Annie Wenz,
Poet's Dance
(Gypsy Moon Rising, 2001)

I first went to Mexico when I was 16 years old. It was part of a school trip; my Spanish teacher chaperoned a group of us on a Spring Break fling that started in Acapulco. My first glimpses of that resort city were breathtaking; they were everything that the brochures picture: white sands, large hotels by the water, waiters serving tourists drinks on the beach, cliff divers, etc. However, once I started roaming the city on my own, I saw what the tourist board didn't want me to see -- some of the worst poverty my teenage eyes had ever seen. A few miles away from those large, glitzy hotels by the pristine sands were people living in caves.

I could no longer enjoy those beaches, and I felt ashamed to be staying in that tourist hotel.

"Freedom," the opening track to Annie Wenz's Poet's Dance, brings back that memory as she sings about the poor child begging for leftover crusts of bread at an outdoor Honduran cafˇ. With her own stomach full, she admits that "to this day, I see his face, / the same eyes as my own young son." She recalls the woman who "weaves with silver threads for pennies down in Mexico." In the chorus, she asks, "who is free?" and wonders about whose one world it truly is. But it's not just Mexico and Central America that makes her question freedom. As a woman, she wonders about her own freedom to walk down any street in any town late at night without fear.

Wenz herself doesn't seem particularly fearful. Indeed, she is a well-traveled woman who has seen a lot of the world. She isn't afraid to question what she sees, and she feels free to point out discrepancies and ironies, whether they occur in Mexico, the United States, Vietnam, Laos or anywhere else her eyes point and her feet walk. I heard her perform a few years ago as a finalist in the New Folks competition at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in Lyons, Colorado. She didn't win, but she continued to perform at workshops that weekend, eager to share her music and learn from others. Her earnest enthusiasm and caring for music and life is clear in this new collection of songs, all original numbers except for two covers, one of a Phil Ochs's song she has decided to perform in Spanish, and another by Tommy Sands.

Performed with her producer, Tom Prasada Rao, she gives Ochs's "Bracero" a sparse, light arrangement. Pradada Rao's guitar is the sole accompaniment to her verses sung in Spanish, followed by his in English. Ochs's lyrics bring to mind the Joads and Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, but Wenz's Spanish treatment (the solo guitar adds to a slight Latino feel) brings to mind even more mistreatment of migrants to California -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

It's clear that Wenz is political and that her politics clearly place her to the left. Tommy Sands's "There Were Roses" is about a senseless death in Northern Ireland. Her own "Put to the Wall" concerns racism ranging from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to racial discrimination in the United States. In a surprisingly upbeat melody, she discusses how Jesus in Bosnia had been told "his gene pool was dirty -- they didn't want his kind about." The football star couldn't get a taxi at night in New York because "they don't pick up his kind after dark." She clinches her point in her chorus: "If they knew who he was they would treat him quite well / But the rest of the time -- he can go straight to hell." "Vietnam," which opens with Wenz singing in Vietnamese, is the story of her trip to that country 25 years after she protested the war as "a kid in a black armband / holding up a candle singin' 'Give Peace a Chance.'" It tells of what she ultimately found in her journey there -- peace and friendship with a man who tells her that his "father fought in the American war."

Not every song is political, however. "Shoot the Moon," written for the late singer-songwriter Al Grierson, is a quintessential folk song. The gentle, ringing quality of Wenz and Prasada Rao's acoustic guitars brings back memories of the '60s in Wenz's heartfelt, upbeat tribute. "Saskatoon Sky" is a sweet love song set on a cross-country Canadian train trip featuring Wenz's guitar and Prasada Rao on violin.

Wenz is still honing on her songwriting skills. Some numbers, such as "Put to the Wall" and "Saskatoon Sky" are dead on. While Wenz certainly doesn't mean it, others sometimes occasionally seem a trifle too earnest, as in "Vietnam." However, that earnestness, whether it seems just right or a little over the top, is one way in which she stands out from some of her contemporaries. Her honesty, enthusiasm, and directness give her personal contact with her listeners. It's easy to imagine Wenz performing in your living room as her voice emanates from your speakers. In "Laos," a spoken excerpt from a letter Wenz sent home from Laos, has a meditative ring, as she speaks gently against various Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese instruments. Close your eyes, and see if you can imagine yourself receiving that letter and hearing her voice in your head as you read it and picture the images she's sending via words and music.

Poet's Dance is not a typical singer-songwriter offering, but then its creator is not your typical singer-songwriter. However, if you're willing, Wenz's rich contralto will take you all over the world. She's not afraid to travel around the world, and she's not worried about breaking any rules about what a singer-songwriter can and cannot do.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 14 December 2001