Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Folk music in Newport News. Take 2.

Friday of Memorial Day, long weekend. Concert performance by folk singer and songwriter Marion Elsass. The concert is organized by the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music and is part of its Coffeehouse Series. Website: www.tffm.org


Marion is a retired Nationwide insurance agent and businessman who participates in The Tidewater Songwriters’ Association. The association is a local songwriters' group founded in 1987 as a way to help members marshal their resources and enjoy their craft. During his career with Nationwide at its home office in Columbus, Ohio, Marion, his wife and children were residents of Upper Arlington.

Past performers at association concerts include Robert Matter, Greg Anderson, Adrian Whitcomb, Clayton Hill and Jack Staghill


Marion’s concert is at the ground floor auditorium of the First United Methodist Church on Warwick Avenue near Main St. in Newport News, Virginia.

Before the concert begins I talk to a man who turns out to be Iyricist Adrian Whitcomb. Adrian is wearing high-top Converse basketball shoes and has a small paper pad and pen in hand. Later, during Marion’s performance, Adrian takes notes. I wonder if his notes are for a review of Marion’s performance or for lyrics of a new song. I note to myself that Adrian did not take notes during or after his conversation with me, but then, no one has ever accused me of saying anything inspiring or poetic. Talking to Adrian before the performance, he is laconic but friendly. Adrian tells me that he has been a member of the songwriting group for three years and has written six hundred songs in that period. Adrian is a lyricist and relies on others for the music to his lyrics.

The audience count is forty-two. Most are couples and most are probably retired or near retirement. They are members of the sixties generation that revived folk music and popularized made groups like the New Christy Minstrels, Peter Paul and Mary, Limelighters, Janis and Ian, and Kingston Trio. The hair color of this audience is mostly the range of white, gray and silver. The room and audience are mostly blue in color. The window curtains in the auditorium are blue, the stage curtains and seat upholstery are blue. The clothing colors of this audience are almost all blue. Is the audience made up of retired U.S. Navy? Only two women have red blouses and one man has red Bermuda shorts. There is the occasional khaki trousers or white slacks, but blue is everywhere else.

The evening’s MC is Greg Anderson who manages the practical arrangements for concerts of the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music and the Tidewater Songwriters’ Association. Usually, Greg is assisted by Jerry Sauers, a lyricist and guitarist who is active in the organization. After a brief promotion announcement for the organization’s concert series, Greg introduces Marion and the performance begins.

After the performance, Marion confesses to me that he isn’t a paid member of the Tidewater group and comments that maybe the time is ripe for him to pay the annual membership fee.

The song list for the evening’s performance is a mixture of Marion’s own composition and familiar pieces from other songwriters and performers. Marion sits throughout his performance. His chair is not on the stage, rather his chair is on the auditorium floor. For those of us sitting near the last row, this makes it difficult to see Marion during the performance. After the concert I peek behind the stage curtain. The stage appears to be used for storage and unavailable as an elevated space for the performer.

At some point in the concert, I conclude that Marion needs a bass player to accompany his guitar playing.

As part of his introduction to his songs, Marion discusses the sources for ideas for songs: personal life, emotions and feelings. And then he offers one of his “When they lay my body down…” The message is to slow down and enjoy your life. He offers another song that begins “The kids don’t visit much anymore….” For a grey-haired audience, this lyric is probably a slice of real life.

Marion identifies the second source for his lyrics is observations about the people around him. As an example, he offers a song about the Vietnam war experience of young men shortly out of high school going off to a dangerous fight. “In April we were dancing on the floor of a gym, by August we were kids on a half-track when the first mortar fell, and old men when our world went to hell...”

Another source for Marion’s songs are books and his imagination.

Marion doesn’t announce the titles of his songs and those of other composers, so I offer only first lines or fragments of his lyrics.

Marion’s songs also reminded me that folk music is a source protest in America. From the left-wing stereotype protest of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to the gentle satire of the Smothers Brothers, folk music criticizes American society, and picks apart its dominant culture. Without identifying it as a protest song, Marion offers the audience “She woke up Tuesday morning, a day like all the rest…” The lyric is an edgy critique of the 9/11 trope of identifying the victims of that outrage as heroes. The point of Marion’s lyric is that 9/11 has its heroes, but just being a victim is not by itself heroic. There were no dry eyes in the audience as this simple truth is expressed. By coincidence, this same point is relevant on the drive home from Newport News. A stretch of highway is named “Pearl Harbor Survivors Memorial Highway.” Survivors? What about the victims of the surprise attack, those who lost their lives from that act of infamy.

At the intermission, there are refreshments, cookies, popcorn and soda pop. Three volunteers keep the snacks in order. Five people leave.

For the second half, Marion discusses more on how he composes. He offers a metaphor of recipes, taking a bit from here and a bit from there and stirs it all up.

Marion’s strongest compositions are satires of social manners. A perceptive commentary on modern American marriage ceremonies begins “Started out simple and plain,”… (but then it grew without control) “…there are more at the alter than in the pew…(then the bride’s parents offer the intended couple tickets to elope in Las Vegas) “…if its good enough for Elvis, its good enough for us.”

Another influence on Marion’s compositions begins with his youthful memories of listening to distant radio stations on a little AM radio at night. He learned Hank Williams songs and recognized them as special song-writing, better, more memorable than many of the others broadcast on the radio stations he listened to. “You’re my every dream,” Good bye Joe, I gotta go” and “Fun on the Bayou.” This last is a song I forgot was Hank Williams.

Marion reminds us all that folk music is also about singing along with the performer. His first sing along of the evening is Hank Williams “I saw the Light.”

Then Marion recalls for us the Chad Mitchell Trio and John Denver “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Then Marion performs his composition of the same sentiment, “Well, I drove all night to see her; six hundred miles in the rain.”

Marion’s lyrics are evocative of strong images. Battle scenes, funerals, rainstorms, wedding imagery. Lyrics are simple and direct and the word pictures he builds in his lyrics are vivid. His choice of songs from other composers also conjure strong imagery.

The songs he has chosen for the performance, his own and others, remind me of a program that singer country and western singer Stephanie Davis might put together.

Marion continues with two pieces that he enjoys from Kris Kristofferson “Take the ribbon from your hair…” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Then Marion continues with
two more of his own compositions: “Lingering dream, wash over me…” and “Always lonesome bound….” These are followed by a Tom Paxton number: “Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine…”

Marion closes his performance with “There were times in my life… and ends with “Mary had a baby…think what Mary has done for me…” This last is almost a Christmas carol but it expresses a thought that is not seasonal.

During the concert, Marion used a device attached to his microphone called a harmonizer. This is an electronic device that picks up the voice and guitar and make instant harmony calculations, adding one or two voices of harmony above or below the live voice. I learned this after the concert by talking to Marion. He should have mentioned the device in his introduction, because it was a surprise to me and in the first song he used it on caused a brief distraction for me and some other members of the audience.

I’m glad I came to this performance. An easy evening to enjoy and a reminder that there are lyrics being written that are better than many of the songs promoted in the commercial marketplace.

Marion’s concert is part of The Coffeehouse Series, which is an extension of the concert series presented by the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music. It is presented in the style of the acoustic coffeehouses of the 1960's. Currently the series is scheduled on Friday nights in select months and starts at 7:30 pm. The Coffeehouse is held at the First United Methodist Church of Newport News, which is located on the corner of Warwick Ave and Main Street in Hilton Village section of Newport News.

Admission is by donation, suggested donation is $5.

Refreshments are served at the intermission. For more information regarding the performing artists, click on their icon in the Friends section. If you would like more information about the coffeehouse series, please E-Mail chouse@tffm.org

Previous artists performing in the Coffeehouse Series include Jinmaku, The Moats Dogs, Tina Mica with Mary Beth Carreiro, and Ronnie Jones.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!