I used to play rock and roll a long time ago. Then, one evening when I was in my late 20's, I went to a concert in the basement of an MSU dorm. There, on the dark black stage, hot lights shined down on a beautiful auburn haired woman. The music that was pouring out of her went directly into my heart. I was in love. Not just with her, but with the music. Her name was Kitty Donohoe and her music shifted my musical career forever. I turned into a folkie that night.
I idolized Kitty. I went to all her concerts and soaked up her beautiful lyrics and incredible melodies. When a fellow musician suggested I invite her to play at my coffeehouse series, I kind of stuttered and said, "Do you really think she would play music with ME?"
I swallowed hard.
Kitty did in fact agree, and she came to my tiny brownstone apartment one afternoon to rehearse. I could hardly talk. My idol, sitting there in MY apartment. Like a giddy 13 year old, I asked her to play my favorite song, which she graciously did. Can you say h-e-a-v-e-n?
Eventually I moved away, but once in awhile I would come back to Michigan for a gig and she and I would have breakfast together and talk. Every few months we exchanged letters. The paper kind. We were becoming friends. Don't get me wrong, I still idolized Kitty the artist. But I started to learn about Kitty the woman through our friendship. I respected her even more.
After that tragic day on 9/11, Kitty wrote a beautiful song called There Are No Words, which she performed at the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial in Washington D.C. It was broadcast live on C-SPAN across the globe. She was joined by David Mosher and Pooh Stevenson. These three musicians from Michigan touched the lives of many people that day. Singing folk music. As one of my fans astutely observed, "They cleaned up real nice!" After that broadcast I thought Kitty's career would soar.
I have gone from a starry-eyed 28 year old to a mature 57 year old. I still believe Kitty is one of the best singer/songwriters of our time. But in this era of American Idol and The Voice, folk music isn't the kind of genre where artists rise to national or global fame. Folk music is for the people by the people. It is organic and free range. It tells our stories, connects us. There is nothing about folk music that is directed toward fame and fortune (although we can still dream). We hold true to our hearts and Spirits, and our deep roots in community. And thus, we stay pretty broke.
I look at folk artists like Kitty Donohoe and my other fave Claudia Schmidt - women who are so incredibly talented it is almost sinful, and it makes me think about what defines success. From a financial view point, we as a society don't reward folk singers. We are often expected to play for free, for a meal, or very little cash in most cases. High paying gigs are hard to come by these days. No limousines, no five star hotels. So if we judge ourselves based on financial wealth, well, some might say we have failed.
But there is a much greater success for the folk singer than money. It happens when your music changes a person's life, or touches their heart. It is achieved when you make someone laugh or cry, or feel exuberant joy so big it can hardly be contained. It happens when you inspire someone so deeply you alter the course of their life. How can one put a price on that? So in that regard, Kitty has achieved success that many can only dream of. But the beauty is the dreams she inspire really can come true.
Nearly thirty years after that first concert in the basement of an MSU dorm, Kitty came to hear ME play. She said I sounded great. I don't think she can ever know what that meant to me.