Waves of change: Songwriter makes the most of fleeting time
There’s nothing quite like staring down your 50th birthday and having someone you love die to make you realize that this, as they say, is not a dress rehearsal. The New York-based singer/songwriter Roger Street Friedman got some nudges from the cosmos along those lines about a dozen years ago. Within a short span of years, in his late 40s, Friedman became a parent and lost both of his own parents. It drove home the idea that time is precious and fleeting, and that if one has dreams to pursue, now is the time to pursue them. That spurred him to return to music, something he had focused on in his 20s, and it also became something of a theme to his new songs.
Friedman, who will perform at Greensboro’s Common Grounds on Monday, April 8, has released two full-length records in recent years, and he’s getting to work on another. Songs like “Everyday,” off of Shoot the Moon, from 2017, are very clearly about that seize-the-day ethos. With a bouncy acoustic folk-rock backing propelled by 16th notes on a banjo and a melodicism that brings to mind Paul Simon or Mumford & Sons, Friedman sings about living with all his might and making the most of every day. In its own way, it’s a song about the importance of making music as a way of expressing one’s connection with the world.
“All and all there’s just one choice: make a joyful noise,” he sings.
I spoke with Friedman last week by phone from his home on Long Island in advance of his string of dates down the Southeast.
In addition to the urgency of tackling one’s life goals, Friedman has also found current events and the debate about immigration and asylum-seekers to be a subject of interest. His most recent single “Sun Never Sets” is a classic bit of inspirational protest-minded folk about the American dream, about the ideals of liberty and equality and about the role that immigrants have played in shaping the fabric of life in the United States from the very beginning.
“I wrote that with two co-writers down in Nashville,” said Friedman of the new song. “It’s based on my grandfather’s story. He came over in 1907. Basically, he came here by himself, a sailed-across-the-ocean kind of thing. He came from eastern Europe. We’re not sure if it was Poland or Russia, but the borders were kind of fluid back then.”
“The idea was kind of to tell his story, but also to make it more broad, about the American dream, how the Statue of Liberty is an inspiration to people all over the world. And we’re basically a nation of immigrants. No matter how long you’ve been here, you came from somewhere else, unless you’re Native American.”
The video features archival footage of different groups coming to American shores and borders, from over the past 80 years or so; some were welcomed at the port, others detained or turned away.
“The message I was trying to convey in the video is that the people that came decades ago, those people are no different than the people coming today, and they faced the same kinds of prejudice,” Friedman said.
What’s more, he said, if the generations of Germans, Irish, Italians, Eastern European Jews, Chinese, Japanese and others — waves of immigrants that went on to enrich America’s cultural and economic life — had been met with the levels of hostility and government opposition, many of them would have perished in their homelands.
Faced with the frustration of bringing about change in the political arena, Friedman said he was compelled to make music.
“As one individual you feel kind of powerless, so the only thing I could do is use whatever talent I have to try and spread the word,” Friedman said. “It’s sort of a message of love.”
The power of love to bring about change is another recurring theme for Friedman. His song “Tidal Wave” — which simmers with gospel energy, complete with organ, horns and fervent backing vocals — is about a sort of cataclysmic transformation that’s brought about by a tidal wave of love, one that’s so powerful it wipes the slate clean and brings about a new day.
Another song, “Gentle Love of a Mother,” is about the ways that love outlives us and gets carried on, replicated and expanded from one generation to the next. It’s genetics — our parents and grandparents live on in us — but it’s also about memory and behavior, in that we learn to be more compassionate loving people by their examples, presumably.
Friedman’s songs aren’t all feel-good anthems of unrelenting positivity. He sometimes sings about time and change and the ways that life can zoom by and leave us feeling like aliens on our own home turf. But even when he’s getting wistful Friedman sings with an earthy sweetness that can bring to mind Jackson Browne, the Avett Brothers, the Wallflowers, Phosphorescent, or Little Feat, with that mix of folk, blues, bayou soul, country, and a dash of Tex-Mex. And Friedman has gotten to work with some first-rate musicians from those fields. Singer Amy Helm adds backing vocals on a few tracks off Shoot the Moon, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell has worked with Friedman in the past and is set to produce his next album.
Changing the world through music might seem like an unrealistic goal in 2019. But Friedman zeros in on something he’s seen elsewhere, something that might be more humble and attainable. He’s witnessed the artists he admires radiate a kind of joy through playing music, communicating with audiences and making people happy. It’s simple, but it’s meaningful.
Writing music is, for Friedman, a way of connecting with something bigger than himself.
“It’s tapping me on the shoulder,” he said. “My job is to try and follow it.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Roger Street Friedman at Common Grounds, 602 S. Elam Ave., Greensboro, on Monday, April 8, at 7 pm.