Joel Rafael is an “under the radar” veteran folk artist. He’s been writing great music for over 50 years, playing as a solo artist, a duo with Rosie Flores, and as a leader of his own band. He’s shared the stage with artists including Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. In July, he was invited to play the prestigious Newport (RI) Folk Festival, a return visit for the artist who also appeared in 2012.
I caught up with Rafael at the Festival, where he was playing “For Pete’s Sake,” a stage with programming in honor of Pete Seeger, the legendary guru who helped establish the historic annual event. Rafael is in many ways a pure folk artist, a “guy with a guitar,” something you don’t see too frequently at major folk festivals here anymore. “The Newport Folk Festival is perhaps the most famous festival of its kind. Many years ago the traditional folkies didn’t think I was traditional enough, and the contemporaries didn’t think I was contemporary enough, so I didn’t fit anywhere. Now, at this point, I’m a traditional folkie,” noted Rafael.
He’s a sincere artist, who writes romantic ballads in addition to topical protest songs. “I’m called a political writer sometimes, but actually, I’m more of a documentarian. I just kind of write what I see around me and it just happens to be a lot of political action. I try to not pass judgment in my songs, I try more to just say what I see,” said Rafael.
He’s a big fan of the younger “indie” acts that appear at Newport. “I think it’s great, it’s keeping the festival alive. This festival sells out so fast, it’s one of the most popular in the country. This one’s the granddaddy. It’s great that they’re bringing in new music and I’m glad to be here as well as someone who’s been doing it for 50 years. As long as we’re cultivating good music and trying to use our time to have a good impact on audiences, it’s all great.”
Although he played down the notoriety, Rafael is one of the foremost interpreters of Woody Guthrie on the scene today. In 2003 and again in 2005, he released two albums of Guthrie tunes, which included a couple of “co-write’s,” songs featuring the words of Woody and the music of Rafael. He’s been internationally recognized for his efforts. “In 2012 I got to play at the Kennedy Center, ‘Woody Guthrie at 100 – Live at the Kennedy Center.’” he noted. The nationally televised event was a career highlight for the singer.
“I got into Woody a long time ago when there wasn’t much available, and you couldn’t find much to listen to. The biggest eye-opener for me was when I got a hold of the Library of Congress Dust Bowl interviews that he did with Alan Lomax. As his legacy has become more accepted, there’s been more stuff available at places like the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, OK. I’ve got 5 different co-writes with Woody and two of my lyric sheets are on display there.”
His 2015 album Baladista, released on Jackson Brown’s Inside Recordings label, was hailed by Rolling Stone as “unfussy and modestly heroic.” The album speaks directly to the listener – his songwriting has the feel of seeing an old friend after many years, whose eyes say “everything’s gonna’ be alright.” His voice has that stunningly aching feel; it’s soothing, yet commanding – you can trust this artist to tell you the truth.
Rafael notes “Baladista is a mix of narrative ballads, some on the more romantic and personal level and a few that are more socially oriented. It covers a lot of my journey from the earliest times to the present. I called it Baladista because it’s the Spanish word for ballad singer, which is pretty much what I do.”
The album opens with “She Had to Go,” a dreamy melody about lost romance. The simple lyrics recall missed opportunities and a touch of regret.
“I remember when we met, we were still in school.
I could have had her for my queen, but I was just a fool.
I never knew that she was mine, and I found out too late.
My eyes wide open my heart was blind, and she was my true soul mate.
Sometimes when I’m alone my thoughts still run to her
I can’t help it if I still love the way we were.”
“When I Go,” is a travel song that expresses a yearning, much like “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” or “Just a Song Before I Go.” The lyrics and genuine delivery are compelling:
“When I Go, when I’m away
Your smile leads me through my everyday
And there’s nothing in this whole wide world
That could change the way I love you”
The songwriter who “rode the rails” in the late 1960’s flashes back on “500 Miles.” It’s a beautiful arrangement for a weary railroad song.
“If you miss the train I’m on, you will know when I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles, a hundred miles …
Lord, I’m 500 Miles away from home.”
In the tradition of Guthrie and Seeger, Rafael also lends his voice to those who don’t have one. “Sticks and Stones” is a story about a woman who was taunted with a racial slur at a concert. “El Bracero” is a unique take on the “Greatest Generation;” it addresses the Mexican workers who slaved in the fields producing food for the Allies. The song memorializes those who died in accidents at places like the Los Gatos Canyon.
Baladista is a feather in the cap of an under-recognized folk artist. That said, Rafael’s clearly got a lot more to say – let’s hope we hear from him again soon.