In August of last year, the massive Carr Fire swept through Shasta and Trinity counties. The deadly fire killed five civilians and three firefighters, and destroyed more than 1,600 buildings.
Three months later in November, the Camp Fire ripped through Butte County. With 86 victims, it was the deadliest American fire in 100 years, and the deadliest in California history. It was also the most destructive in state history, burning more than 18,800 buildings.
For folk singer Debra Cowan, a California native, the fires were personal.
“There are some dear, dear friends who lost everything,” she said.
She looked for a way she could help. As fire survivors begin to rebuild their lives, she realized that they would need financial help. The musicians among them would also need to replace instruments, equipment, and other tools of their craft.
So she’s traveling to her old stomping grounds in Northern California — Lodi included — for a series of benefit concerts. Hosted by the Arts at St. John’s, Cowan will be raising funds for fire victims here on Feb. 10.
Cowan was drawn to folk music from an early age, growing up during the revival of the genre in the 1960s.
“I had my ear glued to top 40 radio, and they were playing Peter, Paul and Mary,” she said.
Soon, she was listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and folk rockers like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior was an inspiration.
“She’s an amazing singer. I just fell in love with her singing and her interpretations of the ballads,” Cowan said.
But she didn’t set out to sing folk music. In fact, she was a middle school math teacher for 11 years.
“It was great. It was really good,” she said.
Even there, though, Cowan didn’t leave music behind. She’d bring in her guitar and perform for the students every once in a while.
“They sure liked that because then they didn’t have to do math,” she said with a laugh.
The music drew her away. Cowan began performing, then touring.
While she sings a variety of folk music, Cowan’s focus is on traditional ballads. As a history buff, she loves that people hundreds of years ago were singing about topics that are still relevant today: love gone wrong, being scorned by a lover, murder, robbery, disrespect.
“They’re timeless, really,” Cowan said.
Her favorites are about love, work, the role of women, and the human condition in general.
“They point out where we’ve been, and where we are now,” she said — and where we still have room for improvement.
She also likes to get the audience involved, singing along with the chorus.
But while she loves sharing her favorite parts of the folk genre, choosing a favorite song is another story.
“That’s like asking which one of your children is the favorite,” she said.
These days, Cowan tours all over North America and the world.
“I’ll go anywhere to sing,” she said. “I try to get over to England and the United Kingdom at least once a year.”
She’s even made it to Israel, a “bucket list” trip.
Cowan has had the chance to meet a lot of fascinating people. Among folk musicians and fans, she said, community is hugely important. She often is invited back to stay with a fan or a fellow musician during her tours.
“I call myself a professional house guest,” she said with a chuckle. “The generosity and kindness with which we musicians are treated is so humbling. I’m just grateful that I get to do this, and people open their homes to me and other musicians.”
Now Cowan has a chance to give back. She hopes the local community will join her for a folk concert and a good cause.