Longform

Notes From the Underground

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"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.'"

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko