Nov. & Dec. Concerts, Gratitude + Cultural Diplomacy: Building Bridges Through Music
Friday, November 20, 2020
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Dear Friends in Music,
I hope this finds you well as can be. On the great rollercoaster of 2020, we find ourselves managing the ups and downs and juggling many complex mental and emotional responses to the world. Some of us mourn losses close to us, in very personal ways. Some of us are more tied into an awareness of the losses globally, and the daily challenges so many people face right now. In approaching a spirit of gratitude much less a holiday ostensibly dedicated to gratitude, one could feel somehow a little disingenuous. But there remains much for which we can be grateful.
We are part of many communities that each, in unparalleled ways have worked this year to help us remain connected. Many people are daily using technology we did not know existed nine months ago. And we are people who dig deep when the moment calls for it, and do what must be done. Music is for me, essential in remaining centered, true to self, and true to others. Music keeps me connected to authenticity. And it keeps me connected to you, my beloved community of more than 20 years on the road.
Friends, colleagues, DJs, producers and presenters, home-stay hosts, fans and fellow Folkies, lovers of good music, good food, and deep community; we still have each other. Even from a safe distance, we have each other. And for this, I am immeasurably grateful.
Please join me on Saturday, November 21st at 7:00 PM Central (8:00 PM ET/ 6:00 PM MTN/ 5:00 PM Pacific) for a special concert presented in partnership with Fine Line Arts Center in St. Charles, Illinois. I will be broadcasting LIVE from their stage. The concert broadcast is free to the public. Nonetheless, Fine Line has a lot of overhead and works hard to keep the arts in many forms, present in the community. So please do be generous as you are able.
Connect to the conert via their website: https://fineline.org
Or directly via YouTube Live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMHoT32FOSM&feature=youtu.be
On Wednesday December 2nd at 9:00 PM ET and again of Sunday December 6th at 1:00 PM ET, you can tune into Folk Music Notebook to hear the December edition of my radio show: My Highway Home. Streaming on www.folkmusicnotebook.com.
Also, on Saturday December 5th at 7:30 PM ET/ 6:30 CT / etc., I will offer a broadcast concert in partnership with the good people at Focus Music in the greater Washington, DC area. This will also be broadcast via
YouTube Live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNMMcrPxiG8
I am grateful for the extraordinary support that the Folk music community and you specifically have shown during this year when the road came to an abrupt halt. There is always a partnership between musician and listener. We pledge to give our very best, night after night. And you pledge to be the fabric of community that holds us up. I am astonished and grateful to see the many ways in which this continues.
Wherever you are, whoever you are with, whatever challenges you face, please know that I am grateful for your presence in the world and in my life. Thank you for supporting my music all these years, for valuing the arts, and for stepping up so much this year in particular.
What are you giving thanks for this year? Feel free to let me know. I am curious.
In Gratitude and Song,
~ Joe Jencks
Building Bridges Through Music
Copyright 2020 ~ Joe Jencks, Turtle Bear Music
I’m on an hour-long national television broadcast in Grenada. On my right – is the Chargé d'Affaires for the US Embassy in Grenada, and to his right is the Minister of Culture for Grenada. In this small country, the Minister of Culture serves sort of like the head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) all rolled up into one gig. And he also hosts a nationally broadcast TV show that focuses on the arts in many forms.
I am wearing a nice pinstriped suit, and that is nearly intolerable in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean in July, to say nothing of the television studio lights. Old school. No LEDs here. These things are kicking out some serious Lumens and enough BTUs to cook lunch. I have just finished singing a few American Folk songs from our rich cannon of Civil Rights and Labor music. And I sang one of my own songs about workers. Then it happens. My biggest fear comes true. The Minister of Culture asks a question that I have no idea how to answer without offending someone, somewhere.
He turns to the Chargé d'Affaires, and says, “Mr. Link, Mr. Jencks sings songs that to us sound very patriotic. He sings songs that celebrate the workers, civil rights, and the common people of the United States. But his views are clearly at odds and at times critical of the government of the United States and of your economic disparity. Why would the US bring an artist like Mr. Jencks on a diplomatic tour, as a representative of your nation?”
Mr. Link replies, “That’s an excellent question Minister. I’d like to let Mr. Jencks answer that.”
Now time slows down as my adrenalin spikes. I was not expecting this. I think to myself, as I try not to look like a deer in the headlights, “Thanks amigo. Remind me to kick you in the shins later for dropping that pineapple in my lap.” I thought my job was to sing and “The Chargé” as they call him, would answer all the political questions. Now I am on a national television in a foreign nation, being asked to either answer a question honestly and risk offending my own county, or to varnish the truth, and risk offending the island nation hosting me. Awesome.
I say a prayer. The Shepard’s Prayer. Alan Shepard’s Prayer. What he said while sitting atop a rocket about to go into space. A rocket with over a million individual parts and components, each built by the lowest bidder on a government contract. Alan Shepheard said, “Dear Lord, don’t let me ***k up!”
I said that prayer. And I wondered how I arrived at this point in my journey? What decision did I make for right or wrong that put me in this particular hot-seat? And how do I answer a question like that, and say what needs to be said? Do I even know what needs to be said?
The silence felt conspicuously long. But that is how adrenalin works. It messes with our sense of time. I take one deep breath and release, and I begin.
“First, Minister, let me say again what an honor it is for me to be here today with you and with the people of Grenada. You live in a beautiful country, and I have been deeply touched by the graciousness of the people I have met and the natural splendor I have witnessed. It really is a joy to be here. And thank you for making room in your schedule for me to come and sing some songs for you today.” OK. I bought myself time for another deep breath.
“And to answer your question, yes! I do feel like I am a patriot. I love my country, I love my people, and I deeply respect our current president, President Obama. I sing songs that reflect the lives of the people I meet in my travels while on concert tours. Songs of workers and farmers, songs of celebration and of protest. Songs that honor the idea that Civil Rights and Labor Rights were hard won in the United States. I sing songs that celebrate my people. It is the very heart of the Folk music tradition in my country. And while some people would not call me a patriot, they would have other names for me, I am a patriot. As are the people I sing about.”
“As to your question Minister, about why the US Government would choose someone like me to be a representative of our nation, I would say this: A democracy can only ever be as strong as the rights of her people. Sometimes my opinions and songs are critical of my government or society. Sometimes my ideas are not popular with everyone. But I believe the message that my government is trying offer a young democracy like Grenada by sending a musician like me on a multi-nation diplomatic tour, is that the voice of dissent, the minority opinion must be heard, and not suppressed. A democracy is made stronger by this Civil discourse. And while it is not easy to accomplish, a thriving democracy requires that the rights of all of her people are respected and honored. That all of the voices are heard. Not just the voices that speak a popular opinion, but also the unpopular opinion. When everyone has a right to be heard, a democracy can flourish. I think that is why my government would invite a protest singer to be a Cultural Ambassador, to demonstrate part of what makes a Democracy possible.”
I looked at the Grenadian Minister of Culture, who smiled and thanked me for my words, affirming the value of my ideas. And then he invited me to sing another song. I looked at the US Chargé d'Affaires, who gave me a subtle and kind smile while sticking his thumb up ever so slightly towards the sky. And I went on to sing a few more songs. I had just passed with flying colors, the granddaddy of all Pop-Quizzes in a real-life Civics class, broadcast on national television on foreign soil. I was authentically myself, and authentically American all at once. And for the first time in my life I truly felt like I could honestly claim the identity of patriot.
This particular chapter of my life began with a Folk concert I gave at an outdoor concert series, at mall in Florida in 2006. Not unlike the Folk-on-State series that used to run in Madison. I met a woman there who was a volunteer with the US Diplomatic Corps, and worked with our mission to Albania. She asked me if I might like to travel with the US State Department, and offer concerts in other countries. It sounded like fun to me. I said yes. We traded information and kept in touch. It took a few years and the conversation went cold for a while. Presidential elections, recessions, etc. all had an impact. But then in the fall of 2009, I received a call from a fellow in Texas. He was about to retire from the diplomatic corps, and was tying up loose threads. Apparently, my file had been “on his desk” for a few years, and he liked my music. So he wanted to see if he could set the wheels in motion before he retired, for me to be formally invited to be a Cultural Ambassador for the US State Department.
Then I was called by a man from the US Embassy in Barbados. And after several conversations with people from the embassy and about nine months of planning, I was on my way from Seattle to Miami, and on to Antigua & Barbuda. The first of five island nations in the Caribbean where I would give concerts, offer workshops for school children and presentations in libraries, along with appearances on radio and television. All the while, wearing a suit and tie in the Caribbean, in July. I lost like 10 pounds in 2 weeks, and did a lot of laundry in hotel sinks. I rarely had 2 nights in the same hotel, and I got up as early as 4:30 AM daily. We usually had a 6:00 AM call-time in a hotel lobby. And I usually did not get to sleep before midnight. I was astonishingly sleep deprived by the end of those two weeks. And the frogs… these tiny little things called Coqui are so unimaginably loud as they sing and vocalize all night long. But they also groove, with an undulating rhythm that feels like the very underpinning of Caribbean music. Even sleep deprived, my heart was full.
In Antigua and Barbuda, I offered a command performance for the Queen’s Regent. She was a woman of profound character and poise. A septuagenarian who was herself quite Regal in demeanor. I was schooled on protocol, not to approach unless invited, not to turn my back on her within a certain distance, to speak only when spoken to, etc. The sound tech at the theater in which I was performing, was not very well versed in the equipment. But he was someone’s son, or nephew, or cousin. My cab driver on the other hand had a degree in Audio Engineering from Columbia in NYC. As he was driving me back to my hotel in between sound check and the concert, I said, “Who you know here in Antigua and Barbuda is more important than what you know, eh?” He smiled uncomfortably and nodded his head.
I ended up using a single microphone, plugged into one bass amp. They never got the theater sound online. But it was an amazing performance anyway. I was swinging for the fences, and it turned out to be a marvelous show. When I got to songs like Wade In The Water, We Shall Overcome, and Eyes on The Prize, the Queen’s Regent started clapping her hands and singing along. And smiling in a way that was somehow brighter than the stage lights. Her honor guard looked at her and looked at me and looked back at her. He had likely NEVER seen her let loose in public like that. After the performance, I was beckoned to approach. She shook my hand and thanked me. She was positively effusive. Her parents had been connected to the Harlem Renaissance, and she herself had been sent to NYC if memory serves, for university during the ‘60s. She had marched and protested in the US during the Civil Rights movement. I had the extraordinary privilege of singing these songs for someone who had “been there.” Dropping all usual protocol when we parted, she embraced me gently, and kissed my cheek. I thought her honor guard was going to faint.
Next, we flew to the island of Dominica, after a brief stop in St. Kitts & Nevis. Dominica remains the most natural and perhaps the least “settled” of the Caribbean Island nations. And it is the last refuge of the Carib people, the indigenous people who thrived in the islands before Columbus. And I must say, it is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. The whole island is connected to Eco-Tourism now, and they work hard to preserve their natural splendor. If I ever wanted to take a trip back to the Caribbean, I would go there. Mountains that rise out of the ocean, jungles and flowers and birds, waterfalls everywhere, and amazing food. And as gracious a reception as I have received anywhere. People rightfully proud of their country, and eager to share its wonders with visitors.
Then we were off to Barbados, where I sang for many children and offered several community concerts, and had my one scheduled night off. I wanted to wander all over the island. But I stayed in the small resort I was hosted in, went for a walk on the beach, went for a swim in the pool, had dinner, and was asleep by 8:30 PM. Those of you who know me will understand the level of exhaustion that this represents. I don’t usually see a pillow before 2:00 AM. 8:30 PM bedtime is a sign of pure, flat-out, steam-rolled exhaustion. Anyone who says that employees of the US State Department don’t earn their salary, has no idea how hard these people work. I have never felt more pride as a citizen of the United States, than when I was working with so many good people in the Caribbean, each taking their efforts so seriously, and with such gentle, diligent, and profound care.
The next day there were a couple of short concerts and interviews, and then an evening flight to Grenada. I was dropped off by the Embassy staff, and waited for my flight. It never came. I was alone, in a tiny inter-island airport, not the bigger national airport in Barbados. I had no cell phone. I called my contact at the embassy from the desk in the airport, and he was not home. He and his staff were already onto other places, other duties. The airport said my flight would not arrive until the morning. They rescheduled me on the new flight, after some serious negotiating, and then told me I had to leave the airport. I had no phone, no wheels, and a fair amount of stuff to carry. More haggling, and they called a cab for me.
FYI - It’s not easy to get a cab in rural Barbados, after dark. I explained my situation to the cabbie. And this guy spoke a creole tongue that was only part English. But he got me to a tiny hotel, and between the owners – a lovely Barbadian couple in their late sixties, and myself – the cabbie came to understand that I needed to be picked up again at 6:15 AM. I asked the couple if there were any restaurants nearby where I could get some dinner. They laughed charitably and said, “No.” The woman looked at me for a moment, then looked at my bright red, battered and stickered Calton guitar case, and then looked back at me and said, “I will feed you.” I asked if I could pay her for the meal. She said, “No. But you can sing for me while I cook!”
I sat on the back stoop outside of her small kitchen as she prepared chicken, rice, black-eyed peas, and some vegetables. I sang and we talked about life in Barbados, life in the US, history, culture, music, family, etc. They don’t get a lot of international visitors in the area, unless they are Barbadians who are coming back home for a visit. The motel was of cinder-block construction, and had only six small rooms – all in a row. One elongated rectangle. The proprietors had a small house next to the motel. They don’t normally serve food to guests. I knew this was a once in a lifetime moment. I was in a different country, with no chaperone, seeing the real Barbados. Not the tourist locations and the places of government and international commerce. I was sitting on the stoop of an older couple who had spent most of their lives on this island, and they were delighted for music and stories from somewhere else.
The meal was outrageously good. The hospitality and kindness, welcome beyond measure. And the connection sans external examination, was real and human and profound. I was on a concert tour representing my nation. On guard always, careful to say the right thing or to avoid saying the wrong thing. And finally, I just had a night with normal people living normal lives. All by accident of fate, and all miraculously beautiful and serendipitous. It’s why I tour. It is those moments that redeem the travel, a life spent in motion as a peripatetic bard. It is those moments that I live for, cherish, and adore. When my father questioned if being a musician was a wise calling to pursue, my mother always said “A good musician will never go hungry. They can always sing for their supper.” And here I was, stranded in Barbados for a night, singing for my supper, literally.
I think that evening of being so unguarded with the lovely couple in Barbados, primed the pump for what happened two days later on the national broadcast, with the Minister of Culture in Grenada. I realized that I could be a conscientious representative of my nation and be a patriot, and be myself all at once. That awareness had been rising in me for days. But on a back stoop in rural Barbados, it coalesced into tangible form. And two days later it emerged on a television broadcast as a personal doctrine. For all of our faults, for all of our struggles as a nation, we are still one of the great nations that have existed in human history. And we are great not because of our government, or our military, or Wall Street. We are not great because we have Hollywood and the Empire State Building. We are not great because of the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains, or the Grand Old Opry. We are great because we have the capacity to be generous, and because we continue to pursue the experiment of Democracy with due diligence and purpose. And we can be greater still when we do so with graciousness.
It has not been easy for me to claim being a patriot. But when we can separate patriotism from nationalism, when we can be brilliant without diminishing the light of another nation, when we can elevate others with dignity and camaraderie amongst nations, we demonstrate what Democracy can look like. And music has the power to be a passport to a place of understanding and respect. As we use music to humanize abstractions, we also build bridges. We help heal wounds when we celebrate individual acts of bravery, kindness, service, and solidarity. We lend dimension to what divisive purpose tries to tear asunder. Music heals. My beloved and late friend James Durst said that all the time. He put it on a tee-shirt. Music heals.
There is much healing needed, in many places right now. There is much work to do, and many injustices to address. But once one leaves the US, we are no longer Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, or any other party members. WE are “Americans.” And the world judges us and hold us accountable as Americans. Whether we acquiesce or not, we become representatives of an entire nation once we leave home soil. And so we should be patriots, on our own terms. No one here has a right to define a singular form of patriotism. But we should still claim being patriots, especially as we sing about the workers and wanderers, the Civil Rights movements, and the beauty of this land and her people; people who now need to be reminded of their commonality, more than any time in my life. Patriotism is not inconsistent with a spirit of protest or with dissenting opinions. Patriotism in fact requires the voice of dissent, the minority opinion. I learned that in a new way while singing about the beauty and resiliency of my country and her people, while on tour in the Caribbean. I was to my great honor to be called a Cultural Ambassador for two weeks. But I will carry that identity and purpose with me as long as I live.
~ Joe Jencks, 11-5-20