Gary Blanchard grew up in Baltimore during the 1950’s and 60’s. One of his earlier musical memories is the Kingston Trio singing Tom Dooley. The music of Peter, Paul and Mary in the early teen years added to his love of folk music, as did an immersion into the music of the Civil War during the centennial commemoration. It was hearing Donovan’s Catch The Wind, however, that made him decide to get a guitar.
Gary’s earliest performances were shared with his brother Kenneth, though Gary started performing solo in 1968. About this time Gary began discovering other folk singers, including Janis Ian, Tom Paxton, Mark Spoelstra, and Pete Seeger. It was Pete Seeger who was to have the greatest impact on Gary. He bought a cheap banjo from the Montgomery Wards Bargain Basement and began to teach himself to play. This led to Gary’s rather unique approach to playing the banjo.
Throughout the intervening years, Gary has ventured into a number of musical styles, including folk-rock, avant-garde performance in the style of Laurie Anderson, new-age electronic music, even writing pieces for string quartet and woodwind trio. In recent years, however, Gary has returned to his folk music and singer/songwriter roots.
Gary writes music that stays close to the folk tradition yet also reveals other influences. In performance, Gary sings and plays a twelve-string and 6-string acoustic guitar; at times he may play an electric guitar or a long-neck banjo. His song list includes original songs, traditional music, songs by some contemporary folk musicians, and the occasional 60’s rock cover song. His songs explore social issues but focus on the need for hope and action while keeping a positive focus. Gary also does special educational presentations that combine music and history.
Gary Blanchard is now performing throughout the New England area and hopes to expand his audience across the country.
In March, 2018, Gary was interviewed by singer/songwriter Sparkie Allison. Here is that interview.
You’ve been a songwriter for quite some time. Who first inspired you to want to be a singer- songwriter, why?
It was Donovan who first really inspired me. I had heard The Beatles, and heard Dylan, but it was the song, Catch the Wind, that made me say, “I want to do that.” I bought that album, and then Fairytale, and was hooked. It was fun to play cover songs, but, to me, it was like trying to be someone else. When I wrote songs, I was saying what was in my heart and on my mind.
Do you pay attention to rhyme and meter or just free-writer whatever feels good? – explain
Generally, I am very much tied to rhyme and meter; that is what I am most familiar with. There was a time in the 1980s when I felt trapped by that and experimented with electronic-based music that often had spoken-word vocals, in the style of Laurie Anderson. A few years ago, I took a free-verse poem, written by my late friend Richard Bachtold, and wrote music for it. More recently I have written a couple of songs that are not based on rhyme, but a rhyming dictionary is a regular part of my writing.
How do you avoid writing the same song over in different ways?
I am not sure that I do. (Laughing) I have caught myself using a tune I used before. I have one Christmas song that is the same tune I used for The Quest; since the Christmas song won’t be performed as often I decided to go ahead with it. I just need to not confuse the two sets of lyrics. Since most of my music is about hope, love, and peace, I do need to watch that I keep the writing fresh, and not overuse images or phrases.
Have you studied any particular songwriters – who? What about their writing inspires you?
I mentioned Donovan; I watched as his writing expanded and saw how he added more instruments on recordings yet could perform them as solo acoustic songs. Paul Simon always amazed me with his lyrical choices and how he would fit words into a song. Graham Nash was an inspiration in ways to add a message to a song without being preachy (though he does that too at times); Teach Your Children is a great example. I don’t know that anyone who started writing since 1963 hasn’t been influenced by Dylan in some way or other.
Have you had formal songwriting training in academia or song symposiusm? – explain
I am a completely self-educated musician and writer. I probably would have benefitted from some training, but it does give me a unique voice and style. In some ways it limits me, but in other ways I have been told I have done some things that a person with training would never do, but they work.
Lyrics first or music first – which & why?
It varies. I often start with a word or phrase and begin to build the lyrics from there. Then I pick up the guitar and work on the music. There are times, however, when I come up with a chord pattern and then develop lyrics to suit that pattern. My song Lunar Tune is a great example of that. I was playing with the Am chord and moved it up to the 5th fret. That sounded good, then I took it down to the 3rd fret and that worked as well. The tune built from there and suddenly the words just flowed.
Are you a commercial-focused, political-focused, or social commentator-focused songwriter?
I am not sure I fit any of those. I certainly am not commercial-focused; I am too much the aging hippie to try to write for commercial tastes. I avoid political songwriting as it often seems to focus on problems and one ends up just singing to the choir. I suppose social commentator comes closest to describe my work. I like to look at the beauty of life and inspire people to come together to make the world a better place. Thanks to my wonderful wife, poet Carol Mays, I also have inspiration to write love songs like Heart of the Sun and You’re So Groovy.
What is the most important element of the song for you?
I would say the lyrics. I love songs like Wild Thing by the Troggs, but for the most part I want lyrics that make me think, or feel, or act. I find I have written a large number of songs in the past three years, and I feel most of them have something worthwhile to say to our society.
What are your thoughts on songwriting and re-writing?
I am an impulsive writer. Many of my songs have been written in one sitting, and, once written, tend to not be changed. In recent times I have fine tuned a few. I had one “topical” song written during the nuclear freeze movement in the 80s, titled The Peace Song. Back then it mentioned the tensions of the times, talking about the US vs. Russia (which, ironically is topical again). I rewrote a big portion of the verses and some of the chorus to make it more general and timeless. For the most part, however, the songs stay the same. I don’t have a problem with rewriting, but it just isn’t something I tend to do.
Is there a ‘hit’ song out there that you say “I wish I’d written that because…” – and why?
Oh, sure. Certainly, Teach Your Children and Catch the Wind. Another is Tom Paxton’s Last Thing on My Mind. All three have the simplicity of folk music but are more complex lyrically than you might first realize. I think a lot of my music follows at least the folk simplicity of those songs.
Why do people want to hear your songs? What is unique about your songs?
I think what makes my songs unique, and what makes people want to hear them, is that they are generally uplifting and upbeat. When society is bombarded with 24hour news that focuses on the problems in the world while ignoring the beauty, we need things that give us hope and help us to slow down. My music may not make people get up and dance, but it does make the heart sing.
How do you see the Western Massachusetts Songwriters Collective impacting songwriters in Western Massachusetts?
WMSC brings attention to the art of songwriting and encourages audiences to support original music. I love that shows bring together several writers, giving a chance to share fans. There are times when I felt quite alone in trying to write and perform original music and felt that there weren’t enough venues that support that. WMSC is changing that, and we all benefit from it.