Farming The Song

In past issues, AR writers have told various story themes about house concerts and championed how folks use them to bring live music to their friends and neighbors. Recently, the AR office received a bit of information about a new take on this subject. It is called a SongFarmer Club. It is an outflow of the WoodSongs musical fount. Let me first give you a bit of background.

Many of you are aware of a music program airing on Public Broadcasting known as the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. This program was created and is produced and hosted by folksinger Michael Johnathon. If you have ever listened to this show, you know that it is not a concert, but rather a one-hour musical conversation the focus of which is on the artists and their music. The broadcast is volunteer operated (even the artists come on the broadcasts for free); and its stage is open to a broad range of musical artists. As stated during the broadcast of each show, “You don’t have to be famous to be on WoodSongs, you just have to be very good.”

From humble beginnings, the show is now produced in the Lexington, KY, 540-seat, Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center; and aired on over 509 stations across North America. The live streaming and web-casting of both the video and audio of these shows are available to both noncommercial and commercial stations—only a handful of widely distributed shows share this distinction. The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour airs a new show on Monday nights at the theatre for 44 weeks a year. They have produced over 750 broadcasts thus far.

Latest Endeavour
Michael Johnathon is a 53 year old folksinger, songwriter, producer, author, and playwright. Johnathon is originally from New York State but relocated to rural Kentucky during the early 1980s in order to immerse himself in local culture and to learn first-hand about folk traditions. I sat down a few days ago and chatted with Mr. Johnathon about his musical philosophy and latest musical protégé: The WoodSongs Front Porch Association (WFPA). Michael Johnathon has a fertile mind when it comes to folk music traditions. He has written several books, released nine albums, and tours nationwide. In addition to his aforementioned WoodSongs radio/video project, he is instrumental in the creation of this WFPA. Michael said, “The Front Porch community is Americana at its best, and it is nationwide. We’re doing two things: we are sending roots music classroom projects and lesson plans for free to 1000s of schools across North America; and we are starting community SongFarmer Clubs. We call our members of these clubs SongFarmers.” Did you catch that last phrase? With that, we will segue into the rest of the story.

The WFPA is an association of kindred musicians, artists, and friends who use music to improve their communities. It is not a trade association that is empowered to advance the business of one particular genre of music but rather it is a musical association whose goal it is to spread the spirit of local music into local communities across the country. Just as the farmers of the earth in by-gone days sat on their actual front porches at the end of their work day and made music with family and friends, the WFPA is hoping to gather music minded folks to be farmers of music who can and will seek opportunities to spread the music and spirit of that old front porch into schools and communities around the world. As Mr. Johnathon puts it, “A SongFarmer is simply someone who wants to use his or her music to do good things that does not need to be money based. It is community, family, and neighbors. It is music for the love of the music not for the wallet of it. The idea has only been around for six months and we already have 14 active SongFarmer Clubs up and running.”

Farming The Song
What exactly is a SongFarmer Music Club? That is certainly the next question that comes to mind. Folk, roots, and bluegrass music is not presented at its best in the sterile, digital format that most of us experience our music in these days. Rather, it is best served live and local in an environment where you and whole audiences can see and hear the artists perform; experience emotional reaction to that performance unfiltered. With that observation, it appears that the folks who will be attracted to these clubs are the same people in the local musical scene who find house concerts and local string-music jams of great interest.

Michael told me that SongFarmer Clubs are free community events with the leader of the club registered as a member of the WFPA for the club to be official. The leader’s role is to invite neighbors and friends and fellow musicians to come together as a happy community to play and to listen. He said, “That is what Americana music was built on. It was not built on selling vibrating air. It was built on the love of neighbors and art. The front porch was once the grand pulpit of every community. When one looks at housing developments now, the homes do not even have a front porch. Now, everyone is inside but what we are saying is whether folks are inside or outside, the front porch is a heart condition. It is not just some wood connected to a house but rather a condition of the musical heart; and we want people to start using that heart again. We want people to start using the word love again when it comes to talking about music performances.”

The WFPA is hoping to get these local SongFarmers to start doing good things with their music such as going to children’s wards in hospitals, and to nursing homes and playing four or five songs for the kids and the old folks. The WFPA wants the SongFarmers to take their music to local schools, and share it there. Johnathon says it this way, “Art and music budgets are being slashed all over the nation. The musicians who are there in these communities should do something with their music instead of bemoaning the lack of CD sales. They should get out in the community and share their music. They should make music a part of their life rather than their livelihood. That is what WFPA wants everyone to do. The Wood Songs broadcasts are produced free by volunteers and this illustrates that the folk roots Americana community—this front porch community—is massive yet no one has attempted to bring them together until now. All of these little SongFarmer Clubs are filled with very passionate people. No one is getting paid—there are no salaries. All membership generated proceeds go to get music into the classrooms of the schools. The WFPA member/leader makes the club official with his or her membership fee while the club members just need to be someone who finds a joy in music.”

Finding The Joy
Michael believes that the artist community has focused so much on the failing of the places to sell their music that they no longer find joy in the music; however, he theorizes that all the audiences really care about is the music, hence making the music should be the artist’s business. He said, “Music is a three-pronged stool: a great song, a great artist, and a great audience. Without the audience what good are the artist and the song? My message to all fellow artists is that this is the best business plan to have. The only thing that connects us to the audience; the only thing that the audience cares about is the music. The questions we artists should ask ourselves: are we bringing our audiences into our journey; and are we filled with joy and love for what we are doing. Because that is what the audiences are investing in with us.”

I did ask Michael if he thought this club concept was better than unofficial jams and house concert gatherings in someone’s house on a Saturday night. Here is how he answered my question, “Yes, I do, and I’ll tell you why. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger, and what this club concept emphasizes is that the members are part of a national community. In fact, WFPA, in partnership with the University of Kentucky, has launched a global list serve to encourage conversation among the artists who are the SongFarmers. We are saying to SongFarmers, ‘use this list serve service to talk to each other about the music—songs, lyrics, buying and selling instruments, festivals, and SongFarmer Club events anywhere’ it is fueled by joy and love.” (Editor Note: a list serve service is an email list software application that allows someone to send one email message to the list serve hub that then sends the message on to the addresses of all the subscribers to the list.)

Things Are Changing
I theorized to Mr. Johnathon that most musicians do not earn a lot of money making music and he replied, “Is that not the end point? You as a musician are going to have a hard time getting booked because venues are closing all the time. There are no places like record stores to sell your CDs. While that is not hopeless, it is a sign that things have changed. Let us look at these changes and determine what we can do. You are not going to make money on your music but hopefully you’ve got a secular job for that purpose. Instead, do something wonderful with your music. Every great artist started that way. Money was not the focus—music and the audience was the focus. Others have always made more money on the music than has the artist. The artist is just trying to sell vibrating air. The industry turned it into a product, and yes, artists need to live; however, the living comes from the reward and joy of making the music. Folks are so focused on the failure of the business that they don’t see this massive garden to be farmed that they have right in front of them and that garden is called music and an audience.”

I told Mr. Johnathon, “You make a wonderful case for live and local music.” His enthusiastic reply was, “Yes! That is why we want the SongFarmer Clubs! We’ve come full circle. The more expensive something becomes to achieve, the less joy and happiness it provides. Simplicity is always best. It gives a person time to be joyful and happy. That is what we are trying to do. Trade associations have gotten so tied up focusing on the business, the budget, and the expense that they forgot the garden and the farmer. That garden and farmer are the audience, the music, and the artist. Right now, our world needs the front porch more that ever. And little banjo pickers and artists sitting around on the steps along with their neighbors watching the sun go down on the literal or the figurative front porch are doing more to create a peaceful world that all the powerful people on earth.”
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