Who I Am…(or “Who Am I??”) Part I
Recently, I had a wonderful experience performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Andy Braunfeld asked me to do a guitar workshop. Now, I’ve done these several times before over the past 35 years, and they usually involve 5 or 6 musicians sitting on stage hoping the other guys don’t hog too much of the time. This time, however, Andy envisioned it as just being me and one other performer, the esteemed Canadian songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn, sharing the stage for an hour. It sounded like a great opportunity for me to share some of my favorite guitar pieces with a large and appreciative audience in a non-competitive, supportive atmosphere. And, sure enough, that’s exactly how it played out! Bruce was very gracious, we seemed to enjoy each others playing equally, and the audience was very positive both during and after the workshop. In short, one of those moments that musicians live for!
In discussing this on Facebook, I said that, as someone fairly low on the folk performer “food chain”, I was very pleased to have this opportunity. People wrote me to say, “You’re a great guitarist! You’re not low on the food chain!!” It set me to thinking, and this is what I thought: I AM low on the food chain, because the idea of a competitive measure of performers, in this sense, actually is an indicator of popularity, or “draw” in business terms.
I’m not a big draw, for several reasons:
- I play acoustic fingerstyle guitar, not “electro-acoustic” guitar, and my specific vision of the music is not very “in your face”. This does not mean that I disapprove in any way of showier playing than my own, provided I think it’s good music. Sometimes, I envy it. Often, I respect the virtuosity of it. It just isn’t “me”, and this is especially true as I’ve aged.
- I am not an entertainer. I am, instead, (and this is a crucial element of how I’ve come to define myself as a musician), a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar. I like to share my music, and, with nearly a half century of performing under my belt, I think I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not driven to compete in the marketplace.
- I don’t have a great voice, and, while I love to sing, and can probably put a song across pretty well, I doubt that there are many people who would prefer me to Ray Charles or Mose Allison.
- I only play music that I love. Like any good performer, I try to plan a set in a way that will be most engaging to my audience, but my planning will NOT include music which I do not love. Someone mentioned to me a while back that the word “amateur” means something along the lines of “lover of”: It originally reflected on the idea of someone playing for the love of the music rather than money. It didn’t mean “less talented”. I still like to think of myself as an amateur in that older sense.
- I decided long ago that, on stage, I just want to be myself. Some people get up on stage and put on the mask. Others get up on stage and take off the mask. I’d prefer to be the latter…within reason, of course, which means that I try to just be myself on stage, not a “showman”.
Here’s the thing, though: Being low on the food chain of performers does not necessarily mean that I’m low on the talent chain, or the musicianship chain. Those judgements are for others to make, but my own wish as a guitarist has always been simply to have the respect of my peers, and, to a great degree, that has come about. Seeing someone like Bruce Cockburn smile approvingly at one of my original instrumentals, or having my friend Mike Dowling, whose musicianship I respect immensely, recommend me to a new music camp, is plenty good for me. I chose long ago to lessen, to some extent, the influence of money (or the need for money) on my music, and I’ve been lucky to make a living doing other things I enjoy, and still have time and energy to devote to music.
So, as mentioned earlier, when I ask, “Who Am I?” as a musician, the answer is simply this:
I’m a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar.
Sometimes, my ego gets out of control, and I suffer from a touch of “That Should Be ME Up There” syndrome. Then I need to remind myself of who I am, and of who I am NOT … So, that’s my story. In the next installment, I’ll answer the “Who I Am” issue in a more conventional way.