Rod MacDonald, whose songs, recordings and performances in New York and Florida I’ve enjoyed since the 1970s, is playing a rare Montreal-area gig on Tuesday at Café-Bistro de l'Écluse, 410 Victoria Avenue in St. Lambert (450-465-5311). Free admission (pass the hat).
How rare? He’s never played in Quebec before. Here is an article about Rod I did for Sing Out! Magazine (Vol. 47, #2) in 2003.
Rod MacDonald: Digging Deep
By Mike Regenstreif
Singer-songwriter Rod MacDonald spent two decades living on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village, within walking distance of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. “That was one of my favorite places,” he told me last fall, not long after the first anniversary of 9/11. “I used to go there sometimes, late at night, to sit on the plaza and watch the moon drift over the sky.” Since 1996, though, Rod has been living in Delray Beach, Florida, the same town where 14 of the 19 hijackers lived prior to the tragic events.
It was in the late-1970s, when I’d pass through New York a couple of times a year, that I met Rod and first heard him perform his songs at clubs like Folk City and at the Songwriter’s Exchange in the tiny Cornelia Street Café. I’ve been a fan of his work ever since. Just prior to the anniversary of 9/11, I heard “My Neighbors In Delray,” Rod’s insightful attempt to understand what motivated the hijackers and thought it would be an opportune time to catch up with him, to talk that song, some others, his life as a singer-songwriter, and the interesting twists and turns of life that brought him to where he is as a musician.
“I grew up out in the country, in central Connecticut, near a little New England mill town called Southington. We lived outside of town and had a little bit of land. I played a lot of baseball, lived outdoors a lot in the summertime, my mom and dad were regular folks.” Rod’s mother collected jazz records and encouraged her kids’ interest in music. Rod’s first instrument was the trombone. He took lessons for three years and played in his junior high school orchestra. “I also had a Roy Rogers kid guitar and I used to stand in my room and play along with the radio.” By the age of 16, the guitar had taken over. “I was playing for hours a day, reading song charts, learning records.” It was in high school that Rod wrote his first songs. “I wrote poetry and had a few poems published in school literary magazines. When I got to the point that I could put together chord progressions, I started putting my poems to music.”
Rod went to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and occasionally performed at the Prism, an off-campus coffee house that’s still going strong. “It’s a good room, I’ve played there a couple of times since.” In his last year at Virginia, Rod joined a five piece folk group that toured the state playing for church youth groups. “We did what we considered uplifting folk songs, things like ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’ They hired me as a guitarist and I ended up being one of the two lead singers.”
Rod graduated from Virginia and spent that summer of 1970 in Atlanta working as a reporter for Newsweek Magazine. In the fall, though, he was off to New York and Columbia Law School. During law school, Rod performed occasionally, at law school functions and private parties, and at a couple of the coffee houses around New York City.
Also during law school, Rod was in the Naval Reserve as a JAG trainee. “In the summer of ’72, they called me up and sent me to Newport for 11 weeks of officer training. While I was in Newport I stumbled into a bar on the waterfront, The Black Pearl, on the very day that the guy who was playing there had to leave town under dubious circumstances. The manager ended up hiring me on the spot and I ended up playing there three nights a week for the entire summer.” While in the Naval reserve, Rod went through a serious reevaluation of his life and career direction. “I ended up filing for a discharge as a conscientious objector. At the end of the summer they gave me my discharge, I went back to New York and finished law school but I pretty much knew that I was going to play music professionally.”
Rod graduated from Columbia Law School, but didn’t take the bar exam course or bar exam. “I never spent a day practicing law in my life. I just went off, got a part time job to pay the rent and started playing all the clubs in New York. I worked as a graphic artist part time designing ads for a little neighborhood newspaper.”
After a year or so of playing all the folk gigs around New York, from the Village clubs to neighborhood coffee houses on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn, Rod went out to the Midwest and based himself in Chicago for a couple of years. “There was a very good scene going on in Chicago in the mid-‘70s. I played a lot at places like the Earl of Old Town, the Kingston Mines, Somebody Else’s Troubles, the No Exit.” In Chicago, Rod fell in with a group of like-minded singer-songwriters including Harry Waller, Mike Jordan, Al Day, Nick Scott, Sally Fingerett and Mike Lever. “We’d go to each other’s gigs and gang tackle the stage. Then we’d go out for burritos and stay up all night talking and playing music. We spent a lot of time workshopping songs. We were young and aggressive, it was a good little thing for a while.”
By 1976, Rod was back in New York for an audition with John Hammond, the legendary record producer who had worked with jazz greats like Count Basie and Billie Holiday and who had signed singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to their first recording contracts. Although a contract with Hammond did not ultimately materialize, Rod settled down in New York and became a major part of the renaissance of the Greenwich Village folk scene that included other young songwriters like Jack Hardy, David Massengill and Frank Christian. “Tom Intondi started inviting me to his house for singer-songwriter get togethers. Pretty soon, we were all hanging out together.”
Rod’s main performing gig in New York was at Folk City, the legendary Greenwich Village club run by Mike Porco. “In the ‘70s, Folk City would hire guys like me for a week at a time, seven or eight times a year. With that much work, I could hire a band and work out the dynamics of my songs.” Rod sees that period, when he played with pianist Bernie Shanahan, bassist Mark Dann and drummer Jeff Berman, as very important to his development as a musician.
After Folk City changed hands in 1980, much of the Village folk scene shifted to a new club that Angela Page started at the Speakeasy, a MacDougal Street restaurant. After a few months, the Speakeasy became a cooperative and, in addition to performing there frequently, Rod became one of the clubs booker’s. “Booking was passed around between myself, Tom Intondi and Richard Meyer, depending on who was going to be in town for any length of time.”
In 1981, Rod spent some time at the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. “As a history buff, the Hopi fascinated me. I think they have a lot more knowledge of man’s history then we realize. I wanted to go out there, to meet the people, to see the place where they are. Songs that I wrote like “The Unearthly Fire” and “Dear Grandfather” were very influenced by my experiences with the Hopi.”
Rod included those songs his first album, No Commercial Traffic, recorded in 1983. Another of Rod’s songs on that album was “A Sailor’s Prayer,” a song that has occasionally been mistaken for a traditional folk song. “I was in Chicago and I’d been out to hear a rock and roll band. I went back to where I was staying and wrote the words down before I went to sleep. I woke up in the morning and saw them there. I’ve written quite a few songs that way. As I began to sing it, it began to take shape.”
When he wrote “A Sailor’s Prayer,” Rod had not had any sailing experience. “Sometimes you just hear things, and if you’re actively challenging yourself to be a writer, to live a writer’s life, then you write those things down.” Although it was written outside of Rod’s personal experience, the song has, indeed, become a modern day folk classic and has been recorded by the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Susie Burke and Bok, Muir and Trickett.
Throughout the 1980s and the first half of the ‘90s, Rod maintained a hectic schedule that included writing, performing and recording several very well received albums. In 1995, Rod’s life took a sudden change of direction when he moved to Florida. “I packed up and moved with very little advance preparation. My mom was having some medical problems and my dad was getting on in years. My parents needed some help and I just felt that it was a good thing to do.” Although his father has since passed away, Rod continues to interact almost daily with his mother and is now married to Nicole Hitz MacDonald. “Family things were always way off in the distance when I was living in New York City. There’s a lot of family things now.”
As a songwriter, Rod has turned out a formidable body of work that includes a significant number of challenging, questioning topical songs including “Who Built the Bomb (That Blew Oklahoma City Down)?” on his 1997 album And Then He Woke Up and “My Neighbors in Delray,” on the newly released Recognition.
“What I wanted to do in ‘Who Built the Bomb’ was to capture a moment in time, a moment in history. I was thinking that whoever did it – when I wrote the song I didn’t yet know that it was Timothy McVeigh – believed they were doing something good and, as horrifying a prospect as that is, I think then you have to ask yourself why would they think that. The voices that I’m quoting in the song are the people that kind of created that psychic environment: the preachers and the radio commentators who were saying this government must be destroyed. Of course, they thought they were speaking metaphorically, but here’s this guy who took them literally. I don’t buy the theory that the guy who did that, or for that matter, the guys who bombed the World Trade Center were insane, crazy or demented. I think that they acted very rationally within their own way of thinking, that they thought what they were doing was the right thing. To me, the biggest mistake you can make is to not try and understand what in the world would make them think that. As a songwriter, I consider it part of my job to try and help people understand why people would do these crazy things. Maybe we can avoid it next time if we actually saw these things happening again. The historical backdrop of what went into the Oklahoma bombing was more illuminating than the bombing itself.”
A similar process led to Rod’s writing “My Neighbors in Delray.” Like almost everyone else, Rod was shocked and disheartened by the events of 9/11. When he was ready to write about it, he saw that certain questions were not being asked and answered. “I was more interested in the fact that these guys were willing to give their lives for this. I had to ask why would these guys do what they did? These were not silly people. They were deadly serious. I don’t believe that they were insane, that they were outside of themselves and not knowing what they were doing. They were very aware of what they were doing. Therefore, why would they be willing to do this? What’s the point? Until we understand this, I don’t think we’ll make any headway in this war on terrorism. We’ll just fire a lot of bullets and kill a lot of people.”
Rod maintains a busy performing schedule. He does some touring, playing solo gigs at folk clubs and festivals and has a busy schedule when he’s home in Florida, playing three nights a week at Paddy Mac’s in Palm Beach Gardens. One of those nights is a solo gig while the other two are as a duo with Irish singer Tracy Sands. Rod and Tracy also do some touring together, particularly to Irish music festivals. Rod also fronts Big Brass Band, a Bob Dylan cover band that plays clubs around South Florida. “It’s a lot of fun, I really enjoy it.”
After doing Into the Blue in Florida, Rod went back to New York City to record Recognition with musicians that included Bernie Shanahan and Mark Dann from his early Folk City band. It’s an eclectic set that, in addition to “My Neighbors in Delray,” includes a strong mix of love songs and social commentaries. One of the most interesting songs is “The Man Who Dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima,” a song that Rod based on an interview he did for Newsweek in 1970 with Thomas Ferrebee, the Enola Gay’s bombardier. “I read his obituary when he died a couple of years ago and he didn’t seem like the guy I interviewed. So I decided to write my own obit, but I took great pains to keep it in his own words.”
Rod MacDonald’s life has taken some unusual twists and turns to get where he is today. From forsaking a career in law for the life of an artist, to leaving New York City after so many years for a very different lifestyle in Florida. In the quarter century that has passed since I first encountered Rod and his songs, he has continued to write challenging, and ultimately important, songs.
Photos taken at the 2005 South Florida Folk Festival. Rod MacDonald performs on the main stage; Rod MacDonald and Mike Regenstreif backstage.
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