Back in February, a lifetime ago, I was lucky enough to see Kelsey Waldon play live on a stormy evening in Glasgow. The rain that night was almost apocalyptic, leaking through the roof onto the stage and into the crowd. Even with the freezing temperatures and cramped venue there was a collective sense of joy and appreciation for the artists who’d travelled so far to play for us. We were all so blissfully naive about what the rest of the year was to bring.
Kelsey’s performance that evening was raw, intimate, intense. I’d liked her album White Noise / White Lines but live I connected to the songs on another level, in a way that is only possible when listening to someone sing in person. Until live music returns we have to try and find that same connection through the speakers, the screens, social media. It’s not enough but it’s all we have.
For the artists cut off from touring you feel deeply concerned for how their livelihoods have been snatched away and yet this year has also allowed for a pause and a focus on other projects. During a turbulent time politically Waldon has recorded this brilliant EP of cover songs which speak directly to the dark heart of the American experience.
Her debut album had an edge to the lyrics not always seen in the current Americana scene – covering religious hypocrisy, poverty, politics, the state of the south. It is no surprise then that the songs she chooses to cover here, mainly inspired by the sixties civil rights movement, are deeply felt political and personal statements about the way we live now.
The EP begins with powerful versions of Kris Kristofferson’s The Law is for the Protection of The People and Neil Young’s Ohio. Bringing history back is what folk music does, to understand our present we must reckon with the evils of the past.
Walden is signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, and by covering his song Sam Stone she honours his musical legacy and aligns herself with the humanity and empathy in his words. After the devastating losses of this year we must keep them alive more than ever.
Her allyship is also clear on Mississippi Goddam where she shares the microphone with fellow Nashville based artists Kyshona and Adia Victoria. No one can change the complicated racist history of the music industry but we can all help change its future by elevating the voices of black artists, especially women.
The song which gives the record its title is Hazel Dickens’ bluegrass protest song about how the rich exploit the poor for profit and power. There’s a righteous anger and defiance in every note, suggesting Walden understands the struggle of the working classes and can sing for the common man.
Dylan’s song With God on Our Side asks difficult questions of humanity and history, Waldon sings them with a haunting compassion that takes your breath away.
She finishes the collection on a note of hope, or at least a dream of hope on I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. It’s the lightest moment musically and yet the lyrics offer no easy answers. Waging heavy peace is a battle we all have to keep fighting every day.
There have been many cover projects this year, some of which have felt like stopgap filler at best. In contrast They’ll Never Keep Us Down is a powerful collection of protest songs and a passionate statement of intent.
Proceeds from the sale of physical copies of the album will be donated to worthy causes so please consider purchasing this album if you can: