This presentation was given to the Library of Congress on April 11th, 2014 as part of their Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series. I'm one of very few people asked to speak at the LoC who DOESN'T have a PhD and I was very flattered to be asked to participate.
The stunning interior of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
"This forum, produced by the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, brings together notable coffeehouse producer Betsy Siggins from Boston's legendary Club 47, Caffè Lena History Project Founder and Producer Jocelyn Arem, filmmaker and documentarian Todd Kwait, and Baltimore-based performer and "open mic" organizer Rob Hinkal to explore folk music coffeehouses, both then and now. They will discuss the important role these distinctive venues played in the development, maintenance, and expansion of American folk music; how coffeehouses introduced grass-roots rural performers to urban Americans; coffeehouses' contributions to the rise of singer-songwriters; and how coffeehouse "folk clubs" created a circuit of establishments that supported the rise of contemporary American folk music. The forum concludes with a screening of "For the Love of the Music," Todd Kwait’s recently released documentary on Club 47 and the New England folk scene." (reprinted from the Library of Congress' website)
rob Hinkal speaking at the Library of Congress.
Good afternoon – before I get started – can I see the hands of any performers in the room?
Great – and who out there’s played an open mic? Been to an open mic?
(anyone been to one of MY open mics?)
Hey there – my name is rob Hinkal. I’m a performer with a rock-folk band called ilyAIMY – we tour all over the country but we’re based out of Baltimore, MD – and since about 2008 I’ve been an out and proud open mic host – one of my open mic nights has just been declared one of the best in the DC-area by DC Music Download and the one in Baltimore has been selected by Shure Microphones as one of 48 across the country to take part in their “National Open Mic Night”. I’ve been featured in various news articles and blurbs about open mics, been interviewed about them for various research papers and school projects - And I’m absolutely flattered to be here this afternoon to chat with you about open mics and the evolution of artists and communities.
First off – I’m going to do the thing you’re taught NEVER to do. It’s performance 101. It’s something I learned at an open mic. I’m going to apologize. I’m used to running around a little bit frenetically, finding a performer, reminding them they’re up next, asking if they’re in tune, thank you… oh, do you like to sit up or stand down… crap. I’m used to having to occupy my hands, adjust the mic, run a mile a minute … and so if I start talking faster and faster or wander off on a tangent, I apologize in advance. I don’t get down time. I’m an open mic host. I adjust the sound, I take the pictures, I tweet what’s happening, I webcast… I shove the performer gracefully OFF stage after 10 minutes and do it all again for the next player…
I will attempt to remain relatively chill.
For those of you who DON’T know what an open mic is – I’ll define: an open mic is any situation in which performers at-large are invited to a given place and a given time to strut their stuff. Ideally this open mic has some guidelines – I’ll use my Monday night as an example :
2 pieces / 10 minutes whichever’s up first – PG13 environment, this isn’t about censorship, but about respect for the venue – come on, sometimes we get kids! Signup at 6, we’ll kick things off at 7 and we’ve got to be done by 10 because the tea house shall be closing. Anything goes as long as it fits in the space and time and that PG13 – just don’t trip over my cables. We’re broadcasting LIVE at www.ustream.tv/channel/robsopenmics, I know that goes by fast, but I’ll come by and write it on a napkin for you. Please support the venue by getting a drink or dinner or dessert. Please tip your waiters, waitresses, bartenders, bartendresses – whatever you can get your hands on. And let’s get started.
Yeah – I’ve got a spiel. Most hosts do.
I’m all like “welcome to the Teavolve open mic”… crowd roars… let’s move on.
<-- Speaking at the Library of Congress.
Open mics have become a staple of the modern music scene. They’ve spread from college basements and tea houses to bars and in alleyways outside of bars after being kicked out of said bars. I’ve played open mics in open fields, subway stations, art galleries and garden gazebos, exquisitely aged folk clubs (both Caffe Lena and Club Passim, as a matter of fact), bait shops and on a boat and even in the nude, in museums and in people’s basements and for most performers, it’s where “the scene” begins.
I’ve seen hosts that run them dry and slow, and I’ve seen hosts that barely even deserve the word. Some run them like a circus with multiple rings spinning at once – some are contests – and I’ve got a friend in Louisville, KY who runs Church on the Rocks every Sunday like a revivalist church. I frankly think of mine as kind of like the Muppet Show – and that Kermit was the best MC there ever was.
For a lot of people, the weekend warriors, the open mic regulars, the white-collar professionals - this as much of the scene as they ever get into. It is the most inclusive performance space there is. There are professional performers that look down on them, there are intermediate players who think they’re done with them – but it’s almost invariably where we all got started. It’s where we all learn the ropes.
So - I know we’re talking about the “folk scene”. We could argue all night about where and when that begins and ends. I’ve sat through many a panel on “what is folk” and it’s a painful thing to watch – but I think open mics and their inclusiveness have been heartily responsible for helping to evolve our concept of what folk music is. We are passing stories and songs to one another through face-to-face and mouth-to-ear communication. Sometimes they are our stories – sometimes they’re someone else’s stories – but it doesn’t get much more folksy than that.
The first time I realized a guitar could be played by someone I KNEW – by someone in front of me – someone who wasn’t on the radio or on the television - it was at a high school coffeehouse open mic. It was a big deal. People that I never knew existed were suddenly up on a stage playing their little hearts out and they were rockstars. I fell in Love with a guitar girl. Before then I didn’t know there WERE guitar girls.
Songs were whipped out from Suzanne Vega. Songs were whipped out from Bob Dylan. Songs were whipped out from Bob Marley. I heard Toad the Wet Sprocket that night and I heard Metallica. It was my introduction to the idea that you could even … write your own!
My open mic experience has evolved a LONG way since that darkened high school theatre 20 some years ago. I went on to be integral in the running of my college coffeehouse open mic. I started recording them back then and have cassettes and cassettes and cassettes of good people, bad people, people I admired and people I hated. But above all, we listened to EVERYTHING. And we learned.
Underscored by the scream of the espresso machine, interrupted by the sound of an industrial sink that was a danger to itself and others and punctuated by the sound of the pool tables from the floor below I learned the things that we all learn from open mics:
I learned about being a gracious performer. I learned about being a gracious listener. I learned new chords. I learned new techniques. I learned the golden rules of a folk club – listen to others as you would want to be listened to. Stick around for the other players. Be in tune and don’t waste my time. I learned to WAIT for the soundguy. I learned mice can jump in your guitar while you’re not looking. I learned people will steal your capos. I learned vocal techniques. I learned how to play a Jimi Hendrix tune. I learned who the Grateful Dead were, I learned about having your own voice vs merely copying someone else’s. I learned who Jackson Browne was and eventually I learned some of HIS songs too. And eventually I was inspired to write my own music – and people critiqued it and I saw what did and did not work. I had a community. I jammed at open mics, I played my little heart out at an open mic… I was a rockstar…
I was… in all honesty… pretty bad. Thank goodness open mics are supportive.
I’ve played a LOT since then, but that little coffeehouse changed my Life. I have a degree from the oldest art school in the country – but in that coffeehouse I saw more person-to-person interaction and communication than one can ever experience in the sterile confines of 4 gallery walls. Music took root and changed my world. This wasn’t an artist holding court – these were artists in an OPEN community.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that a concert isn’t much better than a gallery. People come to see you – you’re playing to the converted. Open mics, with a freely flowing intake and egress of minds and an audience that sometimes doesn’t know what’s happening to them – it’s one of the few places where someone who doesn’t already know what you’re going to say has a chance to hear it. There are no search filters here. There’s no link from like ideas, artists or sounds. You sit back and see what this 3 hour long mix tape is gonna bring you.
I started touring and Living on the road in 2003. I Lived out of a Saturn for five years and every night we weren’t booked for a show, we played an open mic. I stopped counting somewhere in New Mexico in 2007 at some place that had a loud espresso machine and a loud sink – it was strangely familiar – and they made a drink called the Living Dead and someone threw a stuffed armadillo at me and I don’t think I slept the whole time we were in Albuquerque. That night was our 500th open mic. By then I’d used them as a way to break into communities, make friends in alien towns (including Roswell NM), try out new material and to find a place to stay for the night.
I owe a lot to these things – and when it came time for me to move OUT of my car and to have a house again… to have a REAL BED – one of the first things I set out to do was create an open mic of my own, in a little coffeehouse, with a loud espresso machine and a noisy sink - to start giving back some of what open mics have given to me. I’d evolved from merely being a part of an open mic scene to being the host at the centre of an open mic scene and I endeavoured to be a place where someone could break into a community, make friends in alien town, try out new material and if they needed, they could crash at my place for the night.
And I learned. Being an open mic host is one of the most thankless jobs there is. But it’s worth it.
Open mics are often rooted in a particular genre – but you hang that sign on the door – “open mic” – and you truly don’t know what you’re going to get. Genres can beautifully and stunningly mix. For once you’re getting out of your comfort zone – or having something else forcibly injected INTO your comfort zone. The mic is OPEN and anything could happen. That’s the OPEN aspect. It’s through that mixing that we make leaps and bounds forward. It’s through this aesthetic Brownian motion that we evolve new things that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Using my own nights as an example : I’ve had 6 year-olds come up and sing pop songs. 81 year-olds bringing me Pete Seeger tunes on baritone ukulele. Professional opera singers that don’t need the mic at all – shy poets that need to learn their mic technique desperately. Stunningly proficient accordion players, Paraguyan wire-strung harpists, melodicas, sitars, hammered dulcimers (both double and triple-course, of course), short plays, longs songs, 4 piece lute bands, Grammy-award winning cello-banjo players, Grammy-nominated beatboxing ukulele players, tapdancing guitarists, a guy making ice cream with liquid nitrogen (hey, it was under 10 minutes – and until he froze his elbow to the thing it was TOTALLY PG13), internationally touring loop-station-augmented didgirido players and last Sunday I had a firebreather.
Thank GOD for patios.
Oh – and we have that staple, that thing we’ve been talking about most all night – guys with guitars. (and women too – but honestly, it’s a pretty male-dominated scene – that’s a whole OTHER conversation). But man, where else will a guy with a guitar be inspired by a beatboxing ukulele player while also getting a Zimbabwan mbira hunting song stuck in the back of their head? And beyond that they’re all learning those things that I’d learned. How to treat one another, how to share. Probably not the thing about the mouse though. That’s pretty specific.
We Live in a remarkable region in a remarkable time and open mics have gained power because of it. Twenty years ago I could’ve probably gotten away with saying “open mic = white guys with guitars” but thanks in no small part to these communities showing people that they TOO can do this – that circle has widened. We’re not just trading guitar licks any more – we’re mixing genres, races, and generations.
Running a coffeehouse open mic North West of Baltimore in an area that the Washington Post had called out as being one of the most racially intolerant in the whole country and seeing how friends of all make and model developed through the common respect and language of music and spoken word – that’s some powerful stuff. It’s one of the things that made me realize just how important what we’re doing IS.
It’s a less-hippie equivalent of getting together and singing coombayah – and we’re all taking turns singing it.
Folk can be pretty exclusive – a lot of people think it IS still white guys with guitars - but a good open mic is INCLUSIVE – and as such, it’s a great place where a performer who perhaps has filtered their environment a fair amount can be introduced to something “other”. I don’t listen to a lot of pop-radio, but I get introduced to a lot of it through my open mics.
This past Monday it was Jay-Z on violin and a cover of a Jason Derulo song – the song talks up club gyrations and sex in Da Club - it was performed with looped percussion and a viola. You should’ve seen the dance.
I guarantee the 81 year-old ukulele player who came and performed “We Shall Overcome” and reminisced about protesting at all-white colleges half a century ago hasn’t even HEARD of Jay-Z, but he was grinning and tapping his foot with the rest. And I can probably guarantee that that little 20-something gay club kid had never chatted extensively with a guy who’d Lived through the Equal Rights Movement of the 60s – but as he’s looking at getting married, he’s really getting the pertinence of that experience right now.
Through little in-roads like that, whole cultures evolve.
The first open mic I ran sprang from a little coffeehouse. An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting regularly met in the back room and it was the hangout for the local high school and middle school kids. I challenge you to find two groups more diametrically opposed than middle-aged ex-drinkers and young teen suburbanites getting excited about their first party. But the AA members included a lot of musicians who thought their playing days were past them because you couldn’t play music without having a beer, right? And the kids had never played out before… slowly this community bonds. Mentors and students evolve. Advice was exchanged. They wrote songs together. Performed together. Learned from one another. I had one person tell me it changed their Life. That sounded familiar. I had another kid tell me it SAVED his Life.
An open mic is a great big unknown. But through it we are united by one of the broadest common desires there is – the desire to express ourselves – and anyone who joins one of these communities is further united by one of the most powerful social bonds there is – the desire to listen.
Sure - this is idealized – but what aspect of music and art isn’t? I’ve watched a man develop from being unable to talk to others because of his awkward, Asperger’s social difficulty, develop into someone who can hold a conversation – he sings me weird songs – and I mean he sings me REALLY weird songs - but he can talk about them now. I’ve watched 15 year-olds go from stringing their first song together to developing a career as a studio technician and composer. I’ve watched 50 year-olds get inspired and start writing again. I’ve watched barriers crumble. Where else is that happening? Really?
Every day we walk down the street. We get into our little boxes and we wheel ourselves in those boxes to bigger boxes. Most of us spend our time staring at smaller boxes – and when we get into feeling social, we launch a couple of search boxes and find ourselves carefully filtered circles and realities. We read news stories that agree with us. Facebook tells us who we’re connected to so we can chat with people that agree with us. And those people who agree with us share music so that we can listen to music that agrees with us.
And then you go to an open mic and the hard-core folky makes friends with the anime-inspired hip hop DJ.
Open mics are pretty amazing things. Go to a good one and you’ll still sit through some cringe-worthy performances – but in 10 minutes someone else takes the stage and something entirely different happens. As a professional I think it’s important to be encouraging the people who are just starting off. As a professional I owe everything to this scene. And as a professional I know there’s always something to trade or learn from other people on the scene – and at least once a night I’ll see someone who can knock my ego down a peg or two. And I assure you – my ego is huge.
They’re organized for many reasons – some are artistically noble, some are nefariously capitalistic, others are just there to fill in embarrassing open spaces on venue calendars.
I personally think they’re important. It helps a scene evolve, it helps an artist evolve, it helps a venue evolve – it’s the centre of a community – and over time that community evolves too. The host moves on, the best of the performers move on to paying gigs and the new blood moves in.
An open mic is integral to any local music scene. It’s a source of pride. I think the best of them are welcoming to people from all genres and skill levels. They’re encouraging to the newcomers and just intimidating enough to make you work hard. Pros walk in and realize there are some people they’d like to get to know, road warriors realize that here’s some people who know the local scene. Beginners can be inspired. Veterans can be reinvigorated by the new generation. Newbies see that there’s a lot to learn from their seniors – 20 years later I’m still learning guitar licks from people twice my age… and now from people half my age too.
A host learns about sound, an owner learns about artist egos… we all learn about ASCAP - artists learn about “the biz” and we all learn about parallel parking – and often as not eventually the whole thing dies and all the players disperse and move on – but just like any strong community – a lot of those relationships remain. Bonds are formed and we all evolve. We write new songs – and those songs become the next wave of folk whether we know it or not.
For all of those people who didn’t raise their hands when I’d asked if you’d gone to an open mic – I encourage you to do so. Mine are pretty awesome, but I don’t have a monopoly on them. There’s roughly a TRILLION of them in the DC metro area.
Go and check one out. I’ve got cards up at the front on which I’ve printed some information. My friend Paul Roub in Satellite Beach, Florida maintains an amazing database of open mics all across the country called openmikes.org and I’ve got his website on that card, along with some information about my favourites in the area. You can do this seven nights a week. I’d recommend you do not – you will become jaded… but hit one up on an off-night. You’ve got my personal guarantee that some of it will suck. But some of it will introduce you to something you never knew existed. Each one’s different. Don’t ask me about Tuesdays though. I never know what to do on a Tuesday.
Thank you very much – on with the list!