The biggest danger with nostalgia is the way it can distort your perceptions of quality. That which you remember as being oh so wonderful from years gone by when seen, tasted, or heard today turns out to be not only not as good as you remembered thinking, but actually damned awful.
The matter gets even more complicated if emotions are involved: I lost my virginity to that song makes a piece of music loom large in your life. You've carried the song and the memory around with you for years as a cherished moment until one day you hear the song again and find out it was a piece of shit, which also causes you to remember that your first sex was actually quite bad.
So it's a dangerous thing to go messing around with the past when it comes to music, sometimes these things are better left as memories, vague, warm and fuzzy. But sometimes the risk is worth taking because the memory or the song, or the person singing it, is just so vivid that you want to hear him or her singing just one more time. Even if it ruins the song for you it won't matter because at least you'll be able to resolve how you feel about it.
I had all these feelings running through my head, and heart, when I put a long lost recording of a live concert of Steve Goodman in my CD player. The fact that it was from the same year, 1978, that I had last seen him performing myself made the nostalgia even more thick on the ground. Putting Live At The Earl Of Old Town in my player was an extreme act of faith on my part.
Thankfully my faith in Steve Goodman was rewarded. He was and truly is still amazing to listen to. Unfortunately the only way you are going to hear him in concert anymore is on discs like this, because Steve has been dead since 1984. In fact he was already suffering from the Leukemia that was going to kill him in 1978 when he gave those concerts.
It is one of the horrible ironies in life that just as he was finally gaining recognition outside of his hometown of Chicago that this would happen. But that night in the Earl of Old Town, a club in Chicago, there is no way you could have told there was anything wrong with him. The performance that came through my cheap little CD player was as an energetic and exhilarating gig as I've heard on any live disc before.
The people who call themselves folk musicians these days have forgotten how to have fun. They take themselves and their material all too damn seriously, and they seem to have forgotten the "folk" who it was written for. Nobody needs another song about hardship.
Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of great hardship songs, so did Oddeta; sing us a couple of their tunes if you're so intent on crying about the state of the world, because they got it covered. Why do you think that Arlo Guthrie only writes one or two songs a year? There are thousands of wonderful songs out there waiting to be sung that tell the stories that need to be told. Most anything written now will just be redundant.
But songs that make people happy, or songs that bring a smile to a face; we can always use more of those. That doesn't mean live in denial, what it means is recognise that being a folk singer doesn't mean you have to be full of doom and gloom all the time, or singing about your feelings every other song. Look outside of yourself for a second, at the folk who folk music is for.
Of the seventeen songs on Live At The Earl Of Old Town only eight are Goodman originals, and one of them he co-wrote with Shel Silverstein. ("What Have You Done For Me Lately") Throughout the set he's sprinkled songs that he likes, classics and otherwise. I mean what social significance is there to singing "Red, Red, Robin" by Harry Woods, "Rockin' Robin" by Jesse Thomas, or making up silly lyrics about the Chicago Cubs and singing them to the tune of "When The Saints Go Marching In".
None whatsoever, except to give people something to enjoy, to bring a spark into people's lives with music about topics they can identify with. Sure there's room for songs about emotions in there, but they have to be universal, and you can't inundate people with them. That's not what's it all about. Steve understood that; he could write a song that would break your heart, and his very next number would lift your spirits up high into the sky.
In the hands of a person who is more concerned about being a Performer instead of a singer it has the potential to become sugar water. But Steve just lets the words speak for themselves, doesn't try to increase their emotional impact through any extraneous emoting, and it's a beautiful little song because of that.
Steve is also a gifted guitar player, and that comes across on this live disc a lot more than it usually does on his studio recordings. That seems to be the one indulgence he allows himself when performing, showing off some hot licks. He takes an old favourite of his "The Lincoln Park Pirates" (a song about a car towing company with visions of power – hauling the planes parked at O'Hare airport into impound is a little extreme) and makes it an upbeat flamenco number complete with flourishes and staccato beats. But it doesn't detract form the song, just makes it that much more enjoyable.
Probably the song of Steve's that everyone knows is the song made famous by Arlo Guthrie, "City Of New Orleans". Arlo used to introduce it by giving updates on Steve's battle with Leukemia, but since Steve died he now tells the story of how he first heard the song. Steve had approached him in a bar and asked if he could sing him a song. Arlo said buy me a beer and I'll listen as long as I'm drinking. He played him "City Of New Orleans" and Arlo, as he puts it, feeling like an asshole, asked for the rights to play it.
What's amazing about hearing Steve sing it is that I always forget that he wrote it as a bluegrass song. So aside from the lyrics, the song is almost completely different from the way Arlo sings it. I wouldn't say that either version is better than the other, because I like them each equally well for different reasons.
On this night, Live At The Earl Of Old Town Steve was joined by some truly wonderful players who you might have heard of (I hadn't before this recording): Corky Siegle on harmonica and percussion, Hugh McDonald on bass, Jethro Burns on mandolin, and David Amram on pennywhistle and percussion.
Half the time they haven't rehearsed the songs, they just pop up on stage to play, but you couldn't tell that from listening as they soar right through all the songs with precision and grace. Jethro Burns in particular is amazing on mandolin, making the strings sing and the notes dance.
Sometime in early 2007 there's a biography of Steve Goodman being published, Face The Music is the projected title I believe, and I'm sure it will be a great project as the writer has done extensive research and interviewing. But for me when you're talking about a musician, the true story of their life is written in their music and how well it stands the test of time.
Steve Goodman's music has managed to stay on it's own feet now for close to forty years without anybody's help. This release of Live At The Earl Of Old Town confirms that. If you're not familiar with Steve's work, or the work of a good modern folk singer, then this is one disc that you should give a listen to. If you are a fan of Steve' from before, buy this – it's like having him stop by and giving you a personal concert.
Pretty good for someone who has been dead for twenty-two years.
(Originally posted September 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.