Pilgrims of the stage

Hunting for the source of folk music's power at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, CO

Maggie Simpson
Photos by Joel Dyer

For me, folk music is a drug, a truth serum of sorts. It has the ability to make me see my life for not only what it is but also what it could and should be. I suspect I’m not alone. The side effects of such inward clarity can’t be taken lightly. Too much of the right music at the right time has been known to bring about a quick and dramatic end to lessthan-fulfilling jobs, relationships or living situations. On rare occasions the perfect song can cause listeners to downsize a life into what fits inside a car and then push them onto the road without regard for final destination or what happens when the tank and the wallet run dry. It is as Arlo Guthrie claimed a couple decades back when he told me, “Folk music is dangerous.”

I’ve felt the pull of such music as long as I can remember. It has been the soundtrack to my life, playing over every pivotal moment, every launch of a new chapter. And while I enjoy many genres of music, it is always folk that is there when the moments matter most, good or bad. Like a cigarette, it offers a mysterious companionship that those who haven’t smoked can’t understand.

So what is it about great folk music that allows it to cast such a powerful spell? Is it the artists or the audience who share a common invisible strand of DNA that allows this music to penetrate so completely?

Fortunately, this is a good time to explore such questions. Where better to look for that thing, that secret ingredient that gives folk music its power, than at The Song School that springs up this time of year under the tents at the Planet Bluegrass grounds in Lyons. It’s a place where songs are deconstructed and analyzed on a nearly cellular level. It is the musical equivalent of a supercollider, a place where folk music’s God particle would surely show itself if it does indeed exist.

My search took me from tent to tent at the school, where I listened to the various instructors — a group of 30 or so of the most gifted singer/songwriters and teachers from across the country — as they each tried in his or her own way to quantify the elements that comprise great folk music.

Songwriting legend Steve Seskind explained to his attendees that songs lack power if the writer can’t answer the basic questions of who is talking, whom are they talking to and why? Author and respected songwriting teacher and coach Pat Pattison encouraged the use of metaphor to add power to a song. Further down the meadow, Folks Fest favorite Ellis was sharing her insights. She explained that being successful in the folk music world means first and foremost staying true to who you are and having a clear picture of what your music gives to others. And back at the Wildflower Pavilion, Maggie Simpson was encouraging a room full of attendees to get in touch with their own wide range of emotions in order to better enhance their expressive authenticity. All great points.

At another tent, Michael Bowers, who in addition to being a singer/songwriter is also a practicing therapist, made an interesting, big-picture observation. In trying to contrast great songwriting with something less, he used the metaphor of nomads and pilgrims, noting that while both may travel, the nomads travel simply to get to another place, whereas for pilgrims, the traveling is the destination. It makes sense.

A nomad may play and sing well, but five minutes after the music stops we’re hungry again because nothing sticks. Only the pilgrims of the stage have that ability to share their observations in such a way that we see our own reflection in their words. It made me wonder if only the pilgrims in the audience could hear the difference.

Over by the river, Nate Borofsky of the group Girlyman was happy to offer his two cents on the subject. He told me that “the music goes to a place where your head can’t go and gives you something that you can relate to. And then anything can happen, like suddenly, you realize you’re not living the life you always wanted to.” Then he added, “As a performer, I like not having to pretend I’m anything I’m not. And I know when I’m having fun, when I’m relaxed, that’s when I get the best results. That’s when I can look out and know I’m making that connection.”

Nate Borofsky of Girlyman takes a time out along the river.

Authenticity, it seemed, was becoming a recurring theme.

As I made my way toward the tent where singer/ songwriter Mary Gauthier was speaking, it sounded more like she was holding a revival than teaching songwriting. “Don’t tell me you’re against the war,” she implored. “Tell me what it’s like to be a kid so poor that he had to join the Army and now he has to kill someone that he doesn’t even know or dislike. Writing is hard work. I end up in the fetal position begging God for that one word, one word, because I know no other word will do.”

Gauthier writes about the hard edges of life, like being young and living with HIV or being an alcoholic who grew up not knowing who her parents were. Autobiographic? She would say yes, in the sense that we all share the same stories.

Pinching the skin on her arm, she says, “This is a shell. It only lasts a little while. Beneath it, all of us are mostly the same. The difference between me and a gay guy dying of AIDS is about as much as a human hair. So I can write about it, but it’s really about every one of us. We act like we’re so different, but a young boy dying of AIDS may be the little child of a tea party couple. We are all 99.999 percent the same.”

After listening to a song by one of the school’s attendees, Gauthier asks the young woman whom her song is about. She answers that it’s about herself. Gauthier, shaking her head says, “You think your song’s about you. It’s not. It’s about everyone listening. We suffer the same pains. That’s why the music brings us all together. It pulls us back into the human race.” In Gauthier’s world, the differences that we spend so much of our time defining and arguing over are really only a façade covering our true commonality. And she clearly believes that great folk music reaches beyond the façade.

When describing her own process of writing, Gauthier calls upon her background as a chef. “It’s like making demi-glace,” she says. It’s a reference to the rich sauce known for its time-consuming process wherein a lot of bones and wine go into a big pot, where they are eventually boiled for hours, finally being reduced down to the final, delicious end product. It’s a lot of work for a small portion, but in the end it’s worth it. She says, “We [songwriters] come from a place of giving a gift. We write, then offer our work as a gift. It’s all we can do.”

Attendees (from left) Bylo Farmer, Angie Holley; Anne Byrne, C.J. Smith, Julie Caron, Terry Bloss and Patty Jackson

These are a few of the observations of the teachers, those proven folk commodities whose music has been finding its way into our lives for years. But that’s only half the story.

What is it that can be gleaned from those 180-plus song-school attendees whose ages range from 11 to almost 80? What is it about the music that has pulled them to this place, year after year for many of them?

Certain themes emerged again and again as I asked my same question, “What is it that makes folk music such a powerful force for so many people?”

“Community, acceptance, supportive, loving, sincere” were the words most often offered, and that was true of nearly every attendee.

Even 11-year-old local prodigy Bella Betts, who was the youngest attendee this year, described her sense of the song school and folk music in these same terms, noting that, “I’ve always been accepted and encouraged by this community.”

Attendee Patty Jackson, who plays in the band Somethin’ About Lulu, has been coming to the song school for 10 years. When asked why, she says simply, “I found my people.” The statement draws agreement from all those sitting around the dinner table, including Jackson’s bandmates Angie Holley, who is in her fifth year at the school, and Bylo Farmer, who is in her sixth.

The concepts of support and encouragement are seemingly always on display at the school. Over dinner, Anne Byrne, a seven-year attendee, tells how she had the chance to sing one of her songs for iconic folk singer Holly Near earlier in the day. It is as if every one of the eight people at the table had shared in the experience. And such a sense of support and empathy extends to the more difficult issues of life as well.

Julie Caron is attending for the sixth time. She came out of need. She lost her father at age 13, and at that time she fooled around a bit with writing a song but never finished it. Then at 33, her mom died. She doesn’t know why, but having lost her last parent caused her to once again desire to write a song, or maybe more accurately, to need to write a song. So without knowing a soul, she headed out to song school. Her first day she sat down in a directed-writing class and finally wrote the song that let her begin to deal with her grief. It had taken 20 years to get the words out. It was also that day that she met Bylo and Patty, and she has been creating music ever since. She came for a song and found a community. She says, “Writing songs has healed a lot of things for me.” She’s not the only one.

Open stage at The Song School

Terry Bloss is also at the table. It’s his first year at song school, and he, too, came for support and community. Terry lost his wife of 44 years a few months back after a long struggle with her health. His story speaks volumes to the power of this music for everyman.

He says, “After I lost my wife, this became my therapy. I hadn’t picked up my guitar in years. I don’t know how long it had been. I needed something to help me express myself. I’m not a really expressive person, but the music helped me get things out. I hadn’t been out around people in recent years. I’d just been taking care of my wife. She was on a respirator for the last three years. We finally scheduled the day to take her off. It was hard, but she died the day before. I just thought it would be a good idea to come out here.”

Terry wrote a song titled “Looking for a Girl in Wichita Falls.” It’s where he met his wife. I didn’t get to hear it, but I’m guessing it would have been a powerful experience.

Community, acceptance, supportive, loving, sincere — add therapeutic to the list.

So did I find the source of folk music’s power to grip and even transform our lives? I did, but I’m no more capable of defining it now than I was before. It’s part craft and partly defined by how we perceive our own journey, pilgrim or nomad. It has power because it connects with us beneath our façades in that place where our heads can’t go, that place where we are mostly all the same. I can’t say how, but it has the ability to heal us, to end wars, to make us realign our lives when we have lost our way. Perhaps Mary Gauthier said it most succinctly when I asked her to describe the power of folk music.

“The truth is the truth,” she said. “The truth is the truth.”

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