“The best folk music released in 2013 was, almost without exception, of the intensely personal variety.” That’s NPR introducing its list of “The Top 10 Folk and Americana Albums of 2013.” The formulation, however breezy, handily captures our expectations of current Americana heroes (Sarah Jarosz, Jason Isbell), folk and anti-folk troubadours (Iron and Wine, Kimya Dawson), and practiced singer-songwriters (Bill Callahan, Mark Kozelek): a focus on the individual performer and on quasi-autobiographical content. The same bias has been reinforced by reissues (Richard and Linda Thompson) and fictionalizations (Crazy Heart, Inside Llewyn Davis). Even the “indie-folk” acts who have tried to elude the predominance of the personal have done so almost exclusively through recourse to bucolic soundscapes, lush harmonies, and woodsy imagery (Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Phosphorescent).
In this context, it’s refreshing to encounter a folk band interested less in getting intensely personal than in getting intensely political. Jesse and the Revelator, a male-female duo based in Philadelphia, tackles labor struggles and small-town social life with a combination of wit, artifice, and aggression. The setting of the pair’s self-produced and self-released debut album, Live from the Black Mountain Theatre, in Harlan, KY, conjures a place where song and organized protest have been entwined since at least 1931, when Florence Reece’s classic “Which Side Are You On?” articulated the stakes of the bloody wars between coal operators and unionized miners. Thick with historical allusions but grounded in the present day, Live from the Black Mountain Theatre draws its relevance from recent union battles in Wisconsin, Chicago, and elsewhere, while offering a reminder of the overtly left-wing commitments of the American folk revival’s first wave, in the 1940s.
The suite, though, is neither a set of rally songs nor genuinely “live.” It’s a concept album that uses dramatic monologues and abrupt juxtapositions to bring to life characters, stories, and headlines from the political
“theatre” that was and is Harlan County, Kentucky. Simple vocal melodies and acoustic instrumentation are complicated, or ironically framed, by audio clips from news broadcasts and films, blasts of electric guitar, and quick turns to collective sing-alongs. On “I Wish My Mother’d Call Me Rose,” for instance, a coda of electric fretting punctuated by screams overturns the gentle minor blues that precedes it. The coda comes on the heels of a lyric about a soothsaying “they”—“They say it’s the union made men greedy;” they insist “you gotta wait in line”—and the jack in volume serves as an angry refutation.
Even on more reticent tracks, Jesse and the Revelator treat the verbal precision and emotional nuance we’ve come to expect from folk-oriented music as tools for exploring political conviction. The opening diptych “The Dance” and “The Walk Home” presents an apparently simple tale of young love, replete with school dances beneath gym lights, poignant banter (“Will you write me love songs?”), wedding plans, and visions of parenthood (“The dented wall / the dirty carpet, a Sunoco market hot dog for the child”). Yet the homey narrative exists entirely within the frame of working life. A good man, by its lights, is one who will crawl “in the dark inside a mountain” to make the wage, who will “wake up early” and “come home surly.” As for the wedding itself, “The coal silos is where we’ll gather.” The tight, tense relation between the songs’ domestic concerns and their public ones is voiced directly in a surprising question: “But what if all the other men I might be / wake up and incite me / to dust off Robespierre?”
Here, early into the album, revolutionary possibility is tenuous. Just a hint of its sonic equivalent appears halfway through “The Walk Home,” when the quiet duet gives way to an ensemble hoedown that seems to promise collectivity. Later, the stunning eight-minute “Bastille Day” goes all in on that promise. Its speaker is a convict on parole, his addressee a beloved Irene, whose name carries with it the weight of folk tradition. The lyrics wed poetic pith and rhyme into believable conversation, mixing domestic concerns (“Oh Irene, come to bed. / Fine. Then go to hell instead”) with workplace complaints (“Well, what the fuck do you do all day while I’m stocking shelves?”). As the couplets climax in a demand for violence—“Let’s find Mr. Blankenship and drag him out his home / roll him down the mountain; he can see the shit he owns”—the music blooms from muted chords to full strums to riotous hootenanny. In the last act, a sample of the false accuser from To Kill a Mockingbird—“I got something to say!”—is drowned out by boisterously amplified guitar, the electric wails affirming the parolee’s imagined insurrection.
If the album loses steam on its back end, the deceptive simplicity of its very last phrase is telling: “I’m going home, I’m going home…” That yodeled mantra can be heard as an admission of retreat into the personal realm of the house. But it can also be heard as a declaration of solidarity—with a place, with a community. Live from the Black Mountain Theatre confronts the stakes of that difference head-on.
Not to be confused with: “John the Revelator” (song), Time (The Revelator) (album), Jon-Rae and the River (band), Jesse and the Rippers (fictional band); Instruments used: guitar, melodica, oboe, organ, ukulele, vocals; Media sampled: Badlands; Harlan County, USA; To Kill a Mockingbird; “The Scarlet Ibis”; WYMT-TV 57; Historical figures mentioned: Maximilien de Robespierre, Tony Boyle, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, Lawrence Jones, Don Blankenship, J. H. Blair; Representative realism: “Of course I know we deserve that higher wage / Of course I can imagine riding in that safer cage / If I could tell the truth I’d say I’m just plain old afraid / to bite the hand that sees every Friday that I’m paid”; Representative idealism: “A man who never organizes becomes a mob.”