A Common Blues, man

You know what’s not easy to do? Record an album with no money!

I want to finish recording an album but I really don’t have any money. Being a contractor I only get paid while at work and having a heart attack precluded that last week.

On the bright side, I am more than halfway done.

All songs are written.

7 of them have been recorded in some fashion:

2 in my home studio, 5 at Robot Dog Studios, due to the generosity of DJ/Blogger Tim Lewis and the studio.

Three to go, well, four…

So I am considering re-recording one song, as the arrangement has already changed slightly.

Otherwise I have three songs ready, but dread putting a home recording up against the Robot Dog stuff (the two I have are done with just enough reverb and overdubs to slide by, I think. May have to ask for an impartial opinion).

I have selected which song to use as the title track: “Common Man Blues”, a song loosely inspired by Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”. I even have cover art ready.

Digital distribution is already paid for, sending my stuff to YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and more. See those links to hear what I already have online.

Ok, but how to get there?

So I am considering how to fund recording the rest of the album, and possibly funding a run of CDs.

Should I even bother with CDs?

Should I try a Kickstarter campaign? Or some other way of crowd funding?

In truth, any suggestions are welcome folks.

Comment on this post to let me know your ideas.

What’s a NERFA?

Well, according to their website:

“NERFA is the northeast regional afiliate of Folk Alliance International (www.folk.org), a Kansas City, MO-based nonprofit organization that seeks to nurture, engage and empower the international folk music community — traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional — through education, advocacy and performance. Our goal is to provide opportunities for our members to network regionally and advance the overall mission of Folk Alliance International to:

  • Increase understanding of the rich variety, artistic value, cultural and historical significance, and continuing relevance of folk music among educators, media and the general public. (Education),
  • Provide a bridge to and from folk music organizations and needed resources, and to help those organizations link with their constituencies. (Networking),
  • Influence decision-makers and resource providers on the national, state, provincial, and local levels — ensuring the growth of folk music. (Advocacy),
  • Support and encourage the development of new and existing grassroots folk music organizations. (Field Development),
  • Strengthen the effectiveness of folk music organizations by providing professional development opportunities. (Professional Development).

To help accomplish these goals, NERFA holds an annual four-day conference where artists, agents, booking agents, venue and festival promoters, recording industry professionals, graphic artists, folk DJs, journalists, photographers, publicists and production professionals get together to exchange ideas, learn by attending workshops, panel discussions and seminars, participate in an exhibit hall, attend formal showcases of juried performing artists, and go to private and guerilla showcases hosted by performers, agents and promoters.  NERFA has expanded its outreach by holding more local one-day conferences within its region, as well as NERFA Showcase concerts at venues around the region and NERFA Presents Young Folk showcases at various festivals in both the U.S. and Canada.”

Guess who went to NERFA for the first time?

Yes, I decided to see if this industry conference lived up to it’s reputation, and found that it does!

Although I was not selected for Formal or Semi-Formal Showcases, there is a proliferation of “guerrilla” showcases that take place in hotel rooms on a designated floor. These are unamplified, acoustic performances in intimate settings for small groups of people. Although I was late to the game, I still ended up with four “guerrillas”, the first on Friday afternoon at 4, the last one “late Saturday night”, really Sunday AM at 2:45. These were fun and well-received.

There was also an “open mic” on Saturday afternoon that I took part in, playing a ukulele on two of my songs, including a new one.

Brushes with fame:

I got to meet the keynote speaker, Dar Williams, and compliment her on her recently published book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time“, and she very politely agreed to take a picture with me!

I met Reggie Harris, a songwriter who is known as an activist as much as a performing artist, and who led a workshop on addressing social issues in music.

I got to meet up with David Amram for the first time in 25 years, and was able to spend time with him working on a new song of mine, a blues song loosely based on “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Copland. He helped me whip it into a 12-bar!

I got to chat with Mike Agranoff, a folk legend to me, who told me about how he ended up on the cover of a famous folk magazine because he was giving Arlo Guthrie an imprompto Concertina lesson.

The Real Treasure of NERFA:

Beyond the opportunity to perform for industry folks and comrade artists, there is the most important part of a conference like this: all the amazing people you meet!

Meeting fellow artists, hearing them perform, talking about all that is happening at the conference and more.. it’s a BIG experience. Meeting people who book or promote folk music was a real treat, and finding out about their role and what they are there for was fascinating and instructive. No matter what the reason for being there, so many people were worth meeting, listening to, getting to know, that it’s “an embarrassment of riches” so to speak. What a great community!



Authenticity and popularity

When studying the origins of anthropology in college I learned that the origins were not necessarily lofty and academic.

Early ethnographic writings arose out of what were called at the time “travel writings”: personal accounts by Victorian-era travelers of their encounters with different cultures around the world.

One important element of this was the notion that authenticity was derived from the ability to say that you were there: authorship and authority are one. Early travel writings were fairly straightforward, chronological accounts, but later ethnographic writings tended to push the subjective portion of the narrative to prologues and afterwords, or even entirely separate books detailing the personal experience of encountering and living in another culture. This is because ethnographic writings were supposed to be science and therefore objective, and subjectivity needed to be pushed to the margins.

In that context, more modern ethnographic writing takes into account the power dynamics involved in the negotiation between cultures that is part of ethnographic and anthropological study, and makes space for it.

Street credibility

In songwriting there is a similar principle at work that says that in order to have authenticity or credibility one needs to have been there, seen it, done it… lived a real authentic life.

However there is an alternate force in action: accessibility of the product or artifact. This is true in ethnographic writings as well: there are “hits”, books that even become popular outside of the field of anthropology.

Yet these books also receive criticism from within the field of anthropology for being unscientific and/or targeting a popular audience, not unlike music artists who are viewed as being overly commercial, or worse, selling out after having street credibility.

So it seems that there is a general tension in the whole business of writing between Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal.


On the one hand, one wants to be true to oneself, and true to the song and true to the truth itself.

On the other hand, what good is a truth if nobody hears it? Could this be the real meaning of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound”?

Like everyone else I want to change the world with my songs, but I have to gain their ears first.

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Appeal

So can one balance being true to the message of the song and the idea that you’re trying to convey yet putting it in a fashion that can be easily digested by the masses?

Should one even try to do that? I think the answer for me is: sometimes.

This first week of my blog I posted a link to a somewhat irreverent yet truthful and I feel empathetic Christmas song, written in response to a prompt to write a holiday song. I resisted the standard approach to Christmas music, which is to say a commercial approach, yet in my opinion the song could be enjoyed by a lot of people.

Our first musical quotation for this Monday was a lengthy one from Woody Guthrie regarding his feelings on commercial music. He felt that it was the content rather than the genre or style that determined if a song was worthy or not, in his view.

My taste in music are not particularly unusual or extremely eclectic, although it is very broad. I have a great love for pop music and I think it’s important for anyone composing music to understand a variety of genres.

So in that context if the truth of the song is best expressed with an easy to digest pop melody or simple three chord structure, so be it: I’ll follow that where it leads.

I think I have to draw the line at writing a song that has no real meaning in the lyrics and just a catchy hook with nonsense words or something like that.

I also agree with Woody that too many pop songs express unhealthy ideas, and I don’t want to participate in that either.

However if you are a pop songwriter or someone who needs to write commercial songs all the time I do believe it can be done with Artistic Integrity. If you have something real to say….just make sure your lyrics ring true. 

A big part of that is making space for subjectivity: trying to tell a story “objectively” will leave your audience cold, but showing what it really looked and smelled and felt like is what people respond to, in my opinion. People can feel the truth… that’s authenticity.