KNABLE GAZING: Diana Drollinger and the Awakening Influence of Music
I met Diana Drollinger the first time I went to “Song Club,” in the back room of the sadly-now-shuttered Fawkner on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. She came across as a self-possessed and exuberant woman in her sixth or seventh decade, exuding matriarchy while simultaneously glowing with a teenage enthusiasm for music. As in, her aura was that of a young person in the midst of falling in love with music for the first time while she sat in her wooden chair, grounded in experience. She wasn’t there to sing or play, like most everyone else gathered under Niall Connolly’s ever-expanding folk-and-roll circus tent. She was there as a fan.
When Diana is moved by a line from a song, she speaks out, a certain affirmation that makes a songwriter know he or she has not only been heard but deeply appreciated. Someone newer to that Fawkner scene asked me if she was my mother after one of my sets—I’m guessing a common experience among those of us who have basked in Diana’s praise.
Diana, who has grown children, her own career, and a lot of miles of rough road behind her, shows up at our gigs outside of Song Club (live, and, lately, streaming) and has a centering effect on the audience and performer. She makes requests. For me, it’s usually “the graveyard song” (“Woman Alone in a Graveyard”), a song I wrote when I was in college in the late ‘90s. I have gone from thinking of the song as my earliest that I still play with pride to thinking of it as Diana’s special request.
What I did not know about Diana until recently is that, while she seemed like a fixture in this Big City Folk world when I arrived, she really only came onto this scene slightly before I did. That newness of appreciation I observed in her actually was new. She was discovering music and rediscovering her life. And her life was being changed.
Last month I put out a post asking songwriter friends to philosophize with me about their influences for a column focusing on the myriad ways that songwriters are influenced by other songwriters. Diana responded with a personal message laying out influence itself from a different lens.
She wrote, “About 4 years ago I felt as if my life had nothing new in it and I was just fading away in my old age. Then I listened to performers at the Scratcher [a revered venue and a scene related to Big City Folk] sing their stories written from their lives and life awakened in me.”
She started waking up each morning with “joy bubbling up,” all these songwriters’ “singing voices” carrying “the sound of the singer’s life,” which “struck chords of [her] own life knowledge and experiences.”
She expounded in her note to me: “All of the songs have led me back to me, to feelings I thought were long gone. I have a new contentment in feeling alive to myself. One singer-songwriter evoked deep sobs in response to the poetry of his lyrics. He was singing about race activism of the ‘60s without directly saying anything about race. The song bypassed my brain and I felt and understood the song deeply. My brain learned afterwards what the song was about. There have been many more similar mysterious experiences listening to music. And for me not least is learning that I have value as a positive source of love and encouragement to the brave and vulnerable souls who share their lives in their music. I’m so grateful to all the songwriters for the privilege of hearing their songs and the awakening influence of music.”
“Diana’s presence in a room always reminds me how lucky we all are to gather together and breathe in songs,” says Big City Folker Bexarkana (Bex, a.k.a. Rebecca White). “The joy she radiates and her passion for live music are infectious.”
Bex had her own assumptions and surprises when it came to Diana.
“For the longest time I thought she lived in Brooklyn, because I’d see her enjoying music so often at Freddy’s, Fawkner, and around the neighborhood. Later, I learned she often drives far to support bands. I’m in awe of the ways she shows up for her community.”
For Bex’s first show at Rockwood, Diana came and sat in the front row. Her enthusiasm for new (and less new) artists is genuine and boosts them immediately. Whether it’s requesting a song one of us wrote over twenty years ago or spurring on someone switching tracks from acting to performing as a songwriter, Diana is instinctively perfect at mentoring through laser-honed generosity.
The person I now realize Diana reminds me of the most is someone I’m not related to at all. It’s my creative writing teacher from high school, Ms. Betty Starr-Joyal. Ms. Starr gathered students interested in writing around her like a fairy godmother. We would regularly meet her at the local coffee house outside of school and take turns reading our stuff out loud to each other. I always looked forward to her response, the gleam in her eyes, her laugh— just enough Falstaff in it to keep us on our toes. Ms. Starr suffered with physical pain every day. She moved, with difficulty, using a walker, probably living on decades of borrowed time. She was 81 in 2015 when she died, only in her early 60s when I knew her.
It’s not that Diana is Betty Starr-Joyal’s reincarnation or long lost sister, or that I put the burden of being a Falstaff, Fagin, or fairy godmother on Diana. It’s just that it’s nice to have someone in my creative life again who asks for nothing more than joy, and gives in return the entire reason for why I, or any of us, suffer the indignities of being songwriters: To see ourselves reflected in the purpose of music, and to feel like we make it possible. Through her.
Thank you, Diana.
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits, and Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. His first solo album, Miles, was released in 2000. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications. KNABLE GAZING is a regular column appearing on the Big City Folks blog.