Paul Siebel

TrackAlbum
She Made Me Lose My BluesWoodsmoke and Oranges
Nashville AgainWoodsmoke and Oranges
Then Came the ChildrenWoodsmoke and Oranges
LouiseWoodsmoke and Oranges
Long AfternoonsWoodsmoke and Oranges
Jasper and the MinersJack-Knife Gipsy
If I Could StayJack-Knife Gipsy
Jack-Knife GypsyJack-Knife Gipsy
Pinto PonyJack-Knife Gipsy
Uncle DudleyJack-Knife Gipsy

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Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

In the tradition of exhuming half-forgotten songwriters from the graveyard of history, Buffalo native Paul Siebel (1937-) is as worthy a cause as any. That shouldn’t be taken too literally as the man is alive and well, working as a bread-baker, wildlife guard and/or violin builder, depending on which story you believe. He’s one of those guys who recorded music so good it makes your hair stand on end, and then mysteriously disappeared as the Seventies wore on.

In Siebel’s case, the main legacy is two records on the Elektra label, Woodsmoke and Oranges (1970) and Jack-Knife Gipsy (1971). Both are impressive collections of folk tunes with a blues or country edge, sung with a voice that tears through the country ballads, folk tunes and blues laments like a rusty knife. Though Siebel often sounds like a cowboy yodeler, he was part of the urban Greenwich Village scene; it was there that he met David Bromberg who helped him get signed and played on his first album.

Woodsmoke and Oranges starts off with a flurry of steel guitar that sequences into the up-beat country tune She Made Me Lose My Blues, a song that ends with a series of yodels that would have made Jimmie Rodgers proud. There’s an exhilarating live cover of this tune around by The Flying Burrito Brothers, and also a less interesting version by Rick Roberts. Then Came The Children follows with a wonderful harp lick and one of Siebel’s best lyrics. Apparently, this ode to innocence was inspired by the Incredible String Band and hints at several of their songs in the lyrics. It was later covered by Kate Wolf and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Jerry Jeff also did Louise, the best-known song of the lot, as it was covered by such diverse artists as Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Leo Kottke and Plainsong. Sung in Siebel’s mournful country wail, it’s a beautiful lament to a mistreated girl of pleasure, the folk counterpart to Roxanne. To complete the array of covers, the truly obscure singer/ songwriter Jeffrey Shurtleff played faithful versions of Ballad Of Honest Sam and the country ballad Nashville Again on his 1972 album State Farm. Nashville Again was also covered by David Bromberg.

Returning to Woodsmoke and Oranges, Long Afternoons merits a mention as an unabashed display of nostalgic yearning with a beautiful, drawn-out melody sung over a finger-picked major seventh. I found it hard to exclude the other excellent songs on the first album, especially Bride 1945 and My Town. It goes to show how varied and strong this debut album is; in this respect, it’s worth mentioning that Paul Siebel was at the relatively ripe age of 33 when it was released, setting him off from many younger contemporaries.

A second album quickly followed. Jack-Knife Gipsy has a fuller sound, with a more varied cast of musicians, but it’s the songs and singing that take center stage. Again there’s hardly a weak spot, but I’ve picked my personal favorites. If I Could Stay is another of Siebel’s love ballads, an outcry of misery and despair that allows him to show his remarkable reach in the upper register, hitting a dramatic high g-note in the final lines of the verses.

Though not known for his humor, two of the Siebel songs here, Pinto Pony and Jasper and the Miners, never fail to bring a smile to my face. The former is told by a convict desperate to steal a Pinto Pony and ride away to safety. Jasper and the Miners tells the tale of a bandit equally desperate to prevent miners from digging up his secret – and willing to take desperate measures. These are the kind of enigmatic Wild West ballads that would have fit perfectly on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.

In fact, Dylan is probably the main reference point here, though the influence of pre-Sixties musicians like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie is strong as well. Like Dylan, Siebel aims not for beauty but for hard-earned honesty and realism. He paints his portraits of outlaws and distraught lovers, war veterans and destitute misfits with a sure hand, guided by gentleness and empathy, but also by a mischievous sense of joy in their wicked endeavors.

For completeness’ sake, it is worth mentioning the live album recorded with David Bromberg and Garry White and released in 1978 as Live at McCabe’s. This previously rare album is now available in a digital format, but it only contains a few covers and performances of originals that are clearly inferior to the album tracks recorded some seven years earlier. It’s a pity that it wasn’t put together more carefully, as it seems to me that Siebel’s songs would be perfect material for performance in an intimate setting.

With his recording career behind him and performances dissipating, Paul Siebel drifted off into alcoholism and various other problems in the eighties, before coming clean and working a variety of day jobs. There have been a few scattered interviews since then, but nothing to indicate he’s still active as a musician or might make a come-back in his old age. But perhaps it’s best to let the legend be and treasure the songs of this wandering country balladeer, whose eerie voice still haunts the dusty towns and desolate plains of his vision of America.

To quote Kris Kristofferson, who dedicated his song The Pilgrim to Paul Siebel (among others):

He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher.
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.
He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

 

Paul Siebel – a collection of lyrics and chords to his songs

Paul Siebel biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #266

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 2, 2014

    Kasper, thanks for this great list on a fine artist. The only song I knew of his before this was ‘Louise’ – have the Leo Kottke version which you mention here and another fine version by Eric Andersen on his tribute album to the Greenwich Village songwriters, ‘The Street Was Always There’… Will definitely be checking out more of his work…

  2. Kasper Nijsen
    May 2, 2014

    I had no idea Eric Andersen did ‘Louise’ as well, but I’ve just had a listen and I really like his cover. Looks like an interesting tribute album too.

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