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.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A good nightmare

The most amazing and productive anxiety dream woke me up this morning. It's perhaps a measure of my hard-won maturity that the dream was both anxious and productive. I've talked about some of my best songs coming out of dreams--this dream had a similar impact, but compelled me to write this entry instead of a song.
I've had many a folk festival anxiety dream--around twenty years ago I had one that turned into a song of mine called "Wheel of fortune". Last night's was my first music conference dream. It started out conventionally enough, with my usual difficulty getting to the stage. This one had the added element of my showcase slot at the Folk Alliance conference being scheduled for 9am, a guarantee that no one would show up.
Two younger songwriters in succession at this conference gave me their CDs, again, not unusual in real life, but a new element in my dreams. They both did something odd: before they gave me their CDs, they flashed a credit card. It wasn't until I saw the second credit card that I realized that they were offering to pay for my attention.

I entered a songwriting competition a few weeks ago, my first. Because I like to go through the web, I did it through a complimentary temporary membership in an organization that offers space and help for electronic press kits. Okay, cool idea--I put one together. Kind of like my web site, but a little more streamlined, and easy to do. A legitimate service. But then, on a daily basis, I was solicited to pay for various "opportunities", some of them song competitions such as I entered. Others, industry conferences. And into this mix started to come folk festivals, one I had played at, another I hope to participate in at some point. I was being solicited to flash my credit card to pay for someone's attention. At the end of the solicitation was some sentence like, "some compensation may be given".
Now, people do pay for my attention when they enroll in my classes and workshops. Because teaching is hard work, and that kind of attention takes energy, I am happy to get paid, and in fact I am grateful for my students' support. But I am careful to keep the focus on the creative process, and part of this is to never organize the class around pre-existing work. People understandibly get attached to their creations, whatever quality they might be, and it's much easier to do productive growth with work in process. I'm also careful to work only in groups, so whatever criticism I might give, the group gives a reality check to both the songwriter and me.

If someone offered me money, though, to listen to their CD, I would be shocked, as I hope they would be shocked. I'm not even convinced I did the right thing entering that contest. I think the "daily opportunity" part of the online service I used is like someone peddling candy or dope to kids. You may get a boost, but it's not the same kind of nourishment that real food gives for the long run. For that, you need to go out into a real community again and again, and test your songs until it becomes obvious to one and all that your songs offer an audience more than they expect of it--that the energy an audience gives with its attention is rewarded with more energy from the song and its performance.

And paying to audition gives away too much power to gatekeepers, undermining the kind of community in which the cream, instead of the money, rises to the top.

I refer any developing songwriter looking for my criticism to the wonderful advice of Rainer Maria Rilke in the first of his "Letters to a Young Poet". I can't do better. On the other hand, if you want to do a workshop or a class with me, get in touch.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The last collaborators

Well, it's been about a month since my last post, and the song I was struggling with is still in process, but much closer to completion. I've actually sung it to Joan and to a few friends, which for me is by no means the end of the process. I may give it a shot in front of an audience next Saturday here in St. Paul, where I am meanwhile visiting with my sister and brother-in-law, and with my mother.

The song tells you how it wants to be finished, but only when you sing it. Inviting the audience into the collaboration--that is, singing it for them and trying to gauge their reaction, trying to find out if you've really communicated what you wish to communicate--should only be done in a context of respect. This particular song is an angry one, and I'll only bring it out if I've established an obvious trust with folks. I did this at old friends Lorraine and Bennet Hammond's home at Thanksgiving, and got some very good and informative feedback, which I intend to use somehow to make the song more effective. I didn't do it yesterday in performance in St. Cloud because we didn't have the critical mass in attendance to establish that trust, to allow each person in the audience the privacy of an un-moderated reaction. So much depends upon the moment, and the weather and the closing of the interstate kept a few folks home. In such situations, I have to let go of any hope of the audience serving me in this fashion, and concentrate on my serving them--reassuring them by a good, respectful and loving show that they made the right choice in coming out in the storm. Sing a new angry song might convey to some an anger at the size of the house, when the thing I need to communicate at that point is my gratitude at the opportunity of performing for them. These things at my shows are negotiated, which is why I do a better job when there's enough light in the house for me to see people's reactions, but not so much that they feel self-conscious about them.

I've said this to many a songwriting class, and it's appropriate to say it here: when I write a song, I am searching for something that I share with the audience. I am trying to articulate in song an experience or feeling that we share, and thereby serve the audience with something that helps them articulate their own experience or feeling. My shows aren't about being angry, but they are about being human, and anger is a part of that. My hope is that, putting an angry song in the context of a good show helps an audience put their own anger in the context of a good life. My hope is that, the better we artists do that job, the fewer people in this sometimes appalling pre-manufactured culture reach for guns. I'm an entertainer--but I hope to be a deeply entertaining entertainer, that is, an artist.