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, November 06, 2006

My own patron

Being a singer-songwriter as a business can get seasonal, and September was not a great month for business. So when I got a call from an old friend at Harbor Sweets in Salem, MA, saying that they needed some help getting the antique Rose-Forgrove candy wrapping machines in shape, I went in for a chat and came out with a job. They're paying me a tech-level salary and half of our health insurance. Part of the deal was a guarantee of the same kind of flexibility that got me onto the folk music circuit in the first place, and in fact, I've just started a new round of gigs in New England, with upcoming January tours in Minnesota and California. It turns out that candymaking is also a seasonal business, with a busy season from September to February 14; my ability to travel, and to teach in the summer, will be substantially unimpeded.

Processing this emotionally happens day to day. I was clear from the beginning what a blessing this job is in terms of taking financial pressure off me and Joan, which is why I took the opportunity with no hesitation. As Joan points out, if health insurance weren't going up 30% a year, we'd be doing fine. I've managed full-time in music for the past 17 years. At the same time, though, I am clear that I've always had patrons: my parents and extended family, the town of Salem, the people of Boston, the folks at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Marblehead, the Marblehead Eco-Farm, Saint Bart's in Manhattan, the ODC Dance Company of San Francisco, and countless coffeehouse concert series have enabled me to find and connect with my audience and keep myself and my family alive and healthy. My former wife was a crucial partner in raising my daughter while enabling me to remain an artist, and my wife Joan is no less crucial a partner now that my daughter is a young woman on her own.

For years I've told my songwriting students that it's a thin line between amateur and professional, a line mostly emphasized by insecure professionals. I've also told them that I hope to die an amateur, in the root sense of the word, one who does something out of love. My vocation is still my vocation: I've never done music as a hobby, but as a calling. At the same time, I have to admit to a certain sense of failure and disappointment. Some days I feel like demanding an apology from the culture; other days I wonder if I should be offering one myself.

I know, too, that sometimes there's a difference between what people want to hear and what they need to hear, and that my calling involves paying a lot of attention to the "need to hear" side. Churchy types call these the pastoral and the prophetic dimensions of a ministry. What my gut and my life experience tell me is right, for instance, is severely out of whack with George W. Bush's regime. I imagine that may put a cap on the kind of numbers I can expect at a show.

I'm still my own artist now that I'm my own patron. I never expected too much of the music industry, so it's no big surprise. I'm still writing, and looking forward to developing new songs for the shows. One day at a time. I'm always grateful for the support of my audience.