The Working Stiff Jamboree has been attracting poets, songwriters and disaffiliated left-wingers to Springwater for over a decade now. A resolutely democratic affair, the microphone in the back room of the bar is open to anyone with nerve enough to take it. Nobody screens anyone’s material. What matters inside these walls is conviction. And it always has, ever since this fertile Saturday-night happening became a regular forum for unsung local artists like Rob Stanley, John Allingham, Ann Tiley, Cadillac Bob Holmes, Steve Balaskey, Tom House and a host of others.
Cofounder House, a poet and self-described barroom singer, is perhaps the most singularly gifted of the working stiffs. He’s certainly the most prolific. More than 600 of his poems have appeared in print, and from 1982 to 1988, he edited and put out raw bone, a magazine of scatological leanings known for writing as spare as it was brutal. In 1992, House was commissioned, along with Tommy Goldsmith, David Olney and Karen Pell, to write a song cycle based on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as well as an opera drawn from the opening chapter of Light in August. The latter went on to become such a successOpera Memphis has already performed the work three different timesthat House, Goldsmith and Pell have begun work on a subsequent project, a musical adaptation of Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies for the Montgomery Shakespeare Company.
Oddly enoughand especially in light of the fact that House, now 47, has been a published poet since his late teensit never dawned on the Durham, N.C., native to try his hand at songwriting until he was well into his 20s. “I got my first guitar when I was 16,” he remembers. “I played some folk songs on it, but it just never entered my mind to write my own songs. I wrote on a typewriter, not a guitar, so I sold it to [then unknown songwriter] Don Schlitz for $50 to go to Woodstock. I was 27 before I ever performed onstage.”
Another 20 years passed before House recorded Inside These Walls, his self-produced debut, which is due out later this week. Not surprisingly, House’s lyrics reveal an unerring eye for detail and an ear for the colloquialisms of everyday speech; his narratives, at times reminiscent of the stories of Tillie Olsen and the late Breece D’J Pancake, offer mordant commentary on the resiliency of working men and women. But, despite the weightiness of his material, House never gets preachy or moralistic. True to the maxim that it’s best to show rather than tell your audience something, he lets his images and characters speak for themselves. “Cole Durhew,” for example, presents a God-fearing laborer and family man accused of committing a series of bloody crimes, while “Karen Gracen,” a song that’s as harrowing as it is explicit, descends into the private hell of a mental patient who’s raped each day by her caretaker.
Many of House’s songs are populated by marginalized, forgotten characters, people with whom he identifies far more than those he calls “the cheery, rubbery-faced, family-values people.” House certainly comes by this affinity honestly: As someone who has labored much of his adult life to make ends meet, his writing is rooted in a working-class alienation that’s taken its toll on his dreams, personal life and mental health. More, then, than just a reference to the site of the Working Stiff Jamboree, the walls mentioned in the record’s title allude to anythingdistance, drink, years of not communicatingthat separates House from the people he loves.
Indeed, “Circe” finds him sitting up all night searching the test patterns for insight into the cost of loving what he poignantly terms “the alimony of the soul.” On “Something to Say,” House hopes his lover will talk him out of leaving, but when she barely acknowledges his presence, he’s left, loveless and forlorn, with little more than the ghosts of past mistakes. “Received a Letter” is equally wrenching. In the song, House gets a letter from his aging father, who, feeling his world slipping away, tries to connect with his son before it’s too late.
Inside These Walls’ homespun, acoustic guitar melodiesa cross between the old-timey music of Charlie Poole and latter-day inheritors Hazel Dickens and Si Kahnoften belie the deep melancholy that clouds House’s lyrics. His delivery can nonetheless be exhilarating, especially when, as on “Catatonic Song” and “Albatross,” he strings pregnant images together in rapid succession. It’s a heady combination of the sprung rhythms of 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the stream-of-consciousness monologues of the young Bob Dylan. Even after a cursory listen, it’s no wonder House never writes with a band in mind: Like the music of blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, his cadences are too idiosyncratic to be fettered to a rhythm section, so much so that longtime associate Goldsmith likens playing with House to being married to someone with Alzheimer’s.
All of which points to the singularity of House’s vision and talent, something that not even people on the fringes of the music industry have come to appreciate. “Across the board, I get, ‘folk poetry/no commercial value/can’t see anyone but the artist doing it,’ ” says House of his infrequent encounters with music publishers. And yet, at this point, I doubt if he cares very much about what people think of his music. “You’re not writing for someone else,” says House. “You write because you write.” Indeed, like novelist/activist Dorothy Allison, House seems to write as a matter of survival; he writes to lend order to a world that, for him, might otherwise spin out of control.
House will be celebrating the release of Inside These Walls with a 6:30 p.m. appearance this Saturday at Douglas Corner Cafe. Summer Lights may promise competing diversions, but, with the possible exception of R.B. Morris, House is as powerful and original a performer as Nashvillians are likely to hear all weekend. If you don’t catch him June 1, look for House at the Working Stiff Jamboree every sixth Saturday night at Springwater. It’s inside those walls that he feels most at home.
Inside These Walls goes on sale next week at Lucy’s Record Shop, 1707 Church St.
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