FRONT PORCH: Making your own Homestead Music Coffeehouse

Reader Contribution by Michael Johnathon
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I love performing.

I love the magic of singing to an audience and watching their response. It doesn’t matter if it’s a theater, a coffeehouse, a living room concert or a front porch. It is a wonderful moment and I crave it. It is akin to picking flowers and handing them to your lover and basking in her response. Music, in its most organic form, is one of the greatest gifts and, in turn, rewards in human life.

Music is also the ultimate do-it-yourself occupation. Most every artist is self-employed and, these days, even run their own little record labels. Since the last of the music store chains died, performing is really the only way artists have to present their music to new audiences. The days of getting signed to a record company, releasing an album, getting it played on radio and followed by a big concert tour are over.

Heck, even records are gone from our lives. I mean, five years ago, could anyone have guessed that one of the biggest retailers of CDs in America would end up being … drum roll, please … the Cracker Barrel Restaurant chain?

For decades, readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS have been encouraged to build, create, grow and discover.Folks are nurtured to use what they read on the pages and put it into real, three-Dimensional action in their own homesteads.

In other words: don’t just read about a garden … turn off the TV, go outside and plant the ding-dang thing.

I like that … what a great principle live on.Folks waste so much time dreaming about things they want to do. They think about it too much and before you know it, that clock ticks and the time to have accomplished it is gone. There is only so much young in the bank … it gets spent with or without our participation.

So, focusing on reality is important, spending precious moments on true action is critical. It applies to life in general, but most especially to music and art.

Reality in life is everything. Here’s what I mean:

There is a huge difference between seeing a real Van Gogh painting in a museum verses seeing it on a computer screen. Online it sure looks beautiful … but in person you stand in the spiritual presence of the artist himself, your eyes watch the direction of each brush stroke, your emotions ride every joy and pain the artist felt as he selected his colors. Seeing a Van Gogh in person is overwhelming because you are physically experiencing the life force and spirit of the artist himself.

It’s the same with music. Sure, you can hear the song in your iPod earbuds and be excited and moved by the music, but watching the artist onstage you can be transported by the sheer emotion of the performance and by the crowd.

It’s two dimensions versus three … the great artistic war of the new century.

Years ago, life was simpler and all art was three-dimensional. The musical arts thrived in a three-dimensional world of small stages and clubs and courtyards, front porches and living rooms. Music captured all of your senses and immersed you in the baptism of another artist’s life and spirit. It wasn’t reproduced, it was experienced.

This changed with the advent of two amazing inventions: the photograph and the record player. Let me repeat: they are wonderful. But only when they are kept in their proper place.

The photograph, which morphed into television, computer screens and iPads, captured a three-dimensional soul … whether a person, a mountain or a flower in a vase … and relegated it down into the two-dimensional world. In perfect form, this would inspire others to go out and experience the mountain, meet the person and smell the fragrance of that beautiful flower.

The same with records and radio. The music was captured on vinyl discs and relegated down into the two-dimensional electronic world. In perfect form, the record and the radio broadcast would motivate the audience to learn that song or go see that artist in person.

Used to be …… but not any more.

Once the music business figgered out how to capture vibrating air and sell it, the “star” system was born, designed to remove art from you by selling folks on the insane idea that only the “star” is truly qualified to play music, relegating you down to a two-dimensional participant. Your role is to buy the record. The aim was to take music off your front porch and put it into stereo speakers instead. The further the music industry can push you away from your own music, the better customer you trained to be.

We are living among the first generation in human history who experience art and music primarily as a two-dimensional experience.

And that’s a shame.

People today don’t play their own music with their families and friends. They hear music in cheap $9 earbuds, computer speakers, iPods, iPhones, iPads, computer screens, TV and car stereos. It has become a very rare thing for kids and families to actually see music performed in person.

Today fans are emailed an MP3 of a song, they Google the artists, YouTube a sample, download the album from iTunes … and they’re done. Never even saw the band live.

That’s why so many performance clubs and theaters are shutting down. America is becoming venue-starved because so many have surrendered to the two-dimensional world. The opportunity to experience three-dimensional art is becoming harder to find. Two-dimensional art saturates people with an endless bombardment of mundane artist efforts, making the public numb to even the idea of art.

In a perfect world, two-dimensional media can inspire three-dimensional action. Pete Seeger comes to mind. Pete used the two-dimensional media and released his records, went on TV when he could, got played on radio … all in an effort to get the three-dimensional world, his audience, singing. And it worked.

The finest, truest role of the two-dimensional media is to get real people involved with real art.

I try to do that on WoodSongs. The multi-media platforms (Radio/TV/Internet) are powerful, effective and wonderful. Public radio and public television especially remain the bastions of creative thinking, art and conversation. I believe radio, TV and the internet can be motivating tools used to inspire the audience to participate and create.

But not replace.

At the end of every WoodSongs broadcast I try to encourage the audience to use what they just heard as inspiration to play their own music. I’ve put this into action with a project called the WoodSongs Coffeehouse.

We ask the audience to consider using their homes, a barn, a local school basement or existing coffeehouse or club and, once a month or whenever suits them best, host a concert. Most WoodSongs Coffeehouses are simple gatherings and most often happen in a host’s living room. They invite 15 or 20 friends for music and a potluck dinner and pass the hat for the artist. You would be amazed at the caliber of musicians on tour out there who would bend over backwards to get the gig.

I even wrote a WoodSongs Coffeehouse how-to manual (free to anyone, go to, hit the “coffeehouse” button and download the PDF.) Yep, you can start a music coffeehouse in your own backyard and WoodSongs will help you do it. Again, for free. There are nearly 100 hometown WoodSongs Coffeehouses operating across north America. 

I invite you to use WoodSongs as a wellspring of inspiration to play your own song, start a hometown coffeehouse, sing to your children, make music withyour friends. I invite you to baptize your heart in the magnificent ocean of three-dimensional music.

Our goal is to turn every homestead into a wonderful paradise of art. Just go to and click on the Coffeehouse button.

That what this series of articles are for. We want to take the inspiration of the music around us, take it away from the so-called “stars” and bring it back to the one true, grand, global stage where it really belongs:

Your living room couch. 

Folk on,

Michael Johnathon

folksinger, tree hugger, log cabin dweller


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