Peter La Farge – On the Warpath – 1965 – Folkways

Peter La Farge - On  the Warpath - 1965 - Folkways

I was initially aware of Peter La Farge from listening to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover his songs and from reading about him in biographies on those two artists. The first recordings I heard of his were this album and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow which I bought when I was about 19 years old from Yesterday and Today Records, a shop that was in Parramatta which specialized in country records but also had some folk, blues and 60s psycedelia. They were both on one CD released by Bear Family Records.

There was a precision to Peter’s writing that I liked immediately, the songs were so well crafted. There was also something in his voice I could immediately relate to and that I have never heard before or since. Listening to Peter taught me a lot as a singer. I liked his rough hewn playing style too.

It took me about 18 years to get a copy of this on vinyl. Peter La Farge records aren’t exactly easy to find in Australia. In all my years of trawling through second hand record shops, op shops and specialty record stores I only ever found one album on of his on vinyl (a reissue of ‘Sings Women Blues’ on Verve) at Yesterday and Today Records back in the 90s and one album that had a track of his (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow on An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music, Folkways) at Discovery Records in Hornsby, again back in the 90s. In both of those instances I didn’t have the money to buy them at the time so I just looked at the covers and had a read of the song titles and wished I could afford them and in both instances I went back a couple of days later to buy them when I had the money but they were sold already. It’s funny when I can remember exactly where I saw records that I didn’t even get to buy.

Ebay has altered my record buying habits lately and I now mainly shop online. I found this album there. It took about three weeks to ship to me and I was so happy to see that the cover was in mint condition and that the record had hardly been played. This is probably my favourite album cover. The photograph by David Gahr and the design by Ronald Clyne is striking. It hits the right balance of anger, defiance and pride. Like all Folkways LPs it is cheaply manufactured but it is designed really well and it comes with a nice booklet packed with notes, lyrics and musical notation of the songs.

This was the final album from Peter La Farge. He made five albums in five years. His first was on CBS and the rest were on Folkways. They are all good. He was an actor, a playwright, a rodeo rider, artist and a Korean war veteran. He committed suicide in October 1965. He was 34 years old. He packed a lot into a short life.

If you want to hear his recordings, four of his albums are available from Smithsonian Folkways and if you want to find out more about Peter, film maker Sandra Hale Schulman has made a documentary about him,┬áThe Ballad of Peter La Farge and she’s written a biography Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge.

Johnny Cash – American Recordings – 1994 – American Recordings

jc-american

For me this album, along with Dylan’s World Gone Wrong, signalled that something different was happening in the 90s. Things were going back to basics. This record, like World Gone Wrong, is totally solo and raw, stripped down to the bone. Cash was a basic guitarist and he proved that technique isn’t everything. In fact his lack of technique as a player worked for the songs, kept them stark and unadorned. Back when I saw him perform in Sydney he played 3 songs from this, it hadn’t been released yet. The show was mostly lacklustre actually, kind of awkward and tired (though June Carter’s set was pretty good and Kris Kristofferson would have been great if he’d killed the drum machine). But when Johnny played three songs solo, Let the Train Blow the Whistle, Bird on the Wire and, if memory serves me correctly, Down there by the Train, it was spellbinding. The show was worth it just for those three songs. He told the audience that he’d recorded this new album, that it was just him and his guitar and that he was very happy with it. From what I heard that night I knew it was going to be good. Once those three songs were over it went back to being an awkward show. The album cover to this record was photographed in Australia by Andy Earl in the same week as I saw Johnny perform. The evocative image fits perfectly with the music. After this record came out Cash was considered cool again. Funny, a lot of those people who derided me for liking Johnny Cash because he was “country crap” or whatever started to like him later in the 90s and conveniently forgot that they ever hated him. What is that about? A couple of years later I got to meet Johnny Cash’s drummer W.S. Holland in Circular Quay when he was touring with Cash and Willie Nelson. My friend Ruben was busking, playing African rhythms hitting the snare and the ground with a couple of sticks. I stopped to talk to Ruben for a bit. W.S. Holland came and put $5 in Ruben’s hat and introduced himself. He told Ruben that he liked what he was doing. He got into technical drum talk. We chatted for a bit. He boasted a lot about his career and achievements but yeah, if you played on the original Blue Suede Shoes with Carl Perkins you’d have a right to boast. It was nice to meet him.