Isolation Drills: Jefferson Berry

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Singing Through The Pandemic In North Philly
Berry: Really, with all the changes going on in the world, I’ve got it good. The shutdown has given this inner-city high-school teacher more time to play and write. While I’m bemoaning the lack of live support for our new album, neither I nor the members of my band are completely dependent on gig money to survive. And we’re not sick. Yet.

But what will we be singing about in the future? As a published historian, I recognize that this period of time is one where civilizations are indelibly changed. The type of cataclysms we’ve only read about are now a part of our daily lives. We are being confronted not only by a virus that our politics have few answers for, but climate change has it snowing in May! COVID has teamed up with the nagging problems of income inequality to produce massive unemployment and a sense of desperation. While I know our job as musicians is to transport people out of their troubles, those troubles have never been bigger.

OK, so things are never going to be the same. I know that people are going to still groove to the beats my guitar sets up for Uncle Mike and Rapo, the Urban Acoustic Coalition’s bass player and drummer, respectively; that Bud Burroughs (mandolin/keys), Marky B! (chromatic and blues harps) and Dave Brown (banjo, lap steel and Strat) are going to be the talk of the town with any band they’re in. And the community of musicians we swim with will always be soulful in their support. But the folk/rock songs I write are about the city and urban living. These things are going to be different. New times demand new stories.

And they will be received differently. Just as songwriters have had to adjust to the decline of CDs, we’re now operating on the internet like never before. I miss my band, but we’ve been learning how to record, light and assemble videos. Changes? I’ve been playing with Bud Burroughs for more than a dozen years. While he may be the tastiest player I’ve ever known, not once has he called the tune. Not at three o’clock in the morning around the fire at the many festivals we attend. Not while putting together sets lists for any of the three bands we’ve been in together or the hundreds of shows we’ve played together. He’s always made what other decided to play so much better, But upon the death of John Prine and Bill Withers, Bud solo’d “Angel From Montgomery” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” with a couple of the most memorable tribute video’s you’ll ever see. Alone. In his living room.

Meanwhile, I’ve been in my rowhome basement, hanging backdrop curtains, experimenting with lighting and iPhone software and attachments. Reading online reviews, I decided upon a MV88 Shure MOTIV mic to hook up to my iPhone. I was having fun doing internet shows—particularly the one for Americana Highways.

On April 15, it was reported that Gene Shay, the godfather of all folk DJs and a Philadelphia institution, had died of COVID. I wrote a song about him. And then, it turns out, he wasn’t dead—that Gene, always a trickster! A couple days later, when he did finally pass, it was sad, but he’d have wanted the party to go on. I shot the acoustic-guitar part for “That Guy Was Fun” with a click track running low in the Sennheisers. I downloaded that video asset to edit in QuickTime and then played it back while shooting the vocals. Mixing the two shoots together in iMovie, I sent it to Bud. You never go wrong sending stuff to Bud.

He and I agreed that the song begged a chromatic harmonica. While a fabulous harmonica player, Marky B! had as much to learn about the tech of looking good while playing well; neither of us had ever approached anything like this before. And he crushed it. We stripped out the audio and had Matt Muir, the engineer from our last two records, mix it. We’d been working with photographer Lisa Schaffer. She gave us her cache of Gene Shay photos for the project. When it came to putting it all together, like Clint said, “A man has to know his limitations.” Final Cut Pro? Maybe someday. Our friend, Alyssa Shea did a fantastic job of editing the final project. We had it out in a week and got 500 views in the first 48 hours. It’s on the Jefferson Berry And The UAC YouTube playlist.

That’s a lot different than playing some girl a new song you wrote, her saying it reminded her of a Roger McGuinn song. Now it’s a bunch of guys communicating out of Dropbox folders.

The challenges musicians face with the pandemic, particularly the pros among us, are real, both financially and creatively. No shows this summer? Are you kidding me? Still, my mind keeps going back to my students. Poverty in Philadelphia is rough in the best of times. The health conditions that the coronavirus seeks out are the most prevalent in the poor communities my school serves. That kind of desperation leads to the violence we’re reading about every day: shootings are way up. So, while “the beat goes on,” when we get through this, things are going to be different. Way different.