The earnest buskers howling just above the decibels of their acoustic guitars while trains whip the wind which whips the hair of onlookers are our subjects. These were some people who used to busk often on the Metropolitan Stop on the G Train, which connects with the L train at Lorimer. This is one of the settings in which we find them.
One of them doesn’t seem to busk there very often anymore. But you can find him in the back of a bar on Wyckoff Avenue playing and singing in a church band. That is because the church congregates behind the bar.
This guitar player’s stage name is Workman Song. His other name is Sean McMahon.
Most of his songs make for a good road companion. The individual songs have in them the “everyone-will-eventually-die” exuberant nihilism that a back country dirt road cohabits alongside Hank Williams Sr. cassette tapes.
With that said, it may be more truthful to equate McMahon’s music with Kris Kristofferson on an iPod.
It is necessary to modify the nihilism mentioned above with “exuberant” because the music is not something that sits heavy on the soul, it actually just reminds you of the nothingness. The ambivalence invokes the soul weary and vagabond qualities belonging to the American tradition of the folk-and-country arts.
Folk and/or country do not properly describe the music. Taken at face value it is not folk music, it is personal music written by one of our contemporary musicians. Nor, is this truly country music.
It’s more so that McMahon’s music does not describe nor vibe with the sedentary lifestyle of people who make their living off of the land. However, it does seem to have the same desires that folk music requires – honest description of life and momentary transcendence via personalization.
This is an act of mercy and honesty on McMahon’s part – songs about daddy-scratchin’-out-a-livin’-in-the-dirt-while-mama-drinks-moonshine-and-mends-his-shirt ring hollow in an age of farm subsidies and Nashville music assembly lines. Even if they are clever send ups of that style.
So we’re spared from making Bob Dylan or John Prine comparisons.
In describing what this music is not, we have not defined it at all. In fact it’s only grown more obtuse at this point. For this reviewer definition is not the job here – because: this is almost certainly being read within proximity to an internet connection and the reader could simply skip the review, stream the music from somewhere else and judge it for themselves. Instead I’ve taken on the job of enlarging the parameters in which to appreciate what this music aspires to be.
Why is it important that folk music and country music be taken into consideration in setting these parameters? Because: These are from where the comparisons will likely stem in evaluating the music. These are the traditions being drawn from most heavily in this music. And without acknowledging them, it is from where the most confusion will be drawn as well.
Let us reiterate the profound injustice done to our understanding of folk music that most modern music reviewers commit in calling any singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar (with emphasis on songwriter) a folk musician. It is akin to classifying Elvis Presley a bluesman for his ‘uh-uhs‘. That is to say, he may be closer than you and I are on that scale, but saying it doesn’t make it so.
With this acknowledged we can hear frills-free guitar playing and wailing-longing voice without dismissal by ignorance. Let’s take it a step further and take in the words, which touch on themes of reconciling good and evil within. They aren’t narrative heavy, instead they lean on proclamations. These are what ultimately makes or breaks each song. The movement of the songs have the fluidness of a game of billiards between 1:45 AM pool sharks.
It’s one thing to hear the recorded music – which truthfully, will not suffice for the thesis of this essay. The only way to really find out about this music is to hear it live. Be it during one of the many multi-state tours he’s undertaken in the recent past or in a church/bar. Preferably, it’s on the subway station where he’s wrestling against the rush and wind of approaching and departing trains, possibly hungry and counting the quarters as they are tossed in his guitar case, getting into the zen of guitar playing, being so kind as to keep going even though your nose is buried in another part of your life and smiling when no one is looking.
It’s here that McMahon’s music thrives. Where it calls on the past, comfortably emanates in the present and manages to feel like it will always be here. But that is the great trick of the American tradition: it’s relatively young but feels ancient. We assume that it will always be around because it’s the background over which we live and die.
Back to the subway troubadours: another one always comes around sooner or later. But in New York everything can change quickly – it’s been a decade since someone smoked in a restaurant during the dinner hour. In the rest of the country differentiations are disappearing as quickly as definable regions. Check out the jukebox selection in the majority of the south. Listen to the music that people turn up loud in cars. Go anywhere else in the country. See if it’s any different beyond the margins.
Once you’ve done this, listen to this music again and make a tough decision: Is this the soundtrack to a disappearance, or is it more background noise?