Album Review: David Serby — Poor Man’s Poem
They say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. David Serby’s newest album proves the old adage, as his songs, portraying 19th century railroad workers and uprooted Sioux Indians, resonate when viewed with an eye on current events.
With Poor Man’s Poem, Serby departs from the Bakersfield-influenced sound of his previous three albums, instead following in the folky footsteps of protest singers like Woody Guthrie. The album, dedicated to “the American working class” whose struggles inspired the album, is brimming with masterfully written songs narrated by a cast that includes Steinbeck-ian laborers, crippled veterans, and teenage widows.
There’s an undercurrent of desperation that pervades the tales on the ten-song album as many of these characters, beaten down by life, lash out. In “I Just Stole Back What Was Mine,” a man who was taken for a ride by “a couple of San Fran bankers,” retaliates by holding up a stagecoach: “I never took no poor man’s purse/Nor robbed the mail line/Wells Fargo stole my gold from me/I just stole back what was mine.” The laudanum-addicted Civil War soldier of “Sugar Creek,” whose mangled arm can no longer hold his lover and leaves him only able to perform a menial job, acts out in a more self-destructive manner, reasoning that “nobody’s gonna miss [him].” The historically-based stories are heartbreaking enough on their own; when considering that they can relate to today’s financial issues and wounded veterans, they’re downright gut-wrenching.
The music is acoustic and beautifully understated, with occasional flourishes of accordion and harmonium, making it a perfect counterpoint to Serby’s vocals, which are far gentler here than on his three honky-tonk records.
“The world’s full of evil men,” Serby sings on Poor Man’s Poem. “That’s the way it’s always been.” Maybe that’s why we have folk music.
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