A folk music mainstay, Joel Rafael, helps keep the genre alive.
Joel Rafael plays The Mansion on O on June 2nd (Photo courtesy Pino Bertelli)
Ever’body might be just one big soul,/Well it looks that a-way to me.
Those are Woody Guthrie’s words from “Tom Joad,” a ballad he wrote based on the main character in “The Grapes of Wrath.” And that one lyric might just perfectly encompass folk music in general. One big soul, everyone talking about things that shake their inner self, of things that either need to change or remain the same.
Joel Rafael has his own description for folk, one that you might have heard Guthrie use himself.
“(Folk music’s) kinda like a stream that runs along,” Rafael told me from his home in California. “It gets drier in some places along the way; you’ll see a creek bed, you don’t see any water, but the creek bed is there, and maybe the water is down under the water table somewhere under the ground. Further down the creek bed, all of a sudden it pops out of a little spring somewhere, and there’s a flow and it gets bigger, goes down the hill and picks up speed. That’s how I see folk music through time.”
Rafael is an admitted and reverent disciple of Guthrie, and for years has been one of America’s most intimate and lasting interpreters of his work. He is also one of those longtime American folk music treasures that might fall under your radar, unless you’re an aficionado of the genre, or someone like Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, David Crosby, Graham Nash or Kris Kristofferson, who are a few of the many music luminaries who deeply respect Rafael and have shared the stage and studio with him over the years. Rafael is someone whose music embodies what folk music is all about: meaningful and stunning stories about people, places and events that stay with you long after you’ve heard them. He brought his songs, and those of his mentors, to Washington in a rare solo performance at the Mansion on O on June 2nd to benefit the O Street Museum Foundation.
As a kid in the ’60s, Rafael had the opportunity, thanks mainly to the radio, to absorb more and more folk music, especially as its popularity grew by leaps and bounds.
“I think it was really available, when I encountered it, because of the time and place that I grew up in,” the affable 66-year-old Rafael said. “I was already playing some music because we had a really good school band program, and I had been listening to a lot of records that my parents had. But when I was like 12 or 13, that’s right about the time [that] some people call the “Folk Music Scare of the ’60s.” It was kind of cynical or sarcastic, but basically all of a sudden they were playing folk music on the radio; nobody could believe it. The Weavers were getting played, the Kingston Trio broke through with the Tom Dooley song, and then Peter Paul and Mary broke through with ‘Blowin in The Wind.’ I remember hearing Joan Baez, probably when I was a freshman in high school, do the Phil Ochs song ‘There But For Fortune.’ It just occurred to me that [picking up a guitar] was something that was not that difficult; it’s something a lot of people can do.”
It took a little convincing, and a day trip to Mexico, for Rafael to pick up his first guitar and really get things rolling.
“I basically begged my parents to take me down to Tijuana, which was just a half-day drive from where we lived, because I had heard that you could get a guitar down there for $30 or $40. They finally relented and we went down there and I had no idea how to pick out a guitar. But, we picked one out and that’s when I learned my first few chords, on that guitar.”
The dynamic of older college kids going to college and bringing music back home was integral to Rafael’s musical education and, along with that Mexican guitar purchase, galvanized his musical path.
“The thing that was beautiful about the [folk] movement was that as a kid, I was kind of being influenced by kids older than me that had gone off to college and had gotten a little bit more into the folk thing. These college kids would come back on the weekends and they’d have a job giving guitar lessons. They were like heroes to us because they knew these songs like ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone,’ ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ and ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It was a really exciting time for a kid that was just becoming a teenager and making that transition.”
As the folk music movement was building momentum around him, Rafael realized that it was the meaning of the songs that really drew him to the genre, especially the unforgettable ones by one or two folk music legends in particular.
“When I first learned songs, some of the most powerful ones were Woody Guthrie songs,” said Rafael. “And then Bob Dylan came along. A lot of his stuff was out of the Woody songbook, but with Bob’s words put to it. At the same time, as a kid, I was experiencing different writers, different songs, different groups; some of them were traditional, some were modern. What I ended up with was sorting out the stuff that didn’t mean as much to me and zoning into the stuff that seemed more important and had some of those touchstone things that go with a great performance; you just kind of feel it inside. I was drawn to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie because I made the connection.”
Rafael’s latest record “Baladista” is a beautifully-written, sweet-sounding collection of songs that are a fitting tribute to Rafael’s deep talents, and to those who influenced him. In fact, one song from the record has a stunningly deep meaning in the history of not only folk music, but U.S. history as well.
“A song I’d written on the record is called ‘El Bracero’ and it’s based on an experience I had two years ago when they dedicated a headstone on the mass grave of the 28 victims from Woody Guthrie’s song, ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ or ‘Deportee.’ They got the names of all those victims who had up until then had only been known by the name ‘deportees.’ A couple of guys up in Central Valley decided to do some research, find the names and then raise some money for a concert to put a headstone on that grave. When I heard about that, I went up there and met a guy named Juan Martinez, who had been a bodyguard for Cesar Chavez during the boycott. He told me about an event he was coordinating, like two weeks later, to dedicate a portion of California and US 1 as the Bracero Memorial Highway, because the victims of the plane crash in Woody’s song were not undocumented workers, like everybody thought. They were actually in the States legally working under contract under the Bracero program, which is a program that was instituted around the beginning of World War II to supplement the labor force in the agricultural areas of our country. The Braceros, as he pointed out to me, actually grew the food during that time for the nation, for the troops, for the allies and even for the prisoners of war. His whole goal was to get this portion of the highway dedicated and have the Braceros deputized. It just really touched me, getting educated about it after having played this Woody Guthrie song for, like, the entire time I’ve been playing music. I was inspired to write a song about the Braceros.”
As for the state of folk music today, Rafael feels that it’s in a good place because young people understand it’s legacy, how important a legacy it is to maintain and that its purpose is always to ring loud about what’s going in the world. And with a likely wink and a smile, Rafael sums up folk music perfectly with a quote from, who else, the true father of the genre, that says everything about folk music that really needs saying:
“Like Woody says, as long as there’s music, and as long as there’s folks, there’ll be folk music.”
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.