Steve Earle at Old Town
by Jon Calderas

Steve Earle Week 1
Old Town School of Folk Music

Last summer I started taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. The school is open to the general public and you can learn pretty much any type of musical instrument, dance or vocal technique you could imagine. As part of the celebration of the first year at the new location, there was a folk and roots festival where Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco and Steve Earle (as well as many other great acts) played. It cost $5. During Steve Earle's set, he mentioned he would be teaching a class at Old Town in 2000. When the notice came out, I emailed my name in for the lottery and I was one of the 90 that got picked. Dumb luck.

On New Year's Eve, 1999, I saw Steve give a ferociously hard rocking concert here in Chicago and kick the old year good bye. Eleven days later, I'm sitting in his class at Old Town not quite knowing what to expect.

I get to class early and I'm sitting there with my guitar on the floor, reading. Steve walks by and says, "How ya doin' tonight?" I jump a little and say, "I'm doing fine." It's weird seeing the guy offstage. He's about my height (5'10" - 5'11"), but he seems to occupy more space than normal folks - force of personality, presence, what have you. He's talking to a tall, skinny kid who we later find out is his son, Justin Townes Earle. He ducks back out of the room and gets prepared. More students file in. We all kind of look at each other, not knowing what to expect.

It's start time and Steve enters carrying a big maroon box that I instantly recognize as Harry Smith's American Anthology of Folk Music and a book that will later be revealed as Robert Cantwell's "When We Were Good." He takes a stand at the front of the class, water bottle in hand, wearing half glasses (reading) that he twirls from time to time and starts us on the journey.

** What the course is about **

Steve starts out by saying that this course is about the relationship between traditional material and contemporary songs or "the cool shit to steal". Part of the purpose to review historical material from the folk tradition and explore different sources for inspiration. He says he has a lot of songs that would never have been written if he hadn't have been willing to draw from different sources and he hopes to show us some of these sources.

** What it ain't about **

The course isn't about teaching us to become songwriters or how to write the next Garth Brooks single. Steve says, "Either you were one (a songwriter) before you walked in the door or you weren't." What he does hope to teach is a bit about how he writes songs and the musicology of how he does it. His material is mostly made up of story songs, topical songs, and songs about girls. He started out writing young, about 14 or so, and playing in coffeehouses because he was too young to drink. He also started off playing acoustic guitar because his dad didn't want him to have an electric guitar (but he sure wanted one). Steve says he couldn't make his guitar sound like Hendrix, but he could make it sound like Dylan or Tim Buckley and he drew from those sources and others. Playing in those folk environments exposed him to a lot of people that shaped him as an artist, person, and activist. During these formative years, he did a stint at The Gate House where he learned about Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and Karl Marx. Steve warns that in the course we will be exposed to his politics and that his songwriting and politics are inseparable.

Steve says he was lucky to undergo two old world style apprenticeships, one to Townes Van Zandt and one to Guy Clark. While Townes' music was more poetic and introspective, Guy Clark was more into story songs. Steve admits that story songs came more naturally and easily to him and that he's been doing it since his teens (Tom Ame's Prayer, Ben McCulloch). He admits that he doesn't really do it that much better now and that he's very proud of songs like "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Goodbye" because they took work and practice and paying attention to how other people write songs.

He says he's blatant about stealing and that he thinks that that's okay (morally) as long as you tell people where it came from. The line between plagiarism and folk music is your intent, i.e., whether you respect the material and are making art or you are just trying to make money.

** The Sources **

The Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry SmithOriginally issued 1954; reissued in 1997This collection of LPs (later CDs) was possibly the first time that a large body of traditional material was available to a wide audience. Due to micro groove technology for LPs, it was possible to get 20 minutes of music on one side of a record. Moses Asch was recording Guthrie and Leadbelly and John and Alan Lomax were doing field recordings, but this collection of music was not field recordings or transcription.

The collection was compiled by Harry Smith who Steve says was "my kind of guy". He was a visual artist, collector, and filmmaker. The Anthology is comprised of records that were commercially available and collected by Smith. This material survived, but a lot of stuff eluded us either due to perishable forms like wax cylinders, shortages of shellac, or simple neglect. Electronic recording was possible about 1919 or 1920, but within a few years, the depression started and people couldn't afford records.

Steve grew up on the box and he says so did Emmylou Harris and others of his generation and the next half generation or so. Folk music was driven underground in the 40s because of ties to labor movement and Communist party and the Anthology started the folk revival in the 60s.

The Anthology also helped solidify the tradition of linking folk music and children (through camp songs, oral tradition, etc.), one of the ideas that drives the Old Town School of Folk Music. In the 50s and 60s, middle classed white kids, college kids with money to buy guitars and LPs got interested in folk. The idea was that you could learn to play guitar or banjo to accompany yourself and sing these incredible, simple songs, some that had survived for hundreds of years.

Without the box, there would be no Dylan, no Old Town, no Pete Seeger, and no Guthrie. (And to that you could probably add no Steve Earle, no Roger McGuinn or the Byrds, no Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Springsteen, etc.). Through the next few weeks we will trace the route from the box to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska in particular), Townes Van Zandt ("I think he's the best songwriter that ever was") and Steve Earle ("I'll show you exactly where I stole everything").

Steve elaborates a little on his methods. He describes how his song "Ben McCulloch" came from his dad's influence. He jokes that his dad couldn't take a straight route to anywhere and Steve saw everything in a 500 miles radius from San Antonio Texas growing up on road trips. His dad came through the Pea Ridge battlefield on one trip and learned about Ben McCulloch, a Texas Ranger during the Civil War. He came back and talked to Steve about it. Steve ended up spending two days in the library doing research to get the facts down. For a long time he only worked in the storytelling genre because he felt limited by his 8th grade education. But, in the last five years he's realized it doesn't have to limit him and he's started writing poetry and prose and he is working on a play.

The class assignment is to try to take a piece of traditional material or a piece of music that's been passed along and modify it . He then clarifies this and says it doesn't necessarily have to be traditional, that all music is becoming music that's passed along. Steve says, "The best hip hop is folk music" and that the best of it happens when kids unpack a piece of expensive digital gear and just start playing with it. Technology is advancing and costs are dropping so that almost anyone can afford to make a record today. Steve says a couple weeks ago he saw a 16 track hard disk recorder for $2,000 that is everything you need to make an album. He says it is far superior in sound quality to the $185,000 machine he cut Guitar Town on 13 years ago.

The downside to all this technology is that they are finding the DATs they recorded in the mid 80s will not play back; record companies are scrambling to transcribe the material. CDR-s are an unknown, but the back of the CDs are destructible. When analog tape wears out, you lose signal, but digital tape just won't play back at all. Steve uses analog machines to record and his songs don't see digital processing until mastering. He uses compressers that color sound and tape recorders that use transformers that add more bass when mixing from a multitrack machine to two track machine. He says somewhere along the line it was decided that songs should sound exactly the same when being transferred. "Where's the fun in that?", he laughs. He likes to mix on a tape machine where he can play songs backward without flipping the reels. He claims you don't get the same effect when you digitally sample a sound and play it backwards. There is a wow and flutter effect that is a musical, percussive thing that he likes.

The last class is the night before the Grammys, so he has to leave early. He says there is no real danger of him winning, but his girlfriend's daughter wants to see Britney Spears. So he has to leave and asks us if he can move the class to Monday for a recital night. The class will play and he will play some of the stuff we talk about along the way. He's been nominated the last 3 times for Folk Category and the award will be awarded in the afternoon. Then the place clears out and that's when Britney shows up. He laughs and says that he's caught himself saying to his kids, "What is that shit you're listening to?!" like his dad used to.

He says he will try to get tapes made of songs off of the Anthology and compile them for the class so we can check them out at the resource center. He runs over the syllabus again:

Week 2: Woody Guthrie
Week 3: Bob Dylan
Week 4: Bruce Springsteen
Week 5: Townes Van Zandt
Week 6: Steve Earle
Week 7: Recital

He says he will usually be around an hour before and after class and that if we get stuck on the assignment, we should give him a shout around week 3.

Class is over, its run an hour and a guy I know from guitar class says, "Hey, wasn't that supposed to be a 90 minute class?". I laugh and say, "Yeah, but do YOU want to be the guy to tell him?".

I'm happy just to be there.

Old reviews, some class notes, and pictures of other stuff can be found at:

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