by Bruce Sylvester
Lance Canales, The Blessing and the Curse
Music Road 025 (www.musicroadrecords.com)
“Root stomp” is what Canales calls his blues. His rough-hewn voice lets us know that there's a darkness at the edge of the fertile fruit fields in his native San Joaquin Valley in central California. Of Native American and Mexican heritage, Canales (a janitor in the everyday work world) sings of people at risk of having their souls stomped on by fate or by an unfriendly economic system.
Most of these 13 songs come from his own pen. On “Special Made,” his slide guitar is fittingly ominous as he sings, “I'm going to shake a rattlesnake. I'm going to square dance with a bear.” The wordless vocal call and response to his slashing guitar on the finale, “Stomp It Out,” sounds like gospel in a back-country juke joint on a Saturday night.
A few tracks are covers. Jimmy LaFave (the CD's skillful producer) and Eliza Gilkyson join him for a searing take on Rev. Gary Davis's “Death Don't Have No Mercy.” Bygone acoustic blues heavily influences this intense disc.
Down through the decades, Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Christy Moore, Joel Rafael, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Old Crow Medicine Show and many others have covered writer Woody Guthrie and composer Martin Hoffman's “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” based on a Jan. 28, 1948, crash bearing workers being returned to Mexico on a plane chartered by the U.S. Immigration Services. (Wikipedia's thorough, balanced essay on the event and ensuing ballad gives context to lines such as “And be known by no name except 'deportees.'”) Now Canales quietly brings something new to the song. His friend, author Tim Hernandez, found the 32 victims' names in the Fresno Hall of Records and reads them aloud in the background behind Canales's rendition. “If we can name these people who died nameless, then we can look at our parents and grandparents who did the same type of work and show them some respect back,” says Canales.
In 1941, as U.S. entry into World War II drew near, Woody and the Almanac Singers wondered how they could ever fit all the dead seamen's names into “Sinking of the Reuben James” without the song becoming too long, so they created the questioning refrain, “What were their names? Tell me what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?” Sixty-seven years after the Los Gatos Canyon tragedy, Canales's version of “Deportee” rises to a similar challenge.