While this 2-CD set is his third studio album, I have to admit it’s the first time I’ve come across the Maine-based singer-songwriter who, aside from being a musician is also a published author of four nature/travel books, two about the Somerset Hills of New Jersey where he grew up, as well as a collection of poems in addition to being a public speaker giving talks on music, history, ghosts and spirituality.
With Ward playing any number of guitars, dulcimer and bowed psaltery and assorted musicians contributing cello, violin, spoons, bodhran and highland bagpipes, including former ELO Part II frontman Eric Troyer on keys, bass and drums, it’s a weighty set of songs, much influenced by the folk and folk rock scene of the late 60s and early 70s, with only two clocking in under the four-minute mark.
Vol 1 gets underway with the six-minute title track, the sound of crashing waves and bagpipes providing the opening backdrop to a spooked steadily jogging folk song recounting ghostly events along the Maine coastline involving a drowned lover, mourning maiden and suicide, her voice still heard on the morning mists, that could have easily come from the traditional canon.
The strummed waltzing and violin-coloured ‘Désirée’, on which Troyer sings backing vocals, offers a cautionary tale about falling for seductive but faithless femme fatales, and then his interest in local history is put to service for ‘The Ballad Of Joseph Martin’, a number that calls Country Joe McDonald to mind. To give him his full name, Joseph Plumb Martin, raised in Connecticut but born in Maine, was a private (rising to the rank of sergeant) in the Continental Army and Connecticut Militia during the American Revolutionary War, enlisting at 15 and becoming a hero and whose published memoirs of his experiences have served as a valuable insight into the conditions of the common soldier of the time as well as the battles in which he fought, including White Plains, Valley Forge and the siege of Yorktown. Sung in the first person, it recounts Martin’s story (subsequently serving as a justice of the peace and campaigning for the rights of veterans) but also, its chorus, serves as a salute to those who serve in the armed forces,
The fingerpicked, cello-adorned ‘Just For You’ is a gentle song (a hint of Tom Paxton perhaps) about parents seeking to ensure they raise their children with the love and wisdom they will need to make their own way in the world, while the choppier strum of ‘Satellites’ is for those reaching for the sun in times when the voices of truth and reason have been twisted, again evoking thoughts of such notable names as Seeger, Anderson , Ochs and Dan Fogelberg. Two lengthy tracks, both around seven minutes follow, the first being the simple fingerpicked ‘Piety Of Thieves’, a call out on those who “amortize salvation” and “equate wealth and power with the keeper of the keys” and somehow think their status makes them more important in the eyes of God, forgetting that, as the saying says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God“. Opening with a resonant bass line and pertinently tapping a similar mood to CSN&Y’s ‘Ohio’ (but also reminiscent of Country Joe’s War War War album), ‘Four Angels’ is a particular highlight based around the same events when, in May 1970, in a mass protest at Kent State University against the USA’s bombing of Cambodia, four unarmed students were killed and nine injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire. What makes Ward’s song so distinctive is that it’s told from the perspective a 19-year-old soldier involved, still haunted by what happened on Blanket Hill and the words “flowers are better than bullets”.
It ends, sung in hushed, soft voice, with ‘Dreams’, a simple strummed love song lullaby, while Vol 2 returns to a real life historical narrative and the Vietnam War with the urgent bodhran drive of ‘The Ghost Of Hugh Thompson’, he being the former warrant officer in the 123rd Aviation Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Division who helped stop the My Lai Massacre in 1968, threatening and blocking the American officers and enlisted soldiers who were carrying out the killings and subsequently testifying against them. As such, as well as celebrating the now forgotten hero, the song is a timely reminder about taking a stand for what you think is right in the face of wrongdoing.
A duet with Caroline Cotter, the poignant slow-waltzing ‘Longing’ is another social issues number, this time addressing the practical and emotional challenges faced with Alzheimer’s sufferers and their carers (“her late husband always would point out the way, now she can’t recall how to get home”), “cloistered and covered, confused, their wishes are tossed between promise and prayer, longing for lives they once knew”.
A bluesier slow sway number, ‘Truth (I Will Rise)’ takes the approach of Truth being a sentient being (“I have only five letters that make up my name, my siblings are Justice and Freedom”), caught up in a dangerous game and commenting on the state of contemporary America, once defended by patriots and tears but now distorted to serve political ends, yet refusing to be silenced.
Keeping the social commentary burning, fuelled by his involvement in a project to aid residents in rural eastern Kentucky, opening with clattering percussion and resonant baritone guitar ‘Long, Long Ago’ laments the decline of the coal industry with a stark Appalachian feel and a rhythm that strikes like picks hitting a seam. The call to action continues to sound with the chugging Guthrie-esque strum of ‘Are You Sleeping?’ as he declares “our society is bleeding” with everyone “wondering where to cast the blame”.
The album ends on softer notes, ‘Still Calling’, featuring David Rimelis on violin, is a brushed snare paced love letter to those who, for whatever reason, are no longer with us, while the stately, but slowly gathering slow waltz piano ballad ‘Endless Horizons’ looks back on childhood and forward to the paths and uncertainties ahead as we set out into the world. Finally, comes ‘Somersetin Lullaby’, a brief Spanish guitar instrumental paying nostalgic tribute to the land here he grew up, a wistful close to an album that burns with anger, beats with compassion and radiates with hope; it couldn’t come at a better time.
Artist’s website: https://gordonthomasward.com/
‘Piety Of Thieves’ – live: