Annual programs

Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium

April 1, 2021: Nona Hendryx

In the spirit of two fisted political singer songwriters such as Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell, Nona Hendryx tackles social issues, love and politics with a smoky vocal tessitura somewhere between funk and the end of the stratosphere. Hendryx’s legendary career spans six decades of sound and style evolution. Fans know her as a founding member of the girl group, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles (with Sarah Dash, Cindy Birdsong and Patti LaBelle) known as “the Sweethearts of the Apollo Theatre” and inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame in 1999. In the 70s, the group morphed into the Rock & Funk Glam Diva's Labelle with the #1 record, Lady Marmalade. Hendryx emerged as the chief songwriter of the group’s socially conscious and illuminating message songs. If Labelle fans grieved the end of Labelle, Hendryx fans welcomed a new one as the revolutionary art-rock, new-wave goddess embarked upon her own impressive solo career, which spanned eight studio albums and engaged her with an impressive lineup of collaborators (Prince, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Bono and Cameo), resulting in top ten hits and a Grammy nomination.

Fast forwarding into the 20th and 21st century, Nona Hendryx remains the Queen of Transformation: writing music for theatre, a play with music (BLUE written and directed by Charles R. Wright and starring Phylicia Rashad for Arena Stage and the Roundabout theatre in NY), composing music for film (the Lee Daniels 2010 Oscar-nominated Precious), producing and collaborating in the works of a new generation of artists, cowriting songs, and appearing on the Terri Lyne Carrington Grammy Award-winning Mosaic Project Hendryx is an activist and vocal supporter for women’s rights, social, political and criminal justice. She has helped to raise funds and awareness of HIV/AIDS from the outbreak of the epidemic and is still involved today. Dreaming of being an educator Nona worked with education organizations supporting women in prison, a school in Chicago, Little Black Pearl, taught stage craft at The Clive Davis Recording Academy and founded in 2016 her own non-profit, to bridge the gap in science, math, art, technology and robotics for young women of color ages 14 to 18.

Hendryx added Ambassador for Artistry in Music at Berklee College of Music in Boston to her career. Working across three departments; Music Ensemble, Music Theater and Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department with the guidance of the EPD Chair Michael Bierylo and co-Chair Michele Darling.

Hendryx presented multimedia performances at MoogFest and MASS MOCA collaborating with Visual Artist, Nick Cave (Until and The Let Go). She created and directed ‘The State Of Grace’ a celebration of the artist Grace Jones, performed in the cavern like Drill Hall in The Park Avenue Armory for Theaster Gates’ Black Artist Retreat. Having made yet another transformation into a multimedia CyberDiva, Hendryx writes music across genres with politically and socially relevant lyrics wrapped in neo-funk grooves, other worldly sound designed music, soulful vocals and art-rock charged rhythms. Performing in and writing a song ‘Grace’ (Trust and Believe) for Carrie Mae Weems' Grace Notes marked the beginning of another artistic collaboration.

Not slowing down, in 2019 Nona create a new interdisciplinary work inspired by Carrie Mae Weems ‘Kitchen Table and Ulysses Dove’s “Urban Folk Dance” titled, “Refrigerated Dreams,” and becoming the 2020 Artistic Director for Harlem Stage curating a series of events exploring Afrofuturism and Speculative Fiction simultaneously presenting panels and performances as Visiting Scholar for Berklee’s Africana Studies department. Seeking the challenge of another form of communication Nona created a SiriusXM Radio show “The Nexus with Nona Hendryx” discussing Music, Art and Technology with famous guests, Nona’s three passions.

October 8, 2020: Kathy Valentine

Kathy Valentine has been a working musician and songwriter for over 40 years, ever since she started her first band, at age 16, in her hometown of Austin, Texas. After moving to Los Angeles at 19, Valentine joined a band that would go on to make music history: The Go-Go's. In this group, Valentine wrote or co-wrote some of the band's most renowned tunes, including the hits "Vacation" and "Head Over Heels." She returned to Austin in 2006, and began finding new opportunities as an actor, public speaker, spokesperson, music director, and producer — and the chance to write her first book for the University of Texas Press: All I Ever Wanted: A RocknRoll Memoir. After completing the book, Valentine took things in a direction only a songwriter and musician could conceive of, writing an accompanying original soundtrack to the memoir. In addition to touring to promote All I Ever Wanted, Valentine has recently enjoyed the resurgence of The Go-Go's with a Broadway musical featuring the band's catalog now appearing throughout the US, a documentary film about the band that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and a tour with her bandmates. She also keeps busy in Austin with her teenaged daughter, her event series "She Factory" that raises money for women-centered non-profits, and her rocknroll band, the Bluebonnets.

January 24, 2019: Jason Isbell

November 28, 2017: Lucinda Williams

March 23, 2017: Duncan Sheik

Duncan Sheik is a Grammy and Tony Award-winning artist who launched his musical career in 1996 with his self-titled debut album. Sheik quickly earned a Grammy nomination for “Best Male Vocal” for his hit “Barely Breathing.” He subsequently garnered critical accolades for his unique brand of folk-pop music with 2006’s White Limousine. Sheik composed the music for critically acclaimed musical Spring Awakening, which in 2006 went on to win eight Tony Awards. In 2015, Sheik released Legerdemain, his first production of original material, not attached to a theatre piece, since 2006’s White Limousine. While writing and recording Legerdemain, Sheik was also composing the music and lyrics for the musical theatre production of American Psycho, based on Brett Easton Ellis’ cult classic novel of the same name. Sheik is currently working on several projects, including a theatrical production of Secret Life of Bees and a series for New Form Digital.

February 2, 2016: Natalie Merchant

February 28, 2015: Questlove

Born in Pennsylvania in 1971, Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, is the drummer and co-founder of hip-hop/neo-soul group the Roots. In addition to helping create the neo-soul movement, Questlove is known for his work on such groundbreaking hip-hop albums as Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002). Since 2008, he has come to popular acclaim as part of the house band for the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon talk show.

September 20, 2013: Graham Nash

Our 8th annual Blutt Singer-Songwriter event featured Rock&Roll Hall of Fame inductee Graham Nash. After joking about the "6-year-old in the front row who isn’t clapping” for him, and teasing that he thought the event would be more like Woodstock, Nash chatted with music critic, Anthony DeCurtis, in a conversation so comfortable, it could have taken place in a living room. Nash spoke about everything — from his life philosophy to a story about how John Lennon “stole his first guitar.” Audience members, including Michaela Majoun, (host at WXPN), Pierre Robert (radio DJ for WMMR), and Mitch and Margo Blutt (longtime supporters of Kelly Writers House), shifted from bursts of laughter at Nash’s sense of humor to complete silence, enthralled by the colorful articulation of his motivations and passions. “I heard music from an early age,” said Nash, “horse and carts and women calling their children to come and get dinner – just the general music of life… I can hear it right now. I mean listen to the air conditioner.” After answering audience questions, Nash, with just a guitar and a microphone, performed two songs. And, although this was not Woodstock, the audience sang along — with screams and applause — creating an atmosphere reminiscent of an intimate festival.

February 13, 2013: Loudon Wainwright III

Grammy award winning American songwriter, folk singer, humorist and actor Loudon Wainwright III pulled his guitar from behind his chair and after a second of tuning he decided that it was "good enough for you people --a bunch of writers." Wainwright, in front of an audience, which included Michaela Majoun and Roger Lamay of XPN and his own wife Rita, performed a song that was "peppier" than the title track to his album, "Older Than My Old Man Now." The audience filled the Arts Cafe with laughter as Wainwright sang comical lyrics about never being old enough to feel like he's tired of getting older. Following the tune, he discussed everything from the origin of humor in his music (a song called "Nice Jewish Girls") to his creative process. Interviewer, Anthony DeCurtis, described Wainwright's lyrics as so personal that the listener feels uncomfortable and, with a laugh, Wainwright, grabbed the mic and eyed the audience and said, "That's my goal! Am I doing a good job?"

February 2, 2012: Lou Reed

Wearing a hoodie and jeans and occasionally sipping from a bottle of water, rockstar, songwriter and photographer, Lou Reed, sat comfortably in front of an intimate group of fans in the KWH Arts Cafe -- an audience that included friends who had traveled from Washington D.C, Nebraska, and even London. In a candid conversation with music critic, Anthony DeCurtis, Reed reminisced about playing in bars since he was fourteen and smiled through recollections of poet Delmar Schwartz inspiring him to write music and artist Andy Warhol pushing him to work harder. Excited by the language in Schwartz's short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," Reed said, "It killed me that it was such simple language. That kind of language, that kind of story, you could put it to rock." With an English degree and passion for rock, the music that "hit" him and never let him go, Reed combined his talents to create music. "The people in my songs are not wise," he said, "They're like in the middle of a battle. I always thought things were better when they're in the middle of a conflict." Although Reed had found peace in his career, life and music, he was still in the middle of things. "I'm working on a book of a collection of photos," he revealed, "but I'm also writing a book about tai chi," he said, casually, as if a book about tai chi was as common as an autobiography.

March 17, 2011: Rufus Wainwright

“If we had opened this [event] up to the entire Penn community, we could have filled Franklin Field,” said Al Filreis, founder and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, as he introduced Rufus Wainwright, Canadian singer-songwriter and son of Loudon Wainwright III. Sitting in front of the packed Arts Cafe, Wainwright opened up about the impact that growing up in a musical family had on his own career. “We used music as entertainment in the home more than a record player or TVs,” he said, “There was more emphasis placed on human skill.” Music and performance permeated his home environment and also his genes. “It was always apparent that I needed to be on stage, that I needed an insane amount of attention to survive,” Wainwright said with a laugh. He described his creative calling as “an animal that needs to express itself.” From the influence that his sexuality had on his desire to express himself through the arts to his choice to perform Judy Garland's entire 1961 album at Carnegie Hall, while dressed as Judy Garland, Wainwright tried to fully capture the unique and diverse aspects that combine to form the music that he makes. Wainwright described his style as “never defined by a particular era... It is a weird mix between missing the party and making your own party and saying it was great, although no one else was there.”

December 9, 2010: Patti Smith

Patti Smith is an American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist, who became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album Horses. Called the "Godmother of Punk," her work was a fusion of rock and poetry. Smith's most widely known song is "Because the Night," which was co-written with Bruce Springsteen and reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1978. In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, and in 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On November 17, 2010, she won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. She is also a recipient of the 2011 Polar Music Prize.

March 4, 2009: Steve Earle

Mingo Reynolds, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, introduced Steve Earle, American singer-song writer, fiction writer, and playwright for the third annual Blutt Singer-Songwriter Symposium. She began by reading a paragraph from Earle's collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses. She read: “That instant when an idea is born on a melody, when a writer first breathes life into his latest creation, is rare and magical. Most people never get to witness that, even if they do, they might not get it.” Earle, someone who has successfully married stories and music, spoke eloquently about his love for songwriting as an expression of art and an outlet for his emotions. This love began when he realized that The Beatles wrote most of their own music. “You can write songs,” he said, “and they don't have to be considered art, and that's fine, but not what I intend to do.” Then, with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Earle allowed the audience to witness what is born when a storywriter births an idea onto a melody. He performed, “Goodbye,” which he described as the earliest songs of his “second life,” the first song that he wrote after starting the recovery from his drug addiction.

April 3, 2008: Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega (born Suzanne Nadine Vega, 11 July 1959, Santa Monica, California) is an American singer-songwriter noted for her eclectic folk-inspired music. She lived most of her life in New York City, attending the New York City High School of the Performing Arts (the school seen in the feature film musical Fame), where she studied modern dance. While attending Columbia studying English, she penned many songs and performed in the Greenwich Village area. She was discovered in 1984, releasing her eponymous debut the following year. Her sophomore effort, Solitude Standing, garnered critical and commercial success including two hit singles: "Tom's Diner" and "Luka."

Beauty & Crime, her seventh album, was released in June 2007, which went on to win a Grammy for Best Engineered Album. Inspired by the city where Suzanne grew up and still currently resides, Beauty & Crime revolves around Suzanne's experiences in New York. Vega has a daughter, Ruby Froom, with her ex-husband Mitchell Froom. In early 2006, Vega married Paul Mills, a lawyer and a poet.

April 12, 2007: Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash is a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter. Her eleven record albums, released over the last twenty years, have charted eleven number-one singles. She has earned numerous accolades for songwriting and performance. Cash recorded her first US album, Right Or Wrong, in 1979. In the following 10 years, Cash released Seven Year Ache, which yielded both country and crossover hits, Rhythm and Romance, a widely-acclaimed fusion of country and pop and King's Record Shop, which generated four number one singles. She was named Billboard's Top Singles Artist in 1988. The early 1990s saw the release of the critically-acclaimed, highly personal albums Interiors and The Wheel. 10 Song Demo, a stark, minimally-produced "home" recording, was released in 1996. Her recent album Black Cadillac has been named one of Best Albums of 2006 by The New York Times, Billboard, NPR, etc.

Her first book, Bodies of Water (Hyperion, 1995), received widespread critical acclaim, as did her children's book, Penelope Jane: A Fairy's Tale (HarperCollins, 2000). Her essays and fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Oxford-American, New York Magazine, and various other periodicals and collections.

Rosanne Cash lives in New York City with her husband, John Leventhal, and her children.

The Pennsylvania Gazette wrote about the program in their July/August 2007 issue.