PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 1, 2007

Great Songs About Great Things

by Jim Newsom

Bill Staines is the consummate folkie. He’s worked the club, concert and festival circuit for forty years. But when he first started playing guitar in his hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, he was pulled in a different direction.

“I was about eleven or twelve,” he said when I called him at his home in New Hampshire recently. “I was doing a lot of the Ventures, the Fendermen, a lot of the instrumental groups back then. I didn’t actually have an electric guitar. I had an acoustic guitar with a contact mike on top of it, a little microphone that you clipped on the guitar and played it through an amplifier.”

But Staines, who’ll be here this weekend for a Saturday night concert at the Virginia Beach Central Library, quickly discovered folk music.

“The Kingston Trio were starting to do stuff in ’58,” he recalled, “and I was eleven then. But somebody played me The Weavers at Carnegie Hall album and I just fell in love with it. I went to see the Kingston Trio and then I went to a coffeehouse, and I think the first person I ever saw at a coffeehouse was Tom Rush. I fell in love with it then, and when I was in high school I basically lived in the coffeehouses.”

Fortunately for him, he resided in one of the hotbeds of the late ‘50s-early ‘60s “folk boom.”

“There were two or three big folk scenes around the country,” he said, “New York and the Village, and Chicago. But the Boston-Cambridge folk scene was really a vibrant folk scene at the time, and it was a wonderful place to grow up musically. I got to know the Farinas, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, Tim Hardin, Jerry Corbett who later became part of the Youngbloods. It was a real sweet time to grow up.

“I got out of high school and went to work for Sears. I worked for Sears for five years but I was playing in the coffeehouses in Boston. I had a bad back and that kept me out of Vietnam. In ’69, I had to have that operated on and taken care of, and I never went back to Sears. So it was really my bad back that kept me out of Vietnam and got me on the road as a musician.”

New England has remained a bastion of folk music. I asked why so many folksingers hail from that part of the country.

“Number one,” he replied, “there are a lot of venues up here. About four or five years ago somebody did a survey and found that within a 25-mile radius of Boston there were something like 67 folk venues. You go to Denver and there are a couple of great centers of folk music, but around the area there’s very little. In Los Angeles, you get maybe two hours of folk music radio a week. Whereas in Boston alone, we have a 24-hour folk music station; the media is essential because it brings the folk news to the audience, and someone can send in a CD to the radio station and, if it’s good, they develop a following. It’s just a great area for that type of music.

“Every town has a church coffeehouse. It’s not like you’re going to bring in hundreds and hundreds of people, but maybe a hundred people every week at a dozen different coffeehouses around Boston. There’s the New England Folk Music Network and the Boston Coffeehouse Association. It’s really a vibrant folk scene.”

Staines has the quintessential folksinger’s voice, deep and resonant, an earthy timbre filled with the agrarian roots of the American experiment. His songs sound like they were plucked out of the air and his themes are as big as the nation itself:

“To me folk music is music that is rich in the human experience and the human spirit. That’s what I was drawn to with songs like ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and a lot of Pete Seeger songs. They were simple songs but that had a great power to them. They were universal and they were songs that we all experience. That’s what I don’t find in a lot of the contemporary songs nowadays. People call it navel-gazing; a lot of it is meringue. To me, folk music is bigger than any one person, let’s put it that way. When I’m writing, I like to try and write beyond myself. I guess that’s the bottom line of it—writing great songs about great things.

“I listen to a lot of classical music, and when you think about old country hymns, there’s a sort of anthemic style to the melodies. I think a lot of my melodies basically came from that tradition. There are so many songs that became legendary songs—things like ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Amazing Grace’—those are just three chord melodies. That’s probably been the fount of the style of melodies that I write.

“I also try to bring something of value to people when I’m writing a song. I want them to be real; I want to write about things that matter.”

Bill Staines has spread a lifetime of songs over twenty five albums, and has an autobiographical book called The Tour. One can’t help but wonder if the inspiration is still there.

“Coming up with something that means something is tougher and tougher,” he admitted. “And as you get older, it’s like, ‘I’ve got three hours today to do something. Should I write a song or should I mow the lawn?’ If I try and write a song, at the end of the three hours I may or may not have written a song but the lawn will still have to be mowed. So I might as well mow the lawn. You tend to run away from it in subtle ways.

“Right now I’m thinking I have to write two songs in the next three weeks because I’m doing an album in the middle of May and I’m two songs short. It used to be all my own songs—I’ve written two hundred and some songs—but it’s never been easy for me, and it’s tougher now than it has been in the past.

“When you know you have a good song, then it’s really exciting. And you don’t know where it’s coming from.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.