Thank You For The Music
Thursday, September 28, 2017
As I come into the home stretch of my 18th year as a full-time touring musician, I am filled with gratitude. It has been an extraordinary experience. And while there have been genuine hardships, I would not trade the path I have chosen for another.
As a child I lay on the floor and listened to 33s, 45s, 78s, cassettes, and any other form of recorded music I could get my hands on. As the youngest of seven children in my family of origin, with a nearly 17-year spread between the siblings – I had a lot of music to choose from. And my parents and grandparents had all collected recordings as well. From 78s of symphonies and big band music to 45s of pop singles, from 33s to bootleg cassette tapes – I devoured it all. From Bartok to Benny Goodman, from Ella Fitzgerald to the Everly Brothers, from Appalachian church hymns to ABBA, from The Beatles to Black Sabbath, from Cole Porter to Cat Stevens, it was all in the mix. But Folk music was a through-line. I can’t say for sure why – but I think it was because folk music was music I could make on my own. With a single instrument I could mimic some of what I heard on those magical records.
This of course begs the question, what is Folk music?
I don’t have a good answer, and at age 45 I have been trying for nearly 40 years. But as the famous American Blues and Folk artist Big Bill Broonzy once said, “Folk music? Folk music? I ain’t never heard horses sing none of it. It’s all Folk music!”
I started on Mandolin when I was five. I think my first song was, “You Are My Sunshine.” Then my sister took her Mandolin back to college, so I explored the piano and a cool little electric organ my family had. But when I was eight, a family friend gave his classical guitar to me. He was moving to Seattle and did not have room for it in the car. It was the first instrument I had ever had that was all mine. I was so proud. It was HUGE for my 8-year old hands, but I was determined to learn how to play it. My sisters in particular, and an older brother helped me out with that quite a bit. Then I began to write songs. The songs were simple. They were basic, honest, minimalist expressions of my childhood perspective on the world around me. But I loved my guitar and I was determined to follow wherever the recordings were leading.
After determining that Ozzy Osbourne did not sound quite right on a classical guitar, I started learning Irish ballads. I tried some of the Classical melodies – but I had a greater love of creating new songs than learning existing ones.
I am so grateful to all of my siblings and to my parents for their genuine encouragement. I hear so many colleagues tell me stories about how they had to battle their parents in order to get permission to pursue music. How they were discouraged from following their natural curiosity and had to come back to it later in life. But isn’t that the joy of music? It’s always there waiting to be discovered!
The composer Johannes Brahms once wrote, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but one lifetime is not enough for music!” I could not agree more.
The way that my sisters and brothers, my parents, and my music teachers invited me to keep exploring was an immense gift. I sang in boys choir, musical theater, church choir, summer stock theater, Madrigals, Barber Shop groups, Celtic, Gospel, Folk, Rock, and Jazz groups, chamber music, and so much more. But I kept coming back to Folk music and songwriting as the most intuitive and natural expression of my ideas. Every genre taught me something, and continues to do so. Brahms was right. It is more than can be learned in a lifetime. But it is such a gift to have innate curiosity and be met with the encouragement to pursue one’s fancy.
I am not blessed with children of my own. But I have nieces and nephews and young friends that I meet in my travels. And I have encouraged them over the years to follow their passions. For me it was music. For some maybe it’s astronomy, medicine, weaving, sheepdog training, law, horticulture, carpentry, mountain climbing, natural conservation, social work, education, circus performing, or even parenting (which clearly is a little bit of everything). But whatever the passion, I encourage the young people in my life to go after it in a big way, and I encourage parents to get behind their young people. Eat life with a big spoon! Maybe they don’t figure it out. That’s what graduate school is for. There’s always another chance to chase a living. But there is no replacement for the indefatigable curiosity of youth.
I think that even though my siblings and I grew up with relatively little economic standing – the cultural tapestry that my parents surrounded us with was an immense gift. My parents could not afford to travel around the world, so they hosted foreign exchange students. And they brought the world to us. That alone taught me to be aware of other cultures and traditions. And each student enriched us with food, stories, and music from their home countries. I learned Chess and Backgammon from college students who hailed from Iraq and Iran. I learned simple chants and melodies and stories I later learned were from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, from students who hailed from various regions of India. I learned how to make spinach soup from a young Portuguese couple, and tasted my first Teriyaki created by a young Japanese student. We were so rich in experience – I spent very little time worrying about material concerns.
And books! We had books from as far back as the time of the US Civil War. I had encyclopedias from the era of WWI, from the 30s, and from the 1960s. Of course some of it was out of date by the time I was reading it. But most of it was not. We had volumes of literature and philosophy. And great dictionaries! And any time I found a word I did not know, I was invited to look it up.
And camping! That subject will have to be saved for another essay entirely. But suffice it to say – my parents instilled in all of us a sense of deep wonder and appreciation for the natural world. This too is a gift for a lifetime.
I in no way want to minimize my parent’s struggles. They worked hard to support us and to lift us up to the best of their abilities. And they paid a price. But they also gave us the gift of knowledge, curiosity, learning, and an awareness that the world around us was there to explore. And they also instilled in us the knowledge that we had a responsibility to those with whom we shared the planet. And they encouraged me to follow my dreams.
I do my best to honor them by continuing to follow my dreams, wherever they may lead. And like all paths of inquiry, one needs to be open to the unexpected. Those surprises may change our direction. Good scientists pursue answers to questions, but they also accept the times when the answers differ from the expected results. That is what research and exploration are about. My current path of inquiry is with a 1922 Gibson A-2 Mandolin. I just got it a few weeks ago and my inner 5 year old is VERY excited to be reunited with an old friend. We’ll see where it leads.
Music has been my primary area of exploration. And there have been plenty of surprises. But as I continue to make music and share it with others, I realize that one day – the larger pathway of my life may lead me in a different direction. Who knows? But I quote one of my favorite ABBA songs when I say, “Thank you for the music!” It is a gift that will carry me through a lifetime. And maybe, if I am lucky, a few of my songs will carry another curious child into this realm of joyous exploration.
Copyright 2017 - Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music, ASCAP