The troubadour is a rare bird in this day and age, and Jeffrey Lewis is certainly that. He's a throwback of sorts. A keeper of folk tradition, accessibility, and transcendent punk-rock values. And if he weren't such a geek, you might call him a renaissance man.
At his core, Lewis is an acoustic guitar-toting New York folkie—a tongue-in-cheek version of Gaslight Dylan and Pete Seeger politics—wrapped in punk-rock values. God didn't give Lewis the same wide voice as Seeger's, or Dylan's stoic, profound poetic seriousness, but it hasn't made one bit of difference—that's where the punk bit comes in. Don't look or sound the part? So what? Indeed, in Lewis' perfect imperfections lie the roots of his charm.
Stranger writer Eric Grandy nailed Lewis' nasal style: "His voice is ragged, flat, and pinched in all the right places." But Lewis' punk parts extend beyond the aesthetic. He's obsessed with the history and culture, which led to a series of educational, borderline performance art pieces like "The History of Punk on the Lower East Side," where he rattles off names, dates, and the connecting influences that sprung bands like the Velvet Underground, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Fugs. Lewis has many of these "teaching songs," which also include "The History of Communism." Many are accompanied by drawings, which Lewis flips through on a crinkled sketchpad while standing on a chair (he is also an avid comic book artist).
Of course, there are personal songs. The most touching of which is "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," a semi-comedic chronicle of the unknown artist's struggle for self-satisfaction. Lewis explains it as an exploration of "spiritual or mental survival, and feeling you're doing the right thing and operating in the world in a way that makes you feel good about what you're doing—to feel as though you're a contributing member of society in some way." This desire to contribute helps explain Lewis' inclusion of the "teaching" songs.
Then there's 12 Crass Songs, the brand-new cover album where Lewis reinterprets the seminal, hyper-political punk collective. Responses have been widespread, some loving, and others—many devout Crass fans—fully pissed. Still, Lewis has received positive responses from members of the band—singer Eve Libertine even joined him onstage. Even without the cover album, Crass' influence has been huge on Lewis.
"The amount of dedication and the amount of talking the talk and walking the walk that every member of that band did, and the level of integrity they had, that's not something that's often found in an artist and entertainer and in the music business," Lewis says.
By donating half the album's proceeds to charities, he's walking the walk too. So far Lewis says he's donated over $1,000 to various causes.
Lewis' DIY approach to touring—booking unusual venues without knowing where he'll sleep—have given him a "tremendous range of experiences."
"The predictability of comfort," he says, "has its own pros and cons. If we'd been doing it the official way all these years we just would've missed out on so much of the world and so many of the people and the highs and lows of experience that have just been incredibly enriching. I can't imagine having done it any other way."