The swing bandleader stresses the importance of history.
It's South by Southwest in Austin, and across the street from a party hosted by an app developer, a well-dressed swing band is set up in a gravel parking lot in front of a van. The van gets attention because it's black and yellow and carries the mark of Third Man Records, Jack White's label. The band stops people who are moving between hip-hop and indie rock stars of the day with its easy swing and the singer's clear, effortless way with a melody. He's a throwback to a more angst-free style as he sings about his Kentucky Mae, and in context of SXSW's relentless quest for the new, the moment was charming for its blithe indifference to passing time.
"It's not a history project for me," says singer and guitarist Pokey LaFarge. "Never has been." LaFarge released his first album, Marmalade, in 2007, and in June he'll release his self-titled debut album on Jack White's Third Man Records.
LaFarge listened to classic rock like so many kids growing up, but he responded to the bluegrass records he heard through his grandfather, and that prompted him to pick up the mandolin. When other friends were playing teenaged versions of heavy rock, he was working on Bill Monroe. "It was just me wanting to be different," he says. "That was my punk rock." He also liked Fela, Afrobeat and calypso - "the really old stuff, the guys who came to New Orleans" - but his interest in bluegrass led to a self-taught education in swing music and jazz, with knowledge pieced together one liner note, blog post and conversation at a time. LaFarge tracked players from one album cover to another, creating his own personalized history of hot jazz, swing, hillbilly music and the other dance band variations that were part of the same family tree.
Still, despite the retro sense of style, LaFarge's music has the marks of modernity. His core period is Depression-era music, but he is also influenced by the Jazz Age that came before it and post-Depression music as well. "I'm not speaking about soup kitchens and pushing a mule; I'm singing about my life," he says. "Some of the guys bring more of a rock 'n' roll drive to the way they play, especially Adam Hoskins, who grew up playing punk rock."
There is something classically American about LaFarge's booster spirit. "I've had the benefit of traveling all over this great country," he says without a hint of caricature, and he stands up for his native Midwest and the country as treasure troves of cool stuff just waiting to be found. "The more that I've dug back, the more that I've been able to appreciate things that are in my family or my hometown or my region or my country that other people at times choose not to appreciate," he says. "And I think that's also true for the music that I play. It's a crusade in a way. It's my job to educate people."
His history of America music crosses time and geography. He recognizes the centrality of New Orleans to the jazz story, but it's too big a story for any city to own. He points to Chicago, for starters. "[Jazz] never was Southern music, in my opinion," LaFarge says. "Bix Beiderbecke came from Iowa. It's American music through and through." Similarly, "people were playing rock 'n' roll in the '20s. It's the same damned beat. If people listened to more music and knew where it came from, it would be helpful for a lot of people."
LaFarge connected with Jack White after his band played radio station WSM around Thanksgiving two or three years ago. White was listening and asked him if he'd like to cut a single. LaFarge did, and White asked him to perform on his album, Blunderbuss. LaFarge toured with White, including shows at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and Cain's Ballroom - the musical home of Bob Wills - in Tulsa on the tour. "It's been an honor," LaFarge says, and the implied Jack White seal of approval has certainly helped get the band heard and viewed as something authentic.
"I have no desire to make a big pop record to please the masses," LaFarge says, but it's likely more accurate to say that he has no interest in rejiggering what he does to be more successful. His democratic embrace of working class, dancing class America implies the hope that what he's doing could reach a mass audience, if only .... And knowledge is the key. "Once you know something, know something," he says. "You can do so much with positivity."
Pokey LaFarge plays the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage Thursday at 4:15 p.m.