He’s been performing and recording his songs for nigh on 50 years. A troubadour who has serenaded countless political benefits, written and performed as many songs, sponsored the music-making efforts of hundreds of fellow guitarists and has become as fluent on electric as he has long been on acoustic guitar, I could only imagine who Kurt Henry’s greatest influence might be. Pete Seeger? Jimi Hendrix? Django Reinhardt?
How about a guy who, as can best be determined, never strummed a guitar in his life? A guy who’s better known for his support for and creation of a political and philosophical movement that revolutionized Victorian culture? How about William Morris?
Kurt Henry is crazy about William Morris, the Promethean polymath whose creative energies extended more deeply into more realms than almost anyone else you’d care to conjure. He was a designer, craftsman, poet, philosopher and visionary socialist whose words still resonate with the 67-year-old musician.
Back in his SUNY-New Paltz days, after flirting with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and marching on Washington, hardcore radical politics weren’t for him: “I never liked dogma, then or now.” What he discovered he did like was J. R. R. Tolkien, medieval literature and, most critically, Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, a cornerstone of what’s now called fantasy literature. It’s an encompassing work that continues to fascinate and influence Henry.
“I think he was the most unique socialist thinker who ever lived. And he differed from every other socialist thinker – which is why he’s been isolated by other socialists, who tend to be dogmatic in nature.”
Morris, Henry concludes, was a “philosopher of happiness.” “His idea of socialism is fellowship – a fellowship of artists and people working together for the common good, against not only the oppression of people, but what was happening in his environment.”
Long and short of it? Henry has never forgotten what Morris endeavored to demonstrate throughout his life: that the authentic life is intrinsically connected to the aesthetic life, and that that goal is as possible as it is desirable.
But Morris’s fame has faded. His brand of socialism hasn’t been duplicated in the hundred-plus years since he’s been dead. What’s his relevance today? Henry grins in response.
“Everything he did was from an aesthetic perspective. He’s not the colorless socialist. He’s the socialist who decorates your house, the socialist who brings art into your life and makes you happy. Not the grim socialist, the Leon Trotsky who eats cabbage all day; Morris is the gourmet socialist.
“So rather than look at the question, ‘How might we wrest money away from the upper class?’ Morris asks the question, ‘How might we live better?’ It’s not about sharing profits; it’s about sharing art, sharing the bounty of the planet.”
Morris turned his back on England’s rapacious capitalist system and poured his inherited wealth into an art cooperative that has survived, in memory at least, as the Arts and Crafts Movement of Victorian England. The movement was highly controversial in its time because it denounced the “progress” of the machine age by rejecting unnecessary mechanical intervention and emphasizing the relative virtue of handmade work. Morris stood on streetcorners and preached his gospel. And he and the men and women he attracted to his movement created some of the era’s most enduring and beautiful art.
“He really walked the walk. It’s a little idealistic, perhaps; but when I look around today, what are people looking at to get away from materialist things? They’re looking to purchase experiences. What I see among my friends is that it’s not so much about having a bigger car; it’s about making your house nicer, maybe playing music…”
Music! We’ve been talking for an hour, and Henry has yet to mention the ostensible reason for our meeting: the imminent release of his latest CD, Flaming June. For the past 25 years or so, Henry has taught English to young people he describes as “the most challenging and the least challenging,” in Ulster BOCES Alternative High School and in the New Visions program for gifted students.
For eight years he hosted “Acoustic Thursday” at the High Falls Café, encouraging “maybe thousands” of local singer/songwriters. But more recently, his longtime commitment to folk music (his influences include Dave Van Ronk, Ian and Sylvia and especially his best friend, the late John Herald) began to wane. Under the influence of his bandmate and all-star studio cat Steve Burgh, he returned to his electric guitar roots, courtesy of a beloved Gretsch archtop hollow-body guitar, at the turn of the century.
Henry had an epiphany shortly after Burgh’s death in 2005: He was setting up the sound system for a performance stage in New Paltz when it occurred to him that he needed to take his guitar-playing to another level. He needed to measure himself against three monster guitarists whom he admired and with whom he had played with: former Womblers guitarist Steve Kerlinger, classical guitarist Peter Blanchette and the legendary jazz guitarist Ed Diehl. “I wanted to take it to that level. Time to put more time into doing it.”
That effort has taken him to where he is today – to a place that he’s excited about, but also a place where he has become hard to categorize commercially. “I really don’t have any particular taste in music; I steal pedal-steel licks, jazz licks, country licks. What I play is sort of a mishmosh, and that’s been a problem. I’ve been told, ‘You need to decide what kind of music you play.’ One promoter told she only handles ‘Americana.’ I’ve played country all my life. What do I do? UnAmericana?”
Henry grows animated in recounting the absurdity of a music industry that has become as dogmatic as any Trotskyite of yore. The evidence of what he has accomplished as a singer, and especially as a guitarist, is readily available on Flaming June for anyone to hear – especially if you’re not hung up on musical categories or dogmatic, market-driven unrealities.
The Kurt Henry Band (Alan Goth on bass, Cheryl Lambert on harmony vocals, Pete Levin on keyboards, Larry Packer on violin and producer Eric Parker on drums) will have a release celebration of Flaming June at the Falcon Underground in Marlboro on June 23 at 7 p.m.