By Bill Mahin

“Folksingers are boring,” Andrew Calhoun declares in a song of the same name. But his send-up reveals a fundamental predicament for performers like himself: Folk music may not have a great beat and you can’t always dance to it. But, Calhoun argues, the stories are often terrific.

Most folksingers are excellent storytellers. Listen to enough of them, and you’ll begin to see these stories serve an almost religious purpose–tales are told as incantations, little bits of spellbinding magic.

Calhoun can tell you about a trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival. The Texas gathering, now in its 27th year, lasts for 18 days. He recalls one night with awe. The year was 1991.

“It was approaching dawn,” he says. “We were standing around up on Chapel Hill trading songs. Michael McNevin sang ‘Jersey Jail,’ and there were sirens in the distance. There are never sirens in the middle of the night at Kerrville. Then Diane Chodkowski did ‘Fleur de Lis’ by Richard Shindell–an astounding piece of religious poetry written around the time he dropped out of the seminary. It stops time, it’s so beautiful. As she was finishing, chimes rang on the hill. Then Margo Hennebach sang a Susan Osborne prayer, ‘Mystery,’ a love song to God. When she finished, nobody spoke for about five minutes. I realized that this group of people respected the sacred. I’d never had that experience before. It was like some kind of weight lifted.

“I think of that moment as the beginning of Waterbug.”

Waterbug is the record company Calhoun launched in August 1992. An artists’ collective, the label got going with a loan from Calhoun’s father and is now partially bankrolled by the performers themselves. The small enterprise is operated out of a single room in Calhoun’s West Rogers Park apartment. Like most small record labels, it started with “all kinds of faith and vision and enthusiasm,” Calhoun says. He also felt it had a special mission, what he refers to as “the presentation of songwriting as an art form.”

“There isn’t any commercial avenue for the song as art,” Calhoun claims. “I wanted to change the climate, to find an audience that was not about personality but about the work.” It hasn’t been easy–he’s selling folk music, after all. He continues to refer to Waterbug as “a quixotic endeavor.”

“I wanted to prove that good art is good business, which I’m not convinced is true. But I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”

Folk music enjoyed its heyday in Chicago during the 1960s. Art Thieme, who recently released a Waterbug CD of live performances spanning his 30-year career, recalls the 60s as “a time when you could stay fed and drunk in Chicago just playing open stages in different clubs and bars. A lot of us did that. It kept body and soul together.” Thieme had his first paying gig in 1959. He was supposed to get 25 percent of the door. “One guy came in, paid his dollar cover. I went home with a quarter.”

His influences reflect a time when young musicians looked up to their elders. Most of the names are familiar: Woody Guthrie (“Each verse is like a chapter in a novel, furthering the story”); Pete Seeger (“He was our social conscience”); Bob Gibson (“We learned every song on his albums when they came out”); Burl Ives (“His songs tended to pick me up and set me down in another place and time”).

Other names aren’t as well-known. In 1961, when he was 20, Thieme met Paul Durst, a 93-year-old south-sider. “He played his fiddle for me and he sang old Wobbly songs, although he was very arthritic. I’d haul my 60- or 70-pound Webcor two-track tape recorder on the IC from the north side to tape him. Talking to him was like stepping into a time machine. He said he was at the Haymarket riot, said he was asleep under the boardwalk when the bomb went off, that it woke him up. He was at the Ludlow massacre in 1914 in Colorado, when Rockefeller’s militia turned their machine guns on the coal miners. He went to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

“When he had a stroke, they sent in a priest to give him the last rites. He opened his eyes, saw this guy standing over him, grabbed him by the collar, and tried to throw him out of the hotel room. He recovered, and the last thing I knew, at 93, he went to live with a lady.

“Nelson Algren bought me the first beer I ever had in a bar. It was at the bar of the original Second City on Clark Street and Wisconsin. I was underage and always got a Coke, just to sit there and listen to the amazing conversations all around me. Algren bought the beer for himself, took a sip, winked at the bartender, and slid it two seats down the bar to me. I’ll never forget it.”

Folk music is still played around town, of course, but not on the scale of those days. The scene that started in nightclubs like the Gate of Horn and the Earl of Old Town thrived well into the 1970s–Amazingrace, Holstein’s, Orphans, Somebody Else’s Troubles. Those places are all gone. One of the last holdouts, the No Exit coffehouse, just closed its doors.

“Folk music used to be the music of the union movement, of civil rights, and the antiwar movement,” Calhoun says. “Now folk isn’t that. It’s become a genre of music for yuppies, a sound.”

Sure, there are still political songs. On his new Waterbug CD, One Kind Word, Massachusetts singer-songwriter Geoff Bartley tells the story of a man who is fired several months before he’s set to retire. An indictment of the modern corporation, the song is an updated Death of a Salesman in a few dozen lines:

For 29 years and six months,

I was steady as a rock.

Did everything they asked and more.

Now look at what I’ve got.

I’d sell everything I own

To have my 30 years again.

If I could sell them greed

I’d be the wealthiest of men.

Jack Hardy’s songs are more overtly political. He’s been recording for 29 years. The Boston Globe called him “one of the most influential figures today in defining the American folk song.” An almost stereotypically romantic figure, he even worked for a while as a cowboy. “We all worked on ranches when we were teenagers,” says Hardy, who grew up in Aspen, Colorado. “It was the only summer work you could get.” He adds that it wasn’t much fun and was far from glamorous. “It’s a line of work that’s highly overrecommended.” Despite this rustic resumé, Hardy grew up surrounded by classical music. His father, Gordon, was the dean of students at Juilliard and the director of the Aspen Music Festival.

Hardy came to folk music by way of rock ‘n’ roll. While a student at the University of Hartford, he played in a rock band that usually shared its stage with a portrait of Che Guevara.

In 1969 Hardy was convicted of libeling the president of the United States. While he was editor of a student newspaper, the News-Liberated Press, he ran a political cartoon, “a portrait of Nixon with an upraised middle finger, the middle finger made into a prick, punning off his nickname of Tricky Dick.” The underlying message, Hardy says, was “the country had been screwed by him being elected.” The conviction carried a $50 fine, which he refused to pay.

The ACLU handled his appeal for free, but it took more than four years to overturn the conviction. “There’s no way I would have been able to afford the appeal,” he says. “It proved to me that if they want to get you, they’ll get you. I realized that politics and journalism were not ways to change the world. I had a better chance of doing that through songs, where you can arrest the singer but you can’t arrest a song.”

In his song “The Tinker’s Coin,” from his Prime CD album Landmark, a bartender tells the narrator: “They will lock you up as sure as you are born / If they hear the song you’re singing.” The singer responds: “They can lock me up as best they can, / Yet song can never know these chains. / The song is sacred as the wind. / We are just the harp that’s singing.”

While in Chicago for a series of performances last fall, Salt Lake City singer-songwriter Kate MacLeod told an audience that she’d been raised in a solidly middle-class environment. Now as a single parent living in less comfortable financial circumstances, she reevaluates her life every six months or so. During one particularly upsetting period, she was sitting in her kitchen and said, “God, if I’m doing the right thing, I want a sign.” She added that it had to be a clear sign and it had to come right away. That afternoon she received a phone call from a man who made guitars. He told her that a wealthy woman had commissioned him to make a custom guitar for a different musician every year. This year the woman had selected MacLeod.

“That got me through that six months,” she said.

There are two types of folk musicians: one plays traditional songs and ballads; the other performs original material. Of course, nothing is that simple–many folksingers do both. “Maybe what distinguishes performers of traditional music,” 64-year-old Louis Killen says, “is that we have a repertory that stays with us all the time.” He says a typical “song carrier” will have hundreds of songs stored in his head.

Born in Gateshead-on-Tyne, in England’s industrial northeast, Killen started singing in public when he was 18. “What probably hooked me on the music was the history, what it said about my culture and other cultures,” he says. “I started performing to transfer that knowledge to other people. That has always been an important part of my singing, not just to stand there and make my voice sound beautiful but to give people a sense of, or some window into, the culture the song comes from.”

An apprentice cabinetmaker at 16, he saw that industry die just as he was completing his training. So he built coffins for a year, then spent a year in a Catholic Worker house in Oxford, where he met students who were “miners, shipyard workers, guys who’d been active politically.” Later he hung out on commercial fishing boats, working in the galley and taking “my trick at the wheel. I’ve also been down in a mine, crawled along the coal face in a tunnel 18-inches high. You’re really aware of the press of the earth touching you on one shoulder and then the other as you wriggle your way along on your side.

“How do you really get across to people what it’s like to work in a coal mine unless you go down it? To experience why all the accidents occur. It’s not the explosions. It’s because you have so little room. It’s the individual accidents that occur every day that makes it such a cruel occupation.”

In performance, Killen makes history vivid, both with his songs and the stories he tells between them. A couple of songs are about herring fisherman back in the 1930s and ’40s. One was written by Ewan MacColl, who was instrumental in the British folk revival of the late 50s and 60s and was also known for his collaborations with Alan Lomax and Peggy Seeger, Pete’s younger sister. MacColl describes the working conditions on a fishing boat:

The hours were long and the wages bad

And the treatment surely took some bearin’.

There was little kindness and the kicks were many

While we hunted for the shoals of herring.

Women would follow the fleet, ready to process the catch when the ships sailed in to the quay and dumped their cargo. “It was a way of life for these women,” Killen says, “traveling around the country from one port to another.” His rendition of the “Herring Gutters Song,” performed in a Scottish Lowlands dialect, is his tribute to them.

For early in the mornin’ until late into the night,

Your hands are cut and chapped and they look an awful sight.

You’ll cry like a wain [child] when you put them in the brine,

And you’ll wish you were a thousand miles away from Yarmouth Quay.

The life is in the details. The women suffer not so much from the long hours, bad pay, backbreaking labor, or lack of food–it’s the pain in their hands, cut from fish spines and scales, when they immerse their fingers into the processing brine.

Eddie Balchowsky was another folksinger who sang from experience. For many years he was an almost legendary presence in the Chicago folk scene. A concert pianist, he’d lost an arm in the Spanish civil war as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. According to Art Thieme, “Ed got on morphine after losing his arm and was a junkie around Chicago until he jumped, or fell, under an el train at North and Clybourn several years ago.” Back in the 60s, Thieme recalls, “he’d still play the piano with one hand–sometimes with his stump–in the wee small hours of the morning while singing the great old songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Many a night I sat in the dark of a closed nightclub with Utah Phillips, sipping Scotch and listening, amazed.”

When you hear a traditional folk ballad, chances are some thanks belong to Francis Child, a 19th-century professor of medieval languages at Harvard. In the mid-1800s he began collecting manuscripts, rather than printed versions, of oral-tradition ballads. Though he concentrated on English and Scottish songs, his studies eventually led him into other languages as well.

Today Child’s collection is considered the authoritative source for folk ballads. Andrew Calhoun says that before Child many of these songs had fallen victim to censors concerned with moral correctness. With the printing press, he says, “sentimentality crept in, with bad people getting it in the end.” In the original versions, he explains, “there’s never a moral to the story.”

One of the traditional songs Calhoun sings is “Lord Gregory” (ballad 76 in Child’s catalog). It tells the story of a woman who travels across the sea to the castle of Lord Gregory, her lover and the father of her child. When she arrives, Gregory’s mother refuses to let her in, despite the night chill. “Awa’ [away], awa’, ye wile [wicked] woman,” the mother says. “For here ye sanna win in [for here you shall not get in]. / Gae droon [go drown] ye in the ragin’ sea, / Or hang on the gallows pin.”

Lord Gregory awakens to discover that a nightmare he’d had the night before had actually happened. His “fair Annie” had drowned herself in the sea, taking their “bonnie young son” with her. “O, wae betide ye, cruel mither,” he says to his mother. “An ill death may ye dee [die]. / For ye turned my true love frae [from] my door / When she cam’ sae far to me.”

Calhoun got a guitar at 10 and wrote his first song two years later–it seemed like a natural progression. He spent his childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey, where his mother, a high school teacher, “read to us all the time,” he says, “‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by C.S. Lewis, the Iliad five times, the Odyssey. Because I was the youngest of four kids, a lot of what she read was way over my head, but I became comfortable listening to the rhythms and getting what I’d get out of the stories. That shaped my imagination as a songwriter, because I can go into a place where I’m working with ideas that are over my head and be comfortable with that kind of mystery, and also with trusting the sounds of words. I don’t need to be in conscious control of the meaning of what I’m doing.”

In junior high, he loved watching the Johnny Cash Show. “He was a radical, Johnny Cash was. He thought there should be a universal government. He was the real thing. He picked cotton. He had good guests on, a lot of good music. He discovered [Kris] Kristofferson, had him on a couple of times. I remember having my Hot Wheels track set up in the basement, listening over and over to Kristofferson’s first album. I’ve always been nuts for songs.”

He says he’s written more than 500 to date, maintaining a mix of roughly 400 original and traditional songs in his immediate repertoire.

“Portrait of a Girl and Her Parents” is a 1993 song he wrote for his mother. The lyrics begin when she’s a girl of eight or nine:

They are here every day,

And they walk in my dreams,

Dull eyes and sharp tongues

In a house full of screams.

By the time the final stanza begins, 50 years have elapsed:

There is little joy taken

When your enemy’s dead

And the wounds you were given

Are all in your head….

There is always the world.

I was never to blame.

Where you can’t be a loser

If life’s not a game.

“You write songs and you sing them for years,” Calhoun says. “Some wear out. Some seem good every once in a while. That one gets stronger.”

Few folksingers are fortunate enough to eke out a living from their music, even if they’re good at it. Thieme marvels that Steve Goodman–a great performer with a bona fide hit (“The City of New Orleans”)–never came close to rich.

“Whatever happened to Mozart’s money?” Hugh Blumenfeld asks in the title song to his third album, released by Prime CD.

I know a guy who wrote a song for Garth Brooks

And now he’s got it made for life.

But Mozart never really made a lot of money,

And that’s what I tell my wife.

Kerrville Folk Festival founder Rod Kennedy points out that as far as market share is concerned you can’t do much worse. Folk music, he says, holds “probably a 7 or 8 percent niche. Jazz has maybe 10 percent; classical music, maybe 12.”

Waterbug’s successes are “measured in the hundreds, not thousands,” of CDs sold, Calhoun says. For the last “three or four years,” the label has grossed between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. The operation consists of Calhoun and a part-time office hand, as well as volunteers who keep the antiquated computer running and help maintain the Waterbug Web site ( Occasionally musicians will also help out while passing through town on tour–but that’s only fair considering that they’re usually crashing at Calhoun’s apartment.

Waterbug represents 29 artists, but its catalog also offers the work of 36 folksingers who record for other labels or have produced their own albums. Many of these artists have stuck with Waterbug because they trust Calhoun. The downside: Waterbug not only can’t afford to subsidize them–they have to finance the production of their own CDs. In exchange, they retain all rights to their music and earn more from the sale of their records than they otherwise would. Though Calhoun is reluctant to discuss what percentage of sales goes to the artists, he says it’s much greater than the industry standard of 12 percent. They also get 100 percent of every CD sold at their concerts–far more important to some folksingers than retail sales.

While the Waterbug concept is generous, it can be difficult in practice, with most artists having to borrow the money to finance their recording. After producing three CDs in four years, Cosy Sheridan parted amicably with Waterbug and signed with BWE, a Salt Lake City label that gave her a $30,000 advance.

“Sometimes the only thing left is the stubbornness,” Calhoun says. Six years after founding the company, he’s “still trying to survive.”

There have been other hurdles. A tiny label like Waterbug can get squashed when a big distributor cuts back. Waterbug released Mike Jerling’s In Another Life in early 1997–“the best work he’d ever done,” according to Calhoun–but the record had trouble reaching the stores because the distributor was in the process of being sold. That meant no orders for eight months. “Mike really got screwed,” Calhoun says. “His stuff wasn’t available when he was getting radio play.” Kat Eggleston’s Outside Eden suffered a similar fate. “It was a really tough year, our second-worst year businesswise,” Calhoun says.

“I got a call once. The person asked, ‘Is this Waterbag Records?’ I said, ‘No, the waterbag’s broke.'”

“Music doesn’t seem like a choice to me, is what it boils down to,” Susan Shore says. She gives up a lot to perform. Some musicians teach; some temp; others work retail. In order to subsidize her music, Shore runs a copy machine for the University of Iowa. “I lucked into what turned out to be perfect job for me,” she says. “It’s part-time, with full benefits and a reasonable wage.” Originally she planned to work there six months; she’s been there eight years. “It’s given me flexible hours and the freedom to be able to play,” she says. “I’ve never looked at the stuff that I write and play as something that’s going to give me financial security. I don’t think about that.”

The husband-and-wife duo known as Pint and Dale manage to make a living from their music, but only by living with very little. Based in Seattle, they’re on the road six months a year. Together they gross $25,000 “in a good year,” William Pint says. “That’s before expenses and maintenance of the van.” They manage to get by for several reasons: “We have a great landlord, a patron of the arts,” says Felicia Dale. “And we have very low expenses. When we travel, we live in the van–a VW camper.”

Neither regrets the lack of financial rewards. “We live incredibly well at the poverty level,” Dale says, citing the five European tours they’ve done in the nine years they’ve been playing together. “If we had real jobs, we could never do anything like that. Most people feel fortunate if they get two weeks’ vacation. I couldn’t live like that.”

“You live as cheaply as you can,” Tom Payne says. “I’m 50 years old. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to this point.” Payne had been working full-time as a carpenter, but he decided he needed more time for his music. “I realized I wanted to have the time to share these ideas and feelings with others, and basically to make friends and have a community. To do that, I needed more time.” With the help of “a very sensitive supervisor,” he changed his position to part-time, even though that meant losing benefits, insurance, and job security. “It was something I had to do,” he says. “When you’re not doing what you really need to do, you feel the consequences one way or another. I was getting more and more anxious, like a kid who needs to leave town to find a life of his own.”

That was three years ago. “Each year is a bit more of a revelation of why I needed to make that decision,” he says. “I gave up what may have been more luxury, but I feel my life is more luxurious now. I have the time to develop the thoughts, the songs, to talk to people, to really finish conversations. I have the time to be a person with my own story.”

His song “One Bozo” is about the cost of material success. The song begins with the narrator “playing on the street. I was out of work and feeling beat.” A man driving by in a limo “waves hello with a pinky ring.” The man asks the narrator to perform, and soon after the singer begins an enormously successful career as a clown. But success lacks substance–“I could never get high enough to drown that lonesome sound.” The man’s eventual downfall is followed by a redemptive happy ending.

Payne sang “One Bozo” at Kerrville, and Dan Merry, a salesman of used truck tires nicknamed “Dan the Tire Man,” started singing it himself. An ex-convict, Merry occasionally helps a friend with his prison ministry, “even though I’m not really fond of going to the penitentiary.” During one visit, he was with some inmates who were working in the chapel early in the morning. To pass the time, he sang “One Bozo” for them. Five hundred inmates attended the service later that day. “When it came my turn,” Merry recalls, “I sang ‘Higher Ground,’ an old hymn of the church.” When he finished, somebody in the congregation called out for him to play “the Bozo song.”

“Then four or five more started hollerin’, ‘Do the Bozo song.’ I looked over at the minister. He said, ‘Do the Bozo song.’ I played the song, and 127 convicts came down and gave their hearts to Jesus.

“Tom,” Merry told Payne, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like to see a whole row of hard-core men crying.”

Waterbug has had some success with its series of four anthologies, or “samplers,” each containing roughly 20 songs by various artists on the label. Here’s the way it works: Each artist contributes a song and $150 and gets 50 copies of the compilation to sell for $5 apiece. Waterbug includes one free sampler with each mail order as a way of generating more sales. Since the samplers began, Calhoun says, mail orders have tripled. He also thinks it reinforces the idea of community: “It’s a group of artists helping one another get heard, each sharing his or her audience with the rest.”

Magic is at the heart of “The Flood,” a song by Prime CD artist Annie Gallup, delivered in an almost casual, conversational manner. After the waters recede from “across my little apron of land,” the narrator says, “I woke and looked out and it seemed my whole riverbank was paved with shimmering silver.” It turns out to be “millions of tiny little fish, beaching themselves.” She gathers them in a wheelbarrow and, “just like Squanto taught the Pilgrims to do,” pokes holes in the ground with a stick, dropping in each hole a fish with a seed of corn. “Folks around here still talk about the year I grew that corn so tall,” she says. “But I never told them how I did it. I never gave away my secret because it kind of felt like a pact, or maybe a test.”

Perhaps she passed the test, she reflects, because every time the river flooded after that, something magical would happen again. Her description of the final instance is as wondrous in the telling as it is in the event. Waiting for the waters to recede, she confides in an intense, whispery voice:

I got that kind of Christmas feeling, like you know something really wonderful is about to happen, and you know you’re going to scare it off if you think about it too much, but it’s really wonderful, and you can’t stop thinking about it, and you know you’re going to scare it off if you think about it too much, but it’s really wonderful, and you can’t stop thinking about it, and you know you’re going to scare it off if you think about it too much.

“The voice I was hearing was a real sort of a backcountry person,” Gallup says. “She is a lot more of a simple person than I am. She’s more open to serendipity and magic in the world.”

Music can also have a cathartic effect. Susan Shore’s “Safe Among the Family” is about the singer’s Aunt Rozzy, who died several years ago. “I was talking to my other aunt–her sister–about her and how sad it was, and she said, ‘I’m glad she passed away. Things were hard. She’s out of her misery, and at least she’s with the family.'”

The irony of that last line triggered the song. Shore says her Aunt Rozzy never wanted to be with the family. “She was an outsider held in by her father, who refused to let her go off and be a painter, who basically destroyed her.”

Now the nights go on without her and the days are pouring rain,

Doing what they’ve always done as if she never mattered.

She was in my blood but absent,

a torn-out page.

Former Waterbug employee Rose Polenzani has been writing songs for only three years, but she’s already opened for Joan Baez and Shawn Colvin. This year she was part of the Lilith Fair tour. During a set by the Indigo Girls at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, she was asked onstage to perform one of her songs.

Polenzani describes her songs as “extremely dramatized versions of hidden issues within myself. It’s like I’ve pulled these stories out of me that feel guilty, or are guilty, so that I can reconcile. Sometimes they’re written with the intention of staying private. ‘Shake Through to Ugly’ is one I wouldn’t have recorded if Andrew hadn’t insisted on it.”

On the day of my recovery

We were talking on the phone

And my voice was full of secrets

And my jaw was full of stone

And I made you make the journey

And I made you make the call

And I crawled into my bedroom

Too scared to speak at all.

Kat Eggleston wrote “Fury” about the abusive husband of a friend. “I knew them both pretty well,” she says. “He’s the one who told me about it. He said that when he got angry he’d start floating and watching himself from up above doing things he couldn’t possibly approve of. It was as if he split and somebody else was responsible for doing the violence.”

My lover was two men,

The damned and the blessed.

A dozen roses in his hand

And fire in his fist.

He said he floated weightless

Above his evil twin

Who put the rips in my blue dress

And purple on my skin.

“I played it for her first. She loved it. She thanked me and decided that it would be fine for me to play it that night at Kerrville.

“I don’t remember much about singing it,” Eggleston says. “Sometimes I don’t really remember very much when I get offstage. Most of the time, that’s when people say it was very good.”

Eggleston met Andrew Calhoun at Kerr-ville in 1990. “Andrew told me how much he liked the song I’d done that afternoon. Then we did the Kerrville thing of trading albums, talking about what we do. We sat through the evening concert, which was amazingly wonderful, and spent the rest of the night walking around talking, Andrew throwing his worst jokes at me. I found them all very funny, which must have told him something.”

“She asked me if I liked Yeats,” Calhoun recalls. “I said I didn’t. She said, ‘Neither do I particularly.’ Our supreme bonding moment.”

Later that week, Eggleston had a 45-minute stopover at O’Hare. “Andrew came and met me with a care package,” she says.

They were married three years later.

Calhoun says 1996 was Waterbug’s worst year, “a whole year of awful, traumatic disappointment, part of an industry-wide train wreck.”

CD sales boomed until the early 90s. “By ’95, there were two times as many CDs being released as there were in ’92,” Calhoun says, “but sales had leveled off.”

The situation got so bad that major labels now refuse to accept returns; smaller labels, however, can’t afford to be so bold. Before the mid-90s, Calhoun says, returns averaged 10 to 15 percent of a pressing. Then his figure went up to 50 percent, which is “backbreaking for small labels,” he says. “In late ’95 and ’96 we had $20,000 in returns–a huge amount for a little label like us. We’ve been trying to recover ever since.”

Calhoun says there was one particularly painful aspect of the downturn: he had to ask the artists to return advances. “That was really tough.” He recalls boarding a plane with a “huge box of CDs and stuff” after a disappointing showing at the annual conference of the North American Folk Alliance. “I woke up the next morning with a completely strained back. I could barely move. And I couldn’t get better.

“I had a major stress breakdown. For two or three months, I could barely work. I’d work an hour a day and then kind of collapse, sit in cafes and write letters.”

He wound up with the first of two ulcers he’s developed since starting the label. “I can remember crying and punching the inside of the car, I was in such pain,” he says.

Then Calhoun and Eggleston paid a visit to folksinger Cosy Sheridan, who was living near Arches National Park in Utah. While walking among the ancient rock formations, Calhoun says, he concluded “you can’t make that much of a difference.” This sense of resignation was liberating. “It took the weight of responsibility off.” At one point during the visit, Calhoun recalls, “Cosy said to me, ‘If Waterbug is costing you this much personally, why don’t you just let it go?’ It wasn’t to her advantage for me to let it go. I realized, this is a true friend. That was when I knew that I wouldn’t give it up and that things would be OK.

“I decided not to let the stress kill me. Part of the lesson was admitting, ‘I’m in debt. It’s a fact, not a judgment. I don’t need to attach my self-esteem to that.'”

Given folk music’s small market share, there’s a surprising number of festivals in the U.S. devoted to it. Other than Kerrville, now attended by some 30,000 annually, the more important festivals include the Newport in Rhode Island; Falcon Ridge in Hillsdale, New York; Rocky Mountain Folks in Lyons, Colorado; Folk Live in Seattle; the Strawberry Festival in northern California; and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Locally, musicians gather for the Fox Valley Folk Festival and the University of Chicago Folk Festival of Traditional Music, which celebrated its 39th year in February.

“The festivals thrive,” Calhoun says. “People are interested when the context is right. What’s needed most is a very good show on folk music every week on public TV, instead of just one folkie nostalgia show at pledge-drive time.”

Folk fans, though relatively few in number, tend to be ardent, especially in the northeast and in Europe. “The folk music world is jam-packed with generous, enthusiastic, slightly crazed people who’ll do anything to further the music,” says Felicia Dale. “We could not survive without them.”

As an example, she cites the experience of another duo at a festival in the English town of Flyde, just north of Blackpool. William Pint describes it as a “tough town.” The two musicians arrived for the festival late at night, so exhausted they didn’t unload their car. Their instruments–a harp and a guitar–were stolen. Dale says a network of collection points sprang up, and by the end of the weekend the townspeople “presented these guys with enough money to replace their instruments.

“There’s this kind of nobility that exists in the folk world that we’ve never found anywhere else,” she says. “If the world were like a folk festival, there’d never be a war. There’d be a lot of backbiting and gossiping, but no war.”

Kerrville’s Rod Kennedy started out in Buffalo, singing with the Bill Creighton Orchestra in 1946. He went on to become a promoter, staging more than 1,000 concerts, mostly in Texas, ranging from the Israel Philharmonic to Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Kennedy raced cars professionally, then got involved in broadcasting during the 1950s, first in radio, and later television. A Republican with a UHF station south of Austin, he went up against Lyndon Johnson, who owned a TV station that monopolized shows from all the major networks. “We created enough pressure to break some of that loose when he was running for vice president,” Kennedy says.

In one of the better old-boy traditions, his opponent later became his friend. Johnson made his first public appearance after his 1972 heart attack at the first Kerrville Folk Festival, giving Kennedy’s fledgling effort instant credibility and media attention.

The festival is now run by a paid staff of three along with 600 volunteers. “We try to provide a loving home for everybody,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the 60s or hippies or Woodstock. It has to do with everyday, today reality, wherein you respect people’s dignity. Doing well is certainly paying the bills. But doing well is also having a safe, congenial environment in which people can acquire emotional and intellectual nutrition from music.”

Performers at Kerrville are treated as valued guests in camps with names like “Coho,” “Calm,” and “Cuisine.” These tent cities are set up and maintained by groups of music lovers who take in the artists and provide them with meals and appreciative audiences at late-night performances around campfires. Musicians migrate from camp to camp throughout the night, often until dawn, when the Texas heat sends everyone to cover. “It’s a genuine tribal experience,” Calhoun says. “You walk around in the dark, find campfires, sing songs, stay up all night. It’s the proper way to sing your songs.”

In this environment, Gary Martin’s support of folk artists might be regarded as exceptional but not extreme. A mathematics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, Martin first came to Kerrville in 1990. “I really wasn’t prepared for the rigors of camping and the loneliness of not knowing anyone,” he says. “When I got home, I did nothing but complain for a month. But at the end of that month I couldn’t think of anything but coming back. I’ve been back every year since.”

He’s also become an angel, lending money to musicians so they can record their work. A CD is essential to getting gigs. As Felicia Dale puts it, “If you don’t have an album, you aren’t taken seriously.”

There’s a bit of magic in Jack Hardy’s “The Tinker’s Coin,” when the singer gets a free drink from a convivial gypsy.

He bought me a glass of darkened stout

To thank me for my company

And he dropped a penny in the glass

For the luck that it would bring to me,

A traveler passing through.

Later, the narrator is in another pub in another land.

With friends around me singing

I chanced to look into my glass

At another penny shining.

There’s a story behind this song, of course. But first, some background…

Hardy had moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and went looking for the last traces of the legendary Greenwich Village folk scene. When he saw what little survived, he decided to organize a weekly song-swap in his apartment. These meetings would soon become famous in the folk scene, drawing songwriters from all over the country, including Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Lyle Lovett, and Michelle Shocked.

Hardy had hit upon a concept called “Fast Folk.” He started a newsletter by the same name to publicize the work of these songwriters, and once a month their songs were compiled on cheap LPs (and later CDs) and sent out to subscribers and radio stations. Last fall the master tapes of these recordings were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, which will rerelease them on a label called Smithsonian Fast Folk.

“The whole idea was to do it fast,” Hardy told the New York Times last winter. “You could hear a song at an open mike or songwriters’ meeting and two weeks later it was being played on the radio in Philadelphia or Chicago.”

But after a few years, Hardy recalls, his energy began to wane. “I was fed up with the scene,” he says. He was also nursing a broken heart. “So I took off and went to Ireland.” He spent a year living in a cottage at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. During the day he studied Gaelic and wrote; at night he would perform with an accordion player in a local pub.

He also traveled. While waiting for a boat in Dublin, he went into a pub and asked the only other patron if he could join him. The man, a “tinker,” told Hardy to sit down–but not on the stool next to him, because his friend was sitting there. Hardy says he thought the tinker’s friend must be “in the loo,” but eventually it became clear that this friend was imaginary. That didn’t bother Hardy. “I was raised pretty much by an Irish nanny, had a smattering of Gaelic phrases and a firm belief in leprechauns,” he says.

“We were having a great time–he singing IRA songs, I whatever I had. We traded buying each other pints, and he kept putting this penny in my pint for good luck. I’d finish a pint. He’d fish the penny out and throw it in the next one. This was one of the big Irish pennies from 1928. He said that was the year that Yeats was in the Irish senate.”

As for the tinker’s friend, Hardy says, “after a few pints of Guinness he started coming a little better into view. The tinker said his friend had taken a liking to me and wanted to travel with me. I said, ‘No problem. He doesn’t take up much room.’

“I didn’t think about it till four days later, when I was in another pub in the Highlands of Scotland, and there in the bottom of my pint was another 1928 Irish penny. Ever since then, I just sort of figured I have this member of the Shidhe [the Irish fairy world] traveling around with me.”

For a folksinger, the road is a solitary existence. In order to maintain and build an audience, most drive long distances. They either stay with friends–usually other folksingers–or drive back home the same night, because rarely does the pay justify the expense of a motel.

Driving a doddering old Nissan, Andrew Calhoun took two and a half days to get to Kerrville from Chicago last year. The air-conditioning was history. The shocks were dead. Only one stereo speaker still worked, and that one was partially blown. For Calhoun, this was business as usual.

Annie Gallup spends far more days on the road than Calhoun, but she travels in better circumstances. She decided to tour extensively four years ago–“I had a new truck, two really good guitars, and money in the bank,” she says. In 1997 she was on tour 365 days. “I didn’t have a home.” On her tax forms, she wrote that she drove 40,000 miles that year. “That didn’t include flying.”

“Why pay such a price? When I ask myself that question, I ask, what else is there to do?”

Gallup studied dance and visual art and worked a slew of different jobs before becoming a folksinger. She’s been a metalsmith, an illustrator, a sail maker, a baker, a cook, and a massage therapist. Music, she says, “is really the only thing I want to do. I can’t imagine anything else I would be compelled to work this hard for. It kind of integrates everything for me, all of the creative processes.

“What is the purpose of life? Of my life? I used to think self-expression. Now it’s connecting with people. . . . In my own little religion, it’s why we’re here. I guess I feel as though I have a particular vision that isn’t out there if I don’t put it out there. It’s too lofty to call it a calling, because I don’t think that way. But it’s completely compelling.”

Recently she had a week most people would call crazy. “I drove 2,000 miles and did four shows in four days,” she says, “spent three 14-hour days recording in New York, had a show in D.C. Thursday night, and Friday I had to be in Hartford to catch a flight to Dallas.” At that point, she says, “I was stressed out, at the end of my rope.”

“The ride to Hartford should have taken six hours. It wound up taking ten because of construction and roadwork. I was very, very late by the time I got to the airport.” Once she arrived, she found all the parking lots were closed. “I was driving in circles, didn’t know where I was going,” she says. “Then I ran over some one-way gates the wrong way and blew all four tires on my little truck. Forty-five minutes till my flight and I’m dead in the water.

“A woman came out of the rental place, yelled at me, ‘How could anybody be so stupid?’ I yelled back. Eventually I asked if I could use her phone, [and] AAA hung up on me. I was at my wit’s end, and this woman was just stewing around, acting inconvenienced.

“Then she just kind of took over. She took my AAA card, put me on the airport shuttle bus. I made it to my flight.”

When Gallup returned after her concert, she found the woman had “taken care of everything. She’d called AAA, got my truck towed. It was ready to go. If she hadn’t jumped in, I would have missed a weekend of work. It would have been a disaster. But as it was, I felt I was the luckiest person in world.”

Erin McKeown is in the middle of a set at Java Jo’s coffeehouse on North Halsted just as a Cubs’ game is ending. A slightly drunk guy stands in the doorway, smoking. He listens to the second half of a song, then shouts, “Fucking awesome.”

McKeown immediately responds. “‘Man walks in wearing a Cubs hat, smoking a cigarette, and says, “Fucking awesome.”‘ Can I use that in my press kit?”

Twenty years old with the stage presence of a seasoned performer, McKeon says she’s already turned down an offer from a major label. “I was completely flattered.” They had advised her to come up with a two-year plan, but she decided the time wasn’t right. “This month, I’m happy painting my house. I don’t really know what I want in two years.”

She had planned to leave Brown University to pursue music full-time, but she ended up changing her plans. “I feel like I don’t need to be full-time right now. I don’t need to drop out of school. I don’t need to chase my career to the pages of Rolling Stone or Spin or whatever. I’m really happy tooling around in my car selling tapes out of it.”

Waterbug’s prospects appeared to brighten last summer. City Hall, its current distributor, went national, which meant that Waterbug theoretically had a sales force trying to get titles into stores all over the country. When Sloan Wainwright’s From Where You Are started getting airplay in New York City, Tower Records agreed to carry it because a sales rep made the deal.

For now, Calhoun’s hoping for the best, willing to take his chances, relying on fate. Take his arrangement with City Hall–that lucky break looked like destiny. After Waterbug was dropped by its previous distributor, he remembered meeting some people from City Hall at a convention several years before, so he picked up the phone. “I said, ‘This is Andrew Calhoun, calling from Waterbug Records.'” The secretary recognized the name because the distributor’s senior vice president was wearing a Waterbug T-shirt that day. “The stars were with us there,” he says.

Orders from the Waterbug Web page continue to increase–it now accounts for 20 percent of all sales–and several artists are doing well.

Art Thieme’s CD, The Older I Get, the Better I Was, was listed among the top ten folk CDs of 1998 by the Boston Globe. The recognition was bittersweet; after years of combatting what he thought was carpal tunnel syndrome, Thieme learned he had multiple sclerosis. He now lives with his wife, Carol, in downstate Peru. He no longer performs.

Earlier this year Barnes & Noble played Sam Pacetti’s CD Solitary Travel every day for a month in each of its 240 stores nationwide. Calhoun was disappointed by sales–only 106 units in three weeks–but the stores are keeping the CD in stock. “It’s not what we’d hoped for,” he says, “but it never is.”

Waterbug has three new releases coming out–Geoff Bartley’s Hear That Wind Howl, Pint and Dales’s Hartwell Horn, and Calhoun’s latest, Where Blue Meets Blue. Calhoun is cautiously optimistic. “We’re kind of in a lull, but the good season is coming up–the summer festivals and Christmas.” Last fall he achieved another measure of success: he began to make his rent weeks before it was due. “It’s still frightening, but it’s not as depressing.”

After seven years of struggle, though, he says he’d like to slow down and concentrate more on his own career. He’s 41. Currently, he’s negotiating with an investor to get involved in the business. But, he continually reiterates, it’s never been about money.

In a surprisingly candid letter to a folksinger he was trying to sign to Waterbug earlier this year, Calhoun wrote: “I had to take a deep look inside recently and ask myself if this is still worth doing. After five years in business, I’m in the hole; I pay myself nothing and have to deal with a very sensitive and sometimes volatile group of people. And deal with their disappointments. And I love them, and it’s hard for all of us….

“I’ve decided to keep going, not because of this or that artist, but because I want to prove that an alternate structure and kinder spirit can ultimately be successful; and I want to prove that the ‘general public’ is not nearly as stupid as mass media, and even a lot of the dumbed-down folk radio shows, would lead one to believe. But I may be an idiot.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.