William Elliott Whitmore: “Field Songs”
I’ve been meaning to say a few words about this, a very fine record that’s been spending time on the box for a few weeks now, but the words for this music have been eluding my grasp—that is, until today, when Amanda Petrusich’s lovely review unburdened me from the weight of needless comparisons and historic references I’d been struggling to put into perspective. Amanda’s review is noteworthy if for no other reason than it is the only one I’ve come across to completely fail to mention Woody Guthrie, an omission that I find to be both legitimate and rather freeing. Instead of trying to trace a straight line back from William Elliott Whitmore to his folksy antecedents, I realize that it makes more sense to locate him as just one thread in a much wider tapestry of folk song—or, as the title of this one succinctly puts if, Field Songs.
The Woody namedrop would be handy only insofar as it’s good shorthand for topical folksongs, a label that works for all eight of the cuts here; based on that criteria, I could just as easily name, say, Billy Bragg, and of course where there’s a Guthrie reference there’s a built-in nod to Dylan. But Whitmore’s songs suggest deeper roots; in fact, he is the rare folksinger and songwriter who sounds like he could have predated Dylan, or been one of his contemporaries in the Greenwich scene.
The eight songs here transcend era and genre, and, despite their topicality, they even transcend contemporary politics—but that’s not to say they don’t speak to them. Whitmore can be an outspoken guy. His last album (and first for the esteemed ANTI- label, which also released Field Songs) began with an indignant commentary on George Bush (opening line: “It’s a goddamn shame what’s going on”). Field Songs has no references to modern life, really; these are literally songs about working in the fields, about hard labor and simple pleasures and the unvarnished truth about dying.
And yet: It is an even more radical and yes, political album than Animals in the Dark was. These songs are deliberate—even pointed—in their rejection of any kind of salvation from the government or from modern convenience; they are resolute in a kind of agrarian dream, where the simple acts of work in the field are the only earthly comfort or satisfaction any of us could need.
Whitmore delivers these songs in a soulful, craggy baritone that seems to have contain entire worlds within its folds, worlds of history and experience that belie his mere 33 years of life. He plays a banjo and is accompanied, here and there, by a kick drum—nothing more. The songs are delivered without sentiment, and without artifice; you believe, even if you know nothing of Whitmore’s personal life, that these field songs were indeed written after a day in the field, and when he warns you about getting a sunburn you take it at face value, as a bit of practical advice from an old farmhand and not some kind of deeper metaphor.
The benefit of Whitmore’s austere approach is that his simple songs exist outside of time and convention—they are folk songs, I reckon, but just as much cowboy songs or campfire songs; more to the point, he is able to harness history and topicality in ways that don’t come across as polemics so much as honest expressions of ideals. Here’s a guy who bemoans what we lost when we won the West, who points to Custer’s frontier campaigns as historic signifiers and identifies with the Native American armies—and he does it all without sounding like a curmudgeon or a hippy, but as an everyman raising his voice in spirited support of a life he loves and fears is disappearing.
The payoff is that when he invites the listener to unburden himself, or bids us rally behind him and “do something impossible,” it’s not cloying or sentimental, but fiercely and exhilaratingly true. It’s a testament to the weathered, rooted power of this kind of bullshit-free folk music—music that ultimately shuns whatever conventions or labels we might try to impose on it.