When my friend T-Bone Burnett (center above) first proposed to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss that they do an album together, all he had in hand was that they were both great singers who respected each-other. When he began sending them tunes to consider recording, they both had to confront the fact that he was asking them to stretch across the traditional genres (Blues for Plant and Country for Krauss) that they had inhabited for years. The success of Raising Sand(Triple Platinum) speaks for itself.
But what’s really interesting is how their current tour is forcing the audience to cross these lines as well. A review from last night’s first New York show, demonstrates the dialectic.
Things closed in an elegiac manner with “Your Long Journey,” the tune that ends the album. Miller strummed a plaintive autoharp as Plant and Krauss entwined their voices like two sides of a story being told at the same time. After gently caressing the Doc Watson ballad of love, loss and eternity, they reluctantly relinquished their hold on the audience members, who were left to begin adjusting their concepts of what American musical traditions can mean in the 21st century, especially when they’re re-imagined by a British hard-rock king and a bluegrass-pop crossover queen.
This strange mixing of the coutry music of Appalachia and the blues of the Mississippi Delta is an eye opener for a lot of people including Robert Plant. In an interview with the Guardian a few weeks ago, he describes a tour bus stop on their progress into Tennessee.
Poking his head into a family restaurant, he saw “a 10-year-old, porky little kid with a hat on, playing fiddle like you wouldn’t believe, with a 16-year-old, 6ft 4in kid with a banjo, and the two of them were just standing on this little raised dais, while people were eating catfish, and they were just wailing. Why did I only think that Howlin’ Wolf wailed?”
Why indeed? I’ll try not to stretch the analogy, but it seems to me that the plaintive wail of poor people’s music crosses racial boundaries, in the same way that working class politics should cross racial boundaries. If Barack Obama can reach those Alison Krauss listeners, he will build a permanent Democratic Majority.