‘This Chain’ album by George Mann celebrates the radical minstrel tradition

This Chain is the latest in a veritable, uh, chain of albums released by the hard-workin’, hard-travelin’ George Mann, singer-songwriter bard of the veterans’ homes, the senior centers, the fellow travelers, and picket lines. He still holds high the lofty banner of unions and the working stiffs, the hobos and societal rejects, those we’ve lost, and those, still ambulatory, who remain with us to fight the good fight.

George knows who he is and where he comes from—a long chain of mentors and idols to whom he pays shameless tribute both by reviving some of their more poignant numbers and by writing in their spirit in his own original songs. He still prominently features his longtime collaboration with Julius Margolin, who died in 2009 at the age of 93, a maverick working-class pamphleteer in song to the end.

This Chain includes 11 songs, four of them by some of his minstrel heroes—Utah Phillips, Si Kahn, Townes Van Zandt, and county singer Roy Acuff.

The present collection, recorded in 2023, encapsulates the mood of much of the country right now: Tired, let down, fretful about the future, not expecting miracles at this stage of life, hopeful at least about the humanity of the little people, and still struggling to find decency in the world, and to be loving and honorable.

The title song was written in Covid quarantine upon returning to California from his 2022 Australia tour, in the temper of Utah Phillips, who often apostrophized in song an unusual, memorable character he’d met. “The Chain” honors a U.S. veteran, Tiff, whom George had gotten to know on his senior facility rounds. Tiff looked a little like Utah Phillips, and George burned a couple of his CDs for Tiff to listen to—in hiding because his son objected to Utah’s radical views. Literally on his deathbed, George sang “Starlight on the Rails” to Tiff, a wistful look back at a ramblin’ life, perhaps even past the point of trying to make sense of it all. And as George sang, Tiff took the chain with the cross and seagull off his neck and passed it on to the singer. “This story is mostly true, though I might have exaggerated some of the details in the writing process,” George winks.

The “chain” clearly has multiple levels of meaning—not least, the shape of its deployment on the album cover, which resembles the map of Australia.

One of the bards George honors is Pittsburgh’s Anne Feeney, whom he paints as a kind of Joe Hill and Mother Jones rolled together, who apparently died of Covid. Anne would go anywhere, anytime to spread the good cheer of labor solidarity. She was “on fire in a crowd but ‘Just as Dangerous Alone.’”

“Terrace in the Sky” eulogizes the view George once enjoyed from the roof of his New York apartment, looking down at the George Washington Bridge, “and I could see the whole west side of Manhattan, all the way down to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. A premonition, perhaps, of chickens coming home to roost….” The vista was perhaps “too beautiful…maybe I’m way too high to see.”

“If I Could Turn Back Time” reflects on his life, the mistakes he’s made, what he wishes he could fix. “I’d try to make some adjustments” by speaking up when he had kept quiet, for “we can’t let the bullies win.” This song may be more upbeat than ruminative if you think about all the young people around the world today who are speaking up, refusing to “let the bullies win”—all while making the mistakes they, when their time comes, will also live to rue.

“Down in the Dumps Tonight” echoes a feeling state many can identify with: “If the tornado don’t get you, the madman at the shopping mall will…. The future seems so full of promise and hope, but you’re down in the dumps tonight.”

“Tell Me About Woody Again” was written at Beluthahatchee, the artist’s retreat in Florida where Woody Guthrie had spent several months and written many songs toward the end of his rambling in the early 1950s (and which Anne Feeney had visited as well). Seemingly autobiographical, George recounts a childhood full of Woody Guthrie songs and stories from his father, which he and his older brother Jimmy relished as their bedtime treat. If I heard the song right, it seems to imply that Jimmy did not make it home from Vietnam—yet another casualty of the tragic clash of American ideals and practice.

As his final cut, George turns his ear to “The Wreck on the Highway”—not the Bruce Springsteen song by the same name that was inspired by Roy Acuff’s country song from the 1940s, which itself was a cover version of the Dixon Brothers’ 1938 “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” A car crash occurs on the highway, the “whiskey and blood all mixed together.” At first, the inclusion of a song like this might seem just a novelty, perhaps an indulgence. But it could be a metaphor—and maybe it was back in 1938, too: for a nation brought to the brink by its own mistakes and failures, by its lack of sobriety, by its disregard for life. As George Mann explains, “The refrain ‘I didn’t see nobody pray’ seems apropos in these times.”

George is one Mann on a mission—to remind his listeners of the rich vein of human solidarity that runs through our musical songbook, and to which he belongs. We can never be reminded of that too often.

George’s website has lots of information about this album and his previous work, as well as his touring schedule. He was thrilled to bring back the core musicians from his recent albums—Michael Wellen and Doug Robinson in the rhythm section, Rich DePaolo handling so many guitar parts and harmonies, and Molly MacMillan on piano and keys.

George Mann
This Chain
Running Scared Productions, 2023
41 minutes

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.