I was initially introduced to this prolific singer-songwriter via a Philadelphia-based member-supported public radio station called WXPN. His music was in regular rotation on a show called Kids Corner, hosted by Kathy O’Connell.
If memory serves, the first one I heard was The Duck Song, with the iconic lines, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, and there’s duck doo on your pickup truck, you can bet your bottom buck, it ain’t no armadillo.” Since then, he has expanded his repertoire considerably, dipping into the well of world affairs and in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, social commentary. He also volunteers at a prison-based program in his home state of Delaware. There, he witnesses miraculous transformation.
Was music a part of your childhood?
Yeah, it was. I learned to play guitar at around 10 or 11 years old. My best friend’s dad and my uncle were guitar players. There was a lot of music around the kitchen table. The grown ups would pass around the guitars and bottles. These were some of the best memories of my childhood. They sang a lot of oldies. Hank Williams, The Kingston Trio and songs from the Mummers Parade songbook.
Did you feel called to be a musician?
I got to that place later in life. I was most comfortable with a guitar and a song. Music helped me to connect with other people in a way that I was set up to internally.
How did it lead you to initially become a children’s musician?
There were a lot of steps in between. I began writing songs in high school. I put self through college playing in bar bands. My first real job was as a songwriter in Nashville. I was then accepted to the Naval Academy and was contemplating Annapolis and pulled the emergency brake and ended up studying pre-law. I signed a staff writing deal in Nashville and had an undistinguished career there. I got married and started a family and went back to playing at cover bars. My wife Beth and I raised four kids and I wrote songs for them. It caught on quite quickly and I still get a lot of joy out of it.
Your social activism is a central part of the storytelling that you offer in your lyrics. Does it stir the listener and give you a way to deal with current affairs?
I can certainly attest to the second part. It helps me process and interface. I can’t always speak to its impact. But people do share how my songs help them question assumptions and rethink certain things. My topical writing really took over around 2001. I was recruited into the movement to abolish the death penalty. Close to the time I was beginning to volunteer at the local state prison which impacted the way I understood what’s going on the world. Hanging around people like Arlo Guthrie, and Kris Kristofferson didn’t help either.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “I Will Not Fear”. It was in alignment with my initial thoughts on September 11th, 2001.
It came out of literally being at the ballpark a week later and singing at the Phillies game and have people come together as an act of defiance. Wherever I saw that courage, I found hope. We were manipulated into fear by men who had other agendas.
What do you hope the takeaway will be when people listen to your music?
I mostly want to try to connect at a heart level and get past some of the boundaries we are erecting. There are songs on my new album, Mercy and you might say I’m not trying to make friends with this album and you’d be right. There is a song or two where anger plays a part in the writing. A protest song is essentially a love song. I hope that’s happening more and more among the people in our musical community.
Who are your musical influences?
When I was a little guy just starting out, it was the Beatles and the singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and John Denver. As disco took over the popular radio, I looked to country music there, including John Prine and Kris Kristofferson.
Let’s talk about New Beginnings.
At its core, it’s an organization that sponsors peer support groups both inside prison and after release to help guys prevent recidivism. There are three Delaware prisons and post-release groups in Wilmington. We endeavor to give a little of material assistance. They do community service with us and we give them bus passes and gift cards for the local grocery store.
How did you jump on board with the program?
It’s not a religious group but founded by the Franciscans. My dad volunteered for a while and I joined him. Brother David was the founder and then transferred out. A couple of years before mom passed, my dad couldn’t continue so I did it myself for a while. The Next Step Program was for guys going home. We got recruited to get others involved. It became a 501c3. My (musical performance) touring has fallen off, but I believe in what we are doing. I have seen the changes in their families. It gives me optimism and hope and puts me with very courageous men and women who face challenges that would have knocked me on my ass. We try to help them figure out the next right decision.
What were some of the messages these men absorbed throughout their lives that might have contributed to their incarceration?
Everybody has their own unique story. What we try to do is to meet them where they are now in their lives, rather than form judgments. The only rules are to tell the truth and bring your full self to the circle and be here present with your attention. It’s powerful and mutually dignified. Guys would tell me, when they would sit in that group for 90 minutes, they weren’t in prison. Women too, get to come in contact with the version of their best self that they are not used to modeling or showing the world. They start to inhabit it. We try to inoculate them against the ‘fuck it’s’. We try to give them believe in themselves. Men return and share their stories. We helped one guy start a company and invest in industrial floor cleaning equipment and he then got his first client. He reached out to other returning citizens. These guys are not scared of bullets and prison cells. They see hope up close in the eyes of someone they did time with and they ask why can’t that be me? and things change.
The song What’s in A Name? …was that inspired by New Beginnings?
Yes, it was.
Reggie’s Question (What’s In A Name)
My name is addict, my name is thief
My name is gangster, my name is grief
My name is inmate, that is my shame
There’s no escaping what’s in a name
My name is dealer, my name is thug
My name is hustler, violence and drugs
have been my life now, it’s called the game
Sometimes it’s scary what’s in a name
My name is father, my name is son
My name was stolen a couple hundred
years ago by white men with chains
Sometimes I wonder What’s in a name
Some names I’ve taken, some I have earned
Some give me strength while others have burned
crosses and bridges with hatred’s flame
There’s no disguising what’s in a name
My name is father, my name is son
My name was stolen a couple hundred
years ago but when I complain
You shrug and ask me What’s in a name
My name is dear to those who love me
My name is fear to those who don’t see
That in our hearts we are all the same
I’m only human… What’s in a name
2007 Flying Stone Music
How do you manage work-life balance as a husband, father, troubadour, peacemaker, volunteer, and runner? How do you stay sane and vertical?
I’m not making any claims to sanity. I don’t do it well some days. I’m incredibly blessed with a loving family and the relationships and trust in the group work I do. I seldom leave a prison where I’m not feeling optimistic and more hopeful than when I went in. One of my volunteers told me that if you told me I would have to go to a maximum-security prison to get cheered up, I would have thought you were crazy. There are many with heavy burdens to bear. What I have seen over and over is big tough scary men circle up and protect these vulnerable people (new or more fragile inmates) and get to the point of handling the stressors of incarceration. I don’t see it in society in general. I get to spend time with the meek and poor in spirit. They sustain me. The running and being able to write my songs and get up to sing for folks, it sustains me too.
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Photos courtesy of John Flynn