The recent passing of the singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte got me thinking of the strange roads folk music has traveled in this country. When Bob Dylan came onto the scene in 1961, people thought of him as the first folk superstar. But as Dylan takes pains to point out in his unconventional and brilliant memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, the whole idea of folk music is that it derives from traditions going back centuries. He explains that he could only sing folk songs by immersing himself in those traditions, and that the music he wrote subsequently is grounded in their structures.
Among the musicians he credits with informing his style are Woody Guthrie and Odetta. But in writing about a predecessor who attained huge popularity, he focuses on Belafonte: “Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it.…He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.” In fact, Belafonte’s album Calypso, from 1956, was the first in the world ever to sell more than one million copies. His renderings of Caribbean folk songs were crucial for giving the people’s music a springboard for its rapidly broadening appeal. (I was surprised to learn that Dylan made his recording debut with Belafonte in 1962, filling in on harmonica for Sonny Terry.) Belafonte himself cites a performance by Leadbelly at the Village Vanguard in 1952 as his own road-to-Damascus moment; suddenly a whole world of traditional music opened up to him, and his training as an actor led him to investigate the possibilities of expression for this material.
Belafonte’s career provided still another parallel to Dylan’s: he was pilloried by some for his lack of faithfulness to certain ideas of what constituted folk music. In an interview for Mojo from 2010 (conducted by songwriter Joe Henry—more on him later), Belafonte alludes to some of the racial issues that lay underneath reactions to his chosen style:
The audiences were the least of my problems. The real problems for me existed among the practitioners of the art. They were such purists, and there was not a lot of generosity out here for anybody if you didn’t come down a dusty road with a banjo over your shoulder, a piece of hay stuck between your teeth, and a plaid work shirt. The way I chose to interpret a lot of those songs was aimed at an audience I felt was being completely overlooked. I took a lot of the great folk songs and I gave them certain dramatic twists and turns, which was the privilege of the folk artist as I understood it. But the purists never saw it as a privilege granted to someone they regarded as coming from outside their community.
So, what is pure folk? The best answer, I’d say in an impure world, is there is none. At the broadest level, cultures are always mixing and remixing elements. And at the personal, nothing undistilled can last; to quote the painter Willem de Kooning, “Art never seems to make me feel peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity.” Some of the purists who got on Dylan’s case rejected his move away from music as a form of political expression to one rooted in the personal. But if the personal is political, folk is always, by that definition, both.
Recent years have seen folk shrink to a smaller category, mostly defined by acoustic instrumentation, and Americana—led by an electric guitar-driven sound that Dylan ushered in—grow considerably. The category is pliable enough to admit a much wider range of influences, from the ragged confessional glory of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle to the border-crossing extensions of Ry Cooder and Calexico. Joe Henry, in a diverse career spanning nearly forty years, takes his own distinctive path within this genre. His recordings reached an early highlight with the sultry Scar (2001), which featured an ace band—Marc Ribot on guitar, Brian Blade on drums, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Meshell Ndegeocello on bass, with a spot-on guest appearance by saxophonist Ornette Coleman—drawing jazz and soul influences into his songs. The recording’s warm, atmospheric sound was mirrored by the one Henry often created as a stellar producer, including work on several albums by legendary but underappreciated artists, like the great comeback effort Don’t Give Up on Me (2002) by Solomon Burke and the last record by the extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (2016).
Henry’s music has taken various turns in recent years. One recording and companion film, Shine a Light (2016), involved him and Billy Bragg traversing the US by train while recording traditional travel songs, from “Rock Island Line” to “Midnight Special”—the latter being the very track on which Dylan premiered with Belafonte. The strong poetic strain in Henry’s approach to lyric writing is especially evident on his two most recent albums. The first, The Gospel According to Water (2019), was put together in a rush following a cancer diagnosis; Henry was afraid he might not have another chance to record. The songs on it are deeply personal, but distanced, too; rather than describe a particular situation, they float through a range of observations without judgment. On the track “Orson Welles,” he lands on one that I found so arresting on first hearing it, I laughed out loud in surprise: “If you provide the terms of my surrender, then I’ll provide the war.”
This was one of the standout numbers he played at a recent gig at City Winery, rendered in plaintive harmony with Margaret Glaspy, and abetted by his son, multi-instrumentalist Levon Henry, and guitarist Julian Lage’s always subtle and inventive playing. Most of the set, though, was devoted to tracks from his recently released album All the Eye Can See (2023). Henry recorded the album himself at home while in lockdown, and it has a spare quality of its own. His cancer in remission, he seems to take a clear-eyed delight in the material world, yet there is melancholy here too, an awareness of our mortal limits; in one mournful piano-led dirge, he describes how “the song I know leaves me behind,” then cautiously concludes “the song that I know / carries on.” On another, against a John Fahey-like guitar line, he speaks of “the shadow passing over without ever having seen us,” a bird’s-eye view of our sorrows.
It's a measure of folk’s mutability and Americana’s breadth that its songs of love and death can range from simple strummed declarations to the kind of elliptical verbal quatrains that Henry creates on his latest work. Yet what unites them all is a kind of intimacy. In a blowsy, friendly voice reminiscent of John Hiatt, Henry pulls you into his world. Henry’s voice is miles away from Dylan’s piercing nasal howl and Belafonte’s clear, powerful signal, but all of them take you into a kind of confidence. Times and our responses to them change, but our desire for intimacy doesn’t. As a result, the music that describes and accompanies that desire succeeds best by holding us closer.