He hears it everywhere he rambles to these days, Jack Klatt does. "What the hell is going on in Minneapolis?" a new fan will say after hearing the 23-year-old offer up his raw folk music somewhere on the road, far from his hometown. "I find you on MySpace and there's all this old [stuff]. Why are you into this?"
Klatt's explanation: "It's kind of weird in Minneapolis. There seems to be a lot of kids who are really into Woody Guthrie for some reason, and trust me, you don't find that everywhere. It seems to be strangely centered in Minneapolis."
A host of young Twin Cities musicians -- Klatt, the Floorbirds, Jack Torrey, Meg Ashling, the Pines, Roma di Luna and the Get Up Johns, to name just a few -- are banding together and banging out the kind of folk tunes their great-grandparents played around home and hearth decades ago.
As with most organic scenes, there is no label for this mini-movement, but "the New No Depression" might be in order -- a phrase that echoes both the 1930s heyday of Appalachian music heroes the Carter Family and the rise of alt-country a couple generations later. Inspired by such Minnesota folk-blues heroes as Koerner, Ray and Glover, Bob Dylan and the Brandy Snifters, a new wave is springing from deep reservoirs.
"A lot of those old songs talk about really serious stuff in a really palatable way," says Torrey. "You know, you don't hear many songs about murder these days."
Once upon a time, however, murder ballads and their kin -- like hip-hop today -- were the equivalent of the daily newspaper. And there is an eerie prescience to all this New No Depression activity, as if its members foretold the coming state of the world and its effect on the soul and psyche, and reacted by coming together. Now here they come, a cavalry of twentysomethings armed with guitars, banjos, fiddles, drums, washboards and, in the case of the Como Avenue Jug Band, jugs, flutes and the proverbial kitchen sink.
"We've got banks folding, we've got people losing their homes, people out of work. It's getting to be where we're starting to feel a lot of those issues again that people were singing about in the '30s and '20s and further back," said Daniel Libby, one-half (with Alyssa Bicking) of the Floorbirds, who take their name from Dylan's song "All You Have to Do Is Dream."
"We try to sing these songs and make them pertain to what's going on in America now. ... We're trying to make sense of what we're living through."
To do so, the Floorbirds and others have become students of the past -- in particular "The Anthology of Folk Music," a six-disc collection of old-time blues and folk that is a touchstone for the movement.
"The first time I heard 'The Anthology,' they all sounded like magic songs that were thrown in a time capsule for somebody to find later," says Torrey.
'Dreams of the noble old'
"The Old Weird America" is how author Greil Marcus once described those songs. As fate would have it, Marcus landed in the Twin Cities last fall as a visiting teacher at the University of Minnesota, just as the New No Depression hit its stride.
"I have students in my class who are making this music," Marcus said. "Younger people love going on a quest. People in their teens and 20s, the idea of scratching an itch and following one thing to the next to the next to the next, and you find out that there's a whole world of scholarship out there.
"You also come to realize that the songs you're going to encounter are going to be songs that have been performed by hundreds and thousands of people over many, many years. And you're going to hear so many versions, it's going to give you a sense of your own right to sing the song -- you know, anybody can sing this song; everybody can sing this song, and almost anybody has the chance to bring something new to it."
For Torrey, "it just seems pretty natural. If you want to play music with your friends, lots of people know the same folk songs, and everybody can play the blues. And then something can grow out of that basic structure."
Few embrace that age-old folk tenet more enthusiastically than the Floorbirds' Libby, who, counter to the prevailing 2008 trend of fellas in fedoras, wears a turn-of-the-century workingman's cap and speaks with a slow, polite cadence that suggests the son of a coal miner.
"I always kind of looked at these songs as more the dreams of the noble old," he said. "You get a sense of wisdom in those old songs, be it trying to live your life right if it's an old hymn, or if it's a song about making sure you're getting your work done."
Or waking up and smelling the campfire coffee.
"The recent crash is really going to trickle down and start affecting everyone," says Klatt. "It's a really bad thing, but when you look at things like the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it got people to open up their eyes and realize they were being [screwed] by people on top and had been for a long time. So they started to organize. You had regular people who would go, 'I need some coal to heat my home.' And someone would say, 'My buddy Joe's got a truck, let's go get some [bleeping] coal and help our families.'"
Old Weird America vs. the New Weird Modern World
Organic though it may be, one undeniable aspect of the rise of these new old-schoolers is the yin-yang effect of the 21st century.
"Technology helps me out," Klatt admits -- he posted a recent performance as a podcast on his MySpace page -- "but look at pop music nowadays, man. We went from Bob Dylan to being a pop star to Britney Spears making this [crap] music that doesn't mean anything. I feel like it's bringing it back to the porch, bringing it back to sitting around in a circle and passing a guitar around and telling stories about your life and what's going on. It's just more real."
Meg Ashling grew up listening to her father and grandfather play country tunes in the farming community of Benson, Minn. "So much music now is so compressed and sterile sounding," she said. "We're stripping it back down to the basics and actually connecting with people on an individual level."
Ashling walks it like she talks it. She doesn't own a car and -- horrors! -- recently deleted her MySpace page. She and Torrey own a 1978 Datsun Chinook camper truck with a fussy fuel pump. They pointed the heap South and West this winter to escape the Minnesota winter, and to play their songs to whomever would have them.
"I've been trying to have as little material goods as possible, because I've always sensed that the time would come when it wouldn't be relevant anymore," she said. "That's why I think all of this Depression-era music is still relevant today. People are realizing that with all of our technology and everything, it really hasn't gotten us that far if we can't learn how to connect with people and have some sort of moral compass."
'Been happening since the dawn of time'
Trying to pigeonhole this movement and give it names may be counter to the scene itself, and a blow against the historic individualism it seeks to celebrate and stoke. That is, when the going gets tough, the tough have always responded by making music in their homes, basements, garages, around bonfires and on street corners.
The New No Depression crowd actually dovetails nicely with the Twin Cities' enduring rockabilly scene, the bluegrass community centered around Dulono's Pizza and the Homestead Pickin' Parlor, the never-say-die spirit of roots-based labels like Eclectone and Red House Records, the Old-Timey Sunday nights at the Turf Club and various hootenannies, jams and house concerts that have long been the lifeblood of song-oriented acoustic music.
"It's been happening since the dawn of time," concludes Torrey. "That's what's funny: If you ask me, we're rebelling against our nature in a lot of ways now. If you just forget about forwards and backwards in time and just get down to basics, I think you'll find that it has nothing to do with technology. It's a very human thing, and people seem to be forgetting they're humans more and more."
Thanks to Torrey and his comrades, sometimes less than others.
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis writer and musician who hosts regular hootenannies as the Mad Ripple. See myspace.com/madripplemusic for more info.