Artist’s Notes for “Songs From the Beginning”
When I played “Let It Roll” for four people peering over notebooks at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, I had officially entered the Boston Folk Music scene. I believe the year was 1978, and thankfully, I passed the audition. I had come a long way for that moment, leaving my hometown of Richmond, VA after college, driving 700 miles for the amazing musical melting pot of an area with over 200 colleges and universities. I knew virtually no one in Boston, and I thought that that was a good thing. The only reason that I was there was to become a songwriter - I wanted no distractions.
At first the sidewalks of Boylston Street, the reflecting pool of the Christian Science Center, the Mass Ave. Bridge, the Esplanade, Hoover the seal at the Aquarium, and the bleachers of Fenway Park, were my friends. I absorbed the city before I began forming the relationships that would begin to spill out in music. This is what you will hear on this CD, the beginning.
Fast forward four decades to one year into the pandemic, and I was well into live streamed concerts. I decided to revisit these songs for my modern audience. I called it “Songs From the Beginning.” I got such great feedback that I later repeated the show, and I think I just said out loud that I should make a CD of these songs. That’s all it took. Through the generosity of so many, I have been able to make this journey back in time but with the advantage of all of the knowledge and skills that I have gained in the four decades since.
I have tried to walk the line between preserving exactly how this music was played and adding some of the varied sounds that at one time or another visited those early stages with me. By moving into the Fenway area, I had unwittingly dropped myself in the middle of three major music schools - the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and Boston Conservatory. I can trace all of my musical lines from that first audition at the Nameless Coffeehouse through the remarkably talented, educated musicians that I met in that small vortex, who patiently heard my passion over my ignorance. They were my teachers and friends. For me, these songs are filled with their laughter, their care, and their influence.
Once the idea of CD was launched, my first call was to my long time friend and bassist, Doug Wray. No one was more important to my musical life than Doug Wray. For many years we played as a duo, working these arrangements out note for note. These songs wouldn’t be the same without him. There are so many stories in the spaces between the notes. Doug taught me so much about how to be a musician, how to think about music. He was always giving me things to listen to to expand my horizons. He got me to see Jazz greats McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Gary Burton when I knew nothing about them. He is my friend and a fabulous musician. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
The second call was to Dave Schonauer at MorningStar Studios just outside of Philadelphia in Norriton, PA. Dave is a remarkably talented engineer, musician, and human being. This studio has been one of the most important discoveries of my later musical life. I loved the idea of recording these old songs with all the skills that I have developed over those years and with the technology and knowledge of a modern studio.
The original tack was that this would be a very small project, made for those most loyal of loyal fans, who heard this music at the Nameless Coffeehouse, or Passim, or in one of the satellite college coffeehouses in the Boston area. [The most notable of those was Chulmondley’s at Brandies University (Doug’s alma mater). A special bond was formed between Doug and I and about five years of students at Brandeis. We played at Chulmondley’s once a semester for those years and even made a live recording in that geodesic dome. (That recording has recently been transfered into a digital format, so that it won’t shed away with the cassettes that held it.)] But as the recording began to take shape - especially once Doug’s parts were added - I had the feeling that it should be heard by the larger world of people who may know me from Brother Sun or from Deeper Than The Skin, but did not know that this music existed.
As a producer, it’s very important to decide on a sound palette for a given CD, and that was particulatrly true for “Songs From the Beginning.” As with a painting, every color affects every other color, and an acoustic guitar is open tunings is a particually recessive pigment. I felt very strongly that if these songs were sonically filled out in the way a modern production might be, they would have become something else - it would have fostered an entirely different relationship with the listener. So, I left the bedrock of the songs to guitar and bass, something that allowed the arrangements that Doug and I so assiduously worked out to come to the fore. When I did add, I added with the entire canvas in mind.
It was an important decision to let the cello be my harmony voice, and to leave the human harmonies to the listeners, just as it happened back in the day. I want this recording to invite you to sing with me. In coming into the control room, Michael commented, unprompted, that he loved that this CD will let him make up the harmonies. I felt a small degree of vindication.
My hope is that the wider circle of my later career will develop a very personal relationship with these songs, as so many in the past have. Those that first heard me in Brother Sun, or with Reggie Harris in Deeper Than The Skin have no idea of this period in my writing life. These songs are the very personal expressions of someone embarking on a new beginning in music and in life. They are the foundation I’ve built my musical life on. I hope you can feel my pride in these tracks. It is, after all, my story, my “days with desires so fiercely in confusion, times when I was first out on my own.” Perhaps, you will hear some of your own beginnings in these heartfelt, surprisingly musical, early expressions.
Let It Roll
Dmaj7 tuning (DADF#AC#), Capo on 2, Key of B
“Here I sit about midnight, nowhere near where I was about noon.” I couldn’t have descirbed my early days in Boston any more accurately. I had earned this time to focus entirely on music by working every possible chance the previous year to save up my creative nestegg. Arriving in May, I knew I could hold out until the fall before getting an official job, so my unofficial one was finding myself as a songwriter. I was truly “letting it roll,” but even within the context of one song, I couldn’t sustain the bravado all the way through the chorus without acknowledging the risk I was taking.
G tuning (DGDGBD) Capo on 2, in the key of A
This was written for my first girlfriend in Boston. Patty had just graduated from BU on full scholarship for piano. She had faced that moment in a formally trained musician’s life when they have to decide if they can continue in that extremely tight, competitive world. She’d decided to go to architecture grad school in St. Louis and this was her last summer in Boston. She’d essentially stopped playing - something I was too ignorant to understand at the time. But our conversations always came back to music. One of her music professors had recorded a haunting record of Scarlatti fugues, played in cathedral in Europe. We listened to it all the time. A fugue is a weaving together of four melodies, each one compelling on its own. But, you can get lost in listening, following one trail or the next.
As you might imagine, I was a little uptight in my first months in Boston. I’d put everything on the line, coming to a place where I knew no one, to write music. Patty was anything but. She showed me to all of the great places in Boston, with joy, with ease, with fun. I was determined to hear her play before she left and finally after much lobbying on my part, just once, she gave me that honor. It was to be one of several such moments in my life where a world of understanding my own limitations happened in an instant.She was phenomenal, so gifted. In an instant, I saw an entirely different Patty. I saw her journey and her depth, and as I look back, how far I had to go as a human being.
The song is a confluence of my memory and my wishfulness, not really biography, but a constructed story. It was so difficult to boil down all of her reasons for stopping and to include the fact that after she was in school (again after much lobbying from me) she got a piano in her room and set the “notes upon the pages” aside. I just couldn’t believe that someone so talented could walk away. She was miles ahead of me in so many ways.
The line, “days with desires so fiercely in confusion,” is one I’ll always be proud of, because it so captures my early days in Boston - and probably that time in everyone’s life. So this song is more accurate about me than Patty, and it makes me want to apologize to her for the over-simplification. As always, this is the danger in writing a song about someone. I hope that she was appreciative of the effort and forgiving of the rest.
Slack D tuning (DADGBE): Capo on 2. Key of E
This is a very old song written in the Berkshires on the way back from CleveIand. Doug Wray, John Sands (my first drummer), and I had just played in our first music conference As we drove on I-90 in Up-State New York heading into the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, a light snow fell, transforming the land but not sticking to the highway. In the dimness of the evening the highway was a black stripe in a lambent gray world. The warm yellow lights from the windows of the homes we passed, and the snow gave everything the feeling of coziness. The instrumental melody floated in though the car window, that’s how I can best describe it. I heard it and had to learn how to play it on the guitar when I got home. It was magical. I remember working out the bass part in my appartment on the Fenway with Doug. I knew I wanted to mirror the guitar lines with a counter melody on the bass. As he was so creative at doing, Doug interpreted my hazy idea and supplied the notes - making it sing. It really is a song that sounds like nothing else I’ve ever done.
Recreating this in the studio was an utter joy. Through a complete stroke of good fortune, Michael Ronstadt, cellist extraordinaire, was able to come in to MorningStar Studios. For those who aren’t familiar with Michael, I am proud to have him on this recording. He is one of those musicians where the second their fingers touch their instrument, something ethereal happens. Like the most gifted players, it’s impossible to separate the years of study and practice from sheer individual brilliance. You hear them both at once, and you lose both in the beauty that eminates from his cello. My challenge was to convey my concept of how the song should unfold and then let his musical sensibilities react. The cello moves me like no other instrument, and in his hands... As we started hearing the sound of Michael’s playing in the setting of the song, Dave and I just looked at each other in the control room. I said what we were both thinking - there are not many days in the world like this.
On a final note, what you hear on this recording also contains a bit of the present in the form of my piano splashes. In rediscovering the song for my modern live streaming audiences, I decided to play it on piano in order to most fully express all of the parts that are so critical to making it work. So, when the cello made it’s appearance, I couldn’t resist the ensemble sound of guitar/bass/cello/piano. As you will hear in all of the songs Michael that plays on, the cello is singing harmony with me.
D Tuning, Capo on 2, in the key of E
One of my earliest songs, played at my audition for the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square - the place that started everything for me. The song is a confulence of my influences. I inherited D tuning from my first remote teacher, Richie Havens, and the three finger picking style from James Taylor (who forever changed the sound of an acoustic guitar, and as I’ve heard said, made guitar sellers around the country very happy). It occurred to me to combine these two things one day and the result was “Summer Song,” “Let It Roll,” and “Winds of Change.” Those early summers in Boston were the happiest in my life. So, when the spring day finally came when you could be certain that winter was gone, it was a celebration of life. After the Blizzard of ‘78, you could still be walking past piles of ice and snow on the Fenway to the roar of Red Sox fans in April. So the day you left home without a coat was an event, especially for someone from the South.
C9tuning, Capo on 4, in the key of E
“About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position...” These openning lines from W.H. Auden’s “Museé de Beaux Arts,” led me into a new life. In a sweltering dorm room, I had given up on being able to focus on the poem I’d been assigned. The second half began with “in Breugel’s Icarus,” the phrase that sent me out the door. I knew that this was going to require more energy than I was willing to expend. So I headed for the only place that I knew was air conditioned - the movie theatre. The Williamsburg Theatre was a kind of alternative theatre, showing films that you’d never heard of. So, I paid no attention to the marquis and headed straight for the popcorn.
The irony of that moment has been lifelong for me. Sometimes the universe decrees that it’s time for you to learn some-thing. I found a seat and stuffed popcorn into my mouth as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” formed on the screen. How was I to know that David Bowie would lead me into enlightment, complete with putting his finger onto a print of the very Breugel’s Icarus that had just sent me away from my books. Maybe it took David Bowie to be the one, but I suddenly understood the opportunity that I’d been presented with. I went to the library to see a print of the painting, and then dove into W.H. Auden. My life was different after that.
Who knows when or if that moment will come when someone’s individual experience connects to all people, everywhere, throughout time - that there is something called the human experience. We are all woven together by it. So when finally in Boston on my own tenuous wings, when I walked past a homeless man, realizing that in that same repeated action of those first months, I had stopped seeing him, W.H. Auden’s lines flooded my head. “...the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
Phoebe Carrai, my friend from the New England Conservatory, was the first to play cello on this song. She’s the one who taught me just how eerie cello harmonics can be (Blood Upon the Snow, Passion Dance). So, when I talked to Michael Ronstadt about this project, Phoebe was on my shoulder.
Winds of Change
Dmaj7 tuning, Capo on 2, in the key of B
After the door has closed behind you for the last time, what now?
Blood Upon the Snow
G tuning, Capo on 2, in the key of Am
A story constructed by a young man learning for the first time about native peoples and the brutal truth of names like Bear Creek, Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee.
Dmaj7 tuning, Capo on 2, in the key of B
Leaving the intense city to stand beneath the palpable Milky Way.
It's Not Easy to Love
G tuning, Capo on 3, in the key of Eflat
Alone in a strange city as the lights in the courtyard appartments go out one by one until it’s just me and the moon.
Starting All Over Again
Standard Tuning, Capo on 4, In the key of B
Written very soon after leaving my hometown and everything familiar. I had no inkling of where my journey might lead. The future was an unknowable wall in my mind, so I looked back to a day when I’d sat with a newborn baby. “Maris” was wide-eyed and stretching her fingers out to the limits of her vision. I felt that we were both doing the same thing.
Best Thing at the Time
G tuning, Capo on 2, in the key of B
self-help song - it takes four verses to admit that it was all my fault.