Hurray For The Riff Raff: Small Town Heroes
Hurray For The Riff Raff is the name of a collective consisting of singer/guitarist Alynda Lee Segarra and a small group of friends who play fiddle, bass, drums and an assortment of instruments. Together they make a sound which is deeply rooted in American traditional music.
Segarra is of Puerto Rican descent and was brought up in the Bronx district of New York. When she was 17 she took off to travel around North America hopping freight trains Woody Guthrie-style and collecting all kinds of roots music influences along the way. Now 26 and based in New Orleans she has already made several recordings but this is the first on a relatively high profile label.
On first listen the album seems very low key and unfocussed but repeated plays reveal a natural progression and logic all of its own. Beginning with an old-timey excursion into Appalachian music with ‘Blue Ridge Mountain’ – which includes some “clogging” – it then veers off into folk, country, blues and beyond.
All of the songs were written or part-written by Segarra and she adds some thoughtful twists to some of the lyrics. This is most apparent on ‘The Body Electric’ which takes the form of a traditional murder ballad but seen through Segarra’s eyes and from the viewpoint of the female victim. “Like an old sad song, you heard it all before / Delia’s gone but I’m settling the score” she sings, and its feminist, anti-violence message resonates here and elsewhere on the album as she asks just what’s the use of “a man with a rifle in his hand”.
One of the album’s most intriguing tracks is ‘The New SF Bay Blues’ which is Segarra’s re-imagining of the old Jesse Fuller song. Her quietly understated singing and acoustic guitar arrangement (with old and new echoes of both Elizabeth Cotten and Kelly Joe Phelps) is one of the album’s finest moments – and I write as someone lucky enough to have seen the late Jesse Fuller performing the original on stage in the 1960s.
There is no attempt at showing off or flashiness in either the playing or the singing. Instead there’s just an honest desire to sing the songs and tell the stories in praise of the different, the underdog, the dispossessed, and all of the so-called “riff raff” of society.
Small Town Heroes is released on ATO.