Most of these stories have been a product of serendipitous encounters with various musicians or a bit of a by product of some freelancing, but since moving to Calgary I have also had the opportunity to actually buy an encounter with some fantastic musicians. Sounds sleazy, but relax; the money part was just basically a tuition fee for some amazing workshop experiences.
The Calgary Folk Festival has a twenty-five year history of bringing some fabulous local and international roots musicians to town for the annual festival on St George’s Island in the Bow River.
Just over a decade ago, someone had a very innovative idea. The core of the idea was to take advantage of the talent and ask a half dozen of the performers to come a few days early and do workshops in songwriting, vocals or instruments for local musicians.
I cannot remember the exact dates of many of these stories but I can recall the moments. One of the early ones was with Justin Rutledge, the young Toronto songwriter whose songwriting was to me like poetry on a stick. I remember his nervousness. He let us know that this was his first time teaching and he was uncertain as to what was expected. It was that truthfulness and sincerity that won us over right from the start. The next day when he invited Basil from Blue Rodeo in for some of his insights we knew it was going to be a fine three days and worth every nickel.
For me, Justin’s plainspoken approach soon gave me insight into a recurring theme of Bootcamp. It is different for everyone.
Start with a simple question.
What does an amateur or even a developing musician need or look for in a workshop situation? Do we want traditional pedagogy defined as straight ahead instruction from the teacher/professional to the student/amateur? Or … perhaps we might prefer the adult education model (andragogy), which is more student led rather than teacher led. This model has the student identify what they need help with and the workshop deliverer is more concerned with meeting the students learning needs as opposed to what they think the student needs.
Or … perhaps we would love to have the workshop be more about coaching, another form of learning. What many amateurs crave in their work is respected and credible feedback.
Or … perhaps we just want to sign the check and hang for three days with some of the best storytellers and raconteurs in the world.
In my case, I suppose, I wanted it all. There were some great teachers like Dan Bern who I recall, had a pocket full of useful tips and techniques to approach the songwriting craft. As well, he was just such a funny down to earth guy.
Probably the best all around teacher/coach for a little songwriting triad that I am a part of, was the fine Canadian songwriter Donovan Woods. Even though he is successful in Nashville, he still has that down to earth approach to a song … simple, true and from the heart. More often than not, as the two Murray’s (Little and Fitch) and I try to figure out how to make a song better, someone will inevitably ask, “What would Donovan say about this?”
Linda Tillery was three days of pure African American soul. With just sticks and voice and no instruments she had us up and moving. We were singing, dancing and creating sound that was, hard to believe, really coming from inside the hard-core whiteness of most of us.
My favourite moment with Linda was when she had us dancing. Now I have always believed that I was a pretty good dancer with some particularly fine moves.
So I was moving …
Linda stopped us cold, came over to me. Looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. Bob, move your hips man, this is not “Up with People!”
My main learning focus over the years has been songwriting, but I did take a few vocal Bootcamps in the hopes of taming this wild hoarse of a voice.
Chic Gamine was a female old school quartet out of Winnipeg that dazzled with their harmonies and presence. They were kind on the old guy, lets say …
Shakura S’aida was lightning in a bottle. She was more than kind and I learned to back off and try to find my natural voice from her. I missed the opportunity to study with her again just recently and had a lovely reunion with her. I will not miss the opportunity again should it present itself. Shakura epitomizes the musician who truly loves to coach and mentor and there are scores of young musicians in this town who learned from her and love her.
I was enrolled in another vocal class a while back and it was not my first moment of recognizing my limitations. I can just barely get buy with singing and the notion that I might learn to sing harmony was I suppose, a dream to far.
So for the first time, I excused myself from one workshop and meandered over to another, this one in my comfort zone of songwriting … led by John Jones and Allan Prosser of the British folk/punk group Oyster Band.
Oh boy … they welcomed me as just another old guy scribbling his life out on lined yellow paper and off we went. They sent me home that night with an assignment … write a song using these four words …”from where I stand.”
So I went home and did everything else in the house that needed doing instead of the homework.
Finally I sat down with my pad of yellow paper and wrote a song … in fifteen minutes.
I had heard of such nonsense but never experienced it. I realized it was a gift when it took an emotional turn and I realized I had written it on my son’s birthday.
Sam Baker and Mary Gauthier were a couple of intense songwriting moments in in my Bootcamp adventures. I believe everyone who meets Sam Baker feels that they have now bonded with him. I know I did. We had a moment when I played him a tune and we both ended up telling our own stories of loss and working through pain. Sam is also simply a gift.
Mary was perhaps the most honest of the lot. Like Sam she had us play a piece but her approach was with the whole group. Not sure of anyone else, but for me, if I am playing for someone really good, I try to get clever. I should try to get more honest but the stupid side of me tries to figure out what they might like not what I think is important. Anyway, I pick a song I think she might get a kick out of rather than a song I love.
“Hold it,” she rasps after a verse and chorus “What is this sh…? What are you really trying to write about here?”
As my poor little ego fell further down the leg of my blue jeans I realized just how right she was and I went right back to a new pad of yellow paper.
Bootcamp puts you into direct contact with professional musicians who are leading your session but at the same time it is very cool that you are in the same space as other musicians leading other classes and sometime you get a moment. One of those moments for me was with the fine singer songwriter Catherine MacLellan, daughter of a Canadian music hero for many of my generation, Gene MacLellan.
I have a lovely Gibson J-45 guitar and so naturally I am drawn to these fine instruments. A highlight of Bootcamp is an opening concert with all the teachers and one year, Catherine was part of the faculty. She finished her song and was putting a J-45 into a case when I shyly approached her … is there any chance that may have been your dad’s? I asked. It was and she looked me kindly in the eye and asked if I would like to play it.
Oh my …
I went off script again one year and signed up for a guitar session with the mighty Matt Anderson.
He was amazing, generous and warm but once again, nothing was quite sticking to me.
It was noon and neither of us felt like eating, so we were just hanging out talking. I had written this blues song about Mother Earth and timidly, I asked if I could play my one blues song for him. Only if I can play along, he countered.
I had no phone at the time or even presence of mind to consider recording the moment, but if I had, it would still knock you, kind reader, on your ass. Well, his guitar would have, even if the song didn’t.
Yes, some of the time we get taught at Bootcamp. Some of the time we get coached and some of the time we just get to hang…
Hayes Carll was a great hang … I did not learn a damn thing, did not get coached but oh boy what a fine three days it was. Storytelling, brainstorming, opinions and songs just drifted by for three days like ripples in a good trout stream.
It has been one of the great collaborations on the Music Mile … Studio Bell and the Folk Festival joining in on the Bootcamp project. The staff and volunteers of both organizations feel like they are handpicked to support us and we look forward each year to hanging with another great week long mentor …
Thanks folks …