For The Sake Of The Song: Charlie Parr “817 Oakland Avenue”

Photograph by Shelley Mosman

When I started to think about writing something for this section of AUK, I was overwhelmed. So many songs are important to me. There are those that are talismans, almost magic incantations that I rely on to get me through hard times. And then there are those that I keep going back to for the music or the poetry of the words.  I figured it was going to be an impossible task and that as the deadline was approaching, I should just pick one and get on with it. Then I went to check my email and saw under my signature the line that goes out with each message I send, and I knew what I had to write about.  The line is “Can you remember what it’s like/When all the world’s filled with light” from Charlie Parr’s song, ‘817 Oakland Avenue’

Songs about light have always moved me.  Both Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’ and its much-quoted line “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” and the Grateful Dead’s ‘Scarlett Begonias’  “Once in a while you get shown the light In the strangest of places if you look at it right” are both on my much played list.  But it’s Parr’s song that I use as part of my signature.

It might be because of the simplicity of Parr’s sound. It’s appropriate that he records on Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings. These could be songs Alan Lomax recorded along the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana. It is not just the sound of Parr’s National Resonator, nor the blues notes he plays. It is the picture he paints of a quiet lake, ‘up North’ in Minnesota on ‘Blues For Whitefish Lake 1975’ and the neon crucifix in “Walking Back From Wilmar.”  It’s singing how ‘the rhythm of the water put me out just like a drug’ on ‘Fading Away.’

Parr’s talking blues style makes you kind of wonder if he ever sings the same song in the same way twice; it’s like sitting with him as he tells you what he is thinking and feeling while playing clear notes that almost relieve the pain. He sings of the hurt of everyday life — that makes the blues universal.  It’s usually just him and whatever he’s playing, generally his National resonator guitar, a fretless open-back banjo, and a twelve-string guitar, often in a Piedmont blues style.

Parr’s been around for a while, a good two decades at least. His first album, ‘Criminals and Sinners’ was released 2002.  While his music is infused with the blues, he’s not from the Delta. He’s from Bob Dylan’s North Country.  He was born in Austin, Minnesota, home of Spam, a factory that makes most of it, and the Spam Museum. He now lives in Duluth, a Lake Superior port town. I first stumbled onto him when with I heard  ‘Last of Better Days Ahead’, his 17th album.  The album’s title song drew me in cause I once sold a 1964 Falcon, but the song that keeps me coming back is ‘817 Oakland Avenue’.

The song opens with a great guitar part that just raises you up.  The tune is light and enlightening like the bubbles in prosecco, and then Parr starts singing, and the lyrics keep your feet on the ground; earthy and nourishing like a rich bowl of beans with a side of sourdough.  And while comforting, they are also challenging.  Parr ask a lot of us, without being preachy.  He is like the guy I know outside of Sainsbury’s singing beautifully while he sells the Big Issue, compelling without ever guilt-tripping anyone.  Parr reminds those of us fortunate to have enough – to be grateful.

Enough to eat: “Has your belly ever been full//And have you fed your family too/Does your table have just a little more room/Then spread it around, do”
Enough shelter: “Are your blankets soft and warm/Does the roof above you keep out the storms/Can you save someone else from being cold/Then spread it around, do”
And then Parr brings it all back home: ‘It’s true about love/It’ll die if it’s covered up/It’s got to be all given away/So we can all feel the heat of its rays.”

So while I love the images of Grosvenor Square, where I worked for six years, in ‘Scarlett Begonias’  and of course so much more in that song, and the haunting inspiration of ‘Anthem’, it’s ‘817 Oakland Avenue’ I turn to over and over for a lift, for a lesson and for the sheer joy of listening. It is songs like this that keep me listening to all my old favourites and it is the hope of finding songs like this that keep me listening to new ones.

About Michael Macy 49 Articles
Grew up in the American Midwest and bounced around a bit until settling in London. Wherever I've been, whatever I have done, has been to sound of Americana. It is a real privilege to be part of this site, discover new music and write about it.
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