With six internationally acclaimed albums and a well-received book of poetry to his name, Rodney DeCroo is turning his talents to the theatre. I met with Mr. DeCroo in Vancouver at a Commercial Drive café in late August and talked with him about his current project.
Allegheny, BC, directed by Jane Heyman, is a musical and poetic journey through the landscape of DeCroo’s early life. DeCroo delivers the main performance, accompanied by Mark Haney on the double bass. Gal Minnes provides lighting, set design, and videography.
DeCroo told me that “The songs, stories and poems in the performance add up to an arc. Not necessarily a narrative arc, but an emotional journey through the piece. They focus on my childhood in Western Pennsylvania along the Allegheny River and my later years as a young man in British Columbia.”
“The performance deals with my relationships with my brothers, friends, family, and the environment, and of course the river features heavily in the piece. Marc Haney accompanies me through the entire show, and his double bass becomes in a way a character that I’m dialoguing with.”
“It provides a lot of resonate textures, it highlights transitions, it’s this constant prod that keeps me moving through life. It doesn’t allow for self-pity, it doesn’t allow me to stay in one place for too long. We’ve also had to work a lot on my performance of the songs and the poems and the stories, digging into them the way that an actor digs into a text.”
He described Allegheny as a work of transformative theatre. He said that it “looks at a period of my life that was far from ideal, and it does what I like poetry or theatre or song to do: it takes difficult, ugly circumstances and events and delves into them to find some beauty and transcendence, so that we’re altered by it, that we see that our lives are meaningful even in the worst of times, that those relationships we have, no matter how fractured, no matter how challenging, are valuable. It’s a kind of alchemy.”
DeCroo has an abiding faith in the power of art to reveal and ennoble the deeper currents in people’s lives. “I’m not interested in a lot of the postmodernist theory-driven poetry,” he explained. “What I am interested in is communicating. When I set out in a poem or a song to tell a story there’s something I’m trying to communicate, and I value the desire to achieve something universal in that process, to take a moment in time and highlight it because it has something worth communicating. I don’t know if ‘meaning’ is the word so much as understanding.
“In the poem ‘Certain Things,’ for example, I’m speaking to a person who embodies the voice of all those who say that narrative, meaning, attempts at truth, even if they’re relative to our circumstances and our individuality, don’t matter. I’m saying to him, ‘So these things didn’t happen to me? My brother doesn’t call at 2am to say he has cancer and it’s too soon, neither of us having any idea where we’re going? It isn’t all I or anyone can do to see where we’ve been?’”
“What I’m always trying to do is to see where I’ve been, where we’ve been, not in the grand sense, but to see what was significant about these interactions, about this event that occurred. What was significant about the apprehension of this image and what did it tell us about what it means to be human in the fullest sense of the word? Because I think that’s probably one of the most important things we do, trying to understand what it is to be human.”
DeCroo believes that modern culture often discourages us from seeking this understanding. “I feel that we live in a corporate culture,” he said. “Our culture itself is corporate influenced, corporate themed, corporate determined. It’s a mile wide and an inch deep.”
“It is the enemy of soulfulness, it is the enemy of spirit, it is the enemy of inwardness, because they want to keep us empty, to create a culture of emptiness, alienation and inadequacy, one that’s bereft of a connection with our soul, our spirit, and others, so we constantly consume. It’s tragic because it dumbs us down, it limits us in so many ways. It robs us of some of the most meaningful things we can hope to find.”
His work stands in stark contrast to the emotionally unchallenging performances so common in the folk music scene. He said that “I think sometimes people resist what I do. They say it’s too dark, it’s too heavy, yet I grew up listening to Appalachian murder ballads and folk songs which are always intense. I don’t even know what that term, ‘dark’, means. I think sometimes people aren’t equipped to deal with the material I’m offering because the culture has been hollowed out so that poetry and many of the elements that religion gave us to sort out our inner lives, to deepen them, are absent.”
DeCroo draws upon a musical tradition at odds with the commodification so endemic to corporate culture. “I’m using the word ‘tradition’ very loosely,” he told me. “I don’t play Bluegrass music, I don’t do Appalachian or mountain music, but I’m deeply inspired by the themes that in music because they deal with the hard stuff of living, the stuff we need help with, the stuff we need to express, the stuff we need to know we’re not alone in.”
“And that came from people who were not wealthy, not privileged, from the working poor, the grassroots. It came from the circumstances of life and a need to find the gold in it through expression. It’s self-sustaining, it’s looking to know itself, it’s looking for connections. It’s looking not just to the people around you but to oneself and to one’s immediate geography, the land. Corporate culture wants to empty out everything, to create a hunger to be filled up. The stuff that I care about in music and poetry and theatre provides the things that corporate culture would rob us of.”
He spoke about what poetry has meant to him over the course of his life. “When I found the works of poets like George Herbert and John Donne and Alexander Pope and Byron and Keats and Shelley in my late teens, I found something that seemed to be an antidote to the overwhelming sense of banality and emptiness I felt around me, the sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness.”
“It seemed suddenly to elevate life, to give it a dignity. There was beauty in the sounds, it was providing something that was missing in life. It gave me a sense of connection with the poets, with the moments of apprehension they were experiencing through their poems, making them universal. I was able to connect with that. There was a world much larger than myself that in those moments I was somehow a part of.”
After some thought he added, “It’s made my life worth living.”
Allegheny, BC is running as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival from September 5th until September 15th.