Josh Ritter Makes You Feel Special

Josh Ritter
Live from the KCD Theater in Louisville, KY

This week I'm featuring people who uplift us, and singer songwriter Josh Ritter is one of the best at doing that. NoiseTrade has recently made available some of his back catalog material, as performed live show in Louisville in March 2011.

The 41-year-old Ritter hails from Idaho, where he still makes his home for part of the year (along with Woodstock, New York). There's also a Western Massachusetts connection; Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds in Northampton put out Ritter's 2000 album Golden Age of Radio, his first national release.

Ritter was weaned on Dylan and Johnny Cash, and is a superb songwriter in his own right. What makes him sizzle is his work ethic; few performers work leave it on the stage like he. Nor do they enjoy what they do as much. Ritter has a charm you'd be tempted to label goofy, were it not so genuine. He engages his audience, thanks them over and over, and—when he's with his Royal City Band—makes sure you know the name of the musician who took the lead on a given instrumental passage. He grins his way across the stage with an I-can't-believe-how-lucky-I-am demeanor that makes you believe it—the brooding artist need not apply. I've seen him quite a few times, and on each occasion he made the audience feel as if they were the most-amazing group of people he's ever encountered.

The NoiseTrade offering contains 21 tracks, so let me simply highlight a few things that I think make Ritter such a beloved figure. Fans debate which is his best song, but conversation usually begins with "Bright Smile," a quasi-folk song that is, whatever else you call it, is a gem. It lends itself well to times in which he performs as a solo acoustic artist. So too does "Lark," a simple little ditty with a faintly bluegrass vibe. Also in the deeply personal category is the poignant "Change of Time." And you know an artist is uplifting when he can offer "Folk  Bloodbath," and make you smile. The title is tongue in cheek, as it's actually his version of the public domain song "Stagolee," the tale of an 1895 murder.  

Ritter is really in his element when he's with his Royal City Band. It takes confidence and trust in those in the seats to be a little silly. Check out this performance of "Wolves," another audience favorite because, who can resist a group howl? If I had to pick a single example of how Ritter can transform a big crowd into a personal living room of joy, I'd go with "Kathleen." Watch this amazing clip from a 2010 Dublin concert. Gaze upon the faces of strangers belting out the words and swaying in ecstasy—as if somehow this lad from Idaho was the brother who returned from exile.

If you know Ritter, download Live from the KCD Theater. (Don't forget to leave a tip.) If you've not yet been baptized, jump into the water with this one.

Rob Weir

Note: I have chosen tracks from other shows to offer how Ritter performs in different settings, and because video clips from Louisville are poorly lighted. The audio quality is superb, though.



Won't You Be My Neighbor: How Things Should Work

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Directed by Morgan Neville
Focus Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13

I was a teen when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted on National Educational Television—the old name of PBS—in 1968, so I never watched the show. (Nor, would I hasten to add, would I have gone anywhere near NET back in my working-on-my-attitude days.)  But I think I know why the show remained a staple for children from the day it first aired as local show in Pittsburgh in 1963, to the day Rogers finally left his cardigan and sneakers in the closet in 2001.

As a fine new documentary on Fred Rogers (1928-2003) shows us, one key was that what he did was delightfully old-fashioned. Rogers recognized early on that kids were so over stimulated that their imaginations often got stifled. Even by the standards of  pre-f/x days, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a throwback. He used ratty-looking puppets such as Daniel Tiger, Owl, and King Friday XIII, never even tried to throw his voice, favored obviously flimsy sets, and was so low-key that, when he had turtles on the show, it was even money who moved slower, Rogers or his reptilian guests.

Parents often hated the cheesy production values of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet the same folks will tell you that their kids adored the show. And why not? Rogers made a point of telling kids that his neighborhood was make-believe—a simple act that encouraged them to use their own minds to fill in gaps between fantasy and reality. How unlike so many of today’s video games, Websites, toys, and entertainment formats in which outside creators script the outcomes. In a word, Rogers took children seriously.

He also spoke their language, a vernacular that was calm, concerned, and caring. Rogers detested violent cartoons, loud noises that jarred children, and people who scolded and hectored. The characters on his show—such as Lady Aberlin, Officer Clemons, Handyman Negri, Postman Newell, and Rogers himself—were helpful and exuded “love,” the quality that Rogers believed the only transformative force in the universe. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, even conflict was resolved quietly. He literally got on the same level as children, always bending down and leaning in. Yo-Yo Ma tells the charming tale of how his younger, nervous self was intimidated by Fred Rogers, who addressed him on air a literal three inches away. Who cannot smile at the idea that Yo-Yo Ma might be the only person on the planet ever frightened by Mr. Rogers?

One of the film’s revelations is that Rogers tackled what was happening in the world outside the make-believe world. The show's educational TV debut came just months before Bobby Kennedy was killed, and Rogers taught kids what the word “assassination” means—as well as how to deal with sadness. 1968 was also a year in which segregationists doused swimming black children with pool chemicals and treated adults far worse. In a landmark act of kindness, an episode of the show featured Mr. Rogers cooling his bare feet in a kiddies’ pool and inviting Officer Clemmons—African American opera singer François Clemmons—to join him and sharing the same towel. Rogers also dealt with traumas such as the Challenger tragedy and 9/11.

Some might recognize the swimming pool scene as a reenactment of the ancient Christian rite of mutual foot washing. I say this with all humility: One of the things that made Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood work was that Fred Rogers—an ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican—was a man who took his faith so seriously that he actually practiced what others merely preached. In his neighborhood, there was no need to proselytize; actions spoke louder than words. 

The documentary is filled with remembrances, testimonials, and archival footage. A sequence with the gorilla Koko is especially touching, as was another with Rogers chatting with a paraplegic boy, Jeff Erlanger (1970–2007), as if he was the most important kid in the world. Interviews with Rogers’ widow Joanne poignantly remind that Mr. Rogers wasn’t a character; it was who he was. This was echoed by show director Juniel Li. Clemmons, who grew up mostly fatherless, came to see Rogers as a surrogate dad—once the two got over the fact that Clemmons is gay.

Another nice thing about the documentary rests with Rogers confronting his own bias; that is, the film backs gently away from sanctifying Rogers. When he died, some right-wing faux Christians protested his funeral, and held aloft signs placing Rogers in hell for his embrace of anything their small minds found distasteful. They are, of course, the immoral equivalent of jihadists—those so blinded by their own sanctimony that they could not see Fred Rogers for what he was: a decent human being. Someone in the film—if memory serves it was Li—remarked that being a good person is the way the world should work. It doesn’t, but in times such as our own in which ego, greed, and nastiness abound, what a refreshing thing it is to consider that goodness can prevail. Forget the lack of glitz and sheen, who would not wish to reside in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood?

Rob Weir



RBG A Surprise Cult Hit

RBG (2018)
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Magnolia Pictures, 97 minutes, PG

When I saw RBG a few weeks ago, my first thought was that liberals should pray that 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg remains in rosy health. Then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, which begs the question of whether the composition of the Supreme Court can be changed in this generation. Kennedy's bombshell takes some of the feel-good luster off this fine documentary, but you should see it nonetheless. Let me add, you should do so even if you are a conservative, because Justice Ginsberg is a remarkable person, no matter your politics.

The film is full of revelations, so let me mention just a few. Today, Ruth Bader Ginsberg looks like one of those people who was born old—and I mean that in a good way. She exudes the kind of wisdom that comes with experience, and her bearing is that of a sophisticated elder. So the film's first reveal is a look at her youth. We would expect a future Supreme Court judge to have been smart, but Ginsberg was extraordinary. Her parents were Jewish immigrants and, if she seems a bit too buttoned-down at times, consider that her sister's death was a pall hovering over her family, and that Ruth's mother died the day before she graduated from high school. Nonetheless, her path took her from Brooklyn to Cornell and Columbia Law School. She was also vivacious and knockout attractive, though as serious as a tomb when it came to her studies. She married almost immediately upon graduating from Cornell, and followed her husband Martin to Oklahoma, where he was an ROTC officer, and she worked for the Social Security Administration. RBG had a one-year-old daughter when she started law school—first at Harvard and then Columbia.

The second revelation is her law career before she entered the SCOTUS. Perhaps you assume that a Supreme Court justice must have done some very impressive things, but it staggers when the details of Ginsberg's accomplishments are highlighted. If you think Congress is responsible for the gains of women in American society, think again. Laws are often not worth the paper upon which they are printed until they are battled in the courts; Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legal acumen helped write those laws and assured that intent became content. In her work with the ACLU, Ginsberg took on over 300 discrimination cases. She also made six trips to the SCOTUS and won five of them. Her tactic was unique; her Supreme Court cases usually hinged on discrimination situations that applied to men as well as women—which took the wind from the sails of would-be chauvinists. Although her tone was generally moderate, Ginsberg was a quiet spear-bearer for feminism.

The biggest reveal of all, though, is the film's portrait of Ginsberg's late husband Marty (1932–2010). He was the embodiment of the Yiddish word mensch. He was happy to advance his wife's legal career over his own, and he was not afraid to see her as more ambitious and brilliant than he. Marty Ginsberg was a guileless male feminist at a time (1950s/60s) in which such ideas bordered on the unthinkable. He also provided balancing levity to his wife's steely seriousness. RBG has a sense of humor, but it's not her strong suit; Marty was the Groucho Mark to her Margaret Rutherford. And there was nobody on the planet that was a bigger cheerleader of Ruth's accomplishments. He teased, but he reminded all of his wife's capacious intellect.

We also gain insight into some of RBG's other qualities: her love of classical music and her considerable skill as a pianist, her amazing workout routines, and her improbable but sincere friendship with Anton Scalia. If you find it hard to imagine that Ginsberg could enjoy the company of a political arch rival, it is a testament to her character that she compartmentalizes so expertly. Would that more Americans—including our feckless and reckless commander in chief—could respect those with whom they disagree. Besides, is it any less imaginable than the fact that RBG is a cult icon among the young? The last of these is another revelation. Ruth Bader Ginsberg as pop culture icon? You bet your gavel!

I can't say that directors West and Cohen redefine the documentary style in RBG, but they do present us with a lovable, admirable figure. That such figures are rare these days is both poignant and sad.

Rob Weir