Weiss, the skill level varies. Cooke and Weiss have been playing music together since attending Syracuse University in the late 1970s, but Weiss claims that his own musical skills are limited to rhythm guitar. After college, the two got together every Thursday night to play covers of songs by Loudon Wainwright, a humorous singer-songwriter. Eventually, they started playing open mic nights on Westcott Street. When a friend named Joe Cleveland started up a songwriting circle in the late 1990s, Cooke and Weiss were regulars. That group, called Song Anon, met in Cleveland’s apartment each month. It later rotated from house to house, to reduce the pressure on Cleveland. But the system proved to be unsustainable, and the group died out around 2004.
Enter Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers. A founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine and an award-winning musician, Rodgers moved to Syracuse in 2003 when his wife was offered a teaching position at SU Rodgers attended Song Anon a few times before it ended, and he enjoyed the group’s atmosphere. As a musician who has lived everywhere from San Francisco to Indiana to India, Rodgers has seen several manifestations of songwriters’ groups. One group in San Francisco allowed songwriters to perform one song for a judging table of three musicians who provided written comments on the song. Other groups like Syracuse’s Woodshed exist across the country, many with their inspiration coming from a group in Greenwich Village called The Fast Folk Collective. Sponsored by folk singer Jack Hardy, this group meets weekly in his apartment. Most of the alumni are great folk singers you’ve never heard of, but a few popular singers like Suzanne Vega once honed their craft in Hardy’s apartment, as well.
The name Woodshed is a common name for these songwriter groups. The name implies a critique, rather than a showcase. “A woodshed is a place were things get crafted,” Weiss says of the name. Musicians at the group expect to be whittling away at their song, perfecting it before performing in front of an audience. “It’s an environment where it’s OK to play something that you know has problems, without having to take it on stage,” Rodgers says.
After Song Anon faded away and Joe Cleveland left Syracuse, Rodgers worked to cultivate a musical community in Syracuse. Through his work with Acoustic Guitar magazine and as a correspondent for National Public Radio, Rodgers could have become a musical elitist of sorts. He interviewed Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Pete Seeger. He literally wrote the book on songwriting, called The Complete Singer-Songwriter. He easily could have spent his time in Syracuse wailing about how great it was to live in San Francisco. Instead, he worked to create a musician’s community right here.
His first step was to create the Words and Music Songwriter Showcase, a concert series dedicated to Central New York singer-songwriters. This move was partially in response to the closing of the Happy Endings Cake and Coffeehouse, a former hotspot for local acoustic musicians. The Showcase premiered in January 2008, and with its success Rodgers wanted an accompanying songwriters’ group. “To me, the combination is really nice,” Rodgers says. “It’s a place for songwriters to meet each other, a way for me to find out about songwriters, and a way to encourage people to write more.” He approached Cooke and Weiss, whom he remembered from the few Song Anon meetings he attended, to see if they would help organize it.
Modestly, Weiss admits that he was
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