Eliza Gilkyson and 2020: July 2020 Album of the Month

Eliza Gilkyson
Red House Records

My worst-kept secret is that pretty songs open my tear ducts. (Where can a guy hide who needs a tissue every time he hears Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”) Eliza Gilkyson’s latest made me reach for a Kleenex a half dozen times.

It is titled 2020 and it’s what we all need to make it through our current travails. Gilkyson, who will be 70 next month, still sings like a chosen one. Maybe that’s because she sings from the heart. Her previous album, 2018’s Secularia, was filled with Gaia-based spiritual observations, and you’ll hear echoes of those sentiments on 2020. The new album opens with “Promises to Keep,” which unfolds to Bukka Allen’s rolling organ, then cuts to Eliza’s spare guitar. The melody and vocal are gorgeous, even though her wink and nod to Robert Frost segues to pointed observations that no one knows what it will come down to… we’re on fire. A few bars later, she captures quarantine anxieties with: I’ve been counting on the angel choir/to put some wings on my feet/…and get me out on the street. The song is a weepy, yet is filled with hope. Not much more to say except, damn, what a great song!

She could have quit there, but more wonders pour forth. “Peace in Our Hearts” has a folk blues vibe with the song’s title providing an all-join-in repeating line. Then comes “My Heart Aches,” and so will yours when you hear it. She chronicles the past 50 years and prevails upon hopeful past slogans—such as we shall overcome, give peace a chance, hammer out justice—to highlight things left undone. When she laments for the children of tomorrow and the world they have to fix… my heart aches, like Tom Dooley I wanted to hang down my head and cry. It is well and proper that later on, Gilkyson does a tender rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The album’s other cover is a rather ominous-sounding take of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” How sad that that song remains relevant.

Gilkyson’s overtly political original song is “Beach Haven,” which is based on a 1952 letter Woody Guthrie sent to his Brooklyn landlord decrying the racial barriers that kept black veterans from living in his apartment complex. That landlord was Fred Trump and some 20 years later his seed (or should I say seedy?) Donald was accused of redlining to keep his own projects lily white. Gilkyson, though, channels her anger into a call for coming together. After all, there’s just so much outrage one can ingest and remain human. Gilkyson’s fragile “One More Day” is a love letter to life, as is “Beautiful World of Mine,” which calls us to be stewards of nature. Warren Hood’s fiddle adds grace to the latter, which is basically a country two-step.
Though they are not paired on the album, I like to think of “Sooner or Later” and “We Are Not Alone” as companions. The first is a soulful, bluesy boot-in-the-butt warning to the powers that be: Sooner or later it’s a natural fact/Gonna rise up, gonna take it all back. Mike Hardwick cauterizes that defiance with searing electric guitar. Fittingly, Gilkyson leaves us with a call to action that’s almost a prayer. “We Are Not Alone” opens quietly and builds to a chorus enhanced by WEWIM—a group to encourage female singers that she cofounded—and together they take us out anthem-style by repeating the song title like a giant group hug.

I adored everything about this album, one of the very best from an artist I have admired for decades. There’s an expression from my Pennsylvania childhood that sums up Eliza Gilkyson; she’s “just good people.”

Rob Weir 

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