Arts and Entertainment

The world according to Laura Love

Singer-songwriter-bassist Laura Love with Orville Johnson. The two, who played together in Harpers Ferry last year at Island Center Hall, team up again tomorrow evening. - Courtesy Laura Love
Singer-songwriter-bassist Laura Love with Orville Johnson. The two, who played together in Harpers Ferry last year at Island Center Hall, team up again tomorrow evening.
— image credit: Courtesy Laura Love

Laura Love and Orville Johnson play at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at Island Center Hall. Tickets at the door or in advance at Winslow Drug or the Park District office, 842-2306. A sample of their music can be found at the bottom of this page.

For the past eight years, promoters have told Laura Love time and again that they’d only hire her if she agreed not to say anything political onstage.

“There was this, ‘shut up and sing.’ It was kind of like the McCarthy era,” she said. “It was both implicit and explicit, that I wasn’t to sing or talk about political things. That I was supposed to support the war or be quiet.

“There was a quiet fear or dread that I had, this feeling of being on a list somewhere. Paranoia runs in my family, but in this case it was reasonable.”

Love’s act has always included political commentary. And her sound, set against her passionate, thumping bass, has been called unclassifiable. It’s a musical melding of funk, hip-hop, folk, rap, soul bluegrass, R&B, and regional tunes from all over the world that’s been referred to by turns as folk-funk, Afro-Celtic and “hip-Alachian.”

It’s anyone’s guess what Love’s Saturday set will bring to Island Music Guild; there, she’ll once again team with Orville Johnson, with whom she appeared in Harpers Ferry on the same stage just about this time last year. But it’ll be a funky hoot’n holler, for sure.

The source of Love’s diverse sound: her 1960s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places, where on the one hand the African American kid was generally a racial anomaly but on the other gained exposure to a wide range of genres right in her living room. Culture then “wasn’t so bifurcated and fragmented,” she said, and it wasn’t weird to love all types of music.

“When I was a kid, commercial radio was a lot more diverse than it is now. It wasn’t all Clear Channel and pap…you could hear the Weavers, Bill Monroe, Elvis and the Temptations in the same hour on a playlist,” she said.

The University of Nebraska had a large African student population – “God knows why” – which immersed Love in sounds that would further influence the playing and songwriting styles she’d go on to cultivate in so many varied forms over nearly two decades and 10 albums.

By way of example, 1997’s “Octoroon” gave us a plaintive cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” along with an anthem to racial pride, “Freak Flag.” 1998’s “Shum Ticky” offered the distinctly cheeky, African-infused feminist ode to body love, “Mahbootay” followed by, on the very next track, the Irish-tinged “Aha Me a Riddle I Day.” And on 2003’s “Welcome to Pagan Place,” Love pulled no punches in the funk-infused Bush bash, “I Want You Gone.”

“The overarching theme of my life is race relations, ‘isms’ – racism, classism, sexism, all of those things that really determine the trajectory of our lives,” she said

Then came “NeGrass,” full of straight-ahead bluegrass tunes and Negro spirituals, with the accompanying twang. Embracing this range of tunes, she said, came from the realization that her light skin, and the light skin of many of her black family members, had to come from somewhere; likely as not, it came from white slave owners way back when. Denying this music would be to deny her history, and she wanted an album that reflected musical, as well as genealogical, mesh.

“As black people became exposed, and in many cased band-aided to adopt Christianity, they melded the Jesus themes to their own harmonies and notions of song structure. To me, at first glance, you might think there couldn’t be anything more disparate than bluegrass and blues. But they’re very married to each other.”

So why do so few African American artists play bluegrass and folk? Last winter after appearing at Tacoma’s Wintergrass festival, Love mused along those lines on her blog.

“Let me say, too, how grateful I am that Festie-goers seemed to embrace the idea of having Black Folks who play roots music and were hugely influential to guys like Bill Monroe (see Arnold Schultz) included in a Bluegrass festival,” she wrote. “Only in the Pacific Northwest huh? Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to see a whole festival devoted to the likes of the Ebony Hillbillies and Ruthie Foster and Otis Taylor, etc? We could call the festival Black and Bluegrass huh?”

Her explanation has to do with ownership, and control – what any artist craves in his or her work. Early black music in America became “marginalized and trivialized” through minstrel shows, leading many African American artists to move away from instruments like the banjo and acoustic guitar that form the backbone of folk and roots music. As decades progressed, African Americans were again and again at the forefront of popular musical styles, only to see white artists adopt and get rich off their innovations.

“When a black art form reaches pop culture and becomes a part of the mainstream, and also when people outside the black culture have been able to capitalize on something they may not have created, I think it becomes odious and onorous and completely anathema to black people. They want to get off that and move on to something else,” she said.

That nasty historical residue, the wariness of having a culture co-opted only to be shut out, is a shame, Love said. Because there’s nothing wrong with acoustic instruments.

“Beautiful things happen, and sometimes beautiful things come out of the ugliest things around,” she said.

Last year, Love penned “Barack Obama Vote Song,” which harkened to folk protest music of the 1960s like “We Shall Overcome.” And in Obama, of whom she’s fiercely protective, she sees vast potential for cracking old cultural shells.

“I think he’s going to rally the arts,” she said. “He’s going to look at the nation’s artists as part of our worth as a nation. The artists in the Bush administration and in the Reagan administration were looked at as the enemy...and I believe he looks at artists as part of our national resource, and our national treasure.”

Thus, she said, whether or not she’ll ever be able to make a good living in music again is almost beside the point. She’s “giddy – like a teenager at a slumber party” about the prospect of once again just being able to sing and say what she wants, and get back to the fundamental reasons for why she makes music.

“One is, it’s fun and it sounds good.” she said. “The other is, I like to (think of my music as) a spoon full of sugar. I feel like I can say hard things in a pretty way.

“Lately, it’s really been an uphill climb. I’ve gone to red-state communities where the people were just loving me up during ‘Amazing Grace,’ and then I’d sing ‘I Want You Gone,’ and it would be the walking ovation. I’ve always loved my country and loved the constitution and loved the principles it was founded on. And now I can sing pretty songs and happy songs, too.”

Find Laura Love online at Here are two sample tracks by Love and Orville Johnson, joined by Tory Trujillo:

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