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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Hearing History’s Song
Sometimes, in the heat of debate about America’s arts
funding, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the arts are part and
parcel of our everyday life. Folk music writers have always been in
the thick of political debate, commemorating events, testing ideas,
and raising public awareness. This week folk music standouts Tom Paxton
and Anne Hills bring some American history in song to Morristown with
"Under American Skies: Historical Events Captured in Folk Songs,"
at the Morris Cultural Center, Saturday, June 22, at 8 p.m.
Hills and Paxton collaborated last year on the album, "Under American
Skies," released by Appleseed Recordings, a collection of old
and new political and historic songs by Paxton, Hills, and others.
Together they sing songs that have become folk music standards, such
as Malvina Reynolds’ "God Bless The Grass," Gil Turner’s "Carry
It On," both from 1964, and Bob Gibson’s even earlier "Well,
"I really do get excited about this music," Hills said last
week, from her home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "I knew Paxton’s
songs long before I knew him."
Hills had just returned from a heartwarming weekend in Washington,
D.C., where she led a singalong for 130,000 Girl Scouts that finished
with Woody Guthrie’s rousing, "This Land Is Your Land."
Hills, 48, who worked with Paxton in Chicago in the late 1970s and
early ’80s, was preparing to fly to Nashville the following day to
sing with Paxton who was there recording a new solo album. Paxton’s
new album, and perhaps the Morris concert, will include "The Bravest,"
a song he wrote last year for the fireman lost on September 11.
"These songs don’t ever stop being current," says Hills, noting
that the Birmingham church firebombing of 1964 was recently back in
the news. "You don’t have to sing a poorly written new song about
an event when you have such powerful songs as Richard Farina’s `Birmingham
Sunday,’" written in 1964.
"Even the songs that were sung in the 1800s, and the turn-of-the-century
child labor songs still need to be sung," she says emphatically.
"We’re still struggling with child labor and with slavery —
around the world now." Great songs, she believes, have helped
effect change. "People associate the song with the moment that
things began to shift politically."
Hills says folk songs can have many different purposes. For "Under
American Skies," Hills says she asked Paxton to choose songs from
an earlier era, songs that inspired him as a writer. Together the
musicians also wrote the title song, a new anti-death penalty song
that chronicles the lifelong abuse suffered by many convicted murderers.
"One purpose for a song is cheerleeading. `Blowing in the Wind’
or `Carry It On’ are the kind of songs you sing at a rally to unify
and uplift a group of people." Other songs by Paxton, Phil Ochs,
and others, use humor. "They both used humor to shift opinion,
to get people to laugh at themselves and to see the flaws in their
Having recently read Andrew Young’s memoir of the Civil Rights Movement,
she says she was struck recently by how much change was accomplished
through non-violent means. "The songs that were sung then were
a way of soothing the spirit and strengthening and uplifting the vision
of humanity." This, says Hills, is why she still sings.
— Nicole Plett
Cultural Center, 300 Mendham Road, Morristown, 908-665-0745. "Under
American Skies: Historical Events Captured in Folk Songs" featuring
Tom Paxton and Anne Hills. $20. Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m.
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