I first began to teach songwriting and guitar after my Vanguard album came out in 1968. In the course of my travels I was invited to take part in master classes at guitar shops, festivals, and schools. It seemed natural to spend a few hours with people who were interested in doing just what I was doing, with the possible upside of success in the music industry as well as the coffeehouse folk music culture that was supporting me.
Rod Kennedy invited me to the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1984, and assigned me to the staff of the songwriting school which was started by Bob Gibson. I found that to be very rewarding. and the experience helped me to compile some of the materials that would become my book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process." The book has been adopted by many teachers and since it is published by the Sing Out press, it hasn't had to compete for space on the shelves of the commercial book outlets, so that it's been able to stay in print.
I have been back to Kerrville every year since then. About fifteen years ago, I began hosting my own circle each afternoon of the eighteen-day festival from 5:00 to 6:30 PM. I gave the circle the name "Texas & Tennessee" which might need a little explanation.
So many of us would make the pilgrimage to Kerrville to play in the campfire circles and and we'd receive a lot of encouragement. But then as we would make a foray into the music industry to see about getting some recordings of our songs, we'd encounter the headwind of cynicism and resistance, and sometimes some painful chastening. During those years I was making a circuit from my home in Hollywood to Texas then to Nashville and on up to the East Coast and New England. There were many good opportunities and adventures, but I found that being able see the two worlds, the music industry and the campfire, as two poles of emotional investment helped me to stay on course.
So I called the circle "Texas & Tennessee." The Texans have famously been supportive of their musicians and songwriters over the years regardless of what was happening in the music industry as dictated by Hollywood, Nashville and New York. Austin was becoming a strong music business town along with such legendary centers as Muscle Shoals and Chicago. I found great communities of songwriters in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco. It made sense to connect with songwriters wherever I could.
Since our marriage in 1989, Cindy Mangsen and I have been performing and traveling together. Creating a series of workshops has been a natural feature of our tours, and frankly, a chance to spend a little more time in some of our favorite places.
Big Sur (now Santa Cruz) Songwriter Workshop
We started with the idea of creating a retreat at Big Sur. We would go by the Big Sur Inn as typical tourists on Highway One, through that legendary valley of Henry Miller and The Esalen Institute, always wondering what it would be like to stay there. We finally did inquire and found that the Inn has a wonderful conference center and so we started making plans for a weekend gathering, not knowing for sure if songwriters would come.
It is a truly spectacular place, with redwoods and amazing paths, and of course the sea in breathtaking views from the deck of Nepenthe as seen in the movie "The Sandpiper." We decided to limit the group to fifteen so that each person would have time to present a song and receive the benefit of discussion and feedback as we moved around the circle.
We try to hear at least three songs from each person over the weekend, and that has been a good formula. It's my belief that lecturing is not a very good use of the time we have together, study is something one can do on his or her own, and the books can be helpful.
But hearing each other's songs seems to be the best way to bring up all the important issues, and usually these issues occur again and again reinforcing the understanding. We've been gratified that our groups have been very nurturing and encouraging of each other. This particular group has been largely intact since the first session at Big Sur sixteen years ago.
We came to realize that there were drawbacks to the location, though. It's a little pricey for people on a songwriter's budget, and it was difficult to go out and get dinner for all of us and get back in time for an open-mic session in the evening. So we have moved the group to Santa Cruz. There are so many more places to stay and to eat, and the roads are not washed out nearly as often. (Just kidding, but it is true that Big Sur is often isolated by landslides.)
We have a wonderful venue in Santa Cruz at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, and we will gather there again this year in March.
North Bennington Songwriter WorkshopEach October for the last nine years, we've hosted a similar group in our home town of North Bennington, Vermont. Again, we limit the size of the group, and this has also become a close-knit and supportive bunch.
My old friend and co-writer, Charles John Quarto used to talk about an event he hoped to take part in one day, that he called 'hosting the bards.' I don't know if he was thinking of something that actually took place in history, but it seems like something I'd like to take part in as well. I can picture a dining room filled with songwriters and poets, toasting each other with humor and mock derision, songwriters are good at that sort of thing.
Bennington College has been a cultural resource, and Robert Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods" just a stone's throw from here. Shirley Jackson wrote "The Lottery" just around the corner, and so the bards might be closer at hand than we know. At least, I feel we're doing our part to encourage those who may be regarded as bardic icons in the future.
In the meantime, our songwriters grow in their mastery of the craft and in their ability to engage their creative potential. This may lead to recordings of their songs as we've seen happen with our group, but more importantly a greater degree of self-actualization and consciousness raising. Fun too. Sign up to be notified of future events, and we'll look forward to having you with us.
For more about songwriter workshops, check out my blog article, "How to Wirte a Song: Getting Started," which discusses the goals and techniques used in the songwriter workshops in more detail and has two video clips showing how we interact at the workshops.
2020 Songwriter Workshop Schedules (cancelled due to Covid-19)
The next Santa Cruz Workshop is scheduled for March 14 and 15, 2020, but is fully subscribed. (Santa Cruz Workshop Details)
The next North Bennington Workshop dates will be announced later in the year, for the Fall of 2020. (North Bennington Workshop Details)