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."