In the midst of this tumultuous time in American history, it seems everyone has a different idea of what the country needs in order to regain stability––windmills, tax breaks, tolerance, faith, among other things. Even on a long list, Michael Johnathon’s suggestion is unique: front porches. And a couple of banjos in skilled hands wouldn’t hurt either.
That’s the message that Johnathon, who will come to Cambridge on March 18 as part of the Coffee House series, shares each week on his folk-centric radio show, “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.”
Johnathon contends the American front porch, and more importantly the sense of community engendered by evenings spent entertaining guests, greeting neighbors and playing good old folk music on them, is the key to binding the nation together on a molecular level.
Johnathon wasn’t always a folkie. As a young boy in upstate New York he would often make fun of his banjo-playing neighbor, and in high school Johnathon was aghast to find out his neighbor was the featured entertainment of a musical field trip.
“We were ready to chew him up and spit him into to Hudson River as fish food,” Johnathon recalled.
But standing on a rickety outdoor stage without amplifiers, drums or backups, the aging musician and his guitar dazzled his audience.
“In less than two minutes I watched this man get 2,000 teenagers singing,” he said.
As it turns out, the mesmerizing musical neighbor was folk legend Pete Seeger. A few years later when Johnathon was working at a radio station in New Mexico, he would again be impacted by Seeger, this time listening to a recording of his song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” performed by the Byrds. By the end of the track, Johnathon had decided to become a folksinger.
Without a school dedicated to folk music, Johnathon headed to rural Kentucky to study the art at its roots. It was there he was instilled with the value of community, as he played in hundreds of hootenannies on front porches all over the region, each time picking up new songs, tips and techniques.
After three years of finding the music, Johnathon began finding new ways to share it. He started out playing at schools and increased to larger venues. One night, driving through Iowa between shows, Johnathon’s radio picked up a distinctly folksy Minnesotan program. As he listened to Garrison Keillor and the rest of the performers on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Johnathon was inspired to try his own hand at radio.
In 1999 the first episode of WoodSongs was recorded by Johnathon and a group of fellow volunteers in a small studio behind a cafe in Lexington, Ky., and delivered on cassette to a college radio station. Today the show, which Johnathon describes as a “musical front porch,” is carried nationwide by 504 radio stations and PBS, and watched worldwide by 125,000 people each week online. It still performed and produced on a volunteer basis.
Johnathon is still picking up new things as he finds them. Two years ago he wrote his first play, which focused on his hero Henry David Thoreau. To date the play has been performed in 7,600 schools and 42 countries. Now Johnathon is at work on his first opera, to be finished in time for what would be Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.
His performance on Friday will be at 7:30 p.m. in the Heritage Center at the Isanti County Historical Society in Cambridge. For ticket information call Cambridge-Isanti Community Education at 763-689-6189 or order online through http://www.cambridge.k12.mn.us/~comm-ed/
Johnathon invites the community to a family friendly performance of what he describes as the “most elegant, passionate, simple, beautiful, devastatingly complex art form in the world.”