Retro active

Connecting with people is one of the primary reasons Kenneth Lelen became a musician. Friday night he’ll be performing at Alphabooks in Pennington.

By: Jim Boyle
   Living in an age where most best-selling musicians come packaged, sealed and delivered to our radios without such bothersome qualities as relevance or significance, it’s easy to forget when music actually had an edge.
   Kenneth Lelen hasn’t forgotten. In fact, the Titusville resident has been working almost 30 years to keep people aware of the importance music has to the social landscape. He performs folk songs from the 1920s and ’30s that fostered feelings of public unrest.
   "Folk music is more evocative of the time periods," says Mr. Lelen. "The songs were topical of the time. It was more socially active music, as opposed to the later popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, it has more historical significance. It reminds us of our heritage."
   Connecting with people is one of the primary reasons Mr. Lelen became a musician. Starting out in the 1960s playing with some friends form high school, he found guitar playing to be a very social activity.
   "At the time, it was more about the social experience than the historical," he says. "As I went on, I realized I was connecting to an earlier generation."
   Woody Guthrie’s music influenced Mr. Lelen early in his career. He appreciates how Mr. Guthrie created timeless songs.
   "He had a talent for using well-known melodies to accompany his lyrics," he says.
   Mr. Lelen recently added ragtime and blues to his repertoire, which he will bring to Alphabooks in Pennington Feb. 2. An avid collector of vintage music and instruments, he found his additional styles came about almost involuntarily.
   "Five or six years ago, I picked up this old guitar and tried playing some folk songs," he says. "It didn’t want to play that style. It wanted something different. I learned ragtime and jazz and found the guitar played better with that kind of music. There’s a saying that sometimes you don’t pick the guitar; the guitar picks you. The same can be said about music. "
   Mr. Lelen felt no misgivings about attempting new methods of playing. He went back and learned old ragtime, jazz and swing standards. The discovery process invigorated him and brought a renewed interest.
   "It’s very absorbing to be in the learning process," he says. "It was exciting to learn these new songs."
   He also encountered original sheet music to songs altered by different interpretations over the years.
   "’Blue Moon,’ written in 1934, has been re-created with different speeds," says Mr. Lelen. "The original music, when played at the intended speed, turns out to be a great love song."
   Another example Mr. Lelen points out is "After You’ve Gone." Turned into a very fast jazz song, the original was written as a ballad. When Mr. Lelen performs the tune, he doesn’t stick to the intended tempo, but keeps it slower than most renditions.
   "I feel I’m accomplishing a couple things when I am on stage," he says. "I’m lengthening the life service of these old songs. I’m also finding a way to connect with people. There is a sense when the audience gets it."
Kenneth Lelen performs at Alphabooks at Pennington Center, 25 Route 31 South, Pennington, Feb. 2, from 7-9 p.m. For information, call (609) 730-9333.
For directions to Alphabooks, click here.