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Devendra Banhart: Artist sings revolution in ‘freak-folk’ album

James Costa | Thursday, September 27, 2007

In 1785, Devendra Banhart would have been leading a Southern Tent Revival meeting by singing sacred music to his congregation. Obviously, the old congregations are gone and the world has changed. Yet Banhart’s “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon” takes us back for a moment to an age still alive in musical traditions, but changed. In the sways of Banhart’s music emerges a modern day William Billings, ready to lead our voices back to pitch.

Here’s a quick history of William Billings. He lived for 53 years, with his most creative period right around the time of the American Revolution. The man was quite ugly, crippled and a tanner of leather by trade. Somehow, he got the job as a “singing-school teacher.” In the 18th century there were singing-school teachers who lived in the city and traveled to farms to teach people how to sing hymns. People didn’t have recordings, so the teachers were necessary. Without them most of the congregations would end up sounding lousy in church on Sunday mornings.

Banhart is like Billings in musical output and style. Billings wrote approximately 120 hymns in a rather short period of time. Banhart is often criticized for being too prolific and putting out albums with far more than the typical 10 or 11 songs. Also, Billings is credited with being one of the first American composers to make an American sound of music. Banhart, like Billings, is the unwritten leader of something totally unique, labeled “freak-folk.”

Billings is seen most clearly in songs such as Banhart’s “Saved,” when the other singers calibrate their voices around his. He utilizes the singing method of “lining out” that dates to Billings’ time and was very likely used by Billings in his own instruction of rural congregations. Back in Billings’ day the idea of lining out and calibrating to the main voice was used to get in tune for performing songs in genres such as the sacred harp song style. Now it’s just nice to listen to in Banhart’s “Smokey.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, people mainly sang about spiritual topics. Banhart is inclined toward spiritual topics as well, but because it’s 2007 and because he is Devendra Banhart, these topics are not as easily identifiable as standard tunes like “Wonder’s Love” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” They are identifiable, however, in the album’s jumping “Shabop Shalom.” Here, the listener is treated to a thoroughly modernized and radicalized tune with its own complexities building off the original spiritual tradition.

One of the underlying themes of Banhart’s record is an awareness and reaction to the current American military upheaval – the national opinion of the war in Iraq. Billings shares the same type of awareness in his own work, especially in a song called “Chester.” It was sort of like a pop song about the American Revolution. Throughout “Smokey” in both the Spanish tracks and the English tracks, is recognition of divided national opinion towards the government and the war. It takes a few listens to catch hold of the sheer scope of each song, but its well worth the work.

Banhart’s choice of genre and subject seem to be a natural progression of young culture and music, especially folk and underground. The tradition that began with a common man like William Billings is fittingly being carried into today’s turbulent world by Banhart, an extraordinary artist.