Note: Appropriately, our first musical guest ever on EarthDesk Sunday is Pace Academy’s own Andy Revkin. The story follows the video.
In his 1972 book The Incompleat Folksinger, Pete Seeger recalled setting out on his own in the mid 1950s. His recollection may sound quaint to some today, but not here in New York’s Hudson River Valley, where down home music is a staple of daily life:
I was singing pretty regularly on my own; all sorts of people were getting excited about homemade music.
With homemade music as their organizing tool, Pete, Vic Schwartz and others raised the money and the friends that launched the 106-foot sloop Clearwater in 1969, and the contemporary Hudson River environmental movement along with it.
Music is still very much a part of river life, as anyone knows who frequents the first Friday meetings of the Beacon Sloop Club and open mic nights at local venues such as Town Crier Café, or who attended the CD release party at Dogwood Bar and Grill for Andy Revkin’s A Very Fine Line.
“Singing pretty regularly” is something to which Andy aspires. Best known as the Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, and senior fellow at Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, he says, “If someone forced me to choose one thing to do for the rest of my life it would not be journalism. It would be music.”
When I arrived at Dogwood, Andy had just begun Black Bird, a performance that evoked Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and the “high lonesome wail” indigenous to the troubled hills and vales of southern coal country. In the above video of Black Bird, Andy is accompanied by the remarkable Bruce Molsky on fiddle.
Traditional roots are pervasive in Andy’s music, but somehow those morphed from an eclectic mix of influences that date to childhood and included his mother, father and brother.
My musical influences were largely shaped by what I grew up with and what I heard on radio in the late 60s and early 70s – meaning everything from the Bob Dylan to Emerson Lake & Palmer to Herb Alpert. The album reflects that full range.
My songwriting influences range from no-brainers like Dylan, Ray Davies of the Kinks (“Dead-End Street”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) to Richard Thompson (“Bee’s Wing”) and less-famous folks like Mose Allison (“Your Molecular Structure”) and Guy Clark (Last Gunfighter) — and, yes, Cole Porter.
A Very Fine Line is the product of decades of performing and composing, as well as collaborations with the rich vein of talent that runs through the Hudson River region and that helped out on Fine Line: Bruce Molsky, Motherlode Trio, David Bernz, Dar Williams and more. Andy himself is a multi-instrumentalist, which he describes this way: “In order of decreasing skill, I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and (barely) hacked fiddle.”
Fine Line also traces its origins to Andy’s stroke in 2011. His personal essay on Medium.com, Why Singing, Not Typing, is worth a thoughtful read:
I’d been performing and writing songs since the early 1990s, but was only prompted to focus on recording them by a close call. Midlife jolts come in many shapes. Mine came in the form of an out-of-the-blue stroke — the kind that sometimes hits people who are not the usual suspects.
… I never got around to recording seriously until I’d recuperated from my cerebral misadventure, which occurred on a hot Fourth of July weekend in 2011. I was incredibly lucky, in all kinds of ways, given that stroke is the leading source of disability in America. My instinct to chug half a dozen baby aspirin before heading to the hospital could have killed me if it had been a bleeding stroke (not that I knew this at the time), but probably helped me avoid lasting disability.
As the title song of this album goes, “Most of your life you spend walking a very fine line.” After I healed, I didn’t want to waste any more time.
There are lessons aplenty in A Very Fine Line, from the fun send up about the foolishness of a fossil fuel future — Liberated Carbon — to the title track’s poignant warning about the fragility of time and opportunity. And there is music aplenty — to make you think, feel and, equally important, stomp your feet.
A Very Fine Line is in the very fine tradition of roots, river and revival hall music. It is also a signature work by one of the most important environmental journalists on the planet, whose chance discovery that there should be more to his life of writing is an inspiration to those of us who also harbor a secret yearning to do more with our own talents. Andy summed it up simply for himself:
There are some subjects, situations and feelings that just cry out to be sung instead of typed. That fact has led me back to one of my first loves — music.
A Very Fine Line at Amazon.
Andy’s YouTube music videos here.
Andy’s post at NoDepression.com on “Do We Need a New Kind of Song about the Environment?”
Almost forgot, you can also follow Andy at his day job at Dot Earth.