Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I Need a Nickname

I love nicknames. I've never had a nickname, and I'm thinking if I could find the right nickname, I could ratchet up my "cool" factor. Think about it. Having a nickname gives you a mysterious quality. A musician with a nickname obviously has friends, because who else gives you a nickname? But more importantly, it means you have some unmistakable quality that deserves to immortalized -- think Duke Ellington, or Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Some nicknames describe a physical attribute -- like Fats Waller, or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Sometimes it has to do with where the person is from (Mississippi John Hurt), or the fact they aren't really from anywhere (Ramblin' Jack Elliott). Maybe some habit or style they have (Ringo Starr).

Even some of my folkie friends and heroes have nicknames: Curly Boy Stubbs (Paul Mills), Utah Phillips, Libba Cotten.

Then there are the honorific titles that people are given -- Queen of the Blues (Dinah Washington), Queen of Country Music (Kitty Wells), or Little Miss Dynamite (Brenda Lee). I could live with something like that.

But I think the best nicknames are the ones that are just completely unexplainable, like Satchmo (Louis Armstrong). You can't tell exactly where that came from (actually, here's the story), but it just sounds very cool.

That's the kind of nickname I'd like.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Happen to the Old Chestnuts?

Recently there was an animated discussion on Maplepost about the fact that many performers today only sing their own songs, which raises questions about what will happen to all the songs that we used to sing, the old songs, the songs by other writers. And what about the current crop of songs? If no one other than the songwriter sings them, will they survive?

I'm a performer who has gone from mostly singing other people's songs and traditional material to mostly singing my own songs. When I first began performing, I didn't write songs at all. I had grown up in a folkie household, exposed to lots of traditional music, and lots of singing in groups at song circles and jams. At the time, I thought I just didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by someone far better than I ever could.

The songs I chose to sing were songs that meant something to me. I spent a lot of time learning songs, getting inside them, and making them my own. I also spent a lot of time making music with other people, and through that I learned about listening, making space for other voices and instruments, and creating something spontaneously that is larger than the sum of its parts.

I firmly believe that if I'm any good at writing songs, it's because I spent so much time inhabiting other people's songs, and making music in groups. Without realizing it, I was absorbing the essential elements that make a song work.

When I write songs, I am absolutely writing from my personal experience - like it or not, I am the centre of my own universe, so it's impossible for me to do anything else. But my aim is to use my personal experience as a springboard to say something about that personal experience, hopefully something that will resonate with other people. There are certain things that all human beings go through: We are all born, we all grow and change, we experience joy, love, pain, loss, triumph and so on, we work and struggle, we try to improve our lives and the world around us, we mark important moments, we fall in love, we fall out of love, and then eventually, we die. In my experience most songs with any staying power somehow touch on those universal human experiences.

Recently I've been thinking about the fact that I mostly sing my own songs now. In a way, I wish it weren't so. There is a vast body of brilliant, beautiful, and compelling music out there that deserves to be sung and played. But there are many factors that discourage working musicians from playing or recording anything other than their own songs -- a few people already mentioned royalty income, but there is also the structure of many granting programs in Canada, which subtly, and not-so-subtly encourages musicians to write and record their own songs in order to get the maximum funds possible.

I love writing songs, but I also fear that by singing more and more of my own songs, I'm losing touch with my musical bedrock. And on a larger scale, I wonder if that's happening to us as a musical community. It's exciting that so many great new songs are being written, but I hope we aren't losing the old chestnuts and bits of gold from days gone by.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Belated Report from Brigadoon

In August, I told you about my upcoming visit to "Folk Brigadoon," The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. Well, you are long overdue for a report of my time in Nova Scotia.

First of all, I love Nova Scotia. There's something about it that makes me feel good. The people, the beautiful land and seascape, the arts and culture, the pace of life. As soon as I get there, I find myself relaxing, and inevitably I start to notice things around me that in Toronto I whip by without thinking -- a beautiful building, or the angle of the light, or the smell in the air. (Disclaimer: I have never visited Nova Scotia in the winter, so my idea of the place is totally skewed by romantic summer weather.)

So, my belated Folk Brigadoon report: I had a fantastic time. This is the third time I have performed at Lunenburg, but it didn't make it any less special. The big white tent was magical, as always, and the array of performers was stellar. I taught a workshop on "The Joy of Singing" as well as a guitar workshop, and I participated in a lively discussion about the state of folk music with songwriter Murray McLaughlin and bass player Dennis Pendrith.

Dennis performed with me at my mainstage concert on Saturday night. Here we are, in the big white tent:



And here are my good friends Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain, who joined me to play on my song "Something About a Sunday:"


I also made some new friends: Qiu Xia He and Andre Thibault from the group Silk Road Music, who were being billeted with the same family as I was. Qiu Xia plays the pipa, a chinese lute. She and Andre peform traditional Chinese folk music, but they also blend Chinese music with music from around the world - Silk Road has taken the pipa into uncharted waters and created an amazing musical hybrid. I asked Qiu Xia to join me on stage to play my tune "Watermelon Sorbet" on the pipa. It was one of the highlights of the festival for me, and certainly no one has ever heard "Watermelon Sorbet" played quite like that! Here she is on stage with me:


And speaking of being billeted, one of the charms about Lunenburg is being billeted at the home of a family, and this year, I had the pleasure of meeting the Bentons, a lovely couple who divide their time between Nova Scotia and Arizona. They pampered us royally and made us feel completely welcome in their home. I hope our paths cross again.

I was very happy to cross paths and hang out with fellow musicians Cara Luft, Jeff Davis, House of Doc, The Hupman Brothers, and many more.

Since I was going to be in Nova Scotia, I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to my friends Don and Anna in the Annapolis Valley and of course a meal at the Union Street Cafe in Berwick.

In all, it was far too short, but so sweet while it lasted. Brigadoon indeed.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rise Up Singing in Guelph

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting with my friends Jane Lewis and Sam Turton in Guelph. Sam and Jane are musicians who, besides performing and writing songs, also spend a lot of time fostering community music in Guelph. Their organization "Rise Up Singing" offers music workshops that help people learn music in a supportive, inclusive environment. I was there to teach a guitar workshop, but over the weekend we had some lively conversations about community music. One of their missions is encouraging people to sing more, and seeing them in action affirmed once again the power of singing in a group.

I met up with Jane and Sam on Friday night at a local Guelph cafe where they facilitate a weekly public sing-along.For two hours they led an enthusiastic group of cafe patrons in singing together from a large book that they've compiled of familiar, singable songs (complete with an index!). The book includes everything from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 to the traditional gospel favourite "I'll Fly Away." Every table had a few books strewn on it, and song requests were passed up to the front for Jane and Sam to choose from. We sang songs by The Beatles, CSNY, Sting, Johnnie Nash, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and more, plus a bunch of traditional favourites.

It was a very fun evening, and as I sat there belting out "Our House" with a group of people I didn't know, I noticed that most of the singers didn't fit the general profile of died-in-the-wool music-loving folkies. They seemed more like "normal" people who had somehow stumbled onto this weekly event. And they were having an awfully good time. It reminded me that, unlike me, most people don't have opportunities to sing in a group.

It didn't used to be like that, of course. Singing used to be woven into the fabric of our lives, accompanying work, play, worship, love, celebration, birth, and death-- in short, everything we did could or would have been cause for singing. In North America we've largely become separated from singing as part of our community life, and we've swallowed the idea that singing is something that's best left to "experts." Early on we learn that we either have "talent," or we don't, and if we don't, we had better keep our mouth shut.

The notion that singing is something you either can or can't do is actually a pretty strange idea that runs contrary to everything we know about music and creativity. Music is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, some people are naturally more talented, and some people have the advantage of being exposed to more music making at an early age, but I have yet to meet anyone that absolutely can't learn to sing.

And singing in a group is a fantastic way to improve your singing. Not only does it help you learn to listen (which is one of the most important musical skills you can have), it also helps you build confidence in your own voice and allows you a space to try new things without feeling exposed.

Music gatherings like Sam and Jane's sing-along in Guelph provide a low-pressure, inclusive opportunity for people to experience the joy of singing in a group. So here's to Sam and Jane, and Rise up Singing. I'm glad to know they are out there, creating community through music.

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