JOEL RAFAEL: A folk music mainstay helps keep the genre alive

By Steve Houk

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, things that either need change, or need to remain the same.

Joel Rafael has his own description, one that you just might hear Guthrie saying 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, and then 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, picks up speed. That’s how I see folk music down through time.”

Joel 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 just under your radar, well, 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 just a few of the many music luminaries who deeply respect Rafael and have shared the stage and the 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. Rafael brings his songs and those of his mentors to DC in a rare solo performance at the Mansion on O on June 2nd to benefit the O Street Museum Foundation.

It was back as a kid in the 60’s that Rafael had the opportunity, thanks mainly to the radio, to absorb this new kind of music more and more, especially as its popularity grew by leaps and bounds.

“I think it was really available, when I encountered it, just because of the time and place that I grew up in,” the affable sixty-six 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 alot of records that my parents had. But when I was like 12 or 13 years old, that’s right about the time, some people call it the Folk Music Scare of the 60’s, kind of cynical or sarcastic, but it was basically because all of a sudden, wow, 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.’ Picking up a guitar was something alot of people around me were doing, it just occurred to me that this was something that was not that difficult, it’s something alot of people can do. I was already playing drums, even a little bit of accordion and I knew I wanted to do it.”

It took a little convincing, and a day trip to Mexico, so Rafael could 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 a day drive from where we lived, because I had heard that you could get a guitar down there for 30-40 dollars. So they finally relented, 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 movement was that as a kid, I was kind of being influenced by the kids were older than me that had gone off to college and had gotten a little bit more into the folk thing that was just starting to blossom in the early 60’s. They would come back on the weekends to the music store in my town where there were alot of guitars hanging on the wall. These college kids would come back and they’d have a job giving guitar lessons to some of us, you know. They were like heroes to us because they knew these songs like ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ and ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ and ‘This Land is Your Land.’ So it was a really exciting time for a kid that was just sort of 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 ’em were Woody Guthrie songs,” said Rafael. “And as it turns out, some of the most powerful ones, some of the better songs were Woody Guthrie songs. And then Bob Dylan came along and the early stuff, there was alot of Woody in his presentation at that time, alot of it was out of the Woody songbook but with Bob’s words put to it. Woody had the talking blues, Bob got his own talking blues going. That was something we were being exposed to. At the same time, as a kid, I was experiencing different writers, different songs, different groups, some of them were traditional, some of them were modern. So what I ended up with was sorting out the stuff that didn’t mean as much to me, zoning into the stuff that seemed more important, well-presented, had some of those touchstone things that go with a great performance, you just kinda feel it inside. I was drawn to Bob Dylan, and I was drawn to Woody Guthrie because I made the connection.”

Rafael’s latest record “Baladista” is a beautifully written, oh-so-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 for 66 years been part of the folk canon. Those victims had been known only by the name ‘deportees,’ and so a couple of guys up in Central Valley decided to do some research and find the names and then raise some money for a concert to put a headstone on that grave. And when I heard about that, I went up there and I met a guy named Juan Martinez, who had been one of Cesar Chavez’ bodyguards during the boycott, he had heard about it last minute himself and had come up there for the event.”

“But he told me about an event he was coordinating,” Rafael continued, “it was 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 being in the context of being known by the name ‘deportee.’ 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. So the Braceros as he pointed out to me actually grew the food during that time, for the nation and for the troops and 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, learning so much that I didn’t know. So I was just sort of inspired to write a song about the Braceros, you know, it’s kind of hard to cover it all in one song, how brutal the program really was, but it was so bad that it became the catalyst for the beginning of the United Farm Workers Union. All that history.”

As for the state of folk music today, Rafael feels that it’s in a good place because young people understand it’s legacy, and how important a legacy it is to maintain. And that it’s purpose is always to ring loud about what’s going in the world.

“I always harkened back to something that Woody said, that that’s the thing with folk music, they’re always saying is it gonna last. This is every decade. Sometimes it’s more popular (in a certain decade) than in others. Right now, it’s pretty popular right now on the comparative scale. There’s alot of young people interested in it. And there’s alot of young people interested in what people that’ve been doing it for a long time are doing, which is pretty cool. They want to learn, they want to find out just what they can learn, from somebody who’s been doing it for longer than them. But really, it’s people expressing themselves about their lives, and what they’re doing, and what other people are doing, what the politicians are up to, what’s happening with the earth, even right down to the kid’s songs about getting up in the morning.”

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 category, 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.”

Joel Rafael performs Tuesday June 2nd at The Mansion On O, 2020 O St NW, Washington, DC 20036. The event is a benefit for the O Street Museum Foundation. For tickets click here.

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