Josh Okeefe — 21st Annual Woody Guthrie Festival, 2018

Woodyfest 2018: Josh Okeefe

A Student of Struggle

Derby Native and Music School Dropout a Rising Star

At first glance, [Sidenote: We exam­ine Derby, England native Josh Okeefe’s music in part twenty-eight of our Woodyfest 2018 cov­er­age.] one could be for­given for dis­miss­ing twenty-five-year-old singer-song­writer Josh Okeefe as a mere pas­ticheur. An inter­net image search reveals his pen­chant for dress­ing like a cer­tain Robert Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan), [Sidenote: A young Jewish col­lege stu­dent from Duluth, Minnesota, Zimmerman famously changed his name around .] par­tic­u­larly from that period when Dylan was imi­tat­ing Okie Woody Guthrie. The “Huck Finn” cap Okeefe some­times sports is a near replica of the one Dylan wore on the cover of his epony­mous debut.

Slight of frame and pierc­ing-eyed, Okeefe bears a strik­ing resem­blace to both men in their youths. Until recently he wore his hair in loose curls, much like young Dylan. His Guthrie-by-way-of-early-Dylan vocal tim­bre and phras­ing seem fur­ther evi­dence of slav­ish imi­ta­tion. Cementing the impres­sion, he’s even writ­ten a Woodyesque “talk­ing blues” num­ber. [Sidenote: Mason Williams, another famous Okie musi­cian, adapted this form for his Them Poems; Okeefe is hardly the first to imi­tate Woody’s talk­ing blues.]

One could be for­given, but one would still be wrong. The trou­ble with such a super­fi­cial analy­sis is that it ignores Okeefe’s inci­sive lyri­cism. Terence Crutcher,” osten­si­bly about the unarmed black motorist killed in by a Tulsa police offi­cer after his car broke down, main­tains the American Folk tra­di­tion of giv­ing voice to the voice­less, express­ing rage and despair on the part of the pow­er­less. More broadly it ques­tions how implicit bias affects per­cep­tion. Was Crutcher a big, bad dude, a line repeated through­out the song, or just a big, black dude, the trans­formed phrase the song ends with?

She was booked for first-degree manslaugher/​But when do the chains finally break?/​It’s been ninety-five years since 1921/​How many more is it gonna take?

The world saw the lynch­ing post­card/​It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of noose/​Was he sen­tenced to death for bein’ big and bad/​Or for bein’ a big, black dude?

Josh Okeefe, “Terence Crutcher”

His scant cat­a­logue (he’s released one EP and one long-player, but says he’s recorded over 300 songs [Sidenote: Dingwall, Ed, Milford Musician Launches Debut Album from Nashville,” Belper News ().] ) ranges from love songs to cel­e­bra­tions of his old Derbyshire foot­ball [Sidenote: “Soccer” to us Yanks.] mates to protest songs. An acci­den­tal cover of Johnny and June’s “Jackson” has become one of his most pop­u­lar tunes in live per­for­mance, sung as a duet with his part­ner Cora Carpenter. Carpenter, an angelic hill­billy, kick-you-in-your-shins type, [Sidenote: Okeefe, quoted in Graham, Carol, Josh Okeefe — Don’t Let This Gem Pass You By,” No Depression ().] also sang with Okeefe on the recording.

We [had] sung that song a mil­lion times together on stage but we were not sup­posed to record that song. Cora had joined me for a record­ing ses­sion and we had planned to do a few takes of another song of mine together as a duet. But when the tape started rollin’ I just started play­ing “Jackson.” Nearly burst out laugh­ing halfway through the song but we man­aged to hold it in and fin­ish the take! [Sidenote: Ibid.]

Originally hail­ing from Derby, England, [Sidenote: Derby (pro­nounced /​ˈdɑːrbi/​; rhymes with “car bee”) is located near England’s geo­graphic cen­ter. By the this mar­ket town was one of the Industrial Revolution’s birth­places. By the , it was the cen­ter of the British rail indus­try. A work­ing-class place of cob­ble­stone streets and grey build­ings, Derby might under­stand­ably be mis­taken for one of its north­ern indus­trial neigh­bors.] Okeefe attended the British & Irish Modern Music Institute before drop­ping out to fol­low his musi­cal heroes’ trail (lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively). The trail led the nine­teen-year-old musi­cian to Nashville, musi­cal home to a pair of his idols, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. It was there he recorded his EP, which hit the num­ber fif­teen spot on the iTunes Top 100 Country Albums chart. [Sidenote: Cobley, Mike, England Native & Folk-Singer Josh Okeefe Found His Muse in Nashville & Delivers Results @ Komedia Brighton,” The Brighton Magazine ().]

His next release was recorded in his log cabin with a bor­rowed vin­tage micro­phone and a 2-track tape recorder he pur­chased from Okie J. J. Cale’s estate. [Sidenote: Ibid.]

Okeefe hasn’t gone unno­ticed. He’s opened for Rufus Wainwright, Kris Kristofferson, and Alison Krauss. [Sidenote: Anonymous staff writer, Josh Okeefe Special Guest for Kris Kristofferson 82nd Birthday Concert,” Music​-News​.com ().] [Sidenote: Anonymous staff writer, From Brighton to Nashville, Introducing Josh Okeefe,” BIMM News Archive ().] He’s penned a song for Danish DJ duo TooManyLeftHands, “Too Young to Die.” The song won a Danish Music Award and went on become an International Federation of the Phonographic Industry Gold Record. [Sidenote: Ibid.] [Sidenote: Dingwall.] It’s nuts, going from hear­ing the song in a small room – when I was writ­ing it – to hear­ing 70,000 peo­ple sing the song back at a huge festival. [Sidenote: Okeefe, quoted in “From Brighton to Nashville.”]

His Woodyfest set was decidely qui­eter, but no less enthu­si­as­ti­cally received. He was one of this writer’s favorite new fes­ti­val artists. From con­ver­sa­tion with other fes­ti­val atten­dees and orga­niz­ers I believe that opin­ion is nearly uni­ver­sal. Scuttlebutt has it, fes­ti­val orga­niz­ers want Okeefe for a return engage­ment. I can hardly wait.

Gallery: Josh Okeefe


Okeefe played to a mid-sized crowd in the Brick Café base­ment on fes­ti­val . His part­ner Cora Carpenter joined him for a spir­ited per­for­mance of Jackson.”

About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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