I think this will be the next to the last post featuring a few of my favorite lesser known folk related songs with my personal notes on them. I don’t make any claims for the songs other than their meaning to me and my attachment to them. I only hope you may find something here that brightens your day or inspires you to extend your own musical pursuits.
Tom Rush made his name in the sixties folk revival; he is a peer of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, and Judy Collins. I first heard of Tom in 1968 when Star Tribune critic Irv Letofsky wrote a favorable review of his album The Circle Game. (Graydon Royce remembered Irv in a 2007 Star Tribune obituary.) I loved that album and have loved Tom’s work ever since.
I saw him perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1970 or 1971 at a weekend show during which the electricity went out after about 20 minutes. Tom rented the hall out of his own pocket to play a makeup show for his fans on Sunday night. Symphony Hall management thought that Rush had provided the fans their money’s worth in those 20 minutes on Friday night. (Drat! I had to go back to school.)
I caught up with Tom many years later in Minneapolis when he came to town to play the Cedar Cultural Center. I was excited to see him; he even gave me his time for a telephone interview in advance of the show. (I wrote it up here.) We caught up with Tom again this year when he played the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant.
Tom 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” Tom recaptured some of his old magic. I think the song reworks 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” he not only recaptures some of the old magic, he even inserts an unobtrusive allusion to Pascal. He is a Harvard man, after all. My favorite version of “River Song” is the one below; Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin sing the harmony parts.
I don’t think I ever heard Leonard Cohen on the radio until the late Bob Feldman played one of his songs on Bob’s weekly Urban Folk radio program on KFAI. Hearing Cohen on the radio made me stop the dial and listen up.
I certainly never heard John Gorka on the radio until I started listening to Bob’s program; he used Gorka’s “Gypsy Life” as his show’s theme song. The song is a tribute to the itinerant musician. The video a couple of paragraphs below captures John performing “Gypsy Life” with the great Kathy Mattea on harmony. Quotable quote: “Everybody loves you when they know you’re leaving soon.”
Bob was the president of Red House Records in St. Paul. I don’t think I ever met anyone who married his passion with his vocation more perfectly than Bob. Bob traveled to folk festivals all around the world looking for artists to sign. I think Bob was particularly proud when he re-signed John Gorka to Red House in 1998.
I learned so much listening to Bob’s show. He died way before his time in 2006, at age 56. Minnesota Public Radio noted his death and his work at Red House here.
In college I absolutely loved Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth. I went to Boston to see them one Friday night in 1970 or so. Tracy ultimately came out to announce that the band’s instruments had not arrived with them on the plane from San Francisco or wherever the band had traveled from that day. I never have seen her perform live, but I haven’t given up hope.
Tracy came out of the blues side of the folk movement as a student at the University of Wisconsin. Last year Al Kooper took a knowing look back at Tracy’s 50-year career with his own selection of highlights.
One of her gifts is turning even a classic song into something that sounds like a personal anthem. By my lights that’s what she does with Hank Williams’s “You Win Again” on her country album, recorded in Nashville in 1969.