Review: Alphabet Jazz by Paul Metsa

Disclosure: Paul Metsa generously sent me a review copy of Alphabet Jazz in exchange for my honest review.

Paul Metsa is a singer-songwriter and poet from Minnesota. He grew up in the Iron Range in a town called Virginia in Saint Louis County, the same county of Minnesota that Bob Dylan grew up in, but spent over 40 years in Minneapolis before moving to Duluth, where he’s been based since 2020. He’s a very political musician with NPR’s At The Opera describing him as “America’s answer to Billy Bragg” and CMJ Magazine calling him “one of the most poetic protest singers of our time”. No doubt if you’re a fan of musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Victor Jara, Phil Ochs, and Dave Van Ronk, you’ll love his music. If that’s not enough praise, when he opened for his musical hero Gordon Lightfoot (who recently passed away), he praised three of his songs. He said “I couldn’t have been more honoured” on his Twitter when recalling the praise from his idol. It’s no surprise that he’s a big Bob Dylan fan, even living in the Duluth duplex that Bob Dylan’s family once called home. You might recall his name if you read my review of Bob Dylan in Minnesota, which Metsa contributed to. Later this month on the 25th, he is opening for New York City singer-songwriter Jeff Slate at Duluth Dylan Fest.

His latest release is Alphabet Jazz, a poetry book with a companion album that came out last year. The album and book’s title is inspired by fellow Minnesota creative James Wrayge who called his work “Eye Jazz”. The thought process behind the title is that poetry is the linguistic version of jazz. The release in a way is a celebration of 40 years in music, with him playing his first gig in Minneapolis in 1979. Since then, he’s played thousands of gigs and hundreds of benefit shows. Like any good artist, he likes to try new things and with this concept, he took poems that he never recorded as songs and set them to music.

As his friend John Pasternacki’s foreword in the book reads, Paul Metsa has been a fan of poetry since he was going to school in the Iron Range, bringing his guitar to class. It shows in the name of a band he was in, Damn Everything But the Circus, which came from an e.e. cummings poem. While he dropped out of college, he didn’t stop learning and he started getting into the work of the Beat poets: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Other major literary influences were Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Studs Terkel, Jimmy Breslin, and Hunter S. Thompson. Paul Metsa is part of a tradition of musicians who are published poets. Heck, music is a form of poetry because the lyrics are important to truly loving and understanding the music. Music is just a different way of enjoying poetry.

The poems in the book were written between the years 1984 and 2022, so a mix of old and new. Before the poems, there’s this really good quote from Paul himself that reads “The beauty of obscurity is you never go out of style”. Something to give small creators hope. There’s a mix of poems, song lyrics, essays, and prose. There are some well written tributes to multiple Minnesotans: one of Bob Dylan’s close friends from summer camp – Larry Kegan, Minneapolis musician Bill Hinkley, pioneering female independent promoter Sue McLean, socialist blues musician Willie Murphy, legendary singer Jeanne Peterson, and the multi-talented Dave Morton. Not only that, but he also wrote a nice tribute to Howlin’ Wolf’s lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin, whom he described as the nicest on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists and a friend of his, the stylish 5’2″ Memphis-born soul musician Willie Walker. Sumlin met so many classic rockers you know and love and some of these stories are told in this tribute. There are good messages in his lyrics like “Whistling Past The Graveyard”. I particularly like the lyrics: “The world don’t owe you nothing. Don’t even know your name. You might be a king or queen, but the end treats you just the same”. There is a longer version of the song (love the guitar solo) as well as a jazzy re-recording of “Paper Tigers” and a re-recording of the political true crime song “Jack Ruby” on the album. Another great political true crime song in this book is “Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore”, a song that condemns the alt right and is about the Charlottesville car attack and the Unite the Right Rally. If you want more true crime songs, included in the book and the album is “Walkin’ in a Woman’s World”, which a feminist song that references the murder of Kitty Genovese, which was also referenced in the Phil Ochs song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”. My favourite political song of all in this collection though is “Slow Justice”. If you love your pets, you’ll love his poem “Hey, Dad” written from the point of view of his rescue dog, Blackie, who has since crossed the rainbow bridge. Pets truly are family and there are multiple touching stories about him, and a story and a poem about his other dog, Blue, a rescue dog from Alabama. As someone who loves to travel and dreams of going to Russia one day, I really liked his story about travelling to Novosibirsk in Siberia and on the way there he sat next to a Russian man who didn’t speak English but was listening to Johnny Cash – goes to show you that people aren’t that different after all and music is universal and has the power to unite people.

A lot of book fans will say that books are better than film adaptations because they contain more than a movie. A similar thing can be said of the companion book to the album Alphabet Jazz. The album is good, but there’s so much more in the book, so both are worth it. The only thing I would change is that I wish that the book had sections dedicated to poems, lyrics, and prose, but that’s just my personal taste. Overall a great book for fans of Paul Metsa and those who have an interest in Minnesota history and folk music. He’s a great storyteller and songwriter/poet.

You can follow Paul Metsa on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and his website.

Loved this blog post and want to support and see more? Donate to The Diversity of Classic Rock or follow me on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram, click the follow button on my website, leave a nice comment, send your music or classic rock related books for review, or donate your art and writing talents to the blog. Thank you for the support!

You can also download the Brave Browser and earn tokens that you can donate to your favourite creators (including me!), donate to charity, or you can keep them for yourself and redeem them for cash. The choice is yours! Thank you!