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Ann Arbor folk musician Dick Siegel shares his songwriting skills in new Honors minicourse

Torehan Sharman/Daily
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Daily Arts Writer
Published February 7, 2010

Think of your favorite song. It probably has a chorus, a few verses, maybe a bridge, a melody and perhaps some harmony. But that’s not why you listen to it.

According to Dick Siegel, “A song has a very simple purpose. It’s taking a feeling that you have — joy, remorse, love, anger — and capturing it somehow in this melody-rhythm-lyric tangle, and exposing someone else to it.”

The University graduate and Ann Arbor folk community mainstay has been refining the craft of songwriting for more than 30 years. He’s a member of the Detroit Music Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Best New Folk Artist award at the Kerrville Folk Festival and, perhaps most notably, has a ham and turkey sandwich named after him at Zingerman’s Deli.

And now he has the title of University professor to add to his résumé.

Constructing a career

Considering Siegel’s biography, college-aged students are the perfect fit for the course he's teaching, “Singing Out of Our Minds: A Songwriting Workshop." He started writing songs while attending the University as an English major, with the aid of some inspiration from Bob Dylan.

“At some point in college, I rediscovered Dylan,” Siegel said. “When I first heard (him) when I was a kid, I just couldn’t stand (him). But when I started listening to (him) in college, all of the sudden it was like ‘This music is just so visceral and so bare-bones — with just a voice and a guitar.’ And I played guitar and I had a voice.”

Soon Siegel was playing at a weekly open-mic night called the Hootenanny at the Ark in its old Hill Street location. He used this as a jumping-off point to concentrate more time and energy on songwriting.

“One day I took a trip out to California after I graduated in my VW mini-van, and on my way back I thought of some experience I had with somebody — some weird experience,” he said. “And I started making up this song … and it was fun. (I thought) ‘Wow, I just made this up,’ and I liked it. It sort of made sense of something that I was feeling, and when I came back to Ann Arbor, I performed it at the Ark.

"The reception was very good. It was probably better than any other song I was singing.”

This newfound love for songwriting snowballed, and Siegel started to consider his music as the main focus of his life. He was able to maintain this lifestyle with a job in construction on the side.

“I struck some kind of a balance that worked for me,” he explained. “I was doing enough music, performing enough, moving around enough, getting music out to the world enough, and at the same time I wasn’t starving. And I was actually enjoying building things, building houses, being a carpenter.”

Another key factor in the success of Siegel’s music career is the support of the Ann Arbor community and its respect for the “endeavor of being creative.” This rich cultural atmosphere was especially noticeable to Siegel, who grew up in New Jersey.

“Ann Arbor was one of these places that was very friendly to a Bohemian existence, and so it was comfortable to stay here,” he said. “And I’ve lived here ever since.”

“It’s a community that, at least to a greater degree than a lot of places, respects art and music,” he added.

Not only did this culture provide an enthusiastic audience, it also produced a number of talented musicians. Siegel recruited some jazz musicians to form a band called Dick Siegel and the Ministers of Melody. He recorded Snap!, his debut and best-selling album to date, in 1980 with the five-piece.