Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Eric Andersen was part of the emergence of the “singer-songwriter” in the 1960s and, along with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, John Stewart and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Andersen’s work has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown more alluring.
As Andersen’s new record “The Street Was Always There” will attest, his music is born of long beautiful arrows of poetry, sipping from the history of folk music, blues and rock and roll – a true amalgamation of the best of the 60’s Greenwich Village scene.
“Bob Dylan was the first one on the scene in terms of writing songs in a certain kind of poetic way,” Andersen noted in an interview earlier this year. “But [beyond Dylan], my biggest influence in terms of the craft of writing a song was Tom Paxton. Dylan opened things up in terms of theme and poetics, but Paxton opened things up in terms of craft. I heard more of Tom’s stuff early on than I did of anybody else’s music.”
The respect Andersen has for these earlier influences is the subject matter of his new Appleseed Records release. “The Street Was Always There” is a magnificent compilation of cover songs encompassing the most powerful names of 1960s songwriting – covering topical anti-war pieces (Dylan’s “Hard Rain” and Phil Och’s often over-looked “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”), personal introspection (David Blue’s “These 23 Days in September”), and cultural separation (Peter La Farge’s classic “Johnny Half Breed”).
“On the record I’m singing the songs of people I knew on the street,” Andersen muses. “Phil Ochs, Dylan, Paxton, Fred Neil, Peter La Farge. I really think La Farge was the unrecognized genius of the group, and in many ways, he could have been the best.” He pauses momentarily: “This was ground zero. The birth of the singer-songwriter. [“The Street Was Always There”] is not about going down memory road or making a museum piece, but about radiating the vitality of the writers.”
Along “Beat Avenue” (also on Appleseed Records), “The Street Was Always There” marks Andersen’s best material in years, showcasing his silk-swollen voice and piercing inflections; like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, Andersen instinctively knows how to twist a line around his tongue until the words come to life and bleed. “Street” also features a fine backing band, including producer Robert Aaron manning the bass, keyboards and woodwinds; Pete Kennedy on guitar; and Happy Traum chipping in with some haunting acoustic guitar work.
“[This] record is eerie — like there’s an echo in the room,” Andersen says laughing. “The songs resonate with what’s going on, both ‘yesterday’ and today. Looking back, it’s unbelievable to see how rich some of this stuff was. Personally, I never thought I could sing a Phil Och’s song or a Dylan song or a David Blue piece.”
But sing them he does. And the result is absolutely riveting, immersing us in the deepness of each lyric, slipping deep inside the soft jackets of music, winding the melodies around the edges of our consciousness, imprisoning his listeners in the absolute newness of the moment.
“[This was] a fascinating situation for a singer to go into — going into the soul of a song and trying to express it,” Andersen says, his voice trailing off into a transparent whisper. “Dylan was the hardest to do. SO many words! So much language. And so much attitude — twisting and turning. But then there was Fred Neil: in Fred’s work a word is like a thousand pictures. But in the end, it’s about the writers and how redolent these songs are. A lot of feeling comes out of this record, and in the course of that, it sounds like something completely new…”