Near the beginning of "Song Tales From the American Edge
," Texan storyteller/songwriter Kiya Heartwood illustrates her tale of martyred labor leader Joe Hill by apparently drinking a glass of ashes onstage. While the moment made me reflexively recoil, it’s a perfect metaphor for Heartwood’s sincere commitment to speaking for the voiceless on society’s fringes. Most of her self-penned folk-rock story-songs are based on overlooked historical figures who lived on America’s edges – the razor’s edge, the cutting edge or even the edge of the world.
Her subjects range from a legendary Cape Cod pirate’s ghostly lover, to the beleaguered Comanche fleeing the U.S. Army’s ambush at Palo Duro Canyon, to Walt Whitman, Heartwood’s favorite poet and “fashion consultant.” An autobiographical number about the death of Kentucky’s horse culture made me tear up, and the audience participation finale might inspire you to join the union’s Dishpan Brigade (or at least subscribe to Mother Jones
). I grew up going to a summer camp run by socialist hippies, and many of Heartwood’s songs would have fit in fine around the firepit. Other have choruses hooky enough to rock a coffeehouse or club, though the well-researched verses can sometimes seem like Wikipedia entries set to music.
Heartwood is no modern pop princess, but her swift fingers and soulful voice hearken back to when being a rock star required talent. (Heartwood also projects and enunciates well enough to understand every word without amplification; other performers, please take notes.) Heartwood’s odes to outsiders and antiheroes are unabashedly left-wing, so if you’re a loyal Fox News viewer, this probably isn’t for you. Then again, maybe it should be; if more people understood and appreciated the last century’s labor and civil rights struggles, we might not be going through them all over again today.
Kiya Heartwood: Song Tales From the American Edge
Outlaw Hill Arts
– Austin, TX
Rating: 7 and up