Imagine you are a Plains states farmer in the early twentieth century. Scorching summer hits, and horrible drought ensues. Dependent on the dead or dying crops, hard times rush towards you and leave you helpless and faithless. And yet, you are still hoping for a miracle, a rainstorm, to heal your own personal Great Depression. This is the world presented by singer/songwriter William Elliott Whitmore with his 2006 release Song of the Blackbird. Whitmore tells this tale of survival both through his sparse, traditional musical arrangements and excellent lyrics for any era. As good as any concept album in recent years, Blackbird is sure to be a hit with anyone that loves traditional music, deep, growling vocals, and superb songwriting.
Even though Whitmore is a 28-year old white man from Iowa, he sings with the soul of an elderly black man moaning the blues on his porch under the hellish 1930s Alabama sun. His Tom Waits-like vocals have never sounded better than they do on Song of the Blackbird. As with his previous two albums, Whitmore keeps his musical arrangements small, effectively playing most of the instruments himself, including guitar and banjo. On a few tracks, however, Whitmore gets a hand from drummer John “Crawdaddy” Crawford and Dave Zollo on piano and Hammond organ. Piano hasn’t been a staple of his past releases, but it adds a great deal of quality to two featured tracks. Indeed the music is solid, but Whitmore chose wisely to keep it from dominating his incredible voice, for it truly is Blackbird’s most noteworthy instrument.
With the exception of a couple of songs, musically, Song of the Blackbird is almost identical to Whitmore’s previous albums. What makes it his strongest record is the songwriting. Whitmore has always been a great lyricist, but this time, the entire album is one long, complete story. This sort of concept record isn’t tried often, and for good reason because most of the time, the effort falls flat on its musical face. Not so with Blackbird. The tale begins with the banjo-and-vocal song “Dry,” which sets the stage for the deadly drought. This simple arrangement gives away for the piano-and-organ filled “The Chariot”: an album standout that finds Whitmore questioning his faith. “The Chariot swung low and sweet, but it could not carry me home,” he howls. The now faithless voice then concedes that he is “not bound for glory, but for flames” in the eerily quiet banjo number “One Man’s Shame.” The banjo is replaced by guitar for the mournful “Rest His Soul,” where the voice reflects on the journey he’s shared with a departed loved one, whom he seems content to let rest in peace rather than suffer along with the dying land.
This could have been the end of a terribly sad, but solid EP. But then, something happened. The rain came, and it came in hard musical sheets. After a two-minute instrumental intermission that ends with the sound of heaven’s blessed teardrops, the “Lee County Flood” begins. Whitmore’s driving banjo simulates the rain, which sounded like “a thousand horses’ hooves.” Even though the rain is harsh as it floods the land, it is welcomed with open arms. As a result of the watery miracle, the remaining songs are used for lessons and remembrance. “Take it on the Chin” finds a father using the horrible drought experience to teach his son about the nature of life. The next number, “Red Buds,” brings the piano and organ back to give the song a religious feel. For Whitmore, nature and spirituality are synonymous, and his gospel-like delivery of such lines as “when the rain beats down on a poor man’s head” drives home his message. The song successfully gives listeners the same feeling of new life as the people who suffered in this musical story. The final track, “Everyday,” wraps things up well, as a survivor remembers a loved one who wasn’t so lucky, regretting the pain he had put that person through. It is an appropriate way to end Song of the Blackbird: an outstanding musical representation of nature’s life cycle.
In today’s world, where soulless, lifeless pop music dominates radio stations across the country, we are lucky to have artists like Whitmore who can tell powerful tales like Blackbird. The collective musical voice of the working man is quickly disappearing, with its most influential artists either already dead or aging. However, so long as life continues to thrive inside the body of William Elliott Whitmore, the American farmer will always have that strong voice to get behind. If he were alive today to hear Song of the Blackbird, Woody Guthrie would be proud.