My friend Jeff Boudreau has asked for a little history of Saturday Night in Marblehead, a concert series at the Church of St. Andrew in Marblehead, Massachusetts that I started in the mid to late seventies, and have re-inaugurated with the support of the church, starting with a concert by Claudia Schmidt this Saturday night, Nov. 12.
In the mid 1970s I had already at that point done a fair amount of traveling as a musician, but much of my musical activity was happening as a singer of old blues and ragtime on the streets of Boston. Having found a worshiping community in Marblehead, and being a member of the informal fellowship of traveling folksingers, it occurred to me that, with the support of the church and my first wife, Christine Whiteside, I was in a unique position to put together a benefit concert of some of my colleagues for a local anti-drug program. We did that with some modest success, and that gave me the idea that it might be possible, and a very good thing both for me and for both communities, to introduce my musical community to my worshiping community and vice-versa. I put together an eight page proposal to the vestry of St. Andrew's pointing out the near proximity of the church to Salem State College, and to the fact that, alcoholism being Marblehead's number one mental health problem, it would be a good outreach ministry to provide high-quality entertainment in an alcohol-free venue. No one had ever previously presented an eight page proposal to the vestry, so they felt compelled to approve a trial series of six weekly concerts. No disasters ensued, so they approved another eight weeks, and by that time the series was an institution.
Our friends in downtown Marblehead running the Me & Thee Coffeehouse with its own high quality Friday night series at the local Unitarian-Universalist church were a little skeptical to begin with, but we soon found out that, not only did the competition keep us all honest (we began to copy each other's best practices), but the effect of having two coffeehouse series in the same little suburban town was similar to that of putting McDonald's and Burger King on the same corner: that town became the place you went to when you wanted good music, and the audience began to grow. People started to talk about another folk revival, and indeed, other suburban coffeehouses started to pop up. People would call me up and ask me out to lunch to find out how we did it, and we became a catalyst for musical growth in the area. In the 10 years of my tenure as artistic director and chief chair mover, I became the first to put folks like Cindy Kallet, Patty Larkin, and the late Stan Rogers in a concert setting in the Boston area. The church's support gave me the freedom to use quality as my prime booking criterion: for instance, Patty only drew a dozen people or so to her first two concerts at St. Andrew's, but when her first recording came out, she returned to a full house, and the rest is history.
In 10 years, as my own performing schedule began to fill out and became 17 years on the road and in the area full-time, I handed over the artistic directorship to my good friend the wonderful songwriter Chuck Hall, who in turn handed it on to others. It lasted for 22 years.
I don't have quite as much energy as I did back then, and I once again have a full-time day job, but there's a whole new generation of folks (and/or potential alcoholics) looking for reasonably priced high-quality concert entertainment, so I went before St. Andrew's vestry once again with the idea of a monthly concert series, and they approved a first season. Artistic genius is ubiquitous, and I'm going to look for it in all generations, hoping for a listening audience of all generations in our little corner of the North Shore. If we find it, who knows, we may become an institution again.
I'll be involved in two performances this month, the first as a producer, and the second as the performer. On Saturday, November 12, the Church of St. Andrew in Marblehead, MA will be reviving its Saturday Night in Marblehead concert series as a monthly event; as I did for its first ten years, I will be serving as its artistic director. The first concert will feature the great Claudia Schmidt. The series will continue on December 17 with the equally great Sally Rogers and her husband, the extraordinary banjo player (and winemaker) Howard Bursen. Doors for both shows open at 7:30 and the music begins at 8pm; tickets at the door are $15. Roots music at its best, for any generation. Watch this space and the church website for news of the 2017 schedule.
On Friday evening after Thanksgiving, November 25, I will be performing what has become an annual show at Club Passim, 47 Palmer St. in Cambridge, MA. Show starts at 8pm, and you can order tickets here. Then a week later, I'll be doing a song or two at Charlie King's annual concert for Haley House in Boston. I haven't shared a stage with Charlie since Tom Smith's Black Lives Matter concert at Passim, and I'm really looking forward to sharing a little time with him and his special guest Bev Grant.
One of the many articles about Bob Dylan after his Nobel Prize win appeared on a Washington Post blog by Jim Hoagland, who cited the political prophecy in Dylan's lyrics, and, as it turns out, in mine as well. Many thanks to Jim for the mention. I'm in excellent company!
Somewhere around the house is (or was) an old “Week at a Glance” calendar for 1965. In it is a notation in the middle of October for a date at the Ark coffeehouse in Ann Arbor. I remember walking up to the old house on Hill Street in which it was located. I had already attended and become a fan of the Canterbury House, another coffeehouse across town. My first experience there was a concert performed by a man named Corey Mullen. He gave an enchanting performance of traditional folk songs with 12-string guitar, which is why I remember his name these many years later, although I lost track of him not long after that concert. Having been imprinted with the concept, and having played, composed, and sung with a banjo for a few years previously in high school, I figured that I would ask the folks who were creating a crosstown competitor for the Canterbury House for a job as a performer. I walked in and was greeted by a man named George Abbott White, who said “Sure! How about Friday?”
If you’ve been looking at your smart phone recently, you’ll realize as I do that that was 50 years ago. I’m guessing that I owe the community that, in spite of my failings, made it possible to spend those years doing that which I was put on earth to do at least a little reflection on them.
I have said to my songwriting students many times that bad theology ruins lives. I can testify, however, that good theology has directed and enriched mine. During the same period that I was occasionally gigging at the Ark, I was taking money at the door of the Canterbury House and learning how to be a musician, a songwriter, and an entertainer. Because those who guided the Canterbury House at that time were clear and effective in preaching the unity of the sacred and the secular, I was also learning how to become a human being and an adult. I was finding a way to use the rich traditions into which I either was born or had stumbled to call out the injustices and call out to the confusions of the last third of the 20th century.
It wasn’t a straight path, but it became possible day by day. I have tried to be an artist whose work has both prophetic and pastoral dimensions. Having learned song culture in a time in which no one cared how a song might be classified, I dared, for good or ill, to give myself as much human experience to poke around in as Shakespeare had, and to try to craft shows in which the audience’s laughter was deepened by its tears. Like my predecessors and contemporaries, I took songsto places they had never been in before. Whether I was funny or sad or desperate, I was always on the right track when I told the truth.
I sang in nearly a thousand small venues in around 35 states in my own country, made some delightful trips to Canada, and did two tours in Britain. I brought home enough money to help raise a daughter who continues to be one of my teachers as well as one of the great joys of my life. I was married to a strong and good woman for 29 years, and I have been married to another for 13. I have been far from perfect in any of these endeavors, and have had my share of personal and professional debacles. Business has never been much interested in my art, but so far I have always found communities that have been interested and enriched by it, and have in turn sustained me and made my life and art possible.
As I’ve gotten older those communities have changed, and my role in them has changed, sometimes subtly and without my knowledge. I have enjoyed passing along what I know to younger songwriters, and have done my best to love them all with the truth as I’ve known it. Some have responded to my teaching with great work. I will warn any younger colleagues who might read this, though, that the shift from young turk to role model to elder statesman happens silently and quickly. Somebody mentions you in a conversation about songwriters, and then someone else says, “yes, but listening to him is like listening to your uncle.” Perhaps because I loved so much the brave and crazy generations of folk artists that preceded me, I have been sometimes blindsided by this attitude. The last few years have been difficult for me along these lines. I have spent time in the country of exiles, and it has been taking a while to find my way back.
But there’s nothing really new nor unique in this struggle. It’s not even new to me. I’ve always been too young, too male, not male enough, too Christian, not Christian enough, too funny, not funny enough, too straightforward, or not straightforward enough for some folks. Being too old for some isn’t that different. I’ve had a life I’ve enjoyed, and I still have it at this point. I’ve also had a vocation I’ve enjoyed. I still have that, too.
I will be celebrating with concerts in DC and Maryland this fall, as well as my annual day after Thanksgiving concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Club Passim. Web site news, the resumption of commercial channels for my recorded music, and new product news should be coming soon. Watch this space.