Desert Folk: The Life and Songs of Joel Rafael

Joel Rafael.
Photo by Grant James.

Sweat darkens the hat of the man bent over the plow ripping through topsoil buried by dust. Inside their buffeted shack, the man's wife boils lima beans salted with sadness. She peers out at wind kicking up dust, listens to it moan through slats. Their hungry children play on the floor whining for something to sink a spoon into.

Times were tough in the Depression and the Dust Bowl and Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie, a self-taught singer/songwriter who knew hardship first-hand, wrote songs for the downtrodden, hoping he could provide hope to those who had none.

On his guitar emblazoned with the words "This machine kills Fascists," Guthrie sang his songs: "This Land is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "1913 Massacre," and hundreds of others.

Note by note, song by song, he forever changed the character of American music. Hardly a schoolchild in America hasn't sung "This Land is Your Land," at one time or another.

Woody Guthrie, father of American folk music, is dead. Joel Rafael, 62, a folkie from Valley Center in north San Diego County, labors to keep his music alive.
Rafael rolls up denim sleeves to strum dreadnaught strings, bringing to life Guthrie's legacy. It's been an almost life-long passion for Rafael.

"I wanted to take something that was so important and put it into the ear of the contemporary listener," Rafael said.

Woody songs tell the story of the common man struggling to persevere in harsh times. For many Americans -- jobless, homes in foreclosure, the prospects dim-- the times are no less tough. Rafael believes thst Guthrie's music isn't just history. It's still relevant, still speaking to those suffering injustices.

Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.
Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.

Many think folk music is on the way out," Rafael says. "But it isn't. It's on the way in. It's the music of the people. It may seep underground at times, but it's alive and flourishing."

Most of Guthrie's recordings are field recordings of lesser quality -- rife with crackle and scratch and poor fidelity. Rafael wants people today to be able to listen, clearly listen to Guthrie's words that tell such amazing stories of people and events that shaped America, he says.

His efforts and talents have lifted Rafael to higher ground as one of the country's most respected Guthrie interpreters. So respected, Woody's sister, Nora Guthrie, entrusted Rafael to write music to lyrics penned by Guthrie but never put to music. In a sense, Rafael's been asked to channel Guthrie's musical spirit.

The five songs he finished for Woody in addition to other Woody songs can be heard in "Joel Rafael: The songs of Woody Guthrie Vol. 1&2" -- a double album released by Inside Recordings, an independent label started by Jackson Browne and his management.

Had he lived, Woody Guthrie would turn 100 July 14. Celebrations commemorating his centennial are planned all over the country in addition to places as far flung as Germany and Austria. Okemah, OK, Guthrie's birthplace, plans to do his birthday right with the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival -- a festival many simply call WoodyFest. It's been going since 1998, but this year promises to be bigger and better, a full-on birthday bash. Scheduled performers include: Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Melanie, and young gun, John Fullbright, who also hails from Okemah. The list of performers has grown to over 20 and is still growing. Joel Rafael will be on stage there, singing Woody songs, as he has been since the beginning.

Rafael lives and works on a woodsy plot of land deep in the backroads of Valley Center, where brushy hillsides dotted with purple lilac bump against orchards of oranges and avocados.

Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.
Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.

He lives in a rustic house, much of it self built, with his wife Lauren. They have a fireplace for heat and a great open deck overlooking a tangle of flowers and greenery out front. Their two daughters, Corrina and Jamaica, both in the music industry, are grown and out of the house with children of their own.

Rafael, born in Chicago and reared from an early age in Covina, had musical inclinations early on. While hardly big enough to hold one, his parents shouldered him with an accordion, an instrument popular in the 1950s. It might have been Lawrence Welk's fault.

A small kid, without much heft, Rafael found the accordion unwieldy He switched to drums, acquiring his first drum kit when he was 12. He got good enough to jam with neighbor kids and they formed little garage bands. Trouble was Rafael could sing better than the other kids. He enjoyed singing, but found the drums difficult to sing with.

Like many American boys during the time folk music gained ground, he turned to the guitar. His parents took him to Tijuana where they bought him a $30 nylon-string guitar. He practiced, practiced, practiced, got better and better, and eventually bought a better guitar, a Goya, another nylon-string. It was easier to play, less wear and tear on his fingers. He he got good enough to win talent competitions at school.

"It gave me a sense of identity, and before long, I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life,"Rafael said.

Some of the first songs he learned on guitar were Guthrie songs. They were ubiquitous in the songbooks of the era, the chord progressions weren't complicated. But it was his daughters who cemented his fascination with Guthrie. When his daughters were young he discovered that Guthrie had written many children's songs.

"I learned the songs for my daughters and they grew up with them. Simple songs. Happy songs," he said. Even today the memories make him smile.

Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.
Joel Rafael | Photo by Grant James.

Now Rafael favors Martin and Taylor guitars. He has converted what used to be a barn into a fully functioning studio, where he writes and records much of his own music. For Rafael, it isn't all Woody, all the time. Non-Woody albums include "The Joel Rafael Band," "Old Wood Barn," "Hopper," and "Thirteen Stories High."

Rafael has a distinctive vocal style that fits folk music like a denim jacket -- a little rasp, a little alternative rock. Some might describe him as Americana.

In April, Rafael performed at the Grammy Museum's presentation of This Land is your Land, Woody Guthrie at 100 with Jackson Browne, Crosby and Nash, Kris Kristofferson and others. He sang with Crosby and Nash.

Woody's music lives on.


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