If you know anything about stamps, you know there is no better place for a crash course in American history than in the offerings from the doughty old United States Postal Service. These gummy issues document our political leaders, our victories, the rise and fall of various technologies (some early Express mail was carried by blimp, which briefly superseded some trains, which superseded ponies), our great artists, athletes, authors, activists and warriors. Our natural beauty is also celebrated in stamps, as are campaigns against evils like AIDS today and polio once upon a time. A nation wears its soul in the top right corner of its letters.
Good Americana music should sound the way a well-tended collection of American stamps looks. Songs should be as enduring and iconic as an old one-cent bust of Ben Franklin affixed to the corner of a yellowing letter from bygone times. It should commemorate the places, people and things that make this country great, and excoriate those that don't.
San Francisco-based guitarist/songwriter Jeffrey Halford follows this approach in his bluesy folk-tinged rock. On Hunkpapa, his third CD, Halford sings the praises of past glories ("Crazy Horse," "Satchel's Fastball") and bemoans present wrongs, such as the easy availability of the eponymous pistol in ".44." Perhaps his most finely wrought lyrics are on "Black Gold," in which Halford explores the past, present and future of the San Joaquin Valley.
"That was the breadbasket for America, the whole world," he says in a phone interview. "At one time there was more oil coming out of there than even in Texas. But I just drove through there a while back, and it was all gone and every town was propped up by some giant prison." Or as he puts it in song, the "men caked in black as the gushers roar" had been replaced by "prisoners housed in penitentiaries / Grey gold another kind of crop."
To Halford, prisoners are not just some black sheep shunted around by the state. He's interested in how they got there, which he explores on ".44." In the song -- of which the press material rightfully predicts that Charlton Heston won't be a fan -- Halford disputes the old guns-don't-kill-people/people-kill- people saw. Transformed by the power of a pistol's heft, a mild-mannered preacher's son buys the weapon and then smokes somebody with it over a trifle. The Magnum hijacked the young man's personality.
Halford is not antigun per se, but one gets the idea that he concurs with Steve Earle about the Devil's Right Hand and Ronnie Van Zant about Saturday Night Specials. "I've always wanted to take a Springfield out in a field and do the Gunsmoke thing But I'm just really talking about the inner city. Guns in the city and guns in the country are two completely different things."
Born in Dallas, the son of a communications executive who had a problem with authority (irate at one silent partner's sloth, Halford senior once quit a high-paying job), Halford estimates that he changed schools ten times. The family careened from Texas to Vancouver and back and forth and in and around Northern and Southern California. Halford clearly is not afraid to be on the move these days either, as his tour of 15 western cities in 18 days attests.
Halford's childhood was good preparation for the musical life. Tom Russell and Townes Van Zandt are but two other songwriters whose childhoods were migratory, and Halford believes there are few better ways to bring up an Americana musician. Frequent moves acquaint kids with a sense of place, if for no other reason than they are exposed to many of them. It can also be said that we don't truly know what is essential about a place until we leave. James Joyce wrote his Dublin epics in Zurich. Ernest Hemingway wrote his Michigan-based Nick Adams tales in Paris. Mark Twain wrote his great stories of Mississippi River life from his adopted New England home.
In Halford's family, there was also lots of drinking in the grand, mid-20th-century American Empire manner, when stiff cocktails flowed like light beer does today, and "can I freshen that up for you?" was the national motto. Halford resists labels like "alcoholic" and "dysfunctional" in describing his family. "Words like that just put these horrible labels on things," he says. "What matters is that they gave me a lot of love."
Peripatetic kids also learn not to fear what others do, and also how to adapt. Halford has never had any qualms about crossing the tracks to hear the blues, and in fact some of his best times were in Oakland blues joints full of African-American former Houstonians. "They were also so open," he recalls. "I could go in the black blues clubs in Oakland, and they were always so welcoming and open. It was always like 'Come on in.' They never had a problem with it; the same with the Mexicans, too, they're very much like that. We're the ones with the problem. It's so ignorant."
To capture some of that Oak-town soul, Halford called on the city's legendary Gospel Hummingbirds. These 'birds know a thing or two about the blues, as testified by their two albums on the Blind Pig label, and here they swell majestically behind Halford on his paean to "Memphis," as well as on "Black Gold" and "Satchel's Fastball."
"Bringing in those guys was super-cool 'cause I always loved that gospel-style rock and roll like Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the Staples Singers, of course," Halford gushes. "So we got 'em all together at one of their houses in this funky part of Oakland. I just got out my acoustic guitar and threw out my ideas, and they just grabbed that shit. Man, they just killed it. The hair rose on my arms and head."
The Hummingbirds are at their most glorious on "Satchel's Fastball," Halford's study of an aging minor leaguer. "They say time's running out on me / As dog days turn to fall / I know that I can hit Satchel's fastball," Halford roars over the swelling gospelers and his own rip-roaring slide ResoLectric guitar. It's the kind of song that makes you want to learn more, to wonder why a guy would spend so much time convincing himself that if given the chance, he could send Satchel's heater to the cheap seats. It's like a black-and-white snapshot of a bygone time, a picture that captures the soul of an era, pasted in the pages of a musty album.
But then Satchel Paige was enough of a legend to transcend mere family photo albums. He belongs in our nation's photo album, which is another way to see our stamps. Jeffrey Halford may not be a philatelist, but his story-songs can serve as a sort of audible stamp collection, sagas of America that can stand for all time.
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