American folk songs record a history of oppression and have often fueled the fire of protest. Folk artist Jake Xerxes Fussell’s music endeavors to sustain these working-class musical traditions while reinterpreting them for the modern age.

Jake Xerxes Fussell. (Jake Xerxes Fussell / Facebook)

Lead Belly’s dead. Bob Dylan lives in Malibu. The Gaslight Cafe is now a craft cocktail lounge. No matter — there is still folk music to be found in New York City.

In Red Hook, at an acute angle between the Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, you’ll find the Jalopy Theatre. Partly supported by public funds, it stands at a proud three stories as the premier theater and school for traditional music in New York City. I have come to the Jalopy to meet the critically acclaimed recording artist who is helping to carry the torch of traditional music for a new generation.

Jake Xerxes Fussell greets me with a cheerful smile, looking like St. Nick after a fresh shave. His hat is emblazoned with the name of the Eno River, the waterway running through Durham, North Carolina, where the native Georgian now lives. Most of the time, especially while he’s on stage, the hat’s tilted brim shrouds his eyes. But every now and then, Jake throws the cap back to reveal a bright and steady gaze, devout as a Baptist.

But doubt is the shadow of all devotion. “It’s not totally clear in my head what I do,” he tells me in the apartment atop the Jalopy. “I try to minimize the preciousness with which I approach the subject. But also to have some sense of reverence or respect for the sources. So that’s a funny balance.”

Later that Tuesday night at his sold-out show a little further north in Brooklyn, Jake sang about working conditions on push boats, peaches growing on sweet-potato vines, tending cattle, and the perverse jubilation of remarrying by Monday after losing your wife on a Friday night. Each of Fussell’s four albums contains a song about either a mill or a mine. He sings about South Carolina and Arkansas and Florida and Georgia, laying down tracks like a railroad across the American South.

Certainly these subjects classify Fussell’s music as folk music. But what exactly is folk music? We could quote the Coen brothers’ Llewyn Davis, who said, “If it was never new, and never gets old, it’s a folk song.” We might also consult the late eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who coined the term folk, and saw each distinct folk as being linked by language, geography, and common cultural units. A folk song, for Herder, would be a song created by one such group and represents the spirit of that community and the traditions that produced it.

In American history our folk were often sharecroppers, sailors, ranch hands, miners, railroad men, domestic working women, and other members of a distinctly American working class.

In our postindustrial age the idea of isolated communities linked by their own traditions is a quaint and anachronistic one. In American history our folk were often sharecroppers, sailors, ranch hands, miners, railroad men, domestic working women, and other members of a distinctly American working class. Our folk songs cataloged a history of oppression and often fueled the fire of protest. To sustain these archaic working-class musical traditions in today’s alienated society takes, paradoxically, a cutting-edge and forward-looking imagination.

Romancing the Folk

In the crowd favorite “The River St. John,” Jake sings:

I’ve got fresh fish this morning, ladies

They are gilded with gold

And you may find a diamond in their mouths

They are just from the River St. Johns, St. Johns

They are just from the River St. Johns

“That came from a field recording of a guy reenacting his childhood memory of fishmongers in South Carolina,” Jake tells me. “It was recorded in the late thirties for the WPA,” meaning the Works Progress Administration, a public works New Deal program. “It was titled ‘Fishmongers Cry,’ just an acapella street cry. There’s a whole tradition of vendors selling stuff like that.”

So Fussell sat at a piano to find some music to put the cry to. Eventually he was fingerpicking the tune on a Fender Telecaster older than he is, his signature sound. Each new verse is punctuated by a strong major chord, but by the time the vendor cites the source of the fish, Jake is singing over a forlorn minor chord. Because how gleeful really is the cry of a man selling fish on a hundred-degree day in the humid Sandhills of South Carolina?

Naturally there is a separation between the folk and the modern musician who interprets their traditional music.

One tradition that Fussell is not interested in is that of “romancing the folk.” He shares his admiration for the great American folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who said that the “idealization of the pastoral can only exist when there is an urban elite or privileged class that is separated from the idealized peasantry by education, social position, and economic resources.” Naturally there is also a separation between the folk and the modern musician who interprets their traditional music. Fussell grows pensive whenever our talk turns to the question of authenticity, which it does often.

He downplays his bona fides, but Fussell comes to his craft honestly. He is the son of a schoolteacher and a museum curator, and their household was full of local and regional folklorist friends when Jake was coming up. Traditional musicians on tour or field recorders fresh off a trip to Alabama to capture some local tradition on tape would stop in for dinner.

“It’s part of why I’m not interested in romancing the folk,” says Jake. “I grew up around people who were traditional musicians but were very much part of their present world. They weren’t part of any kind of pastoral, locked-away society that was encased in amber.”

One such traditional musician was the iconic Georgia blueswoman Precious Bryant. She had no driver’s license, and as a teenager Jake would drive her to her performances. Precious took a shine to the young musician, ultimately teaching him how to pick the guitar with the Piedmont flavor now synonymous with Fussell’s own playing.

“She taught me while wearing tracksuits in her mobile home,” he says. “In a way that sounds like I’m verifying my own authenticity or something, but what I’m saying is that she was a part of the present world.”

The Southern Style

The apartment atop the Jalopy Theater is occupied by native Greenwich Village folk musician and Brooklyn Folk Festival director Eli Smith. Guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, banjolins, every stringed instrument in the folk orchestra adorn the apartment walls. We end up in the kitchen, where what looks like the first reel-to-reel tape recorder ever made sits with a half-finished album still in the deck for Jalopy’s label, which Eli codirects.

“If you are in New York then you’ve got to have some authentic matzo,” says Eli, finding space on the counter for a block of cheese and a pizza box full of the unleavened bread.

Jake stays with Eli whenever performing in New York City. Their friendship was forged while working at a record store in San Francisco in the early aughts. How did a good old Southern boy like Fussell end up out there? An age-old tale: “I followed a girl to San Francisco,” he says.

After the fling flamed out, Jake settled with his sister in Oxford, Mississippi, a town steeped in a Southern folk tradition more literary than musical. “I couldn’t really find my people there,” he says, “musically speaking.” Eventually he ended up pursuing a degree in Southern Studies at the local university, where he researched the forgotten fiddle music of the Choctaw, an indigenous people from the Southeast.

It was living out west that got Fussell interested in his own Southernness, because “everyone would comment on my accent, which I don’t really think I have.” He says this through an accent so Southern that I think he must be messing with me, but he’s not.

On trips to Memphis from Oxford, Jake learned the music of the Mississippi hill country from its progenitors. He linked up and started performing with the Reverend John Wilkins, son of legendary gospel-blues singer Reverend Robert Wilkins. He also had a weekly residency where he honed his own voice and sang his shade of folk music at a loud bar to uninterested college kids. It would take years for his music to find a wider and more attentive audience, but eventually it would.

Folk Costumes

The matzo really is excellent. The conversation in the apartment passes from Woody Guthrie to the Kingston Trio to the present day.

“Folk revivals always come about in crisis,” says Eli. “The 1930s, the ’60s, and even now. During crises people look for something authentic and comforting.”

With issues of labor struggle and civil rights taking center stage post-pandemic, it does feel like we are cycling through the song of social struggle.

“I mean look at Taylor Swift’s record a few years ago,” says Jake. “It was called Folklore.”

“She jacked our hashtag!” says Eli, laughing.

“I actually kind of liked that record,” confesses Jake.

I also like the record, and say so. The music on the album has little to do with folk traditions, but the album’s title and branding are drawing on something folk-ish. I suggest that Swift is doing what Rinzler warned against: abstracting and romanticizing the concept of folk.

Folk revivals always come about in crisis. The 1930s, the ’60s, and even now. During crises people look for something authentic and comforting.

Eli, the more radical of the two soldiers of folk music, comes to Swift’s defense, acquiescing that there is some genuine folk influence in her music. “I mean, everything’s traditional in some way,” he says with a shrug.

But surely, I say, there is no denying that what Jake and Eli are doing is markedly different from artists who wear folk like a costume. Jake isn’t quite so sure. “I think all music performers have to have a shtick,” he says. “There’s also a big tradition to that. Everybody presents something. And in a way, I’m wearing a costume, too.”

“Woody Guthrie wasn’t working on the railroad,” I say.

“That’s right,” says Jake. “There is a certain distance between me and some of the traditions that I draw from or am inspired by. And maybe that’s problematic on some level, it probably is. But I feel that art’s full of problems.”

I think Jake is selling himself short. His music is more artistic and socially conscious than, forgive me, Swift’s. Like Guthrie’s it can be understood as protest music, but the protest is far more subtle. I ask about “Washington,” the closing song on Jake’s newest album. It is a gentle, funereal ballad, with only one verse of lyrics repeated over and over:

General Washington,

noblest of men,

his house, his horse,

his cherry tree,

and him.

The lyrics were plucked off a late nineteenth-century hanged carpet that Jake saw in a book of textile prints. “It had this sort of funny depiction of Washington. And it had that little verse stitched on it. But I thought, how am I going to sing about General Washington? I’ve never been a patriotic person, and I don’t really admire George Washington. I certainly don’t think of him as the noblest of men.”

And like a chorus we return to the question of authenticity.

“So for me,” he says, “a lot revolves around that cherry tree thing, which we know is a myth to begin with. It’s a narrative that you’re told as a kid when you grow up in this country. And it’s about lying. But it’s a lie. So to me it became a song about the lies that we inherit and tell about this country and its greatness.”

The Modern Robber Baron

Jake invites me to tag along on some preperformance errands. He makes room in his minivan. What did I expect? A railcar? Horse and wagon? But the minivan is the authentic expression of his current life: back home in Durham, he and his partner are raising a small child.

It’s only been a couple of years since Jake was able to quit his day job at one of Habitat for Humanity’s used appliance and furniture stores. While his first record came out in 2015, it was his third, the 2019 album Out of Sight, that promoted Jake to the status of full-time recording artist and working musician. And his 2021 record, Good and Green Again, has done even better.

We ride some surface streets. To our right, covering a chain link fence, a huge advertisement for some artisanal whiskey reads: “From the mines of Rosendale to the stills of Red Hook.”

Our talk turns to the robber baron of the day: Spotify.

Jake supports the campaign from the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, an upstart union seeking to create a standardized streaming music royalty program.

“The Spotify thing is absurd,” he says, speaking about the streamer’s exploitation of artists. “I think the more transparency and the more outspoken artists and other people in the industry will be, the more things will change. It’s not a real sophisticated philosophical debate. There’s a number and it should be changed up to that number. And then artists would actually make that amount.” Jake supports the campaign from the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, an upstart union seeking to create a standardized streaming music royalty program. The campaign has the support of Representative Rashida Tlaib, who plans to submit a resolution to Congress on the issue.

We stop at Jake’s manager’s apartment to pick up two more boxes of merchandise. The minivan is already lined with unopened boxes of Fussellian merchandise to be sold on the upcoming tour. He’s got records and CDs — the traditional way to support a recording artist — and T-shirts and posters. I ask Jake about “merch cuts,” a term I’d never heard but saw the day before on his Instagram.

“A lot of the bigger venues and some smaller venues will take a cut of your merch sales. Without any real reason, it’s just a standard practice. And it can be anywhere from 10 to 35 percent.”

This seems like an incredible tax to impose on artists.

“It would be one thing if artists got a cut of the bar sales,” he continues, “but you don’t. The amounts that they’re taking in from merch cuts compared to what the venue takes in any night is really chump change for them. But for an artist trying to get down the road it’s a lot of money.”

We park outside the venue and walk a block or two to grab a drink. We end up in a dimly lit gay bar called Macri Park, where we are the only patrons. Some employees are tapping away on laptops at the other end of the bar, planning an event for the weekend. We order a pair of ales: pale for him, ginger for me.

“The question on everyone’s mind,” I say, “is what’s with the name Xerxes?”

Jake laughs. “That’s the question on everyone’s mind?”

It’s Jake’s real middle name. “I was named after one of my parent’s friends, the Georgian potter Dorris Xerxes Gordy.” Jake goes on to tell me about how he signed up for in order to investigate this matter more. Turns out Xerxes was a very popular name in the South around the turn of the twentieth century.

Our ales half-emptied, Jake strikes up a conversation with the bartender Molly about RuPaul’s egalitarian attitude toward licensing fees — between live drag shows, the bar also screens RuPaul’s Drag Race. Jake’s eyes drift to a small triangular stage, fit for one, in a corner of the bar. I suspect he’s thinking about the performers, their terms and conditions, how the venue supports them, and how they support themselves.

I ask him about his greater ambitions, as his albums have been doing better and better upon each release, and he has toured across this country more this year than any other.

“I’d like to have a monthly residency somewhere in Durham,” he says.

Tricky Amplification

When I arrive at the club later, opening act Joanna Sternberg is in the middle of an excellent set. The place is packed, overflowing into the small lobby. I ask the sound engineer if I can sit up in the balcony with him. I perch myself on a broken chair and hover over the room like a raven.

Jake appears from behind the red curtain, worn down Telecaster in hand. He’s greeted with applause and cheers. He plugs in his guitar, strikes a quick chord to check the sound, and starts fingerpicking “Jump for Joy,” the opening track to his second record, What in the Natural World. After excitedly indicating that they recognize the song, the crowd falls quiet.

Jake’s amp begins to crackle unexpectedly. He can’t tolerate it, and asks the crowd if it’s okay if he takes a short break to solve the issue. The sound engineer rushes to the stage. After a bit of unsuccessful tinkering, he replaces Jake’s classic Fender Deluxe Reverb with an inferior house amp, sourced from somewhere deep in the bowels of backstage.

Many musicians, especially in today’s age, get their power from their guitars or pedals or amps. But for Jake, there is clearly something deeper at work.

Jake starts “Jump for Joy” again and you’d never know it wasn’t through his preferred amplification. For Fussell the gear seems secondary. In fact, when not playing his collectible Fender Telecaster, he carries it the way the rest of us might carry a bag of groceries. Many musicians, especially in today’s age, get their power from their guitars or pedals or amps. But for Jake, there is clearly something deeper at work.

With his sonorous and booming singing voice, which showcases his Southern accent, he captivates the crowd for ninety minutes. They cheer loudly after every song, to which he responds softly, “Thanks y’all.” Sometimes he’ll mention where he learned the song from: a fellow Georgian taught him this one, he learned that one from some family’s songbook, and so on. But when he grows too uncomfortable hawking his own authenticity, he upends the formula. “I learned that one on the range,” he says, after performing a song about cowboys. “Psych! I’ve never even ridden a horse.”

The crowd is focused, rapt. Only a handful of people pull out their phones to record and upload their favorite tune to their Instagram stories. And even for them it seems that fifteen seconds is enough, that their instinct tells them the real story is in the club tonight.

Banjo Versus Bail

A few days later I recall Eli’s statement about people looking for something meaningful and authentic during times of crisis. Is this how to square my experience in the club that night with the despair of waking up to read the news of President Biden blocking railroad strikes, or Congress voting for nearly $900 billion in defense spending while people struggle to afford health care?

I text Jake, looking for solace from the songsmith, to ask if music is the answer.

“I don’t have much confidence in the ability of music to change things on a material level,” he says. “Music-as-political-tool works when you realize it’s just a projection of an ideal and not a literal tool with results. If I were in jail, the last thing I’d want someone to bring to get me out is a banjo. I’d rather have a lawyer and some bail money.”

Not the solace I was hoping for. He goes on, “Music is just one part of a conversation that reflects culture and the culture is changing all the time and repeatedly folding back over on itself in funny ways.”

As in an ageless folk song, there will be another verse, another chance to beat the railroad tycoons and stop senseless wars. In the meantime, we’re lucky to have folk musicians to speak to the struggle and remind us whose side we’re on.

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