At the Mic With Steve Brooks
– by Snakebit Jones
Bobbing and weaving, while wielding a machete and carrying a watermelon, a man leads a procession down dusty trails and through colorful tents, tarps and canopies occupying the camp ground at the Kerrville Folk Festival on Labor Day weekend.
The man has a wild look in his eye. He is chanting something hard to make out. The long line of people snake along behind him all the way to the Kerr Tree Store, where the line forms a circle around him as he places the watermelon on the ground.
More incantations are uttered, and the machete glints high in the air as he raises the weapon above his head in preparation to – wait.
Another man lunges from the crowd, putting his body between the watermelon and the cruel blade of sacrifice.
A watermelon hugger.
A brief stand-off, confusion, cries, a scuffle. Finally, the dust clears, the watermelon hugger has been restrained. The machete whooshes down through the air and the watermelon is hacked to pieces.
People rush in to grab and eat the dripping, sticky pieces of watermelon. Yet another Kerrville watermelon sacrifice performed by a man dedicated to his mission…whatever it may be at the moment.
The man is Steve Brooks and his mission most of the time: to be the poet, protester, songwriter, activist, political satirist, humorist that he is. No doubt Brooks is one of the most authentically colorful characters in the Kerrville gathering of colorful characters.
Unlike many others, Brooks’ color is not in the way he looks or dresses. He doesn’t attract attention with rings in weird places, feathers in his hair, an outrageous beard or a woman’s dress worn loosely over his hairy legs.
Others do, and that’s fine with him; but his color comes out in what he says and what he does – his talk and his walk. That’s what he admires most about the man who has been his biggest influence in life, Pete Seeger.
“Pete talked the talk and walked the walk,” Brooks explains. “He suffered for his beliefs. He lost 10 years from his career when he refused to turn in the names of his friends to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities during the McCarthy years and the Red Scare.”
Brooks began learning to play the guitar when he was fifteen with the help of a “Pete Seeger instructional record.” He loved Seeger’s music and he shared his political beliefs and passion for the cause of the common man.
Several years later, in Brooks’ home slate of Pennsylvania, the incident at the Three Mile island nuclear power plant helped fuel the fires of protest against nuclear energy all across the country, but understandably the fires of justice burned hottest around the scene of the accident in the southeastern part of the state.
When talk of re-opening the facility began about a year later, Brooks helped to organize a rally at the Three Mile Island site to protest the idea. The event was successful, drawing fairly big names in support the local protesters. Pete Seeger was one of them.
As an organizer, Brooks met and talked with Seeger; better yet, as a musician and singer, he performed “This Land is Your Land” with the folk icon onstage. As the years passed, Brooks directed his energy, passion and empathy for the little guy into songwriting; something that he feels should be protected from the “corrupting, self-serving power of big money,” just like “the environment.”
True to the spirit of Seeger and many other folk singing activists of the fifties and sixties, Brooks insists music should be “by and for the people,” not the record companies. “Pete embodies the spirit [we see today] in rap and hip hop where people are taking back the music,” Brooks says.
This spiritual connection with Seeger did not end at the Three Mile Island protest. Fast forward from 1980 almost 20 years: Brooks as the Chat-n-Chew Troubadour on the Jim Hightower Radio Show; a gig he held for almost two years and for which he had to write almost a song a week about current events.
The songs are mostly political satire, but one particular week, the troubadour had something else in mind. The scheduled broadcast coincided with Seeger’s birthday. Steve, whose own birthday is just a day apart, penned a tribute tune called “The Weaver” which he planned to sing on that show.
Someone found out about it and got Seeger to phone the station and listen in while Steve was performing the song on the air.
“That was my biggest moment in my music career,” he recalls (And we’re not talking here about someone who’s got way more fingers than he needs to count up the big moments.)
“The whole Hightower Radio gig,” which lasted for roughly two years at the end of the nineties, is a “definite high point,” he said, if for no other reason than to know that he met the challenge of writing a song a week. The fact that the show was broadcast over 120 radio stations from “Maine to Maui” was a fine feather in his songwriter’s cap.
However, when asked about feedback, or opportunities gained through such wide exposure, he admits that he got very little feedback during that whole gig, much less anything in the way of career advancement, “like a call from Rounder Records,” he says.
He muses that maybe it has something to do with the audience for the show; maybe they’re not into music so much. If so, what a sad change in The Left from the days of The Weavers and Phil Ochs. The Left, without music, is kind of like church with no dinner on the grounds, after.
If you’ve heard Brooks perform, you know that fault lies elsewhere. His guitar work is certainly adequate for the professional level, although he is not, and does not pretend to be, a guitar god. He’s got a good voice and his chord progressions and melodies are interesting and true to his style and subject matter. The words, well, they rarely come any better.
What would you expect from someone who has won the O’Henry Pun-Off in Austin (where he now lives) six times? “No one should work with words unless they can also play with them. Language is like Play-Doh,” he muses. “I love to bend and shape it in new ways, end occasionally eat it when no one is looking.”
Brooks has released three albums, although one, his favorite, (Bulletproof, with Jackie Kemmy James) was not promoted much and is not as well-known as the other two, Purgatory Road and Sex,Lies, and Videotape, the latter composed of songs he wrote for the Hightower show.
Two other albums are in the works. For the Roses, a tribute to hill country bard Al Grierson, who died last year in a hill country flood, is due out by the end of the year. Mandy Mercier, an Austin performer/songwriter, joins Brooks on that project. Three of Grierson’s songs, previously unrecorded but known to his fans, will be on the CD, including “Petals“, which Brooks describes as a kind of “history of the world.” The title track, penned by Brooks, is a tribute to this songwriter who still enjoys wide influence and respect in the Austin songwriting community Brooks plans to release Angel in Disguise, his working title for a second CD of all original tunes (mostly new ones) just after For the Roses.
Current or upcoming gigs include, a benefit at Ray Benson’s house where he will open for Asleep at the Wheel, and a trip to Boston in November with two or three members of the Austin Conspiracy, a songwriter’s group.
Check out his website at www.stevebrooks.net which is definitely worth a visit from anyone who digs language play. Many of Brooks’ song lyrics are posted there, along with a few song downloads or streams.