A new era of Wobbly folk music with Monday Morning Denial
Monday Morning Denial. Scoundrels That We Are. Released on Jan. 17, 2016. Available online: http://mondaymorningdenial.bandcamp.com/releases.
By W.H. Glazer
Much like peanut butter and jelly, folk music and the IWW are inextricably intertwined. Folk music has served as an important vehicle for radical politics since before the formation of the union, owing in large part to familiar and catchy tunes, clever wordplay, and easy-to-learn instrumentation. The list of prominent Wobbly troubadours is a long one, and indeed continues to grow even as traditional folk music becomes more of a niche form.
Following in the footsteps of these luminaries is Monday Morning Denial, an Oregon duo featuring husband-and-wife songwriters Kate Downing and Nathan Moore. Their debut EP “Scoundrels That We Are” was released earlier this year, and it is a delightful listen. Downing’s crystalline voice and banjo plucking effortlessly meshes with Moore’s bright tenor and guitar, lending credence to the idea that partners in love often make the best partners in music. I talked to them about their beginnings, folk music, and the process that went into creating “Scoundrels.”
W.H. Glazer (WHG): Tell me about how you started playing music together.
Kate Downing (KD): Nathan and I have been making music since about 2002 and performing out since 2007 with various different musicians.
Nathan Moore (NM): About a year ago, we started playing one or two duo songs during each set [in their earlier name of Low Tide Drifters] and audiences didn’t throw anything at us. Kate and I began playing regular Sunday evening shows at a local pub, so our good friend and former bandmate suggested Monday Morning Denial as a duo name.
WHG: Tell me about your musical influences. Whose playing inspires you to write and perform?
KD: Well, my banjo stylings are very Pete Seeger influenced. I took lessons for a while from FW [Fellow Worker] Mark Ross. Vocally, I definitely pull from old-timey and folk musicians—The Carter Family, Jean Ritchie, and a little Dave Van Ronk. In terms of writing inspiration, Nathan is constantly shoving a topic or lyric in front of me and making me finish a song. But he does most of the dishes, so…
NM: There are folks who have passed on like Utah Phillips, Alistair Hulett, and Hazel Dickens. Kate and I are hugely influenced by our friend Harry Stamper, who passed away in 2012. He was a folksinger and longshoreman from Coos Bay, Oregon, and he wrote the classic labor song “We Just Come to Work Here (We Don’t Come Here to Die).”
WHG: What is it about folk music that makes it such an important and useful vehicle for expressing radical politics?
KD & NM: There is a familiarity to the genre that resonates with audiences. We don’t often write lyrics to existing melodies like Joe Hill did, but we do try to create accessible, sing-along choruses. The participatory nature of folk music goes hand-in-hand with radical politics.
WHG: What’s your writing process like? Do you tend to write songs together?
KD: We co-write almost all of our songs. Nathan frequently starts the lyrics and I finish them. Often, we get the melodies by me singing the tune I hear and Nathan finding the chords on the guitar and then arguing that I’ve stolen the melody. But a few rearranged notes will make a new song and that’s usually the easiest part. There are a couple songs on “Scoundrels” that we wrote solo—Nathan penned “Days All Dark with Dust” and I wrote “Fish On, Papa” for my dad.
WHG: Describe the recording process for me.
KD: DIY all the way. We recorded this is an invalid album id almost exclusively in our bedroom after our kid went to sleep. We live in a little townhouse apartment with nowhere to conveniently leave equipment set up, so we just tripped over cords and stubbed our toes on mic stands for a couple of months.
WHG: The title track lovingly refers to the working class as “scoundrels.” What made you choose this word specifically?
NM: “Scoundrels That We Are” is an example of good old-fashioned folk music plagiarism. The song is about an 1883 trial of anarchists that took place in Lyon, France during a period of mass working-class unrest. Instead of blaming the people at the top, the “authorities” arrested over 60 anarchists, including Peter Kropotkin, the famous scientist. During the trial, the anarchists composed a manifesto that said “Scoundrels that we are, we claim bread for all, knowledge for all, work for all, independence and justice for all.” I came across the manifesto online and realized that it would make a great lyric. I do think that the most effective working-class activists to this day are often seen as “scoundrels” because they are independent, unruly, and impossible to control. I’ll take a scoundrel over a boss any day.
WHG: What’s the inspiration for the song “Fragments?”
KD: It’s about parenting and our responsibility to the next generation, both as individuals and as a society. As parents and grown-ups in an unkind world, we need to look at how we interact with children and find compassion for these little humans—who happen into this world in an inherently powerless position—and treat them with dignity and respect.
WHG: Nature seems to inform a lot of your writing.
KD: In Oregon the nature is just there. It’s not uncommon to see a deer on your way to school in the morning, even in the city. We’re deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest. The salt air is home and I come from a place where kids competed to have the best seagull call. Running on driftwood was strictly prohibited and practically executed. So, that’s all in the lyrics.
WHG: What brought you to the IWW?
NM: I joined the IWW around 2000. Coming from a working-class background, I felt more at home in the IWW than I did with other activist organizations in Eugene. Kate joined about a year later. We are proud to be in a democratic, member-run union that believes in direct action and has strong musical traditions.
“Scoundrels That We Are” is available for streaming and download at mondaymorningdenial.bandcamp.com.