"I always think of Bob Franke as if Emerson and Thoreau had picked up acoustic guitars and gotten into songwriting."
- Tom Paxton, songwriter
"Bob Franke writes the kind of songs that will still be sung a hundred years from now."
- Christine Lavin, songwriter
"I believe that [Bob Franke's] 'Hard Love' is one of the best songs written between 1950 and 2000 - and that includes Dylan and Joni."
-Rich Warren, host of WFMT's Midnight Special
How do you measure a hit song? In the pop world, it's easy: you count how high it got on the charts, how many units it sold. In folk music, it's more complicated. You ask how far it's traveled, how long it's lasted, and most of all, how many people have taken it into their own lives, made it their own song?
By those ancient measures, Bob Franke (rhymes with "Yankee") is among the most prolific and important folk songwriters to emerge since the commercial revival of the 1960s. Many of his songs, like "Hard Love," "For Real," "Thanksgiving Eve," and "The Great Storm Is Over," have entered the American folk canon, frequently sung by major stars and open-mikers, church choirs and summer campers, recovering addicts at treatment centers, and spiritual seekers at religious retreats.
"There is an affection for Bob's work that is really palpable," says Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary. "It's like everybody thinks that they're the one who discovered him - and they're all right! People know he has given them something rare and powerful, real and uncompromising. I have felt a lot of power in the appreciation people have for him."
Peruse the stars who have recorded Franke's songs, and you find singers renowned as champions of the very best songwriters: Peter, Paul and Mary, June Tabor, Kathy Mattea, Tony Rice, Martin Simpson, John McCutcheon, Sally Rogers, Garnet Rogers, Claudia Schmidt, and David Wilcox. When ABC's Nightline asked Alison Krauss to name her favorite songs, she cited Franke's "Hard Love," calling it "probably my favorite tune," and saying Franke was her hero and "main inspiration."
But that just scratches the surface of how far Franke's songs have traveled. His lyrics appear on church marquees and tombstones; his songs are sung at weddings, funerals, and christenings, and appear in the hymnals of several denominations. They are used as templates in songwriter classes, and meditations at seminars for people struggling with real life crises like grief, addiction, divorce, and domestic abuse. People have told Franke that his songs saved their lives.
Popular juvenile novelist Ellen Wittlinger named one of her most successful books after his song, "Hard Love," and says that the song is still helping to heal troubled children like the ones in her book. "Many of his songs touch a very deep place, melancholy and yet beautiful," Wittlinger says. "There's a vulnerability in his writing that lets him get to a place in himself that people don't often put out into the world. That allows the listener to reach that place, too."
Throughout a continually productive career spanning over 40 years, Franke has remained a popular concert headliner, but also a beloved teacher of songwriting, always in demand at music camps, festivals, and summer workshops. As with his songs, his goal is to help people see their own lives reflected in music. "I could never picture myself an actual songwriter," one student gushed. "After Bob's class, I can." Another dubbed him "The I Ching of songwriters."
You might think that a performance by an artist of such depth would be a heady, dense experience. But you'd be surprised. "For me, he's the whole package on stage," says longtime fan Wittlinger. "You don't get a sense that this is some person who thinks he's a star or a god or whatever. You feel like Bob's just a guy who likes to make music and share it with people. It makes for a wonderful, lovely night of music."
Franke learned his entertainment chops in the rough college of the streets, busking at Boston subways stops and street-corners in the 1970s.
"On the streets," he recalls now. "I saw that if I can let people have a little break in their day, a little fun to take their minds of the stress of their work, I was doing a huge service. My goal when I write songs is to find what I share with my audience - and that definitely includes laughter."
In concert, his intimate songs and potent ballads are interspersed with revealing anecdotes; sly blues about bicycles, computers, and cagey catfish; and smartly daffy ditties about manic monkeys, psychedelic polkas, and adjusting to our loved ones' foibles.
Franke fell in love with folk music as a teenager, joining raucous hootenannies at the back of the Westside bus he took to his Detroit school every day. He moved to Boston to attend an Episcopal seminary, but soon discovered that he was called to express his faith in songs, not sermons.
Driven by the best instincts of folk tradition, and his own probing spirituality, Franke never sought a conventional, show-bizzy career. In addition to touring and making records, he founded the influential coffeehouse Saturday Night in Marblehead. The City of Salem commissioned him to write songs celebrating its rich history; and he spent 30 years as artist-in-residence at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, writing children's plays, liturgical music, and cantatas, including a Good Friday Cantata that is an Easter tradition for many New England folkies. "With lovely music and insight," the Boston Globe wrote, "Franke's folk cantata presents the Passion as a deeply human tragedy."
This desire to make music that joins the fabric of people's real lives also sparked the creation of his popular "Songwriting From the Center" seminar, in which he teaches everyone how to turn their own day-to-days into the stuff of song.
"I try to give my students the mechanical and psychological tools to write good songs, healing songs," Franke says. "I see all my students as artists; and every time I turn people on to their own creativity, and take them through this difficult but possible process, it makes me feel less lonely, breaks down that old idea of the artist being somewhere in the clouds, different from most people."
His performances shimmer with that same desire to meet his audiences eye-to-eye, neighbor to neighbor. His voice is warm, soft and familiar, like your favorite winter gloves. He is a superb guitarist, but you'll never hear a show-offy trill or "look-at-me" lick. Always, he leads you inside his music, using eloquent riffs and elegant, rolling patterns to underscore each song's mood and meaning. You don't focus on what a skilled guitarist he is, because he doesn't want you to; he wants you to join him inside the song. That is his uniquely personal art, the folksy genius of Bob Franke.
Music programmers Alan and Helene Korolenko have hired Franke for both small concerts and the internationally respected New Bedford Summerfest. "No matter the size of the audience," Alan Korolenko says, "you're going to get an intimate evening with Bob. He just pulls everybody in, which is the key. You'll meet other artists, and they're not the same as their work. That's not the case with Bob. He appeals to folk fans and general audiences, because he knows how to create a full, emotional journey, and how to share that journey. By the end, you've laughed and thought and cared; you've gotten to know the guy. He's a class act."
"One thing I love about Bob on stage," says Rich Warren, host of the weekly Chicago radio show Midnight Special, and the live concert series Folkstage, "is his whole lack of ego, which really helps him get across to audiences. He doesn't have any of this pretense that a lot of contemporary singer-songwriters have; he gets up there, and he's just Bob. That works incredibly in his favor - because he can back it up with talent. I would put the word "honest" in capital letters next to his name."
Wherever he sings, before dozens or thousands, Franke never seeks to dazzle, but to befriend; to coax us to walk awhile with him, searching out life's common chords, those mystical, crucial places where our lives can truly touch. It is the rarest skill for any performer or teacher; and it is why Franke's devoted legions have never let him leave the stage, the classroom, or the universe of the song.
"Whenever I sing," he says, "I'm trying to create in my listeners an awareness of the beauty and sacredness of their own lives, both individually and together, as a community. A woman came up to me recently, and said that my story and my song put her relationship with her dad in a new light, gave her insight into her dad's love for her. That's all I need to take home from a show."
- Scott Alarik, November 2009