PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 24, 2007

Writes Left, Strums Right

by Jim Newsom

Although she’s one of the best, most respected singer-songwriters in contemporary folk music, it took Christine Lavin a while to decide to pursue music full time.

“I didn’t quit my day job until I was 32,” she told me a couple of weeks ago. “I started as a nursing major and then I changed my major seven times. I went to State University of New York at Brockport, which is near Rochester. I was always doing music but I never thought I could do it for a living, so that’s why I was always changing my major and trying to find what I should do.

“My last day job, I worked at Bellevue Hospital, and I made $25,000.00 a year, had a month’s paid vacation and had full benefits. When I quit, that first year as a folksinger I made $6,000.00, had no benefits, but I was much happier. It was do or die, either try it or give up.”

By the time she did go full-time as a musician, Lavin, who’ll be here this weekend for a Saturday night show at the Virginia Beach Regional Library, had been playing on the New York City scene for eight years.

“I’m from upstate New York,” she said, “Peekskill. But I’ve lived in New York City since 1976. I came here specifically to take guitar lessons with Dave Van Ronk. I met him when I was a waitress and bread baker at the Café Lena in Saratoga Springs, and he encouraged me to come to New York and he would teach me. Like me, he couldn’t read music and he’s left handed playing right-handed guitar. So he was a really good teacher—I have the same built in problems. I’m left-handed but I play right handed guitar, so you end up having a really strong left hand and a really stupid right hand.”

She had begun playing guitar much earlier, learning the basics off of TV:

“I started playing when I was twelve. I watched lessons on Public Television and I got a book from the station for one dollar, and I played along. I actually met the woman who taught those lessons on TV twenty six years later—she came to my concert in San Francisco because the newspaper had mentioned how I learned to play guitar. She looked at my picture in the paper, figured out how old I was, and figured out that she must’ve been the teacher. She sent her business card backstage, and sure enough it was her! Her name was Laura Weber.”

Like many baby boomers, Lavin was inspired to take up guitar in the first place by the early ‘60s folk boom and kicked into high gear by the Beatles and their British brethren.

“It was really early folk music,” she said. “I listened to FM radio when it was brand new, and there was folk music like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, early Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. Those were the people that I first heard that I really resonated with.

“But February 9, 1964—so many people I know watched that [The Beatles on Ed Sullivan] and it changed their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if that was a national holiday! For the 40th anniversary, I made 40 copies of my arrangement of ‘All My Lovin’ and sold them for $5.00 each. One of the people who bought a copy was the caregiver for Linda Eastman McCartney’s 98-year old aunt, and she bought it as a gift for her because she didn’t believe that Paul was really famous.”

Now twenty five years into her recording career, Lavin has made her mark with songs like “Sensitive New Age Guys,” “Biological Time Bomb,” “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind” and “You Look Pretty Good for Your Age.” She’s won a shelf full of songwriting accolades, created an award winning children’s book from her song “Amoeba Hop,” and hosts a show on XM Radio. She also champions fellow folksingers by producing compilations like last year’s One Meat Ball, a 19-artist CD/cookbook combination.

“I worked on that for almost three years before we finally pulled it all together,” she said. “We’ve done some group shows where they had a buffet at intermission and it was a huge hit with audiences, like a feeding frenzy at the dessert table. It was like people hadn’t eaten for years! It occurred to me that people who like folk music like to eat. Some of us like to eat too much!”

She’s currently working on an interesting project, a folkie version of those “Stars on 45” disco medleys from the early ‘80s.

“I was in the studio yesterday,” she explained. “I’ve put together five of my favorite folk songs and put a dance beat under them. They are ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ ‘Alone Again (Naturally),’ ‘The Elusive Butterfly of Love,’ ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Those Were the Days.’ It’s a six-and-a-half minute medley, and I’m gonna make two versions—one with these big dance drums and one without any drums at all. I envision this as something DJs can use at weddings where people will not only dance to it but they’ll sing along to it. Or I may have lost my mind!

“I love the fact that they’re all pretty serious songs. ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ is about trying to commit suicide. But I’ve been doing that song in my shows…people love that song. Don’t you like that song?”

No, I had to admit, I was never a big fan of Gilbert O’Sullivan.

“I’ll send you a copy when it’s finished,” she laughed. “Maybe I can change your mind about ‘Alone Again (Naturally).’”

Christine Lavin will be alone Saturday night but she’ll be mobile, completely untethered from the confines of the library’s stage.

“I’ve been wireless for a few years,” she said. “It makes it so much easier at shows because the whole room becomes the stage. I put a light on my head and go into the audience looking for the best looking man to crown him. So I guess I’ll be crowning Mister Virginia Beach 2007. The crown is very nice—I make it myself so it’s valuable on eBay. And there’s also some very nice prizes, plus the bragging rights!”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.