THE POWER OF NEGATIVE INSPIRATION By Doug Bright

It was 1965 and, at a time when most of my contemporaries were grooving up on the Beatles, I was a teenage folksinger–and proud of it! When I went to the recently built Seattle Opera House to catch Ian and Sylvia, Josh White, and my hometown’s own Brothers Four in one glorious show, it was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my young life. Unfortunately, the critic whose review appeared the following morning in a local paper was considerably less enthralled.

Today, forty years later, I look back on that less-than-enthusiastic critique as the seed that eventually inspired my writing career. Ironically enough, what impressed me most was the reviewer’s obvious ignorance of the subject to which he’d been assigned. Young as I was, I was positive that I knew more about folk music than he did and could therefore have done an infinitely better job. At the time, however, no vehicle for proving my point was apparent, so that seed of negative inspiration lay dormant for quite a while.

Music has been my life’s most consistent passion, and I’ve been playing instruments and collecting records since I was five years old. Since the Seattle Public Schools were better equipped to educate blind children than their counterparts in the suburban community of Mercer Island where we lived, my dad took me into town for school every morning on his way to work, and my mom, who made the effort to learn Braille and transcribed some textbooks for the school system, would drive into town to pick me up at the end of the school day. By the summer of 1969 my Braille proficiency, my Smith-Corona portable typewriter, and an array of textbooks taped by volunteers had gotten me through my freshman year at the University of Washington.

During the course of that year, my bluegrass band, The Country Victrola, had played a benefit concert which I put together for an organization that provided help to blind people in the community. I recorded the show, which featured my band and two of my favorite local folk balladeers, and on the basis of the tape, I wrote a scrupulously objective review for the organization’s monthly magazine. The notion of participatory journalism that I initiated back then has since yielded some of the most vibrant articles of my writing career.

Armed with a sample of my first published work, I went to Rolf Stromberg at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in search of work. He told me that he liked my writing, but the paper had no openings for aspiring music critics at the time, so I simply forgot about developing a writing career–for twelve full years!

It was September 1981. I had just given up on a well-known multilevel marketing endeavor and, thanks to the inspiration of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, reasoned my way out of a very strong religious affiliation. I was a happily employed musician, but I was hungry for a more direct intellectual outlet. Like Kathryn Howard, whose success story appeared here in the June 8 edition, I was ready to reinvent myself. Though it had been buried beneath other pursuits for many years, my dream of music journalism was still alive, and it was now beginning to awaken. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that the best way to pursue that dream might lie in creating my own publication.

The exact nature of the publication wasn’t immediately clear. For a while, I thought it might involve a mix of musical critique and my newly libertarian political perspective. One morning, however, I awoke with a crystal-clear vision of the shape my creation would take. Aflame with excitement, I wrote down my idea in full detail. Today, 24 years later, I’m firmly convinced that if I hadn’t committed my inspiration to paper, nothing would have come of it.

I determined that my newsletter would reflect my passion to preserve America’s great heritage of jazz, blues, vintage rock, folk, and country music, and each monthly issue would contain two or three articles and a day-to-day performance calendar alerting readers to local artists who were keeping the music alive. I started going out and listening to bands, taking copious notes on my conveniently compact Braille slate, and turning those notes into publishable stories. Compared to the ease with which I work today, article preparation was an amazingly time-consuming process back then. It involved writing each draft in Braille until I arrived at a finished piece, then typing the articles for cutting and pasting into a complete issue. With the help of a graphic artist at a now-defunct arts organization, I launched HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW in November 1981.

At the time, I had no way of knowing whether my little creation would succeed or fail. There was nothing to do but, in the words of my comedic hero Stan Freberg, “run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.” I simply showed my product to anyone and everyone whom I thought it might interest, and lo and behold, some of those folks actually subscribed! I was delighted, of course, but I was also smart enough to realize that my unconventional enterprise wasn’t likely to make me an overnight millionaire, so I proceeded cautiously, printing only as many copies as I thought I could sell. A host of publications have come and gone since then, but because I was willing to grow slowly rather than bankrupt myself with a big initial splash, HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW is still around.

Over the years, my status as a regularly published writer, albeit a self-published one, gave me a degree of credibility that allowed me to meet and interview some of my greatest musical heroes and sell stories to other periodicals, including a couple of national ones. Thanks to a wonderfully supportive graphic artist and printer, a scanner that converts printed research materials to speech or downloadable ASCII text, a DOS-based computer device called a Braille Lite 2000, a good old-fashioned dial-up modem, and an online service whose text-based Lynx browser opens to me the power of the World Wide Web, my work is a million times easier than it was when I ran my fledgling paper up the proverbial flagpole in November 1981. With the completion of a website, http://www.heritagemusicreview.com, I expect my grown-up brainchild to finally turn the corner to achieve full and glorious profitability. Some things are simply worth doing, no matter how long they take to succeed.

Doug Bright is the critic, editor and publisher of HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW, a monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond. For a free sample copy of the print edition ($15 per year) or a free subscription to the text e-mail edition, you can write to him at editor-at-heritagemusicreview.com.