Thursday, September 24, 2015


SongFarmer ...

It's a great word. Much better than "folksinger" or songwriter or performer. It is a poetic way to describe someone who uses their music to plant artistic seeds in their communities, their families, their careers.

We call the members of the WFPA "SongFarmers."

Here's why:

When I was creating the WoodSongs Front Porch Association (WFPA) I was trying to provide an alternative to other great efforts like the Folk Alliance, the IBMA or the Americana Music Association. These are music business trade groups that try to help musicians, record labels and agents connect to enhance the artist's careers. The WFPA doesn't complete in any way with those very fine folks. Heck, I'm a member.

Problem is, if I can speak plainly here without sounding like I'm pointing fingers ... there is no music "business" anymore. Not for the tens of thousands of small artists playing at farmers markets, retirement homes, small noisy clubs, schools and front porches across the land. Records stores are essentially gone. Record labels rarely sign artists, if they exist anymore at all. Booking agents don't take on many new artists because so many venues have shut down they can hardly keep the artists they have working no less a new act.

Small, talented, sincere songwriters, performers and artists are then asked to pay for association memberships, conference fees, travel, hotels and meals ... often $1000 or more total ... to attend a trade organization event where they, if they are lucky, end up showcasing in front of other anxious artists who wish they had your time slot. And instead of being helped to understand what to do with a garage full of unsold CDs in a world with no more record stores, you might be treated to a two hour speech that have nothing to do with music or the issues at hand.

To a SongFarmer, the front porch is as an important a stage as a concert hall. Their banjo is a community plow, their songs are like seeds, their guitar is a hammer and saw. Music is an issue of the heart, not their wallet. They don't make fans, they make friends.

With the WFPA I wanted a new way to reach out to artists in a way that will REALLY help them, REALLY explain the new music world, REALLY point to a brand new direction for their music and careers. I wanted the WFPA to be very cheap (just $25 a year) And to attend our yearly conference, called The Gathering, they get to come FREE. The WFPA needs to be very effective and have a solid, realistic goal.

And indeed it does. Not only does the WFPA offer realistic help to the community of SongFarmers, but we are sending roots music into thousands of schools and home school families with lesson plans. All for Free.

And before all you finger-waggers get started, I'm not putting down the FA, IBMA or AMA. I don't think they are lying to anyone. I do, however, think they are lost in an old business model that no longer exists.

Heck, new cars don't even have CD players in them anymore. The music world is upside down and inside out. Who would have guessed just five years ago that today one of the biggest retailers of CDs in America would end up being a restaurant chain? And, no, it's not Starbucks ...

Artists need to have a brand new outlook on music. They have to have a truthful, painful look at what is really happening out there. They need a spectacular new direction for their music. And they HAVE to learn, as brutal as it may seem at first, how FREE works.

So, this weekend, we will have our first WoodSongs Gathering, a music festival and member conference of the WFPA. We call our members SongFarmers, and it will be at the amazing log cabin village of the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville, TN. We have a spectacular creative board like Art Menius, Kari Estrin, Josh Dunson, Raymond McLain, Doug Oines, Steve Martin (IBMA) Reggie Harris and others helping guide the event, the members and intent of the WFPA. It's the real deal.

SongFarmers are taught the most important rule of the new music world: LOVE is the most important transaction of the arts. It isn't marketing, management, what record label you're on or who your investor is. All of that is irrelevant without LOVE. "Love" makes the world of art work. Think of it millions of people spent a billion dollars on an album, not because it said RCA ... it's because they LOVED Elvis. It's love that makes the audience buy a CD, buy a concert ticket, buy a T-Shirt.

Nashville has virtually lost it's entire music middle class because the bean counters focused on marketing and money ... not love. The only thing ... THE ONLY THING ... the audience responds to is their love for a song, love for an artist, love for an idea.

SongFarmers learn to direct that love in a way that does not focus on money. They focus on their families, their hometowns, their audiences. SongFarmers resurrect the emotional front porch in everyone who hears them.

Just about a year ago, I performed a concert in Winnsboro Texas and two wonderful songwriter friends opened the show, Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne and they gave me a little bumper sticker that proclaimed their lakeside cabin home in Texas an "organic song farm." That little sticker sat on my desk for months and then one day, as I was organizing the WoodSongs Front Porch Association it occurred to me that "song farming" is exactly what we are trying to do. Our members would be called SongFarmers.

I called them up and said would you mind if we stole your word? lol. They said, go ahead, we stole it from someone else. It was so Woody Guthrie:

"Aw he just stole from me. But I steal from everybody. Why, I'm the biggest song stealer there ever was."

I think Woody was a SongFarmer. So was Jean Ritchie and Pete Seeger. So is Rik Palieri, Raymond McLain and most of the music world filled with artists who love playing more than anything else.

So join the WFPA.
Become a SongFarmer.
Change your thinking about the music business for the better.
And see the amazing work our members are doing.

Visit or SongFarmers.organd come to the WoodSongs Gathering Sept 25 and 26 at the Museum of Appalachia exit 122 off I-75 ... sing with new friends among the autumn leaves near Knoxville TN.

Michael Johnathon
Folksinger - SongFarmer

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Don McLean, American Pie and the $1.2M sale of the song lyrics

A long, long 
time ago ...

... a young teenage boy, struggling with events of the day and a relationship with his father, found solice in the music of Buddy Holly. Delivering newspapers for his hometown paper, the Standard Star, he cut open the string holding a stack together. As the papers spilled over he saw, in the right hand column, the headline of his hero dying in a tragic plane crash.

Buddy Holly was only 22 years old.

Years later, as he began his fledgling folk music career, he was living in a quaint, small gate house in Cold Spring, NY. It was there he began sketching out the musical ideas for an epic journey through his own past and into America's future. But it didn't all happen right away. Two months after dabbling with some lyrics, a chorus appeared, almost out of nowhere:

Bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
Them good ol' boys are drinking whiskey and rye
singing 'this'll be the day that I die,
this'll be the day that I die ..."

As the thunder of the song grew louder, Don found himself performing in more cities. He already had one record out and it was time to record his  next. As he was preparing for his second album session, the record label folded and he lost his deal. Believing all will eventually work out, he kept on writing songs for this next album. Then, while in Philadelphia, lightening struck ...

... one of the final songs for this new album was the completion of the song he started in Gate house in Cold Spring: American Pie.

It was an epic rock'n'roll, folk song history lesson that was as much literature as it was music ... and it was over 8-minutes long.

Six weeks at #1, several world tours and many decades later, the news hit this week that Don decided to sell, not the "song," but the original 16 pages of lyrics and notes to American Pie ... and somebody bid an astounding $1.2 million dollars for the honor.

Since then, I've read a couple of critical stories about Don's decision to sell, most offensive was an article in the Washington Post by Justin Moyer. It was uncalled for,  no matter how well meaning he might be as a fellow writer. Heck, the headline referred to Don as "gloomy."

Dude, he just scored $1.2 million bucks. How "gloomy" could he be?

To Justin and any other critic of what any artist does with their property: please be more respectful. I'm sure you're a nice fellow and just trying to be interesting. But you are criticizing someone who has achieved an unbelievable accomplishment. They created something of value far beyond anything you can dream of or do yourself. Why do people feel they need to put down anyone for doing what they themselves can not?

Don McLean owns American Pie. He is the artist who created it. The man has a wife, home and children he wants to take care of and secure their future. I wonder what creation of value Justin Moyer or any other critic has that would come within a tenth of America Pie's value?

American Pie was born out of great heartache and loss, it's birth was staggered and painful. It is viewed as one of the most important songs of the 20th century and deservedly so. If Don chooses to sell the pieces of paper the ding-dang thing was written on, all power to him. He is the envy of every songwriter.

And most of America, while singing American Pie, will never know who Justin Moyer is.

Don McLean did more than the right thing.
He did the thing that was his right to do.
'nuff said.

To all the critics out there, I want to paraphrase Finnish composer Johan Sibelius:

 "Fear not the words of a critic; 
for no one has ever erected a statue in honor of one ..."

Folk on, 


Saturday, March 07, 2015

Selma, Seeger and a Song

SELMA 50 years ago. 

I think it is great that President Obama is speaking at the Selma bridge today. That is not a political view, but a human one. Fifty years ago, those marching over that bridge, those who embraced that struggle, would never ... NEVER ... have dreamed such a day as today was possible.

What will often go unnoticed was the banjo player marching along with Dr. King that day. Pete Seeger heard the song WE SHALL OVER COME at the Highlander Folk School and taught it to Dr. King, who in turn began having it sung at rallies. It was sung at Selma as the marchers were beaten and hosed down on that bridge. And it was sung by millions as the struggle for equal rights continued. It's been sung in schools and festivals and front porches around the world.

It was never a hit song. It was never on the charts. It was never on MTV. It was simply good.

I don't think we have "equal rights" today. We are more equal-er than we were, but still there is more to do. I don't personally believe the human race is in the emotional or spiritual shape to embrace that kind of freedom. 

Someday. But not today.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Chris Thile subs for Garrison Keillor on APHC

"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." - Garrison Keillor

As we come up on WoodSongs 800th broadcast I can get a small idea of why Garrison Keillor would want to take a break, step back and listen to A Prairie Home Companion like any fan would ... sitting at home with the radio on while doing other things.

It gives you a whole new perspective of what, why and how you are doing something. Sometimes, your brain needs a ding dang break from doing something so well for so long. Garrison is the king and he deserves it.

And what better sub-host could he pick than Chris Thile? Chris has been on WoodSongs nine times in various musical incarnations. He's creative, personable, fun, happy and fearless. And APHC is about the art form, not the ratings. Because of that, they have great ratings because good art is all this audience cares about. Having  a seasoned "pro" host wouldn't serve the art form as well as having a genuine, respected artist at the helm like Chris. Garrison has done his fans and his show well. And I hope everyone tunes in, it will be a special night indeed.

I'll probably add more to this later. For now, I'm getting ready to relax and tune in A Prairie Home Companion with the wifey and the twins here at the log cabin.

We'll be listening while doing other things, too :)


So the weekend has past and we are getting ready for a WoodSongs broadcast tonight. I got to listen to most of the first hour of Chris Thile's premier as guest host ... and then the last 15 minutes or so.

Chris did a great job. Actually, he did a fantastic job. He was fun, he sounded relaxed. The music was impeccable as expected, Sarah sang like an angel ( I liked the jokes about their last names), the poet was entertaining and brilliant. Garrison's staff did a bang-up job helping Chris navigate from segment to segment ... and the guy ended exactly on time.

I think Garrison picked well asking Chris to to guest host. I understand Garrison called Thile and left a message on his cell phone about it. Considering Chris' touring schedule, Garrison got lucky.

I'm not a big fan of critics. These are folks who are often incapable of doing what they are criticizing who are given a media forum to tear down. Or build up. And I'm sure somewhere out there a reviewer will have something harsh to say. No one is ever 100% approved by the media, no matter how great or sincere.

But Chris reached well beyond his comfort zone. Garrison entrusted his legacy and years of creative sweat and placed them all on a "rookies" shoulders.

Bottom of the ninth. Based loaded. Mandolin player at bat.
Grand slam.

'nuff said.