Joel Rafael shares folk music history with Claremont

Folk musician Joel Rafael performs Saturday at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. Rafael has been singing about riding freight trains, human rights and interpreting Woody Guthrie lyrics for over 50 years. A chunk of those years he has been involved with Folk Music Center and playing sold out shows in-store or at the Claremont Folk Festival. / photo by Vincent Matthew Franco
Folk musician Joel Rafael performs Saturday at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. Rafael has been singing about riding freight trains, human rights and interpreting Woody Guthrie lyrics for over 50 years. A chunk of those years he has been involved with Folk Music Center and playing sold out shows in-store or at the Claremont Folk Festival. / photo by Vincent Matthew Franco

Vincent Matthew Franco
Social Media Editor 

Highly renowned folk musician Joel Rafael, along with Claremont trio the Citrus Sisters took to the little stage in the corner of Claremont’s Folk Music Center Saturday night to a sold out crowd, for a night of beautiful melodies and grand storytelling.

It was not long after the doors opened and the big room with old guitars, drums, and banjos lining the walls were packed with enthusiastic folk music fans eagerly taking their seats. The doors opened at 7 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. on the dot the lights shut off and The Citrus Sisters took to the lighted stage, welcomed with cheers by the jam-packed room.  

The trio of women consisted of the center’s owner and ukulele player Ellen Harper, bassist Elizabeth Hagan, and guitarist Marguerite Millard, who all sang and played a set full of cover and original songs. This delightful trio brought both a sense of passion and spirit that perfectly started out the evening. 

“Sold out is sold out,” shouted out Hangan. “It’s awesome.”

By their second song, they had the crowd clapping and singing along to their cover of Harry Belafonte’s undeniable calypso classic, “Banana Boat (Day-O).” The song was released in 1956, but most certainly gained its popularity after being featured in the 1988 Tim Burton movie “Beetlejuice.” 

After a few more songs, the band ended their set with an acapella song called “Bring a Little Water, Silvy.” Like a couple of other songs in the set, it did not take long till the crowd found themselves clapping along and holding the backbeat to the song. 

As a champion for folk music, Joel Rafael’s involvement with the Woody Guthrie Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has led him to be gifted five sets of lyrics written by Guthrie that had no accompanying music. Rafael played a couple of those songs during his set on Saturday night at the Claremont Folk Music Center. / photo by Vincent Matthew Franco

“I’m reminded it’s important because people come up to me and tell me all the time how much they appreciate us, which I’m thankful for,” Harper said on playing a sold out show.

And just as fast as the trio came up and left the stage, once again the lights were suddenly shut off, and all attention was pointed toward Rafael as he made his way to the mic, with guitar in hand and a back pocket full of harmonicas. Before going into his first song, he began with a story of how every time he played after a band with the fast songs and high energy that folk music allows, like The Citrus Sisters, he made a point to start with the slowest song possible. And he did exactly that.

From his snow-white curly hair to the peace sign painted on his fingernail, Rafael’s Bob Dylan-esque poise holds all the right characteristics one would imagine from a folk singer. As they should, considering that he has been singing about riding freight trains, spending time in jail for smoking weed and covering Woody Guthrie songs for the past 50 years. For many of those years, he has been very much involved with the folk center and the Claremont Folk Festival as well. 

Apart from his involvement in the folk music scene in Claremont, he is also heavily involved with the Woody Guthrie Museum in Guthrie’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His relationship with the museum runs so deep that they gifted him five sets of lyrics that Guthrie had written but had no music for. Rafael only played one of those songs, and it was titled “Glory Bound.” A song about Emmet Till, a boy who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi, was where Rafael was able to show that he was more than a folk singer, but an activist as well. 

Rafael followed this track with “El Bracero,” a song about the bracero program in 1942 that brought over millions of Mexican men to fill in on the farms while American men went off to war. As one can imagine, the men brought over to help were not treated fairly and were not compensated properly for their hard work.  

“We gave up parts of our future to make a statement,” Rafael said of the boomer generation, that he and a majority of the crowd were a part of. A statement that generated a loud round of applause.

An overall champion for human rights, he felt the need to write this song to tell the story of these men and incorporated a news headline from the time in the lyrics that read “Bring The Mexicans.”

Along with his ballads on fighting the good fight, Rafael is a keen storyteller, both in his songs and between them. This could be seen in “Old Portland Town,” where he sings of being arrested in Portland for what he says was “doing something there that’s completely legal now.” Taking the audience on a trip to a place 40 years ago with his vivid lyrics of being bailed out by his then-girlfriend but now wife, layered over his twangy acoustic guitar playing. 

“It’s been a strange couple of years,” he said after this song. “I hope it’s been strange for you as well.”

Rafael ended his set by inviting The Citrus Sisters back on stage for one last jam session. His songs are simple songs, with intricate storytelling and melodies that flow easily through one’s ears. Songs so simple that towards the end of his set, it was easy for the audience to grasp onto them and hum along. At one point, during his last tune, he had the whole room harmonizing together and just for a second it felt like a church choir had made its way into the room.

“It’s very intimate,” Marguerite said. “I like the intimacy and just so much is on screens these days, it’s nice to have a real in-person thing.”

Vincent Matthew Franco can be reached at

The Citrus Sisters, the opening act for Joel Rafael on Saturday at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, set the tone right with their high energy and passion for folk music. The group consists of bassist Elizabeth Hagan, guitarist Marguerite Millard and Folk Music Center owner and ukulele player Ellen Harper, who played a set full of original songs and covers of familiar favorites. / photo by Vincent Matthew Franco

Vincent Matthew Franco is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. He has been involved in journalism and print media in high school, community college and is now at the social media editor of the Campus Times and a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine. He previously served as arts editor.

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