Dec 4, 2013
12:19 PM
Arts & Entertainment

Tom Rush, 1960s Godfather of New England Folk Music, Comes to StageOne in Fairfield Dec. 8

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Well, how did you get started in ​music? You were a student at Harvard . . .

Yes, I was. I loved folk music when I got to Cambridge, and there was this real hotbed going on there, a lot of coffeehouses, a lot of people playing guitars and singing songs. The sensibility there was very “purist”; you had to be “ethnic.” And a lot of the stuff that I liked was considered to be commercial, which was “bad.”

Who were some of those artists?

Well, Josh White comes to mind, I loved him and still do. But he was a black guy who was a cabaret act—he sang folk songs but in a very polished, slick way. He wasn’t a coal miner or cotton picker or chain-gang worker. He wasn’t “ethnic,” so therefore he was not acceptable. So I didn’t talk a lot about Josh White. But there was so much good music going on, I just got sucked into it. Club 47 was a block and a half from my dorm. When the studying got hard, it was just too easy to slide down to Club 47 and see what was going on.

Did you know guitar at that point, or did you teach yourself how to play?

I was forced to take piano lessons as a kid because both my parents wished that they had taken piano lessons. And I hated it; it was torture for everybody. But I had an older cousin named Beau Beals who played the ukulele, and he was just such a fun character. He was my daddy’s age, but technically my cousin. So he showed me how to play the ukulele, and taught me all these silly old songs like “My Father’s Whiskers” and “K-K-K-Katie.” That’s where I really got hooked on the idea that music could be fun. So I played the ukulele for awhile, then the baritone ukulele—I figured that was more manly. Somewhere around the age of 14 I figured I needed a more “manly” instrument.

Then I went over to the guitar, and was just totally enamored of the rock ’n ’roll of the late ’50s: Chuck Berry and Elvis and the Everly Brothers. I’m still in awe of that era—there were so many enormously talented people who were completely different from one another. Fats Domino and Carl Perkins were at opposite ends of the universe, and they were both fantastic. I got all swept up in that, and then heard my first Josh White recording when I was about 16. When I got to Cambridge, I was lured over to the grittier side of folk music. Though I have to admit, there was a tacit irony in a bunch of Harvard students sitting around singing about how tough it was in the coal mines. But we were very sincere about it, which we thought would get us through the incongruities.

Critics often talk about the “New England folk movement” and set Arlo Guthrie as the avatar of that, and the “New York movement,” starring Dylan. Do you think there was a difference?

I don’t think Arlo was the center of New England. In fact, I once heard Arlo in an interview say that he learned his father’s songs by listening to my recordings. Arlo’s a bit younger; I’m not sure how old he is, but he’s 10 years behind me. So he was not on the scene in the early ’60s.

But there were two different camps. The New York guys were all kind of professionally oriented; they all wanted to get matching shirts and go on the road. The Boston/Cambridge crowd was more interested in the music. There were students, typewriter repairmen and psychopharmacologists—all kinds of people—who just loved to get together and play. You’d play a show at Club 47, and for $10 someone could buy a case of beer to bring to the party that inevitably happened after the show. Few of the people who hung out and played had any notion of becoming  professional. I didn’t; it just sort of happened. I didn’t plan it.

When do you think you crossed that bridge?

I’m still not quite over it. I graduated with an English Lit degree, and nobody was lining up to pay me to read books. They were willing to pay me to play and sing, which I still find incredible. So I figured I’d play and sing a little bit until I got it all sorted out. And I’m still trying to sort it out.

How did you become aware of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne? Did someone come to you and say “Hey, you’ve really got to hear these folks?”

Each one has a different story. But the basis for them all was that I was two years overdue in delivering an album to Elektra. And I just couldn’t find any more traditional folk music that I was excited about. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough, or maybe I was being too fussy. Maybe I was acknowledging my limitations. But on the previous record I’d made for the label, Take a Little Walk with Me, I’d had one side of traditional folk; the other side was late ’50s rock ’n’ roll. Again, I couldn’t find enough folk music to do, so I went back to my roots. That came out about halfway between the original emergence of those artists and the’50s revival that started in the ’70s; there’s been a somewhat muted debate as to whether I was prophetic or retarded.

So there I was, casting about for the second time because I really didn’t want to do more rock ’n’ roll. And along came these three fabulous writers. I met Joni at a club in Detroit, where she came in to do a guest set with me so I could hear her songs. James I met through the offices of Paul Rothchild, who was my producer. I remember we were sitting on the floor of an empty office, with no furniture, while James sang a few songs into a tape  recorder on his way to England. And again, I was bowled over by these songs. And Jackson was actually published by Elektra Records, so I heard him through his publishing demos.

These three were writing songs that were certainly not traditional folk; they were much more sophisticated musically and lyrically. It was a different sensibility, but not a leap into total terra incognita. I loved their work, and it became the basis of The Circle Game album, which is the project that allegedly ushered in the singer-songwriter era. I was not trying to usher in anything, or even promote the careers of up and coming artists. I was simply looking for good material. And I think if those three writers had been introduced on three separate discs, they wouldn’t have attracted as much attention. That fact that here on one record there were three stunning new songwriters being debuted was the key.

It seemed that after that, it was some time before Jackson produced a record of his own.

I know at first he didn’t aspire to being a performer; he just wanted to be a songwriter, which I thought was brilliant. Because you can make money—more then than now. You could make a good living and not have to leave home.

What draws you to a song, makes you say, “This is a great one?”

I wish I had a coherent answer to that question; it would make my life much easier if I could call a publisher and say, “I want a song in F-flat with this, that and the other." [laughs] The only thread that I can find is visual imagery. I like songs that are strong in that. But I play Bo Diddley and Joni Mitchell back-to-back, so it’s hard to come up with a “recipe” for what I like.

Is there one song that you always love playing—you never get tired of it? One that you never drop from your set?

Murray McLauchlan’s “Child’s Song” is one I’ve had in my sets for as long as I can remember, since I learned it. And I almost always do either Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” or “The Circle Game.” Probably not both in the same show.  As long as winter comes, “Urge for Going” will be a great song. And as long as children grow up and leave home, “Child’s Song” will be great.

Tom Rush, 1960s Godfather of New England Folk Music, Comes to StageOne in Fairfield Dec. 8

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