I awoke Friday, May 24, 2013, not quite prepared to play my first Northwest Regional Folklife Festival in 19 years. What was the problem? – Well, I wasn’t sure what songs I wanted to play for my concert. Since I’d let 19 years transpire between appearances at such a big event as “Folklife”, I wanted to give the best possible show. I wanted to bring the “world’s best set-list”. For weeks I agonized over what to play. I finally found it easier to jot down four set lists, each one having a theme. I figured I would pick one right before I did my show, depending upon my mood, or upon the makeup of the audience. — You know, after performing for 51 years, I like to think I can determine what an audience wants!
One set list was composed entirely of work songs, since labor history and folklore was a “Cultural Focus” of Folklife 2013. I also made a list comprised of classic folk songs, in case I needed to show people that I was a “for-real” folk singer. I made another set list which included only my original songs, in the event I arrived at the show in the mood to feature my singer-songwriter side. My last list was made up of my “A-list” songs, that is, the songs taken from my book of approximately 400, which have evoked the strongest audience response over the years. (Think Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.)
I rose late that morning, and on auto-pilot, I put water on for coffee, and then retrieved the morning paper from my front stoop. I turned to page 2 of section A, and I read with amazement that it was Bob Dylan’s birthday! Well, I threw my set lists out the proverbial window, and immediately devised a plan. I decided, in honor of the great Troubadour, I would do an “All-Bob, All-Request” show. I had a huge number of Dylan songs in my big book, and I decided to bring them all, and let my audience determine what I would play. (I always use my book of songs. I play way too many to have them all memorized. — I write out the lyrics, and figure out the chords to songs I want to cover; then I compile them in a huge book. It’s a treasure.)
I excitedly got dressed-up and ready to go, garbed in my finest “folksinger denim”. I called a cab, took it to Seattle Center (all the while, extolling the virtues of the Festival to the driver, who sadly, had never heard of it). I arrived at my venue, The Folklife Café, in McCaw Hall, accompanied by the requisite butterflies inhabiting my stomach. I checked in, and waited for my time in the spotlight.
Well, someone on the Folklife staff dropped the ball, and my show was truncated. There was no music stand for my songbook. It had been promised; but Folklife relies on many volunteers, and I have to give them a pass on this. Someone just goofed. But, I had to start late. The elderly stage manager went all the way over to the Alki Stage to get me a music stand. — I knew I would only be able to do a handful of songs, so I was determined to pour “everything” into them. I was pretty frazzled, and a little angry. But then, I was doing Dylan, so I channeled that into my performance. I announced that it was Bob Dylan’s birthday. I announced that I would get things underway with my favorite Dylan song; but then, I would take requests to fill-in the rest of my set. So, yeah: I let the audience write my Folklife set list for me! (All that worrying and obsessing over set lists was a complete waste of time!)
I started with The Times They Are A-Changin’, a song which doesn’t require the performer to be in a good mood. By the time I had wrung all of the emotion and meaning out of that song, I forgot all about the confusion, about the late start, and I found the proper groove and state of mind to play the first request. A member of the audience called out for Tomorrow Is A Long Time. Before I started the song, I thought of, and mentioned, how the young group, Nickel Creek, did a great version of that very romantic song. I envisioned Sara Watkins’ beautiful delivery, and I tried to “sing it pretty” myself. When I had sung that song, a listener asked for Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs. I probably took eight or nine minutes to get through that number. It’s a down-tempo song, comprised of about a million verses. By the way, I have no idea what its lyrics mean! But it’s a great song; I don’t need to decipher it; I just try to “nail it” every time.
The next thing I knew, the stage manager signaled “one more song”. Someone called out “Blowin’ In The Wind”. That was so apropos, because it gave me the opportunity to mention that Peter, Paul and Mary, the great, historic, folk trio, sang that very song 50 years prior, at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”, at the March On Washington. I put everything I had left in my 64-year-old body into my performance of that classic, and that was it. That was my show. But! I found out later that two great friends of mine, sisters Kyle and Evan, were in the house, and they had surreptitiously filmed me doing Blowin’ In The Wind. They were kind enough to load it onto YouTube.
And here it is, for your enjoyment. Thank you for allowing me to relive the memory of one of the most satisfying shows I’ve ever given, in my 51 years of performing. Enjoy the song.
If you haven’t had enough, well, I have one more present: here is a younger, less-hairy version of myself, doing The Times They Are A-Changing, on a very cold November morning, at Seattle Occupy.