First Impressions: Last Days of Summer by Lucy Kaplansky

I reunited with an old chum from my college days this week. Back in the mid-1980s, we met at least a few times each month, almost always early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. She’d sing me songs about the meaning of life, love and more while I, bleary-eyed from the night before, chowed down on coffee and cigarettes. The relationship made sense. She had an interest in psychology, while I had an interest in the beats—to appropriate a line from one of my favorites, we saw the best minds of our generation destroyed by conformity, consumerism and a crisp drum sound. (Oh gated reverb, how I hate thee!)

I jest, of course.

In truth, I first heard Lucy Kaplansky in the fall of 1985 alongside Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin and other folkies via the Fast Folk Musical Magazine LP series, which—as I’ve noted before—I often played when spinning discs on my college radio station’s Folk Show. Here she is, circa 1982, performing Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso” with Mark Dann. (The song would eventually wind up on Vega’s brilliant sophomore set, Solitude Standing.)

In the years that followed, while I lost touch with the intricacies of her career, I enjoyed her CDs—Diane was fan enough to bring them into the house, so I heard them when she played them. (Last night, in fact, Diane reminded me that we saw her open for Laura Nyro at the Tin Angel in September 1994—and, given how often she played the Philly area during the 1990s, we likely saw her somewhere else along the way.) 

By then, though, my old folky days seemed more than a decade away. But now that I’m pushing 60, they feel just like yesterday. (Odd, huh?) Which may be one reason why, earlier this week, I clicked into a Facebook advertisement for Lucy Kaplansky’s latest album, Last Days of Summer, that appeared in my feed. It’s doing well on the folk album charts, earning plaudits from this person and that person, but isn’t available anywhere but her website—one can’t even stream it from the usual suspects. (I know: The horror! The horror!) 

So I ordered it.

The 10-track disc features six original songs and four smart covers, including Nanci Griffith’s “Ford Econoline” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” She’s accompanied by Duke Levine on guitars, mandola and mandolin, Mike Rivard on bass, and Ben Wittman on drums, percussion and harmonium. Old friends John Gorka and Richard Shindell provide harmonies.

The title track tells a story sure to ring true for many a parent: A child departing for college. The second song, “Mary’s Window,” on the other hand, casts an eye across this land: “But now this country of hers has been ravaged and cleaved/By all this sickness and hatred and bigotry/Fueled by the lies of the fools who would lead/Lies told for power, malice and greed.” (Don’t be fooled by the chorus, however. It’s actually quite hopeful: “Oh the goodness of people can’t be put down/It just keeps on/The sound of kindness/It just keeps on/Can’t be silenced/It just keeps on.”) Here’s an acoustic rendition of it:

“Ford Econoline” is a wondrous cover of the Nanci Griffith song, which she sang harmonies on way back yonder. (A few YouTube clips exist of her singing backup on the song during Nanci’s TV appearances in 1986, for those interested, though she’s only in frame from a distance. Here’s one.) Lucybelle’s rendition is a little slower, but no less compelling. Likewise her take on Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” which shakes the cobwebs off the much-covered tune to mine new emotive truths from the lyrics: “Things are bound to be improving these days/one of these days….” (Interesting aside: She first sang the song at a campfire last summer when her friend Jamie Raskin, the congressman, asked her to sing it.)

“Song of the Exile” celebrates the American Dream by way of a cab driver who immigrated to New York from China. “Independence Day,” on the other hand, digs into the downside of family dynamics and dysfunction by way of soiree she attended out of obligation, not want. “This is where it ends,” she vows before sharing this observation: “We can’t choose how we come into this world/But we can choose who we’re gonna be and what we’re gonna be.” It’s followed by another chestnut, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” that continues the in the same vein.

“Requiem,” meanwhile, finds her dealing with a broken heart while visiting a seaside town for the first time without a departed someone. “God Watch and Chain,” the final cover, is the classic Carter Family song that’s probably best known, these days, for Emmylou Harris’ sterling rendition from her Roses in the Snow album. The final track, “Elmhurst Queens Mother’s Day” wraps thing up with a moving portrait of the early days of the pandemic in New York City as painted by someone from afar. 

Anyway, Last Days of Summer is well worth the investment, collecting as it does 10 learned and lived songs. To say it’s a meditative wonder is trading in hyperbole, I suppose, so I’ll settle for this: It’s a stirring set that resonates through the soul. Give it a go.

The track list:

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