The Music of Fred Small
Everything Possible ~ 1993
This marvelous album was recorded at a live performance in Massachusetts, in 1993. With true Fred Small style, the audience is coaxed into singing along, even becoming the frogs and screaming populace, in a rousing rendition of "Hot Frogs on the Loose".
If you are anything like me, once you have heard this album, as with any Fred Small album, you will want to own everything he's ever recorded.
Australian listeners may recognize the sentiments expressed in the chorus of "Guinevere and the Fire", a song about a real occurrence in New South Wales, where a woman burned to death while her daughter sat frozen in terror of her neighbors, inspired by the "dirty people's" "tales of the devil's drums and the evil eye":
When packed, her canvas satchel
Could not hold the salt tears back
Turned to leave her home forever
Faced a woman gnarled and black.
"Child our hearts are heavy,
Grieving, for your loss.
We live so close by you,
Why did you not come to us?
We have salves to heal the burning,
We have herbs to stop the pain,
We could have helped, had we but known,
To make your mother whole again."
Stay away from the camp of the Blackfellas"
Little white girls have disappeared -
They drink and dance when the moon is red
Better never let 'em see your golden hair.
Those who remember the sight of Los Angeles burning, literally and figuratively, will be touched by Fred Small's touching musical rendition of the words of Rodney King's impassioned plea "Can't we all just get along?"
If you are a long-time fan of Fred Small's music, you may have experienced the frustration known to many people who work with small children - that of wanting to sing "The Hug Song" (a song originally written about a social worker fired for hugging people too much) with them, but finding that words like "sexual sublimation" and "electroshock therapy" make parents nervous when their young children are singing them. You're in luck! This album contains a completely child-safe set of words to this favorite of so many young children, complete with verses to take away the boredom of endlessly repeating the chorus:
" I want a hug when we say hello,
I want a hug when it's time to go
I want a hug 'cause I want you to know
I'm awfully fond of you.
I want a hug - what a wonderful feeling
I want a hug - want to feel you squeezing
I want a hug - it certainly seems
Like the natural thing to do. "
As always, this album contains too many wonderful pieces to list the merits of each one, individually, but it's easy to recognize that this album contains a rendition of what may be Fred Small's most famous song, the anthem of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays), "Everything Possible".
You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will,
You can travel any country where your heart leads,
And know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one;
And the only measure of your words, and your deeds,
Will be the love you leave behind you when you're gone.
There are girls who grow up strong and bold...
There are boys quiet and kind,
Some race on ahead, some follow behind,
Some grow in their own way and time.
Some women love women, some men love men;
Some raise children, some never do.
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything that's possible for you.
Jaguar ~ 1993
At long last, the former environmental lawyer releases an album with a song about more traditional environmental issues, such as the destruction of the rain forests. In "Jaguar", Fred Small captures the cries of the monkeys, as he asks "where will the jaguar go?"
I Will Stand Fast ~
A collection of Fred Small's strongest "Heart Songs", the ones which go straight through to your heart, and lodge there, like a lump in your throat, giving voice to all the things you've always wished you had the words to say, and everything you've ever wished that someone would say to you. This is the album to give to someone you love when you don't know what to say, but know that you want and need to say something. That's how it came into my life, and I will be forever grateful for the person who brought it there.
Fred Small writes so touchingly of the traumas and trials of the sexual abuse or assault survivor that it is hard to believe that he is not, himself, a young woman dealing with the horrific memories that incest makes of childhood. And, while he lays the pain and horror open, he says "I Will Stand Fast". And, for the survivor, on hearing this, a light breaks into the darkness, with the knowledge that someone has actually plumbed the depths of the darkness, and put it in words that prove that understanding, and still has the capacity to love us anyway...
The title song alone is worth the price of the album - and yet, it is joined by at least a half a dozen other tracks of equal strength and beauty: "Denmark, 1944" (which reminds us that we need not accept the decrees of Fate or the victors), "Scott and Jamie" (which will forever remind me in mixed grief and triumph of the obstacles and challenges facing my gay and lesbian friends as they seek to parent children to whom they are a blessing from a merciful Providence, and of what it can mean to overcome them), "Diamonds of Anger", "At the Elbe" (a memory of a time 'when Yanks and Reds were friends once', and when, in the aftermath of battle, 'these weary, happy men swore an oath that it must never happen again'), "Every Man" (an insightful piece on the stifling of men as they grow), and "The Hills of Ayalon" (a moving piece about peace in the Middle East) - not to mention the hilarious "If I Were a Moose".
Heart of the Appaloosa ~
This album goes from strength to strength -- sometimes too strong for me to listen to, too often. It opens with "The Heart of the Appaloosa", a memorial tribute to Chief Joseph, aka "Rolling Thunder", and his efforts to save his people from the betrayal and violence they face at the hands of the American government.
From there, it moves into the light-hearted humour of "Talking Wheelchair Blues", a marvelous glimpse of the challenges -- and strength -- you can find any time you step beyond the barrier separating the disabled from the rest of society at large; few "differently abled" or "temporarily able-bodied", people have the insight necessary to handle this subject in way that will make a person laugh and smile and nod in agreement, when they have been in that position, but Fred Small manages admirably, even finding some of the words which we have used ourselves, or at times, wished we had the ability to think of.
Next, we hear "Willie's Song", a sweet melodic remembrance of the friends we make while traveling, whether as a folk-singer (as Fred does, as do others of my treasured friends), or for other reasons.
Then the emotional intensity rises to a peak again, especially for those of us who have found ourselves on the "shadow side" of society, the side that society doesn't like to admit to -- whether because we love the wrong person, or have to take steps that society as a whole believes it has a right to deny us, or for other reasons; Fred does an eerily, nerve-wrackingly good job of evoking society's role as "The Face at the Window" -- and asking us, mutely, whether we want to live in that kind of a social climate.
But as always, with Fred Small's carefully-crafted albums, the intensity does not stay at that height for longer than we can bear, without being eased again by the optomism of which he is also a master, for that is his gift -- to stare the dark side of society in the face without blinking, and say "it doesn't have to be that way!" So we are reminded, with Fred Small's next song, the hymn, "Peace Is", a reminder of just why this young environmental lawyer became a Unitarian Minister, and just what it is that he believes that means.
All of that, and we've barely finished Side One of this remarkable album... Next we encounter "Annie", a marvelous song about a teacher whose colleagues are always trying to set her up on dates, because they don't know about the contented relationship within which she lives, and wouldn't recognize its validity if they did, because her partner is another woman.
Side Two begins with "Death In Disguise", a song which should, in my opinion, be in the collection of every Environmental Illness sufferer, every person with MCS, everyone who has ever wanted a way to communicate to others the emotional reality of what it is like knowing that you've done everything the way you were always taught was right, and still are confronted by death as a result of simply fulfilling the basic responsibilities of life.
But, true to his nature, Fred pulls us back out of the depths, while still facing life's hard realities, with "Dig a Hole in the Ground" -- a wonderful song about what it was like to grow up in the era of "Duck and Cover", when atomic war was expected at any moment, but we were taught that we'd be okay if we just got under our desks at school -- or "dig a hole in the ground, climb right on down, lay some boards on top of you and scatter dirt around; you don't have to be dead, if you only plan ahead -- you'll be glad you kept a shovel on hand". The simple absurdity of this premise makes this topic absolutely perfect for Fred Small's light-hearted treatment of it, even as he skewers the irrationality of the concept and holds it up to scrutiny in the light of truth.
The next song on the tape continues the war theme, but takes us back to a darker place in America's history -- one at which, paradoxically, the light of individual human will is able to shine at its brightest. When the war in El Salvador arose, and the US was starting to become involved by way of the CIA, again, people all over the country stood up in droves, some of them waving at the surveillance cameras documenting the demonstrations, and said:
"Take down my name
I ain't alone, I ain't ashamed
And I say U.S.A. out of El Salvador!
You can tell the Pentagon
We want no more Vietnams
We ain't marching into that jungle anymore."
But as always, Fred finds a positive place to leave us -- this time, with the true story of "Larry the Polar Bear", who was born in a zoo in Los Angeles, taken to Alaska for a movie shoot, and responded to finding himself in his true home by listening to his instincts, turning, and running away from everything that society had made him into, back to a life as himself, as a polar bear, in the wild. I suspect that Fred is telling us the message that I get from this closing song -- we always have a choice to turn away from the path we have been shunted onto by a society not of our choice or our making.
No Limit ~
This is the only Fred Small album I haven't listened to enough to describe it in detail. I think I was too overwhelmed by his previous albums to be ready and able to pay it attention in its own right. More about this album when I have an analysis of it to offer.
Only Love ~ 2003
As CD Freedom says on their site, "Fred Small's fans have waited seven years for Only Love, his seventh album, and he rewards them with his best work ever."
This album contain Small's unique blend of light and heavy emotional pieces deftly dealing with the issues central to our life as humans; from the one familiar piece on the album, "Not In Our Town", the story of the anti-bigotry menorah campaign in Billings, Montana; to the Zen hip-hop "Buddha behind the Wheel", and the achingly simple "Only Love", Fred's touch shows through them all. As always, Fred's distinctive musical style supersedes genre; "Nobody's Beauty" is a country-rock charmer that isn't just skin-deep, while "The Weed" sets to music a startling poem written by death row convict George Brooks, Jr.
But Fred Small isn't about preaching, at least not in his folk music albums; as described by CD Freedom, "the range of emotions evoked by Small's music is matched by the deft production of multi-instrumentalist Seth Connelly, aided by Billy Novick on clarinet and soprano sax, Al Gould on violin and viola, and Russell Lane on drums". But I don't need to be told that to know that it's good, that I want to own it. As I can say of VERY few artists, all I need to know is this: it's Fred Small.