Q & A: Meet Debra Cowan and John Roberts

Roberts-Cowan_web.jpgIt all started with a simple question: “How are you getting to Chicago?” And with that, folk musicians John Roberts and Debra Cowan decided to team up for a series of small concerts before arriving as separately booked artists at an annual festival. The combination of car-pool and mini-tour was successful enough that John and Debra have continued to perform together.

At their concerts, you might hear sea shanties or a broadside ballad, pub tunes or a love song with a feminist twist, a ripping good yarn or a laugh-out-loud funny story. John has been a guest on one of Debra’s albums, and they have now released an album together, Ballads Long & Short.

In advance of their Golden Link concert on Saturday, May 14, I interviewed Debra to find out more about their musical journey.

Q: When did you and John first meet?

A: I met John in 1999 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum when he and Tony [Barrand] were doing a concert there. Of course I had known their work for a couple of decades before that and as the years rolled on, we would encounter each other at festivals and we became friends.

How do you determine which songs the two of you will perform together?

There wasn’t a deliberate strategy to begin with and I suppose there still isn’t. We each have songs we have performed or recorded and we began with those, mainly with me working out harmonies on his songs and John finding instrumentation for songs I sing.

Where do you look to find new songs?

For me it’s usually something I might hear on a recording, especially with contemporary songs. With the traditional songs, I do look into the many collections: Child, Flanders, Creighton, etc. The internet has been a wonderful tool for song finding. One can now not only hear many versions and variants of songs, but can also see videos, whereas pre-online, we had either musical notation or hard-to-find- recordings. I might add that John has a huge library of books and recordings and he has become my number one source if I need either lyrics or sound.

Do you have any special tricks to get the audience to sing along with your songs?

I like to tell the listeners that “Folk music is not a spectator sport” and then I also tell them the quote I got from Heather Wood:

“If you have a beautiful voice, sing loud in praise of the beautiful voice. If you don’t have a beautiful voice, sing loud to drown out those with beautiful voices.”

I also try to make sure to sing a song in the beginning of the performance with a very easy chorus to get the listeners started in singing. I think it’s our job as performers to let the audience know that we want them to join in and that it’s okay to sing.

Who are your musical idols?

I have many, mostly women: Maddy Prior, Jacqui McShee, Linda Thompson, the late Sandy Denny, June Tabor. These are ladies whose singing greatly affected me at a very young age. I have always admired Richard Thompson and think he is one of the greatest songwriters of our generation. Of course, it’s a thrill to work with someone like John. Along with him, Tony Barrand, Lou Killen, and a few others, my awareness and love of traditional songs has grown and continues to expand.

How did you decide to become a folk singer?

I am not sure it was a conscious decision. I’ve always liked the old ballads and folk music has always been a part of me all of my life. I am 59 and missed the folk revival by about 10 years, though I certainly heard the songs on the radio when I was a kid. I have done my share of bluegrass, jazz, swing rock, and for a short time in the late ‘70s, sang in a top 40 covers band. That was an experience I never want to repeat.

I love all kinds of music and when I work with certain guitarists, like Bill Cooley or Brooks Williams, we certainly extend the boundaries and perform blues, standards, or even acoustic versions of some rock and pop stuff.

For more information about their concert on Saturday, May 14 (7:30 pm, Rochester Christian Reformed Church), click here.

And here’s a video preview of what you might hear at their concert:

Keep on singing!

– Janice Hanson

Janice Hanson is Concert Chair of the Golden Link Folk Singing Society, which was founded in 1971 to present, promote, and preserve folk music in the Rochester area. 

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