Renaissance Cowboy

By Ross Altman, PhD

For Michael Simmons, il miglior fabbro.

Tom Russell - Folk Hotel CDDear Reader: This is a double review—Folk Hotel by Tom Russell is both a CD and accompanying illustrated book, with his paintings, reflections and lyrics to all the songs.

“There are 8 million stories in the Naked City,” began my favorite TV show of long ago. Here’s one: Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel

Writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you

-Bob Dylan, “Sara” from Desire, 1976.

But Tom Russell has another; from the bar next door he imagines

Nico spooning with Bob Dylan while he is trying to finish “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Who are you going to believe?

Tom Russell is not the first songwriter to memorialize the Chelsea Hotel—nor is Dylan; the first would be the late great Leonard Cohen. Yet Cohen is not the first writer; that honor belongs to New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell, whom Russell credits with inspiring his new album’s title song in the first chorus:

The ghost of Joseph Mitchell came stumbling down the hall

“I have nothing more to say, folks-I believe I said it all”

Who would argue with a ghost? He wrote it so well

In that book called Up in the Old Hotel

But Tom Russell has certainly created the most devoted series of portraits in song and painting to immortalize this hotel’s singular place in folk music history. There are 8 million stories in the naked city? Tom Russell has found a dozen more.

For his fortieth album folk singer-songwriter Tom Russell has created a record the likes of which we haven’t seen or heard in more than fifty years—the first time I listened to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. Those were the days my friend—when we looked forward to a new record by Bob Dylan with the same breathless anticipation someone else might have looked forward to a new World Series or World’s Fair. The magic of this record is that it all emanates from a single hotel in Greenwich Village—during a time and a place that gave rise to the late great folk revival of the early 1960s. While not all of the songs on the CD are set in the "Folk Hotel," or Greenwich Village, or NYC, or even the USA~ the perspective of the human spirit on various songs set in various countries is nonetheless inspired by the folk music symbolized by the history of "the old hotel." The term for this is "synecdoche" which is Kenneth Burke’s favorite rhetorical trope using a part to stand for the whole. That’s why Russell has renamed the famed Chelsea Hotel to the more precise (for his purposes) Folk Hotel—the title of this renaissance cowboy’s landmark record.

Russell didn’t reach the Village until 1980, fifteen years after Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, and other spiritual mentors and poetic inspirations had departed for new pastures, and yet he is able to reconstruct its eerie rooms and hallways, cheap guitars and late-night bars with the deft hand of a master at the top of his game. Folk Hotel is a journey through time and space; a historical novel in 13 songs, something Robert Graves might have written if he had been a songwriter instead of a novelist and poet. For both Graves and Russell are mythographers—able to distill the larger and universal meanings from a grain of sand.

Tom Russell is one of the modern masters usually identified with Texas troubadours Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely—who shares the vocals on the one cover of Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues on a bonus track on this recording. But for the most part Russell leaves Texas far behind, except for another Texan, Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” also on a bonus track.

Derroll AdamsTom ranges through the modern folk canon, with remembrances of urban folk legends Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Jack’s friend and busking partner banjo player and artist Derroll Adams, who is best known for his classic antiwar song Portland Town, which Joan Baez recorded on Joan Baez in Concert Part 2.

Tom also celebrates cowboy painter and singer Harry Jackson and Peter La Farge, composer of the modern antiwar and Native American classic, The Ballad of Ira Hayes. Finally, he has a song about his mentor, the legendary Ian Tyson called I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses. There are also memorable paintings and prose accounts of Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk, Paul Siebel (who wrote the great song Louise) and Leonard Cohen.

Hopkins stands apart from the Greenwich Village folk scene in that Russell heard him at Ed Pearl’s legendary Hollywood folk club The Ash Grove. Russell also wanders into a timeless dream about Hank Williams that illuminates his entire life. Tom rediscovers Dylan (both Thomas and Bob~ and the stories they left behind.) He takes you all the way to England, (“Ain’t many cowboys in England,” but there was Derroll Adams), Belfast (Ireland), Swansea (Wales) and even Copenhagen (Denmark)—and only returns to Texas in his heart-shattering masterpiece recollecting President John F. Kennedy from permanent memories of personal experience in Rise Again, Handsome Johnny—just in time for JFK’s birthday centennial this year. It made me cry.

Tom Russell - Folk Hotel BookThe CD itself—Tom produced with Mark Hallman— is only part of the package-- they can be  purchased separately or as a bundle. The other and essential part is the accompanying book—Folk Hotel: Reflections, Paintings, Lyrics. It’s a collection of loving prose reminiscences that introduce each song, with complete lyrics and best of all, Tom Russell’s paintings that offer further glimpses into the bygone world of early folk heroes he recreates in this album of songs. There is simply nothing to compare with it in its devotional comprehensive survey of the modern folk revival. If you know nothing more about it than Tom Russell’s personal anthology of first-hand witnesses to this amazing period in American musical history you would be satisfied that you had a front row seat. It’s that convincing and that good.

The CD cover is just one of Russell’s paintings of the Folk Hotel (“of his imagination”)—and it makes you wonder if he is somehow related to another Russell—that would be Charlie, legendary western painter. Tom Russell’s paintings are as good as his songs, and that is saying something. They are stunning in their vivid world-enhancing colors—making the real world appear almost dull in contrast. And each figure jumps off the page in glorious shapes that rivet your attention and make you just want to sit down as if at a gallery and survey its depths of imaginative appreciation for the inspiration behind it. They are somewhere between realist and impressionist—with the capacity to create wonder in the viewer—a wonder that grows with each viewing. This book is thus a complete work of art—of many dimensions—visual, detailed and beautifully told in its essays and fully realized in its poetry and music condensed into great songs. Tom’s Folk Hotel adds immeasurably to the landscape of modern folk music—it is a towering achievement. It has Grammy written all over it.

The CD face art painting makes the literal connection between the “Folk Hotel” of the album cover and the real Chelsea Hotel which inspired it. You see its real name on the CD—which Leonard Cohen first memorialized in songs Chelsea Hotel # 1 and # 2—two versions of the same song that became notorious when he revealed the name of the woman he met in the elevator at 3:00am. He apologized for his indiscretion and seemed to be genuinely sorry for it—for a time. But in following years he told so many versions of the genesis of the song and who inspired it that Tom Russell wisely avoids the subject altogether in his reflections on and painting of Cohen in the book—which take a far more personal turn. The great singer he portrays in the song never mentioned it—and showed a lot more class than Cohen in her ability to keep a secret. That unmade bed will always be unmade—that’s the power of great art—despite his character failings.

Tom Russell with Ian TysonOne more story needs to be highlighted: Tom Russell’s indelible portrait in words of cowboy singer and painter Harry Jackson—in the chapter called “Folk Hotel Cowboy Bar: Harry Jackson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ian Tyson and Peter LaFarge.” Ramblin’ Jack is his primary source, which begins like this:

Last time I saw Harry was in Cody, Wyoming.

He was showing us his paintings and stuff.

People in Cody were afraid of him.

He was kinda’ eccentric…he was loud spoken and brash.

He was an ex-Marine, and there ain’t no such thing as an ex-Marine.

And yet Tom Russell is all too painfully aware that he simply did not have time to tell everything he might have wished to.

So rich is this treasure trove of memory and imaginative reconstruction that Russell ends his book with enticing hints of untold stories yet to come—in an unnamed future memoir:

“If I could have made this enough of a book,
it would have had everything in it,” to borrow from Hemmingway.

Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Phil Ochs, John Herald, Karen Dalton, Bud & Travis, The Kingston Trio, Gram Parsons, Judy Henske, Tom Paxton, Jean Richie, Oscar Brand, and a dozen others could have checked in with a multitude of songs and stories. I’ll leave that to my coming “memoir.”

That shows you the central integrity of the book—there are no “celebrities” in it, or wandering the back-stages who did not get in it this time around-they are all true folk singers, all from the heyday of the modern folk revival, and all with whom Tom Russell had some personal connection; in short, they all, at one time or another, stayed at “The Folk Hotel.” Their stories are part of a larger story that Tom Russell has tucked away and found every way he can think of to bring to life—songs, essays, anecdotes and paintings. He has brought folk music in its great tableau out of the dark closets of long-stored and cherished memories into the bright sunshine of waking dreams and day-to-day reality.

The same holds true of the CD, which contains 14 songs, including a lovely re-imagined pure folk version of Bob Dylan’s folk-rock Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, with Joel Guzman on mystical accordion and Joe Ely on harmony vocal. Here is the track list:

1. Up In The Old Hotel

2. Leaving El Paso

3. I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses

4. The Sparrow of Swansea (For Dylan Thomas)

5. All On A Belfast Morning

6. Rise Again, Handsome Johnny

7. Harlan Clancy

8. The Last Time I Saw Hank

9. The Light Beyond The Coyote Fence

10. The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane

11. The Day They Dredged The Liffey – The Banks Of Montauk – The Road To Santa Fe-O

12. The Rooftops Of Copenhagen

Bonus Tracks – physical version only:

13. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

14. Scars On His Ankles

The CD also contains a third painting from the book—The Sparrow of Swansea, (co-written with Katy Moffatt), a haunted-looking Dylan Thomas, in the CD tray—which reveals itself when you lift out the CD. Thomas’ last words, “18 straight shots of whiskey—I believe that’s the record,” are tucked in the first song. And Thomas’ wife Caitlin’s response is as startling as it is justified. The Welsh poet’s life and death are so large it takes two songs to do it justice.

Dylan ThomasThe final song is—in Dylan’s spirit—nine minutes long, a musical-storytelling (like a Lead Belly cante-fable) portrait of Lightnin’ Hopkins—the only blues singer he says who truly scared him—to accompany Russell’s wonderful painting of Lightnin’; the song is Scars on His Ankles. Lightnin’ is quoted: “All you gotta do is keep singing then go count your money.” But Russell’s chorus distills a life in a few simple lines:

He had scars on his ankles

Where the chains from the chain gang cut his skin

A barber towel ‘round his neck

So the sweat and blood and whiskey could not sink in

Half pint of whisky in his hip pocket

So the head tearin’ up process could begin.

The song swings back and forth from chorus to story woven into an amazing performance of epic Homeric proportions. It recounts the true story (some taken from a previously published memoir) of Grover Lewis’—a fellow Texan who is a white writer—dramatic struggle to meet and become friends with Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins until they realize they have more in common than they could have imagined.

In the wake of Charlottesville—where race hatred and anti-Semitism on the part of white supremacists led to the murder of 32-year-old white civil rights activist Heather Heyer—this chastening song raises one’s hope that black folks and white folks may still find common ground. It may be an unexpected but welcome source of moral leadership (when none is forthcoming from the White House) for a modern blues song with no political agenda on its mind, and yet it becomes a parable—quietly but eloquently revealing a better America than we have seen lately and we need not be afraid of.

That is why folk music still matters, and Tom Russell has penned some secular hymns to this country (there are a number of songs on the album—listen to his inspiring portrait of Harlan Clancy—portraying without lecturing on racial tolerance) that are larger than he knew—dedicated to the ideal of brotherhood celebrated in America the Beautiful.

Scars On His Ankles, is a masterpiece—just like the entire album. There is nothing superfluous on it—a true folk expression with Tom’s beautifully played acoustic guitar at its heart, accompanied by some wonderful guest musicians including Eliza Gilkyson, Augie Myers, Redd Volkaert, Veronica Sbergia and most memorably Max De Bernardi playing lead acoustic finger-style blues guitar on Scars on His Ankles. Wow!

Tom Russell’s new CD and accompanying book Folk Hotel are flat-out certified solid gold masterpieces. Gracias! NARAS, are you listening?

Tom Russell will play McCabe’s Saturday February 17, 2018, 8:00pm.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton and belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at