Vincent Cross,
Old Songs for Modern Folk
(Rescue Dog, 2016)

Ireland-born, Australia-raised, New York City-based singer-songwriter Vincent Cross revives a couple of traditional forms on Old Songs for Modern Folk. One is the folksong tradition itself, the other the 1960s revival composer who would sing new songs about modern life in an antique voice. As one listens, it is just about impossible not to think of the early Bob Dylan, especially Freewheelin' and The Times They Are A-Changin', both heavily informed by Woody Guthrie and all who'd come before him but with an unmistakable later-20th century sensibility.

Old Songs is a bare-bones recording, just Cross and whatever he's playing, either a banjo or a guitar. The lyrics and melodies bloom, as they did with Guthrie and Dylan, from older soil. The recording opens with "Darlin' Corey" transformed convincingly into "Freeport Town." There is, to put it mildly, no histrionics or exhibitionism. Never raising his voice, Cross just sort of loses himself in straightforward narrative backed by pleasing but un-fancy picking.

It may take a second, focused listening before some listeners grasp just how good this is. Even in this cultural moment, as folk music has returned from exile to critical acceptance (a process that started first with Greil Marcus's 1997 book Invisible Republic, later retitled The Old, Weird America, soon reinforced by the Coen Brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and brought with it a fresh generation of talented artists, one is likely to be surprised at the appearance of a young musician so comfortable and so in command of a particular approach shaped decades ago. Though the Dylan parallels never quite go away, they do fade into the background as one hears Cross's strong and moving performances, laid down without overdubbing and other studio gadgetry.

In 1928, borrowing the melody of the outlaw ballad "Railroad Bill," Mississippi John Hurt recorded "Louis Collins" to recall a local murder. From Hurt's materials, Cross fashions "Michael Brown," about the victim of the notorious police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, changing remarkably few of the lyrics. From Hurt's "Richland Woman Blues," Cross attaches an irresistible melody to "Zora's Blues," an apparent reference to the celebrated African-American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) who helped document African-American vernacular song in the South: I'm going down that long dirty road/ Looking for the blues that everybody knows/ You can hum along and let the cadence fall/ It soothes the pain that's felt by all.

"Alone" spins out of the oldtime Appalachian "Dark Holler," while "The Ballad of Roosevelt Avenue" imagines an immigrant's tragic fate, to the tune of another bloody ballad, "Omie Wise," from the early 19th century. It's not all doom and gloom, though. "As the Crow Flies" piles cliche atop cliche to witty effect. (Actually, nobody does this more hilariously than John Prine; when Dylan does it, the resorting to hackneyed phrases just seems lazy.) "Going Down the Road" is barely changed from the well-traveled original, but is pure delight anyway.

I'd take Vincent Cross over any number of rootless, clueless, self-absorbed singer-songwriters who litter the landscape these days. If we're lucky, we'll be hearing a lot more of him. Old Songs for Modern Folk will enhance the quality of your CD collection. In fact, it seems miraculously to improve the more you listen to it. Take my word for it: you shouldn't miss this one.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 August 2016

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