Folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul cradles his instrumental life partner, acoustic guitar “Guinness,” in his arms. Each note, each chord is produced in consort with the musician’s poetic lyrics of dreams, love and life — a “movable feast” for the heart and soul.
Paul brings that feast to the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor on Friday, April 10 for a 7:30 p.m. show.
Paul's career, and his connection with folk music began in Boston the early 1990s, when he says the town was ripe with creative individuals rewriting folk music. Since his first album was released in 1989, “Urban Folk Songs,” Paul has recorded 18 more, including his latest, “Chasing Beauty.”
Paul considers folk singers Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as the godfathers of the genre.
“I never think of them as being dated or out of fashion or not cool,” Paul said. “You almost want to drop to your knees and thank them for everything.”
Paul has shared the stage with two of those godfathers, Seeger and Arlo. First in 1996, as a performer in the 10-day celebration of Woody's music at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and in 1998, by invitation, at the first Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma.
Paul and Seeger played together at the Newport Folk Festival.
About 12 years ago, Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, invited Paul to the family archives. Nora wanted him to select one of her father's unpublished songs and set it to music.
“I found this one called ‘God's Promise.’ The lyrics sounded gospel-like and read fluidly like poetry,” Paul said. “It was thrilling to put contemporary music to lyrics composed in the ’50s.”
“Chasing Beauty,” his 19th album, is one wherein Paul wanted to tell the stories of people at some kind of crossroads. The title of the album is also one of its tunes — and a beautiful one at that. The song speaks to experiences and dreams — different types of beauty we all chase.
Lyrics from “Chasing Beauty” include: “You said a woman in motion stays in motion, Can't be stopped by mountain, man or ocean. Tell me, is your world so fast that you can't stand at a crossroad .... Time (then love) ... we both lost track .... Time was an open road (Love was an open book) .... You can't look back, you're chasing beauty.”
“Empire State” was inspired by Arlo's “City of New Orleans,” in which the train sings the chorus. Paul had wanted to do something similar using something with a lasting cultural impact. One day, while driving and taking in the NYC skyline, he saw the Empire State Building and thought about how beautiful it still was — and how much it had ‘seen’ since it was completed in 1931.
“It was built during the Great Depression by immigrants and financed by the wealthy. To have that much money and that much poverty interacting for the same purpose, and a different language being spoken on every floor ... ” Paul said. “I had to write about it to remind people of its place in history. It (the song) seemed to write itself once I got started — and then I just got out of the way.”
This song will give you chills. Lyrics include: “Steel and curves, they laid my cornerstone in ’29, President Hoover threw a switch and the sky was mine ... I’m the Tower of Babel, you want stories, I got stacks ... I cried that September Tuesday when the towers came crashing down, for as long as I’m standing, I’ll be the guardian of New York town ... ”
“Plastic Soldiers” was co-written with musician Seth Glier at at time when the soldiers were coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. It was written without any judgment or commentary on war itself.
“It was written in recognition of the sacrifices made. It’s a generational, circular story about a boy playing with soldiers and, overtime, becomes one of the wounded warriors who comes home,” Paul said. “And realizes he has given up a part of himself to the sacrifice and that part is now plastic — just like the soldiers he used to play with. Soldiers he watches his son now playing with.”
Paul is also a fine pianist, but his love for the acoustic guitar goes unmatched. He is a self-taught musician whose learning how to play began in college and continues today.
“The acoustic guitar has a range that's hard to beat. I'm in love with it sonically; I'm in love with the puzzle of learning how to play it. I'm getting deeper and deeper into the instrument, finding corners of it I didn't know existed. I love it, I could play for hours every day.”
Many musicians name their guitars (when they find ‘the one’) B.B. has “Lucille” and Willie Nelson has “Trigger.” Now Paul has “Guinness,” so named because it’s blond at the top and dark on the bottom.
‘Guinness,’ he says,’ is also just the right weight and tone for him. You could say Paul’s found instrument nirvana.
“I'm currently playing a guitar that responds to the smallest of nuances and is really fun to play,” Paul said. ”Playing guitar can sometimes feel like finger painting: You touch it, it touches you back and responds to things you do in ways you didn’t expect. You’re cradling it in your hands and it’s vibrating against your body ... there’s this dance that goes on that's pretty remarkable,” Paul said.
Join in the dance, a “movable feast” of great music, at the Opera House, located at 86 Townsend Avenue in Boothbay Harbor, on April 10.