Peter, Bethany & Rufus,
Puff & Other Family Classics
(Salasaree, 2007)

Don't let the title and packaging -- evidently somebody's marketing decision -- fool you. Except for "Puff the Magic Dragon" (written in 1959 by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton and placed last surely for a reason, let us speculate the chance that you don't care to revisit it in your adulthood), Puff & Other Family Classics is not exactly a children's album. At least when I last checked, when my own children were small, kids' records weren't about sex, murder, war, tyranny -- the themes of some of the songs here, all but two of them old folk tunes. I do remember "Cindy" and "Blue Tail Fly" from my youth, but if I'd heard them, "Careless Love" and "The Cuckoo" would have occasioned nothing but bewilderment.

Peter and Bethany are Yarrows, father and daughter. Peter, of course, is the Peter of Peter, Paul & Mary. Bethany is half of the duo Bethany and Rufus, the latter being Rufus Cappadocia, a player of the five-string cello trained in jazz and various world musics. As Bethany & Rufus they released the excellent 900 Miles, which I reviewed in this space on 11 August 2007. That album revisited mostly traditional material but in markedly fresh, unapologetically uptown arrangements.

Puff, which owes something to the PP&M sound (inspired initially by the example of the Weavers, who harmonized away folk music's rough edges to make the listening less demanding on lazy mainstream ears), even recycles some of its repertoire -- probably more than I am aware, since my knowledge of that seminal group is hardly comprehensive. In my own listening experience, I went directly from hard-core country to Bob Dylan, barely nodding to the period's smooth-voiced folk-pop outfits of which PP&M, according to critical consensus, were the most serious, respectable, and talented. I do know enough to realize that Puff is sort of like the early PP&M records, which is to say before the trio took to championing songwriters like Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. Many years ago, I heard the mournful Irish ballad "Shule Aru" on the B-side of a PP&M single my brother had purchased. It's the ninth cut on the present disc, and it sounds wonderful.

As I write, the year is rapidly winding down, and as one who got to listen to a whole lot of music, I am here to attest that 2007 was a stellar 12 months for folk and roots music. When I try to sort out what my favorite records were, it isn't easy; there's an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Even so, I have no doubt that this album sits near the top of the list. Though I am one who as a general rule likes his music downhome raw (or some approximation thereof), I honor PB&R for not attempting to fake authenticity. No more or less than themselves -- they're early 21st-century New Yorkers -- they revise and carry on the folk tradition through their own extraordinarily expressive sense of it, rendering it in ways that are meaningful to them while doing so with passionate conviction. Not to mention a high degree of professionalism -- a good part of the pleasure of Puff is in hearing pros at work. And if the songs are mostly well known, it's because they deserve to be. The best traditional folk songs are some of the best songs you will ever hear anywhere.

The three share vocal duties, and each member contributes a distinctive voice, imbued with emotion, nuance and keen insight into the song. I have never heard a more affecting reading of the late Jimmy Driftwood's "Long Chain On," ostensibly about an encounter with a runaway slave but in larger truth a parable about the long, tortured history of black people in America. Every other interpreter, however, fails to appreciate that the narrator is not relating a literal event but recalling a dream. PB&R, who generate shadowy atmospherics, enhance the power of the song by causing its subject to resonate on levels that feel at once beneath and beyond the merely conscious. The jazzy arrangement puts forth eerie, unsettling sounds and calls up images from the void of collective memory. You may think you're hearing the wail of agonized conscience in a stark, moon-washed landscape, and you may decide you want to switch on the closest available light.

PB&R execute a near miracle with their approach to the often covered "The Cuckoo," most versions of which amount to little more than recreations of Clarence Ashley's revered 1929 record "The Coo Coo," one of the masterpieces of -- if you will pardon the adjective that follows -- authentic American folk music. Though the version here certainly derives in some ways from the Ashley classic, it is set in another aural universe entirely, with rolling harmonies led by Bethany's dark alto and Mady Kouyate's kora driving the bird out of Appalachia altogether. It may be that broadly speaking, the inspiration can be traced to the 1970s Pentangle setting, or maybe not; but as with the spiritual "You Better Mind," it is impossible not to think of that pioneering ensemble's way of fusing archaic folk with baroque ambience and jazz rhythm. Of course, it requires musicality of the highest degree to pull off anything close to that. It doesn't matter if you happen to know the Pentangle oeuvre. PB&R, containing multitudes, amount to more, much more, than the arithmetic of their parts, and each of the three brings his or her creative imagination and wealth of listening to the effort.

Joining PB&R is the multi-instrumental string-man Paul Prestopino, with whom Peter Yarrow has had a long association. Other players contribute percussion and keyboards as needed. The quality never falters, and even warhorses like "Blue Tail Fly," "Cindy" and "Frankie and Johnny" race again. What joy.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 January 2008

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