Folk singer-songwriter Michael Johnathon’s internationally syndicated WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour
In November 2006, a play debuted at Actors Guild in downtown Lexington. Not your typical drama, this production was acted from scripts hand-held by actors as they performed. Of the approximately 250 people in the audience, about one-third were high school students brought in for their reactions, which were positive.
That was all Michael Johnathon needed to see. As playwright of Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau, he realized the target audience for his first play would be community theaters and students all over the country. And they would see it at no charge, for the Lexington folk singer-songwriter—whose WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour has made his name a household word—already had sponsors on board.
Much like Henry David Thoreau during his two years at Walden Pond, Michael Johnathon lives close to nature. On two acres surrounded by 350 acres of meadows, streams, and woods, his 125-year-old Fayette County farmhouse helps provide a balance to a creatively busy life.
“I do a lot of school benefit projects,” explains Johnathon, who has a history of creating successful events that spread the word about his passions of traditional music and nature. “I wanted the Walden play to be done for the art. I didn’t want to sell the script.”
Even his wildly successful WoodSongs is totally volunteer-run, and musicians—even folk legend Odetta and bluegrass picker J.D. Crowe—play only for exposure.
“WoodSongs gives traditional musicians a stage to sing from and promotion all over the world,” says bluegrass musician Don Rigsby, director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.
“In a way,” says Fred Mills, longtime manager of the historic Kentucky Theatre, site of the broadcast, “WoodSongs is a Lexington version of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.”
Now in its ninth year of syndication, the weekly show began on one radio station and is now featured on 491 stations, XM Satellite Radio, Kentucky Educational Television, PBS stations nationwide, as well as the commercial BlueHighways TV, America’s first folk, bluegrass, and roots music television channel. Between June and December 2007, WoodSongs streamed 1.6 million shows online as MP3s and MP4s. And on September 15, they will broadcast their 500th show.
“Michael downplays his role in this,” says Lexingtonian Larry Steur, in his eighth year as a WoodSongs volunteer, “but because WoodSongs landed on XM, other folk radio stations across the country have been able to get on also.”
In 2006, WoodSongs garnered the Kentucky Broadcasters Association’s Stephen Foster Award for Broadcast Excellence, and Johnathon received the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum Kentucky Star Award.
Johnathon makes all this happen while running his own production company—PoetMan Records—recording and touring as a folk singer, and raising two children.
“Michael is a community promoter in the best sense of the word,” says David Lord, executive director of the Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau. “He has the passion and persistence and personality that get things done without excuses.”
Now, teachers need only to go to the Walden play Web site (see below) for complete information on how to present the Walden play in their hometown. Community theaters may participate as well. As of this past May, nearly 6,700 schools had signed on.
The play fills a new bill for environmental educators, notes Sean Miller, education director for the Earth Day Network (www.earthday.org) in Washington, D.C., where he works and helps administrate the Walden play into schools.
“Because it incorporates more of the arts and humanities, it gets students thinking about the environment in a new way. So many activities take place in the science classroom and deal with waste or water or air quality. This play looks at an environmentalist and his life and how people talked about the environment years ago. That can translate into a strong message about the earth today.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network and American Forests, Earth Care Canada, and Kentucky Earth Day agreed. Now these organizations present the play to schools. Giant pencil manufacturer Dixon-Ticonderoga, the play’s original financial underwriter, came on board when Johnathon pointed out to them that Thoreau had been a pencil maker.
“Frankly,” says Johnathon, “this looks like an evergreen project, because once teachers have the play, they can use it forever.”
Through the years, Thoreau’s words have resonated for the busy musician. His 1992 album Dreams of Fire included the song Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau. And every song on his 2006 release, Evening Song, was inspired by the Thoreau quote on the brilliance of the evening, which appears on the Evening Song page on the WoodSongs Web site.
The seed that birthed the play was sown in November 2005, when Johnathon took his children—MichaelB, now 9, and Rachel Aubrey, now 16—to see a Lexington Actors Guild production about Vincent van Gogh. Two things about the performance impressed him. It depicted the artist’s life before he became famous. And Johnathon’s kids were mesmerized.
“They are of the ultimate fast-media overload generation,” says Johnathon. “The play slowed them down into a real-life zone that was so new to them that my 7-year-old sat on the edge of his seat for two hours and did not want to leave.”
Inspired, Michael decided he’d write about Thoreau, and on a cross-country flight, the play began to emerge. By March 2006, Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau was finished. Having learned from educators that most kids knew the name of Thoreau but not who he was or what he wrote, Johnathon decided to offer the play to schools for an Earth Day tie-in. The day itself is always April 22, with the week prior or following designated as Earth Week.
“Earth Day is an international celebration to raise awareness of the environment,” explains Elizabeth Robb, environmental education specialist for Kentucky’s Division for Air Quality. “Michael’s play is a great fit. Thoreau’s Walden is not easy reading and the play simplifies his thoughts.”
When Johnathon was growing up in upstate New York, Thoreau was his literary hero. “I’ve always loved nature,” he says. “His words resonated.”
Legendary folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was a Hudson Valley neighbor. While doing a stint as a radio DJ at 19 in Laredo, Texas, Johnathon was playing Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds at three in the morning and noticed the song was written by Seeger. Suddenly, he knew he wanted to be a folk singer, moved to Kentucky’s Appalachians for a few years, and collected folk songs door-to-door with his guitar and banjo throughout the hollers.
When he felt ready, Johnathon began performing free Earth Concerts—backed by the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and sponsored by Pepsi—in public schools across the state, singing his songs about “earth, nature, tradition, and history.” Then 27 other states came on board, and in three years, 2.5 million kids saw his 40-minute show.
For the past 15 years, his volunteer-run Troubadour Concert Series has brought musicians as diverse as Joan Baez, Bruce Hornsby, the Indigo Girls, and Riders in the Sky to Lexington and Ashland. This past spring, PoetMan Records released Walden: The Earth Song Collection, Johnathon’s latest album, the proceeds of which will help the play project continue into 2009.
“Michael does a lot of things,” says Rigsby, “but he doesn’t talk about them all the time, because he doesn’t need to talk about himself to be fulfilled. He’s a self-promoter only to the point that he has to be to be successful.”
Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Not Michael Johnathon. He doesn’t have the time.
WALDEN PLAY, THE SYNOPSIS
The setting: The cabin at Walden Pond where Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days in 1847 writing his thoughts about man and nature.
The time: Thoreau’s last two days in the cabin, as he reviewed his writings and reasons for being there.
The characters: Thoreau; his mentor, essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; laborer Joshua Barnett, who represents the common man; and pretty Rachel Stuers, who injects a feminist viewpoint.
MORE ABOUT WALDEN, THE PLAY
Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau is easy to find out about, whether you’re a teacher, student, theater director, or an environmentally conscious soul.
Go online for the downloadable 55-page Walden script; a three-page downloadable project description; instructions on downloading the teachers’ play and lesson plan; promo tips and personalized posters, handbills, and theater programs; play directors’ notes, characters, actors, and stage set; and Walden General Store with logo baseball caps, t-shirts, CDs, and play script.
For more information, call (859) 255-5700 or e-mail below.
When writing, be sure to include your city and state. Contact the program directors and Michael Johnathon here.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WOODSONGS‘ MUSICIANS AND VOLUNTEERS
To learn more about WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour’s volunteers and musicians who head to Lexington’s historic Kentucky Theatre each Monday night for the live-audience broadcast, go to WoodSongs