The Mindful Bard – Greg Brown, Yellow Dog

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

CD: Greg Brown, Yellow Dog

Release date: 2007

Label: Earthwork Music, Michigan

Recorded live in 2005 at Peterson Auditorium, Ishpeming, MI

Here is a performer who seems to have walked every harrowing step of his talk. Unlike more famous celebrity do-gooders who rake in far more hay devoting far less of their time to causes, Brown has formed deep bonds with the natural spaces he helps protect. In this case, all profits from Yellow Dog go to a coalition dedicated to protecting Michigan’s Yellow Dog River from a proposed sulfide mine.

It’s risky to be brazenly political in folk music, which is at least implicitly political by definition. Too many folkies have produced songs that are unlistenable by virtue of a total sacrifice of art to dogma. Others have abandoned social concern for navel-gazing. But globalization now threatens us in myriad subtle ways at every level of our lives whether or not we care to acknowledge it, which is why we need to listen carefully to those able to deliver an urgent dispatch without sounding as sanctimonious as raw-food vegans at a neighbourhood barbecue. And Greg Brown does it so well; anger, for example, over the hellish greed and subterfuge of government and big business is tempered by visions of grandma’s pickle jars and the sweet, loving world that danced and glowed around them.

Greg Brown’s stroke of genius (if it was genius and not just a lucky stab) in this concert was to sing a bunch of his notebook songs, which I assume means bits of journaling that never got recorded. This soul-plumbing vulnerability is one element that renders the personal political and the political personally meaningful.

Another element is the balancing of ire with visions of blessedness. In Yellow Dog a clear summons to look after people and places instead of killing or ravaging them is qualified by poignant reflections on the manifold delights of rural community.

Significant to the edification of we mindful bards is the way Brown presents the relationship between the male and the female. Hark back to Virginia Woolf, who speculates, in A Room of One’s Own, that perhaps ?the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.?

And now listen to Brown’s words from ?All of Those Things?:

I’m work, I’m a toy,
I’m a girl, I’m a boy,
Irritation and joy.
I’m all of those things with my baby.

Like all Brown’s music, Yellow Dog makes you want to turn to the men in your life and say, ?You see? You can be both whole and broken. You can have a love relationship that is clean and dirty at the same time. So let’s, shall we??

Here again are love songs without guile, love songs which lay the armour by, whose purpose is not to sexually exploit women with lies, bravado, or a carefully contrived grovelling. That raw, hurting, mating call that you hear in R.L. Burnside is here, as is a level of emotional excavation I’ve only heard in Joni Mitchell’s songs. But more blessed than these is the chance to see into a mind ripe with generative ambiguity, to commune with a self whose sorrows have dug deeper holes for its joys, and to listen to that lovely baritone, that sweet guitar.

The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to bard@voicemagazine.org. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.

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