Kenn Amdahl: A musical memoir

 

Kenn Amdahl is best known as the obscure author of “funny books on dull subjects.” Those books are described at ClearwaterPublishing.com

What few people know is that Kenn is an EVEN MORE OBSCURE musician and songwriter. This page will be devoted to that aspect of this obviously complicated man. In his own words:

I’ve been playing guitar (primarily finger-style accompaniment to Americana music) since ninth grade in the 1960s. Guitar became my life. I paid for college by giving guitar lessons (as many as 40 per week), playing gigs and doing occasional studio jobs. When I was young, I played quite a few songs in the Chet Atkins style, and some classical guitar pieces but haven’t practiced either style enough to maintain those chops. I’ve written hundreds of songs, and always hoped better musicians would perform them. I have no delusions of vocal competence. I do, however like the songs I write.

I spent ten years in Colorado playing and singing in the acoustic group “Cottonwood.” Alas, I developed a little health condition which was not improved by driving an hour through Denver at night twice a week to practice, plus gigs on weekends. To reduce that stress, I resigned from the group in 2003, I think. After taking a break from music for a decade or so, I  returned to it.

I’ll try to post samples of videos and audio from my “career” in reverse order. That is, newest first.

2016-2020

My wife and I moved to Eugene Oregon in 2016.  I’ve performed several times for homeless folks and assisted living facilities, plus a few “regular” gigs and open mics.

In 2020 I wrote and recorded this song, “Speaking Truth To Flowers”:

In August, 2020 I recorded Got to Be a Time. I wrote the song in about 1973, lost all of it but the chorus, rewrote the verses in 2020

 

Here’s my version of Johnny Cash’s song Folsom Prison Blues:

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In 2020 I started fooling around with a guitar riff, then started singing “Got My Mojo Workin” to it. Then I realized I needed to update the lyrics to be age-appropriate. Recorded in August 2020

During the pandemic, I learned “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  It just felt appropriate:

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In October 2018 I played a set of original songs at “The Atrium” in downtown Eugene, Oregon and recorded it. You can now listen to that “album” on your computer and buy it if you want. You can download the whole thing and pay whatever you want, including zero.

http://kennamdahl.bandcamp.com/music

A video of that gig is online, but the sound isn’t high quality. On the other hand,  it does include all my snappy patter and has the “feeling” of a live show, including occasional outbursts of polite applause. It was recorded for a local public access TV station.

The folks who recorded the video gave me permission to use their video meshed with the audio I had Beau Eastland record of the gig.  So, you can watch the entire gig with their sound, as if it were live, by clicking the link above. Or, you can listen to individual songs with their video but a little better audio by clicking the links below:

 Ship’s Comin’ In
Must Have Been the Rain   
 I Was Not Told
 Tequila
 Holy Water
 Sing Out Loud
 Jim Donelan
 If I’m Ever Young Again   

Also from that performance, a song I wrote a long time ago, maybe in high school, called “Gypsy Woman.

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While I was figuring out the bandcamp site, I decided to create a couple more albums, also available to buy or not buy. One is basically some songs I recorded in 1999 for my family, the other is a compilation of my originals that we recorded when I was with Cottonwood. Both of those albums are also at

http://kennamdahl.bandcamp.com/music

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On August 5, 2017, a new friend developed a conflict and couldn’t play his gig so he asked me to fill in for him at The Atrium in Eugene Oregon. The concert (it was about an hour long) was recorded for a local TV show and is now posted on YouTube. The sound isn’t perfect– the video camera picked up the guitar louder than the voice. I had  an inflammation of the tendons of my left hand, so I let it rest by chatting between songs more than I normally would.

If you’re looking for a particular song in that video, their approximate locations are as follows:

intro to kenn  00:00
Borderline (a Dave Francey song) 1:20
Must Have Been the Rain (original)
intro: 5:45
song 6:29
Thing about You  (a Tony Joe South song, arr Kenn Amdahl)
intro 9:32
song 10:45
Big Red Barns (original) 14:00
Whiskers the Catfish  (a Fred Engleberg song)
16:30 intro
20:19 song
Shady Grove  (traditional arr Kenn Amdahl) 22:30
Jim Donelan (original)
intro 25:00
song 28:23
Preacher’s Daughter (original)  33:06
Sprig 37:27  (trad. arranged Kenn Amdahl)
July You’re a Woman  (a John Stewart song)
intro: 42:40
song: 47:10
Ain’t Nobody’s Business   (I think a Josh White song) 50:40
Folsom Prison   (Johnny Cash, arr Kenn Amdahl) 53:39

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2003-2015

After I left Cottonwood, I took a little vacation from music. I still played in my basement, still wrote a few songs, but was mostly a musical hermit. The exceptions were the times I was asked to speak to a conference of writers or publishers and decided to use the guitar to illustrate my topic. I had been quite involved in the writing and publishing community, having served on the boards of directors of several, but no one knew I played. Surprised the heck out of many of my friends.  My son Scott recorded some moments from a couple of these from the audience.

This was at the Mile High Science Fiction con. I’m talking about “reading forensically,”  which is how good writers read. The musical part begins at 3:00, where I describe and illustrates the techniques I intend to incorporate into the song. The song itself begins about 7:20:

This is how I opened my talk at the Colorado Independent Publishers Association annual conference.

This was later in the same presentation:

I was playing in a park for my own amusement when this guy wandered by and recorded me on his cell phone. Turns out he was Shawn Mitchell, a very conservative Colorado State Senator. He posted his little video of me on his Facebook page. We agree on nothing, but became Facebook “friends.” I think you have to sign in to your own Facebook account to watch the video:
Kenn Amdahl plays Shady Grove in a park, in the shade.

That was in maybe 2004 or so. This is how it sounds in 2020:

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 2008

The Irish Songs

My son Paul gave me a book of Irish songs that was published in 1808. It included only the melody line and lyrics but no chords, no rests, no description of the speed or feeling of the song, and no credit to whoever wrote them. I started to learn the first song in the book, adding my own chords and fingerpicking, adding rests where they felt appropriate (not sure if they’d invented musical rests by this time, or if the guys who put the book together didn’t know how to use them or what, but there was no place to breathe in any of the songs). Surprisingly, it was a really good song. The lyrics were great, if dated, once I did the research to understand them.

These old Irish songs became an obsession with me. I  resurrected 15 of them, did a ton of research, learned their histories, and became buddies with the guys who wrote them. The first time I took the guitar into the back yard and sang one to the sky and trees, it felt like an Irish songwriter who’d been asleep for 200 years woke up and saw the world again through my eyes. I could tell he was smiling.

I modified each of them enough both musically and lyrically that I’m pretty sure I have a copyright on them. Feel free to record them yourself, and I hope you do, just tell BMI they should send me a nickel.

I hoped to put out a little book with the stories behind them, and heartbreakingly artistic renditions, as well as the lyrics and the chords I chose. But they are sort of difficult melodically and I never felt I mastered them well enough to release them. But for THIS sort of casual memoir, just some folk music between friends, these recordings I made to help me practice will give you a good sense of the songs. Maybe I’ll record little videos explaining each song. In most cases, I believe I’m the only human on the planet who sings these songs.

 

Sprig of Shillelah

Irish Drinking Song

Cushlamachree

Garnavilla

I Was the Boy for Bewitching ’em

Kate Kearney

The Man Who Led the Van

Paddy the Piper

Smallilou

Since Love is the Plan

Rakes of Mallow

Kathlane McCree

Kitty of Coleraine 

 

In 2012 I learned the Robert Burns song “Slave’s Lament.” It’s Scottish, not Irish and wasn’t in the book, but I found some very old sheet music, so figured it out and arranged it using the same process. Then I did some research on it and learned more of its history. I wrote a blog about it. You can hear the Kenn Amdahl version of the song here:

Slave’s Lament

 

1993-2003

Cottonwood

In about 1993, Kenn Amdahl, Barb Henry, and John Brady formed “Cottonwood” They sang cover songs, a few of Kenn’s originals, a few of John’s originals. Their main thing was harmony. Later, Bill Wilton joined the group. Like John, he had a fabulous tenor voice, and heard harmonies well, but they had different musical styles. John came from rock roots, Bill from folk. Bill played bass in the group, Kenn fingerpicked his guitar, John played rhythm guitar. The four of us sounded pretty dang good.

Then John moved out of state and the group continued with Bill, Barb, and Kenn. KcDunn played percussion for us at many gigs. Later, John Galm (who had recently retired as head of the percussion department at the University of Colorado) played percussion.  The group released two CDs, “Voted Most Poplar” and “Floating.” Oasis manufactured the disks and included samples of our music on two “best acoustic music of the year” CDs that went out to many radio stations.

Cottonwood live at the Mile High Science Fiction Convention, October 2000

Twenty years after the fact, I stumbled across a recording of this gig. Just Kenn, Barbara, and Bill, no percussion, no guest musicians. The guy who did the sound (I think his name was Doug) recorded this and gave us a copy. Doug did a pretty good job. On one song I jokingly asked if anyone in the audience had a conga, and Doug actually had one and joined us.

These tunes are also on our CDs. Because you’re visiting this site, there’s a good chance you already own our CDs, so here’s an alternate version for you. Mostly Doug did not record our snappy patter between songs, for which posterity thanks him, but there is definitely a “live” feeling.

God’s Gift to Women, a Rory Block tune. Barb sings lead
Jookie Jangeo a Kenn Amdahl song, Kenn sings lead
Waltz of the Wallflowers a Small Potatoes song. Barb and Bill sing this.
You Fall in Love With a Rich One Just As Easy a Kenn Amdahl song, Barbara sings lead
Back When I Could Fly written by our friends in Trout Fishing in America, Bill sings lead
Neo Nazi Samba by Kenn Amdahl and Bill Wilton, and they sing it as a duet with Barbara on the chorus
Tarantula by Kenn Amdahl, Kenn sings lead
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Josh White, Bill sings lead

When the group dissolved, we split up the remaining CDs. Kenn still has a few left. He’d be happy to sell you one for $20 including postage. Send it via Paypal to Wordguise@AOL.com, along with which album you want and where to send it. Here’s some samples

The “Floating” CD contains the following songs, some of which I’ve uploaded as samples:

Gravity
Coal Town Road
Remembering You  (a Kenn Amdahl original)
God Made Woman
He’s Back and I’m Blue
Jookie Jango  (a Kenn Amdahl original)
Water From Another Time
Little Bit Left in the Bottle  (a Kenn Amdahl original, sung by Bill Wilton)
Floating  (Kenn Amdahl original, Kenn sings lead)
Rio deJaneiro Blue
Back When I Could Fly
Fever
Waltz of the Wallflowers
Since I Fell
God’s Gift to Women
When a Woman Shines her Love on You  (Kenn Amdahl original sung by Barb Henry)

December 1999– Kenn’s very limited edition CD (five copies made)

Kenn spent two hours in KcDunn’s studio and recorded this little CD to give to his family.

Here’s a song I wrote in 1999. The group “Cottonwood” recorded it on their “Floating” CD with Barb Henry doing lead vocals. This is the way it sounded when I showed it to the rest of the group:

When a Woman Shines Her Love on You

 

The Cottonwood CD “Voted Most Poplar” contains these songs:

Beginning to See the Light
Irish Rain
Teach Me About Love
Gone the Rainbow
Morning Take Me (Kenn Amdahl original, Kenn sings lead)
Give Me One Reason
Tarantula  (Kenn Amdahl original, Kenn sings lead)
Nobody Knows You
You Fall In Love With a Rich One Just as Easy (Kenn Amdahl original, Barb Henry sings lead)
Stars Won’t Speak  (Kenn Amdahl original, Kenn sings lead)
The Water is Wide
Seven White Horses  (Kenn Amdahl original, Kenn sings lead)
Cripple Creek
Black Velvet
Neo Nazi Samba  (original by Kenn and Bill, both sing lead)
Valentine/Sunshine

 

1991-1992

Penn Street

Cap Hamilton, Jill Delage, Barbara Henry, Kenn Amdahl, John Brady

 

In the early 1990s, Cap Hamilton put together a little acapella group (“Penn Street”) to be guinea pigs for his attempts at arranging songs. The group included me, Cap singing bass, Barb Henry, Jill Delage and John Brady. We got maybe a dozen songs tight enough to really hear the arrangements and even did a few gigs.

(Insert songs)

 

Sometimes Cap recorded rehearsals and he recently uploaded a couple to youtube. Mostly fun for those of us in the group. When Penn Street dissolved, Barb, John and I continued getting together and evolved into the group Cottonwood.

penn street  1992 some singing, mostly goofing around

 

Bill Howe also arranged a couple songs for the group. Toward the end, I started to arrange the Little Feat song “Let it Roll.” This is the first rehearsal when I was trying to teach the group their parts.

1985-1990

Last Note Singers

For several years, Kenn sang in a volunteer choir, the Last Note Singers aka LNS. This was a secular, all-volunteer choir that performed in nursing homes, veterans centers, as well as holiday events at the Denver Botanic Gardens. They sang the Star Spangled Banner several times to open games for the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Several members

are mentioned on this site. In this 1993 screen shot, Barb is on the far left. Just behind her on the video (but cut off in this screen shot) is Bill Wilton.  The woman with her hand raised is Dee, who became Jim Loats’ wife. Behind her is Bill Howe who arranged some songs for Penn Street. Beside him, the forehead belongs to Kenn. In front of Kenn is Cap Hamilton. The woman on the far right  of the screen is Sally, who is mentioned in a song., Here is a brief clip of the group performing. Cap shared the video:

Bag O’Notes

Ann Imes, John Imes, Sharon Kermiet, May Lawry, Kenn Amdahl

 

After spending several years as a musical hermit, I joined the Swallow Hill Gospel choir. It was a hoot. Twenty or thirty middle aged white folks tried to sing and clap at the same time. Once we sang at a Baptist church and tried to walk in while also singing and clapping. The congregation was kind and forgiving, but I thought we might incur injuries.

I met some folks in the choir who became life-long friends, including Cap Hamilton who put together Penn Street (see above). I started singing some duets with Sharon Kermiet our voices blended well and that was much fun. Sharon and I were joined by John and Ann Imes, and May Lawry. May suggested we call ourselves the Bag O’Notes and it sort of stuck. We didn’t do many actual gigs, but I recorded a few of our songs on my Walkman cassette.  John and I remained friends until his death in a freak canoeing accident a few years ago. Sharon and I remain friends.  Sadlymk I’ve lost track of Ann and May.

Bag O’Notes songs:

I’ll Fly Away/Lover of the Lord

 

 

1975-1985

I spent my time in commercial real estate, and owning a small nightclub, then a larger nightclub. Although I continued to practice (but not enough) and write songs, I don’t think I played any gigs at all during this time. I have a few old tapes of my songs in that era  that I’ll post as I find them and digitize them.

I wrote and recorded “Same Old Surroundings” sometime in the early 1970s. this is just audio, plus a brief panoramic view  from  the house I owned outside Boulder in the late 1970s:

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More of my originals from that time period:

Hitchhike  (aka Big Truck)

Drunk for Free

Bronco Football Madness

Caterpillar 

Gammon Dace

Joni

Like a Spider

Minneapolis

Moon Blues in Seven

Night Man at the Depot 

 

This is an original guitar instrumental. I incorporated several little moves I needed to practice, so it became a good finger exercise.

 

1970-1975

I attended the University of Colorado in Boulder. To pay for school, I played bars and coffeehouses when I could, and gave as many as 40 guitar lessons every week. I also got an occasional gig in a recording studio, providing the music for commercials or for singers who didn’t play an instrument.

In maybe 1968,  I met Jim Turner, arguably the world’s best musical saw player. A symphony was written for him, he appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I became his primary accompanist. We played some cool gigs, warming up for Flash Cadillac (the rock band in American Graffiti) at Ebbet’s Field in Denver, and for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot at Tulagi in Boulder.  Jim put out one record, “The Well Tempered Saw.” One side was the symphony for saw, the other side included various songs. I played on some of those.  I continued to accompany him when he shifted his attention to musical glasses, but we parted ways when he started playing crescent wrenches strung up like a xylophone. I’m sorry, there’s no way to tune a crescent wrench, the guitar/wrench combination didn’t work for me. He now calls himself Jamie Turner and still plays musical glasses and saws in Virginia

Wayfaring Stranger, Jim Turner on saw, Kenn Amdahl on guitar.

 

 

1967-1968

Amdahl/Swanson

After The New LulaZick Singers faded away, Kenn and Stan Swanson continued to play as a duo. We played regularly at The Blue Guitar in Denver. As our senior year ended, that little coffeehouse invited us to become their resident group, probably in exchange for all the coffee we could drink. Alas, Kenn was offered a chance to be in the St Olaf College honors program if he could survive a summer up there in Minnesota. As his father explained it, he could go to St Olaf or he could go to Vietnam.

He survived the college program, but by the time he returned to Colorado, the folk scene had crashed. He and Stan tried to continue while going to C.U. but Stan ultimately joined the Army, got shipped to Germany, and that was that. Here are some samples from old tapes:

Can’t Go Skanooky (Amdahl/Swanson original)

Hey Girl (Amdahl/Swanson original)

Roads of Anger (a Bob Lind song)

 

 

The New LulaZick Singers

Stan Swanson and I went to the same junior high school while we were learning to play guitar. We got together several times. In high school, we added Berta Keith and Dean Reiter and became “known” as The Midnight Ramblers and later “The New LulaZick Singers” (after Berta’s grandmother). Sometimes we were joined by Nancy Ogle, sometimes we formed a larger jug band that included Mike Davis, and others. The Lulazicks enjoyed the gigs that were available to us, including playing a few songs at The Analyst in Denver (later called the Denver Folklore Center) on a night that also featured Bob Lind (soon to be famour for Elusive Butterfly).

Lulazicks perform Elijah Rock  Berta sings lead

Lulazicks perform Eskimo Women  Dean sings lead

Lulazicks perform their “folk mass”

MISCELLANEOUS

 

Ain’t Licked Yet

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One of my all time favorite Paul Simon songs is Kathy’s Song. I do it a little lower than he does.

Kathy’s Song

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I wrote Locomotive Sound when I was still in high school. The idea was to have the guitar sound evoke  a train.

Locomotive Sound

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Becca Owens is letting her cello spend some time at my house and I’ve been fooling around with it, in a platonic sort of way. I decided that I’d wait to learn to use a bow, because that seems hard. On the other hand,  it didn’t seem that big a reach to hold down strings and pluck them with my right hand, just like I would with a guitar. My friends say that’s not really playing the cello,and they’re probably right. What’s hard is that there are no frets, so you have to press the string down in the exact right spot if you want the right pitch. Why didn’t they just give the instrument frets? Wouldn’t we all be a lot happier?  I have not gotten very far in the few months I’ve had it, but here’s an old folk song as an example of the “style.” I got my computer to play a percussion part, then played and sang along with that. Turns out it’s pretty tricky to sing while you’re playing an instrument you’re just learning:

Nine Hundred Miles (traditional)

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I really like David Francey’s songs, and he’s got a cool voice. Here is my arrangement of his song “Borderline.” It’s much different than his. I do all the guitar, vocal and harmony, my computer does the percussion. I sent him a Facebook message saying that, if he’d rather I didn’t put this up here I wouldn’t. He didn’t respond, so I presume he’s cool with it. Same song as in the video above, but recorded in my basement so I could add a percussion track and some harmony.

Borderline (written by Dave Francey, arranged by Kenn Amdahl)

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Here’s an old folk song, I think maybe written by Josh White Sr. I was fooling around with my computer, creating the percussion by  snapping my fingers, singing and playing one version, then recording another track and making up harmonies as I went. It’s pretty goofy, with tons of mistakes, but fun. At some point I may have to try to do a more careful recording of the “arrangement”:

Ain’t Nobody’s Business

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When my kids were little, they hated my song “Born on the Ocean” It would send them scrambling out of the room faster than anything. Well, shoot, it’s pretty handy to be able to clear a room of little kids just by picking up your guitar and starting to sing a song. Not good for one’s ego, but handy.

Born on the Ocean

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I was in the group Cottonwood for several years.  Barb and Bill had the good voices so I mostly played guitar and sang harmony. But every now and then we’d do one of my originals and I’d sing lead. Here’s my song “Floating” with me playing guitar and singing lead, then playing a banjo tuned very loose on a second track. Barb and Bill sing harmony.

Floating

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Here’s a song I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s not a polished version, but you can get a sense of the song.

Fire and Smoke

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