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When James Kraut was a teenager, his parents confiscated his guitar, banishing it to the basement until he paid their ransom: better grades. Undaunted, he sneaked around Rochester, New York, with friends' instruments, improving his musicianship but not his scholarship. In his late twenties, he dropped out of the reggae band with which he'd been playing to pursue a degree in psychology. When he returned to performing, a decade later, he began performing under a pseudonym, London, so as to differentiate his musical self from the therapist he had become.
"For a really long time, there were these two identities that were absolutely separate," London, age 46, says, slicing the air in half. "This musician part over here, and the psychology part over here."
But Carl Jung brought them together. After graduating from the Center For Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in 1991 and setting up a private practice, London began to closely examine Jung's theories about "containing the opposites" in one's psyche. "I started seeing that my work with people as a psychologist was informing the music and that my artistic sensibility was helping me in terms of connecting with people," says London, who lives with his wife, Natalie, and their 18-month-old daughter, Emily, in Plantation.
London makes use of his psychological insights to bridge personal and social issues in his music. The song "Road Not Taken," for example, begins with these lyrics: "Every day I look and there's so much change/I try to find direction but I'm feeling strange/In a world of information with a broken heart --/What comes together must first fall apart." The song is one of two compositions that landed London in the songwriter competition at the Eighth Annual South Florida Folk Festival, which takes place in Oakland Park this weekend. London is the only local performer among this year's 20 finalists, winnowed from 149 entrants.
"It doesn't matter where they're from; we just judge them on the quality of their songwriting," says festival director Robby Greenberg, who founded the Broward Folk Club in 1988 and served as one of the preliminary judges for the songwriter competition. Each of the two songs -- one up-tempo song, one ballad -- is rated for musicianship, lyrics, creativity, and comprehensibility.
The festival will feature performances by more than 50 local and national acts as well as folk dancing, storytelling, drumming, kids' activities, and workshops for musicians. On Saturday afternoon the 20 songwriters will compete for a first-prize package worth about $1300, which includes $200 in cash and a gift certificate for pressing copies of a self-produced album. The winner also gets to headline next year's festival.
Last year's winner was Amy Carol Webb, a folk-rocker from Miami Springs. When she returns to the South Florida Folk Festival on Saturday, she'll be joined by London, of all people. Last summer the two musicians jammed together for the first time at Greenberg's birthday party. Soon they were performing together regularly. "He plays what I think," Webb says of London. "It's kind of like he's my long-lost brother in music. I trust Jim musically, and I trust him personally. I trust him with my songs, and that's a very big thing."
Their mutual admiration charged a recent New Year's Eve performance in front of Miami Beach City Hall. Backed by a drummer and a bass player, they performed a rollicking rendition of London's latest composition, "Big Sex Scandal," inspired by the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. "Show me a man with a lust for power/And I'll show you a powerful lust," London and Webb sang as the electric instruments emphasized the song's country flavor.
Snatching his acoustic guitar from the living room couch, London demonstrates a more fireside-friendly approach, contrasting the incisive lyrics with subdued strumming and vocals. "The more experience I've gotten as a psychologist," he says later, "the more I look at things beyond things, behind things, beneath things. Which is why I didn't want to look at Clinton's sexuality per se but what the pursuit of him as a sexual target meant for us as a voyeuristic and moralistic culture." Americans are "playing hot potato with a beast that lives down inside of you and me," London sings in "Big Sex Scandal." Branding Clinton the sinner is "a very good way to dance around your emptiness."
London handles the same kinds of issues as a psychologist. Known to his colleagues as Dr. James Kraut, president of the Center For Jungian Studies of Southeast Florida, he recently wrote in Roundtable Review, a Jungian newsletter for lay readers, that the almost mythic stature of Princess Diana and the grief that followed her death are symptoms of a psychic void shared by an entire society.
What Natalie Kraut refers to as "the socially conscious, internalized message that's the James London trademark" was evident in some of the songs he wrote for Bahama Mama, a six-member group whose mix of reggae, rock, jazz, and funk attracted a regional following in the Northeast during the late '70s. Although Bahama Mama attracted some major-label interest, its sole album and two singles were produced by Archive Records, an independent label that, like the band, was based in Rochester. Pulling Bahama Mama in Concert (1980) from his vinyl archive, London sets the needle on "Lonesome Cowboy." He says he used the American archetype as a symbol of the demise of Western civilization. He also foreshadowed his future career; at one point the singer says to the title character, "Tell me what's wrong with you."