Even rising floodwaters can’t keep Pokey LaFarge from tunneling into the history of early American roots music
Pokey LaFarge is in his office in St. Louis, Missouri, dealing with an unexpected mess. The singer-songwriter has just walked in and found the place flooded.
“It’s been raining like hell for about a week,” he tells me over the phone, explaining that flooding comes with the territory when you live in river country. With his strong Midwestern accent, friendly demeanor, and downhome expressions, I can’t help but feel like I’m talking to someone from the past—and LaFarge’s music backs that up.
When other kids his age were listening to Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube, LaFarge was getting into the early blues, listening to Skip James, Sleepy John Estes, and the like. In these artists, he found something real.
“It felt like there was something deeper, and honest, and human, and timeless about it all,” he says. “Perhaps there were some qualities in the older forms of music that I thought were missing in some of the things I was being exposed to.”
LaFarge’s attraction to early American roots and blues stuck, and he’s made a career as one of the few young artists to really delve into early country blues and jazz, with plunky banjos, clarinets, cornets, and complex emotions concealed in simple lyrics. There’s no shortage of roots bands around, but, as with LaFarge, the field gets much smaller when you trace stylistic influences back to lesser-known artists such as Tampa Red or Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong.
LaFarge knows other artists playing in this style but acknowledges that there aren’t many in the music business.
“There are a lot of really great roots musicians out there,” he says, “but a lot of them are underground. But that’s also where a lot of the best stuff is.”
LaFarge credits his own emergence into the spotlight with his work with rock superstar and vinyl evangelist Jack White. After hearing LaFarge on WSM 650 AM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, White called LaFarge and asked if he’d like to record for his label, Third Man Records. White also took LaFarge on tour with him for 16 shows.
“It certainly was good for business,” says LaFarge. “But I also gained some good friends in that whole crew. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Jack and Third Man.”
During his time with Third Man, LaFarge expanded his reach to new audiences, but the multi-instrumentalist was already well-travelled. When he was 17, he left St. Louis and hitchhiked around the country, busking along the way. The experience gave him a deep appreciation of his Midwestern home.
“I don’t think you can appreciate where you’re from unless you get away from where you’re from,” he says. “Whether you’re from St. Louis and living in San Francisco, or you’re from San Francisco and living in St. Louis, I think there’s different perspectives from people who never leave and people who do leave and then come back.”
LaFarge’s appreciation for St. Louis is rooted, in part, in the city’s rich history—musical and otherwise. On the migratory route between New Orleans and Chicago, St. Louis was a hotbed for jazz in the early-to-mid-1900s.
During that time, some Midwesterners were packing up and heading, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, to California. LaFarge speculates that Californians may soon be heading back to the Midwest, where housing is still affordable, there’s plenty of water, and there’s a thriving cultural scene. He’s working on a new song about a reverse, drought-driven migration, titled “The New Dustbowl.”
Despite his strong historic inclination, LaFarge doesn’t lock himself into strictly playing old-style music. He hints that his next album will not necessarily follow in the same country blues vein.
“It’s important to realize that this is just a present incarnation of my music, and my music will continue to evolve,” he says, explaining that he’s starting to sound more original and less traditional. “I think I’m starting to become even more of my own musician. That’ll be fun to see, and also fun to hear the critics chatter.”
For now, though, LaFarge is sticking to the matters at hand.
“I’m going to go,” he says, “and get back to mopping up the floor in my office.”
Pokey LaFarge will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 23 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15. 603-2294.