Chaim Tannenbaum, whose parents had immigrated to Canada from Russia in the 1920s, was born in Montreal in 1947. His downtown neighborhood was entirely Jewish - the kids played on the streets in Yiddish. At around the age of 5, Chaim’s life took an unlikely turn. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly had come into the household by the side door (proceeds from the sales of their 78s on the Asch-Stinson label went to the Russian Relief). Next came the Weavers and Pete Seeger, who exercised a deep and abiding influence. At 13 he got a banjo at a pawn shop and fashioned fingerpicks out of bits of tape. He borrowed his best friend’s guitar. An aunt had a mandolin she couldn’t play. He heard Sonny Terry in a local club and invested in a harmonica. At 16 Chaim began mingling with local like-minded folkniks, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Eventually he joined their group, the Mountain City Four (although there were often five or six), who attracted a local following and could pack small clubs. But, for the most part, playing and singing together was their social life, how they got along.
Chaim never considered having a career as a musician. He got a bachelor’s degree at McGill and continued his studies at the University of London, where he received a Ph.D. He returned to Montreal and taught Philosophy at Dawson College for almost 40 years. But while he was studying Mathematical Logic in London, Kate was becoming a professional musician. When she and her sister Anna got a record contract, they called on the old Mountain City gang to pitch in. So began a lifetime of touring and recording with the McGarrigles. In between teaching assignments and taking time off, he joined the band and never left.
It was also in London where Chaim first met Loudon Wainwright III, who had married Kate. The two had split (temporarily) and Loudon, trying to reconnect, had arrived at Chaim’s door, expecting a punch in the nose. The three wound up busking on Portobello Road. Over the years, Chaim has regularly performed and recorded with Wainwright, even occasionally producing. Loudon calls him “my closest musical cohort and confidant, a tough but fair and perceptive critic of my work, and in a way I consider him my musical conscience.”
Over the years both Loudon and Kate encouraged Chaim to make a record of his own. In the 90s Joe Boyd planned to produce Chaim for his label, Hannibal. Unfortunately, according to Joe, the project “ran afoul of an ever-narrowing corporate brief that was clipping my A&R wings.” And there was, despite the coaxing and support of his friends, a prevailing diffidence to put himself forward. But after he retired from teaching and moved to New York, the prospect seemed somehow more plausible. And last year when producer Dick Connette (with whom he had worked on the Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome) told him he should make a CD, Chaim answered, without hesitation, “Absolutely.” After 50 years, as simple and sudden and certain as that. According to Loudon, “It’s a wonderful thing.”
The wide and the mighty Mississippi she’s a sight / won’t you tell my Annie dear that she’s still on my mind / won’t you tell my Annie dear my darling she’s a sight
These are the opening lines to “Annie Dear”, the first track on Dietrich Strause’s latest release, Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart. It’s a fitting way for the 27 year old songwriterto start his now third full-length album. “Nostalgia-porn,” he calls it, “with a wide river to cross and an open road waiting on the other side.” This spirit of reflection and adventure comes through in Strause’s creations, with each one using a mix of timeless melody, literate lyricism, and a “virtuosic command of imagery.” (WBUR, Boston’s NPR) Whether he is performingsolo, or leading his band, he draws in the audience and can bring the chattiest of rock clubs and bar rooms to a pin-drop volume. In the past year his songs have also caught the attention of modern folk luminaries such as Anais Mitchell, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, The David Wax Museum, and The Stray Birds, earning him invitations to join them on stage and on tour, taking him throughout the West, Midwest, East Coast and Ireland.
For Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart, he teamed up with producer and guitarist Austin Nevins (Josh Ritter) and much of his live-band, a collection of New England’s finest rock and americana musicians. The album features Nevins on guitars, Billy Beard on drums (Patty Griffin), Sam Kassirer on piano and organ (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter), and Zachariah Hickman on bass, bass clarinet, and pump organ (Ray LaMontagne, Josh Ritter). The backup singers include Rose Cousins, Amy Correia, and Anais Mitchell. The album has been covered by The Bluegrass Situation, CMT’s The Edge, and in early 2014 two tracks were included on Starbucks’ global playlist.
Strause grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in a family of Lutheran ministers, school teachers, and arborists. He began his life as a musician at 15, playing trumpet in an R&B band in biker bars in Southern Lancaster County. After attending Oberlin College, he moved to Boston and began touring regionally. Throughout the years he has worked as a painter, scribe, dog-walker, subject in medical research studies, and stained-glass window broker to sustain and develop the flexibility required of a touring musician. As a side-musician, Dietrich has recorded and played guitar, piano, and trumpet with artists such as Lake Street Dive, Anthony D’Amato, Session Americana, and many more.