Folk singer Tom Rush performed at the Dakota this past Thursday evening. He brought his young sidekick Matt Nakoa along to accompany him on piano and spell him briefly during the two sets he performed over more than two hours. My cousin DeeDee and our friend Mike Frost joined us for a trip down memory lane with the sempiternal Mr. Rush. We sat next to my old Faegre partner Jim Nicholson and his wife (we resolved to meet again at the Dakota’s upcoming Tracy Nelson show).
What a great evening. Tom put on a a beautiful and completely satisfying show. I snapped the photo above from our seats. I thought I might seize on the occasion to take a look back at his career with a few videos and with previously posted notes from my 2011 interview with him in the hope that readers might find something to enjoy here.
Tom made his name in the sixties folk revival; he is a peer of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, and Judy Collins. Performing at the Club 47 coffeehouse, Tom emerged from the vibrant Cambridge folk scene around Harvard. He is in fact a Harvard man. The Harvard Magazine’s 2007 profile of Rush (Harvard ’63) by Daniel Gewertz provides an entertaining and informative overview of his career.
Having recorded two folk albums on Prestige in the early sixties, Tom moved on to establish himself with three notable albums on Elektra in the middle of the decade. The first of his Elektra albums is self-titled (1965). One of the album’s highlights is Tom’s mashup of blues man Bukka White in “Panama Limited.” It is a staple of his live show. He gave it a ringing workout to close his first set on Thursday night.
The second of Tom’s Elektra albums is Take a Little Walk With Me (1966). Side one covered rock songs, side two folk. Tom closed his show Thursday night with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” (video below from side one) and his voice sounded just like it does on the album.
I love Take a Little Walk With Me. Below is Tom’s rendition of Eric Von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados” from side two.
Tom’s work on Elektra culminated in The Circle Game in 1968. The Circle Game is certainly one my all time favorite albums. On it Tom 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” opens side 2 of the album. It’s a young man’s song; Browne must have written it when he was a teenager. I was a teenager myself when I first heard it and it knocked me out. The song communicates yearning and regret in rhymes that flow. The song fit in perfectly with the album’s concept, the life cycle of a romantic relationship from meeting to parting and starting over again. Fifty years later, it still sounds good to me (video below).
Tom has recorded three or four versions of his own “River Song,” most recently on What I Know (2009). The song is a bit of a reworking of Jesse Colin Young’s “Lullaby” from Tom’s self-titled 1970 album on Columbia Records (the first of four, not counting a best of). In “River Song” Tom not only recaptures some of the old magic, he also works in an unobtrusive quotation of Pascal. He is, after all, a Harvard man. The version of the song below is from his Columbia “Best Of” album. Shawn Colvin’s contribution on the harmony vocals carries me down the river.
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. I found that even on the telephone Tom 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 whose scholarship helped uncover 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 Tom 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. Tom remembers it well; he reminded me that the power had gone out about 20 minutes into his show. Symphony Hall management thought that he’d provided money’s worth to his audience. Tom disagreed. He felt compelled to rent the hall himself and invite the audience to return on Sunday for a full show. (Drat! I had to go back to school.)
After I received his occasional email newsletter a few weeks ago, I asked Tom for another brief interview in advance of his show at the Dakota. I didn’t hear back from him until I was at lunch with Mike on Thursday afternoon. Tom wrote:
Sorry for the too-slow reply! When I send out a newsletter I get hundreds of replies, and yours got buried in the avalanche. I’m on a plane to MSP right now, so I don’t think a phone interview would be of much use, but I look forward to seeing you at the Dakota!
Tom’s excellent site is here. He signed off his email to me with the URL for his current project (the accompanying video previews a few of the new tunes and the opportunity to invite him over for a concert).
Tom’s version of “Galveston Flood” (video below, from side two of Take a Little Walk With Me) is a song that I find floating through my mind with increasing frequency as the years go rolling by. Tom learned the song from Eric Von Schmidt, whom he hails as “the mainspring of the Cambridge folk scene.” Recite after me: “God save the drowning man!”