For the fifth year in a row, Andru Bemis shared his gift of music. The sun was setting behind Seymour, casting an orange glow on his long brown hair and banjo. The Gizmo patio was alive with audience members ranging from students to alumni and from parents to professors.
This man understood performance. He began on the fiddle, much to my enjoyment. I took a few pointers from his authentic technique and tried it later in CFA, only to find that his skill at story-telling is matched by his technical abilities. He played banjo and guitar, of course, and the banjolele as well.
He sat on the ledge facing filled tables, refusing to take a chair from the crowd, yet felt too far away. He enticed us to move closer and then joined us cross-legged on the ground. He sang “Shooting Squirrels,” “Kitty Clyde” and favorites such as “Huck Finn,” “Crawdad” and “Hard Times.”
His attention was on everyone but himself. Alum John Lane, fellow fiddler and friend, said of Bemis, “He is the most unself-conscious performer I’ve ever seen. He takes a crowd and interacts with the mood and when it changes, he changes with it.”
I wondered if Bemis created the mood or if the mood created his performance. I asked and Bemis said, “People want to have a good time. I just seem to be the facilitator of atmosphere.”
Bemis was completely sensitive to his atmosphere and improvised to sustain his performance within the mood of each moment. Moreover, his eccentricities added charm. He wore a worn green hat with a flower and pants patched with love, which reminded me of the song he sang by Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors.” He shared lessons of poverty, happiness, trouble and love and each song carried a message that I felt resonate within me and in those around me.
Bemis sang of lovers he never had and those he lost. He teased the crowd along with himself when we struggled to memorize a few simple lines. Thankfully, there were musicians in the crowd who could carry a tune and string a few words together. And then there are those of us who struggled. But Bemis worked with mis-sung lyrics. In “Crawdad,” he changed the chorus to what the crowd sang, albeit incorrectly, but he stayed with us. After we got the words right, he said we might graduate yet.
That’s what Bemis gave: hope and good times. He spread love through his music. I asked him why he enjoys traveling. He said he does it for the people. Crowds bring him back because he takes the time to know our stories. He passed around a memoir-book that anyone could sign or draw in. He gave memories and took some back for himself.
As I interviewed him, senior Eileen O’Brien approached to thank him for his gift of music on her birthday. He obliged her again and performed a personal serenade.
“He sang to me what I believe in! He understands!” she said.
I must agree. Andru Bemis understood music and how to share it with others.
He offered his secret to success- poverty.
“Try it,” he said. “I’ve never been happier.”
As an afterthought to the music and good time, he remembered to tell us about his new website. Check it out at andrubemis.com.
Like his banjo said, he is “Headin’ East.” On Friday he gives a performance in Pittsburg, then return to South Haven, Michigan where he works at a not-for-profit community performance center. He facilitates music for children, teenagers, young adults and young-at-hearts and I hope he does until the day he dies.