There is a long line of troubadours armed only with an acoustic guitar and sometimes a harmonica sitting in front of them nestled in a holder that have given us Folk protest songs. These are sometimes full of humour but usually are about the injustices of the world pouring scorn on the politicians and rich and their treatment of the poor who struggle. The main influencer, arguably was Woody Guthrie, who influenced the likes of Phil Ochs and Pete Seger, who in turn supported one of the greatest folk singers of modern times, Bob Dylan.
These American singers influenced similar British young men in the sixties such as Donovan and David McWilliams, and then over twenty years later came Billy Bragg who revitalised the fight in young people to become politically active by mixing politics with punk. Currently the main exponent of this type of music is the brilliant Frank Turner, and also the likes of Sean McGowan and Will Varley.
However there is a new name to add to the list, who fuses the UK and the US and is producing music more akin to the pure protest songs of Woody, and Bob. This fusion started in Derby and ended up in Nashville. His Name is Josh Okeefe and he has a sound far beyond his years and I think he is ready to pick up the mantle.
The young folk troubadour’s highly anticipated full-length debut, Bloomin’ Josh Okeefe will be released Friday, May 29, 2020. The 10 track album of original material penned by Okeefe was recorded live by the late Grammy-winning Charlie Brocco (George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac, George Michael, Kacey Musgraves) over the course of two sessions at Nashville’s historic Columbia Studio A, and mastered by Grammy-winning Greg Calbi (John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) at Sterling Sound, Edgewater, NJ. So the production of this album has quality and heritage as part of it’s DNA and a simple front cover with an image of Josh taken by Tim Duggan, and the track listing. This is very reminiscent of those great debut albums of the sixties from the aforementioned Bob Dylan and David McWilliams.
Like the best of folk music, Bloomin’ is simultaneously simple and complex, effortlessly cutting across geography, race, class and political chasms with the powerful album opener We’re All the Same. a concept that remains self-explanatory yet increasingly difficult to put into practice. The video starts with a nice piece of narrative and is filmed with Josh busking, as many artists have, including Billy Bragg. The content of this beautiful song is frustrating familiar, and should not be a message that has to be articulated, but still needs to be.
The tour de force on the album for me is Thoughts And Prayers. The lyrics are very clever, and the story telling is reminiscent of some of Bob Dylan’s best, angry work. Josh’s intonation along with the use of guitar and harmonica (not used in the video) also reminded me of Bob Dylan’s early work. The story is about how easy it was for Nicholas Cruz to obtain the weapon that he used to murder 17 young people at the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Following the massacre the anger of students grew into a politic force against the American gun laws and they took on the politicians and the National Rifle Association. The anger of those students and the meaningless of the platitude ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you’ shines through this song. This song stuck with me from the moment I heard it.
Son of the Working Class is a tale worthy of Dickens in which our hero bids goodbye to his lass to return to Derby, penniless and clearly heartbroken, but still hopeful of “promise in the promised land.” On the album the tune also offers the one deviation from the rest of the album’s guitar-harmonica instrumentation by adding banjo.
“I left my harp box at the pizza shop prior to recording the song, so we had to fill the musical gaps between verses with a banjo that was laying around the studio,” Josh explained.
Whilst the majority can be considered as traditional folk, do not think that Josh is a perpetually angry young man-type, he can, and does elicit humour from the storyline of such tunes as Talkin’ Neighbour From Hell, which finds our lead characters sprinting “down the road like Usain Bolt,” in pursuit of a mistakenly (or was it maliciously?) towed Opel. His talking blues style is reminiscent of Britain’s King of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan, but his accent and the references are pure Derby including the line “I looked out t’window, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Josh Okeefe blends the gritty realism of his Derby upbringing with a love for American music, adding to these enlightening flashes of wisdom and wit. Sage yet youthful, richly detailed and eminently enjoyable. Josh has honed his craft before releasing this album, and it has to be heard to be appreciated. There are a mix of stories and styles, and the mix of American styling and Josh’s Derby accent make this a very interesting and unique album.
The 4,115 miles that troubadour Josh Okeefe traveled from his birthplace of Derby, to his current home of Nashville, Tennessee, tell just one small part of a nomadic life in music which actually spans generations and encompasses myriad genres, traditions and disciplines. Although a relatively new artist, the young guitar-and-harmonica-playing singer-songwriter delivers unforgettably potent lyrics with the gravitas of a seasoned veteran. Attesting to his versatility and wide appeal, Okeefe has also had his songs recorded by Nashville-based major-label artists Ashley Monroe and High Valley, among others.
Having performed sold-out shows from California to New York and from Nashville to London and Glasgow, Okeefe has shared stages with legends including Kris Kristofferson, playing for a crowd of 10,000 at London’s Kenwood House for the iconic songwriter’s birthday celebration. He’s also performed with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Alison Krauss and Rufus Wainwright, among many others.
In addition, he’s appeared at protest events, helping to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and at the site of the tragic 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in West London, where he performed an original song recounting the harrowing event. Much like the Thoughts And Prayers the anger was palpable in this song and the performance. It is beautiful for that reason and the simplicity of it. That is one thing that makes a great troubadour, and I think that Josh, just like the others mentioned in this article has it in spades. The video below was recorded live at Londons famous folk venue, The Troubadour.
Okeefe dropped out of school at age 16. Living briefly in numerous places including London and the seaside resort town of Brighton, Okeefe often slept on the floors of recording studios, music coffee houses and other small venues. After traveling to America in search of the places his music idols once roamed, he began writing songs at an astonishing pace.
Okeefe has earned coveted spots at major music events on both sides of the Atlantic including the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, Black Deer Festival and Glastonbury Festival for the first time in the summer of 2019, at the invitation of Billy Bragg, who maybe could see a baton being passed. He’s also made several BBC Radio appearances and is a featured artist on the popular YouTube channel GEMSonVHS.
So you have heard of Guthrie, Ochs, Seger, Dylan, Donovan, Bragg and Turner. I am sure that once you have heard Bloomin’ Josh Okeefe , you will remember the name. The album can be ordered from Josh’s website and you can find out more about Josh Okeefe on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
Photography by Cora Carpenter (unless stated).