Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: Rod MacDonald in his own words.
Folk music has always been about social commentary, a sound that enlightens, entertains, and offers observations on politics, pitfalls, and society in general. It began in earnest with the Dust Bowl tales sung by Woody Guthrie, continued through the social changes documented by Pete Seeger, and then fired up for a new generation by Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, and others of their ilk. In a very true sense, Greenwich Village transplant and longtime Delray resident Rod MacDonald carries on with that same mantle of musical responsibility, illuminating it through wry pronunciations, frequently tempered by acidic asides and wistful reflection, on a post-9/11 world.
That proves true once again on MacDonald's new album, Later That Night, a set of songs that ranks among his best sets yet. From the somewhat sardonic "Young Republicans in Love" and "Big Time Record Contract" to the scathing denunciation of "The Last American Worker" and "Joe Public," MacDonald spares no effort when it comes to ripping on the right wing and those in the political elite. On the other hand, he can also turn tender, particularly when it comes to sharing the sentiments that accompany genuine romance and resolve, as heralded in the songs "You're Already My Wife" and "That's Why You Play the Game," respectively.
In addition, MacDonald's devotion to tradition surfaces in the simultaneous release of Big Tent, his third album with Big Brass Bed, a side project in which he covers classic Dylan songs and redefines them with the band's signature sound. This time around, Dylan serves both as a source and as a jumping-off point for some Rod originals and a handful of other covers of similar vintage. The exception -- and a somewhat unlikely choice -- is included in the form of "The Way You Make Me Feel," a Michael Jackson signature song that works well despite the somewhat incongruous circumstance.
I recently caught up with MacDonald and asked him fior the lowdown on his new albums, his musical MO, and his outlook in general.
New Times: For starters, please share some thoughts about your new album. When was it written, and what inspired these songs?
Rod MacDonald: All of the songs except three ("One More Heartbreak Song," "Raven," and Sleepless Nights") were written since around 2011, some of them in the past year or so. We recorded the album in May, June, and September of 2013, and the oldest of the songs is probably "The Last American Worker," which I think dates from spring 2011. That song was inspired by listening to a radio broadcast about several Republican governors trying to gut state workers pension funds and get rid of the unions, that kind of thing. It made me realize that the very people that created corporate wealth through the boom years -- namely, American workers -- are the people they're now trying to screw. I am fascinated by people who consistently support politicians opposed to their own needs, like working people who vote Republican.
One of my favorites of the new songs is "Hole in the Bible," which was inspired by hearing the same people who preach Jesus all the time support the NRA's crusade for unlimited automatic weapons and Stand Your Ground laws that encourage killing. I love that sort of hypocrisy; as a songwriter I find it very inspiring.
Several of the songs are more romantic and/or personal. "That's Why You Play The Game" was written for my daughters and other kids to say it's okay to try and make your dreams happen, and that even if you fail, it's better than never trying at all, something I think is especially necessary for girls to hear.
The two oldest songs, "Raven" and "Sleepless Nights," are from the mid 1970s but were never previously released. Both appear in a novel I've written, The Open Mic, that's due for publication in the next few months, so I thought it would be fun to record them.
I wrote the "One More Heartbreak" song in 1992 while playing a gig in Paris, opening for (guitarist) Larry Coryell at a jazz club there. I recently stumbled across a video of the show and there I was, reading the new song off a piece of paper taped to the mic stand. I'd completely forgotten the song, and thought, "Hey, this'd be fun to do."
One other song that's a favorite is "You're Already My Wife." I like to think it speaks for a forgotten demographic, older guys who aren't dead yet.
How would you describe your music?
I have always had a historical/journalistic view of things, that if you look at details they tell you things beyond the rhetoric and the usual compartments into which people put their opinions. I'm not really interested in opinions, I like to have songs tell a story and have the meaning of the song emerge from that, from the listener's understanding. It's the poetry of a song that's very important to me.
As far as Big Brass Bed is concerned, what made you venture into the Dylan realm?
When I moved to Florida, I stopped being on the road all the time, which meant playing locally, and not playing just my own songs in bars and restaurants. Dylan songs already had some fans, and many are already among my favorite songs ever, so it seemed natural to me. I think I sing them pretty well, and I'm now doing a handful of Dylanfests around the country as well, where we do a whole weekend of his songs for 1,000 or more people on some hillside.
Is it a challenge -- or at all intimidating -- to put your own spin on such revered material? Do you feel like you're competing with the original renditions in any way?
No, I don't. But I do think it's important to get the words and music right, and treat them with respect. We freely rearrange tempos and grooves to take them in new directions, and I sing them in my own voice and style. That's part of why Dylan's songs are so good, they're open to interpretation in a lot of ways. So many popular songs only work if you watch the video at the same time, but with Dylan's songs, you can rework them into your own style and they're just as good.
You were an integral part of the scene in Greenwich Village. Do you see any parallels with what's going on now, even in Delray itself?
There's a good scene in Delray, some cool people and a sense that music is an important part of life that, frankly, some places don't have. I'd be kidding you if I said the level of songwriting is as good as anything I ever heard in New York though. Most of the music in Delray consists of cover bands, but there are people writing good songs. The hard part is finding places to play them. There are some good players around the area, too, some very fine musicians. The three other musicians in Big Brass Bed -- Bill, John, and Randy -- could absolutely work in New York City if they needed to.
In the Village, we did a lot of things for ourselves -- songwriters' workshops, open mics, etc. There's a pretty good open mic scene around Palm Beach County, some opportunities for people to get out and play. But we could use a couple of venues for people who like original songs.
What do you think of the folk/singer-songwriter scene today? Are you interested at all in the so called Nu-Folk revival, artists like Joanna Newsome, Devandra Banhardt, Conner Oberst and the like?
I probably don't know much about it, though I have listened a bit to Conner Oberst, and I've liked some of his stuff a lot. I think it must be tough for young songwriters. Popular music has gotten so loud and unmusical that for young players to succeed with their own age group, they need to thrash their songs out. And the younger audience has grown up with somewhat unmusical stuff in their windshield, like rap; even if you like it, you have to admit it's not about music. So there are a lot of repetitive and monotonous songs.
But then, when you go to a festival and see kids playing brilliant acoustic band music, and they all know "Wagon Wheel," it's clear the love for music is still there. It may just be very limited by the marketplace.
Out of curiosity, what brought you to Delray in the first place all those years ago? Is it a fertile scene in terms of venues and performing opportunities?
My wife and I moved to Delray to help my parents, who were getting older and had health issues. My mom is still alive and doing very well. I play throughout the state, and there's a good scene statewide of folk-singing songwriters that I'm part of. I like it a lot, there are good people. I also play with Big Brass Bed and solo doing covers, so there is some work there. And I also teach in the FAU Lifelong Learning Program, which is great, a very high quality program that lets me study a lot of music and share it with an interested audience. From that, I also get a certain amount of work doing lectures and concerts of the material I research. Between all that, plus recording and touring, I manage to support my family.
Can you give us any insight into your songwriting process? Where do you find your muse?
My process has evolved from when I wrote tons of things down and threw a lot away, to where I get an idea and sort of carry it around in my head until it begins to take shape. I do think it's important to write things down, and to sit down with the guitar and play open-endedly, just jam with myself or other people in private, make mistakes, try new things, see where things go. I love finding new pieces of music to write with. So some of my process is inspiration just rearing its head, and some is from focused effort, but all of it is because it's a big part of my life to listen to ideas that surface.
What's on tap for the immediate future? Any other projects you have planned? Anything else you'd like to add?
Well sometime or other there's the novel, not sure when that'll surface. I start another lecture course at FAU in the fall, and this summer we're going to Quebec and Vermont for a few weeks. In the meantime, the new CD will probably generate a few concerts. I do think the new CD is a step forward for me, I think we achieved a very contemporary sound that's both rooted in folk music and up to date, so I am hoping these songs will find their audience.
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