Ben and Ellen Harper Keep it in the Family with 'Childhood Home'

Posted on June 18, 2014 | by Mark Segal Kemp

childhood home

Not many things are as magical as the voices of blood relatives singing together in close, lockstep harmony. You’ve heard it countless times over the decades: the Carters, the Louvins, the Everlys, the Staples. When the singers are a mother and her son, the bond is deeper still.

On Childhood Home, Ben Harper sings with his mother Ellen on an all-acoustic set of simple, unpretentious, deeply soulful songs that range from raw, fingerpicked, mountain-style ballads to homespun folk and country punctuated by Harper’s honeyed Dobro licks.

In the 22 years since his debut album Welcome to the Cruel World, Harper has established himself as a solid singer and songwriter, an often dazzling guitarist, and an ace Dobro player whose eclectic oeuvre runs from spare acoustic folk to Hendrix-inspired rock to the wailing electric blues of Get Up!, his recent Grammy-winning collaboration with blues-harp player Charlie Musselwhite. Harper has occasionally invited his mother to sing with him, but until now the two have never released a full collaboration in which they share lead vocals throughout. Her unvarnished Appalachian-style singing and gentle strumming on a mahogany Larrivée acoustic guitar meshes sweetly and organically with his warmer tones on such tracks as “City of Dreams,” a wistful song that bemoans the changing landscape of Southern California.

Harper and his mom both grew up in Southern California, in a highly progressive and creative family environment where music and acoustic instruments of all kinds were literally part of the fabric. Harper’s grandmother was a guitar and banjo instructor, and his grandfather repaired instruments. In 1958, the couple founded the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California. By the 1960s and ’70s, its walls were lined with guitars, sitars, banjos, dulcimers, ukes, and other instruments. And the Folk Center—which expanded to include workshops, a performance space, and, today, a museum—was frequented by the likes of Doc Watson, Brownie McGhee, John Fahey, and Taj Mahal.

Ellen, a singer and multi-instrumentalist, played in bands, while her three sons—Ben, Joel, and Peter—spent their childhoods at the family store, soaking up the creativity.

Childhood Home offers a little window into the Harper family’s free-spirited worldview. The country-folk opener “A House is a Home,” for instance, turns the tables on the old idea that a house is not a home if no one’s in it: “A house is a home even when it’s dark / even when the grass is overgrown in the yard,” the Harpers sing, over spare percussion and strummed guitars, in a melody reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Love is Rose.” The song also hints at darker forces in the woodwork: “A house is a home even when there’s ghosts / even when you gotta run from the ones who love you most. / Screen doors open, paint’s peeling from the wood. / Locals whisper, ‘When they gonna leave the neighborhood?”

In “Monsanto: Farmer’s Daughter,” Ellen picks simple chords on a little Deering Goodtime banjo for a folk ballad in which she assumes the role of a child from a family farm devastated by the greed of corporate agribusiness. Ben pulls out his signature Asher Dobro for the mournful, country-folk tune “Break Your Heart,” on which he spins out a tearful slide solo after a harmonized refrain that finds the two taunting, “If you let me, I’d just love to break your heart.” Two other songs, “Memories of Gold” and “Altar of Love” (which features more slide work), find mother and son singing of failed relationships, which both know well—Ben’s parents split up when he was a child, and he recently separated from his wife, the actress Laura Dern.

Childhood Home is an unassuming gem from a mother and son—along with Harper mainstays Jason Mozersky on additional guitar, Jesse Ingalls on stand-up bass, and Jimmy Paxon on percussion—who basically grew up together, surrounded by music, artists, and a family matriarch and patriarch who encouraged them to follow their muses wherever they went. Fortunately, it brought Ben and Ellen Harper together for what may turn out to be the acoustic sleeper of 2014.

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