Last month, January 1st, I sat on a warm sidewalk in Fort Worth, Florida, awaiting a performance by Rod MacDonald. I have known Rod since the late 70's from the Greenwich Village music scene. These were the days when passing on the street between folk clubs of the time were many a folk fan, many a folk performer stopping for coffee at The Borgia, or other favorite haunts. People like Rae Monroe, Jay Rosen, Janet Miller, Lynn Samuels... but there were also the many performers: Shawn Colvin, Cliff Eberhart, Dave Van Ronk, Nancy Baxter, Frank Christian, Mark Dann, Suzanne Vega, David Massengill, Jack Hardy, Tom Intondi, Peter Spencer, Cynthia Gooding, The Roches ... these names went on and on ... it seemed endless.
At this time I was running the Speak Easy on MacDougal Street. Rod had an apartment across the street, typically tiny for that area with a door entrance on an angle to allow for the other apartment tenant at the end of the hall to enter his apartment; at that time, fellow musician Erik Frandsen.
Speak Easy was open every night. Some evenings were not well attended. We all knew even at that time, that this was a major collection of growing talent in the folk movement. When I left running the Speak Easy in the early 80's to pursue a life in Sullivan County it was Rod who took over the Speak Easy. At the time he was one of the top writers playing in the city scene. His songs are pretty powerful.
Here is Rod doing his tune "Stop the War". This is from 1986. It is live from The Bottom Line. Singing with him are some of the residents who lived this nightly scene. They would learn each others tunes and sing them as often as they would their own, whenever given a stage to sing on. Nicki Matheson, John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky, Christine Lavin, David Massngill, Richard Meyer, Germana Pucci, Jack Hardy, Mark Dann, Jeff Hardy, Robin Batteau, and Howie Wyeth.
That was Rod MacDonald, live at the Bottom Line, 1986. Singing with Nicki Matheson, Lucy Kaplansky and the world of people who were regulars there on the village scene. That is how I remember Rod: Political, powerful, writing about fairness and justice yet fully able to write romantically or gently just as easily.
One of Rod's best friends then, and now, Mark Dann, was ever present with his Walkman taping everyone. The next time the person would be seen, Mark would be ready to play bass, guitar or anything the song called for, since he would have memorized the song by then. Back to this January first (1/1/1999), about 20 years from these first times, I heard Rod's new sound. He has moved to Florida. He has married and makes his living now playing regularily as a duo or a trio in the Irish music circuit and at cafes.
In the village his money-making gigs were just a handful a year, really. Now he can play several times a week and make a livng at playing music, with minimal touring. It is just fine with him. I sat and chatted with his attractive, intelligent wife, Nicole as the music began. I was use to hearing him perform solo, or with a background chorus as you heard. That night I heard a duo. Rod and his musical partner, Tracy Sands, from the north of Ireland.
Here is a song that they performed that night. I will warn you that we are out on a sidewalk. There are motorcycles going by, there are dishes clacking, but perhaps I can put you in the feeling that you too were on a warm sidewalk on the first of January, 1999.
Angela: Have you changed your musical tastes? What do you listen to?
Rod: Me? What do I listen to these days? Everything. I listen to a lot of NPR talk shows. I listen to Talk Of The Nation almost everyday. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I listen to a lot of jazz, listen to a lot of the songwriters that I like when they put out newstuff of all kinds, I listen to a lot of the contemporary Celtic stuff that Tracy gives me when we want to learn new songs, I keep an eye out for that. She is a trained singer....She is from County Down - Newry...
Tracy: I'm from Northern Ireland yeah, County Down, actually, on the eastcoast, it is a small area that I am from. I was singing at home with a young fella names Davey Muldrew from the local area, and I decided to come to Florida actually to recover from a really bad type of arthritus thatI had. I thought the sun would be good. I also had the opportunity to sing while I was here. Plus I met my husband, and I also met Rod here and he was looking for a gig in the bar where I was working one afternoon andI said," Hey you know what? I need a guitarist. I'd like to gig. Come on to the back an I'll audition you."
Rod: We met very accidently one day when I was walking around in the heat of the night in August in West Palm looking for a gig. I walked into O`Sheas and she was tending bar. She saw my guitar and she said to me "Do you know how to play that thing?" I said "Yeah, probably" She said "The guy here said he'd give me a gig if I hired a guitar player, I don't play." She had come over here as a singer with another guy as a backup singer and met her husband, fell in love and stayed.
Angela: What's it like having Tracy, this women's voice, doing your own songs. You haven't played before as a duo. with someone doing your tunes, or have you?
Rod: No. No I never really have...
Angela: Like I know Garnet recorded your songs, I know people are recording your tunes but,
Rod: No, I never have done this kind of thing before.
Angela: Do you write now with a woman's voice view?
Rod: Have I written anything for Tracy? No I haven't. I thought maybe I should try, but I haven't really come up with any ideas yet.
Tracie: I'd like you to.
Rod: Yeah, Well actually...
Tracie: That would be nice...
Rod: ...having done one CD of the tunes we do in the bars around here we probably should start thinking about doing a more original music type CD next time. So we probably need to start actually doing some serious writing for that. But so far I haven't really done much. I'm working on a CD of my own solo stuff right now and that is kind of taking up my wiritng head for the time being. That will probably be done this spring and then I'll probably think about the next project after that. But I have written a bunch of songs, like the one we did in the first set "Its a tough life" and most of those are songs that are kind of about my life here since I moved here an have gotten married. Every once in a while I think about writing something for Tracey but I don't really know, as a songwriter, that clearly what Tracey wants to say in songs... that I would write for her. I've got a pretty good idea from the songs she choses of other peoples so I think if I can turn that around, I may be able to write for her.
Angela: Or could you write a song...as Rod, that you would want to listen to a woman sing?
Rod: You know I don't really think that way very much. I haven't really got the grip on that. I don't know if I could actually write songs specifically for anybody else. I have certainly tried, but never actually succeeded at it that I know of. I have never actually sold a song to anybody. All the covers of my tunes that are out there are all news to me. They're all people who learned them on their own, learned them sometimes from other people, learned them from recordings - Garnet's versions of my songs.. I had nothing to do with them. We swapped LP's at a gig once and the next thing I knew he was putting my song on his recording. Songs of mine that Tracy picked I would not have expected her to pick. My feeling is to just write songs that I think are good songs and let peole pick want they want to pick.
Angela: So, do you have different motivators for writing here than you did in the village days? Is it a whole different ..experience.... or do you go to the same place to write, whatever that is?
Rod: Yeah, you know, I don't write in a very disciplined way. I just write when I feel like I have something to write about...when I've got an idea I want to expand on. I think that is the same as I've always done. Although, I used to write on reams and reams of paper pages and pages of stuff and throw most of it away. Now I'm actually pretty consice. I just write what I want to write. Yeah. I have this sort of a national or whatever you call it, presence in the wider folk scene I suppose
Angela: Oh, yeah.
Rod: as a writer and stuff. Things get picked up. Well, "Sailer's Prayer" has actually been recorded by twenty something different artists.
Angela: Oh, wow! Well, it's a great tune.
Rod: Most of them never learned it from me either, they learned it from each other and other people... once in a while....
Angela: Well it is traditional isn't it?
Rod: (laughing) Yeah, that's what they say! Every once in a while somebody will come up to me "I heard you wrote that song "Sailer's Prayer" and they will be amazed. I even had one guy who was in a sailor singing group swear that I couldn't possibly have written it, that it was traditional. I said "No, I wrote it" He went back and checked and wrote me a letter and appologized, which was unecessary but I guess it was good that he did that.
Angela: Kind of a nice compliment, that he was so convinced!
Rod: You know it's funny I worked on the Clearwater as a volunteer a couple of times. While I was doing that I met a lot of professonal sailors. They really liked my songs that mentioned anything about sailing. Several of them said to me "You must have been a sailor in another lifetime" and I said "Why do you say that" and they said "Only somebody who had done that could have written the line `You can't change the wind, you can only change the sail.'" And I said to them, well "I would think that is pretty self evident you know. They said "Yeah but you don't understand that somebody who had never really sailed would not think of writing that. They were all totally amazed by that one line in that song. The song "Sailer's Prayer" was picked up by a lot of people who worked on the Clearwater, and one of them became captain of the Rainbow Warrior. He took it and is a connoseur I would have to say....Peter Wilcox his name is, of sea songs, and he took me sailing with him for a few days. We spent some of our free time singing for each other, and he knew an amazing amount of songs. Arcane sailor tunes, and he knew would sing that one all the time, he would sing it for people everywhere he went. I know that it is somehow is a true song, because it strikes a responsive chord with people who are on the frontlines fighting the water.
Angela: So how often do you go north, or tour around?
Rod: About twice a year. Next time is in June. Just did one in Novemeber. I go Spring and Fall, I usually go to Europe in the Spring. This year, I'm not sure, but I might go out west in the summertime. I don't tour very much because we made a commitment to my parents to be here and I don't like to be away all that much...
Angela: And you are active musically...
Rod: Yeah, and I'm playing all the time here. I have a commitment to Tracy also, when I go on the road she doesn't work for a couple of weeks and that's not so good either you know. I mean I like doing this . I think we are good. Our third member Bradley is also a very good musician. Like me, he is someone who has been around and played a lot of his own music for years and he is a seasoned professional performer so we have a good little group. I think we have one of the top acoustic groups in this area quite frankly. This makes it possible for me not to tour, because the irish music scene down here is actually where it is happening. in folk music. With Tracy as our singer, we can work every weekend, and even a lot of weeknights The last couple of years that I was in New York I was on tour so much that I had no life. I had no friends. I didn't know what anyone was doing. I'd come back and have two weeks in the village get on the phone and say "I'm back" and they'd say "Oh yeah, you're back in town." They all had other things to do you know.
Angela: Or they'd be out on tour themselves
Rod: Or they were on tour, right. I mean, that is the problem with being a tourng artist. You develop these friendships and then never see them again. When I moved down here my agent an I parted on good terms, but basically because I wasn't going to tour anymore. I wasn't going to go to Montana everytime he got me a gig someplace..
Angela: They don't want you if you are not gonna...
Rod: He said "I can't book you anymore" I said "I don't want to tour. I just don't. I want to stop touring. I still want to record. If I'm downsizing my career then that is what I am doing, I don't want to be obligated to be on te road all the time. That's kinda what's happening and I've kinda gotten to like playing locally. I have to say in all honesty that it is not as challenging artistically, you know, because I used to... particularly when I lived in the village. I felt that I was writing for my audience. I don't as clearly have.. my audience here because I'm playing regularly, locally. I never played three times a week in the Village. I played three weekends a year maybe so it was always a concert. I didn't play cafe gigs and stuff, like I'm doing here, so in a way the audience is much more difuse. There are a certain number of people that come here on Sundays to hear me sing my own tunes. And I keep that in mind. and I also play the South Florida Folk Festival and I do maybe ten gigs in Florida a year that kind of require me to have something new to show so that keeps me writing a little bit and the rest of the time, it's pretty much like I said.
Angela: Well it is great to sit, on January 1st, on the sidewalk.
Rod: Its pretty nice. It's a tough life I'll tell you. I like it here. But I also feel, having left home, having left different places that I've lived, there will come a time when we will leave here. I don't know when it will be but it won't be anytime immediately or even soon. I think that we will probably move to Switzerland at some point, but I don't know exactly when that will be.
On Air Narration: Rod MacDonald. In 1982 he interviewed Pete Seeger and Pete told him to go find "that neck in the woods, or that bend in the river, that you call home and make it your life". Rod has lived in Connecticut, Greenwich Village and Florida, talking about perhaps moving to Switzerland. Is he still looking for that spot? Maybe when you write like Rod MacDonald, it is a case of `have song will travel'.
Live from a cafe in Fort Worth Florida Tracy Sands and Rod MacDonald
singing "Hustle and Bustle of the City Life"