Growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s, I listened to a crazy-quilt mix of Beethoven, “Barbara Allen,” and Buddy Holly. As young teenagers my brother Eddie and I sang the rockabilly hit “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” at a family gathering—our first performance, near as I can recall. By the 1960s, Eddie had become a fine guitarist, while I contented myself with wearing out the grooves of Paul Butterfield’s first album and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. At school in Ithaca at the end of the decade, I escaped from the library by watching Eddie’s band back local r&b singers; going to Otis Redding concerts; and cheering on Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs.
It was in Europe in the 1970s, with a beat-up acoustic strapped to my suitcase, that I started thinking again about performing—and about songwriting. I learned Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” and got reacquainted with the English ballads. Fairport Convention’s “Matty Groves” really got to me—still does—and I knew I wanted to write things that evoked that feeling.
Back in the States I lived with a gaggle of Deadheads and adopted the medieval alias Alec of Yarrow. In 1973, we spent endless hours playing “Bertha” and once, with my brother Greg on flute and keyboards, played at a local college under the stage name Gerion. The next year, I moved to New York, where I had an editing job and where my friend Sandy Sidar was working as a writer. He knew the same five chords that I did. As the duo Heartrock Express, we did some street singing and for a while performed once a week in a Broadway bar.
In 1975, I met the bright-eyed Texas gal who would become my life’s companion. Andrée and I started writing songs together and performed in a restaurant in tiny Charlemont, Massachusetts, as the Florida Mountain Blues Band. We didn’t really sing any blues but we did live for a year on the crest of a mountain. For the following four decades, we’ve been bopping around the country, raising three great kids, and leading the life of industrious gypsies. Occasionally we’ve jammed with friends, mostly on old-timey music, and done an open mic now and again. Music has never paid the bills, but it’s always been there.
So have the songs. Over the years I’ve completed about 150, with a dozen more percolating and twenty or so of the good ones written with Andrée. The themes have been consistent. Love and loss, fortune and misfortune, kindness and cruelty, justice and mortality—the themes of “Matty Groves,” and of writers everywhere who are serious about their work. I do think of songwriting as serious work. A song should do something to you, in your mind or your gut, beyond wanting to hum or tap your feet. To make that rarity happen, you’ve got to be serious.
I don’t mean world-weary or angsty. I mean aware of life’s fragility, and able to turn that awareness into a gift, into something that transforms hopelessness into a smile. I mean the honesty you hear in David Mallett’s “Snowbound” and the Hunter/Garcia gem “Ripple” and Ellis Kennedy’s version of “Lord Franklin.” There are a lot of songs like that. You can’t have too many.
In the 8th century, the English monk Bede painted a hauntingly honest picture of the human condition. Imagine, he says, a great hall where a king is entertaining his nobles. There is music and feasting and merriment and a warm fire. At either end of the hall is a small open window. Our life, Bede says, is like a bird that flies in one window and out the other—here for a moment and then gone in the blink of an eye. If my songs make you think about that bird, I will be content.