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.

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.


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