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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bob Bovee: One More Song to Sing

One More Song to Sing
By Deb Gray Photos by Frank Varga
The Lincoln (NE) Star - April 14, 1977

When I'm gone
They'll talk about my singin` when I'm gone
I'll be in Heaven with my golden guitar ringing
Where there's a crowd on every corner
And a hat that's always full.

"Streetsingers Heaven," 
By Bob Bovee and Stevie Beck
Click HERE to listen to Andy Cohen's version

Hallelujah! What a glorious hereafter, one that only performers such as Bob Bovee could envision: a league of angels emptying themselves of cash, just to hear him sing one more chorus. But before eternity pays its dividends, there is still one more show, another string of one-night stands. God only knows where they will be these future nights of singing to yet another crop of faces, to expressions lost in winey grandeur. Bob Bovee recently performed at the Gas Light Theater.

Bovee, 31, was once a resident of Bellevue, Nebraska. He now calls Minneapolis home.

But his heart is buried in asphalt, in the stuff that takes him to one more bar, so he can strum his guitar, play his harmonica, sing the old songs.

As a youth, Bovee trained for a life of safety. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He once had what those who hate off ice-bound limits call a "day job."

But Bovee left this behind six years ago. He quit his job and took to the road, a Huck Finn, traveling concrete rivers. his ear tuned to the murmur of an America that is dying, but not yet dead.

He says that his music is "tradition-oriented.” He sings the tunes that were passed down from parent to child, generation to generation.

The values he sings about are important ones, he argues, “because they are being completely ignored by our youth.” His music is social commentary, a way to pass on messages he can't say any other way. He sings of justice, of being free. But, mostly he sings songs he feels are jeopardized by mass culture: songs such as "Old Joe Clark."

Bovee says he is an anarchist. "I feel government doesn't do much of anybody any good.” He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a union better known as the IWW, or Wobblies, the singingest union America ever had. The union, Bovee asserts, believes the fruits of production should go to the people who produce it."

Bovee claims he grew up in a family with no good musicians, but lots of music-makers. His family filled him with the love of music and "the knowledge that I could make it myself." His grandparents played the old tunes, sang the old ballads, and, when he was 18, Bovee started playing them too. He first played banjo, something he “never did get very good at." After banjo, he took up the autoharp. Then he learned to play harmonica. Then he learned how to play guitar licks by first playing them on the harmonica.

Bovee once had a bout with ambition He wanted to be a veterinarian. That, he tells you, was an illusion-crumbling experience. He wanted to help animals; most of the others wanted a way to make money. He switched camps, this time to history. He graduated from UNL in 1969 and found a day job. He saved his motley, and in 1970, he took off for Europe. He hung around coffeehouses, kicked around in Europe's folk underground, meeting other assorted wayfarers. In those coffeehouses, he met his destiny. He returned to the states and worked in Portland for a few months. Then, in 1971, he took his songs to the road, and that is what he has been doing since. He travels for about three-fourths of the year, seeing the U.S.A. in his Volkswagen van. Yeah, sometimes, he admits, the traveling does get him down. He often thinks about his girlfriend back in Minneapolis. 

“Sometimes,” he chortled, “I wish I could be like an amoeba and split myself up.”

He pays his bills from the money he takes in at gigs, from the contents of hats passed around at the door. It isn't a life of certain security, but, then again, Bovee isn't all that concerned about money. It's like oxygen, you need some of it to survive. Bovee considers himself a free person, free because he isn't bridled by possessions. Too many people, he said, are interested in going home, switching on the tube, buying his and her snowmobiles, or whatever the newest gadget is these days in the Jones one-upmanship racket.

Bovee considers himself musically, a traditionalist. Some of the best music he has heard has been made in people's living rooms. That's when the spirit triumphs, when the love of music means more than wrong notes or out-of-tune singing. Bovee admits he is not a technical singer. Virtuosity is not his bag.

"I've heard a lot of other singers," Bovee charged. They may be virtuosos, but they are nothing really special. It's all from the head, not from the heart. It's not magical unless it comes from the heart." Bovee decries the hucksterism of the music business. He and 10 other musical acts in Minneapolis banded together in 1972 to form the June Apple Musicians' Co-op. The co-op books and manages members as ''an alternative to the hard sell of the music industry.”

The Minneapolis (MN) Star, April 21, 1972.
He takes his songs to labor sites, to fields worked by migrant farm workers. He sings about "Skid Row,'' tearing down low-rent housing in Denver and pushing pensioners out of their homes, and “Blue Diamond Mines,” about the conditions in coal mines.

When Bovee was a youth, back in the 60s, he had the red-blooded ideals. But then he said he looked around...at Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon, the political assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. "Then I looked and thought, 'Who was Dwight Eisenhower? Who was Franklin Roosevelt?' I saw people perpetuating a system for the sake of saving themselves."

When will the people be emancipated? Probably never, considering human variables of greed and a lust for power. But, Bovee won't give up. Before the people are freed, he has another show. After the show, he'll pack up his guitar, harmonica and cowboy hat, load up his bus and go to Omaha, then to Idaho, Spokane, and the San Diego Folk Festival. The ghosts of fellow wobblie Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie will sit in the passenger seat, and Bovee will drive off into another electric night, speeding to keep ahead of the most fatal disease of all: disillusionment.