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Behind the Scenes

Coffeehouse setting suits Franke fine

Songwriter Bob Franke’s heart-tugging lyrics have won high praise from critics and contemporaries. Songwriter Bob Franke’s heart-tugging lyrics have won high praise from critics and contemporaries. (Susan Wilson)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / November 3, 2011

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Celebrated songwriter Bob Franke came to Boston to attend a seminary but decided after a year that he could do more good for others by wearing a guitar than by wearing a collar.

Still, Franke’s probings of the deep-down cravings of the human soul underlie his best-loved songs.

“It’s something that’s missing in a lot of pop music,’’ said Franke, who will perform at the Javawocky Coffeehouse in Brockton on Saturday. “I’m trying to include that in what I share with my audience, not eliminate it. As it turns out, that was part of my audience’s life, too, and they can’t get it from pop music.’’

Since relocating from Michigan to Massachusetts, where he first played his songs for money on the street above Park Street station in the ’70s, Franke has won high praise from critics and contemporaries.

Folk artist Scot Alarik, who also writes for the Globe, places him “among the most prolific and important folk songwriters’’ to appear since the folk revival of the ’60s. Other observers of the acoustic music scene compare songs like Franke’s “Hard Love’’ to classics written by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Sixties legend Tom Paxton goes even deeper into American cultural history to make a comparison.

“I always think of Bob as if Emerson and Thoreau had picked up acoustic guitars and gotten into songwriting,’’ Paxton states in a story in the Globe by Alarik two years ago. “There’s touches of Mark Twain and Buddy Holly in there, too.’’

Today Franke’s songs are recorded by popular performers such as June Tabor and Claudia Schmidt. Perennial bluegrass Grammy Award winner and songwriter Alison Krauss called him her “hero.’’

The widely covered “Hard Love’’ came from “a very difficult point in my life,’’ said Franke, taking a break last week from his job in a North Shore computer store, where he works because he and his wife need the health insurance. “All my songs are fiction, but the emotional cues show up in my life.’’

Remembering childhood “like it was only yesterday,’’ Hard Love’s narrator sings, “But the hard times and the liquor drove the easy love away/ And the only love I knew about was hard love.’’

“When I write a song like that,’’ Franke said, “I’m like a playwright writing for musical theater and for an actor who is quite often me.’’

Another oft-performed composition, “Thanksgiving Eve,’’ was written when he was invited to a Thanksgiving party for which the guests were asked to bring a dish or a song. His hymn of thankfulness includes the lyric “What can you do with each moment of your life/ But love til you’ve loved it away.’’

In a song about the struggle for sobriety, “My Next Drink,’’ the protagonist sings: “The rush of sweet oblivion goes running down my tongue/ Forever, for a moment, I am witty, proud and young/ Not today, dear God, not today.’’

And after more than 30 years of songwriting and performing, Franke still appreciates the virtues of the humble coffeehouse.

In church spaces like the Unitarian Church hall used by Javawocky in Brockton, the music remains “viable’’ because you don’t have to deal with drunks and - crucially - it’s affordable, said Franke.

Steve Brooks, who describes himself as the coffeehouse’s “chief cook and bottle worker,’’ agrees. To hear a songwriter of Franke’s reputation (or a comparable pop act) in a big hall would cost many times what coffeehouses charge, he said.

In its fourth full year, Javawocky seats between 60 and 70 depending on the setup for the show, Brooks said. Besides Franke, his series has also hosted Kate Campbell, Garnet Rogers, and Kim and Reggie Harris, who travel from upstate New York and also perform in the Universalist Unitarian Church of Brockton’s worship service.

The coffeehouse will be collecting warm clothing for the WUMB Radio Golden Key Society warm clothing drive at Saturday’s show, Brooks said.

While planning a new recording soon, his first in six years, Franke is looking forward to traveling to Moscow in March at the invitation of Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, which has prepared some of his songs for orchestral performance. A singer-songwriter like Franke is similar to what Russians call “a bard,’’ Franke said.

That’s not too grand a title for someone whose lyrics, Alarik pointed out, appear “on church marquees and tombstones’’ and whose songs are sung at weddings and funerals and grace the pages of hymnals.

“People have told Franke that his songs saved their lives,’’ Alarik wrote. That’s not a bad way to sum up anyone’s career.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

Bob Franke at Javawocky Coffeehouse Universalist Unitarian Church of Brockton, 325 West Elm St.

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

$15 in advance; $18 at the door

781-718-3401

javawockyuu@aol.com