December 10th, 2015, 2:00 pm by Greg

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

“When I show interest and draw people’s story out, I notice they light up,” says Joe Crookston, who performs at the Eighth Step at Proctors’ Underground in Schenectady on Saturday (December 12). “Their eyes get bigger. They feel more alive. There’s something kind of really powerful about telling a story of your own and being heard and having someone care enough to listen to it.”

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Joe Crookston is a folksinger in the classic sense of the word.

There’s a reason why the term folk music has become passé and largely replaced by the broader term Americana. It’s not just because so many musical genres get replaced when the title becomes so generalized that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Or because the practitioners of the style beat it into the ground, and we become sick of what the term comes to mean that we run from it as happened with fusion. “Folk” has largely become outdated because there are so few artists who zero in on the fundamental meaning of the term: folk, people, humanity, us as individuals. That’s what Joe Crookston does. He zeroes in on individual “folks.”

When I last interviewed him in 2014, I told him about a book I’m writing that collects pearls of wisdom from some of the more than 5000 people I’ve interviewed in almost half a century. I told him that in essence I do the same thing he does. “I know,” he said, turning the tables on me. “I can tell by the way you’re talking. You offer in a sense of hospitality. At your best, you offer hospitality for someone to feel comfortable lighting up and sharing their inner world in a way that’s less inhibited. That’s an exciting thing, isn’t it?”

Joe ended up inviting me to his home in Ithaca to spend three hours brain-storming the book. The essence of our conversation was that I should look inside myself, find my inner truth and pour it out to the world.

He calls himself a social anthropologist who started his career working with juvenile delinquents in Seattle. “When I worked at the Juvenile Detention Center, I was still doing writing and songwriting. So what I would do was take video equipment into a jail cell, and I would set up keyboards and drum machines and microphones.

“For me there’s a real connection between the two things. I’ve grown to be fascinated by people’s stories, and especially when they tell them maybe for the first time, they recognize that story is something that defines who they are as a person. So for me working at Juvenile was really about writing songs and recording. Like who are you? What’s your story? Let’s dig into your inner world and find a way to tell that story to the world in a way that people can relate to. I love that.”

Joe was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 2007 to search out people’s stories in the Finger Lakes region for songs. When I visited him in Ithaca, he invited me to see a showing of a documentary of a holocaust survivor Dina, told from the point of view of her four-year-old daughter who is curious about her “Blue Tattoo” with its serial number assigned by the Nazis in World War II. At the premiere of the film, Dina told her family, “I’m done now. I’m going to pass away. I’m going to die on a Thursday so that the funeral can be on Sunday. That way nobody has to take off work.”

She did, and they didn’t.

“My dream is to be Woody Guthrie,” says the folksinger. “I go out into the world to learn about the place where I live, to collect stories and then write songs based on that.”

WHO: Joe Crookston with Peter Glanville
WHERE: The Eighth Step at Proctors’ Underground, Schenectady
WHEN: Saturday (December 12), 7:30pm
HOW MUCH: $24 in advance; $25 at the door; $35 Gold Circle