Pokey LaFarge travels the byways of American music

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

Pokey LaFarge is a traveling man. Has been since his teens when he left his Illinois home, where his name was Andrew Heissler, to head west.

He had his mandolin and his stories with him. He also took with him a love of music and history first nurtured by his grandfathers and put that together into songs he sang on the streets.

He ate from trash cans. He slept where he could.

Now leading his own six-piece band, he travels by bus and plane and eats good food. Still, he agreed, that this was busking in grand fashion. “Traveling has always been the essence, the heart, of what I do,” he said in a recent interview.

LaFarge’s wandering ways will bring him and his band to the Black Swamp Arts Festival where he’ll perform a Main Stage show, Saturday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. He’ll also perform on the Youth Arts Stage at 4 p.m. that day.

His music is rooted in the music of the American heartland and in a time when jazz, country, blues, ragtime and vaudeville shared a cradle. And the stories his music tells are, too, reflecting the way we’re pulled into the future, sometimes reluctantly, but never able to surrender our past.

Certainly things have changed, said LaFarge, who now calls St. Louis home. “A professional musician has a lot more responsibility, a lot more work,” he said. “But it’s better than sleeping in the ditch.”

Some things haven’t changed. “My sense of curiosity that led me out into the world has not waned at all.”

He’s still curious to hear new stories, learn new things, hear new sounds, and “just keep an open mind.”

And being on the road fuels that curiosity. “I’m still traveling more than ever.”

His artistic longings first poured out onto the page when he was a kid growing up in central Illinois. He was interested in literature and started writing stories, and then some of those stories took wing in song.

LaFarge wanted to go beyond the music spoon-fed by mass media. So he picked up the thread of the blues and followed it. “I wanted to get under the surface and find out more where things come from. That’s a large network of music.”

He hungered for the authentic, organic, acoustic sounds, music rooted in a place, whether the Delta, or West Africa or Jamaica. He searched the library. “When I was in high school, the Dewey Decimal System was my friend.”

He’s still searching. “Now the internet is my friend. It’s amazing what you’ll find.”

That includes at events like the Black Swamp Arts Festival where he gets to showcase his music as well as soak in the sounds of other acts.

LaFarge is still kneading all those influences into his music, and said he hopes his next recording – he’s headed into the studio in October – will be a breakthrough.

Maybe the band will give a hint of that when they play in Bowling Green.

Even a peripatetic soul, though, needs to be settled for some tasks. It’s not until he gets home and unwinds that he can really pull his songs together.

He writes constantly, he said, poems, isolated lines, bits of stories.

“It’s not until a melody hits me that a song will start to form.” Then he’ll go back to a phrase he’s written down, and will pull together thoughts from other places. And a song takes shape.

Then on stage he releases it with his voice, and the voices of his bandmates. Singing, he said, is “cathartic.” Through singing he releases all the emotions, positive and negative.

That includes feelings about his native region, the Midwest. “There’s a lot of urban decay. That’s beautiful in a disgusting way. All the things that have come and gone.”

That image of the hard-working Midwest has become sort of a façade erected in the wake of white flight and the growth of suburbs. “The deindustrialization of the country led to an abandonment of a certain way of life and a certain identity.”

Now, LaFarge said, “it’s like the wild, wild West. We’re forging a new identity, and that’s an exciting thing. That’s the modern day. We see where we were and where we go from here.”

LaFarge is on hand to chronicle that journey and spread the story around the world.

 

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