Musician John Francis gives powerful concert
By Julia Rentsch, Staff Writer
On Thursday, October 16, folk singer John Francis performed on the Attic stage in the first of three concerts sponsored by the first-year seminar “‘This Machine Kills Fascists!’: Protest Music and Social Change in the American Experience.” The ongoing concert series aims to complement the seminar by exhibiting three artists who, according to the seminar’s instructor, Associate Professor Dave Powell, “continue to make music in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and so many others who hoped to see America live up to its promise.”
The title of the seminar is inspired by what Guthrie wrote on his guitar in 1943 to “demonstrate not only his patriotism, but also his belief that music can educate the sensibilities of people who otherwise may not be able to appreciate the hardships faced by others,” wrote Professor Powell. Before Francis took the stage, Powell addressed the crowd and declared that the concert was filled with “opportunities to think about the society we live in.”
Upon ascending the stage, Francis declared that he was very proud to be a part of the series, entitled “This Concert Series Kills Fascists!” but declared that he had a slight disagreement with the Guthrie-inspired title.
“I think the word I have trouble with is ‘kills’…” he mused, “I think I’d rather heal the fascists than kill the fascists.”
Francis and his Sunburst guitar played through a set that mixed old blues songs, Gospel songs and traditional folk music with Francis’ smooth, drawling voice. Occasionally gruff and occasionally soaring to stratospheric notes, his singing brought out the Southern lilt in his voice, particularly pronounced during choruses of “hoo, hoo” which punctuated many of the numbers. Francis played both well- known songs, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” and his own originals.
A listener definitely would not hear any fluff pieces about lost girlfriends or huge egos at one of Francis’ performances, as in the past few years he has been the recipient of two awards for socially conscious lyrics. According to his website, Francis’ music “is rooted in the real, vulnerable and gritty stories of human experiences, his own and those he encounters.”
Each song he played Thursday night came with an explanation that detailed its significance to the student audience. For example, Francis introduced “Just a Moment Ago” as “about America’s past and how it’s so easy to not deal with… if we keep it in the realm of the past,” and “Satisfied Mind” as about money’s inability to buy happiness. Francis also treated the audience to a rendition of the song that won him the Jay Gorney Award for socially conscious lyrics, which is entitled “Who?”
“It’s all about asking questions and giving yourself the permission to ask questions,” he explained as an introduction. “My favorite punctuation is the question mark. It’s just so curvy.”
In reference to his conscientious lyrics, Francis humbly joked, “I’ve gotta remember that there’s not that many other people in that category. This year I’m trying to win the award for Socially Unconscious Artist of the Year… there’s much more competition.”
Francis faced some troubles when, after numerous attempts, he could not engage the audience to sing along with his numbers. In answer to the students’ silence, he hopped off the stage, unplugged his guitar and encouraged a sing-along and clap-along while roving between the tables on the floor.
“Everybody’s going to remember that as the moment the revolution began at Gettysburg,” he joked about the incident.
This participatory quality reflects the essence of Francis’ music, as well as that of the similarly-minded artists who came before him. The barrier-like quality of the space between stage and audience did not suit Francis’ style or sound—instead, playing in amongst the students he sought to inspire and engage blurred the lines between artist and listener, transforming what was his music into what became everyone’s music.
“There’s kind of a misconception sometimes about political music, and protest songs,” he said. “People think they always have to be about… what’s wrong with society, but that’s not true. [Instead they’re a] proclamation about … what’s right about all of us, about humanity.”
The performances in “This Concert Series Kills Fascists!” were organized with the help of the Center for Public Service and co-sponsored by CAB and WZBT. The next show in the series, which will feature songstress Erin McKeown, will be held on November 6th. The third and final performer in the series will be Dom Flemons, who will appear on December 4.