Acoustic Live (NYC) Spring 2002

The Life and Times of… Rod MacDonald

by Arthur Wood (The Kerrville Kronikles) and Richard Cuccaro (Acoustic Live)

It would be a good idea to watch one's words and actions carefully when in the company of one Rod MacDonald.  The man's nose for truth, tempered by a degree in law and time spent in Washington D.C., abetted by a supersonic  bullshit barometer, is daunting. Finding oneself skewered by a poet's wit, in word or in song is not the worst fate,  but it might tend to be a little uncomfortable. The upside, however, might be the humorous nature of the laserlike exposure. Take Bill Clinton for instance. Rod's take on the  post- "I did not inhale," pre-Monica moments of that  administration would've gotten Bill's grudging Presidential Approval. In "Hey Mr. President," he sings,  in his trademark calm, wry delivery, "Hey Mr. President, pass that doobie over here / If you're not gonna  smoke it, don't hold it in the air. / Are you just gonna sit there, grinnin' like a jerk? / If you don't inhale it,  it's never gonna work." He lightens up on Bill in the last verse with, "Now whoever woulda thunk it /  whoever would admit / the president of the USA might've took a hit? Next thing you're gonna tell me  he's got a workin' wife / I think I voted for a winner for the first time in my life." Given the scale of corporate-friendly bullshit going down in D.C these days, I'm still inclined to agree with  the last part of the song. In 1988, he wrote, "Women of the World," singing, "…I guess I've had my share / of how the world's unfair  / and women get a lousy break / of money men get more / and keep the world at war / and always make the  same mistakes… I wish that you could see / how hard it is to be / a simple woman of the world."  Exploring the roots of Rod's vision, from Arthur Wood, publisher of the Kerrville Kronikles, we learn:  Rod MacDonald was born on August 17th, 1948 and raised in the town of Southington, Connecticutt.  His father has a Scottish/Irish bloodline and was raised in the picturesque town of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia,  while Rod's mother is of Polish extraction, having been born and brought up in Boston, Massachusetts.  Following High School, Rod attended the University of Virginia where he majored in History, graduating  in 1970. He subsequently graduated with a Law degree from Columbia Law School in New York City three  years later, but never took the bar exam.  By the time he graduated, Rod had already decided that his future lay in being a musician, poet and songwriter.  Music had been his consuming passion from an early age. During 1970 he was part of the five piece, folk group  The Lovin' Sound. In the summer of 1971 he worked as a reporter for the Washington DC bureau of Newsweek,  covering the Jimmy Hoffa parole hearings and the Pentagon Papers trial. The following summer he performed as  a solo singer at a club in Newport, Rhode Island. Following his [successful] exit from Columbia, Rod began performing regularly in New York City clubs and cafes. His first major engagement came in late 1973 when he opened for Peter  Yarrow at Max's Kansas City. A couple of year's later, John Hammond was on the verge of offering Rod a CBS recording contract. The label's interest in MacDonald waned when Hammond suffered a heart attack and retired  from the music business. At the dawn of the eighties Rod appeared on his first recording when one of the proprietors  of the Cornelia Street Café approached Bernie Brightman, owner of the New York label Stash, with the idea of recording  a compilation album featuring the writers who appeared at the weekly Songwriters Exchange. Stash, mainly associated  with jazz recordings, agreed and a twelve-track vinyl album subsequently appeared. Among the songwriters featured  were Cliff Eberhardt, Lucy Kaplansky [with her then performing partner Elliott Simon], David Massengill and of course,  Rod MacDonald. An eighteen-track version of the recording appeared on CD in 1990.  The happenings at the Café gave rise, in part, to the creation of Fast Folk Musical Magazine in 1982, with Jack Hardy  initially at the helm. Rod occasionally wrote for the publication, and in the ensuing years he contributed sixteen selections  to their recordings. In addition, he was booker at The Speakeasy on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village from 1982  to 1985. Although raised a Catholic, MacDonald began studying Buddhism and Native American culture while still a  student. He even lived, for a time, with the Sioux Indians in South Dakota. In 1987 Rod co-founded and organised the  first Greenwich Village Folk Festival. The first Sunday in October became an annual date to remember on the local music  calendar. We've jumped ahead a little however…  Since the early nineteen seventies Jack Hardy had pursued the route of releasing his own recordings. His expertise in that  area helped launch that aspect of Fast Folk's numerous operations. Mindful of what had happened with CBS, MacDonald  decided from the outset that he to would be the master of his own destiny, as far as his recording career were concerned.  His first album No Commercial Traffic, opens with "The Unearthly Fire," a song that expresses concern about the destruction  of the rainforests. As a lyricist, MacDonald was pursuing green themes
years before many of us had any awareness of the  crisis our planet is in.    During the late eighties Rod lived part time in Aquileia and Gradisca D'Isonzo, and it was there that he composed one of  his finest works "The Way To Calvary." The song closed Highway To Nowhere, Rod's debut album for the Shanachie label.  In the early nineties MacDonald wrote two novels, which remain unpublished. The underlying story of one of the books,  [literally] became American political history in the latter part of the decade. For a year during the early-nineties, Rod managed  a club in Pontiac, Michigan for an old college friend. The latter experience undoubtedly gave rise to the song "The Last Train  To Pontiac" on his album And Then He Woke Up.   In a musical career spanning three decades Rod has performed in clubs and at summer festival throughout North America,  and he has played in many European countries. He made two historic trips to Czechoslovakia around the time that the communist  regime crumbled, and performed in front of massive audiences. Midway through the nineteen nineties Rod relocated to Florida  to be near his ageing parents. The songs on his most recent recording "Into The Blue" chronicle his life in the sunshine state.  While "Deep Down In The Everglades" focuses on the 1996 Valujet plane crash, you can sense in songs such as "I Have No  Problem With This" that MacDonald has  contemplated his new life in the sun and concluded that it possesses definite advantages  over "some little apartment on some city street."       MacDonald's song publishing company is called Blue Flute, and I've already alluded to his abiding interest in Native American  culture. The name comes from Hopi Indian mythology, where Blue Flute means to bring a spirit of healing through music.  As for my summation of Rod MacDonald  - he's a restless traveller, seeker and communicator of the truth. And an obedient  servant of his music. What more is there ?  -------------------------------------------- The following was abstracted from an interview that Rod MacDonald gave to Arthur Wood during the 1992 Kerrville Folk  Festival.  © Kerrville Kronikles 01/94   Rod MacDonald talks about music I never knocked on the door of major labels. Early on, I began to feel that what I really wanted to do wasn't commercial anyway.  As a teenager, I was not a folkie. My fantasy heroes were the Rolling Stones and Dylan, who I don't think of as a folkie. I also  liked The Byrds and groups like that. I'm not one of the generation of people who date their career from The Weavers concert  at Carnegie Hall. By hanging around New York and meeting other singer/songwriters, the inevitable sifting process took me  into an association with people who were like me. For better or for worse over the years we have been assumed to be folk  musicians, when in fact we are all basically singer/songwriters. I do think that you can look at my work as art. I don't really  make commercial music. "This guy" puts out an exhibition every couple of years of his recent work, and you can listen to it.  You can see what progress I've made. In a way, it's a chronicle of it's own and it's the "Rod" Chronicle.  From Journalist to Poet  Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal that he felt the difference between a poet and a journalist, was that a journalist  told you the news, while a poet told you how he lived in his times. When I read that statement, I realised why I had made  the decision to cross over from journalism to the singer/songwriter field. It gave me the opportunity to do what I really  wanted to do, which is, paint a picture of my life and times from an artist's point of view. I write different kinds of songs.  Some of them come from deep within and some from a desire to have fun and deal with a particular music form.  The ongoing progression through the years, is the development of an artist. That's what to me, seems significant.  Hopefully if this is really true, what the future holds in store is that twenty or thirty years down the line, my work will  still serve this function for society. Here's Rod's new work and it's partly about him, partly about us, partly a reflection  of our times and places and stuff like that and there's something to be learned from listening to it. Something to touch  your heart. Something to awaken your spirit. Something to tickle your funny bone. Something to make you a little more  conscious of your role in life. All of this stuff sounds very serious, but it's really what I feel my job is.  What You See Here is What You Get Not everybody can do this. Some people are really incredible commercial songwriters. Their real skill is writing hits,  which have nothing to do with their personal lives. As a result, you can listen to their hits and not get a sense of what's  going on beneath the surface. In my case, what's going on beneath the surface is very real.   Interaction Even if my songs aren't hits in the commercial sense, it's important to take time to think about them. I have an interaction  with the public. They're not my personal public, but they expect me to maintain my attention to my work. I feel that there  is a growing number of people out there, for whom it's important that I do this. Not only me, but other songwriters too.  It's important to them that there are people who do this and look at life and romance, travel, the political situation, the  economic situation, spiritual thoughts, whatever. Songwriters digest those things and keep them circulating. The communication  between me and the public is on that wavelength. When I look seriously at what I do, that's how I perceive it.   The Feeling of It In the meantime, I also enjoy playing "Rockabilly Wedding" and tapping my toe. Dancing to a good song, having fun and being  in tune. All of that. The most wonderful feeling that a musician gets I think, is when you feel you're totally in tune with all of life.  You open your mouth and this song - what a wonderful word song is - in the truest sense, the word song means something that  springs to life with music behind it. You strum the guitar and open your mouth and sometimes it's really like magic. It just comes  out, as if you are speaking directly to the hearts of everyone who is in a physical position to listen to you. It's not always that way,  but there are those moments. Those moments are the wonderful part of it. The moment when you realise, as that chill goes down  your spine, that you've been touched so deeply it doesn't even need to be analysed. I have those moments onstage. The songs that  provide me as a singer with those moments, are the ones which make it all worthwhile. I'll be standing onstage and just feel that  whatever's going down sometimes I don't even know what's going on, but it feels true to me. It feels like I'm clearly sharing  something with everybody out there. We're breaking this bread together, and this song is the bread. It's a wonderful feeling.  I would think that for almost everybody that's really what they do it for. The money is what you need to survive, but the moment  when you realise that magic, is what keeps you going.  Out of the Blue Rod's most recent CD release, Out of the Blue ©1999, on Gadfly Records, provides us with a wonderful reason to keep in touch  with this underappreciated troubador and  reminds us that he's still making important, intelligent,  stirring music. Listening to  "Fear," we hear him speak for everyone who's ever questioned the direction of "progress" in the U.S.: "I live in a country with  the greatest military in the history of the world / Why am I then so afraid? … Afraid for my loved ones / Afraid they'll leave me  alone / Afraid there's no heaven / And Hell's on the phone." He follows that track with an uplifting tribal anthem, "Sun Dancer," a song which offers a perfect example of why his followers  are so devoted. His Richie Havens-like, rapid, syncopated strum is joined by the percussion of Michael Moses on frame drum,  clay pot, shaker, Kalimba, and Rod himself, wearing Ankle braclets. He sings "Wake up Sun Dancer / feel the flowing of the sun  / for so long you've been just a dream / now you are the one…" We don't see Rod as much these days, since he moved to Florida. In "It's a tough life,"  he sings with a sly wink about his choice  to live in a warm climate, "…somehow we make it through / making sure that ocean is still blue / and that warm breeze blows at  night / and that sun still shines it's light / I don't know how we do it but we do / It's a tough life / somehow we make it through." Into the Blue is suffused throughout with his reverence for life and the preservation of the earth's gifts. He continues to ponder  the inconsistencies of our rationality as a species with the cutting lyricism that only a brilliant poet/writer can possess.  Into the Blue and Rod's other CD's can be ordered at his web site, and are also available at,  CDnow, and Barnes &  Rod's extensive discography includes:  [Circa 1983 to 2002] "No Commercial Traffic"  1983 "Bring On The Lions" 1989 "Simple Things" 1989 "White Buffalo"              1991 "Highway To Nowhere" 1992 "A Man On The Ledge" 1994 "And Then I Woke Up" 1996 "Into The Blue" 1999 Self Released Recordings "Live At The Speakeasy"  Self Release  1999 "House Concert in Germany"  1999 "Live at the Uptown Coffeehouse 1993/94"  Self Release  1997 "Tunes of the 1970's  1997 "Lee Harvey & The Microdots"   1997 These recordings are sold by Rod at his shows and via his web site  Compilations "Second Annual Greenwich Village Folk Festival"  Mountain Railroad [USA]   MR 82811    1989 "The Songwriters Exchange"  Stash [USA] STCD 529   1990  "Kerrville Folk Festival &endash;  Live Highlights 1989"   Kerrville  [USA]    PSG89    1990  "Songs For The 90's"    Brambus [Switzerland]    199117-2    1991  "When October Goes"    Philo [USA]    PH 1143    1991 "Circles In The Stream, Vol. 1"    Radio WUMB, Boston    UMB-1    1993 "What's That I Hear ? &endash; The Songs Of Phil Ochs"    Sliced Bread    CD-SB71176    1995    "Fast Folk &endash; A Community of  Singers & Songwriters" Smithsonian Folkways [USA]  SFW CD 40135   2002 Fast Folk Musical Magazine [all USA] &endash; Rod MacDonald was featured in the following issues. Volume SE 102/March 1982, "Honorable Men" Volume SE 108/September 1982, "Á Sailor's Prayer" [live] Volume SE 111/December 1982, "American Jerusalem" Volume FF 102/February 1984, "Every Living Thing" [live] Volume FF 104/April 1984, "American Jerusalem" [live] Volume FF 110/December 1984, "If We'd Never" Volume FF 205/May 1985, "Song Of My Brother" [live] Volume FF 301/January 1986, "The Man With The Hired Face" Volume FF 306&7/Fall 1986, "Stop The War"/"Railroad Bill" [live] Volume FF 309/November 1986, "I Had An Old Horse" Volume FF 404/April 1988, "Water" [live] Volume FF 405&6/December 1988, "Now That The Rain Has Gone" Volume FF 410/November 1989, "I'm Wondering Why" [live] Volume FF 510/Summer 1992, "Norman"/"Metal Drums" [live] Volume FF 603&604/October 1992, "Man On A Ledge" [live] Volume FF 609&610/January 1993, "Philosophical Statement" Arthur Wood. Copyright @ Kerrville Kronikle 01/94 and 02/02.  Travels with Rod Rod's devout following includes the folks who run Cabin Concerts in Wayne, New Jersey, Tim and Lori Blixt.

These are people who know how to enjoy folk music. The concerts in their living room (covered in Acoustic Live  in November of 1999 -- still in our web site archives) are the pinnacle of intimate connection with our favorite artists.  Beyond that, they have previously organized week-long vacation trips with Rod to Duns, Scotland in August of 1998  and Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in August of 2000. Rod puts on a concert every night for Tim, Lori, and a handful of other  very committed fans.    The trip to Duns went something like this:  Rod was  joined by British folksinger, Terry Clarke and on the first night,  they both swapped songs from 10pm to 2:30am The second night , they played 'til 3am! After Terry returned home,  Rod made an appearance at the prestigious Edinburgh Folk Festival at the Spiegel Tent.  It was his and the Blixt's first  time at the festival. The week wound down and, as Tim tells it, this was how the last night went: "On our last night at  Duns, Rod slipped in a gig at  The White Swan, the local pub.  I'd be lying if I said the crowd at the pub was all Rod fans.  In fact I'd be lying if I said the crowd was thrilled to see Rod.  But he, and they, and we all ended up having  a great  evening of fun, music, and fellowship.  The night was capped off by Rod satisfying the request/demand of one slightly  toasted patron to 'Do some Johnny Cash!'.  Rod reached way down deep and found a couple Johnny tunes in his bag of tricks.   And with a slightly bizaare version of "Folsom Prison Blues" ringing in our ears we headed home." At press time, there are still two rooms available for this year'a trip with Rod in August (3rd-10th)  to the Loire Valley  in France. To have a look at the place where they'll be staying with Rod, see the website below* (Also, you can check the  Cabin web site at for updates on the  upcoming weekend trip in June with Ellis Paul to  Gettysburg, PA. That may also still have openings). *  A rare chance to see this brilliant, prolific writer in the NYC area is coming up, so:  Mark your Calendars! Rod will be at the Uptown Coffeehouse in the Riverdale section of the Bronx on Sunday, June 2nd at 8pm. Check our listings for more info. Other Area Northeast Dates: May 31  8 pm Endicott, NY Endicott Perf Arts Ctr, 102 Washington Ave,               Endicott, NY 607-785-8903  June 1   8:30 pm Shirley, MA Bull Run, Rt 2A,  Shirley, MA  978-425-4311 June 5  8 pm Sykesville, MD Baldwin' Station & Pub 7618 Main Street,              Uptown  Concerts,  Randallstown, MD 410-795-1041