Contemporary Folk Week Classes – July 28-Aug. 3, 2024



Stories help us understand and process the world we live in. A story set to music possesses an added power to penetrate hearts and minds. In this class for all levels we will work on honing the craft of telling a story though song. Whether you seek to write a modern-day folk-hero classic, magnify a fragment of forgotten history, paint a picture of your hometown, or immortalize a series of events from your family history or your own life, this class will give you the tools to craft something memorable and meaningful.

DISTILLATION (Nora Jane Struthers)
As writers, we all attempt to find and convey truths. When we sit down to work on a song, the first question we should ask ourselves is “What am I trying to say?” The second question is “How can I best say it?” In this class we will work first on distilling our intentions down to their essence and then on our delivery of those intentions, through lyrics, melody, and performance. Bring a song or a piece of a song that you feel has promise but lacks focus. We will create a safe space to generate, hone, and share our work together.

The Sound of the Feeling. My favorite place to be is in the middle of a song. I hope this class will find us all in the middle of a new one. Our purpose will be to write new songs and to complete promising, unfinished pieces. The first day I will talk a little bit about what has worked for me as a performing songwriter. Then we will quickly shift the focus to the individual students’ areas of interest or concern. There is no one right way to write a song. I hope to address various approaches to beginning and completing songs be they lyric- or music-driven and create a positive atmosphere where writing a song is not only possible but inevitable. This year I would also like to add some ideas about how to spice up your chord progressions which can open new places for your melodies to go. Both experienced and novice songwriters are welcome!

This course will focus on songwriting as well as presenting your songs in a live setting. We will spend some time working on writing new songs and the craft of songwriting, based on your interests and questions. Then we will focus on ways to connect with an audience: ways to introduce a song, how to pace a set, when a song needs no introduction, considerations when you are an opening act, sound system advice and mic technique. You can benefit from my experience and my many, many mistakes to find ways of telling your story, presenting yourself and your songs. If you have them, please bring printed lyric sheets along to the session. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach as a song coach but I will adapt to the individual needs and interests of the attending songwriters.

A SIMPLE SONG (Tyler Ramsey)
Some of my favorite songs and styles of music are so beautifully simple: modal jazz tunes that dance over the most basic bed of chords; trance-inducing Classical Indian music moving around a single drone; old country blues and folk tunes that weave emotion from three chords on a guitar and a simple vocal melody. Music doesn’t need to be complicated. A mood can be established with a single tone. We’ll talk about the moods we can convey in music and the way that music can magnify our emotions when we recognize how powerful it really is. I will walk through one of my simple songs and try to rebuild the process I went through to write it. I will also bring in some pawn shop gadgets that I often use as tools in my studio. I am looking forward to spending this class with fellow creative folks and hoping we all walk away with some inspiration!

A song begins with that first glowing idea that we either stumble across, or track down with determination and skill. From there our own process, or lack of process, will build the bed for the spark to grow. I love to discuss this part of songwriting – where we go for ideas, when do you know you have an idea that you will see through, and what is your intention? What motivates us to spend our time in this particular creative process? Will this spark build a fire in your woodstove to warm your house and your loved ones, or are you wanting a huge bonfire outside to gather people together? Ok- enough with the fire metaphors- I am excited to have the opportunity to spend time with some of you and be in a creative space together!

It’s a beautiful moment when a wave of inspiration hits you. However, if you’re like most of us, it can be a long time between those moments. Fortunately, the Muse is kind to those who are busy at work! Inspiration never travels without the companion of craftsmanship, and we’re going to use the whole toolbox: hard and soft rhymes, cadences and chord changes, cut & paste, puns and juxtapositions. In the process we’ll conquer three challenges during the week: assignment writing, writing lyrics without an instrument, and putting music to a co-writer’s lyrics. Come explore how creativity can blossom from boundaries.

Tired of writing yourself into a corner? How often have you found yourself up against the wall of writer’s block? Have no fear, there’s always a way through, and we’re gonna find it together. In the process, you’ll acquire some tools that can help you overcome future writer’s block. Bring a problem song, 16 copies of the lyrics, and together we’ll tame that sucker!

In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign…[they are] the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement.” But, in a world where justice and equity have somehow become synonymous with ‘being too political,’ are hope and empowerment enough? How do we use music to not only call out, but to also call in?

When it comes to songwriting, the music can be good, but the thing that makes the lyrics great is their ability to be relatable. That’s as true for social justice music as it is for songs about love and life. Learn some best practices for how to make the personal universal.

WRITING MELODIES (Cliff Eberhardt)
We’ll start with a brief history of melodic writing and then show how to incorporate a melodic vocabulary into your songs, including what to look for to get out of melodic repetition. Bring in songs that are incomplete or songs that you feel need improvement, not songs that you are married to or have already recorded. You’ll be asked to start with just a verse and a chorus to work on, no complete songs until later in the week. We’ll talk about how to insert different chords and use different intervals of your existing songs to improve your melodies, how to make the songs have more memorable melodies, and how to insert intros, bridges and endings. By the end of the week we will try to reconstruct your work into a complete, beautiful song. Usually during the week most students start to get it and add their own suggestions. That’s when I get to take cat naps. The point is, I’ve never taught this class where the students didn’t have a great time.

When you are preforming with a guitar, your guitar is your whole band, your orchestra and your rhythm section. Every song needs an arrangement to accompany the song. You can be a beginner or an advanced player, there will be something for everyone. We will explore different rhythms, bass lines and simple lead parts.

The source of our best songs is often a subtle stirring in our deep heart. In this class we will practice asking a few simple questions that will help us hear what our hearts are trying to say. We will start with whatever you bring – be it words or melody or a story, and we will follow the emotion to understand what the song can become. Our skill and cleverness as writers may be useful, but songs usually turn out better if our cleverness is in service to the truth behind the song.

SIMPLE SKILLS (David Wilcox)
I still love practicing the simple skills that make up the craft of songwriting. When we do them together, we can make them fun. It’s a confidence builder to remember that our complex craft is made up of simple skills that can be practiced one at a time. For example, we will all take 15 minutes to write our own little melody to two lines of lyrics on a blackboard, and then we will all be welcome to share and talk about how we did it. What clues did the words give us? How did we discern the rhythm? All the different possibilities open our imaginations. Then, for the next exercise, I give everyone the same short piece of melody on your phone and we each take 15 minutes to write words that fit it. The rise and fall of the melody determines what syllables are accented, so it’s really just a word puzzle. We don’t feel self-conscious because this isn’t a song, it’s just a game of finding words that have a particular pattern of accent and rhythm. You could start with some nonsense combinations of words. There are no wrong answers. The momentum and freedom we feel from simple exercises gives us confidence to be more playful with our writing.

(NOTE: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material)
I’ve always thought that a great song is like peering into a snow globe. You look through the glass at someone’s three dimensional world. You’re pulled into the imagery and story by the narrator, and then the real world disappears around you and pop! There you are! Inside the snow globe! You’re walking down the actual street of a Dylan song, but you’ve exchanged the details he had written with the characters, the places, the experiences of your own life and imagination. In this magical way, a listener can co-create the scene with their own autobiography by rewriting details provided by the songwriter with images from their own life. It’s a jumble of their ideas and yours, which makes the entire experience even more personal. This is why people say, “That’s my song”, because the music told their life story so vividly that they claim ownership of it. How do we pull people in like that? How do you engage them to the point that the outside world disappears? What makes a song believable? Moving? We will start with the birth of great ideas, and walk through the editing process, with tools of the trade that will trigger listeners’ imagination into the snow globe of your song.



(Note: This class is offered twice. Each section covers the same material.)
Genuine honest singing, from the heart, has the power to captivate listeners and leave them wanting more. This course will help you to increase the believability of your voice, to have a greater impact on your audience. The very best performances are ones that move a listener emotionally. In this class, we’ll explore a wide variety of things that will allow you to achieve greater authenticity in your vocals, including deeply inhabiting your material, creating a strong connection to your audience, and clearly enunciating your lyrics, so that you are fully understood. We’ll also look at how intentional variety in phrasing, and intentional variety in volume (dynamics) can increase the power of your delivery. We’ll take a deep dive into the concept of stage fright and how to overcome it, in order to sing your very best. We’ll look at what gets in the way of delivering your best performance, and how to remove those barriers, allowing your voice to shine. We’ll get creative with our vocals, purposely altering melodies to add sparkle and interest. And of course we’ll hit on important concepts like the power of regular practice, and the critical importance of health. I’ll sing for you to illustrate skills and concepts, and we’ll also listen to some inspiring examples of authentic believable singing by my musical heroes. Please come prepared to sing a song for us! This class will be experiential, allowing you to try out new things right in class, and learn from other students as they try out new things. The environment will be warm and supportive, judgement-free, and focused on improvement and growth. Please bring water, your favorite notebook, and your favorite pen/pencil. If you play guitar or another instrument, do bring it, along with any needed gear (tuner, capo, picks, etc.). You’ll leave this class a better singer than when you started!

Low pressure, high pleasure community singing! Elise teaches in a style so easy that, before you know it, the room is in perfect harmony. Drawing from her love of diverse melodies and rhythms, Elise may introduce a Brazilian samba, an Italian round, 4-part harmonies from Zimbabwe, and of course songs in English, including songs from the African American tradition, quirky rounds, food songs, Bobby McFerrin-style circle songs, and Elise originals. We’ll explore the far reaches of our vocal color palettes.Singers of all abilities, styles, and experience are welcome. No music reading required.

Discover, explore, and expand your natural voice. Explore fresh, physical ways into songwriting while at the same time strengthening your confidence, clarity and presence. We’ll include body and voice integration, calling in elements of Qigong, Alexander Technique, and Vocal Improvisation to focus on breath and creativity. We’ll learn songs that explore the wild and vast expressions of harmony. All songs are broken down into easily learnable parts and become thrilling to sing in a group. Even shy singers, in no time, find themselves part of a harmonious community and find new inspiration for their own songwriting.




The inner workings of performing can be tempestuous. You invite so many voices into your own head when you make the decision to step to the front of the room and ask for everyone’s best attention. It’s one of the most stressful situations in life. Finding that original joy, the thing that made you fall in love with music and song can be elusive. Getting everything else out of the way can be incredibly difficult. And that can apply to the most experienced performers. This class will invite you to perform many times and get to the root of what is standing in your way. It will help you with your choices; with focus, intimacy, confidence, and ultimately, joy.

As a songwriter and performer, you are asking to be handed the sorcerer’s wand. You have the power to take the audience on a journey – one of your choosing, but with their permission. This dynamic is what makes every performance unique. It calls upon every talent and skill you have. It asks for a unique awareness of yourself, and what is going on around you – even as you’re running on all cylinders internally. A Native American definition of power is ‘what works’. Discovering what works for you and how that moves audiences is a lifelong adventure, but it starts with your intention. This class will help you be clear with who you are and help you bring that to the stage. Then the wand will be in your hands.

Vance’s dicta is that songwriting and performance are inextricable entities, so his classes will focus more on one or the other aspect, depending on individual need. All of this is done in a supportive atmosphere as if it were an ‘instructive open mike,’ – Vance working with one student as the others watch. Then it’s YOUR turn! In these practical classes Vance gets ‘under the hood’ of what you do and want to do in a supportive and very entertaining way. This stage/song boot camp is a class you don’t want to miss.

ADVANCED VANCE (Vance Gilbert)
This offering is for any of you ‘graduates’ who want to go further in performance and songwriting with one of the best. Got the basics? Then here’s an opportunity to dig into the performance/songwriting connection a little bit deeper. Patter, pacing, and constructing a set, are among the advanced performance points you can review in this class. It’s a great opportunity to tweak and hone skills previously acquired in a ‘Vance’ class, or heck, sure, if you missed the first one, c’mon in – there’s plenty for you to do here too.



Guitar & Creativity

Explore the value of twisting, tweaking, building up and stripping down content and how it enhances and flexes intention in musical stories. Mix & match musical styles to a composition. See how packaging changes the way we connect to the content of a song or tune – yours or other people’s. Bring material you’d like to explore. Joe will provide song examples as well. We’ll all be surprised at the results. From detailing with tiny paint brushes to bold strokes with a paint roller – with or without a drop-cloth – it’s all about fearless possibility in creativity. Re-framing words, rhythms and melodies reminds us of the long, historical love affair between tradition and innovation. Everyone has a place and space to create anew from the old, the borrowed and the blue. Let’s liberate ourselves from the tyranny of common sense while exploring our Home on the (Free) Range of Contemporary Folk.

Join us for an e-ticket ride upon the pursuit of possibility. You’ll be asked to write a series of poems to share throughout the week with only 5 minutes to construct each one. You won’t be able to prepare for what will happen, so just get ready to have fun and be surprised and impressed with your and your friends’ ideas created under pressure. ‘Song-etry’ connects something that just about everyone has already done (writing poems) to the newer art of writing songs. Joe will guide you with the approach of story first and then the music to serve the written word. This class is geared towards entry level songwriting, but anyone can benefit from the process. Bring a spiral ring notebook, a pen or pencil, and (importantly) a recording device. Bring an instrument too if you want, although it’s not required.