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Dan Bern gives local songwriters a hand at workshops

Paul Flahive
Dan Bern Headquarters

Mount Vernon, Iowa, is a small town, even by Iowa standards. It had fewer than 3,000 people in 1965 when musician, artist and novelist Dan Bern was born. Growing up, he was given a cello, an instrument he abandoned, but a radio station from a nearby town played a few songs the future folk singer liked.

"That station probably had more of an impact on me than anything else," Bern explained. "They'd play old Woody (Guthrie) and Lightnin' Hopkins."

He described Mount Pleasant as a "great place to grow up," adding that the lack of fences made the place ideal for roaming.

Bern now lives in Los Angeles, but he has been in Anchorage most of the past week leading songwriting workshops, something he has done many times from New York to Florida. Last night, he also played the first of four Alaska shows.

He said that, with the workshops, he tries to give others the freedom he gets from singing and songwriting.

"It seems like writing songs should be everyone's birthright, and to be able to from time to time give that to someone is rewarding."

The three workshops were limited each night to 20 people, but Out North operations manager Teeka Ballas said in an email that Bern asked to include even those who don't play an instrument. Melissa Mitchell, Spiff and Seth Boyer were some of the established musicians who signed up.

"It's not every day a songwriter like Dan Bern comes to town offering to teach and guide songwriters," said Ballas.

Boyer agreed.

"When Mike McCormack (owner of the local promotion company Whistling Swan Productions) came up to me at this year's Folk Fest and asked, 'How much money would you pay to be in a songwriting workshop with Dan Bern?' I said, 'Mike, you're asking the wrong guy because I would pay a bajilliondy dollars,' " explained the up-and-coming songwriter.

Bern admitted people won't come out of these as full-fledged songwriters, but he said it's like developing a muscle. Getting there takes time.

"It's the marriage of words and some kind of melodic tempo," the songwriter explained. "If you take a yoga class, you aren't necessarily going to come out of it after an hour and have it developed."

Bern -- who has now released more than a dozen albums and EPs and wrote the lion's share of the "Walk Hard" movie soundtrack, the faux biopic starring John C. Reilly -- admits he didn't start playing guitar and singing until he got to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. He maxed out his schedule with English and writing classes.

Since then Bern has been coming to Alaska often. According to McCormack, the songwriter has played more than 20 shows here over the years.

After releasing several live albums, Bern released two new albums this year, the first studio albums he has released in more than five years. The first, "Doubleheader," is a group of songs he has written -- some new, some old -- about baseball.

The inspiration came from the role the national pastime plays in the American psyche, "probably something to do with the pace of the game, the lore of the game, all these stories and myths about it that you get when you are a kid," Bern said.

He played the songs at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this past Independence Day. His next album, of purely new songs, "Drifter," was released soon after. It is less conceptual and more folk, with a single song about sports announcer Vin Scully linking the two albums.

But even if Bern's Alaska visits are frequent, they still excite local fans.

Boyer, who recently returned from a month-long Lower 48 tour with Marian Call, recalled being a Bern fan since he was 10. He called the opportunity to go over his songs with one of his idols "unprecedented."

"I'm kind of freaking out about it to be perfectly honest."

By Paul Flahive
Daily News correspondent