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We Need Our Troubadours – A Music and Poetry Review

June 15, 2018

A modern-day folksinger reminds us of our progressive social traditions

John Paul O’Connor, Half the Truth: Poems(Valdosta, Georgia: Snake-Nation-Press, 2016) Orders:  http://www.snakenationpress.org/product/half-the-truth/.

John O’Connor, Rare Songs, Hegel Creek Music, 2017, www.johnpauloconnor.com. Orders: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/johnoconnor3.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, I was sitting on some grass in a Vancouver park not far from a makeshift stage waiting for a folk concert to begin. There would be many protest songs sung that day, many against the Vietnam War. And amidst those there were some that sang of love and acts of kindness.

A man with a guitar sat down beside me, lit a joint, and passed it to me. “Hi, my name’s Phil. What’s yours?” We chatted for a while. Then he got up and headed toward the stage. I hadn’t heard the announcement of the next performer that day. Maybe it was the dope. Maybe it was my new friend.

In a few moments, Phil Ochs stood at the mike and began to sing Mississippi Find Yourself Another Country to Belong To. He went on, of course, singing out his heart and his anger.

I’ll never forget that moment and ever since then I’ve love listening to old folk-singing troubadours. People like Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and several others. They built a tradition of political commentary that sometimes seems all but forgotten today.

On an international scale, Dylan carried it on for a time. So did Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and others. But the good old days, when a singer stood up with his or her guitar and entertained a small room full of folk music fans, sometimes seem long gone.

Hang on a fingerpickin’ minute! The other night I walked into what some might have thought was a time warp when I attended an intimate concert by a practicing folkie named John O’Connor.

With a song list on the floor, a local brew on a chair, and a book of his poems at the ready, O’Connor proceeded to take us back to a time when songs were penned for a reason, to speak to the world about the ills we face, to make us laugh at our own foibles.

O’Connor is a poet with an award-winning volume to his credit. He has a new CD out, his first in 20 years, and this one not only features his fine writings, but also displays the work of several expert New York studio musicians.

What I find compelling about O’Connor’s work, both music and poetry, is his honesty. He looks at the world with sad but angry eyes as he comments on climate change, the current rise of the right, and poverty.

Waiting, which he calls “A song of revolution,” captures some of O’Connor’s sense of injustice:

“There’s a hand on the trigger, there’s a hand on the gun
There’s a hand on the floor where the blood has run
There’s a hand on the face buried deep in grief
For the life of a child that was so brief.”

He spent some of his youth in Iowa and the songs he sang that night were about his early days as a factory worker, unskilled labourer, union organizer, and eventually a folk singer. The songs touch “something core inside me and the trail I have left crisscrossing the American continent,” he says.

He draws on his everyday American experiences, revealing a sensitivity to the plight of others who have travelled down unlucky roads. Referring to love affairs and troubled marriages, he sometimes adds a melancholy rift. But mostly these are songs and poems filled with compassion that share life experiences good and bad.

“Maybe because we’re a little drunk

we reach to touch one another with our open palms,

or the place in the middle of the back just below

the neck. Or maybe because it’s pouring day

and what was laid today will harden and nothing

in this world or any other will change that.”

There’s something historic about listening to a travelling musician sing truth to the world. O’Connor, now 68, is such a musician, offering us his thoughts and his life lessons before he ambles down the road to the next coffee house, picket line, or microbrew pub.

He’s proof that we need our troubadours more than ever.

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