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.