How can I even begin to describe Josh Okeefe? Firstly, it can’t be done without a keen sense of history (which he clearly has) and, more importantly, his position along that continuum.
Woody’s Children is what Pete Seeger called the wave of early 1960’s Greenwich Village pilgrims (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Peter Lafarge, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton).
A decade later, legendary Broadside Magazine co-founder, Sis Cunningham, sat in her upper west side New York apartment with Pete Seeger, and a handful of 1970’s singer-songwriters. Sis pointed to me and said “Peter, these guys must be Woody’s grandchildren.” She would know: Woody used to live in the apartment with her and Friesen.
If her pronouncement was accurate, then at very least, Josh Okeefe is the standard-bearer of “Woody’s great grandchildren”. But he is so much more than that; and you don’t need to understand history to appreciate his remarkable talent.
It also is easily tempting to say that he answers George Jones’ question “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (Barnes & Seals); because he clearly has that original Grand Ole Opry traditionalism flowing from his guitar and his voice, though his lyrics hold so much more.
His song “Cigarettes” is more haunting than anything I have heard out of Nashville or Austin in years and has a hook that would have made even the old songsmith maestros of Music Row smile. Like Josh himself, it is a complex delivery of traditionalism and sly commercial appeal.
I swear, I can feel the haunting ghost of Johnny Cash nodding approvingly to Mr. Okeefe’s “Border Town”. J.R. would have done that song if he’d heard Josh do it.
Speaking of which, his duet with Cora Carpenter on “Jackson” is not at all an imitation and his riveting hammer-on / lift-off guitar work behind it genuinely leaves you empty when it abruptly “Folkways-style” ends on an un-sustained upbeat.
His cover of traditional “Darlin’ Cora” is at once bluegrass, Dylan, Sammy Walker, and Woody Guthrie.
And THAT is the thing about Josh Okeefe and his music: it won’t fit into a box, no matter how we try to stuff it into one. Just when you think “oh that is like…so-and-so”, he fools you with just the opposite of whatever label you have found.
The harp is definitely Dylan-esque, even down to the sustained intakes; then on the same album he has a dust-bowl-sounding anthem to … a soccer team, of all unexpected things.
This young import from Derby in the UK (pronounced “darby, by the way, for my fellow Americans) carries my native southern Appalachian traditional sounds to new urban (and worldly) contemporary stylistic interpretations that have to leave modern audiences hungry for more.
Clearly he has a few years of performance under his belt; but he has found his place; and the amazing thing is that all along it was inside him and was the real Josh Okeefe.
Almost 50 years ago, Phil Ochs, Rev. Fred Kirkpatrick, Gordon Friesen, Pete Seeger, Sis Cunningham, Moe Asch, and I were talking about creating a topical music project called “I Hear America Singing” (from the Walt Whitman poem). Our stated goal was to find a way to encourage a next-generation of what we called “anti-tin-pan-alley” singer-songwriters who would musically speak from their heart and not be afraid to speak the truth. Phil, Kirk, and Gordon died before we could make it happen. I became wrapped up in journalism. Sis, Pete, and Moe became legends. And, I guess, we all just assumed it was over.
I have to tell you, for decades when people have asked me “why were you on Folkways and how did you end up in the Smithsonian?”, I would glibly say, “I was the last of an epoch”.
Well I was wrong. We were wrong. Completely wrong. Josh Okeefe is here. He is the past; he is the present; and he is the future. He is awesome.
He can play the Ryman and he can play the Bitter End. He can play the Bluebird and he can play the Troubadour. And they will all love him.
He can pick on a porch in Gastonia North Carolina and he can sing at the NYU student center. He can rally a crowd at the Height entrance to Golden Gate Park and he can take center stage at Lincoln Center.
He is an outlaw and he is commercial. He is topical and he is light. He is a poet, a musician, a writer, and maybe a prophet.
It is my honor, and a humbling privilege to get to write these notes to introduce you to the GREAT Josh Okeefe.
– Gary Green