What do Bruce Springsteen, leukemia, the Funk Brothers, Afghanistan and Iraq, Chuck Berry, bone marrow transplants, and blue-eyed soul have to do with Stewart Francke and his music?
Francke, whose recent song "Summer Soldier" features Bruce Springsteen in a vocal "call-and-response" chorus, spoke to two classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Thursday. I was fortunate enough to join both classes for his presentations which included live musical interludes by Stewart on the guitar. Not only was I struck by his genuineness and humanity, I was equally impressed with the questions he was asked by young undergraduates, many of whom don't know James Brown from Jackson Browne and soul from Seoul.
But they know an authentic song when they hear one, and they know honest man when they see one. That about sums up Stewart Francke and his music.
"My songs are based in rock and roll and soul music," Francke said in response to a question about his musical styles. "Both are very human, and the music is caught up in this rolling ball of glue kind of art that picks up everything in their path, and rolls backward and forward, collecting emotions and echoes from the church and the home and the fields and the plants -- from everything and everyone."
In the best tradition of Bruce Springsteen, Francke believes that music, at its finest, should move those of us who hear it to take some sort of action -- to learn more, to right a wrong, or even just to dance and have fun. "It's about connecting with the community," says the pride of Detroit. "Mostly it's about me reaching out to other people, asking 'How's it been for you?' When they tell me, I'll put that into a song and, in turn, try to reach as many people with that message as I can."
This was the case when Francke was asked by his Michigan neighbors who were in the National Guard and Reserves, fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for signed posters, CDs, and other memorabilia. One soldier even asked Francke to send him a box of leaves from Michigan so he could smell home.
"Some of them wrote back," he recalls. "One young woman was a mother as well, and she was over there for nine months on her third tour after being promised she was done rotating a year ago. The song is about one soldier dying, but it's also about the wars and how our military people are asked to go on third, fourth and even fifth tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear purpose."
"Summer Soldier (Holler If Ya Hear Me)" is the standout track on Francke's latest album Heartless World. It doesn't hurt to have Bruce Springsteen helping you to "holler" and be heard.
"It is a really generous thing for Bruce to do," Francke says, "and a great honor for me. It was always his voice I heard on the call and response part of this track, but I figured it would remain just a wish. Bruce had said some kind words about my music in the past, so I sent the song to his management. He found something in it compelling enough to join me, and I'm still overwhelmed by it all."
"Bruce's involvement sure ups the ante on my career," Francke adds with a laugh. "He's the quintessential artist of our time -- the guy who wrote the book on how it's done. Quite simply, it's a dream come true."
Speaking of dreams come true, the fact that Stewart Francke, a cancer (leukemia) survivor and the beneficiary of a bone marrow transplant, is still alive and making music is also a dream come true. That was his parting message to UW-Madison students.
"Not every songwriter gets the chance to comment on life and death from where I was," he points out. His recovery prompted him to launch The Stewart Francke Leukemia Foundation to help fund bone marrow searches for minority and low-income patients since they are less likely to find a match with a family member.
"I also do smaller things on my own, like performances at churches, the Light The Night Walks, and media events," he says with a passion that's palpable. "I can't tell you how much I've learned and how much fortitude and hope lives in their (cancer patients) eyes."
You can see it in Stewart Francke's eyes too, and you can hear it in his music. As long as he's around, Stewart Francke will combine the best traditions of rock and roll, soul, funk and gospel to make songs that remind us what it takes to make up a full life and what we owe each other as it compares to what we owe ourselves.
Not a bad message to hear in a university classroom anywhere, any time.