Ask Joe Jencks to tell you a story and he’s likely to break out in song, though we stick with chatting on the line from his home near Chicago.
A folk singer in the traditional sense, Jencks writes songs that are stories in and off themselves, often giving voice to people and issues that go underrepresented or unheard at all. When he performs at Kitchener’s Registry Theatre this weekend, he’ll be joined by Si Kahn, an inveterate folkie of the same ilk from a generation earlier.
“The real goal for most folk songs is to tell stories that will move people. Songs at their very best help people connect to each other,” he says, noting music can help us all find a common thread of humanity rather than picking apart our differences.
He was drawn to the style as a young child, his parents having come from cultures where the oral tradition is common – his father is of Quebecois descent, his mother Irish.
“I think there was a predisposition at an early age,” says Jencks, who listened as a youngster to the likes of Cat Stevens, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
“I was really connected to traditional ballad narratives.”
So much so that he started writing songs at 8 or 9 years of age, building on that over the years as he mixed his conservatory training with his Irish roots and working-class upbringing to craft musical narratives filled with heart, soul, groove and grit. It’s led to a career that’s seen him pen several number-one folksongs, including Lady of The Harbor, and co-founded the popular harmony trio Brother Sun.
Pointing to the great historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Jencks notes there are many stories that are overlooked in the mainstream, from minorities and women to those outside the traditional spectrum.
“I saw there were stories in the world that weren’t being told.”
For him, folk tells those stories, adding them to the cultural dialogue.
That’s certainly the case with his most recent album, 2017’s Poets, Philosophers, Workers, & Wanderers, which encompasses a range of human experiences from love and triumph to tragedy and transformation.
But that style goes beyond just traditional folk music, he notes, embracing everything from punk to rap in cases where the emphasis is on songs that tell stories in a narrative style.
Bruce Springsteen, for instance, is the consummate rock ‘n’ roll artist, but his songwriting is very much narrative, says Jencks.
The narrative arc is very much central to Jencks’ latest project, which sees him recording songs written by Kahn. He went through some 70 previously unrecorded songs to find those stories that he thought he could tell. The album, The Forgotten: Recovered Treasures From the Pen of Si Kahn, was produced in Toronto for release later this year, likely in the summer.
The prolific Kahn, a civil rights and labour activist for more than 50 years, is very much the image of an old-school folkie, someone who mixed his functions as a community organizer and musician.
That Jencks has coaxed Kahn into doing some touring with him means some of those songs may make it onto the set list Saturday night.
Presented by the Old Chestnuts Song Circle, the Folk Night at the Registry concert featuring Joe Jencks and Si Kahn is set for 8 p.m. March 10. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door.
For information, call 519-578-1570, or go online to www.registrytheatre.com.