In 2016 I submitted a song I wrote to the New Song Showcase contest that is a small part of the Walnut Valley Music Festival. My song, “I Dreamed Terry Gross Came To Interview Me,” was selected as an alternate in the “Songs for a Better World” category, one of ten song categories in the contest. The winner was unable to appear at the festival, so I was invited to perform my song. I was a little nervous as I stumbled over the words early on, and wasn’t exactly on pitch in a few places.
I’ve entered songs in subsequent years but didn’t win again until 2021, when my song, “That Brick House North of Colfax,” won in the same category of “Songs for a Better World.”
The song is about what I’ve witnessed in northwest Denver since moving there in early 2011, and specifically in the area bordered by Colfax Avenue on the south, 20th Avenue on the north, Federal Avenue on the east, and Lowell Avenue on the west. In 2011 this neighborhood consisted mostly of modest single family homes, duplexes, and a few row apartments that were built shortly after World War II and as of 2011 were rented out to working class families. In truth, there were also some very run-down properties and the neighborhood had issues with crime and drugs, so it was a mix. When property values began escalating, landlords, rather than pay for upkeep and collect rent, found they were being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell their properties to developers. Developers, in turn, evicted the tenants, scraped the old dwellings from the lots, and put up multiple-unit condominiums that sold for $500,000 to $600,000 each for 2-bedroom units. The previous renters were unable to find other places to live in the area, and some, although steadily employed, ended up homeless. The neighborhood has been transformed from one that provided affordable housing to working class families to one of single young adults enjoying the proximity to trendy bars and restaurants in downtown Denver, and who somehow are able to pay for the rapidly escalating property values.
I hope the song speaks for itself. As our economy presents opportunities for some, and many in America are now enjoying unprecedented wealth, the real estate boom has created victims, and we have a growing underclass suffering in our country. Every person living without shelter in America has a different, unique story, and I wanted to counter the stereotype of the homeless man as a lazy, drug-addicted or alcoholic criminal. I don’t know all the causes of homelessness, and I certainly don’t have a solution, but we can’t dismiss our fellow Americans who are suffering by simply saying they choose to live that way.
Here is a video of my performance, which I did along with my friend Ruth Price, at the 2021 Walnut Valley Music Festival. I wasn’t nervous this time, but I wish the mix would have included a little more of my guitar.
David Hakan, a DJ with KC Cafe Radio in Kansas City, operates Gypsy Wagon Studios, and invites song contest winners at the Walnut Valley Festival to give interviews and perform their songs in his mobile studio on the festival grounds, which he then records. Here is the recording he made for us.
I have a lot of friends who are better song writers than I am. I encourage each and every one to submit songs to the New Song Showcase for 2022. Their ten songwriting categories are 1) Songs about Winfield, 2) Sweet memories, 3) Songs suitable for children, 4) Love songs, 5) Songs of religion or spirit, 6) Songs about feeling blue, 7) Instrumental, 8) Songs for a better world, 9) Humorous songs, and 10) None of the above. And if you are a bluegrass and/or Americana fan, think about going to Winfield, KS for next year’s Walnut Valley Music Festival for the great lineup of entertainers that appear there. In years past the following have appeared: Lester Flatt; Doc & Merle Watson; Mark O’Connor; Alison Krauss; Byron Berline; Dan Crary; Norman Blake; John Hartford; Tom Chapin; David Grisman; Merle Travis; Hot Rize; Tim O’Brien, New Grass Revival; Nickel Creek, and Billy Strings. Two of my favorites that have become regulars are The Steel Wheels and John McCutcheon. Walnut Valley has four stages going simultaneously from 8 am until late into the night, as well as national championships in guitar flat picking, finger-style guitar, bluegrass banjo, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, autoharp, and old-time fiddle.
I can’t close without mentioning the Carp Camp. A huge proportion of those who attend Walnut Valley camp in the area adjacent to the fairgrounds where the festival is held. The campground area is known as Walnut Grove. Within Walnut Grove, different groups of musicians gather nightly to sip tea, imbibe in other preferred indulgences, and engage in jams of various degrees of structure. Carp Camp is one that is more highly structured, and has been ongoing since 1985. It is most enjoyed by those who access and download their homework material prior to joining the group live.