Most people don’t think of Billie Holiday as a folk musician. But Hurray for the Riff Raff's cover of Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” turns the jazz standard into a down home guitar blues suitable for hollering on the front porch alongside an upright bassist. Project founder Alynda Segarra’s singing has a rough edge that recalls both Holiday and rural performers like Woody Guthrie or Charley Patton. The song isn’t so much a folk roots cover of jazz, as it is a demonstration that Holiday was always a folk singer to begin with.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, who plays Noisey's Emerge Impact + Music fest in April, is a folk roots band, but one that’s always been straining at the edges of what the genre band can be. "Much of what is considered folk today doesn't resonate with me at all because it's completely ignoring the chaos that is happening in our country right now," Segarra says. "To me folk music is the people's music, and it has been a tool to spread ideas and information, as well as personal hardship and experiences."
Folk, she explains, is built around the idea of solidarity with regular folks—whether that's Woody Guthrie singing about the plight of Okies in the dust bowl, or Nina Simone singing about lynch law in the Jim Crow South. Segarra's work, like all the best folk music, is committed to expanding the range of that solidarity, and making Americana big enough for everyone who lives in America.
Segarra got into folk music the traditional way—by hitchhiking across the country. She grew up in a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx, and started playing music in the punk rock scene. At 17, feeling alienated from school and curious about life outside New York, she began catching trains and thumbing rides, traveling across the country until eventually settling in New Orleans. Folk music both fit the landscape she was traveling through and her lifestyle. "I played acoustic music because I needed some way to make money, and I had to carry my instrument on my back," she said.
Segarra formed Hurray for the Riff Raff in 2007, and over the next seven years the group released a steady stream of albums mixing a wide range of influences—from Latin legacies in pop to country— into a unique take on string band music and blues. 2013’s My Dearest Darkest Neighbor includes a slowed-down droning cover of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," plus a version of Lead Belly's "Western Cowboy," in which Segarra declares, "I'm the best Western cowboy who ever sat a saddle" while yodeling convincingly. The highlight of the album, though, may be the cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" in which Segarra half-sympathizes, and more than half-condemns, the self-justifying narrator.
One of Segarra's more celebrated songs, "The Body Electric," from 2014's Small Town Heroes, is a feminist reworking of traditional murder ballads. Rather than celebrating how tough the guy is for shooting Delia down, Segarra pulls the song inside out to stand with women who are victims of abuse or violence.
He shot her down, he put her body in the river
He covered her up, but I went to get her
And I said, "My girl, what happened to you now?"
I said, "My girl, we gotta stop it somehow.”
"The Body Electric" is perhaps even more relevant now than it was four years ago, and not just because of renewed focus on gun violence. When politicians demonize the marginalized, Segarra argues that it's vital to support and speak to those targeted for violence and hatred.
"This administration and the attack on truth telling that is happening in our culture affects me deeply," Segarra said. "Sometimes it makes me feel like I can't write at all, and other times I feel like it's all I can do. Musicians right now have an amazing opportunity to defend the humanity of groups who are being attacked by the people in power. There's so much effort to dehumanize people whether for their immigration status, their race, their religion, their gender identity, and we as musicians can stand up and say we will not allow this. It means something, it shifts our culture and it helps our audience feel brave in their daily lives; it's fucking important."
Segarra's most recent album has also gained resonance since it was released in 2017. The Navigator is a loose concept album which pays tribute to Segarra's Puerto Rican roots. It isn't an album of Puerto Rican music; instead, Hurray for the Riff Raff treats the island’s influence as one part of American music, which fits snugly into place alongside a gleeful reworking of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" ("Hungry Ghost") or the Beatles transformed into coffee-shop folk ("Nothing's Gonna Change that Girl"). On "Rican Beach," the band juxtaposes Latin rhythms with a stinging electric guitar line as Segarra sings:
Now all the politicians
They just flap their mouths
They say we'll build a wall to keep them out.
The album itself refutes the idea that you can separate people in that way: Puerto Rico, music and people, is part of America.
The meaning of The Navigator "hasn't shifted but it's amplified," since Trump was elected, Segarra told me. "Puerto Rico is an incredible island with a culture that is so deep even someone like me who grew up removed can feel my roots there. I feel ancestral pain for the suffering of the land and of the people. The government neglect and the downright racism is exactly what this album was about. The Navigator was examining who has 'value' in our country, and who can be swept away."
Folk music is itself one way of talking about who has value. By pushing the boundary of her genre, Segarra is also, implicitly and explicitly, changing who gets to count as American. "I'm from the Bronx and have found a home in New Orleans," she says. "I don't really know what kind of music I make, but it was inspired by folk musicians and blues musicians who were Black, I am inspired by Black and Brown feminists writers, and rock ‘n’ roll."
Hurray for the Riff Raff turns that all into folk music, too.