Sunday, July 30, 2000
Folk Singer uses background as journalist to write songs
By Georgia Temple
A journalist by day and a musician by night, Steve Brooks credits his time spent in newsrooms as improving his songwriting skills.
“The discipline of having to turn in a story just about every day made me a much better writer, and it definitely flowed into my songwriting as well,” said the Austin-based singer and songwriter, who gives a free performance here at Ichabod’s Cafe on Friday. “I tend to look for the details a journalist would look for to spice up the story, the couple of important details that will drive a larger point home.”
His Midland concert is sponsored by the Permian Basin Songwriters Association, which is scheduled to host a concert a month at Ichabod’s Cafe.
“Steve’s very satirical,” said PBSA member Jayna Mays. “I remember the very first time that I saw him in Kerrville, I had not heard music that he plays. It’s different from most folk artists. He does tell a story, but he tries to leave light.”
Prior to moving to Austin around a decade ago, this Pennsylvania-born musician was on staff at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
“It was a blast,” Brooks said of working at the New Orleans newspaper. “Being in the news room at a big city is kind of like being in the nerve center of a big city.”
When he quit The Times-Picayune in 1990, he spent a summer in Ireland before settling in Austin. “I had been playing traditional Irish music for about 10 years and had been attracted by the literature of Ireland,” said Brooks. “The excuse was to go to the Yeats International Poetry School. And I went to the school for about two weeks and spent the whole summer bopping around the island.”
In Austin, he wrote a new song every week for a year for Hightower Radio, heard on over 100 stations coast-to-coast. His latest CD, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” features 13 satires and follows up 1995’s country flavored “Purgatory Road” and 1998’s intimate “Bulletproof.”
“One of the high points of my career so far was writing songs for Jim Hightower’s radio show,” said the former activist. “Every week I would write a new song about something happening in the news, usually a satirical song, a funny one. That was the songwriting equivalent of being a reporter at a daily paper using some of the same skills of creativity on demand, writing songs on deadline, which I don’t usually do.”
The inspiration for his songs comes, he said, “From looking at the world around me. Part of my mind is always on the lookout for an idea that might be the germ of the song, whether it’s a subject to write about or whether it’s a real vivid image that looks to me like it might tell a larger story. Also, in conversation with friends, I look for phrases that might be good hook lines for songs, and I write them down when I hear them.”
His involvement as an activist dates back to his childhood in York, Penn., 15 miles from Three Mile Island.
“I didn’t have an idea of what it all meant except it was exciting and new,” Brooks said of the nuclear plant. “In college, I read of the hazards of nuclear power. I had just been home from college about five months when the accident happened.”
On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown at the plant released radioactive material and forced the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents.
“Me and my mom evacuated while the accident was going on,” Brooks said. “Needless to say, it was an absolutely terrifying time, and when we got back home I decided I wanted to get involved in the movement to keep the plant closed.”
Brooks’ five years as an activist taught him, “How hard it is to change the world. I learned how hard it is to fight the combination of the government and a big corporation.”
His days as an activist did bring him together with a performer he had long admired. At the one year anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident he performed onstage with Pete Seeger.
“I had written some Three Mile Island verses to ‘This Land is Your Land,’ (by composer Woody Guthrie, 1940) and when they brought Pete backstage, I introduced myself to him and sang him the verses,” said Brooks. “And he liked them so much, he invited me to come up and play them onstage with him.
“It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. Pete Seeger, himself, I admire for all kinds of different reasons. He is as close to a living saint as anyone I’ve ever met. He wouldn’t want to see that in print. He kind of gets uncomfortable with people who want to lionize him, but I consider him, as far as folk music, the single most important person in America.”
Seeger’s The Weavers in the 1950s provided “the blueprint for Peter, Paul and Mary and the whole folk movement that happened in the ‘60s,” said Brooks. “He wrote a lot of songs people aren’t even aware he wrote.”
Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone, “If I Had a Hammer” and in 1960 co-authored with three others new words and the music arrangement for “We Shall Overcome,” based on “I’ll Overcome Someday,” a formal Baptist hymn copyrighted in 1901 by C. Albert Tindley, which was believed to have originated as a religious folk song.
“I also admire him (Seeger) because he had the courage to sacrifice his career back in the `50s because he wouldn’t turn in his friends to the House on Un-American Activities Committee,” Brooks said. “He was blacklisted for more than 10 years as a result.”
Seeger started Sing Out! magazine. “The first and still the most important folk-music magazine,” Brooks said of the magazine. “A lot of the first songs I learned were out of the pages of Sing Out!”
Brooks, whose mother played the guitar and sang traditional folk songs to him when he was a young child, picked up a guitar and began to learn how to play the instrument while listening to a Seeger record. He was 15.
“As soon as I began to play it, I got bit by the bug,” Brooks recalled. “It still hasn’t let go of me.”
Folk music appeals to Brooks because “it’s very lyrically oriented. And I like music that makes you think and tells a story as well as gives you something to dance to. Folk music has always been about telling stories back from the days that medieval troubadours and the anonymous people that wrote the Child ballads in Scotland were telling stories about events of their days.
“One other thing that appeals to me about folk music is the sense of being part of a tradition. When I perform, I do mostly my own songs, but I also really love to play songs and tunes that are centuries old and were passed from person to person for centuries before they got to me. And even though I have my own words and my own melodies, I like to write in the style of different types of folk music.”
Composer David Amram has said that Brooks “has made an important contribution to the Texas tradition of the singer-poet-musician, saying those things we think and dream about but never get to hear expressed.”
There’s a long list of musicians who have influenced him, Brooks said, and named Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Tom Lehrer and all the Texas troubadours.
“It was while I saw Nanci Griffith playing in New Orleans that I first thought about moving to Austin,” Brooks said, noting that another significant contribution to his music was made by his childhood reading of Dr. Seuss.
“Anyone who was a kid and was exposed to Dr. Seuss got a sense that language and rhyme was something you could play with and have a lot of fun and that the sounds of words were as important as the meaning of words. And that is an important thing for any songwriter to keep in mind.”
For Brooks, “Writing is really at the base of it all, If I didn’t feel compelled to keep writing my own songs, I wouldn’t feel compelled to go out and perform them.”
On Friday at Ichabod’s Cafe; 4400 N. Midland Drive, listeners can expect to hear, Brooks said, “Love songs, nature songs, funny songs and philosophical songs.”
For more information on Brooks’ performance here or upcoming concerts scheduled at Ichabod’s call, 697-5282. To reach PBSA, e-mail [email protected].
“He has a song called ‘Hurt Me Tonight’ that really shows the aspects of a songwriter’s struggle with writing,” said Ms. Mays. “He’s very happy, and so he cannot find anything to write about. So he asks his woman ‘to hurt me tonight, so maybe I’ll write a hit song by dawn.’ He’s just a joy to listen to, and every performance is different. It’s never the same.”