Both Sides Now
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.
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"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."
At age 28 London decided that touring with a reggae band was not for him, and he interpreted that as a sweeping dissatisfaction with playing music. Looking back he now thinks his unhappiness stemmed more from a clash of personalities and lifestyles. Whereas he once envied, even tried to compete with, Bahama Mama's charismatic keyboard player, he is now more comfortable with his laid-back style of performing. "It's more demanding, only in another way," says London. "You don't jump up on stage and flash your dreadlocks around, but you do have to sit there and connect with people."
On New Year's Eve in South Beach, London was far from flashy. He wore black jeans and a button-down shirt and sang with sincerity and understated emotion. Dave Cambest, who chairs the local-performers selection committee for the South Florida Folk Festival, says that "James has a unique way, even if [the song is about] something he did, of making the audience feel like they are with him doing it."
When asked about London, other members of South Florida's folk community praise his expertise on the guitar and the intelligence and intensity of his lyrics, which, at times, can be tough to make sense of. In "Road Not Taken," for example, he sings: "The camel passes through the needle's eye/Fiction is true and the truth is a lie."
"James' songs are very cerebral, and they go over my head," quips Michael Stock, who has featured London on his WLRN-FM (91.3) Folk and Acoustic Music Show and is one of the competition judges.
"His lyrics are very forthright and clever without being strained. And the harmonic structure of his music I find intriguing. He uses some chords I've never discovered," says Webb, who thinks London has a very good chance of winning Saturday. "His songs are many grades above most of the songs out there."
For London the competition is a personal challenge, a way to push himself and his music beyond the occasional solo gig and win a bigger audience. The gift certificate would also help pay for a CD he's been working on for years and is close to completing. He has already lined up dates at coffeehouses in western Broward County over the next couple of months and is planning to work with Webb on songs they hope will be covered by better-known musicians.
Realism, maturity, and the demands of fatherhood have tempered the dreams of stardom London once had. He doesn't intend to give up psychology to go on tour, but if the bigwigs of the music industry were to come calling, he wouldn't turn them away. "I'm still open to miracles, but certainly not counting on them or needing them," London says. Trying to categorize his music, which he doesn't consider folk in the traditional sense, he smiles mischievously and offers, "I'd like to be the niche where, when people hear it, they say, 'This sounds like James London.'"
The South Florida Folk Festival runs Saturday and Sunday, January 16 and 17, at Easterlin Park, 1000 NW 38th St., Oakland Park. Advance tickets cost $16 for adults, $9 for teenagers. Prices at the gate are $10 per day for adults, $5 per day for teenagers. Children under 13 get in free. For more detailed information, see "Concerts For the Week" or call 954-922-9885.
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