Ben Folds: You Don’t Know Him At All

Tyler Holden

Staff Writer

Ben Folds is a name which perhaps would not be the first to come to mind among notable alumni for most at UNC Greensboro today. In fact, many do not know that Ben Folds was once a student at UNCG. Many others do not know who Ben Folds even is. Given that this unsung singer-songwriter is a fellow Spartan who went on to light the way for others, we must ask the question: Who is Ben Folds?

Originally from my hometown of Winston-Salem, Ben Folds graduated from R.J. Reynolds High School, and from there he pursued his dream of making music. Folds first attended college at the University of Miami through the Frost School of Music on a full percussion scholarship. He later dropped out after losing his scholarship. Folds ultimately returned to North Carolina and enrolled at UNCG. 

According to Mike Harris, editor for UNCG Magazine, “Folds enrolled in the UNCG School of Music in 1985. He lived in Guilford Residence Hall. He spent much of his time in the Brown Building, home of the UNCG School of Music at the time.”

On Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, Folds returned to UNCG to host a Q&A session and have a dialogue with the UNCG community. He also delivered an inspirational keynote address at commencement to that year’s class of graduating students and was awarded an honorary doctorate. 

Folds credited his mentor Robert A. Darnell in his book, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs.” He described Robert Darnell as a “towering figure” in the School of Music faculty. Darnell joined the faculty at UNCG in 1949 when it was still the Women’s College. He is no longer around for me to interview about his experience of having Folds as a student, but hearing Folds recall his memories of UNCG from the 1980s, of the old Brown Building and his mentor Robert Darnell, was well worth it. Walking over to the Brown Building myself, I could see exactly what Folds was talking about when he described the building, which overlooks Tate Street, as “old-fashioned,” and the names of the composers around the outside that he spoke of were still there. Observing from the steps of the Brown Building, I could, in a sense, feel the history and legacy whose roots were planted here. 

Folds participated in multiple bands, including The Bens and Ben Folds Five, with whom he released several musical albums and went on tours to perform. 

Some of Folds’ earlier work includes songs like “Air,” “Hold That Thought,” and “Do It Anyway.” His collection of more modern works consists of songs such as “Capable of Anything” in his album “So There.” Some of his music is particularly humorous and meaningful all at once, such as his 2006 song “Learn to Live With What You Are.” 

In 2009, Folds released “Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!”, a collection of college students performing Folds’ songs in their own university choruses. College choruses all across the nation made their own versions of Folds’ songs in their own unique ways. For instance, the Sacramento State Jazz Singers performed “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” Washington University’s Mosaic Whispers performed “Still Fighting It” and our own University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Spartones performed “Not The Same.” Ben Folds served as the inspiration for students everywhere in expressing their artistic musical talents. 

Many of us who grew up in the early 2000s may recognize Folds’ music from the soundtrack of the movie “Over The Hedge,” which included songs such as “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” “Heist,” and “Still.” Growing up, I had no idea I would go on to attend the same university as the person responsible for the music in “Over The Hedge,” and I also did not realize that he had been a student at UNCG until after I became a student here. 

While Ben Folds’ music has been enjoyed by people everywhere for the catchiness of its musical tune, the music itself has been a catalyst in changing the established perspective of the music industry—encouraging people to reflect and reconsider their view in an unconventional way that was crucial to altering the conformist mindset. 

The lyrics in each of Folds’ songs tell their own story. Sometimes the story is more upbeat, and sometimes the story is more melancholy in its message. What they all have in common is that they are based on Folds’ real life experiences.

For instance, Folds’ song “Fred Jones, Pt. 2” is about a man who worked at the local Winston-Salem newspaper who was laid off after working there for 25 years. 

Folds’ song “Zak and Sara,” like much of his music, has left listeners with the mystery of the song’s meaning and thus they get the thrill of deciphering the lyrics and interpreting the song for themselves.

Folds wrote his song “Brick” about a topic that some artists would not dare touch. Folds stated of the song that “I was asked about it a lot…I just wanted the song to speak for itself.” He went on to say, “the song is about when I was in high school, me and my girlfriend had to get an abortion, and it was a very sad thing…I just wanted to reflect what it feels like. So, anyone who’s gone through that before, then you’ll know what the song’s about.”

A notable fact about Ben Folds’ album “Rockin’ The Suburbs” is that it was actually released on September 11, 2001. The significance of the album being released on this date lies not only in the gravity of the events that happened that day, but in the cultural shift around the turn of the decade. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw many cultural trends, many of which were especially prevalent in music. During this time in particular, there were bands that emphasized rock music as their signature style of music. It was often loud, abrasive, and was intended to appeal to a certain kind of audience. Ben Folds brought an unorthodox approach to this and was often not well liked in some circles for doing so. By cutting out much of the abrasiveness and loudness from his music as well as adding a new sound by adding piano, he produced his own creative style as an alternative form of rock. 

Today, Ben Folds is the Artistic Advisor at the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. As an alumnus of UNCG, Folds stands as a story of someone who, from here, went on to do incredible things. Ben Folds redefined what being a musician and a songwriter meant—and he did it all while inspiring others.

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