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!


Bruce Cockburn and I, trading tunes at the Philly Folk Fest.

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.

Posted on August 19, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. John Cadley G-mail

    Thanks for this, Rolly. Looking forward to Part II. For someone like me who is indeed low on the food chain, it resonates deeply.



  2. Thanks for this. Thats how I see you too…and I respect it and you very much. Your obvious love for the guitar and you way of teaching it makes me want to immulate the same attitude. It makes you a teacher for real people as well!

  3. Saying you were “low on the food chain” just reinforced to me that you have a great sense of humor. Hope to say hello at Winfield.

  4. charles ortolani

    This an interesting and accurate perspective that applies to a number of us who have had at one time or another a dream (hope) that we could be commercially successful as a musician. (And possibly be universally admired in addition!! Fantasy can be fun!) But what really resonates with me is the need or goal of being authentic, whatever that is. Once I realized I could never be Albert Lee, or John Renbourn, Richard Thompson etc., i started to become more of the player that I am and accepting that this was a good thing – a very good thing. Also, ff you are low on the musical performer food chain, I am so much lower on the food chain than you! And it’s okay! It doesn’t diminish the joy I experience playing the guitar and singing, and sharing what I can do with friends or the occasional somewhat larger audience. I also look/hope for the respect of my peers. I also look to give respect to my peers. My ego never (almost) makes me miserable that I am not more than I am as a player. (I am much more likely to be harshly critical of my skills.) I find inspiration in players better than I am rather than envying them in a way that would make me miserable. (If I did envy better players, SAMW would be a miserable experience for me every year!) Your writing here is a good description as to how you’ve come to accept what you offer and the value that it has. And from personal experience, I can tell you how much so many of us value what you bring to us. Looking forward to Part Deux.

  5. These are very thoughtful insights into yourself as well as into the world of “commercial” music. Being this thoughtful and perceptive comes across when you play a piece and also in your tutorials and is, in itself, (beside the musicianship) – a draw – and a very attractive aspect of your performances. I think – (and as you seem to realize), you are very high on the “food chain” in a few different particular “niches” of the music world – (a musician’s musician being one of them). Thank you for all you do and all you give – it’s much admired and appreciated.

  6. Rolly; attending to the muse, investing in loss

  7. Rolly

    Interestingly enough Rolly, your peers seem to think you are nothing but a gentleman, a gentle person, an amazing musician and all round wonderful person to be with

    We (your peers) could not have written a better “who am I” for you

    Only the best of health and wonderful things in life sought after


  8. Well written Rolly. I have always thought of you as a Musician. That is to say someone who can play along with anyone and who has real ability and talent. You are a perpetual student of the guitar, the gold is in the journey. Don’t sell yourself short as a performer. I really enjoy watching you play because the love of the thing comes across and you make us feel like we are sitting in your living room with you.

  9. Rolly, I absolutely love this. And it resonates well with all the reasons I admire you and your music so much. You are real, from head to foot. Every ounce of you is genuine. It’s obvious you love what you do, and that love is contagious. I feel better about myself as a guitarist and as a person when I take classes with you, or even when I watch a video of you on YouTube. Thanks for making yourself available to us.

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