Tom Rush: Dean of Cambridge Folk Scene

Live at McCabe’s May 17, 2013

By Ross Altman

Tom RushFresh off a 50th Anniversary concert outing at Symphony Hall in Boston, where he held forth in a tailored white suit and all-star supporting cast, Tom Rush downsized it at McCabe’s last Friday night, where I caught the late show in levis and a tank top. For a band he had three guitars, his old D-28 set up for blues, his ancient D-18 for his finger-picking showdown with Merle Travis’ ghost, and his new signature model “Tom Rush Naked Lady” by Canadian online guitar retailer McKenzie and Marr, for his open-tuning masterpieces, on which he played two Joni Mitchell classics that he first introduced: Urge for Going and The Circle Game.

He met Joni Mitchell in Detroit in the early sixties and fell in love with her and her music and started recording her songs even before Judy Collins. Musically speaking it was a match made in heaven—nobody sings a love song better than Tom Rush, or writes one either. His own standard No Regrets has had more arrangements than Beethoven’s 5th, from folk to heavy metal to hip hop.

He dazzled the sold out crowd with finger-style guitar arrangements that included seductive slide guitar maneuvers that used every one of the 17 frets he had on board, and gave them an inside look at the multiplicity of ways one can think about accompaniment, for while there were no instrumentals per se, every song had guitar motifs that were integral to his performance. He was a joy to listen to from beginning—with Jesse Fuller’s San Francisco Bay Blues—to end—with an utterly captivating tribute to Bo Diddley that had middle aged folk hippies screaming with delight.

Tom Rush is also one of the funniest folk singers around: his talking blues about senior moments (Tom is now 68)—played in the key of E that had chord progressions one has never heard before in a talking blues—has garnered more than 6 million hits on YouTube. It’s pure drollery and hits too close to home not to draw a knowing tear in the midst of all the humor. That was just the third song in to a set most performers would have saved till the end because it’s a showstopper, but Tom Rush’s repertoire is so deep and so varied he doesn’t have to worry about running dry—each song is a gem in its own right.

Tom Rush came out of the Cambridge Folk Scene, which is why I went to see and wanted to review his show. I have written extensively in these pages about the performers who defined the folk revival from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties—Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk and John Herald. But there was another folk scene up north in Cambridge, Massachusetts—which gave us Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Mark Spoelstra and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, including Geoff and Maria Muldaur. If you just look at the first two names on each list you will realize that the king and queen of the modern folk revival came out of Greenwich Village and Cambridge respectively. As Rogers and Hammerstein once said, you can’t have one without the other.

If Gerdes Folk City was the star of the New York folk scene, Club 47 was the Mecca of Boston’s rival sister. And if Washington Square was the outdoor gathering spot for Greenwich Village, Harvard Yard was the corresponding hub of Cambridge. When Bob Dylan mentions in his spoken introduction to Baby, Let Me Follow You Down on his first album that he “first heard this from Ric Von Scmidt; Ric’s a blues guitar player; I met him in the green pastures of a-Harvard University…”

What he leaves out is that Ric (Eric) Von Schmidt got it from the source—its composer—Reverend Gary Davis in Harlem (a story I recount in greater detail in my review of Roy Book Binder at McCabe’s) and brought it back to Cambridge where Dylan heard it at second hand. But it was that kind of intense dedication to traditional blues that drew the young white blues singer to Cambridge—that, plus Joan Baez of course, with whom he fell in love.

With only 80 seats Club 47 was smaller than Ed Pearl’s The Ash Grove—the West Coast’s only claim to a spot in this august pantheon—where white folk revivalists could sit at the feet of black blues masters like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Tom Rush still pays tribute to them, with his starting tribute to Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller (which included a lovely description of his “one man band”) and his later brilliant performance of Sleepy John Estes’ Drop Down Mama on that haunting Martin D-28, that included the line, “She had a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged,” Rush’s candidate for the best blues line ever.

When You and I Were Young, Maggie is on the other side of the musical spectrum, a sentimental 19th Century parlor song written by and from the point of view of a surviving lover for his departed; Tom Rush played it with almost spectral sensitivity and created another perfectly framed masterpiece with his guitar accompaniment, this one in drop “D” tuning. It was a shining moment in a concert filled with them.

He kept coming back to the theme of encroaching time, and found a great humorous aside in his tale of his home state New Hampshire’s famed granite state attractions, a natural rock formation that looked eerily human, which finally fell right off the mountain. Tom’s comment, “It’s creepy to outlive a geological formation.”

One would never suspect it, however, from his youthful performance, filled with the exuberance of youth even though seasoned with age. He has kept the memory of Club 47 alive in creating a Boston Symphony Hall concert series entitled “Club 47,” with groups of performers that suggest the range of music that once found a home there, both from the original club and a younger cast like Nanci Griffith who are a generation removed.

Let me close by mentioning a few names who deserve your attention that came out of Cambridge: Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, who I was fortunate to hear when I was down at San Diego’s Roots Fest on Adams last month, and who still get to McCabe’s every so often. Indeed, Maria Muldaur will be appearing there in the near future.

My very favorite, however, (along with Tom Rush) has since departed: 12-string guitar legend Mark Spoelstra, who I also got to meet down at the Roots Fest a few years back. His Folkways Record Mark Spoelstra Live at Club 47 is bedrock scripture to me, with the most amazing virtuoso performance of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line ever put on record.

Tom Rush’s most recent studio album his first in 30 years, is aptly titled What I Know, a beautiful love to his wife,

Don’t know how deep the sea

Don’t know how high the sky

What I know is I love you

And I’ll love you till the day I die.

The album includes the rock and roll touchstone Drift Away by Mentor Williams (recorded by Dobie Gray), which Tom played on his Naked Lady McKenzie and Marr signature model guitar, using open “G” tuning for slide guitar, which he played in a way I had never seen, using both his index finger as a bottle neck and his thumb played over the top of the neck pointing down—as if to caress the sensuous nude illustration that stretched the length of the fret board in every way imaginable.

I couldn’t help but think, as the last languorous note died away, that she had “a handful of gimme, and a mouthful of much obliged.

Tom Rush is an American original, one of the great folk singers of the 1960s, who we are lucky indeed to have had around for half a century. I thanked him after the show for what his music has meant to me—going all the way back to the beginning and his performances of traditional songs like Joshua Gone Barbados, Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm and the ballad Barbara Allen, of which his early Reprise version is simply the best on record—and I told him so. When I did I saw his eyes start to twinkle, and he described in some detail how he worked out the slide guitar arrangement for it—which was new at the time. To make the old new, and the new sound old, that is what Tom Rush has been a master of for 50 years and counting. We are still in his debt. No wonder he has No Regrets.

And SAVE THE DATE: on Thursday evening, August 1 at The Talking Stick in Venice, Ross will host Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit for families of victims of the Rana Plaze Building Collapse and the Tazreen Fashion Factory fire. More information will be forthcoming. Note that it is on the anniversary of George Harrison’s original The Concert for Bangladesh and will include highlights from that landmark event. Stay tuned.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com He will be performing on Saturday, June 15 at the Claremont Folk Festival. for info on tickets, a complete list of performers and volunteer opportunities go to www.claremontfolkfestival.org