Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Love

I had a friend ... smart, musical, artistic, brutally intelligent, gentle, healthy, married to a man who adored her, young at 41. She went to St Johns for a vacation this past weekend, a place she loved to visit with her husband and friends, and looking over the sands and the ocean the after her birthday on Saturday ... and succumbing to the aching sadness she hid deep inside her heart, she killed herself.

And she's gone.

It occurred to me how precious the commodity of Love is. And Time. It's a priceless currency we often spend unwisely and wasted without even realizing it. I think Love should become important again. We must look at others though a kinder prism accepting imperfection and realizing that, often those who carry themselves with confidence and beauty, are most often hiding a great pain we can not see.

I will miss the scathing banter over songs with my friend and wish her family well.


Perhaps we all need to revisit this idea of Love especially as the music business collapses around us.  Years ago, folks gathered on the their front porches and livings rooms to sing and play together. It helped them love each other, know each other, enjoy time with each other. People played for free because they loved it ... folks listened for free because the loved it. After air conditioning and TV was invented, we retreated into a community-endorsed silence, waiting for the commercial before we dare interrupt.

About that time, business-y people figured out how to sell vibrating air on plastic discs with holes in it, and the Star system was invented as a way to sell as many of these discs as possible. The idea was to separate you from your front porch ... your own music ... as far as possible so that you can be sold on the insane idea that only the "star" was truly qualified to make good music.

What a bunch of ding-danged baloney.

WoodSongs was created as a test of this Love. It is the currency we spend with passion. The crew works for free. I work for free. The artists are not paid. Local hotels put them up for free and local restaurants donate meals. The show goes from to radio, free to public television and free to American Forces Radio.

More can be accomplished in life when fueled by passion than by payment. Love is the most powerful currency in history. It's time for artists to re-embrace this idea, to love their music and their audiences and not be so concerned with money. Bean counters ruined the music industry. Passionate visionaries with bring life back into it.

But only if we notice. Love makes us listen more than speak. I wish I had noticed the pain my friend was in. I wish I knew that she needed more people to listen to her. I can't imagine how hard this is for her husband and family, they must feel the same but amplified a thousand times more than me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Pete

Been having a lot of thoughts about Pete's passing. Expected but never expected, you know? It's taken me a few days to let it all settle in, but here it goes:

Pete was my musical template and career exemplar, as he was to many. He was our our wood chopping, maple syrup making, protest singing, banjo playing, ship building, song writing, book authoring, album making, concert performing, boat sailing and community involvement friend. 

He was America's connection to its own musical legacy. He traveled with Woody Guthrie, archived America's music with John Lomax, helped introduce Dylan and Joan Baez to the world and introduced Martin Luther King to a reworded old song called "We Shall Overcome." He sang in Madison Square Garden, concert halls around the world and grammar schools. He would think of nothing, even at 94 years old, to grab his banjo and stand on a cold street corner with protesters for any cause he agreed with.


Pete was banned from American television because of his stand on free speech and affiliations. So in the 1960s he and his wife Toshi took their meager savings ... even famous folkies don't make much ... and convinced a New Jersey PBS stations to let him try out a TV series called Rainbow Quest. Pete would sit around a picnic table, play a song with one of his friends like Doc Watson or Ralph Stanley, then chat a while. Then play another song. I added a live audience to his idea and it became WoodSongs.

He had some defined habits ... he preferred to respond to folks letters on small, reused pieces of paper or a post card. He would draw a little banjo next to his name, a tribute to his wife's Japanese heritage. He would also glue a small oak or maple leaf to his letters and cards, "my connection to the earth" he would claim. 


Then of course there was that statement he scrolled on his famous banjo. 

Pete had this habit of lifting his head upward when he sang. It's an iconic photo of him, chin raised high and urging the audience to sing. That habit put so much pressure on his vocal chords that, as he aged, his voice began to leave him and made it hard for him to sing at all.

I first encountered Pete at the old Grand Union grocery store in Beacon NY. I knew of this neighbor, we all though he was nuts. Anytime there was a thunderstorm this old guy who claimed to be a musician but played the banjo would show up at our school with an ax ... an AX .. and chop up the fallen limbs. After high school a friend invited me to travel to Laredo Texas and try being a DJ on KLAR AM. They gave me the 12-6am time slot, that's where they stick you when you really suck. One night it was time to play an oldies song so I by chance pulled "Turn, Turn, Turn" by The Byrds off the shelf. As it played I looked at the song information and noticed it was written by my crazy neighbor. 

"Ohhhhh," says I. "That's who Pete Seeger is."

Right now there are many misguided efforts to "honor" him. Some want to change the name of the Hudson River to the Seeger River. Pete would rise from the grave and whack those folks over the head with his banjo on that one. Others want to rename a bridge in NYC after him. Same reaction, no doubt. Other are already laying claim to who will carry his torch or who his so called heir-apparent might be. He deserved to own his legacy without others handing it off or even suggesting someone comes close to his passion, music and work. No one does. So let's stop. He deserves better than those with no stage creating a stage by clamoring to rename the Hudson River or a NYC bridge in his "honor." It may be well intentioned but god-awful disgraceful at best. 
 

I'm sure everyone misses Pete and express these ideas with good intentions. If you really want to honor Pete, go sing a free concert in a school. Pick up trash along your neighbors yard. Gather your friends for a front porch sing along. Organize a music festival in a pumpkin patch for a good cause. Volunteer at a homeless shelter and bring your banjo for an after supper sing.

My thought: I think his eyes would twinkle to have have a sloop with his name on it, the Pete sailing alongside the Woody on the Hudson River he loved. Or to rename the park in Beacon where the Beacon Sloop Club stands the Pete & Toshi Memorial Gardens. 

One of his greatest regrets as he grew older was not spending enough time during his younger years with his wife. She gave up many of her own dreams and wants to support his. "I was just being a good wife," she would tell me. Not many of those around, I would respond. All of Pete's envelopes were return addressed to "Pete & Toshi Seeger" and he was always thrilled to tell her that some reviewer or artist was including her by name in something.

Gonna miss that fellow. A lot. I just got a note from him two days before he passed ... can you believe that? Pete was so proud he made it to 94, he missed his wife Toshi.

Folk on and on,
mj  

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Kevin "Darth Fader" Johnson

   
It was a sunny autumn day ...


My friend Kevin Johnson was a big and friendly man, very round in spirit and girth. He had a heart as big as the great outdoors and a body to put it in. Kevin had a big smile, a big handshake, a big voice and had a knowledgeable laugh that had the patina of wisdom embedded in it.

Kevin knew a lot about recording and sound. We worked together often. I would demo my songs and recorded a couple albums with Kevin. He had a little recording studio at the time called Planet III, nestled in a garden right behind a little cafe. I had this idea of a radio show and wanted to run it by him. So, on this sunny autumn day I rang him up, met him at the Denny's on Nicholasville Road and told him what I had in mind.

"You're crazy, you know that," was his response. "Everybody else will think you're crazy, too."

Then he blinked a few seconds and said, "I'm in."

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "One of the blessings of good friends is that you can afford to be crazy with them."

So on that sunny autumn day we decided to be crazy, and thus was the birth of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. And, like he did with so many of his friends, he committed himself to it and donated the use of his little studio on Monday evenings so we can start producing this volunteer run show.

Let me be clear: Kevin was the best audio engineer in the state of Kentucky. Because of his size and booming voice I would joke to him about sounding like Darth Vader on STAR WARS. I watched him sit behind his audio board, moving the channel faders up and down and, soon enough, we had his nickname set for life: Darth Fader.

He loved that goofy name.

And show by show, week by week, artist by artist he proved he was the best. Famous musicians like Judy Collins, Exile, Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kenny Loggins, Neko Case and Brandi Carlile trusted his ear. New artists that no one ever heard of came on the show and bowed to Kevin's knowledge to make then sound good. Unknowns at the time like Nickel Creek, Jake Shimabukuro, The Kruger Brothers, Avett Brothers, Tommy Emmanuel, JJ Grey, and our friend Ben Sollee who came to WoodSongs as a scrappy, excited skinny 17 year old kid whose cello was almost as big as he was.

Wherever I was performing around the country on Sunday I would be back in Lexington on Monday for WoodSongs ... Kevin "Darth Fader" Johnson was always there, too.

Kevin volunteered his time, his Mondays, his heart and his wisdom to make WoodSongs grow and he was so proud of it. For over 700 shows Kevin's booming voice could be heard in the Kentucky Theatre and now the Lyric. His health and size didn't always allow him to celebrate the growth of the show but when WoodSongs went to Ireland this summer Kevin burst with pride for the one's he personally trained ... Bryan Klausing, Brandon Eaves and Jerome "Cyber Boy" Gallt who ran the broadcast in his place. Kevin was very proud of his friends on the WoodSongs crew.

I have learned over the years that people work harder out of passion than they do payment. And Kevin was a very passionate man. Loyal. Committed. Involved. I have also learned that a close sister to passion is stubbornness.

Kevin was, in fact, one of the most stubborn fellows I knew.

But "stubbornness" is the corner stone of "loyalty," so my friend was one of the most honest and loyal men I knew as well.

As a technical engineer he was brilliant and, like many engineers, long winded and totally incapable of a simple answer. "Kevin, can I plug this in" would be the question. "What kind of plug? Is it grounded? Is the cable shielded? How many cycles is the power source? Is it a clean line?" would be his response always ending with the same comment,  

"It's not that simple."

Well, dude, I just want to plug the ding-dang thing in, says I.

Kevin Johnson was my friend, my brother, musical partner. He was my chief critic, number one nemesis, shelter-in-the-storm and most dependable companion.

It was also a sunny autumn day on Monday, September 30th. It was 4 in the afternoon and I arrived at the Lyric Theatre, looking forward to seeing my big round friend walk down the aisle. He struggled so hard with his health this past year and we talked often about it. And after years of effort and disappointment, he was finally turning it around. He lost nearly 150 pounds this year. He looked better. He sounded better. His mood was tempered by the fact that he was finally feeling good.

He did it because he loved his son Taylor and wanted to set the right example. How proud he was of his boy and Kevin beamed with pride when Taylor came with him to WoodSongs just a couple Mondays ago.

For over 732 shows Kevin was the silent pilot behind the board allowing the world to listen to what WoodSongs had to offer.

But on that one sunny autumn day he didn't walk down the isle of the Lyric Theatre as expected. Instead, I got a call from the Fire Marshal telling me that my dear friend was gone. Kevin's big heart ended its' journey on that sunny autumn afternoon.

To his dad Harry, his mom Peggy and especially his son Taylor ... he loved you all so much. And in turn you have so much to be proud of with Kevin.

Words do not come with ease right now. The world is so much smaller than it was a few days ago and words will not fill the silence that has fallen over everything at the moment. This week the show he helped start and nurture since day one, Kevin's friends and fellow crew members filled the theatre with applause in his honor ... and the audience gave you a standing ovation. You deserved it.

Emerson also wrote: "The only way to have a friend is to be one."

I believe life exists in the confidence there is a tomorrow ... and in the regret that we often miscalculate that. I hope I was as loyal and good a friend to you as you were to me.

This is a nice autumn day as I write this and I miss my friend. I will miss you always.

And yes, Kevin ... it's "that simple."

Michael Johnathon
michael@woodsongs.com
friend





DONATIONS NEEDED: our friend was rich in friends but poor in material things. Donations are needed to help pay for Kevin's funeral and, most especially, to set up a fund for his son Taylor. Can you kick in $5, $10 or more to help? In an age of dishonesty, I can understand hesitance so I am letting you all know that I am donating $150 because I know his situation to be true. Starting tomorrow morning please make a secure, easy donation to the KEVIN JOHNSON MEMORIAL FUND in person or by mail c/o Bank of Lexington, 761 Corporate Dr. Lexington, KY 40503 or call (859) 219-2900

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Toshi & Pete

It took me a day to reflect before I could post this. 

Yesterday TOSHI SEEGER, wife and companion of Pete Seeger, passed away.

She was at his side through every song, every trial, every book, every project ... every log he chopped and every child he fathered ... she was there. She was an eye witness to American music history. She knew Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson and Leadbelly. She marched with Martin Luther King. She heard Bob Dylan perform for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival and she was there when he turned electric. She sat in her kitchen cutting vegetables while Pete and some friends mused about how neat it would be to build a big wooden sloop that would sail the Hudson and bring people to its shore and help clean the river up. And while others rolled their eyes and scoffed, Toshi helped Pete organize the benefits it would take to raise the money and actually build the Clearwater.


And she was there when it sailed for the first time.

Toshi was an artist at heart but her life with Pete turned her into a manager, organizer, visionary, motivator and champion. And she worked hard at it. She navigated the oddities of Pete's thought process and the personalities of his friends. Artists are indeed an odd lot at times.  You have to be gentle and tough at the same time. Joan Baez said it best, to be married to Pete Seeger a woman would have to be a saint ... and Toshi ain't no saint :)

Even married to arguably the biggest folk icon on the planet, Toshi was a humble worker. Instead of taking her position of importance as the queen of Pete's world, Toshi would most likely be seen under a tent in the heat of summer cooking strawberry shortcake in a wood oven and serving it to folks during the Clearwater Sloop Festival.

And there's more ... Back in the 1960's Pete had this idea that going on TV would be a good thing. After all, he was blacklisted by virtually every network. So, might as well have your own TV show. He called up a small public television station in New Jersey, got himself a couple chairs and a picnic table and started his own little series called "Rainbow Quest." He would sing a song then invite his friends like Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie and others to sit around the table, chat a bit and share some songs. (Later on, I would steal the idea with Pete's blessing, add an audience of 500 people every week and called the thing "WoodSongs") Surely, Pete had some far flung ideas before, but this one was different. It took virtually all their savings to pull off, they never found a sponsor and the show folded after a short time.

Through it all, Toshi supported, managed, promoted, stood by and plunged forward on behalf of her husband. Today, Rainbow Quest is a genuine archive of America's finest folk artists of that era.

But don't get the wrong idea, Toshi had herself a spine of steel. I remember sitting in their home one evening in Beacon, their home along the beloved Hudson River. In the kitchen was a big bowl full of salad, in the air cosmic conversation and a couple of banjos being passed around. As we were leaving later that evening Pete got up and started washing the dishes. Toshi looked at him, sighed and said, "You can stop that now, they're leaving."

She was always blunt, to the point. Never shy about cutting trough Pete's veneer but loyal to the bone none-the-less. I liked her. I admired her. I wished I had someone just like that supporting me. 

When I wrote my first book, it was Toshi and Pete that did most of the content editing and fact checking.  When she read something she didn't like, I surely did hear about it. I saved the manuscript with all their scribbles on it and followed all their advice. I could see then what a powerful force Pete had behind him. I could tell she was part of the history he made, a big part.

And so I wrote a song about her in the Woody Guthrie opera.

Toshi had been sick the past few years, Pete's health surpassing hers as time rolled on. Last time I talked with Pete, we were on the phone for nearly two hours and the American Masters PBS special was brought up. I told Pete one of the things I liked abut it was the attention it gave to Toshi and how nice it was to see him doting on her. Pete called out to Toshi and said, "Michael liked the American Masters film because of how nice it reflected on you!" Toshi grabbed the phone from Pete and said, "I was just being a good wife ..." and then handed the phone back to him.


Classic Toshi.

To place it in a single sentence, there would be no Pete Seeger had there not been a Toshi. I wonder what it is like for Pete to lose this friend of so many years. I wonder what it is like to watch your soul mate wither with age and leave. I wonder what it's like the next morning to wake and realize she is gone, the space in the bed next to you is empty.  The dress she wore, the little items she loved on the book shelf and the children who reflect her life in their eyes are without her spirit and touch. I'm sure, like any couple married for so long, they wondered about this moment. They talked about it, thought about it. Dreaded it. Wondering who would leave first and what it would be like.

And the clock ticked, and the days rolled by and the earth spinned 'round and the moment came. And now it's done.

"To everything, Turn, Turn Turn ... there is a season, Turn Turn Turn ..."

And such is time. Such is life.

mj