Folk meets brass
Ani DiFranco, the politically minded, musically diverse, self-titled “little folk singer,” will play Saturday at the House of Blues in New Orleans, the city she’s called home for nearly 10 years.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., DiFranco is part of a growing contingent of musicians and artists in many fields who’ve migrated to what may be the South’s most creative metropolis.
“It’s such a deep place,” she said. “A city with things to teach me, like New York before it. I will never move again.”
While acknowledging the universality of music, DiFranco said New Orleans and Brazil, places that share Carnival traditions, may be the most musical spots on Earth.
“When you grow up hearing killer music all around you, happening live, you’re bound to be ahead of the game in appreciating and understanding music. I think Brazil is the only other place on the planet that I’ve been to that is as ridiculously musical.”
DiFranco also believes music has healing powers.
“My guitar is my friend when I have no other,” she said. “Listening to music is therapeutic, but making music has been downright lifesaving.”
DiFranco wove her adopted city into her latest album, 2012’s “Which Side Are You On?” Local guests include Ivan and Cyril Neville and horn players from Galactic, Bonerama and the Rebirth Brass Band. She co-produced the project with her husband and music collaborator, Mike Napolitano.
The title song features updated lyrics by DiFranco and guest appearances by Pete Seeger and the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, the New Orleans middle-school marching band that grew out of an after-school program.
In 2009, DiFranco performed “Which Side Are You On?” — a union anthem written in 1932 by the wife of a coal miners’ union organizer in Harlan County, Ky. — during Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. And she’s performed at Seeger’s Great Hudson River Revival, aka the Clearwater Festival, in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., for the past 20 years.
“Pete is a truly inspirational person,” she said. “He’s way into updating and carrying on old songs and each other’s songs.”
DiFranco’s other highlights in recent years include the birth of her second child, Dante DiFranco Napolitano, in April; receiving an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Winnipeg in November; and two performances with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
DiFranco recorded Elizabeth Cotton’s folk classic “Freight Train” with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the group’s 2010 album, “Preservation.”
“I picked the Elizabeth Cotton song because I love that tune and she’s just so cool,” she explained. “She was a friend of Pete’s.”
DiFranco’s Saturday show in New Orleans and a Friday appearance in Baton Rouge will include new material that she plans to record immediately after the weekend performances. The resulting recordings will be released through the record company Righteous Babe Records, which she founded in 1989 at 19.
The label has grown to comprise a 32-artist roster, including singer-songwriters Andrew Bird and Anaïs Mitchell, Nona Hendryx (Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles), the late folk singer and labor organizer Utah Phillips and bassist Sara Lee (the B-52’s, Indigo Girls, Joan Osborne, Fiona Apple).
DiFranco created Righteous Babe due to popular demand, starting with 500 cassette tapes made to sell at her shows. The ’90s saw growing artistic achievement and indie music success for the widely touring DiFranco. Major record labels courted her, but she rebuffed them.
“I just have an aversion to business people, I guess,” she said. “Especially music business people. But it was part of a more global decision in my life to follow people I respect, such as Pete Seeger, and avoid people I don’t.”
In other DiFranco news, the singer canceled a songwriting and performing retreat scheduled for June at Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle. The retreat’s antebellum setting and historical connection to slavery ignited a frenzy of angry web posts last weekend and criticism from websites such as Jezebel and Change.org.
DiFranco announced the cancelation through her website, righteousbabe.com.
“I have heard you: all who have voiced opposition to my conducting a writing and performing seminar at the Nottoway Plantation. … I do not wish to reinvent the righteous retreat at this point to eliminate the stay at the Nottoway Plantation. At this point I wish only to cancel. … My focus for the ‘Righteous Retreat’ was on creating an enriching experience that celebrated a diversity of voice and spirit.”