“There is something noble about a man whose art is unchanged after nearly half a century.
Bob Frank still amazes me. – Jim Dickinson
Bob Frank is, unabashedly, a folk singer. While others cloak their musical identity in such euphemisms as “singer/songwriter,” “Americana” or “roots,” Bob represents nothing so much as a continuation of the folk music movement that reached its apogee more than forty years ago -- about the same time Bob started writing and singing songs, songs that told stories, songs that decried injustice. Folk songs.
As a kid, he wanted to play the songs he’d heard Gene Autry do and, so, he got himself a guitar and cowboy songbook. When the folk boom happened, he realized that those “cowboy” songs were really American folk songs. Bob Frank had found his calling and became part of the nascent folk scene in Memphis, his home town.
After kicking around Memphis in the early ‘60s, playing the folk circuit there with the likes of his friend Jim Dickinson, he went off to college in Nashville. He didn’t last long at Vanderbilt U. as he was summarily kicked out of that august institution for playing his guitar in the dorm – the acoustic equivalent of disturbing the peace.
Bob hit the proverbial Big Time with a major label deal that saw the release of “Bob Frank” on Vanguard Records in 1972. Bob, ever the contrarian, saw fit to perform an entire set of songs NOT on the album at the release party the label threw for him at Max’s Kansas City in New York. Needless to say, there was no Bob Frank follow-up album from Vanguard.
In fact, there was no Bob Frank follow up from anybody else for quite a while. Bob moved out west and took up residence in the East Bay where he worked as an irrigation specialist for the City of Oakland (a “ditch digger,” according to Jim Dickinson). His folk music career lay fallow for about thirty years when he discovered – via the miracle of the internet – that he had a cult following. Yes, the album that Vanguard released in ’72 had spawned a cadre of Bob Frank obsesives both here and in Europe, Australia and Asia who spent considerable time online speculating what had become of the enigmatic troubadour. When Bob appeared at a clandestine folk festival deep in the Carolina woods thereafter, he was amazed to be greeted by thousands of fans who came out to see the legend in the flesh after all those years.
Bob, at last, resumed actively recording and performing. One of Bob’s songs, “Red Neck, Blue Collar” found its way onto the Memphis International album debut of his old friend Jim Dickinson a/k/a James Luther Dickinson who had recorded his music previously during the course of his own sporadic career as a recording artist. This planted the seed of the idea with the label to release a full album of Bob Frank songs by Bob Frank.
As it happens, Red Neck, Blue Collar is the title song of Bob’s album, out February 19th from Memphis International. The songs, all in the folk tradition, reflect economic disparity and class struggle, Bob’s observations on religion, patriotism and what might happen when you meet a wine-o in a Laundromat. These are straight up folks songs that show that Bob’s songwriting gifts, melodic sense and homespun vocal chops are still very much intact after all this time.
A rundown of the album’s tracks:
Red Neck, Blue Collar – Certainly a song in the Woody Guthrie tradition but more than relevant these days as the gap between the super rich and everybody else widens.
Canebrake – Bob paints a picture of a swampy outing that evokes flora and dense fauna one would find in the wilds of his native West Tennessee. Notes Bob of the contribution of Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars who guest on the track, “They really added to that feeling of the song.. you can almost hear the steam rising from the track.”
Judas Iscariot – This one came to Bob in his sleep after contemplating a copy of DaVinci’s “Last Supper” in a somewhat altered state. Literally, he dreamt up this talking blues-style narrative describing the events leading up the crucifixion of Judas Iscariot’s “Gypsy sidekick.”
Coming Into Glen Rock – The heroic truck driver in this story faces a decision when his brakes fail: save yourself or save the kids in the road. He makes the right choice as Bob pays homage to the legacy of Red Sovine and Dave Dudley. He claims the scenario described in the song actually took place in Glen Rock, PA, his wife’s home town, back in the early 1950s.
Holy Ground – An old timey, hillbilly song that’s reflective of the tradition of Appalachian mountain music. Who says they don’t make ‘em like they used to? Bob Frank certainly does.
One Big Family –This one was written for an Oakland City Employees’ union rally; it explores the disparity between the working and ruling classes and the hypocrisy that surrounds the myth of economic equality. It asks the question “Why does their ass ride first class while I’m barely staying afloat?”
Out On The Prairie – A beautifully descriptive cowboy song that Bob wrote back in the late 60’s. “I’d drink a lot of wine, imagine something and write a song.” He imagined something very beautiful, it seems.
Pledge of Allegiance – Bob’s wonderfully thoughtful rumination on the lip service paid to “God” in the pledge of allegiance.
Little Ol’ Cabin Home – Wherein Bob ponders life in the rural South and evinces a deep appreciation for that way of life.
Incident at the Laundromat – Bob’s “down and out” days are revisited in this narrative which describes an encounter with a sorrowful wine-o.
Monroe, Louisiana Pipeliners’ Brawl – Bob certainly knows whereof he speaks/sings in this one. He worked on a gas pipeline in West Point, Mississippi years ago. Nobody has a greater appreciation of salt-of-the earth types than Bob and this one has them slugging it out with great gusto.