When this CD came through my letterbox, I thought “that name of Kaplan is not new to me”. And it wasn’t. But I was thinking of Hyman and not Larry, for Hyman Kaplan is of course the central character in the late Leo Rosten’s The Education Of Hyman Kaplan ...one of the most wonderfully funny books ever written, and one I have re-read every five years or so, since I was a teenager.
So indeed, Larry here, was a new name to me. And since his first album for the Folk Legacy label was released as far back as 1993, I cannot help feeling that the loss has been all mine. For the truth is, that I was disarmed and somewhat charmed by this CD.
First, the voice. He sounds like the chap next door: and that is not a put-down in any way. What I mean to say is, he is the very antithesis of the flashy. And judging by the cover photo, he even looks like the chap on the top of the Clapham omnibus..!! And trust me...looks and sound are kind of integral to the overall effect: they merge effortlessly with the largely self-penned songs. The net result is an album that avoids the spotlight of the big stage: rather it takes you on a journey that avoids the highways and neon lit downtowns of America, instead favouring the byways, and with a particular penchant for telling nautical stories. And makes the occasional excursion beyond his own shores, like a trip Down By The Salley Gardens to WB Yeats.
He has corralled some fine musicians into accompanying him: it was great to hear the unmistakeable cello of Abby Newton again. I last heard her when I reviewed a fine CD by the much missed Jean Redpath. Nice to hear the vocals of Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino again too, after many years.
And talking of vocals: I have to say that I was stunned by the sheer beauty of the bass voice of multi-instrumentalist Grey Larsen on One Last Ride To The Durham Fair, my favourite track on the album. And if all this was not enough, Larry has our own Brian McNeill, no less, to perform on the final track, an imaginative song Francis, Dear Sir aimed at Francis James Child...and McNeill’s appearance, let alone those of the other talented performers, gives the album its vital imprimatur for a British audience.
Mind you, Larry will lose some of that street cred with British folkies in his use of the common American lowbrow acapella spelling for the Italian term a cappella...which we Brits still largely adhere to. But then, methinks that spelling itself, is a largely fifth rate art, soon to be superseded for ever by txtspk.
Are there any songs here that will still be sung in 50 years time? Probably not. But that doesn’t damn this album. I have reviewed CDs where the songs will sometimes not be sung in 50 months time, let alone years. But that lack of real legs and future longevity aside, it is still a most interesting album of thoughtful well-constructed songs, that take you on a journey through America’s past, and invoke a mood considerably more balanced, nuanced and softly “spoken” than the shrill cries from both sides that I hear in their presidential debate being replayed on my TV as I write this.
Review of "Furthermore"
Larry Kaplan is a songwriter from Boston with several albums already under his belt. His latest, True Enough, features 14 of his songs and one from the tradition. He sings them here, accompanied by his own guitar and banjo, with several guest musicians including, notably, Grey Larsen, on concertina, harmonium, whistle and vocals.
Larry is an adept storyteller. He weaves the songs in a way that is easily accessible, telling the tale without resorting to being overly wordy or flowery in his lyrics. Similarly, his tunes are not flashy or ostentatious. They do their job in an understated way, creeping into your subconscious and becoming more firmly placed there with each listen. Larry has a voice that is easy to listen to – not, perhaps, the most accomplished you are likely to hear, but perfectly suiting his material. The overall effect is relaxed and gentle, and the stories are very much the focus.
Subject matter ranges from accounts of people, historical events and places, with some political comment and some musings on everyday life, as in Old Stuff.
My favourites are Auction At Enfield, which tells the sad tale of a widow selling her belongings to feed her family (based on an announcement Larry saw on a museum door). Memorial Day Photograph tells the story of one family’s loss. And Flying Horses features some very descriptive music, conjuring images of the carousel and its sounds. His version of the traditional The Two Sisters comes from New England, and has no deaths and a happy ending.
On True Enough, Larry has managed to weave the tales and experiences of everyday people in an easily understood and endearing fashion. Storytelling at its best.
Review of "True Enough"
Larry Kaplan’s new release, True enough, is an exceptional recording and a fine example of what ‘folk music’ can be – an art form with the power to preserve and protect our culture and traditions. More than just entertainment, it’s a force that rivals the muscular, heartfelt work of artists such as Pete Seeger, and as such it stands head and shoulders above so many of its contemporaries.
Larry Kaplan is a fine songwriter – his work has been recorded over the last 45 years (or so) by the likes of Gordon Bok, Anne Dodson and Kallet / Epstein / Cicone. He is also a folklorist, collecting stories from colorful New England history, carefully forging its characters into songs that allow the traditions they embody to be passed along to new generations – traditions that have the power to restore, renew and strengthen our way of life, that otherwise might be lost. These traditions include a wide range of values that arc across our lives – from the ‘practical’ things like a strong work ethic to building a sense of community through the sharing of music and song. Don’t dismiss this latter ingredient as ‘mere entertainment’ – that feeling of belonging enriches lives and encourages folks to reach out across the lines that could divide us, leading us to lend a hand and support to those who could use it, in hard times as well as good.
‘River up, river down’ is a great example. The singer works hard at a trade that has all but disappeared. There are other ways to make a living, but it was a job that needed to be done, and the skills required to keep boats moving and off of the sandbars. He curses the difficulties, but perseveres – he recognizes the need, knows the work, and does his part to keep commerce flowing. ‘John J. Harvey, fireboat’ is another great example of a song about a way of life that is fading, that has been left behind by ‘progress’ – it tells the story of a fireboat that has been taken out of service, then restored by those who love it. Larry relates the history of the vessel from its birth to her heroic efforts after the 9/11 attacks in helping to put out the resulting fires. It’s a bit like people – they may get older, but they usually have something vital that they can still make a valuable contribution.
There are songs recalling Larry’s childhood – and those of others who grew up in the same era – that elicit a warm glow that through the skills of the writer avoids any maudlin echo. ‘Flying horses’ evokes the oldest carousel in America, still in operation on Martha’s Vineyard. The joy he describes causes time to practically stand still – and don’t we all need things to at least slow down a bit now and then? ‘Muddy old river’ also addresses the need to slow down and simply experience our lives at a pace that allows us to absorb and appreciate the world around us.
That world includes strife and conflicts, of course, as well as gentle times, and there are wonderful songs here recalling memories that we find less than idyllic. ‘Memorial Day photograph’ was written at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, telling the story of one soldier among the many represented there. A grown son is visiting the Wall with a photograph of his own newborn son, in order to introduce the child to the grandfather he never knew, memorialized in black granite. I’d place it right up there with another of Larry’s fine songs, ‘The perfect fields of Fredericksburg’. Only in remembering the past can we hold any hope of not repeating it. ‘The flowers of Littlepage Street’ also honors those who have lost their lives in battle – in this case during the American Civil War. It tells the story of the great-granddaughter of a caretaker at the Fredericksburg battlefield, who continues to care for the grave of one of the fallen there, whose family was never found. One more example of the decency and work ethic that have built this nation.
There’s also a wonderful song that combines the importance of knowing our history, maintaining our sense of community and caring played out in a contemporary setting, ‘God bless America’. It’s a gently insistent reminder that we have to remain vigilant if we want the things we value about our nation to be preserved.
The songs here are all finely crafted with great skill and feeling – there’s that work ethic again, a vocation if you will, that calls upon those who have the ability to pass down the traditions and the stories. The players are all stellar, and represent some of the finest New England has to offer. They lend their talents generously and deftly, never overshadowing each other, but rather fitting together the pieces into a seamless whole, shading their offered colors into a complete picture. You can feel their empathy with every well-placed note.
Larry Kaplan is a fine songwriter, one with a caring heart and sharp mind. He’s a giver, and it’s his gift to us all to pass along these stories in the form of songs so that we may, in turn, pass them along, either directly or in the way in which we’re called to spend our lives.
You can read more about Larry, as well as purchase his music on his website. If you love great folk music, I can’t recommend him highly enough.
Folk music to preserve, protect and remember
It’s been over 20 years since Larry Kaplan’s last album (Worth All the Telling, 1993)–and while, as someone who greatly admires his work, that’s far too long, I can also state that the quality of the music on this new album makes it well worth the wait. I’ve always gotten the sense from listening to Larry’s songs that he knows his subjects personally, whether it’s a contemporary he admires (such as the late Sandy Paton, founder of Folk-Legacy Records, for whom “Echo on the Mountain” was written) or people from the rich history of New England. He has a deep, natural affinity for their struggles, joys and sorrows, and for the lives they have lived.
“Feet on the Bluff,” which leads off this great album, is made up of musings of a farmer whose livelihood is affected by the floods that come from time to time to wash away his hard work. It harkens back to “Aroostook” on Worth All the Telling–both songs feature a character who has his eyes wide open to the hardships he faces, but who at the same time is both dedicated and resigned to carrying on. Disaster and plenty are two sides of the same coin; it’s all part of life and reality. History from a different angle–that of the Native Americans–offers powerful insight to life’s events and meanings in “Joshua’s Rock,” as Chief Attawanhood (known by the settlers as “Chief Joseph”) sits on a cliff he used to call his own and surveys the land that he loves.
“Emma’s Attic” is a great example of how Larry gets inside his subjects. The lyrics paint a vivid (if impressionistic) picture of a life viewed through the objects they have chosen to keep and store away over the course of their existence. Pictures of aunts and uncles down at the shore mothers and daughters, and one of her father when she was just four Long-winded letters from a restless young man
pleading to take her away from this place to a different land…
A list such as that contained in this song blossoms into a poignant glimpse of the days of a real person’s life. Many of Larry’s songs deal with the sea, and with those who make their living upon it. “Too Late for the Breaking Yard” and “Selling of the Isabel” relate stories of ships past their prime; “Bushnell’s Infernal Machine” is the tale of the first U.S. submarine, narrated here in the words of Ezra Lee, who piloted the ungainly vessel in the Revolutionary War. It was a frightening task, but there is humor here as well. “The Catherine Doyle” and “Cape Breton (Yes, I’m Coming Home)” reflect the voices of sailors who are ready to be done with the sea, and long to come home.
Two of the most moving songs on the album address lives many years apart. “Teaching My Son How to Sail” is about just that–passing on skills and, hopefully, the love of the sea, to the next generation, and finding, hopefully, a bit of sanctuary and refuge and bonding in the process. “When We Danced at the Farewell Ball” recounts the true story of a couple who, as teenagers, shared a dance at a ball commemorating the forced relocation of four towns that were to be inundated by the Quabbin Reservoir. The ball was in 1938, and they danced again at the Reunion Ball in 2013.
There are other songs on the disc, as well, and they’re all touching and powerful at the same time, but never maudlin. Accompanying himself beautifully on guitar, banjo and harmonica, Kaplan delivers these stories–glimpses into lives past and present–gently and honestly. The writing is skillful and heartfelt, and the listener will, I have no doubt, come away richer for the experience. This is a recording that any lover of wonderfully well-crafted songs should not be without. Larry tells me he has enough songs for a third CD, and that he’s already begun working on it. Personally, I can’t wait. One can never have too much of this sort of good thing.
Folk music to preserve, protect and remember
“Larry has a very gentle, laid back style accompanied by his almost genius-level playing on his guitar. His set included some classic songs by other folk like 'Down by the Sally Gardens' and one of the many different versions of 'The Two Sisters'. But I reckon his real strength lies in his own songs.
A number of them reflect his love of sailing and the sea. He sang about some of the characters he has known over the years including one about an old man, the former captain of a windjammer, saying a final farewell to his boat. He captures the nostalgia and depth of feeling and loss very well.
Another of his songs pays tribute to Francis James Child, the famous collector of ballads.
He also delves into some nostalgia of his own with a song about family gatherings when he had the job of recording the older generation singing. He did this on an old reel to reel tape recorder and so has preserved many traditional songs for posterity... a very valuable archive!
Larry will be back again, I am entirely sure.
Leith Folk Club
One of the best song-makers in the folk song revival."
-Sandy Paton, Folk Legacy Records
"This is ‘Folk Music’ in the truest sense of the term, ballads telling stories of real people, past and present, seemingly simple but truly profound observations of history and contemporary life and the people who live it. The fact that these songs are contemporarily written—and written so well— illustrates how the tradition can be taken into the hands of a skilled songsmith, with love, respect, and care, and passed along to the listener with the values and lessons they embody."
No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music
With his masterful attention to detail, poetic turns of phrase, and lilting musical sensibility, Larry Kaplan transports us to lives and times, both far in the past and contemporary. Larry has the ability to peer insightfully into the past, making it current for all of us, distilling the struggles, yearning and mournings of life into tuneful nuggets of history, deeply personal, and therefore recognizable as our own.
"Writes so honestly about people, he makes you feel a part of their lives...Kaplan tells delightful stories. His music is a rare find."
- New England Folk Almanac Cambridge, Mass.
"[His] mastery of music, song and storytelling is the finest I have heard. One of the best folk music artists I know…."
-Gery Deugaw, Archivist GEST Songs Of Newfoundland And Labrador
Some of the most finely-crafted songs in modern folk music….stunningly painted portraits of life in the North Atlantic seaboard states."
- No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music
"Larry Kaplan is known best as a talented song maker…but as our audience discovered, in concert, Larry can weave those songs and tunes together with the stories behind them into a beautiful evening of music that will be long and fondly remembered by all."
--Ed Brown, The ‘U’N’I Coffeehouse, Springfield, Mass
"Strong voice, strong stories. His songs are New England through and through. His style is never cluttered or overwrought despite the difficult topics he explores. The charm of Kaplan is the beauty he sees in the ordinary. He gives a voice to those who are often not heard.
--Kelly Stimmell, Monadnock, Ledger, NH.
"Lovely ballads and stories told in songs; real people, dealing with their good times and hard times."
--Faith Petric, San Francisco
"Larry Kaplan's songwriting is what every songwriter should aspire to. He doesn't let himself get in the way. Just paints beautiful pictures of real landscapes, real people, real emotions in a way that always touches me deeply. What a gift!"
- Kathy Westra Folklore Society of Greater Washington, D.C.
"His songs are stories woven like my grandmother’s hand-made quilts… One of my favorite songwriters of all time."
--Wanda Fischer, National Public Radio, WAMC, Albany, NY
"His tales are captivating with pleasing voice accompanied by excellent musicianship. There’s a naturalness and ease here, missing from many recordings, that draws you in to the many fine stories…."
--Rich Warren, “The Midnight Special” (Favorite CDs of the past 22 years), WFMT, Chicago