WORKING FOR A SONG
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, November 28, 2004
*Sam McManis is a Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune writer.
live in rooms where I'm a stranger/
Young women here now call me sir/
My friends are other lone arrangers/
But you won't find us where we were .
-- John Gorka--
They travel from town to town in nondescript rental cars, acoustic guitar riding shotgun and boxes of CDs weighing down the trunk. They work two hours alone onstage, then sell some CDs from a table in the back, leave their so- called entourage behind and search for the next Best Western to rest their heads for the night. Then, they do it again the next day in the next town. And the next.
Life as a contemporary folksinger, says John Gorka, means long periods of nomadic travel along the unofficial but fiercely loyal singer-songwriter circuit, which thrives at various venues in New England and stretches across the country in "liberal folk cells" such as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boulder, Colo.; Chicago -- and in the Bay Area. It means, essentially, singing for your supper, since mainstream radio all but ignores modern folk, major record companies stay away in droves and print media is more concerned with Britney's 51-hour marriage or Ashlee's lip synching.
"Touring is a necessity," says Gorka, 46, who until recently did 150 tour dates a year and will appear next Sunday at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. "Since becoming a dad, I've cut down, but your life felt like you were either gone, getting ready to go or trying to recover from going out.
"I remember some (folksinger) once said that the mob was after him and he had a choice of either going into the witness protection program or becoming a folksinger. He thought a folksinger would be the safer route."
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This, however, is not your grandpa's folk music. These musicians, most in their 30s and 40s, aren't playing traditional ditties about trapped coal miners and long-dead union leaders and warbling sea chanteys. They aren't asking you to join hands and sway to "Kumbaya," and though they occasionally pay homage to past greats like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, they are not stuck in the '60s. Not by a long shot.
Some, in fact, wince at the label "folksinger," but they accept the term because nothing else quite fits. You could call them "acoustic," or "roots" musicians without the twang, or "Americana" artists for those in the blue states. The trendy "alt-country" moniker isn't accurate, either. So, for better or worse, they are stuck with folk.
"Which is career suicide," Mark Erelli, a 30-year-old Boston artist says, laughing. "I'm definitely falling on my sword with that label. When I was 24 and starting out, I didn't want to be called that. But, really, nothing else but 'folk' best describes the totality of what I do. Now I'm defiant in that label. People are just wrong if they think folk music is wimpy or sissy.
" Anyone who has seen folk artists such as Dan Bern and Ani DiFranco in concert can attest to that. Gorka, Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, Cheryl Wheeler, Greg Brown, the Nields sisters, Lucy Kaplansky and a dozen others on the circuit might sing scathing anti-Bush songs one minute, contemplative "relationship" songs the next, before segueing into socially conscious ballads and pieces about the human condition that resemble literary short stories more than mere tunes.
Then there's the growing crop of younger acoustic artists -- Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, Iron & Wine and others, many of whom are centered in the Bay Area -- gaining notoriety for their whimsical, weird acoustic music. Though most play alone onstage with acoustic guitar or piano, folk artists record with full bands and some -- most notably Williams -- can rock. Gorka's incisive lyrics, both personal and political, have been compared to the best of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
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"What we're here for," says Kaplansky, who plays at the Freight & Salvage on Dec. 10 and 11, "is to play for people underserved by the radio and pop music world. My audience ranges from the 20s to late 50s, and these people are out there looking for music that means something to them. A lot of us have these wonderful under-the-radar careers with loyal audiences." Why contemporary folk remains under the radar is not exactly a conundrum. What is interesting is how the genre survives and even thrives, in its small way, without industry or media support.
"It's not necessarily that folk music likes being under the radar, but it's learned to live like that," said Scott Alarik, who writes about folk music for the Boston Globe and is the author of "Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground" (Black Wolf Press). "The folk underground today didn't grow out of the '60s folk revival; it grew out of the collapse of that revival. By the early '70s, people who loved this music realized they couldn't depend on the commercial music industry. What they've done is create a permanent subculture run and supported by people who love the music. They didn't just create artists and places to play but small record companies, management companies and festivals. I call it an ecosystem to sustain a noncommercial art form.
" Alarik says he was drawn to contemporary folk music, about which he has written for two decades, because "modern songwriters ... seek to write about authentic life experiences in more honest, closely observed and intimate ways than mainstream pop usually does.
" Plus, most of the barriers between performer and listener are shattered. At a 300-seat venue such as the Freight & Salvage (see related story on Page 22), artists interact with fans during the set and mill about afterward to chat. Many give out their personal e-mail addresses and actually answer cyber missives themselves. Rare is there such a thing as a folk diva. Artists, on the road, check their egos at the rental-car counter because their career often depends on developing a tight bond with fans. "It becomes a way of life, not just a career," says Cliff Eberhardt, a Massachusetts artist who has been touring and recording for 25 years. "And you're not in it alone. You've got to build the fan base, and you do that by being out there playing. You aren't going to get any help from radio, not even much anymore from public radio. So you've got to do it yourself, night after night. It has its ups and downs, but it can be the most gratifying feeling in the world, connecting with an audience." In a way, folk is the most democratic of musical genres. Absent the hype machine, fans can make or break an artist. Kaplansky says she sells 5,000 CDs a year on the road, which "is a nice chunk of change both for Red House (her record company) and me."
"It's remained a performance medium more than a recording medium," Alarik says. "You build a career not by a marketing paradigm, but one fan at the time. So it puts the fan as the only mogul, and that's very healthy."
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Maybe not so healthy for the personal lives of the performers, though. Kris Delmhorst, 33, has been on the road for much of the past eight years supporting her four albums. She's played everything from cozy house concerts to 1,000-seat halls, and she pines for the day she can slow down and stay in one place.
"You keep going to the same (venues) all the time," she said. "You'll start out playing to 30 people, then hopefully it goes to 40 and 60 the next couple of times and then 300. I think the (CDs) I sell at concerts amount to about half my sales. My label (Signature Sounds) has me in record stores and I sell well on my Web site, but you've got to go out there and perform.
" Few folk artists will admit to aspirations of mainstream fame -- it's almost a point of pride with them -- but it has happened, occasionally. In the late '80s, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin went from singing at New York coffeehouses alongside Gorka, Kaplansky and Shindell to signing with major labels and scoring hit singles. Gorka, at that time, seemed on the cusp of a similar rise when Rolling Stone magazine called him "the voice of New Folk," but he signed with a smaller label and has had a solid 20-year recording career.
"It's necessary to reach a mass audience," Gorka says. "I think (elder folk statesman) Dave Van Ronk once called the folk world a 'permanent minority.' That's not a bad thing. We'll be fine as long as we can make records and the crowds at our concerts can get the records, take them home and have the songs find a way into their lives."