Sunday morning coming down

Tom Rush made his name in the sixties folk revival; he is a peer of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, and Judy Collins. Tomorrow he turns 80. I’ve loved his music for a long time, Incorporating notes from my 2011 interview with him, I want to take the occasion to celebrate his birthday. I hope readers who may have missed the interview or who may have joined us since then might find the notes of interest.

Performing at the Club 47 coffeehouse, Rush emerged from the vibrant Cambridge folk scene around Harvard. Tom recorded two fantastic folk albums on Prestige in the early sixties. Tom’s first album on Prestige was Got a Mind To Ramble (1962). I can’t believe how good it is. He kicked it off with the traditional “Duncan and Brady.”

Tom followed up Got a Mind to Ramble with Blues, Songs and Ballads (1963). It’s hard to choose a number, but I know he loves “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes. He has recorded it twice and continues to perform it live. Here it is featuring Fritz Richmond on washtub bass.

This is how I first heard it, on Tom’s self-titled debut on the Columbia label (1970). Not too shabby.

Tom moved on from Prestige to establish himself with three notable albums on Elektra. “Panama Limited” comes from his self-titled debut on Elektra (1963). I believe this is worked up by Tom from a Bukka White number. Fifty years later he was still performing it live like this.

Take A Little Walk With Me (1966) is transitional but uniformly excellent. Tom served up one side of tunes gone electric and one side of tunes in his traditional style. Richie Unterberger explained in his excellent liner notes: “Like Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, it was split into two LP sides, one electric, one acoustic. Like Dylan, Rush tapped the first tier of New York session players to midwife his transition into rock music. In fact, all of the musicians accompanying Tom on the electric side — including Al Kooper (lead electric guitar, celesta, piano), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Harvey Brooks (bass), and Bobby Gregg (drums) — had played on 1965 Dylan electric recordings.”

The electric side included Tom’s own “On the Road Again.”

“Joshua Gone Barbados” by Eric Von Schmitt was inarguably one of the highlights of side 2.

He closed out side 2 with “Galveston Flood” (a/k/a “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm?”), another highlight. This one had been rescued from obscurity and adapted by Eric Von Schmitt.

His work on Elektra culminated in The Circle Game in 1968. By my lights The Circle Game is one of the great pop albums of all time. 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” (below) 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 flowing rhymes. It fit in perfectly with the album’s concept, the life cycle of a romantic relationship from meeting to parting and starting over again. The album cover photo, by the way, is by Linda Eastman McCartney.

He closed The Circle Game‘s circle with his own “No Regrets” (below).

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 7,000,000 views on YouTube. One of Tom’s gifts is finding and occasionally writing songs with which his audience identifies.

Tom has recorded three or four versions of his own “River Song,” most recently on What I Know (2008), his first studio album in more than 30 years and one of the most played folk albums of 2009. The song reworks Jesse Colin Young’s “Lullaby” from Tom’s self-titled album on Columbia. In “River Song” he not only recaptured some of the old magic, he even wrote in an unobtrusive allusion to Pascal. The version below is from the Best Of album with Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin singing harmony.

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.

My interview was to preview Tom’s then upcoming performance at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. At the Cedar Tom held the stage by himself for two hours before a packed house. His show, let me note for the record, was great. Tom has passed through town several times since then to perform at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis with pianist Matt Nakoa. As for the shows at the Dakota, ditto.

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. 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 he’d provided money’s worth to his audience. Rush disagreed; he felt compelled to rent the hall himself and invite the audience to return on Sunday night for a full show. (Drat! I had to go back to school.) He confessed that the financial pain seems to have something to do with his memory of the show.

“The Remember Song” to the contrary notwithstanding, I happen to remember the last song he played that night to send us on our way. In the dark and without amplification he signed off with John Sebastian’s “She’s a Lady.” (I don’t think he ever recorded it.)

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 put it in the liner notes. “Drift Away” (below) is one of my favorite tracks from that collection.

Tom’s most recent disc is Voices (2018). You can hear what he sounds like now on the storied song “Corina, Corina” (as he spells it). It has to put folk fans in mind of Dylan’s beautiful version of “Corinna, Corinna” on Freewheelin’ (1963). Tom keeps Dylan’s lyrical borrowing from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in the Passway.” The tradition lives.

Before we take our leave of Mr. Rush I’d like to present Tom’s take on Murray McLaughlin’s “Child’s Song” (below). It’s a song of leave-taking.

Tom’s excellent site is here. He has posted a helpful discography here. In a birthday message to fans when he turned 75, Tom drily noted that if “you would like to know all about my brief life so far, by the way, you might find the video documentary ‘No Regrets’ both fun and informative.” It’s still available over at the merch table.

Tom listed some upcoming birthday concerts with pianist Matt Nakoa. Referring to the photos of the two of them that he sent along with the email message, Tom wrote: “Here are a couple of pictures of us on stage. In the second one, Matt is obviously thinking, ‘OMG and WTF, how can Tom possibly have so much talent and genius!!!’ Alternatively, he may be thinking, ‘Where’s Jack Kevorkian when you really need him?’” It helps to have a sense of humor.

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