Under American Skies
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Political folk gained a foothold back in the 1930s when American Communists decided that folk music would be their best bet to carry their message to the people. Woody Guthrie's self-penned songs about unions and dust bowls, welded to borrowed tunes, gave the political song respect. The working class, however, often based in new urban centers, never really appreciated the rural folk songs. This meant that left-leaning singers often sang for free at small gatherings made up of Communist Party officials and union members. During the early Sixties this changed. A protest movement, built around issues relating to Vietnam and civil rights, gave birth to an audience for a new group of political songsters like Phil Ochs, Peter LaFarge, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. While the movement faded as the '60s waned, a number of songwriters continued to ply their political wares into the new millennium.
Tom Paxton and Anne Hills are the type of political songwriters that the Old Left would have been proud of. When most singer-songwriters plugged in and started gazing at their navels, Paxton and Hills remained true to causes great and small. Well- known and respected, they choose to put these causes - the death penalty, environmentalism, and poverty - forward, and not themselves.
The heart and soul of Under American Skies lies in songs that passionately take up the causes of the dispossessed. Under American Skies opens with bluesy harmonica and a steady half-sung, half-spoken rap by Hills, unfolding a violent, though familiar tale. When a girl grows up with her father's beatings and a school system that ignores her bruises, she quickly learns that the world "was bitter and cold/she was only a child/but she was already old/family ties ... under American skies." There Goes the Mountain offers a poetic appeal for better treatment of the natural environment, while Kate Wolf's "Links in the Chain" optimistically pictures the historical connection between everyone who fights the good fight. There are also moving versions of Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday" and Tom Russells' Manzanar, a song about the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Paxton and Hills add a number of tuneful, romantic songs that lighten the heavy load. Their voices work well together and the simple arrangements perfectly underline the material. In "Follow that Road," the singer reminds a friend how to find him, while "Getting' Up Early" recalls a simple time and a fondly remembered lover. There's a lively take on Bob Gibson's classic, Well, Well, Well, and as a special treat, a song recorded with Gibson in the '80s, And Lovin' You.
Under American Skies also offers a different spin on patriotism. There's beauty in the American landscape in "Follow that Road," and a demonstration that progress has been made in "Links in the Chain." But the title cut reminds one of how much America and Americans have fallen short. Americans, Paxton and Hills insist, are responsible for one another, and to not take that responsibility seriously is to be unpatriotic. It may seem strange to many cynics that singers like Paxton and Hills, unlike a worldly-wise Bob Dylan, retain their innocence. They're smart enough to know that songs alone can't solve the problems of the world, still, they have faith that songs can make a difference, and as long as they keep singing, they're doing their part to make changes. Under American Skies is a stirring recording, guaranteed to inspire those who fight for and believe in a more just world and a truly patriotic America.