‘Turn’ Archive

Just Some Guy

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

I recently participated in a salon.

I’m sure, for some of you, I’ve just conjured up an ancient Palmolive commercial, with Madge softening your nails with dish detergent (seriously, how is it that she was never fired?) – and now, I’ve just sent the rest of you to YouTube to view some ancient 70′s pop culture, and you’re thinking, man, how old isthis guy, anyway? – but let’s get back to the salon, by which I mean something like the Algonquin Round Table, except with folk musicians (and stop it with the Google searches for a minute and just listen up, you young whippersnappers, you).

This salon was entitled “Open Mikes in Boston: From Club 47 to the Cantab”, and it’s one of a series of salons organized by the New England Folk Music Archives, hosted by Scott Alarik , charming performer, author of the book “Deep Community”, and former folk music critic for the Boston Globe. These salons are all open to the public, and feature selected panels of knowledgeable and presumably engaging people having, and leading, a vigorous conversation on the selected topic. This particular salon featured Betsy Siggins, founder of the New England Folk Music Archives, former executive director of Club Passim and one of the people behind the original Club 47; Geoff Bartley, virtuoso musician and long-time host of two open mikes at the Cantab LoungeDon White, renowned funny songwriter and performer, now host of his own open mike in Lynn; and me. The event was on June 1, which you might recall as the Night the Tornadoes Came, so Don never made it in from Lynn and we just about outnumbered the audience; but that’s not the point, really. Actually, that’s not the two points, really.

The first point is: I’m pushing 50, and I’m telling you, listen to your elders. Not me, silly – everybody else there. The dirty little secret of music – well, life, actually – is that nothing much changes. Human beings are human beings: flawed, talented, ambitious, humble, greedy, generous, short-sighted, wise. We tamed fire; we invented the wheel; we learned to farm; we tamed steam and coal; we harnessed the power of information, through writing, movable type, wires, radio, and now digital data; and at every step, our strengths and weaknesses have led us to glory, tragedy and everything in between. This is what makes history fascinating: it’s all about us – in fact, it could be about you and me. Read Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” if you don’t believe me. And listening to the stories about open mikes past, from the 60s and 70s and 80s – way before my tenure on the open mike scene – well, the same egos, the same tensions, the same pressures, the same virtues have been with us all along. I wasn’t much for history when I was in high school, and I’m still not a big fan of “back in the day”ism; but while digital production and distribution have really, really changed music, they haven’t really changed musicians.

So you owe it to yourself to go listen to people who have been doing this for a while. They’re wiser, at the very least due to the brute accumulation of experiences; they’re probably more patient; and they’ve had more time to master their craft. I heard Geoff Bartley do a fairly new song at the Amazing Things open mike the other night (a rare treat, like a presidential visit). It was a protest song, based on an old Quaker hymn called “How Can I Keep From Singing” (which I have never heard, or heard of). And what Geoff did with it, well, I’ll tell you, it sounded timeless; it could have been written in 1850, or 1960, or yesterday. It was that good. You don’t learn how to do that overnight. And you don’t learn how to do that without knowing your history.

The second point is: me? Why me? What am I doing on the same panel with that list of comparatively illustrious folks? I’m just some guy. Because we’re all just some guy, here in our heads. It’s like not having the guts to ask out that hot guy or girl back in high school, when at the same time the hot guy or girl was thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody ask me out? What’s wrong with me?” You can’t see yourself, ever.

But I’m apparently not just some guy. Scott Alarik thought of me out of the clear blue sky, which means he thought of me. Because he’s seen me perform. Because he was one of the performers at “How to Raise Your Own Voice”, the event that Susan Master and I hosted at First Night 2004. Because I host a listing of the open mikes in the New England area on my web site. Because he and I both play Gurian guitars. In other words, because I’ve been, well, around.

Do not, do not underestimate the importance of hanging around. Because 95% of life is Just. Showing. Up. Being on time. Acting prompt and courteous and keeping your clothes on at the relevant moments. Listening. Eventually, you meet people. You hear things you haven’t heard before. You make a tiny contribution that takes on a life of its own. You do something memorable (and I’m not talking YouTube, “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, TMZ.com, front page of the New York Post memorable). You become, well, part of history. Someone who’s been around for a while. Someone who might have something interesting to say at a salon, maybe.

It’s been said that history is one damn thing after another, but that’s not exactly right; history is one damn thing happening because of another damn thing. This is the way our lives go; and this is the way history is made. And this is the way just some guy becomes one of the elders. Just by hanging around.

So go hang around somewhere. Something will happen.