Reuters

LONDON

One of Joel Rafael’s major musical influences is a folk anthology called ‘Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People’. Judging by his latest set of compositions, it’s an inspiration that he has taken to heart.

In the intimate setting of London’s Green Note folk club, Rafael performs songs based on experiences, from his own run-in with the law in Portland to those of the ‘Bracero’ labourers on Californian farms during World War Two. ‘To me, art is all about what’s going on, and how it’s affecting people,’ Chicago-born Rafael told Reuters in an interview before the gig. ‘Expression of the news, like the bard or the troubadour, is more my job than just being a pure entertainer.’ The set is sprinkled with personal anecdotes, with the singer’s affection for folk legend Woody Guthrie shining through.

Rafael has performed at the Woody Guthrie festival every year since its foundation in 1998, and is feted for his interpretations of the folk singer’s work. He has also composed new music for lyrics from the Woody Guthrie archive with the blessing of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. On Rafael’s new album ‘Baladista’, ‘Sticks and Stones’ is an original composition based on an experience at the festival in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma.

It tells how, on the final night, Rafael sang the haunting Guthrie lyric ‘Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son’, about a lynching in Okemah in 1912. A woman who had been racially abused by people sitting behind her in the audience thanked Rafael for playing the song. ‘I can only imagine what they said,’ Rafael said. ‘But it was like Woody hearing about that hanging - I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So when I got home, I wrote that song.’ Rafael said many in Okemah have mixed feelings about the legacy of their most famous son, and are uncomfortable about less savoury episodes in the town’s history.