The Song Journal

Miscellaneous news and writing by Bob Franke, mostly about songs as a portable art form, and the process of creating them and enabling them to do their work in the world.

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Location: Peabody, Massachusetts, United States

from Bob Franke began his career as a singer-songwriter in 1965 while a student at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation in 1969 with an A.B. in English Literature, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has since made New England his home. Bob has appeared in concert at coffeehouses, colleges, festivals, bars, streets, homes and churches in 33 states, four Canadian provinces and England.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Things done and left undone

I recently received a new CD from an old friend and former student, Oakland, CA-based Patrice Haan, and I played it this morning, all by itself. I expected to be delighted, but I didn't expect to weep. Patrice is a fabulous harper and a songwriter who puts her heart on the line and tells the truth. "The Year I Turned 14", which Patrice composed in my class in 1996, is every bit as heartbreaking as I remembered it. Perhaps it's presumptuous to say this about a mature artist who would have gotten that way without my help, but I'm very proud of her.

I usually don't say too much about the accomplishments of my former students except when I have the sense that (to paraphrase the Bible), if I didn't say anything, the stones would cry out. Part of this is self-protection. I'm afraid that I get more CDs in the mail than I will wind up listening to, although I have enough guilt about this that every six months or so I will put five at a time on the CD carousel and see if anything leaps out at me. Don't get me wrong: every voice is unique, and I cherish every student I've ever had. Each has had something important to say, and some have said it very, very well. But it's a rare student who gets past my analytical faculties and grabs me by the heart with his or her work. Patrice is one. John Schindler is another, but I've already praised John's work in a number of web venues. Ditto Wanda Lu Paxton . I've talked a lot to friends about my favorite unreleased CD by Lynne Saner (and I wish I could link to a site of hers). I wish I had said something in a timely fashion about Heather Klinger's first CD; she's an amazing songwriter.

The intelligence and courage that most of my students bring to their work give me a standard to live up to; I'm looking forward with great pleasure to the fact that 7 of the 11 students who have signed up for the May classes are folks with whom I've worked before. I'm also grateful for the patience of those folks who have sent me their CDs: I'm only human, as you've already discovered.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Traveling light

One of the things that has always appealed to me about being a singer-songwriter is its portability. We travel light, and thus we can go places that theater and ballet and other forms of music find difficult to get to. I often think of what we do as some of the cheapest, and nonetheless some of the best (Annie Gallup fits this description beautifully), musical theater in America. While some of the most fun I've ever had onstage was had in the company of brilliant musicians like Nina Gerber and Cary Black, and while I will forever consider their willingness to work with me as an honor, I've never put a touring unit together, either with these fine musicians or any of the other musicians with whom I've been privileged to work. Economics are an important part of it, but not the only part. In a way, solo touring is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one with which I am content.

Being a singer-songwriter is like being a predator (or more aptly given the music industry, a scavenger)-- it requires a certain range. How one covers that range is an important question. Call me a romantic, but I have always hoped that what I do as a solo artist is right livelihood in a Ghandian sense. All of the gasoline I've burned is of course evidence against this understanding, but I try to use cars with good gas mileage and run them into the ground. My current car, a '99 Mercury Cougar with roughly 130.000 miles on it, is simultaneously the sportiest and the most useful car I've ever owned. With 4 cylinders and a 5-speed manual, I can coax 35-38 mpg out of it on the highway. Since it's a hatchback, I can fit guitars, luggage and my little PA in it as well.

I admire the heroic touring by rail that Jane Voss and Hoyle Osborne used to do in the '70s and '80s--watching the two of them shlepp their instruments and luggage off the train and onto the platform in the Salem train station was a poignant spectacle I'll never forget--but until or unless we develop a national passenger rail system that serves the entire country in an efficient manner, it's just not possible these days. Even back in the '80s, I can recall that when I returned home from a gig in St. Louis by rail (because of flight pricing, it was the only economic way to get home), the train was delayed a few hours in Massachusetts because they had to re-lay the track. One of the reasons I've stayed in New England despite its expense is the sheer density of gigs per square mile within the range of an overnight stay.

One of the things I've gained in travelling light and leaving the cities is an appreciation of the cultures of small towns and rural enclaves. Some of the hippest people I've ever met live in such places, and some of the most gracious hospitality I've ever received has been in such places. I see it as a signal honor to be a a guest of their culture and communities. The world economy and bad US policy are bringing in sweeping changes in our common life. God knows what's going to happen as the American Empire breaks down as the British Empire did, but I can't help but think that it's what I've learned from small communities that will provide survival clues for Joan and me. And that those of us who have travelled light by choice will have a slight advantage over the rest of us, as we all find that we must travel light by necessity.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Monday night at the Cantab

Last Monday night Joan and I went to the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge to troll for students (see previous post) at Geoff Bartley's open mike and were treated to a feature performance by Kirsty McGee and Mat Martin. Geoff has done an exemplary job of turning this event into a supportive venue for new talent, and the Tuesday night Bluegrass open mike into something of a local cultural phenomenon, despite the fact that the Cantab, as a meeting place for multiple communities in a very small space, is not an ideal venue for music. As in any bar, even in a homogeneous community, there are multiple agendas: conversation and socialization, relaxation, checking out the opposite sex, active alcoholism, selling booze on the management's part, and, oh yes, music. When we're honest, we musicians can't really fault any of these agendas, since we might engage in any number of them ourselves at various times in our lives. The problem with mixing music in with the rest of them is that music is rests as well as notes, and it's hard to find silence in an active bar.

There's yet another agenda that at this point might be the thing that keeps the Cantab's open mike nights going: musicians socializing with other musicians. Many of us are working so hard that it's difficult to find a bunch of us together in one place. But it's good to get together and compare notes (as well as rests). If a not-yet-fully-developed musician takes the stage (there were damn few last Monday night--the roster leading up to the McGee and Martin included fully developed ones like Ray Chesna and Ellen Groves), it's actually a good thing to have a noisy bar nearby to cover our own lapses as an audience as we socialize and/or do business with one another. For a developing artist, the only place you can get better feedback is on the street, where the only people who listen for long are the ones who are enjoying the act. If you get silent attention from most folks at the Cantab, you're doing very well (as did McGee and Martin, who were astonishingly good despite the aformentioned handicaps). If you get the attention of the whole bar, including those folks who have other things they'd rather be doing, you're doing very well indeed.

Like frequent Boston Globe correspondent Scott Alarik, and like Ellen and her musical partner David Fishken, Geoff, who has been astonishingly good himself for many years, is providing the musical community an incredibly important service by doing a relatively thankless task. More power to them all.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Will Shetterly and Emma Bull

Will Shetterly was kind enough to give me a welcome mention in his blog, It's All One Thing. Both Will and his wife Emma Bull are science fiction and fantasy writers. I was entranced by the attitude toward music demonstrated by Emma's protagonist in her novel War for the Oaks (which I had devoured whole on a transcontinental flight), and dropped her a note via the old GEnie network. She and Will and I have been pen pals and mutual fans ever since. They're two fine writers, escaped from LA and newly settled in the Tucson area. Good luck to you with those screenplays, guys.

My summer teaching schedule

I just sent this along to Don for the web site; might as well share it with you
guys as well.

June 10-12 Rowe Camp and Conference Center, Rowe, MA
June 24-25 Old Songs Festival, Altamont, NY

July 10-15 Common Ground on the Hill, Westminster, MD
July 17-22 World Voices World Visions, URI Kingston, RI
July 30-August 5 Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, Port Orchard, WA

August 6-7 Hands On Guitars, Chehalis, WA
August 21-25 91.9 Summer Acoustic Music Week, Geneva Point Center,
Center Harbor, NH

Monday, April 18, 2005

Really digital--

David Eckman tells me he downloaded "Alleluia, the Great Storm Is Over" from one of the internet music services the other day, either MusicMatch or I-Tunes. It was featured via the Christine Lavin compilation "Follow That Road", on the Rounder label (thanks again, Christine). If you find it, let me know and I'll put a link to it on the web site. Right now, I'm thinking of it as my first "single"....

Sunday, April 17, 2005

My Shepherd Will Supply My Need--acknowledging a season of grief

I've sung it many times in the choir--Virgil Thomson's My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, a wonderful arrangement from the 1930's of the old Appalachian hymn--but last Thursday in rehearsal it made me weep. This morning at the service, I used a technique I learned from Ann Mortifee to make sure I didn't weep, because, after all, when I sing in public I do it for others (although singing in the choir is something I also do for myself--I'm very clear about how grounding and nourishing it is to use my voice in the service of somebody else's vision, in this case, the Church of St. Andrew and its choir director, Amy LeClair). But upon reflection, the weeping reinforced my conviction of how powerful song can be as an agent of emotional change and growth.

In this case, the song bound up my sense of the treasure in traditional music with the death of Charles Guy Whiteside, who was my brother-in-law in 1990 when he died. I've spoken to audiences many times on what a wonderful, kind man Charlie was. His sister Christine sewed this line from the hymn on Charlie's panel of the AIDS quilt:

Not as a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.

My remembrance of grief at the loss of Charlie was tied up with my grief at the loss of contact with the entire Whiteside family at the dissolution of my first marriage (except for occasions of family celebration around my daughter, in which my new family and I have always felt welcomed and loved by the Whitesides). Losing Charlie was my first experience (and I know how fortunate I am in being able to say this) with this kind of loss and grief as an adult.

Prior to last Thursday, I had just been to the funeral of my Aunt Julie Wuhan, the last of my father's generation in his family, who outlived all her siblings and died at the age of 91. I had driven two days to be in time for the viewing at the funeral home, accepted the gracious welcome of my cousins and my aunt's church, and for the first time got to see my aunt's photo of my grandfather and his parents, my grandfather in the Tsar's military uniform which he abandoned in his escape to America. I also got to see some of my aunt's poetry, set in rhyme and meter. She wrote in one about the school that sheltered her, and I know enough about my family's turbulent history to understand a little about what it sheltered her from. I helped sing her on and bury her next to her beloved husband the next day, and got in the car after lunch to drive home.

I began to realize how much I had lost when I left Michigan, even though it's clear that leaving Michigan was the best thing I could do for my survival and growth. I also realized that my grieving for my father, Jack Franke, with whom I had had a complex relationship, was not done, but that I had understandably postponed much of it as I built a new marriage with Joan, and helped her through the loss of her father, Jack Sherman.

I worked through my grief at the death of my colleague Freyda Epstein by writing two songs, Collateral Damage and Day of the Dead , and finally by hearing a song by my friend the Rev. Robert Jones of Detroit which opened at least the possibility of forgiveness for her killer in recalling Jesus' forgiveness on the Cross.

I understand very well that dealing with grief is part and parcel of this stage of my life. You live this long, and you need to pay attention to not only the loved ones that need to be mourned, but also to the many roads not taken that themselves need to be mourned so we can continue on the roads we have chosen. What amazes me is how powerful and how useful songs can be in cutting though our resistance and helping us to pay this needed attention. Taking part in the creation of such songs is taking on the vocation of a healer. It's good work, no matter what the pay. Our culture badly needs songs that deal with this stage of life as well as with younger ones. I guess that's why I'm still doing this, and why I admire so much those colleagues of my generation and older generations who are still active in spite of the corporate music industry. It's worth writing about the truth that confronts us as we explore the territory of aging, for our own sakes as well as for those who will follow us on this path. I'm grateful to Virgil Thomson for his help.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Body English

Linda Waterfall tells me that she's re-issuing Body English on CD, and is pleased with the sound quality. When I first heard that tape, I damn near wore it out in my car's cassette player as I drove from gig to gig. It changed my opinion of Linda from something like, "killer musician, great soul, amazing voice, good songwriter" to "This is a fully mature artist at the height of her powers!" It grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Those of you who didn't get to hear it the first time should keep an eye out for its release at her web site. I'm so blessed to be teaching with her and with other great teachers this coming summer at Week II of the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Apologies to anyone who tried to post yesterday and couldn't--I had the site set so that only registered members of the Blogger community could post. I've changed that setting so that anyone can post here, which was my original intent. I should have remembered my Harbor Sweets experience--read the manual!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Trouble in this world--it'll be alright

I was just about to write a thoroughly curmudgeonly piece on the demise of two of my favorite internet music streams when I heard a familiar voice--my own--coming at me over WUMB-FM's stream. "Trouble In This World" has sort of dropped out of the repertoire, so I listened carefully to hear what I was telling myself:

"Trouble in this world will find you on your way,
But keep on walkin, you'll be home some day."

As it turns out, it was good advice. Radio Nonsense, operating out of St. Paul, Minnesota, seemed to be gone. It's the closest thing to truly free-form radio programming you're likely to hear over the internet. In the last hour, for instance it's played a version of "The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn" from the Anthology of American Folk Music, and a comic version of "Stairway to Heaven" by Dread Zeppelin, as well cuts by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Zappa. But in the middle of last night, its familiar cryptic web site (Our Mission, indeed!) had been replaced by a birth announcement. While I heartily congratulate the Sosna family on their new addition (a very cute and very well-documented little girl), I was afraid that Scott Sosna's brilliant music programming was a casualty to the practical concerns of new fatherhood (if Mr. Sosna's software programming is anywhere near as good, your business needs him). Not to worry, this morning both the site and the programming are back online. Mother and baby seem to be doing fine, too.

The news is not quite as sanguine at Radio Amber. For the past couple of years, Jeffrey Bottoms in Houston, TX has been digitizing obsolete recording media and in the process creating an astonishingly diverse compilation of music from the first half of the 20th century, everything from Sacred Harp to Deanna Durbin, Willie McTell to Bing Crosby, and many obscure but interesting artists as well. He just can't afford to stream any more, and like many of the most talented of our colleagues, needs a day job to keep body and soul together. If I remember correctly, Mr. Bottoms is just out of college and facing an uncertain job market. He asks for your prayers, and cash if you've got it to spare.

The history of interesting, meaningful songs and music is the history of obsessed individuals, people who see intense value in songs and music that don't register on the value scale of corporations. If music were truly sold in a free market, these individuals would be making a modest living doing what they do and love best. But we Americans no longer own the airwaves in common, and don't in the present political climate have much hope of holding those that do own them accountable. And so the millions who would be nourished, encouraged and delighted by our actual culture are distracted from it by a corporate music industry whose sole function seems to be to exclude artists, art and history, in order to serve stockholders.

And yet, artists will continue to create, and all humans will continue to need art. It seems to be hard-wired in us. The Internet still gives me hope as a means of distribution and a repository of our musical culture. Keep on walkin'.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Welcome to The Song Journal, perhaps more accurately at this point Bob's Song Journal, informal postings about how things are going in the world of this singer-songwriter, and occasionally, how things are going in the world. My personal goals here are to lower my obscurity quotient by opening up a dialogue with audience and colleagues.

Work on the new live album is going swimmingly; I'm looking forward to working with Andrew Calhoun on his Waterbug label. Thanks are due (and will be noted) to Rich Warren, Eric Arunas and WFMT-Chicago for recording the concert. The working title is The Other Evening In Chicago. I've been editing the recording on my old Compaq computer using Audacity running on the Mepis Linux operating system. Mel Green has agreed to do design. Our goal is to get the recording out by the end of June. Watch this space!