20 Watts

ISSUE 21 | Features: Finding a Voice Pt. 2

Finding a Voice

“Impression? That’s all this is, impres­sionistic,” he retorts, as if that was an insult.

The group suffers a long pause. As a form of writing, songwriters do not always follow a strict story-telling pattern. There are plenty of impressionistic, enigmatic hit songs. But folk songs, like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” (which relates the conviction of noted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter), tell a clear story complete with characters and plot. To the members of the Woodshed, there are rules that must be followed. The Woodshed was founded in the folk tradition, and folk music tends to have a linear story.

Folk music is hard to define as a genre. Some may perceive folk music in the literal sense, meaning music written by and for the common people, the folk. Others insist folk music applies to old ballads and European songs, following in the footsteps of the oral tradition and traveling minstrels. Still others think of the American tradition beginning with Woody Guthrie and extending to Bob Dylan and Ani DeFranco. To some extent, all these definitions together create American folk music.

Since most folk songs were based on ballads, which were stories set to music in order to make them easy to remember in a non-written society, modern folk songs follow the linear story format. So in judging Joanne Perry’s work, a lack of any story would make it difficult for some traditional­ists to grasp.

The Words and Music Songwriter Wood­shed held its first meeting in September 2008. Since then, the group meets on the first Tuesday of every month to play original songs and to improve their songwriting. The group works much like any other writers’ circle. Ten musicians play a new song each, once a month, providing no introduction before beginning, typically on guitar, with the one-time exception of a man drumming out a tune on his guitar case. When the song ends, the circle takes a moment to think, then comment one by one on the song for 15 minutes per musician. Some comments are nice, others seem harsh to the uniniti­ated. There is no sugar-coating here.

“Some of them are a little more sup­portive or what I would consider just plain pointless,” Cooke says with a laugh. “I know we hurt some people’s feelings sometimes so I try to hold off a little bit, but just a little bit because, man, it’s about the writing.” As the facilitator, Cooke often has the first and last word on a song. Cooke established him­self as a musician in Syracuse in the early 1990s, playing gigs and recording three al­bums. His opinion is trusted as a traditional­ist of folk music. He tries to write lyrics that can be understood without explanations or lavish performances. The group’s continued popularity speaks to the success of this method, despite the occasional wounded ego.

The method is intense, and the purpose is to write better songs. But not everyone who attends records music or even plays live – some are purely hobbyists. While several of the members do play gigs and release recordings, all of them have a day job. Some never record anything, and use the Woodshed as an outlet to share their labor of love.

Even among the founders of the group – Cooke, Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers and Chris


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