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The College Magazine - Summer 2008
THE KID WHO RAN AWAY WITH THE CIRCUS
Buddy Mondlock (A82)
Writing songs and performing are "inseparable" for Buddy Mondlock (A82),
who has recorded albums with legends including Art Garfunkle
If you listen to legendary folksingers—particularly Peter, Paul & Mary and Art Garfunkel—you may have been caught in the net of a spellbinding song called "The Kid," a contemporary classic written by Buddy Mondlock (A82)
I'm the kid who ran away with the circus
Now I'm watering elephants
If you were on the Annapolis campus in 1978 or 1979, Mondlock might have been sitting next to you in freshman or sophomore seminar. You couldn't have missed the long-haired, blue-eyed, soft-spoken Mondlock playing guitar on the Quad, but even he couldn't have imagined then the success he would later find as a musician and songwriter.
Alumni who made it back to Annapolis for Homecoming in 2007 were treated to a concert of original music by Mondlock—poetic, punch-packing songs relieved by humor as gentle as his voice. Introducing his fifth album, The Edge of the World—winner of the Indie Acoustic Project's Best Album in 2007 by a male singer-songwriter—Mondlock sang in the Great Hall about skin, mud, and the breakup of a marriage, ending with the affirming "I Count You My Friend."
Mondlock's music features dramatic lyrics, entrancing melodies, and intricate guitar. "The Cats of the Colosseum" is hypnotic, with Roman cats "older than the ruins." A sprightly dance down "Magnolia Street" transforms "a funk/Going 'round and 'round with thoughts you already thunk." Mysterious "New Jersey Sunset" evokes uneasy flashes of "The Sopranos."
He first recorded his signature song, "The Kid," in 1987 on his debut album, On the Line. David Wilcox gave it further exposure on his 1989 album. After Mondlock recorded it again on his self-titled 1994 album, Peter, Paul & Mary included it on their 1995 Lifelines album and then invited Mondlock to sing it with them in their 1996 TV special. It won the 1996 Kerrville Music Award for Song of the Year. Seeing it "headed for the canon of folksongs," Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams chose it for their 1998 Cry Cry Cry album. Mondlock recorded it again with Art Garfunkel in 2002.
Mondlock admits that he's "the kid" whose circus is "this life as a folksinger/songwriter/troubadour. It's a romantic notion to be traveling around as a professional musician, but in real life it has its ups and downs." Is it scary without a net? He laughs. "It wasn't scary when I was younger. It's scarier now! It's been a mostly happy and rewarding life so far. Even though 'The Kid' has never been a big radio hit, people in the folk world have run across it, which means a lot to me."
Growing up in Park Forest, Illinois, Mondlock heard about St. John's College from a neighbor. "The history of Western thought seemed so fascinating," he says. "Part of my goal in going to college was to figure out what I wanted to do in my life. St. John's seemed like a natural place to start."
Bonding with fellow Febbies, he was "into everything going on in my freshman year, Aristotle and Homer and all that really chewy stuff." As a sophomore, he found the Romans and Aquinas "a lot dryer" than the Greeks, so he spent more time with his guitar. He had been playing since he was 10 years old, when he wrote his first song. After listening to Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles and harmonizing with his sisters on Crosby, Stills, & Nash songs, songwriting seriously snagged him at 16.
Back home for the summer of 1979, Mondlock was encouraged by his musician cousin Ray to play open stages at a folk club, the Earl of Old Town in Chicago. Instead of returning to St. John's, he "jumped into the music with both feet."
When he was 21, Mondlock opened a New Year's Eve show for folk icon Steve Goodman. "Steve was a big influence on my style and one of the best performers I've ever seen. He had this impish light dancing in his eyes; he could totally captivate an audience. Getting to open for him at such an early stage in my career was a real validation." Mondlock's own "No Choice " appears in the CD of songs inspired by Goodman that accompanies the recent biography, Steve Goodman: Facing the Music by Clay Eals.
"No Choice" also launched Mondlock's career. Influential songwriter Guy Clark, who hosted the open stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, reports: "This kid in a bathing suit walked up and played 'No Choice' to an audience of 30 to 40 people. By the time he got to the second verse, he had 200 people singing along with him. He blew me away! "
"Guy walked straight over to me afterward, "says Mondlock, "and asked for a tape of the song. I gave him the tape and didn't expect anything more. A couple weeks later, I got this phone message: 'This is Guy Clark and I like the songs. We'll see if we can get you into the music business.' I'm doing back flips in the kitchen! "
Clark's recommendation "couldn't have been a better calling card, " says Mondlock. "Guy Clark says listen and people listen. " Among those who heard was Bob Doyle from ASCAP, a performing rights organization. "Bob invited me to stay in his spare room in Nashville, and I thought, wow, I'm off!"
Mondlock won Kerrville's 1987 New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters and released his first album. As a Nashville staff writer, he received "a draw every month, just enough to live on without having to work at 7-11. It was an advance against royalties I might make." Collaborating with other songwriters, "you make appointments and get out your notebooks and trade ideas back and forth. "One collaborator was "a fellow from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks. We wrote several songs together." When Brooks became a country mega-star, he recorded one of those songs, "Every Now and Then," on his 1992 album, The Chase, which sold about eight million copies. Mondlock's share of royalties amounted to "what a good dentist would make over a couple years."
When Mondlock played at Nashville's Bluebird Café, Janis Ian turned up in the front row; they ended up writing songs together. "I brought Janis this raw stuff from sitting up in one of the writer's rooms at EMI, looking out the window writing down images: 'Just the pattern of sunlight on a building, just a flash in a window I was passing.'"
Wondering where this haunted story was taking place, "we kicked names around: Cincinnati, Schenectady. One of us said Amsterdam." His images became the first verse of "Amsterdam, " which appears on the Buddy Mondlock album and Ian's album, Billie's Bones. Ian played "Amsterdam " for her friend Joan Baez, who promptly recorded it herself.
Mondlock's most intensive collaboration began in 1999 when producer Billy Mann invited him to make an album with Art Garfunkel and Maia Sharp. "The chance to work with Art was pretty exciting," says Mondlock. "We were both a little intimidated because the songwriting process was new territory for Art." Mondlock found the germ of their first song, "Perfect Moment, " in a poem in Garfunkel's book, Stillwater. The album, Everything Waits to Be Noticed, features Garfunkel, Mondlock, and Sharp performing songs written together and with others. Mondlock's and Garfunkel's high tenor voices sing in unison for a double-tracked effect; Sharp's harmonies weave around them. After the album was released in 2002, the trio toured 25 U.S. cities followed by a month in Europe, including a thrilling appearance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Mondlock drives all over the country—and Europe—performing in folk clubs, house concerts, and festivals. He also presents songwriting workshops. "Writing a song is like writing a short story or character study. My songwriting workshops reflect what we were doing at St. John's seminar: asking questions and not taking things for granted; looking deep into the words that are appearing in front of us; thinking things through logically and then emotionally; and looking at art in all the ways that it can impact us."
In Mondlock's musical epics, Johnnies will discover an evolutionary song as well as cameos by Newton and Einstein.
How does the writer in Mondlock interact with the performer? "Before I was writing songs," he says, "I was playing music and loving it. But then the writing became such an important part of my art. To me, they're inseparable. To write a song is to want to sing it, too."
For more on Buddy Mondlock, visit: www.buddymondlock.com.
By Cathi Dunn MacRae