Joe Crookston BIOGRAPHY Ithaca, NY
STOMPING LOUD IN MINOR KEYS & STORY SONGS & JAMBOREES
Joe Crookston’s CD, "Able Baker Charlie & Dog" was awarded the
“Album of the Year” by the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, TN
His Brand new CD “Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee” is even better.
In April, 2011, his song “Good Luck John” was tied with Alison Krause as the #1 most played acoustic song on the Acoustic Music Radio Charts.
“Joe Crookston is decidedly one of today's standout troubadors, and his new release couldn't be more proof of that. With a singing voice akin to that of Colin Meloy of The Decembrists but unmistakably his own, along with a repertoire of original bare bones folk songs, Joe Crookston has certainly made himself heard as a singer/songwriter to be taken seriously. On Darkling & the Bluebird Jubilee, his third release on Milagrito Records, he sings the heart pure, he sings the soul holy, he sings the mind unshackled, and he sings the world loud and true.” –
--Roots Music Examiner August 12, 2011
"This is not reviewers hype...this guy is flat out good"
-- Rodger Nichols of The Dalles Oregon Chronicle
Touring IRELAND- CANADA - US
Artful, melodic and intense….If you love a moving song and musical magic, Joe delivers it all....the melodies, the lyrics, the energy, and a deep passion for exceptionally well written songs.
He loves his audience, it’s palpable-- you can feel it in the room.
Joe was chosen as a Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Most-Wanted Artist, Played Mainstage at The Kerrville Folk Festival in TX, and received a year-long songwriting grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel throughout New York State, interview local residents, and write songs based on his experiences. It's been a good couple years, and there is no stopping now.
Artful, intense, extremely engaging and often transcendent…
If you love a well crafted moving song and
musical magic, Joe delivers it all....the music, the lyrics,
the energy, and the passion for exceptionaly well written songs --
He loves his audience, and it shows everytime he plays.
Joe was chosen as a Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Most-Wanted Artist,
and was featured on the Annual Falcon Ridge Preview Tour with
Lindsay Mac, Anthony da Costa and Randall Williams.
---28 dates, from Club Passim to Kennedy Center.
He was a finalist in the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest,
and in 2007 received a year-long songwriting
grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel throughout New York State, interview
local residents, and write songs based on his experiences..It's been a good couple years,
and there is no stopping him now.
In February 2009, "Able Baker Charlie & Dog" was awarded "Album of the Year" by the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, TN.
He stands on stage holding his Martin OM 28, stompin his foot, singing superb songs
about life and death, ruby red dresses, drunk roosters, ex-slaves, window washers,
Polish Immigrants, Tinian Island, rutabagas and the beauty that is still left in the world.
Sing Out! Magazine says....
”With all the performers out there, an artist has to go beyond good...and Joe does.”
The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
New Bedford SummerFest
The Kent State Folk Festival
Irvington Town Hall Theatre
NW Folklife Festival
Folk Project Festival
& hundreds more....
Spring 2008, MaineFolkMusic.com wrote:
“It seems Joe Crookston can hardly set a foot wrong these days. Several of his songs have
made it into the finals of some of the more prestigious national songwriting competitions;
John Lennon, Mountain Stage, Great American Song Contest. The audience at the 2007
Falcon Ridge Folk Festival named him one of the Top 3 “Most Wanted” Emerging Artists.
This honor landed him a spot on the 2008 Falcon Ridge Preview Tour, commencing in May,
2008… Joe Crookston’s star is rising. Versatile songwriting, excellent musicianship and a
charismatic stage presence should earn him a permanent place on the national folk scene”.
"Top-12-Do-It-Yourself Recording"-- Performing Songwriter Magazine
"I've watched audiences glued to their seats at the end of Joe's shows simply not wanting the
evening to end. There is a spirit in his music that is simultaneously sacred, celebratory, artful
and solidly grounded in tradition.......... Go see this man perform, and don't be surprised if
you drive home singing his songs with a renewed sense of what's possible."
--Seattle Folklore Society
Joe Crookston….Born and raised in rural Ohio, with Hungarian roots, Polkas Polkas...and
eastern European food..A little bit of Gypsy soul in this guy...Whether it’s his hypnotic guitar
sound, bubbling banjo, or short story lyrics, his music draws from his urban adventures and
his rural Ohio roots, exuding a remarkable timeless quality.
Haven't seen him perform?? You'll be glad you did..
In 1987, The Kent State Folk Festival changed his life. After hearing Harvey Reid and the Horseflies at the festival, Joe sold his electric guitar, bought a steel string and never looked back. He's a fiddler and a pretty darn good percolating clawhammer banjo player to boot...
He has performed throughout the US, at Folk Festivals, Coffeehouses, venues... There is not a navel gazing break- up song to be found anywhere… "Go see this man perform".... his audience rapport, musicianship and playful stage presence is intense, mesmerizing, and
Inspired by Woody Guthrie, Joe was awarded a year-long grant (2007) from The Rockefeller Foundation to travel around the State of New York , interview local residents, gather stories and write songs based on his experiences. His project is called, “Songs of the Finger Lakes.”
His 2004 release, "Fall Down as the Rain", not surprisingly, was chosen by Performing Songwriter Magazine as a "TOP-12-Do-It-Yourself" independent recording, was featured on National Public Radio's “All Songs Considered”, as well as Syndicated Minnesota Public Radio, The Midnight Special and Folkscene. He has shared festival stages with the likes of Livingston Taylor, The Subdudes, John McCutcheon, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Reynolds, John Gorka, Jack Hardy, Tracey Grammer and many others.
Victory Music Review says:
"Joe's songs are powerful, simple, distilled lyrical paintings weaving together cycles of life and decay, cycles of joy and pain, and eventually they thread the needle through all of us..." He is a commanding, charismatic performer. Be glad Joe's one of the good guys, because otherwise, he'd be dangerous.
"Oh my heavens! This CD is wonderful. WUMB (Boston) is playing it a great deal. Congratulations on a terrific sounding recording of well written songs." Marilyn Rea Beyer, Music Director WUMB Public Radio Network-Boston
2 Guitars, Banjo, vocals, and an amplified foot stompin box
2011 "Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee" is released.
2008 Able Baker Charlie & Dog. Within a month of being released, Able Baker Charlie & Dog ended up the #1 most played recording on the Folk/Acoustic DJ Charts...It was awarded "Album of the Year" by the International Folk Alliance.
2004 CD tiltled..."Fall Down as the Rain"
The song "Fall Down as the Rain" was the 20th most played song on Folk DJ Charts! in 2006
Chosen by Performing Songwriter Magazine as
a "Top-12-Do-It-Yourself Recording"-- Performing Songwriter Magazine
"Fall Down as the Rain", was named "Best Folk Recording" by Seattle's KBCS radio, and WXOU in Auburn Hills MI. The CD is a beautiful exploration of the cycles of life, death, and the awesomeness of being alive despite the troubled world we live in.
Good Luck John
The Logical Song
Able Baker Charlie & Dog
Freddy The Falcon
CROOKSTON BLACK DRESS MIX
CROOKSTON BLACK DRESS MIX
An Artist's Journey Joe Crookston
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If you were to look for the perfect folk song, it would be hard to find a better one than one called...If you were to look for the perfect folk song, it would be hard to find a better one than one called
"Fall down as the Rain." It encompasses life, death, reincarnation....
in short, the mysteries of the
When my life is over / And I have gone away
I'm gonna leave this big ole' world / And the trouble and the pain
And if I get to heaven / I will not stay / I'll turn myself around again
And fall down as the rain
And when I finally reach the ground / I'll soak into the sod
I'll turn myself around again / Come up as goldenrod.
This song took second place in the 2003 John Lennon Songwriting Contest (We can't educate everyone).
The song encapsulates the essence of its creator… Joe Crookston. It's the title track of his fourth CD.
In a short span it manages to represent the pillars of his upbringing and his life's goal: to live an interconnected life
and be an integral part of life's mystery.
Joe Crookston grew up in Randolph , Ohio, about an hour south of Kent. Besides Joe, the family had one other
boy and two girls. Joe was second youngest. His father had been a roofer -- then later became an electrician.
Joe's great-grandfather invented the "roofing" hammer and had the patent on it. The family takes great pride
in this. Joe checks out yard and estate sales and buys the old "Crookston" hammers whenever he finds one.
They have the initials AJC --for Anthony Joseph Crookston -- on them. Joe has collected four at this point.
The work ethic is strongly ingrained. During childhood and up through college, Joe worked on local dairy farms.
He described himself to me at one point, pre-musical career, as a "dairy farmer"
His mother suffered from mental illness and was very religious. She died in 2002 from ovarian cancer.
Both her living and her dying had a tremendous impact on Joe's music. As he puts it: "My mother's fascination
and obsession with imagery and with applying meaning to the world around her, I believe, resulted in a direct skill
and a gift that she gave me as an artist. I can look at the world around me and the physical items that I live with
and around and I can find meaning in the mundane, everyday objects in the world that we live in. That's largely
because of her finding sacred meaning to everything around her. I grew up with this sense of magic, or mystery.
Mystery was all around you, and you just had to look for it and keep your eyes open for it. The imagery that comes
into my music -- the attempt and the desire to find the mystery and magic in the everyday -- both lightness and darkness.
It's not about fluffy lightness. It's the polar opposites. Finding those dark places -- and the lightness and the magic
and mystery. My mom was about, like: 'Let's go out in the back yard and watch the blue butterfly land on the fence
and talk to it like it's God.'" Joe thought: "Whoa! This is a little weird, but I guess this is what normal is." When he got
older and moved away, he "disassembled" the earlier experiences and allowed chosen parts to be part of his present
state without the need for rebellion against parts he found "no longer useful."
Joe's mother's way of applying religion was indeed different. Joe stated: "In a way, although as much of a Catholic
as she was, she was like this creative pagan person, too. She had this intense appreciation of writing songs or
painting, or writing songs or making a sculpture -- I was always building a sculpture; I was always doing oil paints;
I was always writing a song. There was always an unconditional support of the creative act. That was a sacred thing
to do in the world. My mom would say, 'Please, the world needs what you have to offer.' She thought of me as a
kind of prophetic person. I was to do good work in the world." And so it would come to pass. Joe has brought art,
literature and music to hundreds of disabled and incarcerated youngsters.
Exploring the Inner landscape
When Joe was 12, his mother had to be hospitalized for psychosis. At the same time, his dad entered the hospital to be
treated for another malady. Joe remembers: "I was put into group counseling with the doctors at the hospital.
I sat in a circle with other families who had issues." Joe had to process his emotional state with professionals in
a group session, dealing with the entire dynamic of his family and the outside world. This was not mere self-absorption.
He needed to unlock the key to health and sanity. He remembers thinking at that time: "I have to go in deep and
find out what is real and sane for me."
Music to the Rescue
"Music" he says, "was an absolutely vital part of me in beginning to express those pieces and parts."
In Northeast Ohio, Joe was surrounded by accordion music and Polka music. His mother was an accomplished accordion
player. She played at dances and parties. At a certain point she put the accordion away because it didn't fit into her quest
for spirituality. "It wasn't holy or faithful enough." Joe was somewhere between 14 and 16. The accordion went into the closet.
Joe has it now. He had picked up enough technique to play it and used it on a couple of tracks on his last CD. Joe plays it
"well enough to get by,"as he put it. He's still working on it.
He also listened to his mom play her "pride and joy," a D-18 Martin. Every day she would make time to go off in a room
and write a song to exalt her religious viewpoint. She would allow no interruptions and would come up with a new song
nearly every day. "She was always pullin' 'em down from the sky," Joe says. She knew 4 or 5 chords, nothing fancy.
The point was, it mattered enough for her to sequester her self away from the family and dedicate the time to create.
This made its impact on Joe. While he liked to listen to the "Kasey Kasem Countdown" on radio as a kid, nothing had
the influence to compare with his mom's creativity and musicality.
The Big Connection
One auspicious day, Joe sat next to a friend in his freshman year in high school and saw the friend's songbook of
The Best of The Who. The friend was studying the song "My Generation." His friend had plans to form a band with
some other boys. A moment of revelation occured when he realized that the chords in "My Generation" were the
same as his mother used. Up to this point, his mom's playing had semed kind of "dorky." All of a
sudden it became kind of "cool." The people he was interested in all used those same chords: The Who, Bob Dylan
and Neil Young. She loved the E minor chord and Neil's "Heart of Gold" started with that chord. When he told his
mom he wanted to learn how to play, she pulled out a black-and-white Harmony guitar from behind the bed and
Joe started practicing on it. His mom showed him some chords and he also learned from songbooks. From that time on,
he didn't put down the guitar except much later, in his late 20s, when he spent a week backpacking in the Olympic
Mountains in Washington State and did not bring an instrument.
Time to Pick It
For a long time, Polka music had been more of an influence, but during his freshman year at college, folk music took over.
At Kent State, at a friend's urging, he attended his first folk festival. He saw John McCutcheon, The Horseflies, Joel Mabus,
and Harvey Reid among others. Joe was transformed. He had studied classical guitar for 2 1/2 years but then got a steel
string guitar and began writing songs. He also switched to studio arts. He began getting commissions for large paintings.
Simultaneously, he was writing songs and getting commissions to make large paintings. One painting was 25 feet long
and 5 feet high. Pursuing a degree stopped making sense. He dropped out of school and moved to New Jersey where he
worked at Appel Farms Arts and Music Center in 1990, getting involved with theater arts and photography. He lived and
worked there for three years and helping to coordinate the annual Appel festival. This enabled him to connect with performers
such as Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco, Tom Paxton and Laura Nyro. In addition to, hosting, he got to talk to them, which
expanded his knowledge of what it took to be a performer. At first, he was just a "creative soul" who was totally focussed
about unfolding as an artist. However, the job gave him parameters and structure to learn and "grow" his artistic vision.
It was, on the one hand a lonely, isolated existence at times, being on his own, but at other times he was surrounded by
mentors in a vibrant, non-profit artistic community. He met many great artists and both watched them and was watched
by them. After three years, he was able to form his own vision of the possibilities in the art world -- as a business person
-- traveling, playing, booking, and grant-writing.
After three years, the isolation at Appel forced the need for a change. Philadelphia was next biggest place that he had
connections to and he moved there for a year and a half. He was determined to surround himself with creativity and it
enabled him to carve out places in the art field instead of working the usual assortment of odd jobs that so many folk
musicians resort to. He looked for teaching jobs and got a grant from an organization he had connected to while at Appel.
This allowed him to work for a year as a music therapist with children who had cerebral palsy. Although the techniques he
used were primitive, they showed imagination. In one project, popsicle sticks were taped to the children's toes so they could
press on a keyboard to make music which he then then taped onto a four-track recorder. Although Joe was a player, he
viewed himself as more than a performer. Joe wa seeking an answer to the question: "How can I connect with other people
through the creation of music and art?" Being a mentor for kids with cerebral palsy was a means to answer that question.
Since then Joe has done a lot of similar work.
In 1994, Joe moved to Minneapolis for two years. Here he worked at a group home for children with autism. As the music
person for the home, he worked with the children to nurture their musical expression and would bring in drums, keyboards
and his guitar. Additionally, he was also the music instructor for four or five different elementary schools. On top of that,
he began to play more gigs in Iowa and Minnesota, honing his skills as a performer.
The Seattle Blues
The impetus for Joe's next move was a failed relationship. He moved to Seattle ostensibly for a couple of months, to distance
himself from an open wound and also to get some separation from the emotional burden of his mother's deteriorating
condition. He wound up staying for eight years. As a going-away gift, the woman he was leaving gave him a fiddle (they
are still friends today). Adrift, for the first time, and in a mournful state, for solace, Joe played the fiddle every day for as
many hours as he could find. He fell into a group of old-time and celtic musicians. While he was still playing guitar, the fiddle,
a new friend, became a kindred spirit, in expressing his innermost feelings. It was his "saving grace." It was a place for him to
put the darkness he felt. "Even though I'm not the best fiddle player, it brings out the deepest part of me that loves music,"
he says. In Seattle, he switched from singer/songwriting to old-timey, bluegrass, and traditional styles. He believes his music
today is an amalgamation of both.
While he was in Seattle, Joe also worked at the King County Detention Center. For a year and a half, he conducted creative
writing, poetry slam poetry, song and rap workshops with detained youngsters from 15-18 years of age. Using their life
stories filled with anger and angst, he got them to write about the roots of their pain and then put music to it with keyboards
and beatboxes. The creative works were then captured with a digital recorder. While sometimes fraught with failure, Joe's
efforts brought forth moments of empowerment and enlightenment to some shattered lives.
Here's Joe playing fiddle, jamming in the community room, at the
2006 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference
Fate has a way of stepping in. Joe's future wife was in a music store, seeking guitar lessons when he met her. From here,
his life changed direction and found new purpose. It was now time to take everything he'd been preparing for and crystallize
it. He and his wife moved east to Ithaca, New York, to be able to afford to live and pursue his dream of being a performing
artist. Joe and his wife now have a two-and-a-half year old daughter, Josanna.
Joe plays with his usual trademark verve at the
Acoustic Live guerilla Showcase at NERFA 2006
From Ithaca, Joe has found that he can play coffeehouses in the Northeast with relative ease, then building a wider itinerary.
He teaches banjo, guitar and fiddle at the Community School of Music and Art in downtown Ithaca, a non-profit. The school's
director found out about a grant from through the New York Music Fund and The Rockefeller Foundation. It was up to Joe
to devise a project.
Joe drew up a plan for traveling around the Fingerlakes region, collecting stories and sayings and writing songs about them.
In his travels, he asks the question, "Can you remember from an uncle, grandmother, or grandfather a saying, an expression
or one-liner or catch-phrase that was used, or is still used, in your home a lot?" He is writing songs based on those expressions
and stories. One catchy phrase he got was, "Get good before you get fancy." A keeper, I'd say. Another one is from a
grandfather, a fine woodworker and furniture maker, who, because of modern automation, had to become a worker on
a furniture assembly line. Performing just one segment of job that was finished down the line, in exasperation and revulsion,
he'd tell his grandson, "Don't hang your straight door on someone else's crooked frame."A new album of songs of Joe's
personal songs is due in a few months and the grant project album, which will be called Songs from the Finger Lakes will
follow at some point.
Joe is now involved in a project at a middle school where the students tell stories from their lives to be recorded, much as
he did at Kings County Center in Seattle.His new album will be jam-packed with new, riveting stories. Among them,
the chilling "Able Baker Charlie and Dog} was written about his grandfather Joe Gnap, a navy Seabee (Construction
Batallion) on Tinian Island during WWII. His Grandfather's job was to build the runway that Enola Gay took off from
to bomb Hiroshima.
We never knew what the runways were for /
They said our job would be the one to end the war.
The themes will, of course be universal. They will all be connected. And it will all be… Joe Crookston.
A review of Able Baker Charlie & Dog written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
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Able Baker Charlie & Dog Joe Crookston Available from Joe Crookston's web site. A review writte...Able Baker Charlie & Dog
Available from Joe Crookston's web site.
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
by Frank Gutch Jr.
And the award for the most intelligent semi-folk-rock-roots album goes to… Man, you have to wonder where they're hiding the music. The major media doesn't seem to care, their involvement seemingly limited to the yellow journalism crucial to the sensational headlines which make news news, as if it even approaches news these days. What it is, though, sells and isn't that what business is all about?
Joe Crookston obviously doesn't think so, though in Able Baker Charlie & Dog he has put together a package professional and slick enough to rival anything the majors could produce. It is beautiful, this foldover digi-pak, from the excellent graphics to just-right liner notes, and maybe it will attract the occasional glance but it takes a distant second to the music within. Distant.
Picture Crookston on a beer can a la Olympia Beer, whose ancient containers held the motto, "It's the Water", only with him, "It's the Music". Thing is, as fine a songwriter as he is, he's savvy enough to kick things off with a cover: Supertramp's The Logical Song. Now, wait a minute. Before you kick this to the curbside, hear me out. This is not Supertramp's Logical Song. This is Joe Crookston's Logical Song presented with a Simon and Garfunkel edge with a little Americana thrown in for good measure. Sure, Supertramp's Roger Hodgson wrote it, but beyond that, it's all Crookston. Kind of. Sort of. Truth be told, I was halfway through it before I could put my finger on who did the original and before I did, I was looking toward the folk rock side more than anywhere. This is good. Hodgson would approve.
Crookston's tribute to the underground railroad slides right in after, John Jones an epic folk tune based upon the research of one Jim Cunningham from Waverly NY. With voice reminiscent of the best of the golden age of folk music (maybe a cross between Bob Lind and Glenn Yarbrough with the sensitivity of Gordon Lightfoot), he tells the story of a man who helped free over 800 slaves in an era during which he could have been punished severely.
If you have to cover someone, Dan Fogelberg is as good as they come and his excellent Wandering Shepherd is among the best he composed. Crookston does an absolutely outstanding job capturing the aura of what the song can be. The used copy of Fogelberg's High Country Snows cost him a buck and was worth a thousand times that. It will make you scour the racks for Fogelberg, guaranteed.
Most skateboard songs are surf-oriented, Ventures-like Rickenbackers cranking out the pulse. Not so with Freddy the Falcon, a view of why sometimes things don't work out and how we hang on to the strangest things to survive.
Another true story turned into a musical epic, Brooklyn In July tells how inequality can push one over the edge. In this case it is Frank, an African-American who snapped and tossed a rock through the window of a cafe and spent "a good part of his life" in jail because of it. Presented in jazzy folk/swing fashion, it captures the tragedy of it all through simple chord changes and vocal timbre.
Crookston turned humor into song after hearing a tale of drunken roosters, courtesy of an 83-year-old named Walt Losey. Red Rooster In the Mash Pile, upbeat and downright humorous, has that '30s jazz feel, thanks to the light jazz piano and violin as well as upfront vocals and great chorus. Crookston includes a live version of this song toward the end of the CD and when you hear it, you know why. A real crowd pleaser.
Joe's grandpa was in The War (The Big One) and just before he died, told the story of laying runways for the planes which would carry the nuclear bombs to Japan. They named the runways Able Baker Charlie & Dog and the song ranks just below Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as truth in song.
Crookston borrowed from Robert Frost a bit on Mending Walls, a fine pop/folk song about maybe finding yourself in others. Maybe. A good song, no matter what you get out of it.
Father to son. It's as old as the world and Hands Metal and Wood lays it out as well as it has ever been. There is even a story in the liner notes about his great-grandfather which is as good as and actually part of the song. No, I'm not going to spoil it. Buy this and read it for yourself.
If I didn't know better, I would think that Gordon Lightfoot had written Blue Tattoo. A beautiful song about a Polish mother and her daughter and a conversation which involves a trip to the States and a tattoo. And a war. May we never forget.
Bird By Bird is as close to folk as Crookston gets and there is a reason. Inspired by an Anne Lamont book, it is a song of healing and maybe rehabilitation in simple terms. After hearing it, you will agree that no other genre could have gotten it quite right.
Crookston finishes this album with a live track, The Rutabaga Curl, a rowsing and, again, jazzy story of a game played with, ahem, rutabagas (oddly enough). Another crowd pleaser which shows just how good Joe Crookston can be. And he is.
This album is overrun with magnificent musicians. I pick up anything which has Pat Wictor on it (his resophonic guitar is among the best out there these days) and now have deep appreciation for the piano of Molly MacMillan, the bass of Cary Black and the fiddle of Judy Hyman as well as the others who contributed. If this album had nothing else to recommend it (but it does), these names would be recommendation enough.
Looking at the liner notes, Ithaca NY jumped out and slapped me in the face. It is home to a number of fine musicians, not the least of whom are my last year's discoveries, Tom Mank and Sera Smolen. If I had the money, I might think of moving there. Crookston, Mank, Smolen? Makes me wonder who else is hiding there. Of course, as long as those three are there, it is a destination. For the music, you see. The music.
The Logical Song
Freddy the Falcon
Brooklyn in July
Red Rooster in the Mash Pile
Able Baker Charlie & Dog
Hands Metal and Wood
Bird By Bird
Red Rooster in the Mash Pile (Live)
The Rutabaga Curl (Live)
All songs written and copyrighted by Joe Crookston except
The Logical Song, written by Roger Hodgson, and Wandering Shepherd by Dan Fogelberg.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Feb 2007 "Meet The Folker" ...Ithaca troubadour Joe Crookston helps the next generation make beautiful music
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By Matt Mumau MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS Enthusiastically bouncing from student to student to...
By Matt Mumau
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Enthusiastically bouncing from student to student to discuss the minutia of their songs, Joe Crookston seems at home. Feb. 21 is the third day of a four-day songwriting workshop he organized for the Community School of Music and Art in Ithaca. The Southside Community Center room, where Crookston and his students spend four hours each day to compose music, is swathed in sunlight from an overhead window. Three teens lounge on a few couches in the center of the room, strumming guitar parts and thumping bass lines. As Crookston casually praises segments of music streaming from his students’ instruments and persuades them to explore some licks over others, the young musicians, lost in their visions, smile to themselves. Making the rounds, Crookston stops by a cove carved out by Iwan Azis, an economics professor at Cornell University, and his daughter Mariko in the midst of concluding a song they had co-written. The pair excitedly explain how much Crookston has helped them learn to finish songs, something they’d struggled with previously. “With Iwan and Mariko, it was about the chord voicings and the structure of the songs,” Crookston explains. “Their verse was way too long and I said, ‘You know what? You gotta chop it in half.’”
For Crookston, who has toured the country toward two ends––pursuing his career as a singer-songwriter and teaching youngsters his craft––the peaceful Southside session was the epitome of what he tries to do during the workshops he has organized at juvenile detention centers and schools throughout the country. Pointing out that workshop participants are both male and female and of diverse ethnicities, Crookston says he’s not trying to turn students into the next bread-winning pop stars. Instead, it’s all about learning to come together as artists.
“More than someone making it their career, for me it’s racial diversity and gender,” Crookston states. “To me, this group right here is it: diverse in every way.”
A native of Ohio, Crookston, 34, settled in hippie-haven Ithaca in December 2004 as part of a circuitous journey as a musician and self-made music educator. He is responsible for coordinating a series of workshops throughout the Ithaca area similar to the one he gave at the Community School of Music and Art, and will soon embark on a project that involves traveling throughout New York state to collect stories from locals as source material to record a new album of story songs.
Although Crookston may boast success as a musician now, it all began the way so many musicians’ stories do: with a teen love for the guitar. As a 14-year-old, Crookston was captivated by a few of his guitar-playing peers, so he asked his mother, herself a songwriter, for an instrument of his own. He ultimately decided to study classical guitar at Kent State University, enrolling in 1996. But after giving it a go, Crookston realized classical guitar wasn’t for him. He began paying attention to the folk scene in Ohio, and it changed the direction of his life.
“Basically I went to the Kent State Folk Festival, and that’s where I discovered this band called the Horseflies,” Crookston notes. “And that was it for me: This is what I want. Classical music is fine and I studied some jazz but when I went to this folk festival that was basically it. I sold my classical guitar and I bought a steel string and that’s all I’ve done since.”
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
He dropped out before finishing his classical guitar degree, so Crookston immediately had to look for a way to make a living in 1990. Fortunately for him, it didn’t take long. Appel Farm Arts and Music Center, located in Elmer, N.J., contacted him shortly after he’d asked for help from the Kent State career center and offered him a position to teach songwriting to kids. Essentially a legitimate version of a 1960s hippie commune, the 200-acre Appel Farm harbors art-loving kids during summer camp sessions, hosts a prestigious folk concert series and serves as a central nervous system for arts outreach in New Jersey.
Crookston hadn’t found what he was looking for at Kent State but Appel Farm provided the artist exactly what he needed. “When I started working at Appel Farm Ani DiFranco would come and do a concert and I’d sit down and have lunch with her,” Crookston says. “I just got to talk to all these great artists like Laura Nyro and Ray Brown, and these performance artists who would come from all over the world, and that for me was like, ‘I’m in college now.’”
Crookston spent three years at Appel Farms during which he was also asked to perform at nursing homes and hospitals for children with cerebral palsy. An eager musician, Crookston embraced the opportunity to perform in front of live audiences, even if they weren’t the creme de la creme. Unlike the namesake character in the 2002 film Death to Smoochy, Crookston looked at those experiences as a way to learn how to communicate effectively using music regardless of the audience.
“You know, I’m not on the big-time circuit. It’s like I’m basically getting a paycheck to learn how to perform, and basically getting up in front of people, and that to me was a great education on performance,” Crookston says about his Appel Farm years. “I’m in a nursing home and it’s old ladies and I’m singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and I gotta find a way to connect. To me that’s what I was doing: honing my ability to perform.”
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
But Crookston didn’t quite feel ready to do much with his own music. Having been able to make a living without having to sacrifice his passion for songs, Crookston realized he could continue to teach songwriting while writing and performing his own music.
In 1993 Crookston moved to Philadelphia to work off grant money given to the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Responding to a request from the school to develop a music program there, Crookston envisioned the songwriting workshops he has taught ever since.
“These are kids with wheelchairs, that have no physical motor skills,” Crookston says. “I would take a keyboard and put it on a stand down by their feet and I would tape popsicle sticks onto their toes. We would compose these really basic songs, and I had a little Tascam four-track recorder, and basically I recorded 12 songs they wrote.”
On the Road Again
After the program was over, Crookston took to the road again in 1995 and ended up in Minneapolis, where he continued to develop his two-pronged career as educator and composer. This time it was at a school for children with autism, but Crookston learned more about how to host songwriting workshops for kids while realizing he could support small performances of his own. He would give Saturday night shows at community centers, often attracting several hundred people.
As if life in his mid-20s wasn’t unusual enough, personal drama eventually caught up with Crookston. He was cash-strapped and his girlfriend at the time realized she was a lesbian, leaving Crookston single and heartbroken. Simultaneously in 1997, Crookston was forced to deal with the news that his mother had contracted cancer; she soon after died. Living the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” Crookston hopped a train that ended up in Seattle, where he fell on hard times.
“Basically I was depressed out of my mind. I was lost,” Crookston reflects. “I didn’t want to do the 9-to-5 thing, I didn’t want to be someone I wasn’t. I didn’t want to have to earn a ton of money. So I kinda got to this point where I had $22 to my name after how many years of working and doing all this stuff?”
It took teaching to snap Crookston out of his two-year funk. Washington Ceasefire, a non-profit group aimed at reducing gun violence, had heard about Crookston through the reputation he had built in Seattle, and contacted him about teaching workshops at the King County Juvenile and Adult Detention Center. Crookston recalls recording sessions he’d set up for the young, troubled inmates at the center as being a powerful way for the kids to relieve their anger and express their stories. After setting up a session in which kids pounded on the walls of their cell block to record percussive music, and witnessing a juvenile convict stand on a table and nail “Amazing Grace,” Crookston knew something special was going on.
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
All the while, Crookston started to blossom as a musician in Seattle after recording and self-releasing his fourth album, Fall Down as the Rain, in 2004. To his surprise, copies of the four albums that Crookston sent out to media representatives around the country started to get rave reviews in folk magazines Rambles and Singer as well as newspapers like the Daily Kent Stater and the Dallas Chronicle.
“That was really the first time I started to tour nationally. It’s been three years and I can’t believe how well it’s been going,” Crookston says. “I’m getting booked all over the place for shows with several thousand people, and I’m getting great reviews. This album was pretty much the beginning of me taking my own musical career to a level I’ve always dreamed of doing.”
His personal life started turning around as well, and Crookston married Katheryn Caldwell in 2002 after they met in Seattle. Having a partner has made all the difference, he says. “She’s pretty much put a fire under me to know exactly what it is that I want to do.”
After their daughter Josanna was born in March 2004 the Crookstons realized they had to abandon their Bohemian lifestyle. At the same time, Crookston was growing disenchanted with the Seattle music scene, where he never really fit in. “If you can bring in people and get them sweating and drinking beer, you’re going to do great,” he says about Seattle. “If you’re not, find something else.”
In search of a home, Crookston recalled tour spots he’d come across throughout his career, and focused on Ithaca. Luckily, the Finger Lakes city has a solid interest in folk music. In terms of touring the larger venues he was then able to fill, New York seemed a good spot to set up as home base. “I knew I needed to be on the East Coast, so that was big on my mind,” Crookston says.
Crookston found work at the Community School of Music and Art as a part-time guitar teacher as well as the creative organizer for the songwriting workshops, and has made a local splash as a performer in the Ithaca folk scene, as well as with Syracuse’s Folkus Project. With the help of fellow singer-songwriter Lee Ellen Marvin, Crookston applied for and received a grant from the New York State Music Fund.
The fund, which is managed by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, was the result of settlements that resulted from an investigation in 2005 and 2006 by the New York state attorney general’s office regarding alleged payola schemes (illegal “pay-to-play” tactic used by radio stations), specifically by conglomerates Sony BMG, Warner and Universal. The media giants coughed up nearly $30 million after having been found to have engaged in the dirty deed. More than $19 million thus far has been given to New York musicians, educators and others who write grant proposals for art-related projects. With the $50,000 he has received, Crookston intends to keep teaching kids and recording music, and will give $10,000 directly to the Community School of Music and Art for scholarships.
Following in the footsteps of musician Woody Guthrie, who under a federal grant traveled through Washington state to collect stories as fodder for songs, Crookston will use part of that money to record an album. At the same time Crookston and Marvin, who serves as a sort of administrator for Crookston’s project, will host three more songwriting workshops this spring.
The Community School of Music and Art, 330 E. State St., Ithaca, will host another workshop from Tuesday, April 10, to Friday, April 13, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Trumansburg High School, 100 Whig St., Trumansburg, will host another from Monday, April 23, to Friday, April 26 from 4 to 7 p.m., and the last scheduled workshop will be held in Newfield from July 9 to 12, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at an undecided location.
Marvin explains that Crookston’s creative energy is high, and that she’s enjoyed working with Crookston on the project. “One of the tricky things about being an assistant is knowing when to come and say, ‘Show me what you got, let’s hear it.’ But then there’s this incredible creative energy and you don’t want to break that train of thought.”
This April, Crookston will travel on foot from Cayuga Lake to Keuka Lake in an effort to collect stories for the album he will release with the help of the grant. Simultaneously, people are contacting Crookston with tales they’d like him to tell. “I’m going to go to somebody in Elmira who was a Holocaust survivor and she would like to tell her story,” Crookston says. “There are people coming out of the woodwork.”
While the ambitious project will be certain to make waves around Central New York, for Crookston it’s the culmination of his lifelong goal to pursue music and connect with his audience. “For me, I’m a songwriter and I write songs about all kinds of stuff. My belief is there are lots of stories out there that aren’t being told in the media and culture. We have the radio stations to tell us what’s real, and then there’s the full layer underneath of what’s real. I think of myself as a social archaeologist.”
2008 CD REVIEW Able Baker Charlie & Dog
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CD REVIEW Joe Crookston Able Baker Charlie & Dog 2008 by Ce...CD REVIEW Joe Crookston
Able Baker Charlie & Dog 2008
by Ceci Gilson www.MaineFolkMusic.com
It seems Ithaca, NY-based Joe Crookston can hardly set a foot wrong these days. Several of his songs have made it into some of the more prestigious national songwriting competitions; John Lennon, Mountain Stage, Great American Song Contest, Performing Songwriter, etc. The audience at the 2007 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival named him one of the Top 4 “Most Wanted” Emerging Artists. This honor landed him a spot on the 2008 Falcon Ridge Preview Tour and at the 2008 summer festival.
Crookston has a wonderfully supple and highly personable voice. He puts across light-hearted songs with spirit and charisma. On the flip side, he delivers heart-breaking lyrics with sensitivity and poignancy. He manages to take the pop hit “The Logical Song” (Supertramp) and give it new life with great acoustic guitar and fresh vocal phrasing.
In 2006, Joe received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to travel around the Finger Lakes area of New York, interviewing local residents, collecting stories and writing songs based on his experiences. The project was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s work in 1941, collecting stories and writing songs in Washington State on a federal grant. Six of the songs appear on Able, Baker, Charlie & Dog.
The disc has an almost vaudevillian feel to it - it’s highly entertaining and chockfull of variety. There’s something new at every turn; character sketches, stories, stomps, a churchy ballad, some madcap piano, a rousing sing-along concerning a drunken rooster, and another about sports involving rutabagas (you heard me right). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have some fun. Definitely worth the price of admission!
“John Jones” comes from the Finger Lakes collection. An escaped slave lands in Elmira, NY, where he longs for his mother whom he had to leave behind. Judy Hyman of the Horseflies lends some spare beautiful fiddle playing that underscores the poignancy of the situation.
The rollicking “Red Rooster in the Mash Pile” gives us the very fine image of a Prohibition-era rooster drunk on fermented mash (“The boys are making whiskey and the rooster’s drinking too”), crowing til all hours of the night and sleeping through his wake-up call. It’s likely you’ll catch yourself singing this one in the aisles of Hannaford’s….
Joe Crookston’s star is rising. Versatile songwriting, excellent musicianship and a charismatic stage presence should earn him a permanent place on the national folk scene. We hope to see him in Maine soon! Catch him in concert – at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in this summer in Hillsdale, NY. www.joecrookston.com ---Ceci Gilson
The Ithacan "Finger Lakes" Joe Crookston Article
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Thursday, September 20, 2007 | Advanced THE ITHACAN ....ITHACA COLLEGE Songwriter inspired...Thursday, September 20, 2007 | Advanced
THE ITHACAN ....ITHACA COLLEGE
Songwriter inspired by story of Finger Lakes Region
By Liz Taddonio Senior Writer | September 13th, 2007
Many pop singer/songwriters are self-indulgent. Instead of reflecting the times, music reflects a musician’s ego, relationships and broken or happy heart. Joe Crookston was bored with that.
“I just asked myself what it would be like to go out and intentionally look for songs and stories, instead of sitting in my room all introspective, asking ‘how do I express myself?,’” he said.
Crookston’s idea took shape when he received a grant from New York State Music Fund. The grant allowed him to spend a year in the Finger Lakes region, talking to people, taking photographs and writing songs. Like a modern-day Woody Guthrie, who had a similar project in a small section of Washington state during the 1950s, Crookston created a musical portrait of the region, which will be showcased tomorrow in the Finger Lakes Song Festival.
An Ohio native who moved to Ithaca after living in Seattle for nine years, Crookston said he was drawn to the area because of its strong local culture.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling, but upstate New York and the Finger Lakes is a hidden place,” he said. “It’s not nearly as developed, the land and rolling hills. But yet it’s populated — it’s not just Montana and open spaces.”
Crookston spent months talking to the residents of the region. He placed ads and sent e-mails and said people, for the most part, were very willing to share their local culture. Through word of mouth, Finger Lakes inhabitants gave Crookston something to write about.
“I have one song about a local rooster whose food was actually a kind of beer barley,” Crookston said. “This guy told me about this rooster that would get ... drunk around the town of Corning.”
Song subjects range from silly to serious but all reflect everyday life. One story is about a woman from Poland who immigrated after surviving a concentration camp and another covers the first rutabaga curling championship in Ithaca.
As part of the grant, Crookston also became the artist-in-residence at the Community School of Music and Arts in downtown Ithaca. During the summer he taught four free weeklong songwriting workshops on the art of folk music and storytelling.
Lee-Ellen Marvin, a lecturer in folklore and storytelling in Ithaca College’s speech communication department, was the project director for the songs of the Finger Lakes project. She said the workshops were an exciting way to involve the community.
“Some people came having never written songs or even not making very much music of their own, [and] some came with extensive song repertoires,” she said. “Everyone worked hard and recorded at least one new song.”
Karl Fitzke, a sound and audio/visual producer in Ithaca, recorded and mixed tracks for the students’ songs. He said people brought great attitudes, and it was important to see them come out of their shells.
“I got more inspired as a musician myself,” he said. “You see how much fun people are having. I said the reason I got into [the project] was music and sound.”
Tomorrow night’s show will not only include Crookston’s collection about the Finger Lakes, it will also feature a selection of the best student work. Crookston said the project turned into less of a traditional portrait and more of a cohesive collage.
“It’s kind of like a really random quilt,” he said. “Every patch is completely different, but when it’s all done and put together it’s really unified. I wouldn’t say it’s abstract, it’s more of a mosaic.”
Marvin said the project was important as a representation of a smaller area of the United States.
“It’s a rare project — it’s substantial, for this part of the country,” she said. “You see it in big cities but not so much the little regions.”
Fitzke said he left the project with an appreciation for the art of storytelling and folklore, two important arts he said are underrepresented in popular culture.
“People don’t tell stories anymore, they only tell them if they’re literally true,” he said. “Songs can be a great way to mix half truths and reality to tell a story that means something.”
The Finger Lakes Song Festival will take place at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E. State St. Doors open at 7 p.m., admission is free.
Ithaca TIMES September 07 Article
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Ithaca Times, September 2007 Listen up By: MacKenzie Ryan 09/12/2007 Singer songwriter J...Ithaca Times, September 2007
By: MacKenzie Ryan
Singer songwriter Joe Crookston explains the Friday, Sept. 14 concert hosted by the Community School of Music and Art is a "culmination of a yearlong grant project." Beginning at 7pm, the free concert will feature not only Crookston's music as its headliner, but his students and the stories of their folk songs.
Crookston and the Community School of Music and Art are the unusual beneficiary of poetic justice. When Governor Elliot Spitzer was the attorney general, the folk singer says, he fined Sony Music $30 million from a payola violation. The corporate label had paid off disc jockeys around the country so as to ensure that certain albums would rise on the music charts. Spitzer caught the Manhattan-based super-company and demanded that it distribute the massive fine to New York State musicians. Crookston calls the move "an amazing, brilliant use of the money" because Sony had to give funds to the very people it ultimately had ripped off.
Receiving a grant from these monies, Crookston was commissioned to facilitate, teach, and lead four songwriting workshops around Tompkins County during the months of February, March, April, and July. A wide, diverse range of people came to the free workshops, Crookston says, with recording engineers also lending their services to the 65 participants.
The second half of the songwriter's grant requires him to travel around the Finger Lakes, and interview people, collecting stories and creating songs based on what he learned. Some of the songs, Crookston says, are not about the region directly. For example, one woman he met and befriended was a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz. Some of the songs retell a particular history of the Finger Lakes. "Red Rooster in the Mash Pile," by contrast, is the story of a rooster who lived in Corning during Prohibition. The rooster would eat the fermented corn used to make liquor and get drunk every day after eating it from the mash pile.
Crookston expressed his excitement about the project called "Songs from the Finger Lakes," adding that he thinks of himself as a social archaeologist. The singer is especially enthusiastic about his song, "Dear Elliot Spitzer," which asks the governor to step up and take a stand against the City of Rochester's sale of 7,000 acres of land and Canadice Lake. Used as the city's water supply for the past 100 years, the lake and surrounding area is completely untouched and undeveloped. Camping is not even allowed, Crookston offered. Canadice is one of the places where the bald eagle propagated, he argues, allowing it to come off the endangered species list.
New York City investors have told the City of Rochester that they will give it a blank check to purchase the land, which they will use for vacation developments, Crookston claims. The singer expressed his horror about the situation, saying, "there are not many places like it left in New York." Thus, he has written and will perform "Dear Elliot Spitzer" as a call to action. Crookston says his goal is to raise awareness about the lake, noting that it is a problem at a very critical point.
"What was really important to me in this song [was] not to diss anybody," Crookston says. "I wanted to recognize the governor and Rochester for the positive things they've done and not to demonize them because they have to sell it." Crookston calls the song, "a really honest look of what's possible...[that's] more effective to me than just pissing people off or accusing them."
- MacKenzie Ryan ©Ithaca Times 2007
"Go see this man perform, and don't be surprised if you drive home singing his songs with a renewed sense of what's possible." --Seattle Folklore Society
Rodger Nichols of the DallesOregon Chronicle wrote… “This is not just reviewer's hype... ....This guy is flat out good."
Fall Down as the rain
Hands Metal and wood
Able Baker Charlie and Dog
Freddy the Falcon
The Logical Song
The Sylvan Song
Crooked Wooden Frame
Red Rooster in The Mash Pile
Brooklyn in July
The Finger Lakes Waltz
The Rutabaga Curl
The Legend Of On-No Lee
Rock Paper Scissors