rod macdonald

Reviews, articles & biographical notes


CD Reviews

all reviews are unedited

feature articles

a page of Quotes
a list of Previous Appearances

(& with whom)

unedited reviews of
a tale of two americas
By Arthur Wood in Folkwax

Thought-Provoking Honesty

The American release of Rod MacDonald's A Tale Of Two Americas on Wind
River Records contains eighteen songs - sixteen MacDonald originals
(including a previously unheard pair from 20 years ago), one co-write,
and a cover of an early Bob Dylan tune - while the Swiss Brambus Records
version has one cut fewer. Both discs contain enhanced media, as well as
links to a number of Rod MacDonald associated websites.
The opening cut, "Ray & Ron," recalls two Americans who recently died in
the same week. Ray Charles passed at the age of 73 on June 11 last year,
while President Ronald Reagan left from this mortal coil six days
earlier, albeit with a two-decade head start over "The Genius." Across
five verses, featuring the positives and negatives of both lives (and
including the consistently silly public statements made by one in
particular), MacDonald closes with the consensus that Ron should have
the common sense (nay, the magnanimity) to suggest that "Ray had so much
soul it filled him to the brim, instead of naming all this stuff after
me they oughta name it after him." Yeah, right! MacDonald's 2002 studio
collection, Recognition featured a pair of songs that referenced 9/11,
namely, "My Neighbours In Delray" and "For The Good Of America." Between
then and now, America has undertaken bloody, body-counting excursions in
Afghanistan and Iraq and in "Terror" Rod delivers reflections upon those
events and their repercussions back in the homeland - "Using fear for
advantage you're doing more damage than even your enemy does." Later in
this set, and drawn from the same well of inspiration, there's "Beloved
Enemy" - which can be summed up by "if we didn't have any enemies, we'd
sure as hell invent them (merely for the profit they bring)," while Rod
opens verse two of "Sacrifice" with "Ah but those who say you have to go
and fight/Never send their own to battle," and later "As long as there's
enough poverty/There'll be volunteers for the military/While the ones
who run the show sit back and watch their millions grow."
While not averse to penning love songs, MacDonald's lyrical approach has
consistently been one that reflects upon a broad spectrum of social
issues at home and abroad. Track two, "Missing," is inspired by the
photographs of runaways that are displayed Stateside on milk cartons
(and on posters in supermarkets and featured in public service
commercials). This single issue remains an ill in modern American
society that simply won't go away, and around one million missing child
cases are filed annually. Abductions whether by family members, friends,
or strangers are also an integral part of this issue (although
statistics indicate they only contribute to 10% of the total), while 90%
of the youngsters simply chose to run away because of difficult
conditions within the family home.
"The Governator" is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the current
Austrian-born Governor of California, and that rib-tickling vein also
threads its way through the "what if this world was a much fairer place
to live in" scenario painted in "Smoke." Social issues apart, MacDonald
is also adept at delivering an engaging lyric based upon his own
personal experiences. His 1999 song collection Into The Blue contained
material inspired by his then-recent relocation from New York City to
the sunny shores of Florida. Here, "I'm Your Dad" - "Hello there little
girl, welcome to the world" - finds Rod reflecting with heartfelt
affection upon the recent arrival of a small female person in his and
his wife's life, while "The Lucky Ones" spotlights the hardships and the
blessings that are integral parts of life, during the annual hurricane
season down on the Gulf. The spiritually slanted "Here I Stand" - "For
just another man am I who stands here pressed against this sky/Raising
his voice on high to you out there" - is the oldest MacDonald
composition here and dates from 1981 and is followed by the
self-explanatory title "True Love" from 1985.
Charles Dickens opened his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with the
words "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and
MacDonald employs that sentence as the foundation of the "A Tale of Two
Americas" chorus - subjectively the song is an early 21st century
snapshot of life in his beloved homeland, and features the war-mongering
billionaire minority as well as the hard-pressed masses who are barely
getting by. The penultimate cut, "I Am Bob Dylan," is a tongue-in-cheek
number based around the premise of mistaken identity, and MacDonald
closes his latest epistle with the still very relevant, though now
forty-year-old Dylan composition, "With God On Our Side." Time passes,
one's life changes for better or for worse, but those major issues over
which only governments retain control remain pretty much the same for
the ordinary man.
A new Rod MacDonald recording is always an event to anticipate and
savour, since you know that his lyrics will challenge your perceptions
regarding recent historic occurrences, even shared events in ones
everyday life, and he consistently brings clarity to those issues. That
his songs are always leavened with thought provoking honesty seems to me
to be a fair synopsis of his skill as a lyricist - think of a subtle
version of Phil Ochs, if you've never heard a Rod MacDonald song. In
terms of aural execution A Tale Of Two Americas is a stripped-down
affair - wholly acoustic - on which Rod's voice and guitar are supported
by the bass of long time musical associate and album co-producer Mark

(continued in column three)

"Celtic & Folk Music CD Reviews"

By Kevin McCarthy

The elements in Florida must be agreeing with New York transplant and veteran folkie Rod MacDonald as, like last year, he has released another CD loaded with new creations. 16 fresh cuts appear, along with a re-release and a Bob Dylan nugget.

As usual, MacDonald provides his perspective on current political and world events, along with putting to words the thoughts and feelings emanating from everyday life.

The most powerful social offering is the title cut, "A Tale Of Two Americas," which illuminates the differences between red and blue staters, the secularists and religionists. Here is but a snippet of the powerful lyrics:

"...and those who never knew war
sent other people's kids to battle
in my tale of two americas
they called each other warriors
sat real high up in the saddle..."

This cut qualifies as a companion piece to MacDonald's "For The Good Of America," on his previous release.

"Terror" is another oh-so-appropriate song. MacDonald sings:

" want to say who lives and dies
the power to say what's true and what is lies... want to play the god and wield the fire
and always without questioning your own desires..."

"Sacrifice" delves into the 'framing' that goes into defining patriotism. A portion of one telling verse:

"...sacrifice the patriotic for the gold
sacrifice the truth for the story being told..."

MacDonald ends "Sacrifice" with:

" side kills the other in return for killing them
if you look on down the road, time and time again
all you do is sacrifice the future for the past"

MacDonald's antidote to the troubles he so eloquently sings of is the healing "Love Is The Common Ground." The chorus:

" is the common ground
the place we stand together
here's the truth I've found
love is the common ground..."

The lives of Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan, who died a few days apart, are curiously twined in "Ray and Ron." Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his comeuppance in "The Governator."

"I'm Your Dad" is MacDonald's ode to his daughter. Very similar to his lovely spousal tribute on his last release, "You Who Sleeps Beside Me," this one is a touching look at the bond between father and daughter.

Do not overlook "Smoke," with two of the song's characters being Playboy Playmates somehow boogeying to, of all tunes, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald."

With "True Love," MacDonald depicts the vagaries of intimate relationships.

The surrealistic imagery in "Don't Let Your Dim Light Die" is reminiscent and comparable to some of Dylan's psychedelic work. Fittingly, "With God On Our Side" concludes the release.

MacDonald has proven again here that he is a master at musically portraying the difficult issues facing this country and the world. It's also abundantly clear that MacDonald didn't head to Florida to retire. In fact, he appears to have discovered the fountain of youth.

Lucky for us.

Also, check out the very interesting cover page of the liner notes, which appears to be a schlocky street leading to The White House.

 Track List:
  • Ray & Ron (3:17)
  • Terror (3:55)
  • Missing (2:50)
  • The Governator (3:04)
         (continued in column three)

(continued from column one)

Dann, plus the mandolin, Dobro, and guitar of regular road warrior Steve
Eriksson. Meantime, this disc can be purchased by North American readers
from the Folk Era site at
<> , while European readers can visit
the Swiss based Brambus Records site at

Arthur Wood is a founding editor of FolkWax

(continued from column two)
  • My Beloved Enemy (3:52)
  • Smoke (3:42)
  • Treat You Right (3:12)
  • I'm Your Dad (4:23)
  • The Lucky Ones (4:37)
  • Don't Let Your Dim Light Die (4:07)
  • Sacrafice (5:13)
  • Peace (3:33)
  • Here I Stand (4:14)
  • True Love (4:17)
  • A Tale Of Two Americas (3:56)
  • Love Is The Common Ground (3:01) (Rod MacDonald, Susan Flaherty, Dan Grove, Walt Michael, Scott Anslie, Bob Green
  • I Am Bob Dylan (3:36)
  • With God On Our Side (6:30) Bob Dylan

All songs by Rod MacDonald, except as indicated.

Ownership, copyright and title of this folk music CD review belongs to me, Kevin McCarthy. Ownership, copyright and title are not transferable or assignable to you or other parties regardless of how or if you or other parties use, copy, save, backup, store, retrieve, transmit, display, publish, modify or share the CD review in whole or in part. Please read the "Terms, Conditions and Disclaimer" section on my web site for additional information about using, quoting, or reprinting this CD review.

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Unedited reviews Of

Arthur Wood--Folkwax November 2002


Recognition is a fitting title as, following my recent comment in the reissue review of MacDonald's 1983 debut No Commercial Traffic, the man thoroughly deserves each and every plaudit he receives. This is Macdonald's third Florida album, or at least, the third that he has released since his mid nineteen-nineties relocation to the Sunshine State from New York City, by way of Pontiac, Michigan.

The opening cut, "You Who Sleep Beside Me," is a hymn in praise of finding true love, and MacDonald succinctly draws the conclusion that it's "a feeling of arriving at the place where I belong." During his student days Rod spent a summer working for Newsweek. "The Man Who Dropped The Bomb On Hiroshima" recalls that vacation, and in particular the occasion, on which he interviewed the pilot of the B-29 bomber on that fateful day, July 29th 1945. What comes across tellingly in MacDonald's lyric, is the pilot's comment "they never told us what we were carrying," and the fact that, later, that pilot felt compelled to visit Japan. After seeing countless airfields full of attack-ready suicide planes, as well as the devastation that he had caused, the pilot concluded, "I left there thinking we'd made that war end sooner." To date, America is the only nation on Earth to deliver an atomic device in a conflict situation. Almost sixty years later, in the world order of the early 21st century, "My Neighbours In Delray" is a 9/11 song that focuses fairly dispassionately upon the activities of some of the participants in the months leading up to the execution of their mission.Dispassionately - except for the closing verse where MacDonald offers "but if my neighbours in Delray are in Paradise today, it would very much surprise me."

Vincent Van Gogh failed to sell his portrait of "Dr Gachet," or for that matter any of his works, during his lifetime. Vincent's thirty-seven years {*] on Earth amounted to a simple and poverty stricken existence, but a prodigious outpouring of paintings. Eventually the painting "crossed some borders and the dealer made a profit." From the German businessman who purchased it, it passed to a US-based oil executive who loaned it to a museum for his lifetime. Eventually sold at auction for 30 million dollars, it now lives, hidden from the world, in an airless case in the home of its Japanese owner. MacDonald's lyric raises the issue of who did, or didn't,receive justice in terms of benefit - certainly its creator didn't.

The chorus of "For The Good Of America," the closing track [as listed on the liner], ends with the line "their lips are moving but they're doing you wrong." The latter is a historical reference to the repetition by countless American presidents of the palliative, "For the good of America just forget it, cause it's time to move on." John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon Baines Johnston, the Vietnam War, [General] Augusto Pinochet, the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Wilson Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal are either mentioned by name or alluded to, as MacDonald presents his take on American foreign policy through the latter half of the twentieth century.

Physical abuse within a marriage is the focus of "When Angel Gets Blue," the fantasy killing on-screen turns into intentional real life murder in "Video Game," while the entertainer in "Mickey World" clearly indicates that he'd much rather be someplace else. As it stands he has hours to go, imitating "Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Danny Boy, Elvis - a diver for yesterday's pearls." MacDonald co-wrote the gently reflective "Ireland, Ireland" - "there are so many songs about Ireland can there be anything left to say?" - with Steve Eriksson, and Susan MeKeown provides the harmony vocal. "137 Executions (Not One Innocent Man)" is set in Texas, a state with a statistical record to preserve !

The hidden track, "Mojo & The St. Luke's Flukes," has got to be close on two decades-old now, yet this is the first time that MacDonald has committed it to an official release. The song focuses upon the adventures of a softball team. With the bases loaded, the score tied, Mojo has the chance to break the, he has a secret. Sorry, but you'll have to buy the album to find out what that secret is...

Across seventeen songs MacDonald paints a multi-faceted landscape of life in his homeland, circa the early 21st century AD, clearly making Recognition one of his finest works to date. Currently this album has only been released in Europe (Editor's note: the cd was released 6/1/03 in the US). It is available on the Internet from, while Stateside readers can order the album from

Note. [*] Vincent's brother Theo died six months after him. Initially buried in Utrecht, in 1914 Theo's wife, Johanna, had his body interred in the Auvers graveyard in the plot next to Vincent's. In addition, she had a sprig of ivy from Dr. Gachet's garden planted between the gravestones. That ivy now carpets Vincent and Theo's graves.

Arthur Wood is a contributing editor at FolkWax.

Reviews (Unedited) of

Into The Blue

Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Guntram Gudowius (

One of the moving forces of the Fast Folk musical magazine and other singer/songwriter ventures that were based in NYC during the late 70's and early 80's, MacDonald has put out records and CDs for about twenty years. Several of his songs have been covered by Garnet Rogers, Gordon Bok and others. Into The Blue is the latest collection of songs by a singer who moved from the melting pot of NYC to the beaches of Florida. Though still a social critic, his point of view changed a bit and the breezes of Caribbean Rhythms celebrate "the good life" as well.

The CD opens with a catchy, happy blues tune about a traveler looking forward to returning to his wife in "Seven Days". In "I Have No Problem With This" he describes the changes that occurred in the life of a person whose values changed as he climbed the ladder of financial success. "Best Defence" is considered a quiet song in these strident times, a slow and old car not to be part of the fast pace. In "Days Of Rain", he comes up with a few suggestions of what to do when the hurricane passes by but you still get rained on. "Here's A Song For You" is a wedding present. MacDonald takes a tongue-in-cheek view of Southern life from the snowbirds' perspective in "It's A Tough Life". He describes Florida's natural history and the threat to ecological balance by more suburban homes in "Aucilla River Song". MacDonald uses the example of the crash of an passenger airplane several years ago in "Deep Down In The Everglades" which deals with the sensational media. "Lightning Over The Sea" is an autobiographical sketch of MacDonald and his wife's lives in Florida and he sings of his love of flying a small air plane in "Into The Blue". He wonders about his "Fear" while living in the country with the greatest military, and evokes Native American spirit in "Sun Dancer". He praises the advantages of being an old fashioned singer with an acoustic guitar in "Six Strings And A Hole Big And Round". The last cut is "The Cure For Insomnia", an instrumental which prominently featuresthe kalimba which irritated my nerves.MacDonald's clear voice delivers all songs with conviction and passion and the pleasant and sweet melodies comfortably carry the lyrics of both the fast and slow paced songs. Except for the kalimba, it's a fairly traditional singer/songwriter accompaniment consisting mostly of acoustic guitar, bass, percussion and some keyboards. The production by MacDonald and his long time musical partner Mark Dann is smooth as we've come to expect from this team and it never interferes with the stories. So, sit back and listen!

Copyright 2000, Peterborough Folk Music Society. 
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange, P. O. Box 459,
Brattleboro, VT 05302-0459
(802) 257-0336 Mon-Thur 9:30am-4:30pm

Dirty Linen

Linen Shorts

Rod MacDonald Into The Blue

((Gadfly 256) 1999) A new album from a veteran of the New York CityFast Folk! scene and one apparently transplanted to Florida. Although MacDonald has written some great songs, his earlier albums always seemed a bit jejeune and hippyish. Into The Blue changes all that with songs about mature relationships and pieces that take more chances lyrically and musically. The soul of his music still remains the earnest and fervid message behind his word and tunes, however, and there are some nice songs. "Best Defense" ranks up there with his classics. The constant theme of the CD is Florida. The backing to MacDonald's voice and guitar is unobtrusive, though the band gets to swing on a music-box-sounding instrumental. This new, more weathered MacDonald has produced a consistent and sensitive album. (WD)

Soundations Music Reviews 10/19/99

by Greg Allen

Into The Blue - Rod MacDonald (Gadfly)

Perhaps the prime mover of the reborn Greenwich Village folk music scene, Rod MacDonald's latest has a pronounced Florida accent, a Sunshine State of mind, if you will.

Rod has made my best-of-the-year list in the past. And with Into The Blue,he once again delivers a bumper crop of mellow and up-tempo modern folk tunes, tunes with passion and insight.

One of MacDonald's biggest strengths comes from his concise verbal pictures. Like Lennon and Ray Davies, he has the ability to allow the listener to fill in the blanks when appropriate.

As for the Gator-based odes, for those of us who live in Florida or wish we did, Rod rhapsodizes artfully about the lower key aspect of the place. Of particular note is "Aucilla River," a song that deals with one of Florida's overlooked treasures. (In fact, just a few hours before writing this column, I parked my car by the Aucilla, just to watch it flow so slooooow).

Other Gator and non-Gator greats are "I Have No Problem With This," the beautiful ballad that merits being covered by Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt, "Best Defense" and "Here's A Song For You," a track about a parent watching and advising at a wedding. It is a song that many a bride and groom should spin at their matrimonial Mardi gras.

Rod MacDonald is an intelligent composer and a smooth, effective singer. And few folk CDs are better than this!

Greg's top ten list for 1999:

Breaking Down To 3 - Dave Moore (Red House)
Horkstow Grange - Steeleye Span (Park)
The Man From God Knows Where - Tom Russell (Hightone)
Crusades Of The Restless Knights - Ray Wylie Hubbard (Philo)
Tall Tales - The Hot Club of Cowtown (Hightone)
Paradise Lost & Found - Anne Hills & Michael Smith (Redwing)
Cajunization - Beausoleil (Rhino)
Redemption - Peter Gallway (Gadfly)
Into The Blue - Rod MacDonald (Gadfly)
Cajun Spirit - Eddie Le Jeune (Rounder)
Soundations, Copyright 1999 by Greg Allen

Sing Out!

Vol. 44 No. 2 Winter 2000

ROD MACDONALD, Into The Blue, (Gadfly 256). Love, marriage and the Florida weather seem to have brought a lot of contentment to Rod MacDonald. The songs on this disc are all engaging and a pleasure to listen to as MacDonald celebrates a more laid-back lifestyle than the one he led on Greenwich Village's MacDougal Street. Some songs, like "Into The Blue" or "It's a Tough Life" could be hits for the parrot-heads. The focussed anger-at-injustice that motivated many of his best songs is more subtle here, but it does come through on songs like "Deep Down In The Everglades, about the Valuejet crash and "Fear", about living as a citizen of a great military power seen as satanic by much of the world.--MR

Kerrville Kronikle

Rod MacDonald "Into The Blue" Brambus (Import)

It's obvious from the lyrical content of some of the seventeen songs on MacDonald's fourth release for the Swiss Brambus imprint, that MacDonald is now a resident of the state of Florida. He moved from New York City a few years ago. Now an established member of the folk community in the sunshine state, there's a definite folk/blues edge to some of the fare. As for the production, Rod is aided and abetted--it seems like it has been forever --by Mark Dann. Relative to the American Gadfly version of "Into The Blue" there are four extra "live" tracks on the Brambus release. That's the commercial tease. As for deception, that could be construed as a great skill. Musically and lyrically, "Here's A Song For You" appears simple--stylistically it could be a standard from the 1940s, yet that's the deception. Simple hits the target every time, even down to the doop do wah female chorus. Returning to the theme of Florida-- "Days of Rain," "It's a Tough Life," 'Lightning Over The Sea," "The Aucilla River Song," the album title song and "Deep Down In The Everglades"--the latter about the May 1996 Valuejet plane disaster, have all been inspired by the experiences in his new home state. "Six Strings And A Hole Big And Round" is a tribute to this songwriter's most precious tool--his instrument of choice. The closing quartet of tunes are "The Cure For Insomnia" an instrumental, the long established concert favorite "Some Things I Like About America," plus the bluesy cover "Come Back Baby" and from 1936 the standard "It's a Sin To Tell A Lie." And finally, on "Sundancer," ankle bracelets must surely amount to the most exotic musical instruments ever used on a recording.

Reviews (Unedited) of
white buffalo
Dirty Linen
April/May 1997 , # 69
White Buffalo

[Gadfly 211 (1996), reissue]

by Winthrop Dahl

Gadfly has done us a service by re-releasing MacDonald's best album to date and one of the best from the New York City Fast Folk milieu. His music sounded at the time more lightweight than some of his more sententious contemporaries like Jack Hardy or Suzanne Vega, but on closer examination, its lyric and musical strength and MacDonald's Iain Matthews-like vocals become more apparent. Originally released in 1987 on tiny McDisk records, White Buffalo contains some of his classic songs like "Cross Country Waltz" and "Stop the War." As one of his earlier efforts, MacDonald sounds young though certainly not ignorant. A couple of the songs are perhaps a bit too earnest: "Sanctuary" asks why we allow Ferdinand Marcos and other dictators into the U.S. but keep out Latin American refugees. Still, his naivete is winning and the song does not preach too hard. A few, like "The Aliens Came in Business Suits," are even more true than before. This reissue adds the lyrics and a slightly better sound that brings out the more subtle points of MacDonald's music. (WD)

Copyright © Dirty Linen: Folk, Electric Folk, Traditional and World

Boston Globe
November 26, 1987
Rod MacDonald
White Buffalo

Among the many exciting singer-songwriters to emerge from the thriving Fast Folk/Speakeasy scene in New York City, Rod MacDonald is possibly the most musical. In this long-awaited first American album (he has had one released in Europe), his high, clear voice and clean, honest phrasing, his catchy melodies and relaxed, rolling rhythyms make for an album that is urgent in its poetry; yet always bopping, pretty music. In "Song Of My Brothers," he turns alienated idealism into a stirring anthem of community, all to a brisk, pulsing rhythm and breezy melody. He writes with a wry, original vision about contemporary life's peculiar horrors. In "The Aliens Came In Business Suits" he shares an urban-dweller's ultimate nightmare: The aliens "took every parking space." In the witty and captivating "Blues For The River," he offers this modest lover's lament: "She lay in my arms/And talked to me about her boyfriend." In "Sanctuary," he wonders, if we welcome thugs like Somoza and Marcos, "Why do we send back Rosalita and Roseanne?" Where some would use a thumping, good 'n mad melody for such an angry message, MacDonald chose a sweet, pretty one, giving the song a wrenching, sorrowful humanity. MacDonald is a poet with a lot on his mind who has never allowed himself to make points at the expense of making music. The result is that he does both captivatingly well.--Scott Alarik

A Page of Quotes

"Rod MacDonald is a brilliant folk singer and composer. His melodic songs possess words that go straight into your heart and soul." Atlantic City (NJ) Press

"Stereotype-defying originals...... His songs are mostly empathetic, character-driven allegories, funneling the human experience through the eyes of fictional but universally recognizable men and women." City Link (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)

"He still puts together witty lyrics and compelling guitar playing better than almost any performer on today's folk scene" Telegraph Correspondent (Londonderry, NH)

"The lyrics are required reading for those who fancy themselves songwriters....Excellent!." Victory Review

"The tie that binds is the intelligent craftsmanship of the songs--and the thoughtful performances that follow" Palm Beach (FL) Post

"A poet with a lot on his mind who has never allowed himself to make points at the expense of making music." Boston Globe

"With his pure emotive tenor and stirring, catchy tunes, MacDonald is one of the most apealing singer-songwriters.....Add thoughtful lyrics that touch on a variety of political and social issues, and you have a remarkable artist." All-Music Guide

"One of the most highly regarded singer-songwriters working in North America today" Fast Folk Musical Magazine

"Politics, passion, and a sense of humor" The Village Voice

"A creator of classics......he has never stopped writing songs of scope and daring, nor singing in his high, sweet voice.....Rod MacDonald may be folk's greatest under-recognized musician." Boston Herald

"And Then He Woke Up ....really reaches out to the ears. And with Rod MacDonald's songwriting, it is potent stuff." Sing Out!

"One of contemporary music's most gifted songwriters." Syracuse Herald-American

"A superb songwriter." Arizona Daily Star

"An important new folk artist." Folk Roots (Great Britain)

"MacDonald's songs combine poetic vision and journalistic insight." Dirty Linen

"A keen sense of humor, an ingratiating way with romantic songs, and just enough recklessness to keep an audience wondering." Buffalo Daily News

"MacDonald's driving guitar strums, blasting harmonica licks and seductive singing provide him with a distinctive position in acoustic music." New Times (Syracuse, NY)

New Times
Broward-Palm Beach May 17-23
         Best Local Acoustic Performer
Rod MacDonald

The resemblance to Bob Dylan is probably not entirely coincidental. A Palm Beach resident snce 1995, MacDonald moved here to care for his aging parents and, it would seem, the small south Florida folk community. MAcDonald paid his dues as a jurnalist, law student, conscientious objector, and traveling folksinger before becoming a major player in the Greenwich Village Fast Folk movement in the '80s and '90s. Today MacDonald is a regular at Palm Beach clubs such as Paddy Mac's and the Coffee Gallery Cafe, where he often invites local talent to join him onstage. On a recent night at the CG, he looked as if he belonged, unfazed by passing cars, boisterous teenagers, bikers, and the noisy cover band two doors down. Decked out in sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and shorts, he sang and played his heart out using just "siz strings and a hole big and round" (which is also the title of a MacDonald song). The political messages still inhabit his songs, but MacDonald's latest album, 1999's Into The Blue, tempers an angry attitude with songs about the weather, marriage, and nature. In other words he's adapted well to Florida.

XS--News, arts, and entertainment for Broward and Palm Beach
Aug. 12-18, 1997

Keeper of the Flame
Unplugged or not, folk veteran
Rod MacDonald keeps singing
the people's music.
By Jake Cline

It's early Saturday night at Paddy Mac's, a rather upscale Irish pub and eatery in equally tony Palm Beach Gardens. The Marlins are on TV beating the Padres 5-0, the pub's growing collection of button-down regulars are beating down their beers, and on a tiny stage in the corner Rod MacDonald is atypically beating his acoustic guitar.

"The wire died on my pickup," a bemused MacDonald says several days later, "so I had to play louder than I've had to in years."

Indeed, the plainspoken 48-year-old folksinger with the gravity-defying hill of brown hair hadn't foreseen such technical difficulties. But not one to miss an opportunity, MacDonald used the break to reminisce of a time when folksingers didn't hassle with microphones and electric pickups, instead captivating audiences with nothing more than their voices and unamplified guitars.

He should know. The Connecticut native and current Delray Beach resident has been commanding audiences since the late 1960s, when he first performed his moving, often socially conscious folksongs at a University of Virginia coffeehouse called the Prism. "It was, at that time, what a good coffeehouse is," MacDonald recalls. "A place where people who are interested in folk music and the anti-war and civil rights movements could meet and get together." While "it's not something I like to make much of," MacDonald earned a history degree from the University of Virginia, followed by a law degree from Columbia University, although he never took the bar exam. "By the time I was halfway through law school I was already gigging in New York," MacDonald recalls. "By then, I already knew that I wanted to be a full-time musician." For the next 20 years, MacDonald remained a fixture on Greenwich Village's acclaimed and tightly guarded folk scene. Hereleased his first album, No Commercial Traffic, in 1983 and followed that with several years of nonstop touring ("I'd just be home for a week or two at a time"), crisscrossing the U.S., Canada and Europe. He's released six albums in all, including 1994's The Man On The Ledge (Shanachie) and his latest, And Then He Woke Up (Gadfly). MacDonald's songs vary between sweet, worldly wise takes on love and life and satiric, thought-provoking political numbers like The Man On The Ledge's "Hey, Mr. President," a Woody-Guthrie-like folksong in which he admits "I think I voted for a winner for the first time in my life."

"When I wrote that line, I meant that I had never voted for anyone who'd ever been elected before," MacDonald says of the 1992 presidential election. "You'd be surprised how many people clap and cheer for that song, especially in places like Boston where people traditionally voted for people like George McGovern and against Ronald Reagan. "What I felt was valuable about that song was how it marked a historical point. Every once in awhile, when I look at the political songs, I think there's a story being told. They usually reflect a shift in public mood. I thought that (Clinton's election) was a real shift in public mood. In a certain amount of my songs you may find that's what they're really about."

And although MacDonald has written and recorded a number of songs that one can undeniably term "political" ("Some Things I like About America", "Who Built The Bomb (That Blew Oklahoma City Down)"), he stresses that folk is not music's only socially aware voice, although it's been regarded that way by many since the '60s."I think it's worthwhile to say if you're going to make a comparison between then and now, you have to realize there was very little political content in pop music at that time," MacDonald says. "Music in general is more aware now. Lots of kinds of music are political that aren't folk.

"I think that the general theme of folk--I'm not sure how I should put this into words--is a respect for individuals, giving a voice to people who don't have a voice otherwise. There still is that element of it."

Other than playing Paddy Mac's every Friday and Saturday night with Irish vocalist Tracy Sands ("we've had nights that felt like a concert") and Lake Worth's Coffee Gallery Cafe alternate Sundays, MacDonald keeps a significantly less grueling schedule than he did in New York.

Which doesn't mean he's slowing down altogther. He'll soon embark on a two-week trip up the East Coast and is now recording an album of Irish folk music with Sands, due for release by year's end.

"I'm pretty much the same as I've always been," MacDonald says. "I write about what I think is worth writing about. Sometimes that's a political statement, although I think everything's political in its own way."



And Then He Woke Up

Gadfly 224

Rod MacDonald has a gentle voice, but he is at his most aggressive singing with the tight little band he has assembled here: Greg Anderson on bass, Steve Holley on drums, Mark Dann on lead guitar, and Lisa Gutkin on violin. The violin, particularly, adds a distinctive taste to the sound with Lisa's inventive performances, and the band displays strong energy throughout.
There is often a streak of whimsy in Rod's songs. "Happy All The Time" answers his ma's carping about why his songs are always so serious with a burst of happy pep. The tile song recalls wierd dreams and how they can prepare you for real life when you least expect it. "Ballad Of A Black Haired Man" tells of a fellow just "sittin' and watchin' the evening sun go down" and how he deals with his hecklers. "On Any Old Sunday" is a tale of two lone diners and how they became a couple. "Out in The Country" is memoir of youth and changes over time. "Keeper Of The Flame" is about the artistic urge, while "Timothy" is a mirror maker who made a special one that lets one see how others see him.

Still, Rod mines his serious side and outrage in his powerful "The Death Of Victor Jara," his recasting of "Who Killed Cock Robin" as "Who Built The Bomb (That Blew Oklahoma City Down)?" and his rant about politicians and quiescent voters, "The Last Train To Pontiac."

And Then He Woke Up is a strong record that, in a way, ambushed my expectations with its fervor and drive. It really reaches out to the ears. And with Rod MacDonald's songwriting, it is potent stuff.--MT

New Times
Broward/Palm Beach (FL)
Notes From The Underground

September 9-15, 1999

By Paul Demko

Rod MacDonald is setting up shop on what constitutes a stage at the Coffee Gallery Café in Lake Worth. Dressed in sandals, black shorts, and a red striped shirt with the top few buttons open, he tunes his guitar and fiddles with his beer-stained soundboard. Hair is his most arresting feature: An unwieldy mass of it shoots from his head like a graying clown wig. Three doors down, a cover artist is working his way through a set of classic-rock standards that includes songs by Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. "At least he's not too loud," MacDonald tells his audience of about 20 people, a harmonica brace dangling from his neck. "The guy last week was really loud." The 51-year-old musician kicks off his set with an original tune called "It's a Tough Life" from his forthcoming album, Into the Blue. The song is a facetious lament on the hardships of life in sunny South Florida. With his soft tenor voice, MacDonald sings:
It's a tough life
somehow we make it through
making sure that ocean is still blue
and that warm breeze blows at night
and that sun still shines its light
I don't know how we do it, but we do
it's a tough life
somehow we make it through.
Waitresses rush back and forth, carrying pots of coffee and plates of pesto ravioli. Sitting at a table not far from MacDonald, college-age hipsters converse loudly as they smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. Cars noisily roll past on Lake Avenue. The rain has halted on this pleasant Sunday evening, but puddles still linger in the street.

MacDonald continues to sing, unfazed. His eyes are closed, and his lips barely move. His fingers delicately pick the guitar, and his legs bounce slightly, in time with the music. The act seems as much a personal therapy session as a performance for the ever-shifting sidewalk audience. Stripped of the full band that once accompanied MacDonald at gigs in New York City, his music is sparse, driven by simple guitar melodies and the occasional harmonica riff. He continues:

Sure the tourists, they do clog up the roads,
and once a year I gotta put on those hurricane boards
but if the wind don't blow us away
and those tourists don't all decide to stay
I think we're gonna make this place our home.
The end of the song is greeted with a smattering of polite applause.

MacDonald has called South Florida home for four years now. After crisscrossing the country as a wandering troubadour in the mid-'70s, then settling down for two decades as a folksinger in New York City, he arrived in Delray Beach in 1995 to help take care of his aging parents.

Since taking up residence here, he's become an ever-present figure in the South Florida folk scene. Most Sunday nights from 8 to 11, he can be found at the Coffee Gallery Café, performing songs from a vast repertoire of originals as well as a smattering of covers ranging from Robert Johnson's "When You've Got a Friend," to James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" (the latter only under duress, he notes). Friday and Saturday nights, MacDonald usually performs a Celtic-flavored gig with Irish-born singer Tracy Sands at either Rooney's Public House or Paddy Mac's, both in West Palm Beach. Throw in the occasional house concert or festival, and he's among the most prolific performers in South Florida.

An uninitiated audience member watching MacDonald work his way through "Danny Boy" on a Friday night or "Fire and Rain" on a Sunday might easily overlook him as just another cover artist whose renditions are little more than inoffensive background noise. But lost in the numbing regularity of MacDonald's performance schedule is the fact that he's an ingenious songwriter who has recorded six critically lauded, if commercially negligible, albums over the past 15 years. During the '80s he was at the forefront of a Greenwich Village music scene known as Fast Folk, which, while not nearly as influential as the '60s era scene that fostered the likes of Bob Dylan, produced hugely successful artists such as Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. This fall, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will make available the entire Fast Folk collection -- more than 100 albums -- for the first time on compact disc. MacDonald is one of the most heavily represented artists on the recordings with 29 songs, some of which have never appeared on his albums.

"He's one of the great ones," says Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, one of the most prestigious folk gatherings in the country. "[He's] a great American writer who is almost a traditional artist in the way he writes."

"Rod's one of the best of the singer-songwriters that ever came out of the New York movement," says Dave Van Ronk, a redoubtable songwriter himself, who has called Greenwich Village home since Dylan was tossing back beers at the Kettle of Fish. On Van Ronk's 1994 album, To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places, he covers the MacDonald tune "A Sailor's Prayer." "I don't think it's generally realized down there just how influential Rod has been," Van Ronk adds.

Admittedly, South Florida is not Greenwich Village -- nor even Austin, Texas. But MacDonald's presence in the last few years, coupled with the emergence of the now nationally renowned South Florida Folk Festival, has helped spark a growing acoustic-music scene, primarily in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In South Florida it is now possible -- if decidedly difficult -- to claim folksinging as your primary mode of employment.

"When I came down here, it was few and far between to find a folk musician," says Marie Nofsinger, who has been performing in the area for two decades. "Singer-songwriter? Back then, I don't think people even knew what that meant."


Here in Florida we know what life is worth
we watch the weather channel,
see what's going on up north
then we call up some old friend
say, "Charlie, I see it's snowing again
Me, I'm sitting in my underwear
on the porch"
-- "It's a Tough Life," Into the Blue (1999)
Even before calling Delray Beach home, MacDonald was a fleeting presence in South Florida. Back in 1985, in an attempt to resuscitate folk music in the area, Michael Stock began organizing weekly concerts at a health food restaurant and then at other venues in South Beach. "The only folksingers around here back then were '60s hangers-on," recalls Stock, who has hosted the Folk and Acoustic Music show on WLRN-FM (91.3) since 1981. MacDonald became an annual performer on what Stock calls the "grandmother circuit" -- musicians who squeeze in South Florida gigs while visiting their elderly relatives. "He was an angry young man back then," says Stock. "You never saw him smile. He was always deep in thought."

Since moving to Florida, MacDonald has lightened up considerably. His favored attire is shorts, sandals, and a tropical print shirt. He got married three years ago, drives a Ford Escort, and lives in a comfortable townhouse not far from the beach. He even owns a mouse pad imprinted with a picture of him and his Swiss-born wife, Nicole -- a no-so-subtle symbol of domestic tranquility.

MacDonald devotes much of his time to caring for his elderly parents, both of whom are over 80 years of age. Each afternoon he drives to their Boynton Beach home to help with mundane chores, such as cooking meals and cleaning house. He returns at night to help them into bed. For the first time in 25 years, his musical passions are taking a back seat to family concerns. "I think the days of my renting a car and driving around the country for three months are over for a while," he says, "if not for good."

Domesticity is reflected in his music as well. Most of the material on Into the Blue (to be released later this month on Gadfly Records ) was written after MacDonald moved to Florida. He sheepishly admits to being influenced by Jimmy Buffett, and there is more than one reference on the album to plastic flamingos. The standard rock 'n' roll percussion setup is often supplemented with conga drums, and a kalimba contributes to the melodies on several songs. MacDonald picked up the xylophone-like African instrument in a Delray Beach boutique while searching for something that would lend "It's a Tough Life" a tropical flavor, then ended up using it on several other songs on Into the Blue.

Sitting at the dining room table in his townhouse on a recent weekday evening, MacDonald taps away on the kalimba. The wood-and-metal instrument isn't much bigger than a mousetrap. He nimbly pecks out the hypnotic stair-step melody that serves as the foundation for an instrumental track on the new album. A mandolin, frame drum, triangle, and gourd weave through the kalimba melody on Into the Blue, giving the song a feel reminiscent of Cuban son music.

"I'm a person who suffers from insomnia," MacDonald says. "I stay up very late at night working, and I have never been able to figure out if I stay up late because I can't sleep, or if I can't sleep [at night] because I sleep so late in the morning. When I started playing this one night, it was on the same day when I said to my wife, 'Boy I wish I had a cure for insomnia.' And so this song became 'The Cure For Insomnia.'"

The effect of MacDonald's newfound serenity is even more apparent in his most recent lyrics. His pre-Florida, premarital work reflected an earnest, politically liberal sensibility more reminiscent of Phil Ochs than Jimmy Buffett. Humor has always played a part in MacDonald's songwriting, but in the past it was a subtle undercurrent, not a prominent feature. (The beguiling song "Norman," for example, from 1992's Highway to Nowhere, is a touching tale of mother and son that just happens to be told from the perspective of Alfred Hitchcock's protagonist in Psycho.) Although Into the Blue does include several topical songs ("Deep Down in the Everglades" is a contemplation of the ValuJet disaster), the overall tone is actually whimsical. "I Have No Problem With This" provides a kind of thesis for the entire album. It is an occasionally goofy meditation on growing old, mellowing out, and coming to terms with domesticity. It presents life in Greenwich Village stripped of all romanticism:

Remember when life meant you were living
in some little apartment on some city street
with the chicken factory across the courtyard
you opened your windows in the summer heat.
South Florida, in contrast, is portrayed as a land of simple pleasures and few struggles -- not to mention very little thought. "At this point in my life, I'm not writing big, anthemic, emotional-agony-type songs," MacDonald admits. "What tends to interest me is the offbeat stuff, the stuff that doesn't sound like it's been done to death."


More people write songs than listen to them
doesn't mean you can't write a song.
More people sing than get paid for it
doesn't mean you can't sing along.
On every highway, in every town
somebody's wise to the game:
give all the people a song and a dance
and be a keeper of the flame.
-- "Keeper of the Flame,"
And Then He Woke Up (1997)
MacDonald's humility serves him well. The day-to-day routine of a full-time folksinger in South Florida is decidedly unglamorous. Marie Nofsinger, a songwriter with a talent for telling detail and a style that jumps from country to jazz, has been playing area gigs for almost two decades. She recalls going to a repair garage to have a muffler replaced a few years back, only to be recognized by the guy behind the counter. "You played at my Texaco," he said.

In addition to hitting the gas-station circuit, Nofsinger used to play at a Chuck's Steak House. Earlier this year she performed at a nudist colony. "I've played about everything except a bowling alley," says Nofsinger, whose latest album is called Boots. She now performs almost every Thursday night at Web Central in Delray Beach and takes road trips -- to Austin, Texas, mostly -- for additional gigs. She supplements her income by working three days a week at the Amp Shop & Music Parlor in West Palm Beach. "And then when I'm really broke, I have yard sales," she says only half jokingly.

Other local folk musicians have had to find creative ways to make ends meet as well. Magda Hiller, a Miami-based singer-songwriter, does voice-over work for radio commercials, and Grant Livingston, whose songs are steeped in Florida history and geography, works as a computer consultant. He recently performed an afternoon show at a nursing home, which, as far as he's concerned, is nothing to sneer at. "A paid gig in the middle of a weekday is a really good thing," he says.

Livingston and others note that the fast-paced, transient lifestyle of South Florida -- particularly Miami -- does not lend itself to contemplative, quiet music. "Miami's a tough town," he says. "People don't like to listen a lot."

Despite the difficulty of competing with the buzz of electronica and Latin music in South Florida, the folk-music scene is growing -- particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties. A handful of venues, such as Center Perk Coffeehouse and Chocolate Moose Coffeehouse, both in Davie, offer acoustic music on a regular basis. House concerts, for which people transform their humble abodes into mini concert halls, have also become popular settings for folk music. There are now three semiregular house-concert series in South Florida, ensuring at least one show a month. Headliners at the concerts are usually out-of-town performers, such as Carla Ulbrich, of South Carolina, who won the songwriter contest at this year's South Florida Folk Festival in January, or Jamie Anderson, of North Carolina, who will perform later this month at a home in Plantation.

Because house concerts take place in noncommercial venues, audiences usually aren't too big, but those who show up pay $8 to $10 for the privilege of seeing a performer in a very intimate setting. And all of the money goes straight to the performer -- $400 or more on some nights, which is a bigger take than he or she gets at most other venues.

On a recent Saturday evening, a sellout crowd of 40 people paid $10 each to see Amy Carol Webb perform at Bob and Saralyn Singer's house in Coral Springs. The concert took place in the Singer's den, a pristine, white-walled space accented with brightly colored pieces of modern art and the Singers' collection of almost 1000 hot sauces. (They are recent Dallas transplants.) The crowd sat on green plastic chairs and sipped sodas. Alcohol and cigarettes were noticeably absent.

The Singers opened the show by performing a handful of decidedly amateur but endearing original tunes, including one about Tennessee roadkill and another about Bill Clinton's sexual predilections. Webb is a Miami-based performer who won the songwriter contest at the South Florida Folk Festival in 1998. She has a powerful, crystalline voice, and at the Singers' house she played the guitar stridently. (She broke a string not five minutes into the show.) Drawing heavily from her Songweaver CD, Webb played two sets of original songs, which ranged from the self-deprecatingly funny to feminist anthems.

In the audience at the Singers' house concert were many members of the Broward Folk Club, which is largely responsible for the burgeoning folk-music scene in South Florida. Founded in 1988 by Robby Greenberg, the club began with just 20 people at its first meeting. The group now has about 250 loyal members. "It's amazing how much it's grown," Greenberg says. Initially, she notes, "we had a song swap once a month, and we had an open mic once a month, and that was all that was available in Broward."

The club's most significant achievement is the annual South Florida Folk Festival, which began in 1992 and has morphed into an event that is respected nationwide. In recent years the festival's songwriting contest has attracted competitors from across the country, many with established reputations. Jack Hardy, a veteran of the New York City folk scene, whose work has been anthologized in a five-CD boxed set, won the contest in 1997. Sam Pacetti, of St. Augustine, landed a deal with Waterbug records out of Chicago after the founder of the label saw him perform at the festival that same year.

"As far as attracting good talent, the last three years it's been unbelievable," says Michael Stock of WLRN.

MacDonald, who has performed at numerous folk festivals, says that the songwriter contest ranks in the upper echelon nationwide. "I think there's probably a half-dozen that are the top ones, and I would rank it in that group," he says. He and others note that a large part of the attraction for out-of-state performers is the promise of South Florida weather in January. The festival has also been bolstered by national advertising in publications such as Performing Songwriter and by what many people say is the growing popularity of folk festivals across the country.

MacDonald himself has been instrumental in bolstering South Florida's reputation in the folk-music world. Last year he helped put together "Songwriters' Solstice," a concert featuring 15 South Florida songwriters (folkies and rock-oriented acts) at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The sold-out show attracted more than 300 people, and the eponymously titled recording of the concert was released on CD. For many area musicians used to playing in coffee shops and bars, the concert was a rare opportunity to perform for a big audience.

"There are a lot of really good songwriters around South Florida who, like myself, largely make their living playing a certain mix of cover tunes and originals in noisy situations," MacDonald says. "It seemed to me that if we could bring some of those talented people together in a situation that was really aesthetically refined that it would be a very beautiful thing to do."

But there's no home in this world anymore for a wanderer,
with a waistcoat, a bow and arrow
a pioneer blazing a trail in the hills of Cumberland
riding logs on the river Ohio
but I seek another highway where they
learn to heal the wings of a wounded sparrow
come stand before this fire
glowin' on your skin
come take these searchin' eyes
someplace they've never been.
-- "Song of My Brothers," White Buffalo (1987)
Rod MacDonald's musical sensibility and his interest in cultivating a folk scene were shaped in his early years as a performer. Before that, however, he was well on his way to attaining a middle-class livelihood not so different from the one he'd experienced growing up in Connecticut. By 1973 he had earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Virginia, acquired work experience as a correspondent for Newsweek (covering such high-profile events as Jimmy Hoffa's parole hearing), and was enrolled in Columbia University's law school.

He had also joined the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps as a way to avoid combat in Vietnam and pay for law school. But as his disgust for the war intensified, he found himself burdened with guilt for being part of a military system he abhorred. So he applied to be classified as a conscientious objector. In the summer of 1973, while his request was being considered, he was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island, for military training school. While there he secured a gig at a local club. "I spent the summer going to classes during the day and singing, 'One, two, three, what are we fightin' for?' at night," he recalls. At the end of the summer, the military agreed to grant him status as a conscientious objector.

After finishing his final year of law school (on his own dime), MacDonald didn't bother with the bar exam. Instead he became an itinerant musician. "I wanted to put myself in a position where I had to play music to survive," he says. "I felt that was the only way that I'd ever get good enough to be able to do this. And also I wanted to find out who was out there in the world, what kind of people were really out there. I wanted to get away from the cozy protected people and out into the people that were what I considered more real in a certain way. I was young and arrogant, and that's how I felt. I wanted to test myself against the real world."

Based in Chicago, MacDonald traveled the country mainly by thumb, picking up gigs wherever he could. In 1974, while in New York City, he encountered one of his musical idols. Phil Ochs, the '60s folksinger and protest maven best remembered for his songs assailing the Vietnam War, such as "I Ain't Marching Anymore," was then in the midst of organizing a benefit concert in honor of the recently slain Chilean leader Salvador Allende. The concert was to be a massive event, held at Madison Square Garden and featuring, most notably, Bob Dylan. Hoping to join the roster of performers, MacDonald auditioned for Ochs.

As MacDonald remembers the encounter, Ochs was running the Allende benefit operation out of a cramped office buzzing with people and telephones. Amid the chaos the 26-year-old folksinger played Ochs a song he'd written about the Chilean coup. "Phil squatted down on his haunches, and he listened to me play him my entire song," MacDonald recalls. "People were trying to interrupt him the whole time. They were going, 'Hey Phil, I need you over here.' 'Hey Phil, Baez is on the phone, she needs a hotel room.' 'Hey Phil, McGuinn's in town, he wants to know what to do.' He kept pushing them all away, and he listened to me play my entire song. Then he said to me, 'I'm sorry I can't have you in the show, but I want to thank you for coming by.'"

MacDonald says he wasn't put off by the rebuff. "I was pretty green," he says. "I don't hold it against him that he didn't put me in the show. But I do value the moment that he gave me to play for him very highly." In fact, on the 1998 tribute album What's That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs, MacDonald covers the Ochs song "Pleasures of the Harbor."

Despite his failure to make the cut for the Allende benefit, MacDonald would soon be poised to move beyond the hitchhiker circuit. After spending a few more years on the road, he returned to New York City in 1977, this time for an audience with renowned talent scout John Hammond, Jr. The musicians Hammond had recruited and produced for Columbia records in the past were legendary: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and George Benson, among them. Well before he became famous, Bob Dylan was known as "Hammond's folly" because of his rough-hewn voice and often-cryptic lyrics. More recently Hammond had discovered a young man from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.

MacDonald was hoping to be the next unearthed gem. He found an apartment in New York and auditioned for Hammond with positive results. He was set to record some tracks with the producer in hopes of securing a record deal. Before the sessions could take place, however, the almost-70-year-old Hammond suffered a heart attack, which forced him into retirement. "Without his guidance I really was kind of at sea for what to do in terms of walking into a bigtime recording studio and playing my songs," MacDonald recalls. "I really didn't know how to do that."

Even without a record deal, he would make New York City his home for the next two decades. The heyday of the '60s folk scene in Greenwich Village was long gone, so MacDonald and other struggling artists set about creating their own. Every Monday night a group of songwriters that included Tom Intondi, Lucy Kaplansky, and David Massengill met at the Cornelia Street Café to swap new songs. Out of these weekly hootenannies came an album, Cornelia Street: The Songwriter's Exchange, released in 1980 on Stash Records. It included two songs written and performed by MacDonald. Shortly after the album's release, Stereo Review ran a glowing review, and MacDonald was among those singled out for praise: "Songs not only perceptive and linguistically rich, but touched with grace," the reviewer wrote of his work.

Despite this early success, many of the folkies were finding it difficult to land record deals. In 1982 Jack Hardy suggested they start up a musician-run label. Ten times each year, the label recorded new songs from a dozen different artists. Within two weeks each recording was on the streets for a price of just $2. The idea was to get the music into consumers' hands as quickly as possible, so the label was called Fast Folk.

Just as Fast Folk was getting started, the Speakeasy opened on MacDougal Street. Like the record label, the folk club was run by musicians for musicians. Many of the songwriters who laid down tracks for Fast Folk performed at the Speakeasy. MacDonald lived across the street from the club, and for much of the early and mid-'80s he was in charge of booking the venue. Mark Dann, who's worked with MacDonald as a musician and a producer for the last two decades, recalls that MacDonald was the first person to offer a little-known folksinger named Suzanne Vega a booking. "Before that," Dann says, "no one would give her a gig."

Artists who honed their chops in this thriving scene are legion. Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, John Gorka, Lyle Lovett, and Vega all worked with Fast Folk prior to becoming household names. Countless lesser-known musicians made their first (and often last) recordings on Fast Folk. The venture eventually became known as Fast Folk Musical Magazine, which published interviews and articles and released albums.

The movement reached an initial peak of respectability in 1984, when the first Fast Folk Revue took place at the Bottom Line. The then-decade-old Greenwich Village club had several times the capacity of the Speakeasy and was known for hosting notable artists like Bruce Springsteen. Among the relative unknowns performing that night were Vega, Kaplansky, and Christine Lavin. Near the end of the first set, MacDonald delivered a gripping rendition of his song "American Jerusalem," a stark meditation on urban life:

Oh, I been around
you could spend forever looking for a friend in this town
and all you get to do is lay your dollar down
'til you're stumbling drunk up the stairs again
and the sign says,
"Welcome to American Jerusalem."
MacDonald was backed by a stellar band consisting of guitarist, bass player, and drummer. "I don't even think we rehearsed," he notes, "which makes it all that much more startling that it was as good as it was."

Richard Meyer, former editor of Fast Folk Musical Magazine, says the performance of "American Jerusalem" became a defining moment for the Fast Folk scene. "There was just a feeling in the room that something serious was happening," he says. "People realized that they had made a step up from being around the corner, at the Speakeasy."

Dann, who played bass on "American Jerusalem" that evening, recalls MacDonald saying afterward that it was "the greatest moment of his life."

"I remember it being a very magic moment," MacDonald notes. "I got that feeling as much from the performers backstage after it was over as from the audience. People were hugging me and saying, 'You really did it, Rod, you showed 'em we can do this.'"

Fast Folk stopped producing albums last year, after more than 15 years, but the Bottom Line shows continue to take place annually. The entire catalog of Fast Folk recordings was recently donated to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings to be remastered on compact disc. By the end of this year, more than 100 Fast Folk compilations will be available for purchase.

"I'm not a '60s folkie," says MacDonald. "I'm a person who came of age in the music world in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. The Fast Folk thing presented the first work of a lot of very important people. I think it's worth keeping as a historical document."

I know a guy in software design
he's online all the time
just trying to duplicate this sound
But it will never sound as clean
as my old wood machine
six strings and a hole big and round.
-- "Six Strings & a Hole Big & Round,"
Into the Blue (1999)
MacDonald's musical career has taken him many places since 1984. He's recorded six albums for three labels and performed in hundreds of venues. In the late '80s and early '90s, he opened a slew of New York-area shows for folkie and Woodstock performer Richie Havens. Each year MacDonald tours Europe, particularly Switzerland and Germany, where he has built up a following. He lived in northeast Italy for a time and made two trips to Czechoslovakia in the wake of the fall of the communist regime there to perform at concerts and festivals, sometimes for thousands of people.

If the folk scene in South Florida is going to continue to grow, MacDonald says, it'll need a respectable venue that showcases performers on a regular basis. He notes that there are attractive performance spaces in the area, but most showcase folk music maybe ten times a year rather than every night. "There's nothing like the clubs in Greenwich Village, where six, seven nights a week there are really good songwriters playing original music," he says. "But there is work for people that play and sing well."

Tonight MacDonald finds himself in the humble surroundings of the Coffee Gallery Café in Lake Worth. With 11 p.m. approaching, the crowd has thinned to about a dozen people -- if you count the owner of the café and two waitresses, who have repaired to tables. Someone sitting at a sidewalk table has called out a request for the John Denver song "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Looking momentarily nonplussed by the request, MacDonald tells the audience that, before Denver died in a plane crash two years ago, it wasn't fashionable to play his songs. He then gamely recounts a story of how, back in the '70s, his ability to knock off a few Denver tunes helped him find a ride into Pittsburgh in the middle of the night.

"Take Me Home, Country Roads" is followed by a Donovan song and then a Leonard Cohen tune. For his final number, MacDonald performs an earnest political anthem called "Who Built the Bomb? (That Blew Oklahoma City Down)." "So who lit the bomb that blew Oklahoma City down?" he sings. "'Not I,' said the preacher, book in hand, with his personal knowledge of God's great plan/ 'God will punish those who do wrong and sometimes we need to help Him along.'"

The song is greeted with hearty claps from those remaining.

"Hey Rod, who wrote that one?" asks a man who says he used to see MacDonald play all the time in New York City.

"Me," MacDonald smiles. "I'm the guilty man."

Coffee, tea and tunes

Live music of all styles can be found in bookstores, coffee bars and even grocery stores as the cafe circuit blossoms in South Florida.

By Sean Piccoli, Sun-Sentinel Music Writer

Posted Jan. 28, 2000

Diane Ward was playing hard on Friday night for an audience playing hard to get. Half the crowd inside Barnie's Coffee and Tea Company at Las Olas Riverfront had their backs to the Miami rocker. Ward seemed not to mind. She stood at a microphone, her guitar slung hip high, and poured herself into acoustic versions of her most exuberant rock 'n' roll songs.

Some patrons watched from chairs and couches. Others contemplated the dessert case. But even there, Ward was having an effect. People at the counter turned around, caught by her bracing voice or a timely hook from fellow guitarist Jack Shawde. People coming through the door with get-me-my-latte looks on their faces stopped short to watch. A few signed on to Ward's mailing list.

Little victories like these are happening nightly all over South Florida at a growing number of intimate spaces in bistros, coffee bars, bookstores and even grocers. From Barnie's to Borders to Wild Oats, live music &emdash; acoustic or turned-down electric &emdash; is becoming as regular as shopping and noshing.

Serving music and non-alcoholic fare, those retailers and a crop of independent nooks have combined to create a new, alternate circuit of venues in South Florida where none existed five years ago. People looking for a different side to acts they might know from bars, or people not partial to beer-slinging clubs at all, have several new settings in which to hear many of South Florida's most accomplished performers. And the shows are usually free.

"There are definitely more places to play," says Rod MacDonald, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who performs around the world but lives and plays here. You can find him performing witty, original acoustic pop, folk and blues every Sunday at the Coffee Gallery restaurant and cafe in Lake Worth. MacDonald also helps book talent there throughout the week, having persuaded owner Rich Kaminsky that live music wouldn't pack the Gallery with spendthrift coffee addicts who don't buy meals.

"I'm a pretty business-oriented person," Kaminsky says. "I prefer to have people eat than sit around and have a cup of coffee."

When MacDonald, 51, moved to South Florida in the mid-'90s, he initially found little to remind him of the vigorous cafe scene he had just left behind in New York City.

"When I started down here, you got 40 bucks and you had to pay for your own coffee, and they took a percentage of your CD sales," MacDonald says. "Then Borders moved into the area and suddenly there were four or five more places to play."

More followed. The Coffee Beanery Ltd., a national chain, opened shop in South Florida in 1997-98 with bistros touting live music. The Beanery in downtown Fort Lauderdale serves up java and contemporary jazz that blends right in with the glossy Las Olas streetscape. Another, in the Magnolia Shoppes in Coral Springs, goes for grittier fare: Ward's brave-hearted rock or the barrelhouse blues of Piano Bob.

Liberties, the Boca Raton bookstore and cafe, opened its second branch in downtown Fort Lauderdale in 1998. Like the original, the new windowed cafe on Las Olas offers music four days a week and an open-mike poetry reading twice a month.

Non-chain establishments came on line, too. Web Central Cyber Cafe opened 10 months ago in Delray Beach with a 21st century menu: high-speed Internet access, Web design classes, strong coffee, rich desserts and live music six nights a week.

Web Central co-owner Diana Halstead says music "wasn't even part of the original plan."

"We had just planned on having an open-mike night, and when it got such a good response, we expanded," Halstead says. Monday is open mike &emdash; "and our busiest night by far," she says. MacDonald plays Web Central on Wednesdays. The other four nights feature various local artists.

In downtown West Palm Beach, Underground Coffee Works has catered to crowds for seven years with a hybrid space &emdash; part bar, part klatch. Coffee and pastries and gourmet beers are available. Amplified bands and acoustic acts play the downstairs haunt, which touts itself as "the coolest basement in South Florida." The Underground puts on poetry slams and presents edgier, more experimental live music than one finds at a Coffee Beanery or a Liberties.

Liberties marketing chief Vicki Feola says that she places few limits, stylistically, on the performers that she books into both cafes. But she notes that a mainstream retailer does have boundaries "because you're trying to accommodate such an age range of customers."

Joe Zetoonian might play Middle Eastern music on a stringed instrument called the oud one evening, while Jessica Clayton sings show tunes and pop standards the next.

"Anything with a tropical or Latin flair also does really well," Feola says, adding, "In practical terms, 'really well' means that customers are coming to see this particular artist, and not leaving because the artist is there."

Adam Matza, who books performers for upscale grocer Wild Oats, says that "some people" come to the store cafes in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, South Beach and Kendall expressly for music. More come because music is an agreeable part of their shopping and dining trips. A former nightclub manager, Matza books with that balance between performer and the grocer's core business in mind.

"I'm looking for people who are very strong musicians who understand how to play a room, how to play at the correct volume," Matza says. "We're looking for a genteel kind of sound, though I like it to be a little offbeat, not playing your boring standard folk and blues &emdash; I mean, we do have some people who play folk music and blues music, but they have to be very good."

Sitar player Stephen Micus, flutist Silver Nightingale, guitarist Michael Bianco and multi-instrumentalist Michael Corbin are among the featured artists at Wild Oats. Matza also brings in local club-scene favorites, including pop-rock performer Mark Zaden and fusion guitarist Randy Bernsen.

"Part of the reason besides that we're giving something to our customers, we also want to give something back to the arts scene," Matza says. "These are musicians that are obviously struggling and are very talented, and we want to provide venues for them where they can consistently make a good wage and be treated right, with respect."

The coffeehouse gig is not, however, any softer on the musician's ego. The setting may be more intimate. But crowds can be small or indifferent. There is a nakedness to performing in quiet space that actually breeds tension: Dying slowly on a coffeehouse stage may be more excruciating than drowning in nightclub din. Conversely, winning over the cafe crowd that came for something besides music can be doubly satisfying.

"You have to have a tough skin," says folk singer and guitarist Jayne Margo-Reby, who duets at the Liberties cafes with her husband, percussionist Vic Bersok. "And we have learned that political songs don't go over in bookstores."

Even so, Margo-Reby calls the cafe circuit "indispensable" to building support for her music. Liberties gets a thank-you in the liner notes of her new album, Shades of Reason.

A List of venues where rod has performed
(and with whom)

A touring artist since 1980, Rod has appeared in concert throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Some of these venues are:

Concert Halls: Symphony Space, Washington Sq. Church, (New York City); Somerville Theater, Berklee Performance Center (Boston/with Fast Folk); Front Row Theater (Cleveland, OH); Buffalo State Univ. (Buffalo, NY); Tarrytown Music Hall (Tarrytown, NY); Carriage Theater (Durango, CO); State Theater, Octagon Arts Center, Friday Morning Musicale (Tampa-St. Pete, FL); Berger Performing Arts Center (Tucson, AZ); Mountain Stage (Charleston, WVa); Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center (VA); Paramount Theater (Portchester, NY); State Theater (New Brunswick, NJ); Kravis Center (West Palm Beach, FL); Carrboro Arts Center (NC); Salle Bergamas (Gradisca D'Isonzo), Teatro Miele (Trieste), Teatro al Muro (Torino), Salle Consiglia (Sesto Callende), Italy; Deutsche American Institute (Frankfurt, Germany); Praha Theater (Prague, CZ)

Festivals & Events: Philadelphia, Winnipeg, Owen Sound, South Florida, Florida, Greenwich Village Folk Festivals; Suwannee (FL), Bethlehem (PA), Kerrville (TX), Milwaukee Summerfest (WI) Music Festivals; Scenic River Days (Reading, PA); Fourth of July Festival (Carbondale, CO); Friuli Folk Festival (Italy); American Music Festival (London), Trowbridge Music Festival (England); Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Scotland); Straznice Festival (Czech Republic); Chapella, Rheinwald Festivals (Switzerland)

Clubs & Coffeehouses: The Speakeasy, Folk City, The Bottom Line, Fast Folk Cafe, Uptown Coffeehouse (NYC); Towne Crier, Turning Point, Westcott Community Center, Rochester Golden Link Society, Mother's Wine Emporium, Buffalo Friends of Folk Music, Nietzche's, Caffe Lena (NY State); Passim, Nightstage, Johnny D's, Watch City, Bull Run, Blackthorne Tavern, Iron Horse, Colonial Inn, South Shore Folk Club, Wood's Hole Folk Club, First Encounter (Massachusetts); Swallow Hill (Denver, CO); Freight & Salvage (Berkeley, CA); McCabe's, At My Place (Santa Monica, CA); Cherry Tree, Painted Bride, Mom & Pop's, Tin Angel (Phil., PA); Graffiti (Pittsburgh, PA); Anderson Faire, Poor David's, Mucky Duck, Red Lion, Cactus Cafe (Texas); Earl of Old Town, Schuba's, Holstein's, Charlotte's Web (Chicago and IL); Backstage, New Melody Tavern, Tractor (Seattle, WA); Birchmere, Folkal Point, House of Musical Traditions (Wash., DC area); The Ark, 7th House, Mama's C'hse (MI); Coffee Gallery, Iron Horse, Sacred grounds (FL); Tulsa Folksong Society (OK); Fiddle & Bow (Winston-Salem, NC); Ramblin' Conrad's, The Prism (Virginia); Rogue Folkclub (Vancouver, BC); Nickelodeon (Calgary, BC); Folkstudio Roma (Rome, Italy); Red Lion Folk Club (Birmingham, England); T & C 2 (London, England); Passage du Nord Ouest (Paris, France); Villingen Folk Club, Bim John, Furstlkellar Erding, Folkclub Langenau, Folkclub Ingolstadt, Freiburg Jazzhaus (Germany); Chur Folkclub, Zurich Folkclub, Mahogany Hall (Switzerland); Odeon (Slovenia); Northwest Passage (Zagreb, Croatia); Folk Club of Waidhofen, Treibhaus, Kitzbuhel, Nashville Club (Austria)

Appearances With: Eric Andersen, Billy Bragg, David Bromberg, Greg Brown, Martin Carthy, Tom Chapin, Shawn Colvin, Ani di Franco, Donovan, Jonathan Edwards, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Cliff Eberhart, Fairport Convention, Fast Folk, Steve Forbert, Jane Gillman/Darcy Deauville, John Gorka, Spyro Gyra, John Hammond Jr., Jack Hardy, Emmylou Harris, Richie Havens, Carolyn Hester, John Hiatt, Highway 101, Robert Earl Keen Jr., Patty Larkin, Rob Laurens, Christine Lavin, Lisa Loeb, Lyle Lovett, Dougie MacLean, David Mallett, Roger McGuinn, Don McLean, Bill Miller, Bill Morrissey, Tim O'Brian, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Gamble Rogers, Garnet Rogers, Leon Russell, Tom Russell, Pete Seeger, Shanachie Artists' Tour (with Michael Jerling, Richard Meyer, Richard Shindell), Vonda Shephard, Michelle Shocked, The Story, Richard Thompson, Happy & Artie Traum, Dave Van Ronk, Suzanne Vega, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doc Watson, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Cheryl Wheeler, Josh White Jr., Jesse Winchester, Tammy Wynette, Peter Yarrow

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