FAME Review: Ruthann Friedman - Chinatown
Ruthann Friedman - Chinatown


Ruthann Friedman

Available from Amazon.com.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

I know a number of record collectors but, among them, I'm the only one with a copy of Ruthann Friedman's 1970 Warner-Reprise Constant Companion. I store it in among a small collection of overlooked and obscure period one-off LPs—Elyse Weinberg, Tax Free, Masters of the Airwaves, Bob Sauls, etc.—because there's a certain something each one possesses even though the musics can be pretty disparate. The only song Friedman was ever really known for was the huge hit she penned for The Association, Windy. Nonetheless, the troubadoress hung with The Jefferson Airplane, Van Dyke Parks, Country Joe and his piscines, David Crosby, Janis Joplin, and others in the old Haight / L.A. scenes. After Companion, she traveled here and there, started the humorous but successful 'Easy Writer' portable stationery kit but was forced out of business by the Easy Writer Rolling Paper company itself, the institute apparently packed with hippies in the grips a frigid sense of humor. She then disappeared. Issue 7 of Galactic Zoo Dossier released a trading card of her, referring to Friedman as epitomizing "the West Coast darkening hippie trip", an apt coinage, but none knew what was what regarding her whereabouts. All and sundry were convinced we'd heard the last of Ruthann decades ago. Enter Devendra Banhart.

Banhart never got his freak on, though, 'cause he was born that way. He, Vetiver, and a congeries of aesthetically avid oddball modern musos have proven to be connoisseurs of the undeservedly forgotten and ignominiously ignored, Banhart more persuaded in that direction than probably anyone else in the world. 'Twas he who brought Friedman out from the shadows, an action which led to this CD of her still off-kilter, Humanistically cynical, worldly ditties, traits very aptly demonstrated right from the very beginning, in That's What I Remember, a reminiscence on youth and other days gone by, wryly recalled, though perhaps not always in entirely accurate terms (purposely and humorously so), other times dead on, always with affection mixed with rue and a sigh.

That Friedman didn't follow up Companion with more releases is a bummer, but her sound now is sometimes like Melanie Safka's, other times akin to later Joan Baez, then a trifle similar to Dory Previn mixed with Paul Williams (listen to Friedman's Chinatown cut) with snatches of Harry Chapin thrown in but always solidly in the folk tradition, reminding us, as everything in sight hybridizes into new forms, where we came from. Van Dyke Parks sits in on four cuts, and Ruthann is grateful to Jackson Brown for letting her freeload in his studio…though, really, we should all be thanking him for that. Aaron Rubenson shines everywhere on dobro, guitar, lap steel, banjo, and feedback (well, of course!), and the whole gig is relaxing, entertaining, absorbing, and intriguing.

Gone is the high sweet honey-bee voice of youth, replaced by a maturer more knowing sound dulcet with abundant shades and inflections made all the more poignant by the lyrics. Our War is sonically a cross between Jefferson Airplane's Triad and America's Horse with No Name but speaks of things far removed from the demesnes of either, as the title suggests. Though significantly different, Chinatown is every inch as good as her timelost obscurity and probably better. Yes, I think it IS better, showing an artist at full maturity but with zero ego or regrets alongside direct and indirect trashings of the social mechanisms that have all along urged one and all to soft-peddle reality. The disc is a zen statement without all the churchy stuffiness of that wonderful but modernly fulla shit Eastern cult. It's an album that, eschewing all obliquities, asks the listener to explain what IS and what has been, rather than dwelling on soapy inanities.and it does this with a grin and a wink.

Track List:

  • That's What I Remember
  • Chinatown
  • What a Joy
  • Our War
  • Springhill Mining Disaster
  • iPod
  • All I Have
  • Southern Comfortable
  • The End
  • The Tides
  • Sideshow
All songs written by Ruthann Friedman except
Springhill Mining Disaster (Peggy Seeger).

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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