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, September 28, 2005

"Pop and Protest"

I watched the PBS program about protest in popular music this evening. It was good to see Chuck D put rap in a historical perspective. It was good that it wasn't a show about white people's music. But watching two hours about protest music on TV didn't do as much for me as hearing a single Phil Ochs song, and Phil wasn't mentioned once on the show. I am reminded of something I wrote to a Boston Globe reporter who had written an article lamenting the "lack of protest songs about the Iraq war." She was looking in the wrong place. Looking for protest music in the corporate industry makes as much sense as it would have made to look for protest writing in the Soviet era among members of the Soviet Writers' Union.

I believe that this is not a fascist country in its heart or its institutions. But it is being run by a fascist regime at the moment. Look up the definition in the dictionary. That's the elephant in the living room, folks. That's the bit of evidence that stuns me into silence, that leads me to being paranoid about one out of every two people I run into, the one who might have voted for W. You can hear this news on the street, but you won't see it on the TV, not even PBS, the poor bastards.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Whipped cream and jello

I just had a very funny dream, the meaning of which is slowly revealing itself to me (and may partially reveal itself to you by the time I finish this post). In my dream, the curvature of the earth, which no one had quite noticed in this way before owing to the wide use of the Mercator projection (you may remember those rectangular maps of the world that made Greenland look much larger than it is), revealed that Texas was actually quite close to Northern Italy, in fact only a short drive away. Rod Kennedy, the founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival (whom I regard with a great deal of respect, affection, and gratitude, while recognizing that for various reasons these attitudes toward Rod may not be universal), has retired from the festival. In my dream, in my short drive from Texas to the mountains of northern Italy, I discovered that Rod had opened a small, elegantly appointed bistro there surrounded by glass walls, which was the center of a small community of transplanted Texans and was also a Methodist mission. I was treated to a sumptuous meal there, the only details of which I remember were the drinks, served, Freudians may note, in three narrow cylindrical glasses: a glass of red wine, a cappucino drink, and a dessert somewhat magically topped with three very large, Texas sized, red, yellow and green cubes of jello stacked one on top of another, like a very sweet traffic light.

Now, those who know me know that my own Christianity was transformed by an Episcopal coffeehouse ministry in Ann Arbor during my college years. What fascinates me about this dream are its contrasts of ascetic and sensual images, and its insistence on their closeness to one another. I'm also fascinated by the three drinks, each, I am sure, with its own meaning, and working together. Alertness, sensuality and conviviality, and the sweetness coming from an icon of regulation.

One of the many things I am discovering about Judaism being married to Joan is that there is a tradition of eating sweets during Torah study, to emphasize the sweetness of the study itself. The commandments, the mitzvot, give sweetness and purpose to life, even as the study of them is sweet in itself. In Greek mythology, the marriage of Zeus and Hera continually worked out the tension between unbridled divine sexual/creative energy and the need for interpersonal justice in family and home.

My dream was an art dream, I'm pretty sure. Artists need awareness and alertness, they need to experience sensuality and love, and they need enough stability in their lives to do their jobs, and to recognize the sweetness as well as the fragility of that stability (I think the giant cubes of jello may have been mortared with whipped cream). In fact, we all live within a tension of opposites; artists commit themselves to being aware of this tension, and we see it as beautiful.

In college I learned that poetry is more exact than everyday literal speech, not less. Musicians understand that pitch itself is not defined by the keys of the piano; every time you hear two notes trilled on a blues piano, they're searching for something in between that the human voice and players of other instruments that imitate the human voice know instinctively. Poets speak in the cracks between the keys. There are indeed Christian, and Jewish, and Muslim artists, but I doubt seriously whether there are fundamentalist artists of any faith worth spending time with.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

In praise of silence

I listen to crickets and tree frogs outside my window, having just experienced putting together and listening to my first "mix tape" on my PDA. It's nothing new in the imagination of humanity, but it's been tremendously reassuring to me to choose only my favorite songs from my favorite albums, not giving it a lot of thought, but choosing from the already chosen, albums I've put on my hard drive because I love them and want them handy. I've always resisted mind exercises like "what albums would you rescue if you were stranded on a desert island". For me it would be impossible to make choices like that on the spot. But "what songs would you transfer to a limited mp3 player from your hard drive" is just the gentle exercise of an evening. Here's what I came up with; keep in mind that a few Linda Waterfall songs are probably on their way to the chip:

Good Enough - Lynne Saner
After the Rain, Put It In Your Heart -Bruce Cockburn
Beat the Retreat, Dimming of the Day, A Heart Needs A Home - Richard Thompson
Help, We Can Work It Out, I'm Down - The Beatles
Freddy the Freeloader, Kind of Blue, So What? --Miles Davis
Northern Sky - Nick Drake
I Ain't Blue - Spider John Koerner
Step by Step, Stardust Ballroom, Solo - John Schindler

These may not be the greatest songs of all time--that's not the issue--but they are ones that I've kept handy after filing the others away. Listening to them again, I'm reassured that artists with whom I've shared space and time on this earth really have put some of the meaning and/or energy of our lives into words and music (and now digital bits). These are songs I can listen to again and again, for different reasons, because each in its own way is rich in meaning.

We're not that different from other generations, whose own songs and music have given them comfort. In fact, we're not that different from the crickets and the tree frogs, whose sounds have their own beauty. And none of it possible without the silence they all have in common: none of the notes possible without rests.