Could This Land
, from Theo Bleckmann
& The Westerlies
be the first great musical declaration of the Biden Era?
If so, it's probably an accident. When they tracked This Land
in August 2019, Bleckmann and the brass quartet entered the studio with a program of protest songs. But in degree and kind, they are worlds away from the howling fervor of Moor Mother
or the rousing call to the barricades of Gordon Grdina
(Irabbagast Records, 2020), to name two notable cries from the barricades.
The material on those records was largely expressions of personal outrage, but the songs on This Land
, by union organizer Joe Hill ("The Preacher and the Slave"), Woody Guthrie"Tear the Fascists Down," "Two Good Men" and " The Jolly Banker," and even "Look for the Union Label"originally a commercial jingle, are movement songs, expressions of or written to commemorate collective action.
And most it was conceived a very long time ago. So, is This Land
an exercise in nostalgia? Yes and no. The Guthrie songs, that also include "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore," have the rollicking flavor of a town square band concert c. 1915. Similarly, Hill's anticlerical sermon has a medicine-show theatricality so evocative that you can almost smell the brilliantine.
But Bleckmann holds little nostalgia for the ashes of postwar Europe that is the subject of Bertolt Brecht's poem "Bitten der Kinder," recited in English and then sung in German with the devastating solemnity of a graveside oration. Similarly, the cold heart of Riley Mulherkar
's "Looking Out," which swells with Copland-esque, big-sky harmonies, is Bleckmann's reading of Franklin Roosevelt's executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese-American during World War II.
These are flags, planted on uncontested ground. More ambivalent, and more resonant for this uncertain transitional time, are the originals.
"Land" sets a poem about expatriation by the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali to composer and trombonist Andy Clausen
's rich, softly pulsing score. Bleckmann described the subject of his "Another Holiday" as "a song about being without refuge, of being isolated from your family because of whom you love." It is less a protest song than a prayer of sorts for a kinder, less censorious world, a world many of us yearn to see. On Clausen's "Grandmar," Bleckmann's soaring vocalese joins the Westerlies as a fifth voice in a consoling hymn of unity and possibility.
If that's the message that was intended by Bleckmann and the Westerlies, it has arrived at the perfect moment with eloquence and understated power.
The Fiddle and the Drum; Land; Two Good Men; Another Holiday; Tear the Fascists Down; Look for the Union Label; Wade in the Water; The Jolly Banker; Grandmar; In the Sweet By and By / The Preacher and the Slave; I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore; Das Bitten der Kinder (Recitation); Das Bitten der Kinder; Looking Out; Thoughts and Prayers