Folk Therapy: Todd Snider and Storytelling in Contemporary Folk Music

In mid-December, I sat in standstill traffic on the FDR, staring at tail lights and trying to think of anything except bashing my forehead into the steering wheel out of sheer, unadulterated frustration; this was how my workday felt everyday by 6 PM. By this point, I’d spent the last 8-10 hours in the driver’s seat of a 15-foot U-Haul van, darting from West Village townhouses to Upper East Side high rises, to brownstones in Brooklyn Heights and the quaint cookie-cutter single family homes in Flushing, Queens. In the front seat next to me were spent coffee cups, empty gatorade bottles, sometimes a banana peel or a pre-packaged pound cake wrapper; In the back, behind a thin sheet of steel perforated with holes, like you might see in a prison transport, was my cargo: a pile of Christmas trees.

I’d gotten the job through a posting on Craigslist, off the books, paid in cash, and pretty straightforward: Pick up van and trees from lot, drive trees to customer, set trees up, pray for tips; not the worst gig you could ask for. But after working six days a week for a month, spending most of that time bumper to bumper with taxis and bread delivery trucks and 4-million other near-homicidal commuters, that 6 PM slog back to the lot in Downtown Brooklyn was enough to make me use words that would make my mother disown me. If I didn’t find a way to get through it, even for the last ten days of the season, I was going to snap. And then the answer came to me through my phone speaker.

I’d stopped listening to the radio after 92.3, like many other alt stations, simply regurgitated the same six songs that were currently popular, on top of a few Red Hot Chili Pepper and Green Day tracks, for all twenty-four of its commercial-free hours. Instead, I would bring my phone charger and start up my Pandora app. I’d recently discovered Dan Bern, a lesser-known folk musician from the 90’s, and was playing his station, when I heard what would be my first Todd Snider song, “The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern.” Within a week, I’d downloaded two of his live albums and was hooked.

Snider describes his music best at the beginning of all of his shows, as he introduces himself: “My name is Todd Snider, I been drivin’ around this country more than fifteen years, I make these songs up and I sing ‘em for anybody that’ll listen to ‘em, some of ‘em are sad, some of ‘em are funny, some of ‘em are short, some of ‘em will seem like they go on forever, sometimes I may ramble on for as many as eighteen minutes in between a particular song.” And ramble he does, but it never drags: Snider is a gifted storyteller, both in his music and in his rambling. His stories about experiences such as meeting “Nascar drivers,” taking magic mushrooms, or his “classic showbusiness story,” are enough to leave the listener laughing hysterically, his pace on point with that of a master stand-up comic. And his music throws a wide net both in genre and in message: his songs range from the bluesy ballad “45 Miles,” about his experience with a car accident driving down a mountain in the Sierra Nevadas, to the happy-folksy picking on the hilarious “Statistician’s Blues,” which pokes fun at the often-times ridiculous habit we have of boiling humanity down to numbers on a spreadsheet.

Snider also isn’t afraid to get political with his music. One of his more popular songs, “Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican,” is an on-the-nose condemnation of who he feels is pulling the strings of society. As his lyrics put it:

“Quite diligently working so hard to keep the free reigns of this democracy, from tree-hugging, peace-loving, pot-smoking, porn-watching, lazy-ass hippies like me.”

However, most of Snider’s politics come into play in more subtle and clever ways, through songs like “The Devil You Know,” and “Broke.” “The Devil You Know” starts out as a fast-moving ride through the eyes of someone living in a bad part of town, during a man-hunt in his neighborhood for a bank robber. As the song unfolds, though, rather than casting judgement on the robber, Snider saves his criticism for the society that simultaneously condemns the actions of criminals while also putting into place the framework that creates them. By the end of the song, Snider is clear about whose side he is on, as his character helps the robber get away.

In “Broke,” especially, Snider is masterful at layering his opinion into his lyrics. What begins as a simple story of having a credit card declined at a grocery store ends with a tongue-in-cheek jab at the American prison system. It’s these tracks that highlight not only Snider’s ability to tell a clever story, but to leave the listener questioning common perceptions of American society.

Of course, this isn’t to say Snider’s music is all politically charged: much of it is simply a reminder of that great truth we all know yet somehow manage to forget during the monotony of everyday adult life: that we all just need to relax, take a breath, and appreciate the million little things that make getting out of bed every morning worth it. Or as “Ballad of Devil’s Backbone Tavern,” puts it:

“She said ‘Life is too short to worry,’ She said ‘Life is too long to wait, It’s too short not to love everybody, Life is too long to hate. I meet a lot of men who haggle and finagle all the time, Trying to save a nickel, maybe make a dime,’She said, ‘Not me, boy, no siree, You know I ain’t got the time.’”

It was tunes like this one, along with others like “I Can’t Complain,” that reminded me a little bit that traffic wasn’t the end of the world, and that ramming that goddamn Ford Mustang that just can’t pick a goddamn lane would most likely not make me as happy as I imagined it would. The driver of said goddamn Ford Mustang and I thank you, Todd.

-John Tucker

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