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Chris Smither @ Joe’s Pub
March 9, 2007

Written by John Proctor

 

 


 

 

The word "songster" doesn't mean much anymore. Most people don't even think of it as an antiquated term for the American wandering minstrels that preceded the Delta bluesmen, Woody Guthrie, and the Gershwins in relating our relatively young culture back to us in song. In fact, most people not named Tosches or Charters don't think of the word at all - a search on the informationally overfilled Wikipedia yields exactly 0 results; I called my buddy Domer, a modern songster in the hip-hop arena who was on his way to rhyme in Asheville, and asked him to define the word, and he replied, "Um...someone who writes songs?"

Which, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, was at best about 1/4 correct. Well before the advent of nationwide media access, songsters of the time didn’t write so much as relay songs to their audiences, telling their own versions of the sinking of the Titanic , giving firsthand accounts of local killings (think Frankie & Albert, or Stagger Lee), filching Tin Pan Alley songs and popular dance tunes of the time they picked up at medicine shows and circuses, all while roaming town to town and taking whatever people would give to hear their hobo artistry.

Chris Smither is as close as you'll likely get to a songster in the original tradition. At 62, just in the last year he’s done shows in the States, Europe, and elsewhere, accompanying his cautionary tales and blues-based ballads with only his guitar, a Neil Diamond pompadour and a wry, gentle smile. When asked about his influences, two of the first guys he mentions are Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, two of the most recorded singers in the original songster tradition. Both, proving the point of our lost connection with the word, are almost always lumped under "Blues" by record stores and radio stations. In another connection, both were rediscovered in the hippie-dippy blues-folk craze of the 60s, commanding rooms and festivals full of white college kids with their slow drawls and gently plaintive pre-civil-rights-movement demeanors.

Smither, who was one of those white college kids ingesting the work of these two (he has a BA in anthropology), always wondered why he couldn’t find any other “blues” music much like them. But he picked up a guitar anyway, adapted the rolling thumb alternating base from Hurt, threw in some Lightnin’ Hopkins, and set out on the streets of his native New Orleans and then on the highway to pick up some tunes.

That was roughly 40 years ago. He picked up a record contract along the way, recorded some solid albums, developed a devoted cult following, and has given them his songs ever since. His latest pass through New York was on March 9 at Joe’s Pub. This was my first time seeing him live, and bearing witness to his following, which seemed eerily similar to those white college kids I’ve seen in the old John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb videos . Not only were they just as rapt, but they were just as arrogant; they were also mostly old, so maybe they were the same college kids from the 60s.

When my girlfriend and I arrived the place was packed, so we stood in front of the bar. Almost immediately, two ladies behind us started talking to each other about how rude it was for people to stand in front of other people in a crowded venue; I really expected them to reminisce about the days they all sat crosslegged in the college gym and nobody said a word while the black man played his guitar. I turned around to encourage them to stand up and stretch their legs so they could see better, and they pointed out a nice spot we could stand behind a pole that wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. "Maybe you'd like to stand over there," my girlfriend told them. Then, when for some reason my girlfriend decided to be nice and move to the other side of me, an upper-middle-aged man said, "You're not standing there." I contemplated the necessity of fisticuffs with a pentagenarian until he leaned in and whispered in her ear, “You can stand there, just move over a bit,” and I stopped cracking my knuckles.

Smither himself warranted every bit of the reverence and attention his audience gave him – no opener, just him, on time, with his guitar, for the full two hours allotted to him. It seemed like 15 minutes. Besides a few classic covers and public domain songs, he played quite a few from his latest album Leave the Light On, including “Origin of Species,” a hilarious lambasting of Intelligent Design that utilizes his degree in anthropology, and the title track, perhaps my now-favorite song of his that is a both caustic and heartrending meditation on gettin’ old.

For his last song, his removed a soft cast from his finger that he’s been using since earlier this year after developing arthritis in the bottom two joints of his left hand, saying, “My thumb got old before I did.” Ironically enough, the musical tradition he’s working within got old before he got born, but it still feels alive in his wornout hands.





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