Cantor finds common political ground in song

Howie Cantor

Editor’s note: This article comes to through an exchange with the Barton Chronicle.

WEST GLOVER – Howie Cantor lives in the woods in West Glover where he and his wife, Stephan, raise pigs and chickens and a garden. Mainly, they make maple syrup.

Cantor also makes some pretty interesting and wide-ranging music. It’s populist, political, emotional — music that’s a lot of fun to listen to but relies on lyrics for its weight. It’s not dance music. It’s not background music. It’s the kind of music that an audience who’s listening, reacts to.

And that’s exactly what happened recently at Cantor’s CD release party at Parker Pie in West Glover, where an attentive audience burst out laughing, clapped, or commented when something resonated. The CD is called “Stay On the Dirt,” and it’s in the best tradition of American folk singing, which leans toward comment on political and social issues, as well as matters of the heart and the tribulations of ordinary life.

Using the word “folk” can imply a certain sound and style. “Stay on the Dirt” fails to comply with the stereotype, if you have one. Some of these songs have a country sound, or swing, or are jazzy. The musical style can vary radically; the message does not. This music is about things that matter – enduring love, bad banking policy, revenge, war, the struggle, joys and lessons of rural life. And oysters.

In the interest of disclosure, let it be known that I’ve been friends with Howie and Stephan Cantor for roughly 30 years, and have been privy to more of Cantor’s music than is what’s on the CD that was the subject of the release party.

In the interest of fuller disclosure, I hail from the Bob Dylan and Joan Baez days when popular music was not tightly manufactured, micromanaged and marketed, but was so often an expression of a certain idealism and discontent with the status quo.

Cantor’s music is occasionally angry, sometimes very funny, usually heartfelt. One of his particular talents is that he avoids the self-righteousness, the “I’m going to hit you over the head” effect that can afflict some political music. His songs get the message across, but they tend to nail absurdity and make a point in a way similar to, say, John Stewart on “The Daily Show.”

“Stay on the Dirt,” the title track, is a lively tune about rural life and everyday problems. The tractor’s blowing fuses, the truck is stuck, the bank account is lean, the bartender is wondering if she’ll ever see any dough. So, “Don’t drive on the pavement, stay on the dirt, keep away from blue lights, try not to lose your shirt. When we’re gone and buried it won’t matter anyhow, that’s why I need to dance with you in the here and now.”

The tunes are musically catchy, the kind you remember, the kind that even gets stuck in your head (which I add since one of them got stuck in my head for three days …) Lyrically, they capture the mood of ordinary people, without the hardheaded bitterness, or the polarization that so characterizes modern politics.

The most political song on this CD is “Million Dollar Man” which is sung in a chatty tone that made the crowd at Parker Pie laugh even while they clearly empathized with the message. It tells the story of a hapless fellow who bought a house at terms he didn’t understand and found himself losing it and building a shack out of tin by the railroad tracks. He says he doesn’t mind – it’s just one more thing he doesn’t have. What he does have is his cell phone and computer, which pass for a home these days.

It’s a funny and biting comment on modern life and the banking situation.

The chorus is:
A million dollar man
In a thousand dollar suit
Shuffling through the city
Picking up his loot
It may be true people cling to their guns
So million dollar man
Now you got to run.

Cantor said that he considered himself a serious singer-songwriter when he was younger – late teens and early twenties. He was living in New York and playing at open mic nights in Greenwich Village, including the bar where Bob Dylan got his start. “It was going pretty well,” he said.

But he hooked up with the Bread and Puppet Theater from Glover. And then life further intervened, as it often does. He got married, had children, and found himself making maple syrup in northern Vermont, far from the New York City music scene.

Eventually, the children grew and started to go away. The sugaring business settled into a routine. And about six years ago, Mr. Cantor started writing again. “I took it seriously enough to work on the songs and try to make them good,” he said. “If you’re writing stuff like this, it’s just kind of stuff ripping out of your soul. If you’re coaching T-Ball and making dinner and driving kids places, you’re having something else going on. When that period of life changes you kind of go back to where you were before.”

These days he carries paper in the car, or with him if he goes away, so if lyrics come to him he can write them down. The political songs are deliberate. “Most of the political ones, I decide I want to write about that,” he said.

“Dancing Rivers” is sort of generic war song, for lack of a better way to put it. “I wanted to write an anti-war song that didn’t get dated,” Mr. Cantor said. “It’s basically about a strong country invading a more primitive country. That’s always been happening; it’s going to keep happening.”

The other songs are more spontaneous, he said. “They just generally rip out of me. I don’t pick them.”

There is, and always has been, a music scene, venues for musicians, Cantor said, but there’s less openness to political songs than 30 or 40 years ago. He corrected himself a little to say that people are not looking for political songs so much, but the response is generally good when they hear them. People can perhaps find common political ground in music, if nowhere else.

The CD is available for $10 at Parker Pie in West Glover, or by contacting Cantor.

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  • Sounds like really great Music & Lyrics! We’re going to want to get ourselves a copy…and will spread the word! A wonderful review by Tena Starr, all disclaimers aside…this is the kind of Music & Lyrics we sorely NEED.
    (Check out my website – pretty sure we’re kindred spirits – also from NEK).

  • Please help Howie’s music move up the charts on Radio Free Vermont by registering and requesting his music.


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