Kenn Amdahl is best known as the obscure author of “funny books on dull subjects.” Those books are described at ClearwaterPublishing.com
What few people know is that Kenn is an EVEN MORE OBSCURE musician and songwriter. This page will be devoted to that aspect of this obviously complicated man. In his own words:
I started playing guitar in ninth grade in the 1960s. Guitar became my life. I paid for college by giving guitar lessons, playing gigs, and doing occasional studio jobs. I’ve written hundreds of songs, and always hoped better musicians would perform them.
This site is a summary of my “career” in reverse order. That is, most recent first.
Kenn’s Music Store (where everything is free)
Videos of a set I did at the Atrium HERE
Or, you can listen to 11 songs from that gig without the video or the snappy patter HERE
A video of another Atrium gig in 2017 (with completely different songs) was recorded for a local public access TV show and is posted on youtube as Arts Journal #816.
A link to that video, as well as a guide to when individual songs happen, should be HERE.
Sometimes I play songs written by other people. I’ve assembled several songs from old tapes into an “album” which I call Cover Tunes. Sometimes I recorded the melody then added myself improvising harmony, which often became rather silly:
After I left Cottonwood, I took a little vacation from music. I still played in my basement, still wrote a few songs, but was mostly a musical hermit. The exceptions were the times I was asked to speak to a conference of writers or publishers and decided to use the guitar to illustrate my topic. I had been quite involved in the writing and publishing community, having served on the boards of directors of several, but none of those folks knew I played. Surprised the heck out of many of my friends. My son Scott recorded some moments from a couple of these from the audience.
KENN PRACTICING IN A PARK
I was playing in a park for my own amusement when this guy wandered by and recorded me on his cell phone. Turns out he was Shawn Mitchell, a very conservative Colorado State Senator. He posted his little video of me on his Facebook page. We agree on nothing, but became Facebook “friends.” I think you have to sign in to your own Facebook account to watch the video:
Kenn Amdahl plays Shady Grove in a park, in the shade HERE.
That was in maybe 2004 or so. This is how it sounds in 2020:
I resurrected over a dozen Irish songs that have been forgotten since Thomas Jefferson was the US president. You can listen to them on THIS page (via links to youtube). You can also listen to them on my “music store” page under the album title The Ghost of Pleasant Ned.
Songs in the Time of War
During the George W Bush years, Neil Young kept a page on his website called “Songs in the Time of War” and invited songwriters to submit songs to it. Well over a thousand did so and the songs got ranked by popularity. I submitted the following two songs that I recorded on my computer. Each made it into the top twenty in popularity.
In 1994, when VCRs were the hippest thing in the world, my California cousins exchanged video letters with me and my Colorado family. This introduced my sons to relatives they didn’t know they had and vice versa. Here is my version of an inexplicably obscure Fred Engleberg song.
In 1993 I took a course in using the music notation software “Finale.” I didn’t own a midi instrument so I had to input notes one at a time with mouse and curser. Very slow, but I learned a lot and had fun. But then my computer died, I couldn’t get the program for my new computer and the music world was spared. The “final exam” was composing a three minute “symphony;” this is what I came up with. Beethoven is not worried about me.
Cottonwood L to R John Brady. Barb Henry, Kenn Amdahl, Bill Wilton
From 1993 to 2004 my main musical outlet was the group Cottonwood. Over the decade, we performed about 120 songs but many were never recorded. We released two CD’s to enthusiastic response from most of our family members. Those two CD’s included ten of my originals, one I co-wrote, plus 21 non originals. All the songs from those CDs are on this site. I’ve been going through old tapes of gigs and practices and have also digitized and uploaded more than 20 songs that did not make it to CD. That means you can listen to at least 50 songs by Cottonwood without stirring from whatever comfortable spot you currently inhabit. Here’s a sample:
December 1999– Kenn’s very limited edition CD (five copies made)
I spent two hours in KcDunn’s studio and recorded this little solo CD to give to my family. Except for one song, all are originals.
I wrote “When a Woman Shines Her Love” for that CD so I could include at least one new song my family had not heard ten thousand times. Later, “Cottonwood” recorded it on our “Floating” CD with Barb Henry doing lead vocals. This is the way it sounded when I showed it to the rest of the group, from the December 1999 CD:
Here’s how it sounded when Cottonwood recorded it:
I wrote this Christmas song in 1993, I think. Cottonwood performed it several times with nice harmony. But we never recorded it, I lost the lyrics and it was completely lost from the universe for the last 27 years or so. Last week (December, 2021) my wife suggested I play some of my original Christmas songs at an upcoming gig and we talked about this one, but it was lost and I only remembered the title. Then yesterday, my brother in law sent copies of 16 old videos he’d just found that included snippets of my family and his. It was fun, mostly our kids opening presents etc. The only song I recorded on any of those was this one. I’m pretty sure I ultimately wrote a third verse; I think this was while I was in the process of writing it because it only has two verses. If I get ambitious, I’ll write a bit more on it, and record it, perhaps with some harmony and a bridge. A collaboration with my younger self. It was weird to talk about a lost song and then have it show up like that.
After Penn Street, I started singing some duets with Barbara Henry who I’d met in that group. I also started singing some duets with John Brady. Pretty soon two duets merged into one trio. As was the custom back then, we made crude cassettes for practicing. I just found one with me and Barbara singing Fairweather Friends.
Kenn Amdahl and Barbara Henry sang Love Me Like a Man first as a duet. Later, when we formed Cottonwood, we added more harmony, a bass, and percussion. By then, Barb sang lead on all the verses. This is how it sounded when we started to explore it as a duo.
Penn Street: Cap Hamilton, Jill Delage, Barbara Henry, Kenn Amdahl, John Brady
In the early 1990s, Cap Hamilton put together a little acapella group (“Penn Street”) to be guinea pigs for his attempts at arranging songs. Our friend Bill Howe also arranged a couple songs for the group. When Penn Street dissolved, Barb, John and I continued getting together and evolved into the group Cottonwood.
Are You Ready, featuring Cap Hamilton singing lead with his very cool bass voice:
Just before we broke up, we were working on Let It Roll, the only one I really sang “lead” on, and the first one I arranged for the group. This is a tape of it as a work in progress:
These plus eight more Penn Street songs HERE
Last Note Singers
For several years, I sang in a volunteer choir, the Last Note Singers aka LNS. This was a secular, all-volunteer choir that performed in nursing homes, veterans centers, as well as holiday events at the Denver Botanic Gardens and in the mountain town of Georgetown. It sang the Star Spangled Banner several times to open games for the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Several members are mentioned on this site.
In this 1993 screen shot, Barb is on the far left. Just behind her on the video (but cut off in this screen shot) is Bill Wilton. The woman with her hand raised is Dee, who became Jim Loats’ wife. Behind her is Bill Howe who arranged some songs for Penn Street. Beside him, the forehead belongs to Kenn. In front of Kenn is Cap Hamilton. The woman on the far right of the screen is Sally, who is mentioned in my song “The Ballad of Jim Donelan.” Here is a brief clip of the group performing. Cap shared the video:
Ann Imes, John Imes, Sharon Kermiet, May Lawry, Kenn Amdahl
After spending several years playing only in my basement, in maybe 1988 or 89 I joined the Swallow Hill Gospel choir. It was a hoot. Twenty or thirty middle aged white folks tried to sing and clap at the same time. Once we sang at a Baptist church and tried to walk in while also singing and clapping. The congregation was kind and forgiving, but I thought we might incur injuries.
Some folks in the choir became life-long friends, including Cap Hamilton who put together Penn Street (see above). I also started singing some duets with Sharon Polhamus (now Kermiet). She had such a low alto voice she often sang harmony below me,which seemed especially cool and rare. Note: I love the song “If I Needed You” but couldn’t stand some of the lyrics like “who could ill agree” and “lay her lily hand in mine” so I changed the words but tried to make my new lyrics match the sound of the “real” ones. In this recording, Sharon also sings different words than most people use. I suspect she wrote these words, but I don’t recall for sure. This is how folk music works, friends:
Sharon and I were joined by John and Ann Imes, and May Lawry. John was, if possible, even more of a smart aleck than me; he always called me “Two N” as if that were my tribal name. The five of us played a few small gigs as “Synergy” before May jokingly suggested we call ourselves the Bag O’Notes and it sort of stuck. I recorded a few of our songs on my Walkman cassette. John and I remained good friends until his death in a freak canoeing accident a few years ago. Sharon and I remain friends. Sadly, I’ve lost track of Ann and May. Here is the entire group doing I’ll Fly Away/Lover of the Lord. John sings lead on I’ll Fly Away, then sings bass on Lover of the Lord, a song he taught the group.
I have maybe a dozen other songs of that group on scratchy tapes. I will share them HERE.
I hope to find better recordings
I spent my time in commercial real estate, and owning a small nightclub, then a larger nightclub. Although I continued to practice at least a bit and write songs, I don’t think I played any gigs at all during this time. I have a few old tapes of my songs in that era that I’ll post as I find them and digitize them.
I wrote and recorded “Same Old Surroundings” sometime in the early 1970s. This is just audio, plus a brief panoramic view from the yard of the house I owned outside Boulder in the late 1970s:
The songs below are posted as audio only on youtube, you can listen to them for free forever. I’m also starting to assemble an “album” of these for sampling and download HERE
Some of my originals from that time period:
I attended the University of Colorado in Boulder. To pay for school, I played bars and coffeehouses when I could, and gave as many as 40 guitar lessons every week. I also got an occasional gig in a recording studio, providing the music for commercials or for singers who didn’t play an instrument.
In maybe 1968, I met Jim Turner, arguably the world’s best musical saw player. A symphony was written for him, he appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I became his primary accompanist. We played some cool gigs, warming up for Flash Cadillac (the rock band in American Graffiti) at Ebbet’s Field in Denver, and for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot at Tulagi in Boulder. Jim put out one record, “The Well Tempered Saw.” One side was the symphony for saw, the other side included various songs. I played on some of those. I continued to accompany him when he shifted his attention to musical glasses, but we parted ways when he started playing crescent wrenches strung up like a xylophone. I’m sorry, there’s no way to tune a crescent wrench, the guitar/wrench combination didn’t work for me. He now calls himself Jamie Turner and still plays musical glasses and saws in Virginia
The Summer of the Lazy Leopard
In the summer of 1968 I got a call from old friend Doug Carfrae. Doug had (and still has) a lovely voice. He said, hey I’ve got us an audition. Call Cheryl Schumacher, she can play piano. I said, great, but you and I have only played together a few times for Christmas church services and we’ve never played with Cheryl. He said it didn’t matter. Sure enough, we got the gig and the three of us played every weekend that summer at a bar called The Lazy Leopard in north Denver. Doug sang, Cheryl played piano, I played guitar. We mostly did old standards, many of which I’d never heard before, so I often played quietly. Doug and I remain friends and he’s made a good living (and a million friends) in musical theater ever since, or at least until the pandemic wiped out live theater for a while. I married Cheryl a few years later and we just celebrated our fiftieth anniversary. Doug’s father performed the ceremony.
My father brought his reel to reel tape recorder down to the Lazy Leopard one night. Here’s one song:
A note about playing Guitar
I confess, I’ve never been a technically good guitarist and never will be. I didn’t take any lessons until I had too many bad habits to correct. But I enjoyed playing it so much I practiced for hours and hours and was able to help a whole bunch of beginners get off to a better start than mine. I recorded this Bach Bouree much later on a cassette for one of my sons (after I’d gotten rusty on it) but I learned it in high school. I remember the day someone on the school bus asked me if I played guitar. I’d always answered that question by saying “I’m learning to play guitar.” But when I finally wrestled this piece into uneasy submission, I thought for a moment and answered, “yeah, I play guitar.”
Years later, I wrote a little instrumental as a practice thing– it included several little tricks I needed to practice. I’ve got a pretty good recording somewhere else on this site. When I was in a workshop with the great guitarist Tommy Emanuel, he asked me to play something and this is what I played for the group. Most nervous I’ve ever been playing guitar, but he was very kind. We had a couple of very pleasant exchanges over the next few days. Here is a live version, in front of a crowd, I think in Boulder. I was nervous, I play it too fast, which is also what happened when I played it for Tommy.
Here’s my arrangement of the Johnny Smith instrumental “Walk Don’t Run.” Smith was a well-known studio guitarist in the 1950s, perhaps the greatest jazz guitarist of his generation. The first time I saw him play a concert, my jaw literally fell open. Late in his career, he played one night a week at a little restaurant in Denver. I exchanged some lessons with his bass player (he helped me with jazz, I helped him with fingerpicking) and, as a result, I got to meet Johnny Smith and shake his hand. Remarkably gentle handshake.
And here’s a little “guitar lesson” I gave to some writers at a conference. There’s a link to the whole talk somewhere on my site, but this little segment is where the guitar becomes more involved. Start about two minutes in.
I’ve started to assemble the few recordings of my instrumentals, and will add to it if I find more
After The New LulaZick Singers faded away, Kenn and Stan Swanson continued to play as a duo. We played regularly at The Blue Guitar in Denver. As our senior year ended, that little coffeehouse invited us to become their resident group, probably in exchange for all the coffee we could drink. Alas, I was offered a chance to be in the St Olaf College honors program if I could survive a summer up there in Minnesota. As my father explained it, my only choices were St Olaf and Vietnam.
I survived the college program and transferred to the University of Colorado despite my parents, but by the time I returned to Colorado, the folk scene had crashed. Stan and I tried to continue while going to C.U. but Stan ultimately joined the Army, got shipped to Germany, and that was that. Here are some samples from old tapes:
The New LulaZick Singers
L to R: Stan Swanson, Berta Keith, Dean Reiter, Nancy Ogle, Kenn Amdahl
Stan Swanson and I went to the same junior high school while we were learning to play guitar. We got together several times. In high school, we added Berta Keith and Dean Reiter and became “known” as The Midnight Ramblers and later “The New LulaZick Singers” (after Berta’s grandmother). Sometimes we were joined by Nancy Ogle, sometimes we formed a larger jug band that included Mike Davis, Leslie Sakato, and others. The Lulazicks enjoyed the gigs that were available to us, including playing a few songs at The Analyst in Denver (later called the Denver Folklore Center) on a night that also featured Bob Lind (soon to become famous for Elusive Butterfly).
I’m still facebook friends with Stan and Berta. We still threaten to get back together and go on a reunion tour. Dean died several years ago. I lost track of Nancy.
I found some old Lulazick tapes, but I hesitate to upload them. Some of the harmonies were quite nice, but notice the guitar I’m holding above? My father and I built it before I knew anything about guitars, which was still more than he knew. The strings are a half inch above the frets, which means it was not possible to play “in tune” notes. One older friend, an excellent guitarist, said the only way he’d be able to hold down a chord on it would be with a C-clamp. My left hand got strong, but now that I can hear the difference, it’s painful to listen to. I’ve got a bunch of old, unlabeled tapes and I hope I find better recordings of this group.
I still own the guitar and finally, decades later, tuned it down to an open C chord, making it almost usable. I wrote two songs with it like that, “War is the President’s Weed” and “Sitting Quite Still” (on this page they are listed right after the Irish songs). If you listen to those songs you’ll hear the deep bass notes that huge guitar produced. It may not have written its last song.
Before High School
I wrote several songs just as my voice was changing. All were pretty derivative, you can hear the strong influence of the old folk music I was learning. This one, “Down Down Down” probably arose from hearing songs about mining disasters and deciding I had plenty enough life experience to contribute to the genre. I employed our old metronome as percussion, and convinced my mother to whack something against a chunk of metal, maybe a horseshoe.
I think “Rocks and Steel” was the first original song I played in public. Typical of the casual way we treated posterity, the end of the song got cut off when we decided to record something else on top of it. I still like it– maybe I’ll try to record it again.
My father was an excellent whistler, so I started whistling early. I often imitated meadowlarks and other birds, sometimes engaging in lengthy call and response conversations with them. But my sense of musical pitch was never great (in fifth grade the school gave kids tests for musical aptitude and told my parents I had none.) Listening to some of these old tapes, including my mother playing our old piano, I realized that some of the problem was that piano was so far out of tune it’s no wonder I became casual about pitch. This is the only recording I know of of me whistling, probably as a sound check on the tape recorder. I obviously didn’t know the melody very well, but it was fun to hear it anyway.
The next song is, I think, the very first song I ever wrote. It was a jingle for the insecticide “Raid” which the company inexplicably did not adopt. If they would have, and paid me pretty much anything, I would have devoted much more of my life to song writing and almost certainly become rich and famous. My sister Ruth sings it with me, my father plays drums.
You know, young people are rough drafts of the people they might become. This is me in about ninth grade, doing a crude approximation of Don’t Think Twice. I was just learning to Travis pick and learning how to sing while I was playing. It was before I’d learned the part about “tuning your guitar.” Weird to find this artifact so many decades later. I still like the kid I was. But there’s a reason I NEVER show the first draft of anything I write to ANYONE.
The “collections” or albums on this site, free for the listening or download. They are in no particular order:
For several years I posted links to musicians I liked mostly so I could find them quickly. Haven’t updated it in a long time, but it’s still handy.