North East Regional Folk Alliance Speech

November 22, 2013

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

I was recently asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the North East Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA to those in the know).

Here’s what I told the audience of some 500 people, crammed into a theatre in an early ’50s pickled-in-formaldehyde hotel in the Catskills — one of the last remaining Jewish resort/conference centres in the area.

As I walked onto the stage, I’m sure I saw the ghosts of Schecky Green, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra… I hope they approved! 

Good afternoon.

I have been told I must be inspiring, thoughtful, controversial, funny, and I have 20 minutes to do so.

Here goes. First, some basics:

It’s a real pleasure to be here — my first time at NERFA, and indeed the first time I’ve spent any time in upstate New York, barring the time I went to Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock for one of his celebrated Midnight Rambles.

I am aware that it’s odd that I’m here before you. Not quite as odd, though, as when I was asked, two or three years ago, to keynote the International Blues Challenge. Fancy an English born speaker, with Dutch and German Jewish parents, who emigrated to Canada, standing up and telling a audience in Memphis — of all places — about the blues.

So here I am, a senior citizen from north of here, with a funny accent, traveling on a British passport and kept cheerfully alive thanks to a socialist health plan that costs me $6.00 year, parachuted into a country that, from outside, seems incredibly polarized and populated by right-wing lunatics, evangelical God-botherers, and extremists of all kinds.

And, dammit, I know it’s none of my business, but since you only have two political parties, and one of them hates women, gays, African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, and anybody under the age 0f 30, you have to understand how nervous I get whenever I cross what used to be called the world’s longest undefended border.

That said, I am always surprised — and delighted — by the warmth and hospitality that I experience every single time I visit the United States, From California to the Great Lakes Waters, from Smitty’s Corner on the south side of Chicago in the early 60s to the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the 70s, from New York to New Orleans in the 80s, I’ve always been welcomed with smiles, laughter, ridiculously generous breakfasts, and the hospitality that seemingly all Americans extend to visitors.

So could someone tell me where you keep the Ann Coulters and Glenn Becks and the flatulent talking heads of the Fox News Channel, and explain why I’ve never been able to meet them and their followers?

As some anonymous source said, politics is show business for ugly people. And Lord knows, in our country and yours, we’ve got some very ugly people…Toronto, the city I’ve lived in since 1957 is, thanks to our corpulent, crack-addled, drunken mayor with anger management problems, the laughing stock of every late night television show in the United States, and newspapers from Bonn to Brazil. And our prime minister, a control freak if ever there was one, is somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun, and may well — if we let him stay in office — succeed in making Canada the newest State in your union.

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“The Journey is always more fascinating than the destination,” said some ancient philosopher, and the travel stories are legion.

How we all got here, and this is the oddest hotel I’ve ever stayed in — hey, wanna come up to my suite and save my life tonight, as Loudon Wainwright asked a winsome young girl in Motel Blues so many years ago.

We came here — to this point in our lives — because of our passion for music. I came here because Douglas Dawn, my music teacher, described jazz as “cannibal music performed by black people with bugles.” Such were the times, nearly 70 years ago — and thus encouraged, I discovered Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and the young English imitators who attempted to recreate the American music of the twenties.

It was enough to make me want to be in America, but in the mid-fifties, you were going through the Joe McCarthy era and I could not come here because, when asked by a stern man in the American Embassy whether my grandmother had been a communist, I could not answer.

The Canadian embassy was more amenable. Did I have a passport? Was my heart beating? Did I have a trade or profession — I had now been a newspaper reporter for six years. I did? Fine, welcome to Canada.

Three months later I was a landed immigrant in Canada with $200 in my pocket and no job. Everything else about the city was appallingly protestant and dull, but on my first day I discovered a booming musical scene _ probably because so many black American musicians visited the city, which they found tolerable and tolerant, and where they didn’t have to check whether or not they could eat at whatever restaurant they chose, or stay in whatever hotel had rooms.

Walking down our main drag, Yonge Street, I saw a sign on my first afternoon in the new world: Earl Hines and his All Stars. Stunned, I walked into the empty bar, and asked the bar tender whether this was THE Earl Hines, the man who had played with Louis Armstrong in the 20s and led a pioneering big band in the 40s. Yes, he said. Ohmygowd, how much is it to get in? Free, was the answer, but you have to buy two drinks. The next night I heard a rotund pianist, in a bar with a hockey game on a black and white screen above the stage; his name was Oscar Peterson. And the night after that I saw a package show at Maple Leaf Gardens (now a grocery store, incidentally), that included Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Clyde McPhatter and more…

The promised land.

And so I became a blues maven. I knew all about the blues – the plight of the rural Afro-American, the legacy of slavery, uprooted to the inhospitable north, and all the rest of it.

Then I saw Muddy Waters in 1958, in a working man’s bar on Chicago’s south side.

In the years that followed, I had a part in bringing to Canada, for the first time, Sleepy John Estes, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Robert Nighthawk — and, later, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Buddy Guy and more.

And all this led me to folk music. Invited to a folk festival — whatever that was — called Mariposa, I was asked to host a “workshop” (whatever that was) with Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Sippie Wallace and John Hammond Jr. And that weekend, 45 year ago, I met Ian & Sylvia, Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Ste Marie and more…

For me, this was a discovery equal to that of Isaac Newton, unearthing gravity as an apple fell on the head.
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The journeys YOU traveled to discover “folk” music are, I know, as different — and maybe more interesting — than mine.

In all the years since I started my journey, I’ve been blessed – no, privileged — to work with wonderful artists. Loreena McKennitt, k.d. lang, the astonishing Serena Ryder, The Chieftains, Stephane Grappelli, Miles Davis and on and on. I’ve been to hundreds of festivals, and I’ve heard rivers of astonishing music in bars and coffee houses and concert halls and at gatherings like this.

And I’ve come to some conclusions about tis music we call “folk.”

This may be heresy, but can we drop the F word? Let’s just call it music. The F word limits us terribly; “folk” is almost terminally uncool. The media know what “folk” is and we see it in the media after (or during) every festival: Face-painted children. Bearded and grizzled banjo players, even older than I am. Buxom young women with birkenstocks, dancing by the side of the stage. God bless helicopter dancers everywhere, but can you imagine anything more open to derisive laughter, let me know.

We all know the bromide that Louis Armstrong (or was it Big Bill Broonzy?) uttered: “It’s all folk music, man, I ain’t never heard a horse sing yet.”

Right on. It IS folk music. Dammit, Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball is folk music, So is Celine Dion, thumping her chest, and flinging her arms wide as she ratchets another meaningless song into the stratosphere.

Let’s be more tolerant, more forgiving, more open. Let’s ask WHY Celine Dion has sold more records than any other woman in the history of music. Instead of complaining about what she’s doing wrong, let’s ask what she’s doing right. And what can WE do to earn even one per cent of her applause and her followers, and learn to deliver the joy she delivers to such massive audiences.

Oh but we’re special, right? We care more about history, tradition, the past. We’re more aware of social concerns, of the ecology, of yoga, of vegetarianism. True, true, true, we want our music to change the world.

But when we lock ourselves into a little box of self-righteousness, we forfeit the chances to change, we limit the number of people who can hear what we’re saying.

So be out there. Be in people’s faces. Be entertaining. Laugh. Don’t be so earnest, so dogmatic. And remember that music — to change the world — has to REACH the world.

We know we’re in a gang, and this weekend this unlikely hotel is gang headquarters. I suggest — outside our gang meetings — we drop using the F word as our self-descriptor. We know what it means — but the folk outside the club think they know and they don’t like it much. So, as far as they’re concerned, what we do is make music.

Not ”folk” or ”jazz” or ”blues” — just music.

Remember that your music has to appeal to at the very least two of the following parts of us: Head, heart, groin and feet. All intellect? Dull. All heart? Too sentimental and often way too personal. All feet – dance dance dance and remember what happened with disco. All groin? Well, I suppose one could possibly live with that if you’re on the road and all alone…

Next conclusion: Learn to evaluate…

We’re not very good at evaluating our own talent, there are fewer and fewer gatekeepers to bar our progress, and too many of us should consider doing something else.

So here we all are, at the most interesting time in musical history — when change is happening ALL the time, when the delivery systems we have known for decades are suddenly inoperative, where the CD is now either a souvenir or a calling card, and when music is available in such amazing profusion and is as disposable, for most people, as a used Kleenex.

You know that silly bromide, usually attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, about how the music industry is a shallow trench filled with dogs and thieves…my friend Michael Wrycraft uses it on every e-mail he sends out.

I prefer this, from the long-time leader of a very bad English band called Status Quo. “I don’t want to hear any whining about the music business. I understand you CHOSE this profession? What the fuck do you want to do? Drive an ice cream van?”

So, we all know it’s hard. Harder than it has ever been. Success is no longer a wonderfully treasured guitar, a reliable van, a good band, a record deal, steady gigs, someone who can carry and tune your guitar, a gold record on the bathroom wall in your house.

Success NOW? I’m not a pretentious “barista” working at Starbucks.

I’m not sure exactly why, when the bar to even minimal success is so high, that there are more people trying to succeed than ever before.

What I do know is that the democratization of music — if that’s a word and that’s what it is — means that the odds of breaking through are frighteningly small, in part because of the sheer numbers. And because every Tom Dick, Harry, Mary, Jane and Margaret can make a record, pick up gigs at house concerts, and with a part time job and encouragement from family and friends, can scrape by.

I don’t want to discourage newcomers, but there has to be a degree of self-examination.

Are you GOOD? Do you have a distinctive voice? Are your songs “different”? Are you focused? Are you insanely hard working and ambitious? Are you prepared to mess up your friendships and relationships? Answer yes to those, and keep going. Answer no, and if you are still passionate about what you do, pull back on MAKING music, and instead start helping make music HAPPEN.

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Next conclusion, and this what folks in the corporate world call an “action item.”

You Americans have to do a lot more – much more – to encourage support for the arts.

Frankly, the level of state support for the arts
in the United States is utterly pitiful, and I don’t know why you’re not beating down doors in Washington. Your National Endowment for the Arts has an annual budget that’s only slightly more than that of the Canada Council for the Arts north of here — and in a country with 10 times the population.

Now, let it be said, it’s your fault that in Canada, our governments — at every level — understand that supporting the arts builds a better, more civilized community — and makes sense financially into the bargain.

There’s a reason why so many Canadians who have come here to NERFA over the years do so well. There’s a reason that, when you go home, you’ll be talking, probably, about how strong were the Canadian artists that you heard.

They’ve had support: to make demos, to complete finished recordings, to create marketing campaigns, to tour. My assistant, Melanie Brulee, returns today from two months in Paris, because she asked the Ontario Arts Council to fund the research she needed to write and record her next album, in French, of music in the Parisian cabaret tradition. And next year she’ll be here at NERFA so you can hear how well she used that support — and she’s gonna knock your socks off.

As I said, we Canadians have you to thank. Eighty per cent of us live within 100 miles of the United States. We benefit from a tsunami of American culture, and we are swamped with American films, American television, American magazines, American books, and of course, American music.

We enjoy that, we are enriched by it. BUT our country has a different history than yours. We have different systems of government. We certainly seem to have different values — despite our current right wing government. So, by imposing a level of protection that gives our own artists a chance to compete on an unlevel playing field, we reinforce our differences, we tell OUR stories, we assert our own nationality.

And it was relatively easy to achieve: Back in 1970 our government simply demanded that our radio and television and film industries produced a specific amount of what we called Canadian content. It made an instant difference. It created a music industry, almost overnight.

And support (often in cash, sometimes in tax benefits) for writers, film-makers, sculptors, painters, gives them a chance not only to be heard in their own country, but to get good enough to be heard around the world. In 1970, the money Canadian songwriters and music publishers earned through their performing rights societies was less than $90,000; it is now well almost a billion dollars. Next year, who knows — one of the co-writers of Miley Cyrus’ hit is a Canadian, who has already been a successful songwriter; he recently sold his house in a very posh part of Toronto for 2.4 million.

It’s not going to happen, of course, but can you imagine what the results would be, on a state level, if every radio station was forced to play say 15 per cent of its music written, performed and recorded by artists from that particular state the radio station operated in? Can you imagine how many independent artists could get a leg up (and can you imagine how the broadcasters would fight it)…

North of here, we actually have a music “industry” — however battered by the technological revolution and the changes in the way the public consumes music — and it is solely because, kicking and screaming, broadcasters were compelled to play Canadian music. And that happened because you were culturally colonizing us! For which, thanks!

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Next: another suggestion that you can think about. Why is the United States the only major country in the world that has not one, not two, but THREE performing rights societies. Oh, it’s that “competition” you’re worried about, right? Instead, why not think of the millions of dollars to be saved by having ONE. Imagine the efficiencies, the decreased overhead, and the exponentially increased lobbying power a single performing rights society would have, rather than the diffused, confusing situation caused by three societies, who spend millions of your money pointlessly competing with each other. Just sayin’…

But this IS something that has to happen, sooner or later — and Folk Alliance can start the ball rolling.

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Next conclusion: Celebrate! We’re in a gang!

One of the best things about this segment of the overall music industry is our sense of community — and that’s demonstrated here at gang headquarters this weekend, as it was a couple of weekends ago at the Folk Music Ontario event in Toronto, and as it will be in February in Kansas City.

Let’s try to make our music more pertinent, more responsive to the world we live in. It’s up to new songwriters to rediscover a way to connect to the real big nasty world out there.

And maybe we could do this, as gang members, by being optimistic and funny and smart rather than by being pessimistic, apocalyptic and downright miserable.
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So here’s the closer, from the great blues legend John Lee Hooker. Asked — when he was 83 — whether he was planning to retire, he said:

It’s too late to quit now.

As we enjoy this time of networking, laughter, both sober and intoxicated second thoughts, and group hugging, let’s not forget this:

We’re in this for life. We’re part of a gang, a community, and it’s our job to enrich the lives of those who can’t sing, can’t tell their own stories, can’t express their own emotions and feelings.

Whether we’re singers, musicians, presenters, managers, publicists or record company people — we have the responsibility (even a sacred duty) to take on this role.

And — individually and collectively — to do the very, very best that we possibly can. Lets go for it!

Thanks you so very much.