February 2016
Keeping the Channel Open

Here is the rest of her quote:

"It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others." 

Oh Martha, thank you. I was mouthing off on stage last week about my songwriting workshops, and the Martha Graham quote that my mother would send me year after year. But, really! It's important. And, do NOT be fooled. We ALL struggle with it. She wasn't kidding about the dissatisfaction, the "blessed unrest." But we wouldn't have it any other way.


And so...I got to work with my crazy pal Eric Bazilian for the last couple of days. We are an odd couple. He's a ridiculously musical rock star, producer, guitar hero dude (Hooters) His motto: "Just remember, 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.'"

I'm happiest tunneling down the rabbithole of brooding alt-folk waltzes. The more elliptical and tragic, the better.

When we get together, our motto is "Let's try shit." (keep the channel open!) This week was no exception. I pulled this weird forgotten lyric out of my vault, Eric hooked up his 6 string banjo in one of my favorite Jonatha tunings, ran it through his gnarly chain of overdriven plug-ins, and... BAM. "Mean Looking Jesus" was born. The next day we swung to the other side of the spectrum, and wrote "I got Nothin.'" BAM.

I cannot say this enough times to myself or my songwriting workshop people. (And I KNOW it's NOT easy.) We all hit the wall. We all think we suck. (ask Eric!!) But you show up, keep the channel open, do your work, and then the world can have it.

So, Martha, and Eric, thank you.

My Father's Friends

Over the weekend two friends of my dad were in touch. Out of the blue really, I didn't know them when my dad was alive. And I didn't know he still had friends around who might know my name. 

My dad was a journalist. For most of his career, he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.  He died suddenly in 1997. He was 67. I have tried, off and on, to piece together more about him. In many ways, he was secretive. Every once in a while, more clues:

"Some day I will emerge from the crowd and say your father was a dear friend of mine and we can reminisce together for a moment.  I work at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton and knew him when he was at CSM.  He was so proud of you I can hardly wait to see you in person."

A second friend came to the show on Saturday night in Natick and left me a note:

"I was a friend of your father, Rob Nelson...In case I do not get to meet you after tonight's performance, I am writing this note to tell you a nice story about your father and a trip he had hoped to take with you some day. Rob and I talked of his memories of the Plains states and the people [his family] who had settled there. He said what he really wanted to do was take a leisurely car trip with you through that part of the country so he could show you what it looked like and how he remembered the land and people from his early life. Rob hoped you would enjoy making that trip with him and he was eager for the conversations you would have together.

Many times since Rob's death in 1997 I have remembered his touching dream of traveling with his daughter. I hope you don't mind my telling you about it now. Maybe you will find a song in this story."


I have a photo of dad's mother, sitting in a home-made swing holding a baby doll, - a water tower, houses, out-buldings in the distance. On the back, "June Colby, a little girl in Marquette, Nebraska, about 1915."

And now, just this morning, memories of him telling me stories about June and her four crazy sisters. Am I imposing a new urgency on this memory? He only started bringing these women to life for me in his last couple of years. Was I listening? Was he pining for that part of the country? For the stories the landscape would whisper back to us?

We didn't have time to take that trip. And I wish I had written down those stories....

But, the pieces come. And there's my dad, vivid again; romantic and a little tragic, proud as only a father of a daughter can be, both of us wedded to finding and telling the story.