Urban Folk Music Takes a Political Swing

Back-to-basics songs are coming back, with meaningful messages that are reminiscent of the '60s, but more personal. BLOWIN' IN THE WIND

THURSDAY evenings, David Massengill totes his guitar across town to a dumpy apartment on West Houston Street in Greenwich Village. The place looks as if it hasn't been cleaned since the late '50s, when Bob Dylan was walking these same streets. There's a dish of spaghetti on the table, a clutter of Salvation Army decor, and bantering asides while a singer - well beyond college years - picks away on an impromptu stage. Aspiring songmakers have been gathering in this apartment for years, to try new songs on friendly ears. For much of the last decade or so, it seemed no one else was listening. Club dates were scarce, pop idols like Prince and Madonna ruled the air, and the folk revival of the '60s - the last time singer-songwriters had a broad United States audience - seemed lost in a distant age. ``There are very few folk clubs left in this city,'' Mr. Massengill says.

So Massengill did what artists have usually done in New York. He washed dishes, kept writing and singing, and waiting for the break.

That break may have arrived. The commercial success of such performers as Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman is rippling through the clubs and coffee houses on the singer-songwriter circuit. Bookings are picking up, the money is better. And best of all, the record companies are sniffing a trend. Windham Hill, the label that launched the gauzy acoustic sound of the early '80s, has changed course with an album that is an anthology of the new vocal music.

Massengill has a song on that album, which is called ``Legacy.'' He's working with Suzanne Vega's producer on an album of his own. The sky hasn't exactly opened, but he's not washing dishes any more either. ``This is the first year I've had the feeling I'm going to have a career.''

Talking to Massengill and other new songsmiths of the post-Reagan decade, it's hard not to think of the original folkies who arose out of the quietude of the Eisenhower years. Before the movements of the '60s came that sound - the Weavers, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others who rejected the pop confections of American Bandstand in favor of music that was honest, and unproduced, and rooted in history and social concern.

Conditions in the '80s were remarkably similar. A Republican President who was a grandfather to the country. A frenzy of material acquisition that swamped sincerity and social concern. ``The repressive Republican atmosphere helped to generate this whole singer-songwriter movement,'' says Dick Pleasants, who runs the nation's only commercial folk-music radio station, WADN, in Concord, Mass.

BUT don't push that comparison too far where the music is concerned. ``If you call it a `folk revival', people will associate it with nostalgia music and boring music,'' says John Gorka, a Philadelphia-based singer on the ``Legacy'' album, who occasionally joins the West Houston sessions.

``It is certainly derivative of folk music,'' says Will Ackerman, chief executive of Windham Hill records. ``It is acoustic music that is a vehicle for intelligent singer-songwriters to deliver a message.''

There are few echoes of traditional folk on ``Legacy.'' At its best, the album displays a new (and mostly) urban folk music, intensely personal even when addressing social themes. With lives increasingly defined by technology, merely connecting with genuine emotion becomes almost a political act. One senses a yearning to get back to the evocative power of words. Mr. Pleasants notes that many of his station's listeners are computer scientists and engineers who ``needed to maintain touch with the human side of life.''

Mr. Gorka's ``Legacy'' entry, called ``I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair,'' certainly qualifies. The confession of a man who sees a woman who reminds him of a former love, it is almost painfully revealing. ``I try to write about what I know about,'' Gorka said in a telephone interview.

Gorka played banjo in a blue-grass band at Moravian College near Philadelphia. Later he delivered flowers to earn money while he performed at open-mike sessions and opened for local acts. Heknows many people don't hear the lyrics, but words are important to him anyway. ``Having good lyrics makes it easier for me to get a feeling across. The main thing is that the lyrics are good enough so that I can sing them with conviction.''

If the new folk music betokens a political shift the way the earlier folk revival did, then the activism of the '90s may be less strident than the '60s, and more quietly personal. On ``Legacy,'' Lilly Palmer ventures onto the hackneyed terrain of nuclear warfare in a song called ``Insanity Street,'' and emerges unscathed by clich'e. ``Legacy,'' the album's title song by Pierce Pettis, defies all odds in saying something fresh about race relations, exploring the relationship between two Southern farmers, one black and one white.

Pettis's song is absolutely arresting. Like Odetta's ``Motherless Child,'' it seems wrenched out of worn cotton fields with aching hands.

Sundays we congregate

Praise Jesus, pass the plate

Sitting in our Sunday best

Singing hymns and mopping sweat

We learn the Golden Rule

In separate Sunday Schools

``The music has grown up a little bit,'' Pettis said in an interview last fall. ``A lot of the '60s music was related to one or two issues. It was civil rights or Viet Nam or women's music. What's happening now is so much broader than that.''

``The key is a genuine, heartfelt quality. I don't address specific issues generally. But I do address specific attitudes. I would be less likely to write a song about a Nicaragua than about the attitudes that can create a Nicaragua. I'd rather address the evil itself than the politics of it.''

With scholarly-looking glasses and hair hanging to his shoulders, Pettis is a cross between a rock singer and a clerk in a second-hand bookstore. He grew up in a small Alabama town, in hillbilly country. His family wasn't native to the area, and he started writing songs at the age of 10.

``I didn't tell a single soul I was a songwriter until I was a senior in high school,'' he says. ``In a little town like this, all the guys played football and worked on cars. If you wrote songs you were considered effeminate or something.''

Pettis does feel one connection to the earlier folk singers: the sense of opposition to one's times. Where the Weavers and others faced the repression of the McCarthy era, Pettis encountered indifference. ``If you were playing acoustic music in the early '80s you would be laughed at quite a lot,'' he recalls.

``I don't know if that breeds subtlety or not. But certainly it breeds conviction. That's one thing I feel I have in common with a lot of my colleagues.''

Massengill actually set out to be a poet and short-story writer, but turned to song-writing when he discovered Woody Guthrie. ``He told stories, which I liked to tell,'' Massengill says, taking a break from the songwriter gathering. ``If he got away with a voice that wasn't so pretty, then I thought I could too.''

Massengill's song on ``Legacy'' is called ``My Name Joe,'' and is about a kitchen worker who is chased down by Immigration officials. The song is social, but not overtly political. Massengill grew up in a Republican family in Knoxville, Tenn., a locale still evident in his gentle and good-humored drawl. He worked in the McGovern campaign in '72 because he wanted to end the war. ``Republicans make the world go round, but thankfully everything is not up to them,'' he says. ``I would like to reach a few of them.''

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