Songs often start with the strumming of a guitar and the scratching of a pencil on paper.
For musicians like Johnny Irion, that pencil is most likely a Blackwing, perhaps the recently released Blackwing Vol. 200, which was created to honor coffeehouses like Caffè Lena, where Irion will perform a benefit concert on Wednesday.
The songwriter and musician connected with Blackwing because of his great uncle John Steinbeck, who famously used Blackwing 602s.
“John would sharpen 24 pencils a day and then he would start writing,” Irion said. “He’d sharpen them before he would start writing so [he] could just run them down to the nub, and then pick another one up and keep going. That’s how he wrote ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ He loved those pencils, and so did a lot of other artists.”
That list includes Stephen Sondheim, Truman Capote, E.B. White and many others. Blackwing pencils were first produced in the 1930s when the 602 model was introduced by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. It was known for its soft, dark graphite and square eraser and garnered a devoted following. The line was discontinued in 1998 and pencil enthusiasts paid top-dollar for the last remaining models on eBay.
Finally, in 2010, a company called Palomino revived the brand and the favored pencils went back into production. Since then, Blackwing has gone on to produce Blackwing Volumes, special editions that honor famous figures or music/art history. The company also works with musicians like Irion to produce music and develop arts education programs.
Its latest Blackwing Volumes (Vol. 200) is centered around Caffè Lena, with a metallic copper design inspired by copper coffee roasting machines found in coffeehouses of the 1960s. Earlier this year, the company filmed a short video at Caffè Lena and interviewed Executive Director Sarah Craig about the historic venue.
“Usually, when the spotlight is shining on a venue, it’s going to be a venue like Club Passim, which is in Boston, or it’s going to be on a venue in New York City, but to have it be on this little, off-the-beaten-path place in Saratoga Springs I think is part of what’s remarkable about this story,” Craig told The Gazette in a recent interview.
Irion has brought his lyrical storytelling to the coffeehouse many times, often alongside his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie’s daughter).
“[I have] a lot of memories there. . . Our daughters basically grew up backstage in the green room. It’s a part of our family,” Irion said.
While he didn’t necessarily grow up in a music-oriented family, he vividly remembers the first time he listened to a record; specifically, a Beach Boys record that his aunt had.
“I felt like there was another world out there,” Irion said.
That other world led to record deals (“Unity Lodge,” “Ex Tempore,”) and 30-plus years of touring. Before the pandemic, he was wrapping up the tour for his last album, “Driving Friend,” which was released by Blackwing. After years of grueling tours, he needed a change.
“Being an artist, just in general, is a struggle until all the pieces fall into place. It’s not an easy path,” Irion said, “I made a vow to myself that I was going to work on my studio. . . I just needed a break. I was just worn out from touring after so many years.”
Irion, who is based in Washington, Massachusetts, lined up some commercial work and connected with two friends and authors to write music, he said, for film projects surrounding their books (“Stand Up That Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze and “The Other Dr. Gilmer” by Benjamin Gilmer).
“Lo and behold, all those dreams and aspirations started to come to fruition as the pandemic was hitting, which was completely bizarre,” Irion said.
He’s spent the last few years of the pandemic working on those commercial projects and writing songs for his band, like the recently released “Norman Rockwell Blues,” a timely tune that speaks to the sense of loneliness and isolation that many felt in the pandemic. It’s the first in a series of songs Irion will release that lean more toward pop.
Irion’s also been reconsidering how he’ll be touring in the future.
“I’m trying to re-renegotiate with myself as an artist how to make going into a town just not going into a town and adding to a footprint of some sort, that’s not helping anything, except for me,” Irion said.
The Caffè Lena benefit show is a good jumping-off point. On Wednesday, he’ll be performing with the Hold On Honeys, Troy-based three-part harmony singers. It will mark the trio’s Caffè Lena debut.
“They’re gonna be a force to reckon with,” Irion said of the trio, which features Emily Curro, Raya Malcolm and Shannon Rafferty.
The show is underwritten by Blackwing, and Craig hopes it fills the house, which would bring in $2,000.
“I hope Saratoga shows up for Caffè Lena. You’re gonna get a great show and all the proceeds go to Caffè Lena. So you’re gonna keep bringing in new artists and keeping the community super vibrant,” Irion said.
They’ll have some of the Blackwing Vol. 200 pencils at the show as well. Verbiage found on the packaging sings of Caffè Lena’s history and its cultural importance: “Opened in a former woodworking shop in 1960, Caffè Lena remains the oldest continually running coffeehouse in the United States. That longevity has allowed it to host countless creative icons from the Beatniks to members of the Folk Revival, and established Caffè Lena as a cornerstone of the creative counterculture in America.”
Given Blackwing’s popularity, and that the pencils are sold across the globe, the coffeehouse pencil may raise awareness about the Saratoga Springs venue.
“It’s easy at Caffè Lena to start thinking that you’re the center of the universe because the venue has accumulated so many amazing friendships and connections out there in the world and it feels like wherever I go I run into somebody who knows about Caffè Lena,” Craig said. “but the truth is that will always inevitably fade unless you continue to stay out there in the world and continue to make the history visible to people and continue to make new connections. We really want to do that because we believe that this music that we represent, this 60s revival of American folk traditions, is a really important part of American music history.”
It also helps to honor venues that foster independent music.
“Music starts on small stages and we need to honor those small stages and make them visible to people who love music, which I would argue is almost everybody,” Craig said.
Johnny Irion and the Hold On Honeys
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13
WHERE: Caffè Lena
MORE INFO: caffelena.org
For more on Blackwing, visit https://blackwing602.com