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Author: Richard J. Skelly. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.
An Old Folksinger, With Songs That Lasted
The songs on Eric Andersen’s latest album have a timeless
quality. So it’s appropriate that the 57-year-old folk singer’s current
release is entitled "You Can’t Relive The Past."
"You Can’t Relive The Past" is a masterpiece, a brilliant
collection of memorable folk songs, with some blues tunes thrown in
for extra soul. Recorded both in New York and in Water Valley, Mississippi,
Andersen is accompanied by a crew of musicians who record for Fat
Possum Records, a label co-founded by the late, legendary rock ‘n’
roll critic Robert Palmer.
Even the cover art of "You Can’t Relive The Past" tells the
prospective CD buyer this album is blues-based. A sepia-toned photo
shows Andersen seated in a chair on a sidewalk in Clarksdale, Mississippi,
guitar in hands, tipping his hat to the photographer, with James "Super
Chikan" Johnson standing beside him.
"Clarksdale 100 years ago was a pretty prosperous town, they were
loading and unloading a lot of cotton," Andersen explains by phone
last week from his apartment in New York. "The street I’m on in
the photo was sort of the Beale Street of Clarksdale, and of course
it faded and went into decline. I’m sitting in front of Lucille Turner’s
Grille," he adds, noting she is the sister of blues impresario
While Lou Reed provides a credible New York edge to the title track,
"You Can’t Relive The Past," guitarists R.L. Burnside, Super
Chikan Johnson, Kenny Brown, and drummer Sam Carr add a Southern feel
to Andersen’s lyrical poems. Andersen performs memorable, refreshingly
simple folk songs like "Eyes of the Immigrant," "Every
Once in a Pale Blue Moon," and "Magdalena," but even these
tunes are inspired by the poetry of the blues.
Although Andersen hesitates to call himself a blues singer, the author
of folk classics like "Thirsty Boots," "Violet Dawn,"
"Be True To You," and "Is It Really Love At All" also
hesitates to call himself a singer-songwriter. Contemporary folk singer
is perhaps the best description of what he does.
Andersen, who maintains an apartment in lower Manhattan and a house
outside Oslo, Norway, has been a fixture on the folk circuit since
he was first signed to record for Maynard and Seymour Solomon’s Vanguard
Records in 1965. Vanguard Records in those days was signing blues
artists like Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond, Mississippi John Hurt,
as well as folk singers like Joan Baez, Odetta, and Phil Ochs.
Andersen was born in Pittsburgh and raised in western New York, near
Buffalo. Raised in an arts-aware family, the son of an artist mother
and a metallurgical engineer father, Andersen taught himself piano
These are not easy instruments to teach oneself. He explains, "It
must have just been a severe case of loneliness and isolation. And
it was a love for the classic R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll, the early
Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers."
"My father worked with metal, but he pretty much had the soul
of a poet. He loved poetry and had a huge collection of poetry books,"
Andersen recalls, "so he retired early and went and studied with
[poet] Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo."
In the early 1960s, like so many other guitar-slinging
folk singers, Andersen moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. There,
he was a part of the city’s burgeoning folk revival. Andersen was
influenced by poets, jazz musicians, blues and folk singers when he
was hanging around the Village in the ’60s.
"I liked Beat poetry, I liked French symbolist poetry, and the
blues and folk scene were really happening then," he recalls.
"When people played in clubs in the Village in those days, they
played six nights in a row. I was diggin’ all these cats like Reverend
Gary Davis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John
"That’s something songwriters today don’t have an opportunity
to do: if you wanted to hear somebody like Muddy Waters, you could
hear him five or six nights in a row," he points out, "as
a result, I got to meet blues pianist Otis Spann, harp player James
Cotton, or whoever was playing at the time. That’s what was extraordinary
about those days."
Andersen adds there’s not much that excites him about today’s singer-songwriter
scene, and his favorite music to listen to — on or off the road
— is blues and jazz.
"These musicians today never had this opportunity to study these
masters up close, and some of them base their own writing on the ones
who preceded them. There are probably young lady singer-songwriters
going around whose roots go back to Suzanne Vega," he says, referring
to the folk-rock poet who had the peak of her success in the mid-1980s.
"Now, I’m gettin’ to be like these guys I used to watch,"
he laughs, noting his 57th birthday in mid-February.
"When Bob Dylan started he was playing traditional songs,"
he argues. Ditto for folk singers like Andersen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot,
John Hammond, Patrick Sky, Dave Van Ronk, and others who are, thankfully,
still around from the early ’60s Village basket house scene. One who’s
not around is the recently departed singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist
Rick Danko, best known as the bassist for the Band. Danko, who Andersen
collaborated with in a trio with Jonas Fjeld, died of an apparent
heart attack in December, while Andersen was in Norway.
Ironically, when both men were teenagers, they were listening to the
same radio station in Buffalo, New York. Danko was raised in a rural
part of Ontario, Canada. Andersen first met Danko in 1967 in Los Angeles,
but they began a collaboration as a touring and recording act in the
1980s as Danko/Andersen/Fjeld. They released two albums as a trio.
Of his friendship with rock poet Lou Reed, Andersen says he knew of
the Velvet Underground and went to see them in the late ’60s, but
he didn’t meet Reed until both were attending artist Andy Warhol’s
funeral. "We were around the same scene and both friends of Andy
Warhol’s in the ’60s, but he was in another kind of scene in the Velvet
Underground," he explains, "we’ve been friends for the last
In the 1970s, Andersen also struck up friendships with the poets Allen
Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and the ground-breaking rock-poet Patti
Smith. He also became friendly with rock critic Robert Palmer. It
was Palmer who took him on a tour of the Mississippi Delta and introduced
him to the raw, visceral sounds of people like Burnside, Johnson,
and Carr, practitioners of state-of-the-art Delta blues.
"You Can’t Relive The Past" also features four songs he co-wrote
with another legendary songwriter, also deceased, Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt died in January, 1997. Andersen notes in the album’s liner
notes that Palmer died later the same year.
Asked about his songwriting process, he says, "I
wish I could remember where these things come from. It’s real hard
for me to describe the songwriting process. They just pop out of the
air." He travels everywhere with his notebook, and jots things
down no matter where he is, noting he generally writes lyrics first
and puts music to them while the ink is still drying on the notebook
A glance at Andersen’s discography indicates his output through the
years has been prolific — one and two albums a year — beginning
with "Today Is The Highway" for Vanguard in 1965, to "More
Hits From Tin Can Alley" for the same label in ’68, to "Blue
River" for Columbia Records in 1972, to more than 30 other albums
for labels including Warner, Arista and Rykodisk right up to his release
last year for Appleseed Recordings, "Memory Of The Future."
Like the late Van Zandt, many of Andersen’s albums have received high
critical praise. Yet in the record business of the 1980s and ’90s,
he’s still too far under the radar — in terms of sales — to
be picked up by a major record label.
"You know what Lou Reed says, `Critical praise, kiss of death,’"
Andersen says, laughing, "but, you never know." Andersen cites
encouraging reports from public and college radio stations around
the country about the airplay for "You Can’t Relive The Past,"
just released in February.
Given the status of his years, how does Andersen advise today’s up-and-coming
singer-songwriters? "It depends on how good they are, their talent.
Basically the only thing I can tell them is don’t give away your publishing,"
he says, laughing.
At his Hightstown show, Andersen predicts that he will do things "from
the whole spectrum of my writing. I’ll definitely do some older things
from the 1960s, like `Thirsty Boots,’" he says, noting he sees
nothing wrong with pulling something out of the repertoire that’s
more than 30 years old. "I have always tried to write songs that
— Richard J. Skelly
School, Stockton Street, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Opening Jennie
Avila. $12. Saturday, March 18, 8 p.m.
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