The medieval troubadour’s work consisted of entertainment and propaganda, praising the brave and ethical, mocking the hypocritical, teaching the uninformed, and maintaining the people’s spirits during times of oppression. Jim Page is a modern troubadour; his work is topical song-spinning with love, poignance, and reflection in his lyrics, and very, very fast guitar-picking. He is in the American musical lineage of topical singer-songwriters that includes Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Janis Ian, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Zappa. His latest CD, Wheel Spins Upstream, upholds the tradition and carries it forward.
It’s not all mainstream, it’s rarely lucrative, and it’s not a job for the underfinanced, but topical songwriting is a crucial part of the way we USians learn about ourselves. For example: at about age 16, some of us suburban Maryland students casting about for the missing narrative were lucky enough to find coffee houses where we went to hear music performed by people from the untold USA – Eric Darling, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, other troubadours of the time. They gave us entertainment and propaganda, satire and excitement, new knowledge and new ideas, sudden revelations about the country we were part of. These days, it’s even more important to reveal the unexpurgated history of our time and place, and none so willing as travelling musicians, singer-songwriters of topical song, to tell the tales. In Wheel Spins Upstream, Page presents a dozen such songs, two of them his arrangements of traditional tunes, and one a lovely Merle Haggard ballad (Kern River).
Page’s energetic live performance is not lost in the recording studio, and the cuts on this CD show his fierce and tender feeling toward people, land, and social justice. I particularly liked “There He Is – There He Goes,” about a close friend who’s no longer on the scene. Page doesn’t tell us whether the friend moved out of town, died, or turned into a family guy with a union day job. “I used to sleep on your couch next to your scooter on the floor. I guess I won’t be doing that anymore. Everything smelled like dogs and motor oil. It was an oasis in a world of turmoil.” When he sings “So raise your glass and drink a toast to whoever you love the most” my old friend John D came to mind, and I missed him, again. That’s successful song writing.
I also liked “The Truth Will Get You Arrested,” a paean to Chelsea (Bradley) Manning. “What you don’t know can kill you; the truth will get you arrested.”
Not all of Page’s lyrics set right with me; I don’t hold with breaking windows, for example, and as a (lapsed) fellow upstream swimmer, I don’t think it’s noble, or better than normality. Past a certain age, it’s terrifying. If you can’t get out, get that union day job, you’re looking at an increasingly risky seniority. But that’s a conversation we could have with every musician.
So raise your glass and drink a toast to whoever you love the most, and to Jim Page, troubadour. Check out his web page, with his touring schedule, and you might be able to catch his act, take some teenagers with you, and stir a little trouble in the normality pot. It’s a good thing to do.