My Father’s Shoes: Second Generation Folk
(a call to arms to support healthy inner-city families)

The prevalence of poor and fragmented families in the inner-city school district where I teach is staggering, and the consequences are easily visible: even as last week’s open house brought in a record number of visitors to our school, the percentage of students whose parents or guardians came to visit our classrooms remains shockingly low, with each teacher seeing an average of 8 families in a schedule which has us each teaching over 140 students per semester.

Treating this tiny percentage as a triumph is both reasonable and terrifyingly sad. Put it up against the nearly 100% parent participation which we see in successful suburban and rural school districts, and in the charter schools in and around our own community, and the correlation is clear: students who do not have home support are much less likely to develop or maintain the skills needed to succeed in school – regardless of whether that lack of support stems from reasons of parent absence, linguistic isolation, or other consequences of the urban minimum-wage community.

Indeed, it is a proven assumption that parenting is a major factor in developing the platform that leads to student success. But because parent buy-in is undermined by poverty, and by related factors such as family fragmentation, the need to work more than one job, and transportation and housing instability, reaching parents is often impossible from the school side of the equation. Many of the homes I call each week have disconnected numbers, suggesting that basic needs such as phone service may not be within easy reach for some families in our district. Guardianship and housing shift so rapidly for our kids, we are often unable to find a parent to contact when the stress of an inconsistent home life presents itself as classroom disruption.

The lack of stability at home undermines students in other, broader ways, too. Where students do not have support or encouragement outside of school, student return on homework is too low to count on; the resulting attempt to do everything in the classroom is a drag on curricular pacing, and our students end up doing as little as half as much reading, writing, and math in a given year as compared to their suburban peers. Students who want to stay after school for extracurricular programs and make-up sessions cannot do so if missing the bus means an hour-long trek home, or if they need to pick up siblings from other schools because parents are unavailable. A lack of parent signatures on free lunch and medical release forms hampers our ability to help students in need throughout the day; students who need curricular or classroom modification cannot get access to those services if parents will not show up for meetings. And although we often assume that students who attend more than one lunch are defiant by nature, they may just like being near the smell of food.

Something rotten lurks at the foundation of a world in which students who succeed do so in spite of the family, not because of it. And because teaching, for me, is a matter of both vocation and social justice, the holistic approach I bring to my world pushes me to consider every platform I have at my disposal in my ongoing pursuit of positive change.

And so, I turn to a long-time dream: the production of a charity album, comprised of second-generation artists paying tribute to their own parent’s songbook, with the goal of using those songs to raise money to support family stability in urban and underprivileged districts.

Happily, second-generation folk musicians run like a thread through our work here at Cover Lay Down. Our occasional Folk Family Friday series has included multi-generational coverage from the Wainwrights and McGarrigles, The Waterson/Carthy clan, and the Guthries, and we’ve dipped into the work of the Carter and Cash families several times.

Early features on Ruth Ungar Merenda (daughter of Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, who performs with her husband as Mike & Ruthy), Kasey Chambers (daughter of Aussie alt-country guitarist Bill Chambers), Teddy Thompson (son of Richard & Linda Thompson), and Eliza Gilkyson (whose father, Terry, composed The Bare Necessities for Disney’s The Jungle Book), acknowledged the inherited gifts of these second-generation artists, too, even as they celebrated their unique output as solo artists and collaborators. And, most recently, we explored the coverage of alt-country star Justin Townes Earle as a bonus set for a recent feature on his father, Steve Earle.

But as time marches on, the number of folk-oriented singer-songwriters of merit rising in their father’s footsteps continues to grow. In addition to Eliza Carthy, Folk Uke (the duo of Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson, Willie’s daughter), Sarah Lee Guthrie, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Martha Wainwright, John Carter Cash projects The Carter Family III and Cedar Hill Refugees, and others associated with the families above, the list of second-generation folk artists who we have posted here on Cover Lay Down also includes:

  • Americana artist Pieta Brown, who first came to our attention for her work with her sisters covering their father’s paean to their grandmother on Greg Brown tribute Going Driftless.
  • Blues/folk musician Toshi Reagon, daughter of Freedom Singers founders Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon and goddaughter of Pete Seeger.
  • Acoustic bassist Sam Grisman, whose work with both his father Dave Grisman’s touring band and Greg Listz newgrass project The Deadly Gentlemen keeps him on our radar.
  • Singer-songwriter Harper Simon, son of Paul, whose underground credibility as a musician is eminently his own, though his output remains low.
  • Beautifully harmonic sister act The Chapin Sisters, a.k.a. Abigail and Lily, whose father, Tom Chapin, was well known in my childhood home for his poignant, political, and silly kidsongs.
  • Sweet-voiced Inara George, whose father Lowell founded Little Feat, and who performs today as both a solo artist and as part of retro-harmony trio The Living Sisters.
  • Indie folk rocker Ben Taylor, son of James and Carly Simon, who continues to impress with his organic approach to performance.
  • Singer and multi-instrumentalist Amy Helm, who forms one-fifth of the core of folk band Ollabelle, co-produced her father Levon’s 2007 Grammy winning traditional folk album Dirt Farmer, and toured with him until his recent passage.
  • Fiddle-playing Americana artist Carrie Rodriguez, whose father David Rodriguez has been covered by Lyle Lovett, and was named Best Texas Songwriter for three consecutive years before expatriating permanently to the Netherlands in 1994.
  • Session instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Jake Armerding, fiddler for Barnstar! and other local projects, whose father Taylor was a founding member of newgrass pioneers Northern Lights.
  • Violinist and indie a capella darling Petra Haden, daughter of jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who has played and recorded with everyone from The Decemberists to Green Day, and from Bill Frisell to Beck.
  • Soft pop crooner Norah Jones, whose work may not always fall into the folk camp, but whose descent from Beatles compatriot and sitar player Ravi Shankar gives her eminent domain here.

Even Miley Cyrus is starting to come into her own, having impressed us with her work on this year’s Dylan tribute, and her new raspy, soulful acoustic cover of Melanie Safka’s Look What They’ve Done to My Song. Folk rock sibling Kami Thompson, brother of Teddy and daughter of Richard & Linda, released a strong folk rock debut album in late 2011 that featured fellow second-gen artists Sean Lennon and Martha Wainwright, among others. And although neither have recorded any coverage yet, exceptionally strong 2012 debut albums from both Lilly Hiatt, daughter of John Hiatt, and Grace Pettis, daughter of Pierce Pettis and winner of this year’s Kerville New Folk competition, bring us hope for the next generation of second-generation artists.

For the last few years, as the idea has taken seed in my wildest dreams, the daunting task of producing a full album of second-generation singer-songwriters covering the songs of their famous folk fathers has been a pipe dream – one stymied by my lack of access to the musicians themselves, and a lack of experience in producing a quality fund-raising project.

But every new artist that emerges from the fold represents a step towards viability. The development of home recording techniques, fan funding infrastructures such as Kickstarter, and digital distribution houses such as Bandcamp have brought us closer to the possibility of producing and distributing such a project without access to a studio or label. And the addition of Grace Pettis to the mix even brings a tentative title to our dream: My Father’s Shoes, a song from her father’s canon which serves as an especially apt frame in which to place our project.

And so, today, we embark on this ambitious project by putting out our first call to arms: If you have a personal or professional connection with any second-generation artists, please help us get in touch with them, so that we may present the project to them, and – hopefully – confirm that both parents and children are amenable to working with us.

(If you are a producer or a label, or have experience putting together a charity project, then yes, I want to hear from you, too. But my goal in this first phase is simply to garner an initial commitment from enough second-generation artists to move forward. Once/if that happens, we will move on to curatorial issues, media format, distribution, and whether we need to raise money to seed the project.)

If it works, then I hope to have the album ready by sometime in mid-to-late 2013, so we can use the proceeds to support and promote fatherhood and family structure, the better to help stabilize urban and underprivileged communities for generations to come.

In the meantime, we continue our own survey of those inheritors of the gentle dream with a set of coverage from 26 artists whose famous fathers put them on our wish-list for such a project.

Once again, today’s feature aims to spark a project; If you know a second-generation folk artist, please help by either sending me their contact information, and/or sending them a shout-out, and directing them to this post to contact me further.

But because many of my students cannot wait for such fruition, those who want to help in the short term can find a place here, too. Donate to Cover Lay Down any time before the end of October, and I will give 20% of that donation to the NEA Closing The Achievement Gaps Initiative, which supports local children and families by funding home visits and parent engagement programs.

Category: Folk Family Friday 6 comments »

6 Responses to “My Father’s Shoes: Second Generation Folk
(a call to arms to support healthy inner-city families)

  1. Rolf

    A poignant example of what is going wrong in inner cities and beyond. You might want to read Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart”, who describes and analyzes the exact same phenomena.
    Wish you all the best for your project!

  2. tansy liverwort

    How about Jenni Muldaur?

  3. The Deadly Gentlemen Cover Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey”…Plus Covers of The Beatles, The Cars, The Replacements, The Cure and More. « Rock God Cred

    [...] Click here to go to Cover Lay Down to check The Deadly Gentlemen covering the Grateful Dead “Touch of Grey”, Kami Thompson covers the Beatles “Don’t Bother Me”, Toshi Reagon covers The Cars “Just What I Needed”, Eliza Gilkyson covers World Party “Is It Like Today”, Inara George covers Little Feat “Trouble”, The Chapin Sisters cover Madonna “Borderline”, Justin Townes Earle covers The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait”, Pieta Brown covers Bob Dylan “Dirt Road Blues”, Harper Simon covers The Cure “In Between Days”, Mike & Ruthy cover Tom Waits  ”Long Way Home”…plus more. Share this:TwitterStumbleUponFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  4. Arlene

    Among others, there’s also Carrie Rodriguez, daughter of David Rodriguez; Amy Helm (of Ollabelle), daughter of Levon; Savannah Welch (of The Trshas), daughter of Kevin Welch; Chelsea Crowell, daughter of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash); and Benson Ramsey (of The Pines), son of Bo Ramsey. And although their parents weren’t “folk” or “roots” musicians, Bonnie Raitt and Ziggy Marley.

    This is a wonderful idea for a terrific cause.

  5. Arlene

    And also, Jamie Hartford, son of John Hartford; Josh White, Jr., son of Josh White; Randy Scruggs, son of Earl Scruggs; Chris Stills, son of Stephen Stills; and Jonathan McEuen and Jaime Hanna of McEuen-Hanna, sons of John McEuen and Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame.

    Unfortunately, I have no connections to any of these artists, but some blog readers might….

  6. boyhowdy

    Arlene, thank you! I feel foolish for forgetting Amy Helm, and have rectified it in the list above; had no idea that Carrie Rodriguez is second-gen, but am happy to add her to the list, too. Now, on to the rest…

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