On The String: Folk Singer Eliza Gilkyson Sees Unfinished Business Ahead in ‘2020’

Jul 1, 2020

Eliza Gilkyson turned 18 years old in 1968, the year many historians are pointing to as a precedent for the national turmoil of 2020. Those are formative years for anyone, but as a budding folk singer with a progressive outlook, it was a stirring, motivating time. Problem is, when Gilkyson watches the world now, she sees that famous era as one that produced a lot of consciousness-raising but too little actual change. “We really thought we were moving the ball down the court,” she says on The String. “We patted ourselves on the back prematurely.”

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH ELIZA GILKYSON STARTING AT 38:40.

Gilkyson tackles this difficult truth and its unfinished business in the song “My Heart Aches” on her new and overtly timely album 2020. It evokes the decades long march from Selma, AL to Ferguson, MO and beyond with a tone of regret. “We thought we were really changing things,” she told me from a temporary home base in Taos, NM. “And any black person can tell you that it was superficial, that the real systems of power hadn’t shifted at all. It’s something we have to come to terms with. I think our hearts were in the right place, but we just rested on our laurels way too early, and now we’re paying the price for it.”

That said, Gilkyson is “surprised” by the size and force of this year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “I think it’s very exciting. I think there really is a shift going on. It’s new. They have made that happen. I hope that they can stay united and have their strategy intact. I’m 100% behind them and I’m hoping for the best.”

The album, as any good protest record should, mingles hope with anger, sorrow with celebration. The songwriter joins a never-ending march for justice in “Peace In Our Hearts.” She rouses herself to face down fear through unity in “We Are Not Alone.” "Beach Haven" is a posthumous collaboration with Woody Guthrie, as Eliza sets to music the text of a letter Guthrie wrote about a segregated apartment complex owned by none other than Fred Trump (Donald's father) in 1952.

Meanwhile, “Sooner Or Later” taps a simmering fury. Gilkyson says it’s the most “radical” song of the collection, one that sort of erupted in one sitting. “It’s not advocating violence at all, but it is about rising up and taking back what has been taken from us as the middle and working classes and as people who are not in the one percent,” she says. “Better sooner than later, because it’s gonna get uglier if it waits longer. It’s going to be more volatile.”

Rounding out the project are two book-matched covers from the golden age of protest folk. Eliza inhabits the gentle pleading of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” while the production (steered by her son Cisco Ryder Gilliland) gives the song a welcome, motivating beat. While her ire and passion grows steadily through Bob Dylan’s prophetic and magisterial “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”

Gilkyson occupies an interesting space in political music because her father was a noted songwriter and artist from the early days of the folk revival, working in the polite and bloodless sound that was lampooned in the film A Mighty Wind. After singing with groups, including a guest turn with The Weavers, he moved on to commercial songwriting for Hollywood movies. Eliza released one album in 1969 but truly found her footing and her provocative voice after raising a family in New Mexico. From the 1980s on, based out of Austin, she carved out a spot among the top acoustic singer-songwriters of her time, alongside contemporaries like John Gorka and Cheryl Wheeler.

The job and the mission have changed in light of current struggles she says. “As a white folk singer who has been socio-political, I have felt over many years that it was important for me to tell the stories of Black people. I think some of the best songs I’ve ever written are songs that tell stories of people of color who were oppressed. I don’t do those songs right now, partly because I don’t want to be co-opting someone else’s racial stories. I’m being very sensitive to that right now. I think it’s appropriate for me to back off and shift what I talk about politically.  And right now, that’s about unity. That’s really what I’m about right now. What do we need to do to bring our disparate forces together to change things.”