“Rick, Lisa, John, Liz.”
“Rick, Lisa, John, Liz.”
“Rick, Lisa, John, Liz.”
This is my mantra as I take a moonlit walk around the neighborhood surrounding The Vintage Church in Lawrence, Kansas. I am not in some magical, faraway city like Amsterdam, preparing to go on stage at the magnificent Carre Theatre to support John Hiatt. That is the past. Tonight, I will sing to a handful of people in a church on a quiet Monday evening. The crowd will be smaller than usual because, well, it is a folk show, and also there is a basketball game involving the local university taking place simultaneously. No matter to me, for I am a dedicated part of the folk music community. The competition of sports or bigger shows has always been part of the job. I have heard all of the reasons why an audience might be smaller on any given night. It is and always has been out of my control. The audience will be mostly older people gathering. The only young people at this show will have been brought here by their parents, who are perhaps aspiring folk musicians themselves.
“Rick, Lisa, John, Liz.”
These are the four names I need to memorize in order to be respectful and also to make my night go smoother. I have a decent amount of adult attention deficit disorder and perhaps a touch of obsessive compulsion in regards to pleasing others. Rick is Richard Frydman and Lisa Harris Frydman is his wife. They are my hosts for this evening. They live in a beautiful cottage house down the street from The Vintage Church and are also musicians. Rick is an attorney, and also the descendant of Holocaust survivors. His Grandmother perished in Poland. Lisa had a fiddle class earlier in the afternoon. John is John Flynn, the sound technician for this evening's concert, and also a pastor in the church, and also, as it turned out, an avid fly fisherman. Liz Barnez is a folk singer from Fort Collins, Colorado. Her and I just spent the last week in nearby Kansas City as part of the Folk Alliance International conference, where hundreds of songwriters gather and perform in various hotel rooms for house concerts and folk festival presenters who are looking for talent. After the show tonight she will begin her long drive back to Fort Collins, where she lives with her wife.
“Rick, Lisa, John, Liz”
I say their names over and over again as I walk the streets of Lawrence, mostly to be polite, but also because I am a space cadet that is incapable of remembering people’s names most of the time. I have met Rick and Lisa before, and even sat with them in the audience at Woodyfest in Okemah, Oklahoma, but I only have a vague memory of this as I have spent the last thirty years rambling around the world playing shows and meeting people. It’s not uncommon that someone in my job would have difficulty maintaining all of these memories. It is astonishing to me how easily I forget the names and faces of people that have been very kind and supported me along the way. It can be embarrassing at times and I try my best to get it together so that it doesn’t get uncomfortable. These friends have opened up their home to me, and I will share meals and stories with them.
In my case, there has been a lot of socializing over the years, and a fair bit of drugs and alcohol, although those days of over indulging in vices are thankfully behind me. What is also behind me are the opportunities I had as a young troubadour that had the music business machine staunchly behind him. I was offered quite a few amazing things along the way, and I promptly underperformed. I simply did not sell enough records to keep that machine behind me. Today, I am part of the folk masses, and quite grateful that I can play and sing at all, for the years have caught up with me and I do not bounce back as quickly from sitting in a car for hours on end like I used to. I am better at my craft of performing today than when I was in my twenties. I was not emotionally or mentally prepared whatsoever for the opportunities that came my way back then. Luckily for me, I studied folk music, storytelling, and songwriting, rather than heavy metal showmanship or electronic dance music, so the older or more experienced one gets, the more believable it becomes for both the performer and the audience. You get to grow into a career that can sustain you for a lifetime.
There is no way I am going to remember the names of every person I meet in every town. Oftentimes I am the goldfish in the bowl, swimming to the other side and seeing something new each time. There have been a lot of meals with a lot of promoters or handlers or drivers and such over the years. It takes more than a village to keep a troubadour on the road, and I try to remember to be grateful for all those who make my traveling life the best it can be, or even possible at all. We are all on the same river, trying to get down stream. The river metaphor is a constant in my life, for it is where we meet those who we get along with, and those we might not get along with at first, but then begin to when we realize we are more or less in the same boat.
The Vintage Church is a lovely venue, and also an active church, and it will be the second church I have played in the last month. Just a few weeks ago I was performing in Auburn, Alabama at the Sundilla House Concert Series, which takes place in an active Unitarian Fellowship church that was built by freed slaves. Both of these churches are of the non-denominational variety or Unitarian variety which goes way to the work of the Revolutionary Transcendentalist Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in the house on the land where the American Revolution started in Concord, Massachusetts, another town I passed through recently to perform at a house show in Maine. Emerson also donated land to his friend, the poet and writer Henry David Thoreau, who built a little cabin next to a pond called Walden. Thoreau famously lived out there for a few years, refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery, and was thrown in jail where he wrote "Civil Disobedience."
Both of these church gigs took place en route to or from an important gathering of songwriters where creativity and commerce come together and one tries to expand their career. All of these things relate to me as a folksinger just trying to get by in this world, for it is clear to me that equality is something that one sector of the population cares about more than the other.
I make a decent living, but it seems to be a constant hustle for me to just make ends meet. I don't believe I should be paid more for what I do, but It feels like I am always right on the edge and need to be working several months ahead just to keep earning. I know several troubadour types who are not household names that earn twice as much as I do, and many who have side jobs to help pay the bills. Rick Frydman and I will discuss doing this same gig again next year, or perhaps even running a small songwriters workshop in Lawrence. Having just attended Folk Alliance, the networking muscle is fully flexed and I am still trying to deepen the connections I have with interesting artistic communities like the one you find in Lawrence, Kansas.
I had arrived in Lawrence just a few hours before soundcheck time, and had already visited their amazing library where I noticed that David Lowery was going to speak on Thursday. He is another musician from my past as my college band opened for his band years ago. Now he teaches music business at the University of Georgia and his speaking gig is at the library and I am performing at a church.
As North American artists, we all know that the writer William Burroughs spent his last years in Lawrence. He was visited there by rock stars (Kurt Cobain) and songwriters (Steve Earle) and the like. I hesitate to glorify a heroin addict who shot and killed his wife and got away with it but I suppose one cannot deny his force in the creative world. I am more interested in the work of songwriter Chuck Mead, the B4-549 front man who was once the projectionist at the local movie theatre and actually showed a cut of David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” to the director and Burroughs and his friend Allen Ginsburg back in the day. Also the great Kansas songwriter Greg Trooper came from Lawrence. Greg and I played shows together in Europe and North America before he passed in 2017.
Lawrence itself is simply a fascinating study in a midwestern American town that is truly at the heart of a nation’s civil unrest. In the history books it is stated that the American Civil War officially started when the South fired on Fort Sumter in the Charleston Bay. Others point to the failed raid on Harpers Ferry by the abolitionist John Brown and his crew. Still others point to the Bleeding Kansas era before the war where skirmishes took place between pro and anti-slavery forces who debated on how the territories of Kansas or Missouri were going to enter this new nation as either slave states or not. Kansas effectively entered the Union as a slave free state in January of 1861, but opposing forces were not surrendering without a fight, and the Civil War officially began in April of that same year.
Lawrence had a reputation as an anti-slavery stronghold from before and during the Civil War. In the early morning hours of August 21,1863, pro slavery guerrillas rode into Lawrence and burned everything in their path—killing between 160 and 190 men and boys. This horrendous crime is known as Quantrill’s Raid or the Lawrence Massacre, and is sadly reminiscent of the behavior and wishes of some of today’s Pro-Trump mobs who once attempted to overthrow the government or still speak overtly on chat sites about using their guns to kill their own countrymen and women. To me, they are the same people—afraid of change or progress, afraid of things that are different than them an unable to process the evolution of humans and democracy. I do not wish to change them whatsoever, and in fact I wish them and their families the same peace of mind that I wish for myself.
As I drove home from Lawrence the day after my show, I listened to President Biden make his State Of The Union address. I heard the boos and jeers of the opposition, who today believe that women should not have a choice in their own reproductive rights, and that semi-automatic weapons should not be regulated in any way, even though thousands of citizens are dead. All of us Americans are remarkably slow to help prevent the suicide of American veterans who are dying every day. We claim to support the troops but yet we have servicemen and women dying each day because we have more or less abandoned them. Other Americans do not wish to raise the minimum wage while trying to destroy universal health care laws and controlled prescription drug prices. They call me and my kind “the radical left” or “marxists” but also cannot seem to truly understand the difference between political points of view as vastly opposite as “fascism” or “communism.” They believe that teaching history is not a good idea, and the more extreme versions of them seem hellbent on repeating it in their ridiculous cries for more Civil War, which was the idiotic result of those who cannot solve their differences with political solutions, and must resort to violence—the solution of the truly ignorant, no matter what side you are on.
I have actually been to the failed states of Cuba and Russia and Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, where power hungry men attempted to skip over the natural evolution of human political development and actually believed you could change the natural behaviors of human beings. I have seen first hand what awaits the dark side of greedy men. I walked the streets in the pre-Civil War climate of Croatia and saw what religious bigotry and true division really looked like. We have all also seen what happens when you place a true fascist dictator in power—one who would control the press and not permit opposition to flourish. The left and the right will alway be there, and in fact we need them to be. The unfortunate extremes of both sides will continue to battle it out in their own ways while most of the rest of us in the middle will carry on attempting to live in peace. Can we not agree that basic human kindness to strangers and those in need is paramount to our survival?
I am an American folk singer who also happens to be a reasonable capitalist. I sell my merchandise such as vinyl records and poetry books and T-shirts to my customers. I listen to and enjoy the wisdom of Woody Guthrie. From time to time, I also shop at Walmart. I happen to own guns. They have been passed down from my Father, who was born into a staunch Republican family in Albany, New York, but switched over to the other team when greedy criminals such as Richard Nixon gained power. Nixon was among men who thought they were doing the right thing for America, but were mistaken, and prosecuted for breaking the law. I am completely anti-war. I wish peace on my perceived enemies. I believe marijuana should be legal and that men should not be able to tell women what to do with their bodies. I think that everyone should have to pay the same percentage of taxes. I am not trying to overthrow anything but I do think that it should be mandatory to vote. That is the one thing I would like to see changed. I’d like to see the participation of the citizenry go up, and therefore the oppression of the working classes to be mitigated. It doesn't really matter what I think, because progress and evolution will happen regardless. You cannot contain it any more than you can contain human migration. People will move wherever it is they need to move to in order to feed their families. Consider yourself lucky if you were born in a First World country, and don't be surprised that a Father or Mother from a Third World country would walk thousands of miles to feed their children, for this is what you would do too.
I know that many of my thoughts are the naive musings of a very fortunate white man born into a middle class family in North America, but I have traveled a bit and I have observed people all over the world—including the Third World, where I worked in the barrios of Santo Domingo giving immunizations to the poor, so I am aware of my privilege. I only hope to use it for the benefit of society rather than continued support of oppression, even though I may lapse from time to time with some of my actions like buying from convenient big box stores that support slave labor.
The popular vote in Kansas in 1861 was that it would enter the Union as a slave free state. That was a liberal idea then. Today, Lawrence is covered in tattoo parlors and rainbow flags and free thinking people who read banned books. There will be no second American Civil War, there will only be more progress. The harder you try to oppress people, the more they will flourish. Yesterday's massacres turn into today's shelters.
“Rick, LIsa, John, Liz.” I think I have it memorized, but I’d better write it down to be sure. Thanks, friends. It’s time to sing some songs now.