Bridging Folk Music's Past And Future

Three members of folk's new generation update the music's sonic and lyrical traditions.

When Joan Baez, the Grand Dame of modern folk music, went to work on her

most recent album, she tapped singers Dar Williams and Richard Shindell for

several songs that would become a bridge between older and newer

generations of the genre.

Now those two musicians -- joined with Greenwich Village new-folk veteran

Lucy Kaplansky under the name Cry Cry Cry -- are once again connecting the

genre's past with its future. On 12 tracks that they describe as "songs we

love" -- songs penned by a range of current writers -- they offer an

updated interpretation of folk music's traditional sonic intimacy and

narrative lyrics.

Williams', Shindell's and Kaplansky's voices take turns on these songs, but

when one is in the spotlight, the others are right behind. Williams' silvery

low tones and keening high ones, Shindell's warm, reedy tenor and

Kaplansky's rounded, almost twangy voice blend together beautifully on

songs like Buddy Mondlock's oft-covered "The Kid" and Greg Brown's funny

"Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart."

The collection opens with an unexpected selection: R.E.M.'s "Fall on Me."

Williams' voice takes the lead here in a rendition that remains loyal to

the original. The song's theme of technology versus nature is one that has

always been close to the heart of the folk movement. Its delivery here

underscores the wide influence of folk traditions on rock music -- and of

rock on folk. Shindell's harmony on the bridge even sounds a little like

Michael Stipe's friendly voice.

Shindell takes the lead on two songs with strong narratives: Robert Earl

Keen's "Shades of Gray" -- a wild tale of modern-day outlaws -- and James

Keelaghan's heart-wrenching "Cold Missouri Waters." The latter brings to

life the recollections of a dying retired-firefighter. The song chronicles

the first time a fireman created a safe zone within a forest fire by

burning a circle in the brush around himself. He survived -- but 13 of his

crew died in the blaze.

Shindell's sympathetic vocals heighten the story's immediacy and horror;

Williams' and Kaplansky's harmonies sound as if they were angels who saved

this man when the fire seemed against him: "In that world reduced to ashes,

there were none but two survived/ I stayed that night and one day

after/ Carried bodies to the river, wondered how I stayed alive." Guitarist

Billy Masters, who's worked in Williams' latest touring ensemble, creates a

harrowing collection of guitar textures that round out the piece.

Kaplansky -- whose roots are in the folk scene that also nurtured Shawn

Colvin, Nanci Griffith, John Gorka and Suzanne Vega -- shines on "Speaking

With the Angel," written by acclaimed songwriter Ron Sexmith. But her

delivery of Julie Miller's "By Way of Sorrow" seems the album's pivotal

moment, given the record's title of Cry, Cry, Cry. Her voice is soft

and subtle, almost like a mother singing to a child. "You who once were

left behind/ Will be welcome at love's table," she promises. Her rendition

of Jim Armenti's country-rock "Down by the Water" is also a delight, fusing

a lovelorn lyric with images of historic mill-town imagery over a bouncy

melody.

The trio performs an arresting, a cappella "Northern Cross," written by

Leslie Smith. The solo voices transform the pining melody into a hymn: "So

meet me on Red Mountain/ Lace of laurel, bed of moss/ Where the wind's

forever howling beneath that Northern Cross." Williams' and Kaplansky's

duet on the Nields' "I Know What Kind of Love This Is" is appropriately

sad, almost numbed. Told from the perspective of a high-school girl who

allows herself to be taken by "the big man in the town ... to end a

lifetime of wallflower shade," this version is almost prettier than its

original.

Cry, Cry, Cry closes with Williams and Shindell dueting on

Shindell's own fantastic "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen." Williams gives the

song its due in her soft, human tones: "Jesus loved me, this I know/ Why on

earth did I ever let him go?/ He was always faithful, he was always kind/ But

he walked off with this heart of mine."

The folk musicians of America have blessed the music world with some of its

most stunning songwriting; there isn't much to hide behind with just a

voice and a guitar, so storytelling is the obvious path for these

musicians. On Cry, Cry, Cry, Williams, Kaplansky and Shindell make a

powerful case for the folk tradition's present and future relevance.