A debut album at the age of 68 is quite unusual for a lifelong musician, but for the Montreal-born, Chaim Tannenbaum, it never felt right until recently.
“I suppose you need a very good reason to do something, but no very good reason not to do something… There’s no reason really, for which I didn’t make a record. You wake up Monday morning and you think “Should I make a record today?” and the answer is “No!” and you wake up Tuesday and you have the same answer.”
Tannenbaum has become somewhat of an underground folk legend, particularly to the tight-knit scene in Montreal and for followers of The McGarrigle Sisters (Kate and Anna) and Loudon Wainwright III. He met Kate and Anna when he was sixteen and began playing music socially with them. Tannenbaum went on to pursue a career in teaching philosophy while Kate and Anna started playing and recording professionally. After teaching in London (where he became friends with Loundon Wainwright III), he ended up a professor at Dawson College in Montreal for over three decades. The McGarrigles and Wainwright always included him on tours and recording projects when his teaching schedule allowed. Aside from a scrapped Hannibal Records project from the 1990’s, Tannenbaum never had the desire to record even though friends and fans pleaded with him to do so.
Knowing his history is not important when hearing this record. The music has the same uplifting effect for a folk music fan. Tannenbaum’s love for Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry shines through in an album filled with mostly traditional folk songs. This feels and sounds like an all-important historical recording from someone who has lived and breathed folk music for decades. The difference in knowing the history when hearing the music is that you cannot detect any sense of fatigue or cynicism from Tannenbaum. This is an extremely gifted musician who saved all his youthful love and musical splendor for this album.
Tannenbaum’s purity rings through alongside beautiful sparse instrumentation that could score a Wes Anderson film. The whimsical, but not overwhelming, horn and woodwinds in the epic “London Longing For Home” (one of three original Tannenbaum compositions), bring alive the emotions that come with being homesick in gray London. Looking through the credits is an impressive list of gathered friends from Loundon Wainwright III to newcomer Margaret Glaspy. One name not among the performers is, of course, his friend, the late Kate McGarrigle, who died six years ago. He does, however, pay tribute to his dear friend by recording one of her songs, “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino”. The song is an interesting and appropriate choice in that it is from the point of view of someone saying goodbye to an old life and welcoming in a new one. If this album does not mark a new chapter of recording for Chaim Tannenbaum, it certainly is an important piece of work from one of the finest folk singers that you almost never heard of.