American Folklorist

Peter Keane, Not a Singer-Songwriter

First a refutation. Although undeniably thin, bespectacled, and balding, Peter Keane is not now nor has he ever been a so-called "singer-songwriter." He's never sung of the hot, dusty road on a cold, rainy night nor the rapture in the eye of his winsome Texas girl as seen through the beer-stained haze of smoke and neon. Further, while Keane plays acoustic guitar exclusively, he really is a musician, not some hapless strummer mewling lifeless rhyme, nor a frustrated thespian taking the easy way to the stage.

What the 33-year-old Cincinnati native and Austin resident is, however, by both acclamation and his own admission, is a folk singer. "I don't really mind it, if I have to be categorized," says Keane. "I mean, if Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt are folk singers then I'm honored to be considered one too."

A quick glance at the credits to the 29 songs on Keane's 1992 debut The Goodnight Blues, and its recently released successor, Walkin' Around (both on Flying Fish), confirms that Keane, like Elliott and Van Ronk, is no ordinary folk singer. That Keane's myriad empathies stretch comfortably from the pre-dawn of American folklore to his own latter-day-derived originals is evinced by simple statistics: Mississippi John Hurt is covered four times, Bob Dylan twice, Bob Wills, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Eric von Schmidt, Richard Fariña, and Tim Hardin once each. While the ever-popular "traditional" song credit is cited only once, it's an attibution that could apply to Keane's own songs just as well.

"I don't see the necessity of reinventing the wheel, and having it come out wobbly," says Keane of his songwriting efforts, laughing. "I'm not aping any particular style, but I am very conscious of the fact that I am working in established forms and I put a great deal of effort into finding just the right words to express -- not so much a personality per se -- but a certain perspective that complements the songs I choose to interpret. I'm flattered when people say my songs sound traditional, but I'll tell you, I'm not that good. It's a hard-won simplicity."

Keane is also a fingerstyle guitarist of remarkable subtlety and is careful to point out that "a song for me is not so much about words as the way the voice and guitar work together." This point seems to elude most of Keane's riotously inept contemporaries, who, for all their blather about "words and emotion," ought to have stayed home a few more years studying the pages of such lithesome virtuosos as Bill Yeats and Louis Zukofsky.

A more cogent account of Keane's brand of individual traditionalism can be gleaned in a statement made by the great harmonica player Tony Glover towards the end of the classic instructional book, Blues Harp: "You can add to the language, turn your own phrases, maybe make some of your own forms -- just remember that you're adding onto a foundation that has already been laid, and if you want your additions to fit in, they should be in the same form. Putting a steeple on a ranch-style rambler would be a wig, true, but it wouldn't be a rambler house anymore and you wouldn't fool anybody by saying that it still is."

Those words were first published in 1967. Bob Dylan, whom Tony Glover had recorded singing folk songs in Bonnie Beecher's Minneapolis apartment in 1961, was recuperating from dissipation and injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident he'd gotten into as he was leaving West Saugerties, New York -- where he'd been playing with a rock & roll band called Levon and the Hawks in the basement of a pink house. Keane was then four years old and living with his family in Cincinnati. A year later, he would begin kindergarten and eight years after that, he discovered Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume One in his parents' record collection.

Unlike most American teenagers in 1976, Keane was not particularly interested in rock music. The music of Mississippi John Hurt, whose records Keane discovered in the Cincinnati Public Library, had an immeasurably more profound influence on the young Keane than any of the shaggy, bombastic epigones who were considered Dylan's "rock contemporaries."

In the process of learning to play guitar like Hurt, Keane also discovered the music of Dylan's immediate folk-scene forebears, including Elliott and Van Ronk. Likewise, Keane began developing an abiding interest in both black and white rural music of the Twenties and Thirties when he, like many others before him, had the fortuity to come across the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Compiled by Harry Smith and released by Moses Asch on his Folkways label in 1952, the anthology broke down into three volumes, "Ballads," "Social Music," and "Songs," and reissued an astounding array of music, both secular and sacred by seasoned professionals and inspired amateurs alike, all recorded between 1927 and 1932, and largely unheard since. The true historical import of Smith's work is yet to be fully appreciated, but to hear the Carter Family side by side with Blind Willie Johnson, Cannon's Jug Stompers with Doc Boggs, and Charlie Poole with John Hurt remains a powerful, disorienting experience.

In 1981, the echoes of the folk boom that the anthology had set off could still be heard, however dimmed, in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Keane had moved to attend college. "While still in Cincinnati, I had read Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney's Baby Let Me Follow You Down, which is sort of an oral history of the Cambridge folk years, say from the late Fifties to the late Sixties, and even though I arrived long after the fact, I still had the opportunity to meet many of the people who had been involved in that scene."

Amongst those many, two figures in particular greatly impressed Keane. One was the legendary bluesman Paul Geremia, an outstanding guitarist and singer whose brilliant, improvisational performing abilities remain undimmed to this day. Another was Bill Morrissey, whose acclaim as a songwriter ought not obscure his deep, abiding appreciation for the folk process, an appreciation so fervent that Morrissey has produced and performed on both of Keane's albums.

"One of the very first things that I appreciated about Bill," says Keane, "was that he really knew the music, from Robert Johnson to Slim Gaillard and Charlie Parker all the way to Merle Haggard, and what Bill did was use that background to make his own personal statement. My goal is to find something of myself inside that music and carry on what I feel to be a living tradition. "

Keane's Boston years were a boon personally, as well. Although he wears his degree in English from Harvard lightly indeed, Keane speaks reverently of the education he received in Cambridge, particularly at the Harvard radio station WHRB, whose extensive record collection provided Keane with many a musical revelation. It was also at Harvard that Keane began working as a librarian. "I began working there as a student and I continued after graduation, part-time, while playing as many shows as I could the rest of the time." Keane's relentless performing schedule earned him a substantial Boston audience, with other pockets of interest scattered throughout the northeast and midwest.

After 13 years of living in Boston, however, Keane was ready for a change. Weary of the Boston weather and what he felt to be a degenerating club scene, Keane moved to Austin in August of 1994. The attractions of Austin's climate, both musical and meteorological, are well known, yet Keane was also drawn to the Capitol City by the University of Texas, from which Keane received his master's degree in library science in 1995. Currently, Keane is employed as a librarian at the Perry Castaneda Library, but he has played the Austin folk circuit regularly since his arrival and continues to do so. Although Keane greatly laments the demise of the Austin Outhouse, he remains otherwise enthusiastic about the opportunities available to him in Austin.

Foremost among those was the recording of his second album, Walkin' Around, this past February. "I had been talking to Rounder [the Cambridge-based label that owns Flying Fish] for years about the possibility of doing something with them. My guess, although I'm not sure, is that since I had moved out of Boston to another area of the country, I seemed more attractive as somebody who can sell records for them. Also, I think Bill Morrissey really helped convince Rounder that now was time to do something with me."

Morrissey flew in from Boston to produce and stayed with Keane in his Hyde Park apartment for the whole of the three weeks it took to rehearse and record. "This was his project," says Keane. "He was the producer, and he's recorded a lot of albums and brings a lot of experience to the process -- plus we've known each other for a long time and Bill knows me well enough to be able to get the best out of me in the studio."

Whether or not Walkin' Around is the best of Peter Keane is another question altogether, and one deflected by a Keane who adamantly refuses to consider any of his recordings to be definitive. "There were some things we might have spent too much time on the last album, so this time we figured, we're going to try and get what I have now in a couple takes and go with it.

"It's a paradox -- it's more of the moment but hopefully it will sound fresher longer. Of course, you always look back and think this or that could have been done differently, but it's those kind of imperfections that make it seem more real to me, more true to the moment." n

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