Eliza Gilkyson – Land of Milk and Honey

Land of Milk and Honey

Ever since my freshman college film class, when I was forced to sit through Leni Reifenstal’s Triumph of the Will , the cinematic licking of Hitler’s jackboots, I’ve been painfully aware that art can be, and often is, used for propaganda. Eliza Gilkyson’s political message on her latest CD, Land of Milk and Honey , may be a slightly to the left of my own, but I can’t deny the power of her work. She knows how to use music to create a world whose potential for healing and justice seems far better than current reality.

The opening cut, “Highway,” paints a vision of Iraq far outside the realm of our president’s limited imagination, but much closer to the truth than the White House’s fairy tales. “Get your big trucks rollin’ down highway 9, pulverize the puppet, its payback time.” Another Gilkyson song, “Tender Mercies,” opens with “Across the world she tapes explosives to her chest, steps into a shopping mall. A life devoid of all of mercy’s tenderness really isn’t any life at all.” This is powerful stuff. And like all superior propaganda, the message is both subtle and sugarcoated.

Along with her own material, Gilkyson includes one song written by her father, Terry Gilkyson, and one written by Woody Guthrie. The Guthrie song “Peace Call,” written between 1951 and ’53, wasn’t published until ’63. Miraculously, until now it had never been recorded, ever. Here it gets the star treatment with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Iris Dement, and Patty Griffin joining in on vocals. The song’s lyrics seem as if they were written about current events rather than world affairs over 50 years ago.

Producer and engineer Mark Hallman manages to capture Gilkyson’s fire and passion, while still delivering a beautiful-sounding album. Even with limited performance forces employed on most songs, the arrangements sound lush and full. The largest group of musicians were brought to bear on “Dark Side of Town,” where Jon Dee Graham, Stephen Bruton, and Mark Hallman all added harmony vocals behind Glenn Fukunga’s upright bass, Mike Hardwick’s electric guitar, Steven Zirkel’s trumpet, Scotty McIntosh’s saxophone, and Raul Vallejo’s trombone. Naturally, the Woody Guthrie song also gets the star sonic treatment. I expect we’ll hear it in heavy rotation on NPR.

Albums populated by songs with a definite political viewpoint produce strong feelings in listeners, both positive and negative. I admire not only Gilkyson’s musical artistry, but her courage in releasing an album that will not appeal to everyone. I don’t expect Gilkyson will be invited to perform at too many Republican fundraisers. Too bad for them…

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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