Meet Alynda Lee Segarra:
Segarra is a 26-year-old Puerto Rican girl who was born and raised in the Bronx. At the age of 17, though, she skipped out on the Big Apple and spent some time riding trains around the U.S., eventually settling in New Orleans, in a neighborhood that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the Big Easy, that most musical of American cities, she found a community of musicians and travelers she fit in with, and she learned to play guitar and started writing folk songs. It turned out she had a booming voice and an easy touch on the guitar, and she started a band.
If you think I’m writing this because I basically just described my dream girl, well, you’re kind of right. Except, I’m probably never gonna meet her, and I’m under the impression she’s not into dudes anyway. Oh well.
But I’m not here to write about my chances with Segarra. I’m here to write about her music. Hurray for the Riff Raff has been putting albums out for around five years, although the first one to get widespread attention was 2012’s Look Out Mama, the album cover of which featured a photo of Segarra’s father as a soldier (probably in Vietnam, although I’m not sure about that).
I hadn’t heard of Hurray for the Riff Raff, though, until this year, when they released their latest album, Small Town Heroes, to rave reviews. I kept hearing about this great folk band, and since y’all know I’m a devoted a folkie, I had to check them out. The first song I listened to was the album’s opening track, Blue Ridge Mountain, which Segarra says was inspired by the Carter family, perhaps America’s first family of folk music.
Needless to say, I was blown away. Soulful vocals, a rad fiddle solo, a sense of place in the American canon—it’s basically everything I want out of a song. And then I listened to the rest of the album, and found so many other similarly intelligent, lovely songs. There’s Crash on the Highway, about being stuck in a traffic jam far from home and just wishing you could be back in your neighborhood bar “sitting in the corner strumming my guitar.” Then there’s her take on the standard San Francisco Bay Blues:
You probably recognize that tune, written by Jesse Fuller in 1954, and you probably know it from this somewhat notable concert recording:
What Hurray for the Riff Raff does here is what folk music does best: She takes a familiar song, one that’s been passed down through generations, one that everyone knows, and yet she puts her own twist on it, makes it her own.
She does a similar thing with The Body Electric, her take on a murder ballad. Murder ballads make up some of our best folk and rock songs—Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Down by the River, Banks of the Ohio—but of course they always involve a man killing a woman who has wronged him. Segarra isn’t the first woman to flip the script on a murder ballad—Gillian Welch’s incendiary Caleb Meyer, about a woman fighting off a would-be rapist, is one of the best songs recorded in the last 20 years—but there’s something unique about the way she does it, something so sad and poignant in the lyrics, in particular the final line: “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go?” Such intelligent songwriting.
And if that wasn’t enough, I went back and listened to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous albums. In particular, I’m obsessed with My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, a cover album that features Segarra’s takes on tunes by Gillian Welch, John Lennon, Townes Van Zandt, and a bunch of my other favorite songwriters. The highlight for me, among many, is perhaps the most haunting version of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry that I’ve ever heard (and that’s a tune that Elvis said was the saddest song he’d ever heard).
The only question that I really have about Hurray for the Riff Raff is, Why can’t more people do shit like this? I know, I’m being a grouchy old guy complaining about “kids these days,” but then I took a look at the band’s website, and I came across this quote from Segarra:
“We really feel at home with a lot of worlds of people that don’t really seem to fit together, and we find a way to make them all hang out with our music. Whether it’s the queer community or some freight train–riding kids or some older guys who love classic country, a lot of folks feel like mainstream culture isn’t directed at them. We’re for those people.”
And I saw myself in those words, and many of my other friends as well. And I just want to say thanks to Alynda Lee Segarra for being an intelligent, beautiful voice for us. Fuck mainstream culture. Hurray for the Riff Raff.