DAMIEN JURADO at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Tuesday (October 3). $10.50. 416-777-1777, 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
According to Damien Jurado, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie ruined folk music.
Before you start getting all hot under your hemp-cloth collar, relax. Jurado's not questioning the two strummers' value as vital artists in 20th-century music.
But although he came of age immersed in the zine-and-cassette hurricane of late-80/early-90s punk culture and is passionately invested in his private, personal values, the scratchy-voiced Seattle-based singer/songwriter thinks capital-P partisan politics has no place in folk music.
"Take Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music," he begins. "I couldn't find one political song in that entire box set. Politics didn't seep into folk music, it seems, till the 60s. It's a shame, cuz in that moment artists were no longer singing about the people as a whole. It's alienating: what about all the people who are poor and downtrodden but don't share Seeger's and Guthrie's political beliefs?
"My kind of folk genre comes down to storytelling," he continues. "Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or a fascist or a socialist or a communist, I want you to relate to it."
That doesn't mean Jurado's making music devoid of critical content. The man brings a profound awareness of class issues to his songs, documents of hapless characters trying to stay afloat in small-town America.
His latest CD, And Now That I'm In Your Shadow (Secretly Canadian), continues along the dark, rugged trail he's been blazing notably well since switching labels from Sub Pop to Secretly Canadian with 2003's Appalachian-twangy Where Shall You Take Me?
Listen to a tune like What Were The Chances, which casts the grasping desperation of an adulterous affair between two parents in webbed layers of guitar and a devastating overlapped back-and-forth between Jurado and cello-playing bandmate Jenna Conrad and you can see that the man is more a social historian than a conventional pop songwriter.
Jurado draws on a childhood spent in transit, moving with his parents between small-town shitholes and low-income housing in larger cities.
"In big cities there's more awareness of bling, more emphasis on fashion, more attention on big bands. In small towns, they don't have the same awareness, or," he catches himself, "it's more that they don't really care.
"When I was a teenager in a coastal town in Washington, there were fewer than 100 kids in my middle school. I remember having fantasies about going to Seattle and New York because of reading zines about the punk scenes there. Besides me, only one girl at my school was into that stuff; the rest of the kids were rednecks.
"Needing to create my own influences drew me to punk music and also folk music, " Jurado says. "Both are singing about the common people."
The common people who populate Jurado's songs are generally really, really fucked up, faced with dilemmas they're not sure they're capable of solving. Most of the time, they're too paralyzed to even figure out whether they want resolution.
The narratives can feel brutal, but Jurado writes in a way that makes his tunes a gold mine for interpretation. Both weird-folk sister act CocoRosie and Mojave 3 main man Neil Halstead have re-envisioned the song Ohio, off Jurado's 99 Rehearsals For Departure (Sub Pop) disc, in fantastically different ways (Halstead even rewrote the lyrics).
Still, Jurado sometimes worries he's too much of a downer.
"The B-side to every turn toward darkness is that there's always redemption. Unfortunately, it doesn't come up in my music much.
"I think every day, from the moment you wake up to the time you go to bed, you're given two paths," he adds. "I don't know why people ever decide to stay on the right one. Maybe it's conscience. I just feel like I can be a real big bummer cuz I withhold hope. I'm afraid it'll backfire and I'll hear, "Dude, I can't listen to this any more. You're bringin' me down. '"