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.