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The Circle Game

Tom Rush is a giant of the sixties folk revival; today he turns 73. As a stalwart of the sixties folk revival he is a peer of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, and Judy Collins.

Performing at the legendary Club 47 coffeehouse, Rush emerged from the vibrant Cambridge folk scene around Harvard. Having recorded two folk albums on Prestige in the early sixties, he moved on to establish himself with three notable albums on Elektra in the middle of the decade. His work on Elektra culminated in The Circle Game in 1968. The Circle Game is simply one of the great pop albums of all time. On it Rush introduced the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne, though he closed with his own “Rockport Sunday” and “No Regrets” before the slight reprise of Mitchell’s “Tin Angel.”

Jackson Browne’s “Shadow Dream Song” is one of the several highlights of The Circle Game. It’s a young man’s song — Browne must have written it when he was a teenager. In Rush’s hands, the song communicates warmth and yearning in rhymes that flow with ease. And it fit in perfectly with the album’s concept — the life cycle of a relationship from meeting to parting and starting over again.

The Harvard Magazine profile of Rush (Harvard ’63) by Daniel Gewertz provides an informative overview of his career. If Rush has ever recorded a mediocre track, I haven’t heard it. Although I think of him as a cult favorite, his take on “Remember Song” by Steven Walters has now exceeded 6,000,000 views on YouTube. One of Rush’s gifts is finding and occasionally writing songs with which his audience identifies.

In recent years Rush has recorded three or four versions of his own “River Song,” most recently on What I Know, his first studio album in more than 30 years and one of the most played folk albums of 2009. On “River Song” Rush recaptures some of the sixties magic. The song is a bit of a reworking of Jesse Colin Young’s “Lullaby” from Rush’s self-titled 1970 album on Columbia Records (the first of four, not counting a best of). In “River Song” he not only recaptures some of the old magic, he even works in an unobtrusive allusion to Pascal.

I caught up with Tom for a telephone interview in 2011 on a day when he was set to make an appearance with Country Joe McDonald at the Auer Performance Hall in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He could not have been more generous with his time or more gracious in responding to my questions.

The occasion of my interview was Tom’s then upcoming performance at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Tom held the stage by himself, with one brief intermission, for two hours before a packed house. His show, let me note for the record, was great.

I found that even on the telephone Rush still has a striking baritone voice that radiates honesty and warmth. I mentioned how much he sounded like himself as far back as his first recordings on Prestige. “They used to tell me I sounded old. Now I sound young,” he said.

I asked him if he thought he’d still be performing for a living 50 years after he took it up. “No,” he laughed. “When I started doing this it was the path of least resistance. I graduated with a degree in English literature that had no career path attached. People were willing to pay me to sing and play guitar. I couldn’t figure out why.” He added: “I’m still trying to figure it out.” And he threw in this memory for good measure: “My mom always asked when I was going to get a real job.”

I asked him if he had a favorite English professor at Harvard. He said that he took every course that had anything to do with traditional folk music and (as he suggests in the Harvard Magazine profile) that Albert Lord was his favorite teacher. Lord was of course the professor of Slavic and comparative literature who famously helped discover the tradition of oral poetry and oral composition out of which The Iliad and The Odyssey emerged.

Lord’s classic The Singer of Tales was published in 1960, while Rush was an undergraduate. You can see why a guy who took folk music seriously, as Rush did, would have been drawn to Lord. “Lord explained how Homer managed a seemingly impossible feat,” Rush said. “The poems weren’t memorized; they were composed.” Lord himself was sufficiently impressed by Rush’s approach to folk music that he invited him back to Harvard to lecture in his class after Rush graduated.

I mentioned that I had seen him perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1970 or 1971 at a weekend show during which the electricity went out. Did he remember the show? He said he can’t believe how frequently he is asked about it. He remembers it well. Rush reminded me that the power had gone out about 20 minutes into his show, and that the Symphony Hall management thought that was enough. Rush felt compelled to rent the hall himself and invite the audience to return on Sunday for a full show. He confessed that the financial pain seems to have something to do with his memory of the show.

I asked Tom whether the success of the “Remember Song” video had done anything for his career. The song is something of a novelty, not exactly representative of his work. He said that he thought the song had reminded many old fans of him (remember?) and publicized the fact that he was still out there performing. It allowed old fans to reconnect with him. When I asked him what video he would recommend that I include with my account of the interview, he picked the “Remember Song” video without hesitation.

Tom’s appearance with Country Joe in Fort Wayne addressed the subject of “activism then and now.” Coincidentally, it raised a question I had saved for last. I asked hopefully: Do you usually keep politics out of your show? “I do,” he said. “In general, politics and poetry don’t mix.” He added: “In terms of doing a show, my job is to entertain people and give them a break.” Thank you, Mr. Rush.

He finished the thought with a slight qualification: “Having said that, I’m doing more protest songs than ever before.” He mentioned a couple of songs off What I Know. One of the two songs he mentioned (Richard Dean’s “All a Man Can Do”) tactfully conveys Tom’s indignation about “the way we treat our returning soldiers,” as he puts it in the liner notes. Let’s say it one more time: Thank you, Mr. Rush.

Tom’s excellent site is here. In the video below, Ms. Emmylou joins Tom on stage in Boston to help out on “Louisiana Eyes” and on a rousing version of “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm?”

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