By: Rick Landers
The roots of the songs by master songwriter, Gordon Bok, stir a cauldron of mystery, wonder, fear and joy that are never far away when one sails the sea along the coast of his native Maine.
Gordon has the deep rough-hewn gravitas of a man who not only thrives by the sea, but in many ways is of the sea.
His tunes cast a net that gathers us up in his songs and his tales of life where laborious skills are honored, when some are notable for their beauty and others held dear, as they may be relied upon when life and death slip beyond the philosophical and into the realities of the sea.
And so, here we meet Gordon Bok, a master of song, a man who designs and builds boats, carves beautiful lines into native woods and hammers bronze to sculpt spiritual moments about seafaring life.
He deep baritone vocals resonate and pull us in, oftentimes with a patience that’s beguiling and nearly demand that we must stay and listen, at the risk of missing the full spectrum of a melodic jewel.
His “Bay of Fundy” is a magnificent song that’s rich and haunting, but one must not stop there. Gordon’s a man who works and loves his work, it’s really as simple as that. And with hundreds of songs to his name, for those who are only meeting him now, their discovery will feel like a buried treasure found. New and future generations may find they have been gifted with songs that capture the essence of a world that they can only imagine.
“The music of Maine folk singer Bok is like a universe unto itself, a roughhewn land filled with hardscrabble people, rascals in high places, and a natural world that is both cruel and kind, deadly and nurturing.” – The Boston Globe
“Gordon Bok is timeless. Seafarer, songwriter extraordinaire, excellent instrumentalist, and “painter” of moods, he takes his audiences over the bay and out to sea, through a labyrinth of emotions from joy to fear, and awe at the immense wonderment of the world we live in.” – San Francisco Folk Music Center
Respected early on for his music, Gordon’s self-titled debut album was produced by the legendary Paul Stooky, who rose to fame with the group, Peter, Paul and Mary. Along the way, Gordon established his own Timberhead Music label where he continued to develop his craft and broaden his musical horizons by studying and performing the traditional songs of the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, French Canada, the Gaelic Hebrides, Mongolia, Portugal, Italy and more, many in their native tongue.
Gordon’s artistry with both six and twelve string guitars has been influential in the world of folk music. And his interests in studying, building and innovating the instruments he plays merely adds to his significant musical legacy. Still, he is anchored in a world where his lyrics and melodies sweep us all along with him on a green wave cresting on a deep blue sea.
Guitar International is honored to present to its readers one of the most prolific and respected musicians in the world who enjoys our passion for guitars and music: Mr. Gordon Bok.
Rick Landers: When you play “Bay of Fundy” are you surprised at how well it came together with the lyrics, almost an emotional scene, grounded I suppose in your love of the Bay of Fundy?
Gordon Bok: [Laughs] I have no great love for the Bay of Fundy. I have a lot of respect for it. It’s beautiful.
I can go back to that song and know where the parts come from, so there’s not a lot of mystery in it for me. I worked on it for a long time.
Yeah, it really started off me trying to remember a tune a boater, and his wife, Elaine Porter, who was humming to herself and then I realized I couldn’t remember it.
At that time I’d worked in “wonder why, wonder why”. Do you know the “wonder why, wonder why”?
Rick: Yes, the lyric from “The Bay of Fundy”. It’s haunting.
Gordon Bok: That’s the sound of the horn from Sambro Head, Halifax, and there are pieces like that I remember, when I sing it.
Of course, it takes me back there. Which was the idea of writing it really, just to remember.
Rick Landers: So, when you look at the song now as an observer are your surprised at its maturity and your vocals that were so mature, even at a young age?
Gordon Bok: Thanks. I had a lot of adult friends, much older friends, because my playground was a shipyard when I was a kid.
I knew all the guys there. And they all knew me. My brother and my friends use to hang out there, local kids and that was back when those things were allowed.
And so, I would say, “No. I was drawing on their ways of talking and telling stories.”
There’s a part in there that came from a letter from my brother when he was fishing out of Vinalhaven, “I don’t mind the wet and cold, I just don’t like the growing old”.
I know that’s not how he said it, it’s what he said, I remember being struck by somebody in their twenties saying that.
Rick Landers: That’s kind of the way folk music evolves, you draw from the past and sometimes traditional tunes.
Gordon Bok: Yeah, and fit it to what’s around you. In a way, It’s like you can’t kill a good old song, a tune, you just put your own experience to it.
Rick Landers: That’s a good way to state it. Are you still writing songs?
Gordon Bok: Yes, very occasionally,
Rick Landers: When you do that are their various approaches. Do you intentionally say to yourself you’re going to write a song or does serendipity have it’s way, like maña from heaven?
Gordon Bok: I think it works both ways when I am writing. I think when you’re writing a lot it’s easier. The ideas flow better, they come to you better and you’re in the practice of mental work.
To me that’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, is writing. And so sometimes the ideas flow really easy, but that’s usually because you’ve been working at it
Rick Landers: Do you find you sometimes do some research before you approach a song?
Gordon Bok: No, I don’t sit down to write a song. I tend to write because I can’t find that feeling or that approach to life, whatever subject or approach to that I want. And yes, I do sometime check up on my facts, I try not to make anything up.
Although, I’m making up a song. [Laughs]
Rick: Do you ever grab your guitar and start noodling around and end up with a song?
Gordon: Yes, that used to happen more than it does now. That’ s how tunes I use to make up a guitar piece, just find I was was dreaming about something and it came out in music .
Rick: I remember during the ‘60s there was a real strong folk era and there don’t seem to be those kinds of venues anymore. I know there are coffee houses and house concerts, but few large venues for folk music to draw large crowds. Do you prefer the smaller venues?
Gordon Bok: Oh, yeah, Anything I sang through that era, what fellas use to call “The folk scare of the ‘60s”. It was hard because you had these big halls and the sound men were all rock ‘n roll guys, and that was mostly early ‘70s.
As it sort of wandered out of popularity, then you found you got sound men that knew what they were really doing and were trying to be invisible,
So, it felt more like that there was nothing between you and the audience.
I have hyperacusis, so the stage can easily be the most uncomfortable place for me to spend any time, because it’s so loud.
I can sing loud enough to hurt my ears.
To me it’s back to where it belongs, in peoples’ homes. House concerts, of course, they’re just wonderful. You’re done working, then you toddle off to bed. [Laughs]
Rick: I host house concerts here in the Northern Virginia area.
Gordon Bok: Yeah, and you get to talk to people; you get to meet interesting people. I always found the folk audiences are amazing, you can ask them a more abstrusive question and you’re likely to get an answer.
I remember I tossed one out, I think it was in New Jersey, when I happened to try to remember the gypsy word for a non-gypsy. I not only got the southern Spanish word for a non-gypsy, but I got a flamenco guitar concert in the guy’s house!
They’re wonderful audiences, they love to answer questions to fill you in on the stuff you’re interested in and they send you stuff. It’s just a lovely way to interact.
I can’t imagine a nicer audience and once the ‘folk scare of the ‘60s’ was over, then all of the star syndrome started to sort of go away. You were treated like somebody who did nice stuff and was probably a nice guy, and you were interested in the same things as the other people. So, I just delight in the people I’ve met.
In truth, before I stopped touring a couple of years ago, I was doing tours because I wanted to go see friends I’d made! [Laughs]
Rick: You’ve experienced different levels of success, awards and accolades and more. How do you define success at this point in your life?
Gordon Bok: Hmmm, I look back, we tend to think of a career in terms of awards and things like that. And that’s okay, but I have one letter from my brother to me that makes all the work worth it. There’s a thank you letter from my brother.
There’s that and how have I pleased myself? How well have I sung songs? And I’m always working at that, and it’s rare that I please myself.
Rick: Have you found that you that you’ve been able to blend your altruism with your ambition over the years?
Gordon Bok: Yeah, I think so. When I’m on stage there’s quite often four or five chairs you can’t see, but I can see them.
I’m singing to the people that I’m singing about, and they’re there with me, and I can’t bullshit them. l can’t get away with anything, so that kind of takes care of itself.
Sometimes my brother’s there, sometimes Malcom Brewer, the master builder at the shipyard, is there. It just depends on what I’m singing and who’s looking over my shoulder. [Laughs]
Rick: I guess they know you’re truth.
Gordon Bok: I guess so, yeah.
Rick: You’re up in Maine and I know it gets frigid there in the winter and a Mainer friend of mine once told me that the mosquitoes will suck the life out of you. What’s the attraction?
Gordon Bok: [Chuckles] Well, I consider it a kind land. I love the quiet of the winter, the silence of snows.
The people really, that I have hung out with in my life, they know how the world works. They’re out in it, working with it, farmers, fisherman, woodsmen, boat builders.
I think it’s just a wonderful place to be with the world. a life to be with the world.
Rick: Looking at your background. It seems with your interests in carving, bronze work, boat building and song-writing, that you like to get into slower, almost studious things that you can’t rush, reflective crafts. Do you find you get into those Zen-like moments in the work you enjoy?
Gordon Bok: Yes, it is entirely. I do, in the presence of wood, working with wood it’s just a reverence of mine and it’s like working with some friends on a really beautiful tune.
And I love the concentration and I love a long period of concentration. I like a project and a musical project, and some of mine took years.
Rick: So, you do like being in the moment, when time flashes by and you don’t even know the time? Does it ever get away from you?
Bok: Oh. Absolutely! It goes right up on the roof and it won’t talk to me. [Laughs]
Rick: The instruments you tend to like aren’t the typical instruments that are mass assembled, but are artisan built. I know you’ve worked building instruments or come up with ideas for instruments.
Gordon Bok: Yeah, a couple of things about that; One is that I grew up in a culture that if you wanted something it was more likely that you would make it and there was always somebody down the street who’d be happy to tell you how or show you how.
And so a friend of mine and I set out to make an ice boat. We didn’t have enough wood, so we built a guitar.
And then another friend, Niko Appolonia liked that idea and asked if he could build that particular model, which was a weird looking instrument, it had no curves.
And so we said, “Sure.” So, Nick and I built a few and then he went on to really develop that and another friend and I, Sam Tibbets, decided we didn’t like any 12-string we’d heard, except outside of maybe Ledbelly’s.
So, we took the old family guitar and we wondered if we could make one that had a throaty bass. We built one and then Nick again said , “Wow!”, he liked it and asked if he could use some of those ideas.
Sure, and so he took off and I collaborated with him on a few little things, like the shape of the bell guitar and the balanced bridge on the 12-string, and things like that..
Rick: What’s a balanced bridge?
Gordon Bok: It’s a bridge where the strings run back to a tailpiece. They have to go over a bridge and you want that to be a good connection with the face.
So, you really have to have a saddle in front toward the sound hole and then a hold down bar, bends the strings down. But, you also have to have a saddle in the back. There’s still going to be some torque on the face.
Nick builds the faces very lightly and they’re easily distorted by any torque that the strings create, so there’s a loose saddle sitting on the back of the bridge. If you see the face going up or down, you change the height of the saddle in the back.
Rick: To make sure that it’s taut?
Gordon Bok: Just to make sure the bridge isn’t twisting the face.
Rick: That’s a very minute thing to consider, that I don’t think many have in the past, do you?
Gordon Bok: No, judging by the look of some guitars when they get a little age on them. Most guitars I’ve never played are mass produced instrument, that I was ever interested in. They’re built for safety pretty much. [laughs]
Rick: Yeah, low risk builds. Do you have any new work coming out, an album?
Gordon Bok: Yes, I’m gathering some recordings that didn’t fit in any albums. Some that have come to light recently that I’d forgotten I’d done, and there are a lot of songs that I never recorded.
I’d like them to get down because they’re interesting and nobody else is doing them that I know of.
I know so many songs. They’re like horses. You gotta feed them and let them out. You gotta exercise them. And if you don’t they’re gonna wander off. You hope that somebody else will feed them. That’s why I record them now.
Rick: How do you feel when you hear someone else do your songs, with maybe a slightly different approach?
Gordon Bok: I enjoy it. As a matter of fact, the “Hills of Isle au Haut” I made years back, Bob Stuart who I’d worked with on various projects, he learned it.
But, he rearranged all the ands, the buts and the ifs and I get listening to it and I thought, “Whoa, that made a lot more sense than the way I did it.” So, I learned it his way!
And Meghan McArthur chopped a verse off “Turning of the Morning”, probably one of my most popular and I thought “Wow, that’s what I needed was an editor”. I learned it her way.
I’m happy to hear that and I don’t mind if people change a word here and there, but, yeah, there are somethings I think I would not like people to change.
A couple of them have done one of them, “Peter Kagan and the Wind”, and they just stumbled and blew the cadences. hBecause it stumbled, I felt that was a shame…anyway.
Rick: I guess it’s a compliment, they wanted to grab one of your songs and work with it, I suppose,
Gordon Bok: Yeah.
Rick: Do you have any new songs that you’re working on now or one with a working title?
Gordon Bok: No, I don’t. It’s got such disparate material in it you might ought to call it something like “Hodge-podge”.
Rick: Do you have some songs that you never get tired or performing haven’t played for a while and you rediscover the joy you initially had when playing them?
Gordon Bok: I have so many songs that it sort of automatically happens that some cycle out of my repertoire.
When I go out for two weeks I take, maybe three hundred songs with me. I try to get through them. It’s like the horses, again, you have to exercise them. [Laughs]
Some I’ll just leave for years. What that means too, is that many that I can’t stop doing.
Rick: I found a song I wrote in 1977 and I just added two verses to it four weeks ago. It never felt complete. Do you have songs like that?
Gordon Bok: Oh, I can think of one, the “Herring Croon”. A few years back I wrote the last verse for it and it was kind of a turnaround. It didn’t go in the same direction as the song.
Well, it kind of did, it’s just a very sad time. You know, the Herring are having a hard time.
Rick: Is there a song structure that you prefer?
Gordon Bok: No I don’t. There is a structure that I get into because I’m not thinking enough probably. There are some songs where I don’t do the final chorus.
Rick: What are you listening to these days? Folk or are you more eclectic in your tastes?
Gordon Bok: I’m not that eclectic I like classical, I like some classical guitar, not that I’ll ever be able to play like that. There are two or three I like. I always stop when they come on the radio. I like classical composers too, I don’t slavishly follow them, but some of them had beautiful ideas.
For some reason, Mahler because of how intelligent he sounds.
Right now I listen to a lot of Finnish music, both written and folk music.
Rick: So, what kinds of music influences you?
Gordon Bok: I thought about that a lot and I think I like to be influenced by everything I like. I remember there’s some professional singers that ‘ve tried to copy, their energy or their is something about them that grabs me,
I just try to embrace that and sometimes I’ll be singing, especially a ballad I’ll think , “Whoa!, that sounds like something Helen Schneyer would do.”
And so, I say “I’ll channel Helen for a while.”
I really do enjoy that, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, in a way.
And the voice that most impressed me was a fisherman in Isle of Haut, and he probably never sang in public or certainly never sang for pay, because we talked about that.
It’s like the whole man came through, his love came through and I’d never heard that in a recording, I never heard it by a professional singer.
Rick: It’s almost as if he found his truth in his music like you.
Gordon Bok: Guess so, yeah.
Rick: I recall that you’re also into boatbuilding and you built a ketch.
Gordon Bok: No, that was built by Bruce Malone. I designed it and worked with Bruce on making the designs work.
But, mostly when I was there in the yard, I stayed out of their way and I’d just hang out long enough for them to ask any questions that had.
And then I wanted to build a tender, a lot of the design is based on the fact that I have bad arthritis in my hands, so I can’t sail anymore. It’s dangerous sailing.
So, a lot of the design for the Jeannie Teal is to have a houseboat to be on the water and get across the bay. But, it was designed for our varying abilities.
I also have a wonderful rowboat for probably thirty or forty years, maybe, still got it.
But, I wanted something with more initial stability, so I designed a pram, a ten-foot row-boat I’m building in Bruce’s shop using the same stitch and glue method as the Jeannie Teal.
He invited me to use his shop, which is wonderful because the stuff he has experience in that I don’t, it’s nice to have him around. So, that’s what I’m doing building a small boat with different characteristics than the one I have.
Rick: Sounds like you’ve got a good life.
Gordon Bok: I think so.
Rick: I was talking to my wife a few years ago and I told her when I was younger I focused on my resume and now I’m focusing on building my obituary and I’m focusing on things I never found the time to do when I was younger.
Gordon Bok: I never think about that, there’s always something to do.
Rick: So, you just forge ahead?
Gordon Bok: You know there’s always something to do and there’s an old saying here that a job well dreaded is a job half done! [Both Laugh]
Well, I’ve been dreading some things for a long time!
So, you know I always have something to do that my conscience or something is telling me to get at. Meantime, I’m having so much fun with these boats.
Rick: One of my favorite artists, Warren Zevon once said “Enjoy every sandwich”.
Gordon Bok: Yeah, I like that. [Laughs] My wife is like that and it’s always good to have someone like that.
Rick: How would you describe a typical day in the life of a folk singer, as you experienced it.
Gordon Bok: One thing I tried, especially when before the house concerts came in and filled up those weekdays. I tried to stay somewhere where I knew somebody and go around with them, to see their world.
Especially, New Zealand, places like that where they had little folk clubs. What they can’t provide in dollars they make up in hospitality. We were sort of passed around from one family to another to see favorite places and favorite things to do. It was wonderful.
After a concert I would usually go back and sing at a motel, if I could without disturbing somebody. And I always sang in the morning.
Before I got back on the road, I liked touring by car, because I could practice in the car. I would usually have some musical writing or chorale writing and so would do that, if I was working that night. I loved the simplicity of it.
It’s okay for a while, but it’s miserable on the body. I was difficult to get enough exercise and I have pretty severe arthritis and you’ve got to keep that moving.
Rick: Have you ever done any busking?
Gordon Bok: The only experience I had with that was in Cornwall (U.K.). I think it was Penzance. A guy, had a funny name, was busking on the quay side where the boats were and I went down there with Michael Conner, a storyteller and he introduced the me to this guy and he said he remembered my music. He was amplified and had a real guitar with a decent sized fingerboard.
I did a tune and in the meantime, Michael went to find a policeman to get me arrested. The cop would have none of it and he came over and talked with us.
The other thing was the moment I gave the guitar back to him, he practically played it back note for note, in the same key!
Gordon Bok – A Legendary Songwriter by the Sea and Of the Sea
Source: Guitar International Magazine