slow-jangling acoustic guitar nestle quite naturally into the crook of folk's timeless and popular constitution. The plodding, mellow roll of a trap kit doesn't exactly herald visionary songwriting. If I hadn't read the words before I'd heard the music, I might have missed it. But there it is: a wonder at the immeasurable grandeur of it all, a blushing laugh at impermanence and the silly expectations of our brief human lives, even a few daring moments when capital-M Mystery gets called out into the street for a staring contest.
Co-author of a guru-themed cookbook, Cooking With Sages – in which vegetarian recipes are paired with paintings and cocktail napkin bios of various 20th Century enlightened masters – Redfield's a committed scholar-practitioner of the world's wisdom traditions. And it shows in the music; as a songwriter, he's has taken folk's humble yearning for transcendence and ridden it to the stars. Fire Mountain, 2008's rehearsal album for this summer's forthcoming LP, opens with the unyielding-yet-empathetic "Silent Afternoon," practically a tract from the missing Folk Sutra, in which listeners are challenged to "strip that which defines you...an illusion, like the setting sun," and asked, "Would the guitar make a sound if I was not here to strum?"
Excuse me, what? Zen koans in a four-chord rambler? I want to take a minute here to reprint the lyrics from this number verbatim, just to be clear:
There’s no finger, there’s no moon
No whale, no harpoon
Can you hear the voices calling on a silent afternoon?
There’s no hand, there’s no gun
No slayer, no slayed one
Would the guitar make a sound if I was not here to strum?
There’s no body, there’s no soul
No candidate, no poll
No presidency, no kingship – for there’s nothing to control
There’s no death, there’s no birth
No countries, no earth
There is no fence around the universe
As you watch your life pass by
With what do you identify?
Can you strip that which defines you?
The attachments that bind you
An illusion, like the setting sun
Somewhere, the day has just begun
There’s no you, there’s no me
No two, no three
There is no one, but none, for eternity
There’s no time, there’s no space
No Original Face
No mathematical answer and no point of grace
There’s no wine, there’s no glass
No prayer, no fast
There is no religion and all of them will pass
No success, no fame
No winners, no game
The rat race exists only in your brain
There’s no mind, there’s no thought
No self, no want
There’s nothing that you need you haven’t already got
He manages to tear down the icons of just about every other folk song in five minutes – country, religion, desire, death, even music. I'd probably prickle if Redfield were just horny for turning folk music's innate rebelliousness on its own sacred cows, but he's clearly affectionate, even reverent, for the horse he's riding in on. Elsewhere on the album, he revels in a mysticism of the road that stands on the shoulders of masterpieces like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, relishing the transparent sameness of the world that only a thousand diners and endless stretches of asphalt can instill. No self but the appearance of self, no wandering but the appearance of wandering.
Luke Redfield is speaking a language that anyone weaned on the mythos of the American Highway can understand...but crafts with it a bigger story, one beyond smaller and more recognizable concerns. In "Grateful Man," he leads us through the usual:
You came from down the road, you came right off the train
You have nowhere to go, ‘cause everywhere is the same
If I were a hobo, I’d roam this world with you
If I were a hobo, that’s what I’d do
Heard it before – until all of a sudden, he's nailing us with cowboy cosmology:
You came from the cosmos, you came from emptiness
You came from the bang that made this big ol’ mess
If I were a mystic, I’d be just passing thru
If I were a mystic, that’s what I’d do
One whole song is a reminder that "we've all got to lose this flesh." Another speaks of "how darkness came from light," and invites Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Taoists, and Hindus to a common table at which "Truth is a pathless land."
This is the kind of music I'd expect Conor Oberst to write, if he could ever get his head out of the bottle – comfortable in its limits, but what limits? After all, "Life...is just a bed to dream away what's in your head." This is the kind of music I wish I'd found in high school, when I was more impressionable and sensitive to simple wisdom. This is the kind of music I want played in bars and folk festivals, where – God willing – it might enlighten a few people by osmosis. It makes me reconsider my opinions about folk music, maybe even want to go back and give a few dismissed artists a second listen. It kindles my inner vagabond mystic, burning to live the adventure of synchronous Spirit's wandering whim.
After all, if folk music is about tradition (both keeping it and bucking it), then Luke Redfield has upped the ante: next to the perennial knowledge of ancient societies the world over, acoustic guitars and road anthems look baby fresh. Dropping folk's clichés into a far bigger context, he's cast new light on music that I long considered stale, reminding me that soul takes any – and every – form.
(Written for Colorado Music Board.)