Reggaebilly – Peter Rowan
From landmark albums such as Dustbowl Children and All on a Rising
Day to nascent compositions with Earth Opera, Peter Rowan has attempted
to create an American mythos. His songs often reflect the plight of
Americans at the time of the great expansion. Often in these pieces, the
themes describe the imperialist concerns, the anticipation of the sedentary,
and indigenous groups forced into servitude (as the "Land of the Navajo"
The similarity to Bob Marley, the reggae luminary, appears like a grand
fissure, given Marley's worldwide reputation. However, beyond recognition,
Marley and Rowan are remarkably commensurate. Marley wrote and sang about
the arduous struggle of the hoi polloi, and the soothsaying grasp of the
elite. When Marley wrote, he created a new music for Jamaica and the world,
while also constructing a palpable history for future children to comprehend
dictatorial regimes acting via Manifest Destiny or complaisant supremacy.
Therefore, Rowan's latest foray into reggae with Reggaebilly should
not come as a major shock. First awestruck by Marleys music in the 1970s,
and first performing with a reggae ensemble in 1984, Rowan has found another
ethnic music perfect for his political leanings. At the same time,
Reggaebilly not only represents the lyrical connection between the
two musical styles, but the remarkable rhythmic similarities of the two
idioms: the two are separated only by the beat chosen to accentuate, either
the 1/3 or the 2/4.
Rowan's immersion in and knowledge of reggae appears patent from the opening
strains of "Pulling the Devil by the Tail." Consisting of an irresistible
reggae beat and melodic sensibilities, Rowan's high lonesome voice fits well
with the island genre. Where, in bluegrass, Rowan would yodel (ala Monroe),
here, he astutely holds and floats between notes. His voice's originality
does not reflect any heard in reggae, which aids in distinguishing Rowan
from the myriad of yearly releases. Examining the lyrics, they are somewhat
more banal then Rowan's previous work. "A fistful of dollars, a handful of
Belize, way to make a living, pulling the devil by the tail," he sings,
adding another ode of the layman's transgressions to the reggae canon.
Nothing paradigmatically moving, but still some pretty impressive reggae by
a well known bluegrass boy.
Compositions such as "Angel Island" and "Blue Mountain", however, reflect
Rowan's lyrical prowess. In both, he weaves a story of welter and fortune,
of the downtrodden leaving behind culture for monetary salvation. Often,
such economic attempts are dissembled for the first person speaker,
discovering the perils of leaving behind "Angel Island" for another life.
Rowan has consistently written about such themes throughout his career, but
in the reggae format adds a renewed earnestness and intensity. Rather than
contemplating the desire for a settler to achieve salvation, a now
antiquated perspective, Rowan's presentation of an emerging culture's
questing youth resonates in a more lofty way than that of our current
On other selections, such as the ancient mountain songs "The Cuckoo Bird"
and "Little Maggie", Rowan reveals the proximity of reggae to Appalachian
music from their respective inceptions. Particularly "Little Maggie", with
lyrics of a woman sitting with a "dram glass in her hand", explores the
issues of depression and femininity. Regarding the idiom change, "Little
Maggie" becomes a reggae song extremely flaccidly because of the rhythmic
issues. By changing the given beat and slowing the song down some, the piece
fits perfectly into the reggae realm. The proximity of Kentucky and Jamaica
closer then first considered.
Rowan does not reinvent reggae, nor does he usurp even the most rudimentary
musings of Bob Marley. However, Reggaebilly reveals not only Rowan's
new passion but some of his finest, newest compositions. Much like his
previous work, Reggaebilly has a voraciousness and empathy which
distinguishes the album from other peoples disingenuous attempts. Bill
Monroe might be flummoxed, but Rowan obviously understands the possibilities
in other idioms through his kindred spirit Bob Marley.