Joe Jencks Promises to Expand the Definition of Folk Music at Eighth Step
“I’m doing my best as a storyteller to stay out of the way of the story, to be a vehicle for the story but not to be the story.”
That isn’t always easy for a guy who has such an interesting background. “I grew up understanding what it meant to be on the downside of an oppressive power structure,” says Joe Jencks who plays The Eighth Step, Friday night, March 11th. “I was the youngest of seven children with eight years between myself and the other six (siblings). And I also say, half as a joke and half in earnestness, that that also was an experience of witnessing the downside of entering a system that has established rules in trying to figure how to function within as the person excluded and most likely told, ‘You can’t participate. You’re too young. You’re too little. You’re too whatever.’”
Joe made more than 30 appearances as a guest vocalist and arranger on various studio recordings and has played festivals including Falcon Ridge, Kerrville, Mariposa, and Old Songs and venues that include Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His baritone voice has been described as having “the edgy richness of a good sea salt caramel.” His latest album Poets, Philosophers, Workers, & Wanderers spent several weeks at number one on Sirius XM’s Americana Chart and was the number one CD on the Folk DJ Chart for May 2017. It honors his mentor and friend Pete Seeger with the title track.
“Musically, I’m all over the place. I went to the Conservatory, studied classically, studied jazz, and studied theater. I’ve done all of those things professionally at one point or another. Folk music was always at the center, but I never saw the divisions in the genre the way that the Billboard charts or the commercial music industry tries to create them.
“I know a good story when I stumble into it. And I know a good song when I hear it, and as a singer, I want to sing good songs. So, the unifying factor becomes the factors that I’m the person singing it, but I can pull jazz standards or something from music theater, something that’s a little more rock and roll or a little more country or a little more straight-up traditional folk, Irish, or Appalachian whether I’m singing about labor or singing a lullaby, singing a love song.”
Pete Seeger was Joe’s mentor and strongest influence. “When I was eight years old, my sister Jeanne brought home a gift for me. I think it was a Christmas present, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie Live, a series of concerts recorded in ’77 and ’78 and ’79. It was released I think in’79.
“And I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the shit, man. This is where it’s at, you know? I’m hearing songs from all over the world, stories from all over the world.’ And in my eight-year-old mind, I suddenly connected with the idea that music was a vessel I could sail out into the world into the sea of humanity. Music was a passport for (entering) other cultures both within my own country and the rest of the world. Music really was a tool for building bridges and making connections, and that was really clear to me even at eight or nine years old.
“There was in the spirit of that record a call to me at a very personal level to educate myself to tell stories that needed to be told, and I’m blessed that I turned into being a musician.
“Pete Seeger got a lot of things right over a lot of decades. And he was way way out on the leading edge of saying ‘We need to include as many voices as possible in the conversation.’
“He entered the world with an intent to build bridges between people to help those who were less fortunate than him and to challenge those who were more fortunate than him and to bring people into awareness, but to do so through the power of music and the power of shared experiences in the concert hall or in the theater or the church.”
Joe Jencks sat down with Pete Seeger in 2002 and had a two-hour conversation. He was at a workshop at the People’s Network Gathering to tell some stories. “We were both supposed to be in different places, but it was an engaged conversation, and he realized I was a young man who had lost all of my elders, and not only was I chasing something he appreciated musically, but he realized I was yearning for conversation with elders, with people of a different generation.
“I was struck in retrospect that, no matter what we had talked about, in Pete, it was about seeing the human first and whatever else second, and he just spent a couple of hours witnessing a young man who was struggling with immense loss, struggling professionally and struggling politically. It was a life-changing conversation for me after so many years – a solid 20 years at that point – of venerating his work to have a chance to have a one-on-one conversation, but we met many times before and after and had song circles on stage with him several times at social events, festivals, protests and it was just a joy to witness.
“I teach a course called Songwriting Is Journalism. I’m actually doing a version online for the School of Music at The Caffe Lena right now, and I’ve honed them to various summer programs at camps and guitar workshops.
“It’s an invitation to songwriters to turn the camera lens outward as a documentarian in some form and also an awareness that every time you turn a story or somebody’s life into art, you are necessarily fictionalizing it ever so slightly. You’re in service to good art as well as a good story, and so things become abbreviated. In the process, you lose some specificity, and you lose potentially proper chronology.
“Music has an incredible power to reach through the gatekeepers and censors and open our hearts. The center of what I do as a musician is to figure out how to speak to complicated issues that reach into the heart rather than getting entrenched in an ideological argument; to use music as a tool to elevate humanity at the center of any history.” Joe Jencks performs at the Eighth Step in Proctor’s Theatre, Friday, March 11th at 7:30 on State St., Schenectady. For more info or to purchase tickets by phone from the 8th Step Ticket Line call (518) 434-1703. Please note there will be a $1 handling fee per ticket and they will be held for you at Will Call on the evening of the performance. Members pay no fees. Tickets are also available at Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany (cash or check) through Proctors Theatre Box Office at 518-346-6204 ($5 fee) or proctors.org ($8.50 fee). There is no fee at Proctors Box Office for over-the-counter purchases.