Joe Jencks, Roots and Wings, to Livestream for The 8th Step on Dec 12th
Livestream Concert on YouTube: Saturday, December 12, 2020, 8 pm View at http://www.8thstep.org, donations accepted.
“Joe Jencks is a 20-year veteran of the international folk circuit, an award-winning songwriter, and a celebrated vocalist based in Chicago. Merging conservatory training with his Irish roots and working-class upbringing, Joe delivers engaged musical narratives filled with heart, soul, groove and grit. Having penned several #1 Folksongs including the ever-relevant Lady of The Harbor, Jencks is also co-founder of the harmony trio, Brother Sun. From Festivals like Falcon Ridge, Kerrville, Mariposa, and Old Songs, to venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, Jencks has enthralled diverse audiences with his approachable style. Joe is noted for his unique merging of musical beauty, social consciousness, and spiritual exploration. Blending well-crafted instrumentals and vivid songwriting, Jencks serves it all up with a lyric baritone voice that has the edgy richness of a good sea-salt caramel.” – From the notes to his latest CD, Poets, Philosophers, Workers, and Wanderers.
I caught up with Joe Jencks a few nights ago when he spoke with me via Skype from his Chicago home studio. He proved to be an engaging and thoughtful conversationalist. Among the many topics we explored in our 90- minute conversation were his friendship with Pete Seeger, social justice, our shared Irish heritage, immigration, his extensive travels, writing songs in own voice, and what he has planned for Saturday’s 8th Step livestream. Here are the highlights:
GW: Your songs are fearless in that in them you are willing to express deep emotions. What are the feelings and insights that you want the audience to take away from this performance?
JJ: Peoples’ feelings are fickle. People’s feelings are their own. But I hope they leave a concert feeling better than when they arrived. I hope they leave a concert feeling more hopeful. I hope they leave a concert feeling somehow they are part of community, that there is reason to keep being a part of community, I hope they leave a concert having learned something. That why I give historical background in my shows. What I hope I give people is an awareness of the broader world around them on some level and their connectedness to it. They aren’t a singularity existing anonymously surrounded by the world, but they’re part of this beautiful tapestry that is the world. And in participating they remain connected by showing up. And I hope to reward that effort of showing up with a really dynamic, really engaged performance that somehow lifts them up….I really hope that people get a sense of optimism, a sense that things aren’t as bad as they seem, a sense that we’re in this together. Any given concert of mine is going present opportunities to laugh, to cry, to learn something.
GW: Pete Seeger is the acknowledged paterfamilias of folk music. I read that he was a mentor to you. How did you get to know him, and what did you learn from him?
JJ: What I feel like I learned from Pete is not easily summed up in just a few sentences so I’ll pick a few things that I learned from Pete. I always tell people I was a friend of Pete Seeger, which does not make me unique, but it does make me happy. Pete Seeger was friends with a lot of people over the arc of his 90-plus years…so being friends with Pete could put me in a cadre of a half-million people.
I met him first in 1998 in Seattle. Seattle Folk Life wanted him to come and do a concert, because it’s a free festival and they don’t pay anybody, but it’s very prestigious. And it’s free to come to the festival as well. And he leveraged, as was his way, he said, sure I’ll come, but I want somebody to put together a labor chorus. I want a chorus of people singing labor songs and a I want to do a concert with a Seattle Labor Chorus. Which didn’t exist until he uttered that phrase. “with a Seattle Labor Chorus.” [a friend, Janet Stecher helped assemble and directed the chorus] I met Pete through that. I was not singing with the Labor Chorus, but I knew some of those folks and I was living out there, so I got an invitation to go hang out with them….
Then a couple years later I was at a Folk Alliance conference in Cleveland in a song circle, and Pete just started talking when he looked down and noticed his signature on my instrument, And he looked at me and he remembered me. He said you were that kid in the crowd in Seattle. I was dumbfounded that he remembered. At that point we started talking, and I saw him more at the People’s Music Network Gathering, and that’s where I really got to know Pete, through People’s Music Network. I had several really deep and honest solo conversations with him over about a 3-year period through PMN. My time with him after was more peripheral, but we’d keep in touch though postcards and the occasional phone call. He never forgot my name-he knew exactly who I was, even late in his life, and I was always very touched by that. My own father was a Korean War Vet who died when I was 19, and I had had lot of questions that I needed to ask a father figure. Pete just made himself available in that way, very graciously.
What I learned from Pete is manifold, but I would say one of the most important things is that you can usually accomplish a thing if you set your mind to it and if you gather really knowledgeable people around you. If you decide you want to solve a particular problem, you just decide you’re going to solve that problem, and you work with the assumption that it IS solvable until you run into hard evidence that it isn’t. At which point you either accept that or find other people who are knowledgeable and can give you alternative viewpoints. So many people just assume a thing can’t be done until they try it, or never try it because of their assumption. Pete, he was bold in this way. He was fearless in how he would take on things. Pete talked about “Founder’s Disease,” and how many organizations die because they had a charismatic founder who didn’t know how to cultivate leadership. And what I think what Pete figured out how to do everywhere he went was to cultivate leadership, to empower people. To franchise them into the work and then leave it in their hands to keep doing it. And that’s an amazing thing, to have the kind of personal power that he had. And rather than wield it for personal benefit, he went (with Toshi) into the world to figure out how to wield it on behalf of many, many, communities. I think that’s an amazing thing.
So I look at Pete and I see someone who loved radically. People say he’s a protest singer, but if you listen to his songs, he spent so much more time singing about what he wanted to elevate, what he wanted to celebrate. He was singing about what he believed in, and the emergent world that he wanted to work for. He very rarely sang against things. He put his energy into the things he wanted to lift up and wanted to manifest. That’s different from being a protest singer. That’s advocacy through music. That’s singing about the world emergent. And that had a huge effect on me.
GW: I understand that your show is to be more Celtic in nature than your previous work. Other than ancestry, why Celtic music? And will you be incorporating elements of traditional Irish music into your performance?
JJ: Yes, there will be elements of traditional Irish music in the performance, but you and I both know that’s a sticky wicket because you and I could sit here and argue for the next two hours about what is traditional Irish music. Some would argue that we go back to Sean Nos (old style singing) and that’s it. Some would say the frame drum and the whalebones, that’s traditional- the stringed instruments were all European and came in later. Not to get lost in the musicology of it, but defining traditional music is tough thing to do in Ireland. But the melody-from Sean Nos to O’Carolan to the Chieftains, take your pick, wherever you want, there are melodies that are quintessentially Irish. Those melodies get cycled through, and part of what I’ll be exploring in this concert, not from a musicology standpoint so much but just by the songs that I string together, is some of the tradition, some of the songs like the parlor songs of the (1900s) teens and twenties. The “Wearing of the Green” and “Danny Boy”-these songs that people assume are quintessentially Irish songs, they were really more part of the diaspora that spread across the globe. ….These melodies keep getting recycled, and I think Irish music gives us permission to recognize the power in a melody so that you don’t need to know the language or the words, or you can write your own words because the power is in the melody, and I think that informs how I write.
I listen to my writing style as opposed to many other singer-songwriters that are my contemporaries, and I hear the depth and breadth of other Irish and Celtic melodies in my music. So some of these songs will be songs I’ve sung for years that come out of the canon and out of the tradition. I’ll probably toss in for good measure “The Star of the County Down,” speaking of your family (I had told Joe that my mother’s family were refugees from the sectarian violence in County Down in the 1920s-GW), but I’ll also be focusing on a number of my own compositions that I’ve written while on tour in Ireland….
I came to a discovery a few years ago. I had a breakthrough in my own writing. I had written several songs that sound like they had risen out of the canon, and then I shifted and realized I realized that one of the great opportunities for me, who is an American and an Irish citizen, is to write about Ireland in my own voice rather than to try to assume an Irish voice. To use Joe Jencks’ voice to write about Ireland. And the last few songs I’ve written about Ireland have really, truly been in my own voice. So when I sing about Ireland in my own voice it’s more compelling to my Irish audiences because that’s fresh for them. That’s interesting, that’s different.
GW: As for the catalysts of your songwriting, are there any Celtic related stories or personal experiences that have inspired any the songs you will be performing?
JJ: Very much so. There’s a song I sing, “In the Shadow of Your Ghost” that I wrote about a previous relationship, and how it was connected to Ireland. And it’s specifically about Galway, and sights and sounds in Galway that a former partner had told me about that I didn’t understand until I got there. She had spent a couple of summers going to University Galway, studying the Irish language. And it was not until I got there myself that was I able to understand more of what she had been talking about. Twenty years later, I was in Galway and even though I had been there several times before, on this day it clicked and I started writing this song about Galway. But I was writing in my own voice. But it still has this very specifically Irish-oriented melody in it. It’s uniquely Irish, the melody, even though it’s a contemporary melody that I wrote. And it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and the imagery of Galway, and The Cathedral, and the Spanish Wall and the Friars River. These references that I drop in put you in a very particular place.
There are several other songs I’ve written that are anchored to the place where I wrote them. And that’s a beautiful thing. People love to hear their location in a song. If the downside of county or regional identity is some of the feuds that took place over the centuries, the upside is that so much of Irish history and identity is preserved in these songs that people would write about their place. I find that, truly, every time I go to Ireland I wind up writing songs that are inspired by the melodies, or what I’m seeing or what I’m hearing or feeling or experiencing. It absolutely is a catalyst for the music.
GW: I understand immigration will be a theme in the concert. Is this about the potato famine of the 1840s? Or, noting that issues of progressive social consciousness are close to your heart, perhaps more recent developments, like the draconian treatment of asylum seekers on our southern border?
JJ: Certainly one of the reasons I was interested in not limiting the concert to Irish music is that I am a leftie, and I did want to bring all of this allegorically into the present moment, and say that at one time the Irish were the ones being discriminated against. But you look at the number of politicians, business leaders, civic leaders, not-for-profit leaders and educational leaders-you look across the spectrum in the United States and Canada and you see plenty of Irish and Celtic names. You realize we have transcended this particular oppression, and have ourselves-not you or I intentionally but collectively, we have become part of a system that has said it was OK to have immigrants then, but it’s not OK now. And you have to acknowledge the piece of that that ties in with racism.
The indigenous of the United States were taking up collections for the ethnic Irish from what little they had living lives on reservations-they were taking up collections during the Great Hunger to send money to the Irish. I think it was a Choctaw chief that traveled there specifically to witness the conditions and deliver money by hand to people there, because the indigenous Americans felt such a sense of solidarity with the Irish as an occupied and oppressed people. And there are some songs to be written there….
I think you can’t look at the Irish immigration experience and the hatred, and the disdain, and the bias, and the prejudice that most Irish experienced wherever they went in the world, and not see a corollary. People worked very hard to find a place, and it’s our obligation to make welcome other people who are coming here seeking the same opportunities.
We have been the beneficiary of some of the most stalwart and creative people from all over the world. People come here from all over the place because they want to seek the full measure of their intellectual creative potential here. Artists, musicians, playwrights, authors, and painters, all kinds of people travel from all over the world to spend time in the United States. And in their time here they contribute to our culture as well. The immigrant cultures from all over the world have given us so much. So yeah, a portion of this concert will diverge from the Irish piece and step into the broader struggles of immigration and immigrant justice. Joe Jencks’ debuted in the Capital Region at The Eighth Step, where, when not prevented from touring by pandemics, he regularly performs live on their stages for album release concerts, solo shows, and more.