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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Material world

The new CD is out (it's available here), and we sold a bunch of them at the Old Songs Festival last weekend. The character of this job of mine changes from season to season, but every now and then the earthliness of it impresses me. Much of the time it seems that it's not so much about singing or playing or even writing. For one thing, it's about driving (see a previous post). When you put together a concert series in a local venue, it's about moving chairs and writing a convincing press release. Last week and the beginning of this one around the house, it's been about using a paper cutter.

I seldom do paper mailings these days--they're really expensive, and yes, a bit wasteful--but when I do, it reminds me of the old days when I used to take on temporary jobs like running a decollater. A decollater is a machine that tears apart those old multi-part computer forms that still show up in business from time to time, the ones with the holes on the side that are fed through sprockets. The different parts go to different departments. We don't have different departments around the house, but when I do a paper mailing I have to ride herd on an old computer of mine that does nothing much except put out postcards when there's call for it. Four postcards fit on a sheet of card stock. You put the content on one side and the addresses on the other, nicely formatted. When the printer starts you have to keep an eye on it to make sure the ink hasn't run out. You take the finished sheets into the living room and cut them on a paper cutter while you're watching TV. If you're lucky, Joan puts the stamps on.

There's a real sense of, well, relief in all this. When I do it, I think of Gandhi spinning his own clothes. One of the reasons I still do this is that I believe that it's right livelihood for me. I try to minimize both the environmental and the financial damage. People seem to respond well to getting the news in a non-electronic form. And doing it by hand, myself or with Joan, gives me the sense that any damage I do is at least on a human scale. The hope is that any good that I may do will accelerate itself enough to cover the damage. But there's comfort in dealing with the material stuff that enables the spiritual.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Evil, good, and American idols

I was waiting in line with Joan at the supermarket the other day looking at the tabloids when I noticed that the new "American Idol" winner is virtually indistinguishable in appearance from Britney Spears. My guess is that that's why she won the contest. The music industry no longer markets music, let alone songs. It markets images.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that the images pretend to be artists. The industry calls them artists. That's evil. John Sandford is a Jungian therapist who has written extensively, and who wrote a whole book about evil. His definition of evil has been terrifically useful to me: evil is a part pretending to be the whole.

An idol in the Biblical sense is a statue pretending to be a god. In this culture, corporations are organizations put together for the sole purpose of human acquisitiveness aspiring to the status of human beings. When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same rights as human beings, it was one of the biggest mistakes this country ever made. In this culture, an idol is an image pretending to be an artist.

Human beings create culture. Corporations can only create a distorted version of it based on greed. That's why the best music in this country comes from communities rather than corporations. Historically, corporations have taken the best artists out of communities and enhanced their images, if you will, to call attention to them. This has put artists in a quandary: we all have material needs. But we need to be artists. Corporations, on the other hand, need profits, and to gain profits, they need stars. They need idols.

Partly through the collusion of corrupted artists, people who are seduced into serving the corporations rather than their audiences, the corporations have figured out a way of bypassing art and culture altogether. Just put together a contest based upon what a corporation needs rather than what human beings need. Take the winner and spend millions upon the lie that the winner is an artist, and a good one. Watch the money roll in from the pockets of people too young and/or too dumb to recognize what a real culture is and what a real artist does. An adolescent in love with an image is an important part of the human story. But when a corporation substitutes that part for the whole culture, it's evil.

From my point of view, the harm comes when real artists can't find an audience and/or make a living, say, comparable to that of a firefighter, or even a teacher, because so many people have been distracted and their money sucked away by the corporations. There are consequences for audiences as well. Without a culture based in truth and true imagination, people are more apt to be fooled when politicians start telling them lies. Even the more intelligent among them are more apt to dismiss the entire notion of the truth being sung, and turn to music in other languages, because there, at least, there is some energy, and one doesn't have to waste one's time listening to lame lyrics.

Have you noticed that whenever there is a true revival of great songwriting in the U.S. the industry begins to flood the market with bad songwriters? Imitations pretending to be the real thing. The part pretending to be the whole.

Artists need to keep fighting to remain artists, whether they are on the margins, or among the "lucky" few making compromises with the industry. Artists whose numbers and images are inflated by the industry need to work hard to stay artists, and need to know only enough business to know when they are being seduced. And any businessperson in the music industry with integrity and a concern for truth in culture needs to commit to working with artists rather than idols.

Those of us artists on the margins just need to tell the truth as well and as lovingly as we can to as many folks as we can reach. The pay isn't always great, but it's good work.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Walking with birders

I've been on the road a lot for a guy who hasn't left Massachusetts in the last three weeks, making multiple trips to Nimbit in Framingham to get the new CD in shape, having a great time last night in Pittsfield doing a show with Sally Rogers, and actually relaxing (well, more like exercising my body into a relaxed state) with Joan on a birding trip with the Hale Bird Club (and no, the club didn't come up in Google, or I'd post the link).

It was my first weekend with the club, although not my first trip--I'd gone climbing up Mt. Wachusett with them months ago without really realizing what was happening. But Joan's birthday was close to the Memorial Day weekend, and, knowing that there are no mountains on Cape Cod, I signed on to spend the weekend there with her and her club. I'm glad I did. Not only did the weather turn out to be fine, but the birders themselves turned out to be an intelligent and a fun bunch of people. They were very welcoming to me, and were also patient with me when I asked the obvious question or spotted the obvious bird.

I guess I think of birding as God's video game. When someone in the group spots and identifies a bird, no matter how helpful they try to be, you usually have only a few seconds to find the bird in your glasses, which is an acquired skill, for me a slowly acquired skill. Training yourself to recognize patterns in trees well enough to shift from watching with the naked eye to using binoculars is not easy. And that's just the beginning. Real birders also train themselves to identify birds visually from memory or from a field guide, and audibly from their calls. This is all second nature to Joan at this point, and these are just some of the many skills she has which I envy (don't even talk to me about Joan's gaming abilities).

What the trip did for me was to show me a vision of the world which is not centered on humanity, and to remind me that such a vision can be humbling in the best of ways. We share earth and air with birds and we are interdependent, sometimes tragically so from the bird's point of view. Like all living things we share certain issues. But some things that are important to us (road signs, money) are of no importance to birds. And some things that are crucial to birds (like seasons) are things with which humans, especially urban humans, are losing touch.

It's a good thing to be drawn out of one's own concerns from time to time by a sort of disciplined noticing. Artists do it. So do people with a certain kind of compassion. Birders do it, too.