Notes From the Underground

Folk isn't the most popular form of music in South Florida, nor does it completely pay the bills. But like long-time folk artist Rod MacDonald, some locals are discovering that persistence pays off.

Rod MacDonald is setting up shop on what constitutes a stage at the Coffee Gallery Café in Lake Worth. Dressed in sandals, black shorts, and a red striped shirt with the top few buttons open, he tunes his guitar and fiddles with his beer-stained soundboard. Hair is his most arresting feature: An unwieldy mass of it shoots from his head like a graying clown wig. Three doors down, a cover artist is working his way through a set of classic-rock standards that includes songs by Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. "At least he's not too loud," MacDonald tells his audience of about 20 people, a harmonica brace dangling from his neck. "The guy last week was really loud." The 51-year-old musician kicks off his set with an original tune called "It's a Tough Life" from his forthcoming album, Into the Blue. The song is a facetious lament on the hardships of life in sunny South Florida. With his soft tenor voice, MacDonald sings:

It's a tough life

somehow we make it through

making sure that ocean is still blue

and that warm breeze blows at night

and that sun still shines its light

I don't know how we do it, but we do

it's a tough life

somehow we make it through.

Waitresses rush back and forth, carrying pots of coffee and plates of pesto ravioli. Sitting at a table not far from MacDonald, college-age hipsters converse loudly as they smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. Cars noisily roll past on Lake Avenue. The rain has halted on this pleasant Sunday evening, but puddles still linger in the street.

MacDonald continues to sing, unfazed. His eyes are closed, and his lips barely move. His fingers delicately pick the guitar, and his legs bounce slightly, in time with the music. The act seems as much a personal therapy session as a performance for the ever-shifting sidewalk audience. Stripped of the full band that once accompanied MacDonald at gigs in New York City, his music is sparse, driven by simple guitar melodies and the occasional harmonica riff. He continues:

Sure the tourists, they do clog up the roads,

and once a year I gotta put on those hurricane boards

but if the wind don't blow us away

and those tourists don't all decide to stay

I think we're gonna make this place our home.

The end of the song is greeted with a smattering of polite applause.

MacDonald has called South Florida home for four years now. After crisscrossing the country as a wandering troubadour in the mid-'70s, then settling down for two decades as a folksinger in New York City, he arrived in Delray Beach in 1995 to help take care of his aging parents.

Since taking up residence here, he's become an ever-present figure in the South Florida folk scene. Most Sunday nights from 8 to 11, he can be found at the Coffee Gallery Café, performing songs from a vast repertoire of originals as well as a smattering of covers ranging from Robert Johnson's "When You've Got a Friend," to James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" (the latter only under duress, he notes). Friday and Saturday nights, MacDonald usually performs a Celtic-flavored gig with Irish-born singer Tracy Sands at either Rooney's Public House or Paddy Mac's, both in West Palm Beach. Throw in the occasional house concert or festival, and he's among the most prolific performers in South Florida.

An uninitiated audience member watching MacDonald work his way through "Danny Boy" on a Friday night or "Fire and Rain" on a Sunday might easily overlook him as just another cover artist whose renditions are little more than inoffensive background noise. But lost in the numbing regularity of MacDonald's performance schedule is the fact that he's an ingenious songwriter who has recorded six critically lauded, if commercially negligible, albums over the past 15 years. During the '80s he was at the forefront of a Greenwich Village music scene known as Fast Folk, which, while not nearly as influential as the '60s era scene that fostered the likes of Bob Dylan, produced hugely successful artists such as Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. This fall, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will make available the entire Fast Folk collection -- more than 100 albums -- for the first time on compact disc. MacDonald is one of the most heavily represented artists on the recordings with 29 songs, some of which have never appeared on his albums.

"He's one of the great ones," says Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, one of the most prestigious folk gatherings in the country. "[He's] a great American writer who is almost a traditional artist in the way he writes."

"Rod's one of the best of the singer-songwriters that ever came out of the New York movement," says Dave Van Ronk, a redoubtable songwriter himself, who has called Greenwich Village home since Dylan was tossing back beers at the Kettle of Fish. On Van Ronk's 1994 album, To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places, he covers the MacDonald tune "A Sailor's Prayer." "I don't think it's generally realized down there just how influential Rod has been," Van Ronk adds.

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