(Soundbite of music)
GUY RAZ, host:
Did you hear that? That little piece of music is what we here at NPR call a button. That one's by a musician named Bill Frisell. And every time Bill Frisell releases a new album, he makes NPR directors very happy because they use a lot of Bill Frisell music. It always seems to fit perfectly between stories: evocative, powerful and often moving.
Well, Brill Frisell's latest work is no exception. His new record is called "Disfarmer." It's inspired by the photography of a loner from Arkansas named Mike Disfarmer.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: Mike Disfarmer snapped portraits of anyone and everyone in the small town of Heber Springs, Arkansas, photos that span a period from the Great Depression through World War II: the steel-eyed stares of two women in tight curls and rumpled housecoats, a cocksure G.I. with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.
Bill Frisell composed a series of musical vignettes based on these photos. I asked him how those photos informed his writing.
Mr. BILL FRISELL (Musician): At first, I was attracted to the photos themselves, but then there's this whole story that starts to emerge about the man himself, and he was pretty much unknown while he was alive. And then I don't know how long, 20 years later, the photos are uncovered and suddenly thought of as a genius and all this.
RAZ: By the way, I should mention, Bill Frisell, that our listeners can see a few examples of Mike Disfarmer's photography at our Web site, npr.org. You actually drove down to this town where Disfarmer took these photographs to do some research. Why did you feel the need to do that?
Mr. FRISELL: You know, I wanted to be more than just looking at the photos in a book. You know, I wanted to meet some people that lived there. But I was really lucky. When I got there, I was able to meet this man, Tom Olmstead, who is the funeral director of the town. Tom and his father were the guys that discovered Disfarmer's body after he'd died, and Tom had had his photo taken by Disfarmer as a kid, and he was just incredibly generous with his time, just told me all these stories.
And Disfarmer really didn't have many friends or just all this mystery around him. And he would wander the streets at night, dressed all in black and hide behind trees and scare little kids, and…
RAZ: It sounds sort of like a Boo Radley kind of thing.
Mr. FRISELL: Right, yeah, that's what I was thinking.
(Soundbite of laughter)
So it just gave me a lot for my imagination to get going with the music.
RAZ: The name Disfarmer is an unusual name, and I want to get to that story in a moment. But there's a song, a track on this album, called "I Am Not a Farmer." Let's hear it for a moment.
(Soundbite of song, "I Am Not a Farmer")
RAZ: That's just such a signature Bill Frisell guitar sound. Why did Mike Disfarmer choose that name? Disfarmer was not the name he was born with.
Mr. FRISELL: No, he was Mike Meyers. And I guess he'd mistakenly thought that Meyers meant farmer, and he also was trying to disassociate himself from I guess his family and really the community around there, a lot of farmers. So he decided to be Disfarmer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRISELL: So you can tell - you know, he was a pretty contrary kind of person, I guess.
RAZ: Let's take a listen to another track from this record. This one's called "Lost Night."
(Soundbite of song, "Lost Night")
RAZ: You write in the liner notes, Bill Frisell, that the music is the sound of Mike Disfarmer looking through the lens. From everything people said about Mike Disfarmer, he wasn't a kind person. He was rude to the people he photographed. He made them feel uncomfortable. What do you think he saw in these portraits he took and the people that he took photographs of?
Mr. FRISELL: I'm not sure if he was even intentionally rude. I think he was thinking about the photo itself, the light, and he just wasn't concerned with, you know, saying cheese or smile or getting the kids to…
Mr. FRISELL: He wasn't really thinking about that.
RAZ: What did you see in these people that were photographed? They were taken sort of from the tail end of the Great Depression right through the Second World War. What did you see in them?
Mr. FRISELL: Well, there's just so much there. You know, there's sadness, and you know, there's pictures of guys that just got back from a fishing trip or whatever, they're bragging about the big fish they caught, or people weren't really posing, you know? They never knew when the photo was going to be taken, but in that way you get this really honest picture of those folks.
RAZ: He captures something in their expressions, in the lines of their faces, in the way they look at the lens.
Mr. FRISELL: Yeah, and even just in what they're wearing. I think it was the kind of thing where they're walking down the street, and he's - I heard someone said he would sit out in front of his shop and, you know, say hey, you want your picture taken? And you know, it would cost a quarter or something. So I think there's a lot of that, where people were just walking by, maybe on a Saturday afternoon. You know, they go to town and get an ice cream cone, and then, oh, why don't we get our picture taken by this weird guy over there or something.
So they're not - they didn't get all spruced up, and they're really how they were at that time.
RAZ: You've compared Mike Disfarmer to Vermeer and to van Gogh. What do you mean by that?
Mr. FRISELL: When I said that, I think I was thinking about all these people that weren't recognized during their lifetime that were doing, you know, really beautiful things just for the sake of doing them.
In any walk of life, there's people that just do things for the love of it. And you know, it wasn't until so long after he died that people realized, wow, there's this guy that was right - living right with us, you know, and doing this amazing stuff. And then it makes you wonder who all is around us now that we're not even thinking about.
RAZ: Bill Frisell is a guitarist and composer. His new record is called "Disfarmer." You can hear a few tracks from the album and see a few of Mike Disfarmer's photographs at the new npr.org. Mr. Frisell, thanks for joining us.
Mr. FRISELL: Well, thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
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