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.
Admittedly, South Florida is not Greenwich Village -- nor even Austin, Texas. But MacDonald's presence in the last few years, coupled with the emergence of the now nationally renowned South Florida Folk Festival, has helped spark a growing acoustic-music scene, primarily in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In South Florida it is now possible -- if decidedly difficult -- to claim folksinging as your primary mode of employment.
"When I came down here, it was few and far between to find a folk musician," says Marie Nofsinger, who has been performing in the area for two decades. "Singer-songwriter? Back then, I don't think people even knew what that meant."
Here in Florida we know what life is worth
we watch the weather channel,
see what's going on up north
then we call up some old friend
say, "Charlie, I see it's snowing again
Me, I'm sitting in my underwear
on the porch"
-- "It's a Tough Life," Into the Blue (1999)
Even before calling Delray Beach home, MacDonald was a fleeting presence in South Florida. Back in 1985, in an attempt to resuscitate folk music in the area, Michael Stock began organizing weekly concerts at a health food restaurant and then at other venues in South Beach. "The only folksingers around here back then were '60s hangers-on," recalls Stock, who has hosted the Folk and Acoustic Music show on WLRN-FM (91.3) since 1981. MacDonald became an annual performer on what Stock calls the "grandmother circuit" -- musicians who squeeze in South Florida gigs while visiting their elderly relatives. "He was an angry young man back then," says Stock. "You never saw him smile. He was always deep in thought."
Since moving to Florida, MacDonald has lightened up considerably. His favored attire is shorts, sandals, and a tropical print shirt. He got married three years ago, drives a Ford Escort, and lives in a comfortable townhouse not far from the beach. He even owns a mouse pad imprinted with a picture of him and his Swiss-born wife, Nicole -- a no-so-subtle symbol of domestic tranquility.
MacDonald devotes much of his time to caring for his elderly parents, both of whom are over 80 years of age. Each afternoon he drives to their Boynton Beach home to help with mundane chores, such as cooking meals and cleaning house. He returns at night to help them into bed. For the first time in 25 years, his musical passions are taking a back seat to family concerns. "I think the days of my renting a car and driving around the country for three months are over for a while," he says, "if not for good."
Domesticity is reflected in his music as well. Most of the material on Into the Blue (to be released later this month on Gadfly Records ) was written after MacDonald moved to Florida. He sheepishly admits to being influenced by Jimmy Buffett, and there is more than one reference on the album to plastic flamingos. The standard rock 'n' roll percussion setup is often supplemented with conga drums, and a kalimba contributes to the melodies on several songs. MacDonald picked up the xylophone-like African instrument in a Delray Beach boutique while searching for something that would lend "It's a Tough Life" a tropical flavor, then ended up using it on several other songs on Into the Blue.
Sitting at the dining room table in his townhouse on a recent weekday evening, MacDonald taps away on the kalimba. The wood-and-metal instrument isn't much bigger than a mousetrap. He nimbly pecks out the hypnotic stair-step melody that serves as the foundation for an instrumental track on the new album. A mandolin, frame drum, triangle, and gourd weave through the kalimba melody on Into the Blue, giving the song a feel reminiscent of Cuban son music.
"I'm a person who suffers from insomnia," MacDonald says. "I stay up very late at night working, and I have never been able to figure out if I stay up late because I can't sleep, or if I can't sleep [at night] because I sleep so late in the morning. When I started playing this one night, it was on the same day when I said to my wife, 'Boy I wish I had a cure for insomnia.' And so this song became 'The Cure For Insomnia.'"
The effect of MacDonald's newfound serenity is even more apparent in his most recent lyrics. His pre-Florida, premarital work reflected an earnest, politically liberal sensibility more reminiscent of Phil Ochs than Jimmy Buffett. Humor has always played a part in MacDonald's songwriting, but in the past it was a subtle undercurrent, not a prominent feature. (The beguiling song "Norman," for example, from 1992's Highway to Nowhere, is a touching tale of mother and son that just happens to be told from the perspective of Alfred Hitchcock's protagonist in Psycho.) Although Into the Blue does include several topical songs ("Deep Down in the Everglades" is a contemplation of the ValuJet disaster), the overall tone is actually whimsical. "I Have No Problem With This" provides a kind of thesis for the entire album. It is an occasionally goofy meditation on growing old, mellowing out, and coming to terms with domesticity. It presents life in Greenwich Village stripped of all romanticism:
Remember when life meant
you were living in
some little apartment
on some city street
with the chicken factory
across the courtyard
you opened your windows
in the summer heat.
South Florida, in contrast, is portrayed as a land of simple pleasures and few struggles -- not to mention very little thought. "At this point in my life, I'm not writing big, anthemic, emotional-agony-type songs," MacDonald admits. "What tends to interest me is the offbeat stuff, the stuff that doesn't sound like it's been done to death."
More people write songs than listen to them
doesn't mean you can't write a song.
More people sing than get paid for it
doesn't mean you can't sing along.
On every highway in every town
somebody's wise to the game:
give all the people a song and a dance
and be a keeper of the flame.
-- "Keeper of the Flame,"
And Then He Woke Up (1997)
MacDonald's humility serves him well. The day-to-day routine of a full-time folksinger in South Florida is decidedly unglamorous. Marie Nofsinger, a songwriter with a talent for telling detail and a style that jumps from country to jazz, has been playing area gigs for almost two decades. She recalls going to a repair garage to have a muffler replaced a few years back, only to be recognized by the guy behind the counter. "You played at my Texaco," he said.
In addition to hitting the gas-station circuit, Nofsinger used to play at a Chuck's Steak House. Earlier this year she performed at a nudist colony. "I've played about everything except a bowling alley," says Nofsinger, whose latest album is called Boots. She now performs almost every Thursday night at Web Central in Delray Beach and takes road trips -- to Austin, Texas, mostly -- for additional gigs. She supplements her income by working three days a week at the Amp Shop & Music Parlor in West Palm Beach. "And then when I'm really broke, I have yard sales," she says only half jokingly.
Other local folk musicians have had to find creative ways to make ends meet as well. Magda Hiller, a Miami-based singer-songwriter, does voice-over work for radio commercials, and Grant Livingston, whose songs are steeped in Florida history and geography, works as a computer consultant. He recently performed an afternoon show at a nursing home, which, as far as he's concerned, is nothing to sneer at. "A paid gig in the middle of a weekday is a really good thing," he says.
Livingston and others note that the fast-paced, transient lifestyle of South Florida -- particularly Miami -- does not lend itself to contemplative, quiet music. "Miami's a tough town," he says. "People don't like to listen a lot."
Despite the difficulty of competing with the buzz of electronica and Latin music in South Florida, the folk-music scene is growing -- particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. A handful of venues, such as Center Perk Coffeehouse and Chocolate Moose Coffeehouse, both in Davie, offer acoustic music on a regular basis. House concerts, for which people transform their humble abodes into mini concert halls, have also become popular settings for folk music. There are now three semiregular house-concert series in South Florida, ensuring at least one show a month. Headliners at the concerts are usually out-of-town performers, such as Carla Ulbrich, of South Carolina, who won the songwriter contest at this year's South Florida Folk Festival in January, or Jamie Anderson, of North Carolina, who will perform later this month at a home in Plantation.
Because house concerts take place in noncommercial venues, audiences usually aren't too big, but those who show up pay $8 to $10 for the privilege of seeing a performer in a very intimate setting. And all of the money goes straight to the performer -- $400 or more on some nights, which is a bigger take than he or she gets at most other venues.
On a recent Saturday evening, a sellout crowd of 40 people paid $10 each to see Amy Carol Webb perform at Bob and Saralyn Singer's house in Coral Springs. The concert took place in the Singer's den, a pristine, white-walled space accented with brightly colored pieces of modern art and the Singers' collection of almost 1000 hot sauces. (They are recent Dallas transplants.) The crowd sat on green plastic chairs and sipped sodas. Alcohol and cigarettes were noticeably absent.
The Singers opened the show by performing a handful of decidedly amateur but endearing original tunes, including one about Tennessee roadkill and another about Bill Clinton's sexual predilections. Webb is a Miami-based performer who won the songwriter contest at the South Florida Folk Festival in 1998. She has a powerful, crystalline voice, and at the Singers' house she played the guitar stridently. (She broke a string not five minutes into the show.) Drawing heavily from her Songweaver CD, Webb played two sets of original songs, which ranged from the self-deprecatingly funny to feminist anthems.
In the audience at the Singers' house concert were many members of the Broward Folk Club, which is largely responsible for the burgeoning folk-music scene in South Florida. Founded in 1988 by Robby Greenberg, the club began with just 20 people at its first meeting. The group now has about 250 loyal members. "It's amazing how much it's grown," Greenberg says. Initially, she notes, "we had a song swap once a month, and we had an open mic once a month, and that was all that was available in Broward."
The club's most significant achievement is the annual South Florida Folk Festival, which began in 1992 and has morphed into an event that is respected nationwide. In recent years the festival's songwriting contest has attracted competitors from across the country, many with established reputations. Jack Hardy, a veteran of the New York City folk scene, whose work has been anthologized in a five-CD boxed set, won the contest in 1997. Sam Pacetti, of St. Augustine, landed a deal with Waterbug records out of Chicago after the founder of the label saw him perform at the festival that same year.
"As far as attracting good talent, the last three years it's been unbelievable," says Michael Stock of WLRN.
MacDonald, who has performed at numerous folk festivals, says that the songwriter contest ranks in the upper echelon nationwide. "I think there's probably a half-dozen that are the top ones, and I would rank it in that group," he says. He and others note that a large part of the attraction for out-of-state performers is the promise of South Florida weather in January. The festival has also been bolstered by national advertising in publications such as Performing Songwriter and by what many people say is the growing popularity of folk festivals across the country.
MacDonald himself has been instrumental in bolstering South Florida's reputation in the folk-music world. Last year he helped put together "Songwriters' Solstice," a concert featuring 15 South Florida songwriters (folkies and rock-oriented acts) at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The sold-out show attracted more than 300 people, and the eponymously titled recording of the concert was released on CD. For many area musicians used to playing in coffee shops and bars, the concert was a rare opportunity to perform for a big audience.
"There are a lot of really good songwriters around South Florida who, like myself, largely make their living playing a certain mix of cover tunes and originals in noisy situations," MacDonald says. "It seemed to me that if we could bring some of those talented people together in a situation that was really aesthetically refined that it would be a very beautiful thing to do."
But there's no home in this world anymore
for a wanderer,
with a waistcoat, a bow and arrow
a pioneer blazing a trail in the hills
riding logs on the river Ohio
but I seek another highway where they
learn to heal the wings of a wounded sparrow
come stand before this fire
glowin' on your skin
come take these searchin' eyes
someplace they've never been.
-- "Song of My Brothers," White Buffalo (1987)
Rod MacDonald's musical sensibility and his interest in cultivating a folk scene were shaped in his early years as a performer. Before that, however, he was well on his way to attaining a middle-class livelihood not so different from the one he'd experienced growing up in Connecticut. By 1973 he had earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Virginia, acquired work experience as a correspondent for Newsweek (covering such high-profile events as Jimmy Hoffa's parole hearing), and was enrolled in Columbia University's law school.
He had also joined the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps as a way to avoid combat in Vietnam and pay for law school. But as his disgust for the war intensified, he found himself burdened with guilt for being part of a military system he abhorred. So he applied to be classified as a conscientious objector. In the summer of 1973, while his request was being considered, he was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island, for military training school. While there he secured a gig at a local club. "I spent the summer going to classes during the day and singing, 'One, two, three, what are we fightin' for?' at night," he recalls. At the end of the summer, the military agreed to grant him status as a conscientious objector.
After finishing his final year of law school (on his own dime), MacDonald didn't bother with the bar exam. Instead he became an itinerant musician. "I wanted to put myself in a position where I had to play music to survive," he says. "I felt that was the only way that I'd ever get good enough to be able to do this. And also I wanted to find out who was out there in the world, what kind of people were really out there. I wanted to get away from the cozy protected people and out into the people that were what I considered more real in a certain way. I was young and arrogant, and that's how I felt. I wanted to test myself against the real world."
Based in Chicago, MacDonald traveled the country mainly by thumb, picking up gigs wherever he could. In 1974, while in New York City, he encountered one of his musical idols. Phil Ochs, the '60s folksinger and protest maven best remembered for his songs assailing the Vietnam War, such as "I Ain't Marching Anymore," was then in the midst of organizing a benefit concert in honor of the recently slain Chilean leader Salvador Allende. The concert was to be a massive event, held at Madison Square Garden and featuring, most notably, Bob Dylan. Hoping to join the roster of performers, MacDonald auditioned for Ochs.
As MacDonald remembers the encounter, Ochs was running the Allende benefit operation out of a cramped office buzzing with people and telephones. Amid the chaos the 26-year-old folksinger played Ochs a song he'd written about the Chilean coup. "Phil squatted down on his haunches, and he listened to me play him my entire song," MacDonald recalls. "People were trying to interrupt him the whole time. They were going, 'Hey Phil, I need you over here.' 'Hey Phil, Baez is on the phone, she needs a hotel room.' 'Hey Phil, McGuinn's in town, he wants to know what to do.' He kept pushing them all away, and he listened to me play my entire song. Then he said to me, 'I'm sorry I can't have you in the show, but I want to thank you for coming by.'"
MacDonald says he wasn't put off by the rebuff. "I was pretty green," he says. "I don't hold it against him that he didn't put me in the show. But I do value the moment that he gave me to play for him very highly." In fact, on the 1998 tribute album What's That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs, MacDonald covers the Ochs song "Pleasures of the Harbor."
Despite his failure to make the cut for the Allende benefit, MacDonald would soon be poised to move beyond the hitchhiker circuit. After spending a few more years on the road, he returned to New York City in 1977, this time for an audience with renowned talent scout John Hammond, Jr. The musicians Hammond had recruited and produced for Columbia records in the past were legendary: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and George Benson, among them. Well before he became famous, Bob Dylan was known as "Hammond's folly" because of his rough-hewn voice and often-cryptic lyrics. More recently Hammond had discovered a young man from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.
MacDonald was hoping to be the next unearthed gem. He found an apartment in New York and auditioned for Hammond with positive results. He was set to record some tracks with the producer in hopes of securing a record deal. Before the sessions could take place, however, the almost-70-year-old Hammond suffered a heart attack, which forced him into retirement. "Without his guidance I really was kind of at sea for what to do in terms of walking into a bigtime recording studio and playing my songs," MacDonald recalls. "I really didn't know how to do that."
Even without a record deal, he would make New York City his home for the next two decades. The heyday of the '60s folk scene in Greenwich Village was long gone, so MacDonald and other struggling artists set about creating their own. Every Monday night a group of songwriters that included Tom Intondi, Lucy Kaplansky, and David Massengill met at the Cornelia Street Café to swap new songs. Out of these weekly hootenannies came an album, Cornelia Street: The Songwriter's Exchange, released in 1980 on Stash Records. It included two songs written and performed by MacDonald. Shortly after the album's release, Stereo Review ran a glowing review, and MacDonald was among those singled out for praise: "Songs not only perceptive and linguistically rich, but touched with grace," the reviewer wrote of his work.
Despite this early success, many of the folkies were finding it difficult to land record deals. In 1982 Jack Hardy suggested they start up a musician-run label. Ten times each year, the label recorded new songs from a dozen different artists. Within two weeks each recording was on the streets for a price of just $2. The idea was to get the music into consumers' hands as quickly as possible, so the label was called Fast Folk.
Just as Fast Folk was getting started, the Speakeasy opened on MacDougal Street. Like the record label, the folk club was run by musicians for musicians. Many of the songwriters who laid down tracks for Fast Folk performed at the Speakeasy. MacDonald lived across the street from the club, and for much of the early and mid-'80s he was in charge of booking the venue. Mark Dann, who's worked with MacDonald as a musician and a producer for the last two decades, recalls that MacDonald was the first person to offer a little-known folksinger named Suzanne Vega a booking. "Before that," Dann says, "no one would give her a gig."
Artists who honed their chops in this thriving scene are legion. Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, John Gorka, Lyle Lovett, and Vega all worked with Fast Folk prior to becoming household names. Countless lesser-known musicians made their first (and often last) recordings on Fast Folk. The venture eventually became known as Fast Folk Musical Magazine, which published interviews and articles and released albums.
The movement reached an initial peak of respectability in 1984, when the first Fast Folk Revue took place at the Bottom Line. The then-decade-old Greenwich Village club had several times the capacity of the Speakeasy and was known for hosting notable artists like Bruce Springsteen. Among the relative unknowns performing that night were Vega, Kaplansky, and Christine Lavin. Near the end of the first set, MacDonald delivered a gripping rendition of his song "American Jerusalem," a stark meditation on urban life:
Oh, I been around
you could spend forever looking for a friend
in this town
and all you get to do is lay your dollar down
'til you're stumbling drunk up the stairs again
and the sign says,
"Welcome to American Jerusalem."
MacDonald was backed by a stellar band consisting of guitarist, bass player, and drummer. "I don't even think we rehearsed," he notes, "which makes it all that much more startling that it was as good as it was."
Richard Meyer, former editor of Fast Folk Musical Magazine, says the performance of "American Jerusalem" became a defining moment for the Fast Folk scene. "There was just a feeling in the room that something serious was happening," he says. "People realized that they had made a step up from being around the corner, at the Speakeasy."
Dann, who played bass on "American Jerusalem" that evening, recalls MacDonald saying afterward that it was "the greatest moment of his life."
"I remember it being a very magic moment," MacDonald notes. "I got that feeling as much from the performers backstage after it was over as from the audience. People were hugging me and saying, 'You really did it, Rod, you showed 'em we can do this.'"
Fast Folk stopped producing albums last year, after more than 15 years, but the Bottom Line shows continue to take place annually. The entire catalog of Fast Folk recordings was recently donated to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings to be remastered on compact disc. By the end of this year, more than 100 Fast Folk compilations will be available for purchase.
"I'm not a '60s folkie," says MacDonald. "I'm a person who came of age in the music world in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. The Fast Folk thing presented the first work of a lot of very important people. I think it's worth keeping as a historical document."
I know a guy in software design
he's online all the time
just trying to duplicate this sound
But it will never sound as clean
as my old wood machine
six strings and a hole big and round.
-- "Six Strings & a Hole Big & Round,"
Into the Blue (1999)
MacDonald's musical career has taken him many places since 1984. He's recorded six albums for three labels and performed in hundreds of venues. In the late '80s and early '90s, he opened a slew of New York-area shows for folkie and Woodstock performer Richie Havens. Each year MacDonald tours Europe, particularly Switzerland and Germany, where he has built up a following. He lived in northeast Italy for a time and made two trips to Czechoslovakia in the wake of the fall of the communist regime there to perform at concerts and festivals, sometimes for thousands of people.
If the folk scene in South Florida is going to continue to grow, MacDonald says, it'll need a respectable venue that showcases performers on a regular basis. He notes that there are attractive performance spaces in the area, but most showcase folk music maybe ten times a year rather than every night. "There's nothing like the clubs in Greenwich Village, where six, seven nights a week there are really good songwriters playing original music," he says. "But there is work for people that play and sing well."
Tonight MacDonald finds himself in the humble surroundings of the Coffee Gallery Café in Lake Worth. With 11 p.m. approaching, the crowd has thinned to about a dozen people -- if you count the owner of the café and two waitresses, who have repaired to tables. Someone sitting at a sidewalk table has called out a request for the John Denver song "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Looking momentarily nonplussed by the request, MacDonald tells the audience that, before Denver died in a plane crash two years ago, it wasn't fashionable to play his songs. He then gamely recounts a story of how, back in the '70s, his ability to knock off a few Denver tunes helped him find a ride into Pittsburgh in the middle of the night.
"Take Me Home, Country Roads" is followed by a Donovan song and then a Leonard Cohen tune. For his final number, MacDonald performs an earnest political anthem called "Who Built the Bomb? (That Blew Oklahoma City Down)." "So who lit the bomb that blew Oklahoma City down?" he sings. "'Not I,' said the preacher, book in hand, with his personal knowledge of God's great plan/ 'God will punish those who do wrong and sometimes we need to help Him along.'"
The song is greeted with hearty claps from those remaining.
"Hey Rod, who wrote that one?" asks a man who says he used to see MacDonald play all the time in New York City.
"Me," MacDonald smiles. "I'm the guilty man."
Three sound clips from MacDonald's new record
*Rod's homepage, http://www.parallaxpro.com/rod/
Singer's House Concert Series and calendar of folk events, http://www.singerfolkmusic.com/