Hurricane Harvey: When the Levee Breaks

We are releasing a cover of the 1929 song “When the Levee Breaks” to help benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Download it here:

My Hometown

I was born in Houston, Texas, and lived most of my life there until I moved to Los Angeles in my late 20s. I learned how to play music in Houston, my first bands were in Houston (hell, most of my bands were in Houston), my first few years of playing live music in bars and clubs that smelled like cigarettes and old beer were in Houston.

My family is in and around Houston. My friends are there.

Watching the devastation brought on by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey and checking Facebook and email constantly to see if my family and friends were safe (they are), or if my old neighborhoods survived intact (some yes, some no), those cannot compare to the feelings of living through it. But watching from 1800 miles away and feeling helpless, I wanted to do something. The night the rains started, it occurred to me we could do a version of “When the Levee Breaks,” and use it to try to raise money. I had no idea how bad things would get, and how much relief would be needed.

I wrote to our cellist, Jody (originally from Dallas), and told her I wanted to try to do something to help out in Houston. Without even asking what it was, she wrote back, “I’m in.”

Yesterday we were able to get into the studio. And today, here we are.

The Song

FSA/8a20000/8a203008a20399a.tif

The 1971 Led Zeppelin cover version is certainly the most well-known version of “When the Levee Breaks,” but the song is not original to them. I decided to go back to the original version, which was a Delta Blues song written and recorded in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy. The song was about the 1927 Mississippi River flood — still the worst river flood in U.S. history. If I wanted — in some small, small way– to express solidarity with the people in Texas dealing with this nightmare, I thought a song that’s 90 years old, commemorating a similar event, had a lot of resonance. Ain’t nobody alone, even if it feels that way.

But I can’t play Delta Blues guitar, so I re-worked the song, moving it from a major to minor key, and slowing it way down.

Thomas

When I lived in the Midtown neighborhood in Houston, I rescued a stray cat that showed up on my porch one day, starving. His ear was docked, meaning he’d been caught, neutered, and released back into the neighborhood. His other ear was cut, like he’d been in a fight. My wife named him Thomas.

Thomas

That was almost 14 years to the day before the rains from Harvey started. That neighborhood flooded. This other cat, which has now gone viral thanks to an indelible picture by an LA Times photographer during Harvey, could have been Thomas:

We lost Thomas earlier this year. He showed up skinny and starving, but made the move across the country with us and he lived out his life for another nearly 13 years, fat and happy, with friends all around our neighborhood in LA. He was the best cat, and so half the money that we raise from this single will go to support the Houston Humane Society, which is working like crazy right now to help animals like Thomas all over Houston.

The other half of the money we raise will go to the Greater Houston Community Foundation Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. This fund was set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and so donations are going a local organization that will hopefully be able to provide meaningful, dedicated assistance to the people of Houston long after national and international groups have been called away to deal with whatever the next disaster might be. Probably Hurricane Irma, churning its way across the Caribbean toward Florida as I write this.

The band is not recouping recording or publicity costs. Everything Bandcamp pays us for this song from the people who purchase it will go directly to these two groups. I don’t know if we will make a difference, but with your help we can.

If you live in Texas and are suffering from these floods and dig the track, take it. Download it for free. If you want to help those people, and the animals of Houston with them, then please make a donation with your download, and spread the word. This only works if people share it.

Thank you.

Why Folk Pop Made Me Sad

I think the strange folk pop revival we recently experienced, with its attendant explosion of bowler hats and banjos, is finally a cloud of dust on the far horizon. Mumford and Sons has gone away, the Lumineers still just have the one record (which they apparently have re-released a couple times), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros blew up out of the gate but haven’t made much popular noise in the five years since, I thought Of Monsters and Men was the same band as Edward Sharpe, but I guess they’re different, The Decemberists went on a years-long hiatus, Avicii (sp?) damaged acoustic music forever with the abominable “Wake Me Up,” and there don’t appear to be any more folkies breaking on the airwaves these days like there were a couple of years ago.

So that happened.

Imagine if you will: There I was, a folk musician, and as our second album was going out into the world, all this folk music started wafting out of the radio speakers. Yay! I thought. Maybe a rising tide would lift our boat as well. But alas, no. Now, I don’t dislike any of those bands I mentioned above (except Avicii, holy shit do I hate that song), but a lot of them have something really important in common: they don’t have much to say.

This is inherently problematic to me, because folk music is supposed to have something to say. If it’s people strumming the same dozen chords everybody has always strummed and not exactly blazing new musical trails, then if you ask me, it better damn well have a beating heart or a conscience or something behind it to make it worthwhile. Now look, I’ve written my fair share of boy-girl songs, and there will be more on the new Sci-Fi Romance record. I don’t begrudge that to anybody. But with the folk pop explosion, that’s all we got.  When you scratched the surface, there wasn’t anything beneath. I mean, The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” was just syllables.

Folk music has always been about struggle. It’s called folk music because it tells the stories of regular people, and regular people generally have to struggle. Sometimes that struggle is because of a relationship that’s gone south, sure, but often it’s about much more. I wrote our album The Ghost of John Henry about something that happened a long time ago, but the story spoke to me because it resonated with what was going on in 2012 America, too. The week before we went into the studio the Occupy Wall St. rallies began in downtown LA, and our drummer went straight from practice to join in. It felt like we’d tapped into something bigger than us, and that meant we were doing something right. And so as things that sounded like us started to drift out into the popular landscape, it was with great disappointment that I realized that what I was hearing were just pop songs played on acoustic instruments. There wasn’t actually a head of steam behind these bands, like the one that propelled Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. As a result, the bubble burst, and now it’s back underground.

And that’s a shame, because there’s stuff going on right now that cries out for folk music, and for that music to make any difference, it needs to be heard. Bob Dylan helped get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter out of jail, for God’s sake.

A college professor of mine once said “Friends, we may not have much power in this world, but we have our voices.” And about a dozen chords that most people can play. I think we should try to make them count.