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New from Westerlies Records:

Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies’ ‘This Land’

Theo Bleckmann & The Westerlies (photo by John Labbe)

In the seemingly relentless movements of resistance and public outcry in recent years, one can be quickly overwhelmed by the moment and wonder if it will ever end. However, from the Tea Party of the American Revolution, to the Tea Party of the 21st Century, from Stonewall to Homestead, resistance to perceived oppression has always been a profoundly American activity. And throughout this history, music has found a way to help people to organize, demonstrate, and resist what they perceive as oppression. With their newest collaborative release, This Land, Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies have created an aural document that lends context and history to this music, connecting the most recent music in our current social maelstrom to protest songs of the past. At the same time, these songs are paired with tracks that seek to provide refuge or solace, healing the injuries as they are uncovered.

The collection starts out well with an arrangement of Joni Mitchel’s 1969 release “The Fiddle and the Drum.” Originally sung A cappella by Mitchell, Bleckmann’s version provides a powerful accompaniment from the Westerlies’ brass quartet (with Andy Clausen & Willem de Koch, trombones; Riley Mulherkar & Chloe Rowlands, trumpets). The song is more composed than arranged, with a beautiful dissonance that marks the confusion and concern of the singer. In the tradition of the best covers, Bleckmann augments the musical expression by isolating and enriching the emotion—this one of the defining characteristics of the arrangements in this collection.

The collection of Woody Guthrie tunes, including “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” “Tear the Fascists Down,” “Two Good Men” and “The Jolly Banker” are all remarkable in the way they are set. The sound, hearkens back to the brass bands of the Second Great Awakening (think Charles Fry or even the temperance movement) and ties this early 20th Century musical tradition to Guthrie’s slightly later social calls for change in his folk music. Similarly, Trombonist Willem de Koch arranged and juxtaposed the popular Salvation Army Hymn “In the Sweet By and By” with Joe Hill’s parody “The Preacher and the Slave.” The result is a darkly cynical, and strikingly dissonant, reminder of movement infighting: “Chop some wood, do ya good, in the sweet bye and bye.”

The Hymn “Wade in the Water” is given an ambient accompaniment, turning the ancient and powerful tune into a kind of incantation. Riley Mulherkar’s beautiful “Looking Out,” culminates with a reading of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the incarceration of 120,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry.  The arrangement of “Look for the Union Label,” a song which I remember as an upbeat, hopeful tune designed to make American consumers pleased with their purchases (for example link), is here given a darkly nostalgic setting; a not-so-subtle reminder that some movements have failed in the United States.

Of the more contemporary works, perhaps Andy Clausen’s setting of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Land” is most poignant and refreshing. Its style seems drawn from the musical or operatic stage in a kind of Aria that soliloquizes on a moment. Ali’s text is given as an interior thought, and the responding trumpet abstracts it beyond its time and place—an abstraction well represented in the ambiguous yet moving text. This track, as well as the textless vocalise, “Grandmar” which is described by composer Andy Clausen as “a meditation on the challenges of loving someone with whom you have vehement political disagreement,” stand apart from the others in that they seem to go beyond, or perhaps above, the left/right, progressive/conservative, tired, old, debate in this country.

 

On the other hand, some of the contemporarily written tracks also reflect the political division in our time. “Thoughts and Prayers” is directed at the common conservative reaction to mass shootings, and was inspired, according to the liner notes, “…by the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez.” The song doesn’t call for gun control or gun reform, instead, it provides an admittedly poetic but still reactive criticism of the political right’s expression of empathy: “And we are standing together because all they can send are thoughts and prayers.” It is as if the reaction was the reason they marched, not the shooting. This isn’t a message crafted to bring people together or create the understanding and the compromise that can change laws; it is designed to activate the left and alienate the right. Given the current administration’s penchant for creating divisions of its own in order to maintain power I fret at this message, although I do understand that at times one must “preach to the choir.”

In all Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies’ This Land is a beautiful collection that celebrates the history and diversity of protest music, providing new takes and context to old favorites even as it adds brilliant voices to the milieu. You should give it a listen on your way back from your next demonstration. Due for release on January 29th.

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