Folk artist and songwriter Joe Crookston introduced Wilmette residents to his skillfully woven tapestry of tunes Friday. Playing a free concert for all ages at the , Crookston was previewing material that he would share with a larger audience Saturday night as the guest of 98.7 FM WFMT’s live Folkstage program.
The talented troubadour, a native of rural Ohio, is traveling the country as he promotes his new album, Darkling and the Bluebird Jubilee, which was released on March 21. Crookston played several songs from the album, which is his sixth full-length release. Crookston also played songs from 2004’s Fall Down as the Rain and the 2008 release, Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog.
Crookston’s handsome, velvety baritone was a perfect complement to his finger-picked acoustic guitar playing. The artist performed on a small wooden platform which he would stomp on in a tasteful and fun manner, providing an easy rhythmic accompaniment. Crookston’s real artistry, though, is evident in his songwriting.
Channeling the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Crookston’s songs envelop the listener in a world of real folks, the essence of the Folk music genre. Never pretentious, his songs are often from the perspective of one of his highly developed characters: a runaway slave, a teen stuck in a juvenile detention facility, an aging Navy Seabee. His work ranges from lovely ballads (“Freddy the Falcon”) to the irreverent (“The Grand Teton Café”) to foot-stomping up-tempo tunes (“Good Luck John”) and beyond.
Crookston received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to travel around the Finger Lakes region near Ithaca, NY, collecting stories that he turned into folk tunes.
“I wanted the chance to travel around and meet people and write songs. I met a lot of freaks,” he joked Friday evening, “but also the descendants of a runaway slave named John Jones.” According to Crookston, Jones escaped from a plantation in Leesburg, VA and settled in Elmyra, NY where he helped free some 900 slaves via the Underground Railroad. Crookston’s song based on these events, “John Jones” was one of his most poignant of the performance. His heavily strummed guitar rhythm gave the song a driving sense of perpetual motion, effectively describing the single-minded desire of Jones to escape to the North. Crookston’s heartbreaking lyrics, “Mama I’m gonna miss you, but I will not miss the plow/no more salt and tears and sweat upon my brow” were punctuated with evocative imagery of antebellum America.
The combination of Crookston’s sensuous songwriting and the stories he told prior to each tune, makes one feel as if they truly know the man behind the music. We have intimate portraits of his father, grandfather, daughter and his close friends, as well as introspective contemplations of Crookston’s own.
Crookston closed out his set with the title track of his 2004 CD, leaving the audience with a powerful notion on the endurance of good songwriting: “When my life is over and I have gone away/I’m gonna leave this big old world and the trouble that it made/And if I get to heaven, I will not stay/I’ll turn myself around and fall down as the rain.”