Joe Jencks: Classic Folk for Contemporary Times

Photo from M.C. Rollo

Accomplished Folk musician and boisterous baritone Joe Jencks visited Fort Collins on a cozy Sunday night, tucked in the corner-stage of a packed Avogadro’s Number. With his mandolin, teardrop shaped bouzouki guitar , and acoustic guitar, Joe opened the night with a theme all too relatable to anyone who’s spent much time near Mason or Riverside street. “Song of the Rails” tells of the woes of a laborer whose talents and fate continue to lay him in the railway industry. He was accompanied at times by Gretchen O’dell, a Fort Collins soulful folk singer and Colorado State University professor.

“Art doesn’t have to be about revolution to be revolutionary.” -Joe Jencks

The theme of “Song of the Rails,” along with that of many others written and/or performed by Joe explore the life of the working class. From “Wheelbarrow Johnny” to “Solidarity Forever” Joe’s muse of finding passion in one’s work is shown through the stories of men and women of varying ethnicity. The message he strives to implement throughout an international career was instilled in him by a mentor early in his professional life; “If you cannot be proud of the work that you are doing, you need to do the work differently, or you need to do different work.” It was as early as twelve years old, however when Joe realized his own path as a lyrical leader.

Mr. Jencks’s story began in Rockford Illinois. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a math teacher taught him a uniquely structured form of thinking through curiosity and processing inspiration. Over time Joe has come to credited this process for his highly elaborate understanding of the many tips and tricks of the music industry. Having grown up in a community that was slave to the steel industry collapse of the late 70s and early 80s, he found respect and compassion for the workers struggling to put food on the table. Joe’s respect for his father’s skills and industriousness are not-so-hinted at in his trundling tale of being “Auto Mechanically Declined.”

Another great muse of Joe’s early career was the one and only Pete Seeger. Jencks blew a nostalgic chill down every spine with his tribute to the fallen folk pioneer in the performance of “Let Me Sing You a Song”. Joe had built this song out of lyrics derived from Seeger’s own testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was one of the many musicians being questioned about those he had worked with in suspicion of potential communist ties. It was meant to express the ‘personal integrity’ Pete brought to the proceedings, suffering seven years on the black list as opposed to selling out his friends. Despite the enormous pressure being on the black list has on one’s ability to perform, Pete’s career managed to survive to make him known as the folk icon he is today. Joe also meant to gently remind his listeners that it wasn’t that long ago our own government worked so hard to silence those voices they found too ‘subversive’ of the general order.

The civil rights movement was a singing movement. People have to be a part of the process, and remember our better selves.” -Joe Jencks

One of the most remarkable aspects of a Joe Jencks concert is how he often weaves the lyrics of an upcoming verse within verses in an unobtrusive fashion. Doing so allowed the audience to sing along with ease. This turned the standard unilateral concert setting into a truly shared experience between artist, audience, and one another. “Every show I do is about breaking fourth wall.” Joe is passionate about the civic and humanitarian power behind such social experiences as singing with a purpose. Whether it be within his own tunes, or in leading a campfire classic like “If I Had A Hammer,” you can’t help but smile along with Joe’s uniquely soothing form of showmanship.

The high point for me was experiencing “Going Home,” a song written and performed by Joe himself. It was the kind of soul wrench-er that naturally encompassed itself with a montage of emotional times in the listener’s head – happy and tragic alike.

“A song for the wanderer home now at last
A song for redemption from sins of the past”

“A song for the poet who runs out of time
Before she can finish her famous last…”

In fact if there was a motif of the night encompassing the themes of the worker, the rebel, and the many wanderers, it would be the viscerally relaxing and cohesive connection each song inspired throughout the crowd. It was easy to imagine Joe’s songs, written by himself or others being passed down and beloved as is meant by the genera of folk. His harmonizing with Ms. O’dell, his amiable and honest descriptions of the inspirations behind a song, and his sonorous sequences made the night a truly hopeful treat.

For more information on Joe Jencks’s music, tour dates, and more, visit his website linked here. This concert was hosted by Quantum Arts Producer and KRFC DJ – Steve Brockway. You may find Joe’s albums, past, present, and future for sale on CD Baby, and through your favorite streaming services. Make sure to keep an eye open for Joe’s upcoming CD release; The Forgotten – Recovered Treasures From the Pen of Si Kahn. I would also highly recommend checking out Gretchen O’dell in her own band Crispy Watkins and the Crack Willows, who’s information can be found here.