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A Conversation with Tom Rush Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
March 7, 1998

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Tom Rush was the first major player to perform and record a song composed by Joni Mitchell; That song was "Urge For Going." I remember hearing Tom's version of the tune on the FM radio in Philadelphia when I was a teenager and loving the imagery in the song. I believe that his record may have been my first exposure to the lyrics and music of Joni Mitchell.

He is also credited by Rolling Stone with starting the singer-songwriter phase in the late 1960s with his album The Circle Game, which featured his versions of songs written by Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Joni.

I called and spoke to Tom at his home in Santa Barbara, Ca. last March, and he very kindly spent 90 minutes on the phone with me talking about his nearly 40 year career in music. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

WB: Good morning, is this Tom Rush?

TR: It is.

WB: Hi, this is Wally Breese from the Joni Mitchell Home Page.

TR: Hi Wally, how are you?

WB: Pretty well. I appreciate your agreeing to talk to me today. Did you get a chance to go into the Joni site and have a look?

TR: No, I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. Is this something Joni is sanctioning?

WB: It is actually the official site, yes. I started it as a fan in 1995, and a friend of Joni's, Joel Bernstein, came upon the site (I was an acquaintance of his) and he told her about it and she told her record company and her management and now the site has become the official site.


WB: Now that doesn't mean I'm in her pocket or anything! I should tell you a bit about the way I do my interviews. I've interviewed people like David Crosby, photographer Henry Diltz, and many others who've known and worked with Joni over the years. The way I do it is rather like writers used to do in the sixties. When the page is ready for launch, I'll send the text to you, you can have a look and see if there's anything inaccurate or anything you would not like included, and I'll make those changes. Because I want you to feel comfortable to talk with me and to say anything you'd like. Now, I'm somewhat familiar with your music because in the 1960s, I lived in Philadelphia and radio stations WMMR and WDAF used to play your songs. I guess Philadelphia was a part of the folk circuit?

TR: Yes, it was.

WB: Let's start off with a little background. You were born in New Hampshire?

TR: Right. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

WB: And that was in 1940?

TR: 1941.

WB: Did you get into music when you were a child?

TR: I took the obligatory piano lessons, and didn't really care for them, but still I studied piano for six years. Also, while in school I was in the glee club and the choir, so I got some singing under my belt early, but I also started playing. The most fun I had with music was playing the ukulele, which my cousin Beau taught me. He was an older cousin who was my father's age.

WB: Did you know that Joni's first instrument was a baritone ukulele?

TR: Really? Well, my first one was a tenor, then a baritone, then later guitar. It was fun because there was nothing written down that I wanted to play, so it was a break from reading music off the printed page.

WB: So you just played around on the ukulele.

TR: Yes, I just played songs that Cousin Beau taught me.

WB: Did you write anything then?

TR: No, I didn't start making up songs until later when I got into folk music.

WB: Was that after you went to Harvard?

TR: That was before. I heard my first folk album ...well, actually that's not true, I remember I had a 78 of Pete Seeger singing "The Cotton Needs A Pickin'" when I was a little kid, but I was playing guitar in the late 50s when Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers, and Presley and Fats Domino and all those people were holding sway. So that was the music I was really excited about. And on a cross country trip with my family we stopped in Jackson, Wyoming.

WB: And that's near where you live now.

TR: Yes, we have a place in Moose, Wyoming. But as chance would have it I heard my first Josh White recording in Jackson, Wyoming, and was just bowled over. I loved the way he sounded.

WB: I'm not familiar with him. Is he a singer and guitar player?

TR: He WAS a singer and a guitar player. He did the cabaret circuit doing folk music.

WB: Was he current at the time, or was he from an earlier era?

TR: I don't know how old he was at that point, probably in his 50s when I was 16. But I just loved the sound of that guitar and the songs he was doing and the way he sang and I decided I wanted to be Josh White. And it took me a while to realize that there already was a Josh White and it probably wasn't a valid quest. Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how he played so he was a major influence. I later discovered when I got to Cambridge and fell in with the folky crowd there that Josh White was considered "commercial" and that was bad.

WB: Like Neil Diamond ...

TR: It was much better to be "ethnic," whatever that meant. That was good.

WB: They were trying to teach you to be a folk snob.

TR: Oh, yeah, it was a strange scene.

WB: So when you attended Harvard you went out to the folk clubs and that's how you started performing?

TR: Yes, I actually took over a folk show at Harvard's radio station, WHRB, and the format was to have live guests come and play. The host would play but his guests did most of the playing. It was a 30-minute show every Wednesday night and to get my live guests I had to go around and frequent the coffee houses. I would go to the hootenannies and in those days you could get in free if you had a guitar case with you. If you had a guitar, because that indicated that you planned to play, and I discovered that a guitar case would do just as well. Plus it gave you a place to put the six-pack! So I would go to the hoots with a six-pack in my guitar case and hang out and try to recruit guests for my show. I got caught one night when they ran out of singers before they ran out of time and I had to do a set.

WB: Did you have to borrow someone else's guitar?

TR: Yes, I borrowed a guitar, did a set and it went well. It was a club called the Golden Vanity. And the owner called me later in the week and said someone had gotten sick and asked if I could be a substitute for the night. So I started playing on an occasional basis at some of the coffee houses. Before that I played at a real coffee house where the emphasis was on drinking coffee and playing chess and I was propped up in a corner. I took the gig over from a friend of mine who was a flamenco guitarist and he went to Spain to hang out with the gypsies, who would have nothing to do with him, of course. I got fired after about three nights because the owner didn't like the fact that people were listening to me instead of drinking coffee like they were supposed to be. He felt that was a negative, so I got fired from that one. The Golden Vanity thing happened later on.

WB: Was this around 1960?

TR: Probably. I got there in the fall of '59 so this would have been sometime during 1960. And I floated around a couple of clubs and started a regular gig at a place called the Unicorn on Boylston Street in Boston, and the manager of the Unicorn then moved over to Cambridge to run the Club 47 which was really the flagship of the fleet.

WB: That's really a famous place.

TR: And he moved over there and I kind of moved with him and had a regular gig at the Club 47 for quite a while.

WB: Where is that located in Cambridge?

TR: Well, it was at 47 Mt. Auburn Street, hence the name, and then they moved to Palmer Street which is a little short street and they actually had the building renumbered to 47 so the numbers on Palmer Street go 1-2-3-47.

WB: In doing my research, I went to Fantasy Records and found a compilation album called Blues, Songs and Ballads, which is a combination of your first two albums which you recorded in May of '63 in someone's living room. Am I jumping ahead too far here?

TR: Well, actually there was an album before that which was Tom Rush Live at the Unicorn where some guy dragged a tape recorder the size of an oven down the steps into the Unicorn and recorded me for a couple of nights.

WB: He put the mikes up on stage?

TR: Yes.

WB: Would that be around '62?

TR: Yes, that was probably '62. Then subsequently I was signed by Paul Rothschild who went on to produce all kinds of people including the Doors. But Paul was then working for Prestige Records. Prestige and Vanguard signed up just about everybody who played a guitar.

WB: And paid them almost nothing I hear.

TR: They paid as little as they could, but the albums were cheap to make. They paid somebody about a hundred bucks to do the artwork and then you have a record. The first one I recorded in somebody's living room, the second one I actually recorded in a real studio. Fantasy later acquired them from Prestige, so the 2-FER CD set is on Fantasy.

WB: Do you mean Blues Songs and Ballads?

TR: Well, there were two albums. One was called Got a Mind to Ramble that was the first and I recorded that in a living room on Beacon Hill. And the second album was called "Blues Songs and Ballads."

WB: And that second album was done in a studio.

TR: That was done in a studio in New York. Paul Rothschild moved to Electra Records and he wanted me to go with him. I still had a contract with Prestige, so it was kind of an odd deal. I went to Prestige and said "Look, I'll make you one more record but I want Paul Rothschild to produce it." They hated Paul because he had just left them, but I said "There's no other way I'm going to do it." Then I went to Electra and said "I would like to sign with you but I've got to discharge this obligation to Prestige and you have to let me use Paul to produce that," and they didn't like that idea because they just presumably paid a bunch of money to get Paul to jump ship. But it went through and we recorded the two albums back to back, my first album for Elektra and my last album for Prestige. And the Elektra one actually hit the stores first.

Photo by Don Schlitten
WB: What was that called?

TR: That was called Tom Rush.

WB: There was another album by that name a little later on Columbia, wasn't there?.

TR: Correct.

WB: So what kind of material were you doing on those albums? Was it similar to the Blues Songs and Ballads material?

TR: Well, when Paul and I sat down to make these two albums, we put the more traditional, I should say, simpler material on the Prestige project. We weren't really high-grading for Elektra, but we put the stuff that sounded best solo or solo with a washtub bass, which is how I recorded the first one, on the Prestige album, and the stuff that lent itself to more backup was on the Elektra album.

WB: You traveled the folk club circuit soon after that. Did you finish college?

TR: Yes, I did. I dropped out in the middle of my junior year for a year and then went back to graduate.

WB: So you started traveling the circuit then?

TR: Yeah. During that year off I went and played New York and Philadelphia and ended up in Florida a couple of times somehow.

WB: Yes, that was a really big place for people in the mid-sixties. I know Joni played in a bunch of places down there.

TR: Yes, it was a happening place. It was kind of a backwater, geographically, because it wasn't on the way to anything, and when I first got there there was a crowd of people all playing Bob Gibson songs, essentially. Freddie Neil, Vince Martin, David Crosby, and they pretty much all had ovelapping repertoirs. I was an overnight sensation [laughs] because I knew different songs! Not that I was good, particularly, but I knew different songs.

WB: Variety, thank you!

TR: So I ended up spending some time down there. It was a fun scene.

WB: Obviously you played Boston, New York, Philadelphia, as well as cities in Florida. Were there other cities up and down the eastern seaboard where you played, and did you go to places like Detroit and Chicago?

TR: Detroit is in fact where I met Joni.

WB: That was my next question.

TR: I met Joni at the Chessmate, which was run by a guy named Morrie Widdenbaum, who was a chess genius who couldn't tie his shoes properly. He was a very strange fellow.

WB: An idiot savant of some type?

TR: I was shying away from that term but it's kind of like that, yes. He would buy these really expensive pants that you were supposed to get hemmed and then not get them hemmed.

WB: And just fold them up?

TR: Well, he would fold them up but they would slide down over his shoes and he would shuffle around with his pant legs trailing behind him.

WB: He sounds like a real character.

TR: He was. He had this huge house with no furniture in it, an Olympic sized swimming pool out back that was half filled with beer cans and, I don't know, he was a very strange guy ... with good taste in music.

WB: I've certainly heard of the Chessmate, in fact I have a newspaper advertisement from 1965 for Joni and Chuck's set at that club which calls them "Detroit's favorite folksingers."

TR: Well, that's probably accurate.

WB: Would this have been 1965 or '66 when you met her?

TR: Something in there, probably '65, but I couldn't swear to it.

WB: So Chuck was around then?

TR: Yes, she was married to Chuck. I actually stayed with them. They were in a fifth floor walkup and they had this pretty little apartment and they were spending a lot of time scraping the paint off all the oak moldings, oak paneling and stuff, but it was on the fifth floor, and I had a two-week gig at the Chessmate. This was back in the days when you went someplace and played for a couple of weeks. I'd had a collapsed lung when I was in Harvard. But they said if you have another one you are going to have to have surgery. So in the middle of my first week at the Chessmate I started having chest pains and I went to a doctor who gave me Pepto Bismol, and said it was indigestion. Also every night after playing at the Chessmate, having to walk up five flights of stairs carrying a couple guitars ... and those five flights were getting tougher and tougher every night, and I finally after the first week I said "This isn't making any sense at all" and I went to the emergency room and they said, yes, you have a collapsed lung, so I went in for surgery and Joni finished out my week for me, the second week of my gig.

WB: Had she already been playing there?

TR: She was playing there on an occasional basis. When I first met her, I was playing and she came in and asked Morrie if she could do a guest set so I could hear her stuff.

WB: And you said yes?

TR: He said yes, and I said yes.

WB: And that was the first time you heard her, right?

TR: Yes, and I was blown away, as they say.

WB: I guess she was just starting to write her own songs then?

TR: Yes, she had maybe a half a dozen or ten songs that she'd written. She made me a tape of a bunch of them.

WB: Do you still have that tape?

TR: No, it burned up in a fire in New Hampshire a couple of years ago.

WB: Oh, that's such a shame.

TR: So I was immediately enthralled by the songwriting and by her, she was very charming, and Chuck was a lovely person, too. And I started doing "The Circle Game" and "Urge for Going" and I think those were the first two. And I tried to get different labels to sign her. Elektra said they didn't want to sign her because she sounded too much like ...

WB: Joan Baez?

TR: No, Judy Collins.

WB: Oh. Well, Judy Collins was actually Joni's hero back then.

TR: I know, and she did sound a lot like Judy back then, but so what? The songs were so stunning that it was irrelevant, but I couldn't persuade Elektra of that. I also brought her east for a while to open shows for me, sort of introduced her around parts of the east coast.

WB: I guess opening gigs then were about 30 minutes long?

TR: Yes, I would think so. Something like that.

WB: Were Joni and Chuck actually a performing duo? I mean, did they actually sing together when they were playing, or did they do two separate sets?

TR: I can't give you an answer to that. The times that I saw her sing she was on her own. The guest set she did at the Chessmate she did by herself, and when she came east to open shows for me she was by herself. I don't know what she and Chuck did.

WB: The only recording that's survived is something from, I guess, WDAS-FM from November 1966, where Chuck sings backup on the choruses of "The Circle Game." That's the only recording I've been able to find of them. I actually talked to Chuck a couple of months ago. We talked for about a half an hour and we may do an interview somewhere down the line. So you were the first artist to record a Joni Mitchell song?

TR: I believe I was, but I guess Joni could answer that better than I.

WB: Well, she does credit you with that.

TR: I know Ian and Sylvia recorded "The Circle Game" around that time, too, and I'm not sure who hit the stands first, but I guess I did.

WB: What appealed to you about Joni's songs that made you want to perform them and record them?

TR: Well, that's a hard question to answer but one of the ingredients is that I was a part of the Cambridge folk scene where there were a lot of specialists and most of us were amateurs in the original, positive sense of the word, people playing for the love of it, not for the career potential. I was one of the few generalists. Instead of dedicating myself to Delta Blues or Woody Guthrie songs, I kind of picked and chose among the different genres and rolled together sets that were diverse.

WB: That's what you did on your albums, too. That's what I really like about them.

TR: It was a blessing and a curse. The record store men didn't know what bin to put me in. I remember distinctly going around with the guy at the Harvard Coop record store and he had me in the blues bin and I went and talked to the manager and said, yes, I did some blues, but I'm not really a blues singer. So he put me in the folk bin, and then I said, well, although I do some folk stuff, ... and after a couple of more moves he said, OK, and put me in miscellaneous.

WB: Oh, boy!

TR: I learned my lesson that day. I learned to accept my lot.

WB: He should have put a couple copies in each category.

TR: There you go, but I don't think I had enough copies. Anyway, I kind of felt in the mid to late 60s that I had heard all the traditional stuff there was. I was probably wrong, but I had been through the Childe ballads, I'd been through all the blues recordings, I'd been through all the 78s, I'd been through a good chunk of the Library of Congress, and I just wasn't finding any more stuff that got me excited. So here comes Joni with songs that sounded folky but were very literate at the same time, so it was like new clothes cut from old cloth, that's a clumsy metaphor, but maybe new flowers in an old garden, or something like that, one of those concepts. Anyway, they were very appealing because they were fresh yet they were familiar, and they were just so damn good.

WB: The words and the stories are wonderful.

TR: One of the things that always astounded me was how long it took for everybody to catch on to how great her writing was.

WB: In November of '66, Joni was on a radio show and she said that you'd already recorded "The Circle Game," but the album that contains the song didn't make the charts until April of '68, so I'm wondering was there a different single version that was out earlier?

TR: It was a very odd thing. I first recorded "Urge for Going," actually. It was on a tape that I gave to my buddies at WBZ in Boston, I had some friends there. Access was so easy in those days. I had a show at WHRB and my friends Jefferson Kay and Dick Summer had shows on WBZ and I kind of thought we were on a par. I didn't know at that time what "50,000 watt clear channel" meant, but they had the most powerful signal allowable by law on a frequency that nobody else occupied and these guys got mail from New Zealand sometimes when the ionosphere was right. I still get people from Ohio who come up to me and say, "When me and the Mrs. was courtin', we'd go up on the bluff on Sunday night where we could get WBZ." They had a huge listenership. So I gave a tape of "Urge for Going" to Jefferson Kay, he played it and it became the most requested song on the station. It was very, very popular. I think partly because the only way you could hear it was to call up and ask for it. This was before cassette recorders were common. Reel to reel tape recorders were pretty exotic. Not too many people had them. So if you wanted to hear this song you had to call up and request it. When it finally did come out on disc as a single, I think the single came out about the same time as the album, but my recollection may be flawed. But when it finally did come out, none of the other stations in Boston would touch it.

WB: Because it had the WBZ stamp on it.

TR: Exactly. It was owned by WBZ and it was still the number one single in Boston for a while.

WB: The number one selling single? Great! Was the version that you gave to WBZ a live version or one you recorded in a studio?

TR: It was done in a studio with Bruce Langhorne playing guitar. It was substantially the same as the one that appeared on the album. It just took a long time to finish that album and I don't know why Elektra gave me permission to release that tape. Maybe they didn't, maybe I just did it, but in the meanwhile, James Taylor and Jackson Browne had come out of the woodwork and along with Joni, somehow the three of them were kindred spirits artistically. They were all writing songs that were folky but weren't. Just writing some wonderful stuff. So The Circle Game album was really a special project because it was a discovery for me of three wonderfully talented writers.

WB: One of the things you're well known for is being the first person to record songs written by those artists who later became icons of the singer-songwriter movement.

TR: Right. Rolling Stone at one point said that my album ushered in the singer-songwriter era. I don't know if that's true. I think it was the first time any of them had been recorded.

WB: And then I know on your follow-up album on Columbia you recorded another Jackson Browne song and a couple from James Taylor. But no more from Joni?

TR: Well, Joni took a turn around that point and started writing songs that I thought were more specific to her and less universal.

WB: That's true.

TR: And I didn't hear anymore songs that... although "Clouds" would have suited me well, and in fact she told me once, "You know when I wrote 'Clouds,' I really thought it would suit you, Tom." But she sent it to Judy Collins.

WB: Well, what Judy Collins says in her biography is that you actually called her up and said "Here's a new song that Joni just wrote and I really want you to hear it and record it." Do you remember it that way?

TR: I don't.

WB: That's what Judy says.

TR: Judy's memory is flawed. [Laughs]

WB: So you don't think that's true?

TR: It's funny how people's recollections vary.

WB: A lot of marijuana back then. And a lot of six packs!!

TR: I heard about that, but I never exhaled!! Anyway, no, I don't think that's true because I remember being mildly miffed that Judy got the song before I did! Now I did, early on, send Judy some Joni Mitchell songs.

WB: Including "The Circle Game?"

TR: Probably after I'd recorded it.

WB: I read that Judy didn't think they were songs that she wanted to record.

TR: Yes, she didn't go for the bait.

WB: Maybe that's what she's remembering.

TR: Yes, she may be combining that with "Clouds," but anyway, if I'd recorded "Clouds" first who knows how it would have done, but Judy did it well and did well with it.

WB: Yes, I think that's her biggest hit. Now, I have a question for you about something that you may know about. I have a metal acetate of what is supposedly Joni's first song called "Day After Day." It's listed on the acetate as being on Wild Indigo Music, which is, I believe, your publishing company? What can you tell me about this? The song was written in '65 and recorded in the spring of '66.

TR: Wild Indigo was, I believe, Arthur Gorson's company . He was a manager.

WB: Was he Joni's manager?

TR: No.

WB: I've heard the name.

TR: I'm trying to dredge this up here. Arthur Gorson represented myself, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, a duo named Jim and Jean, and some other people. I think Wild Indigo was his publishing company and somehow he got a hold of ... he was managing me at that time period. I didn't have anything to do with it, but maybe somehow Arthur snagged the publishing on some early Joni.

WB: Joni herself is wondering about that. She asked me recently about what I knew about it, because she'd lost track. So I sent her all the information I had including the place that pressed the acetate but after 30 years she's probably not going to be able to track much down. Do you remember that song, "Day After Day?"

TR: No. I'd love to hear it though.

WB: I have the metal acetate and Joel Bernstein has put it on DAT for Joni's box set, whenever that happens. Do you have any tapes left of Joni live or anything?

TR: No, as I said it was all lost in that fire.

WB: One other question about early Joni recordings. In 1966 she recorded four songs including two singles with the Segal Shwall Blues Band, who were classically trained musicians. Do you know anything about them or do you recall those sessions?

TR: No, I don't know anything specific about those sessions.

WB: Joni very early on got into alternate tunings, as you well know. When you recorded her songs did you also use the same alternate tunings or did you convert them to regular tunings?

TR: I think I introduced Joni to open tunings, and she definitely took the ball and ran with it.

WB: I'll say.

TR: "Urge for Going" I do in a standard tuning. "The Circle Game" is in a G tuning which I capo up differently to put it in my range, but I'm pretty sure I'm using her chordings on that because there is an unconventional over the neck grip that you use for one chord.

WB: Yes, I saw her on TV from 1967 doing that, as a matter of fact.

TR: So I'm pretty sure I use her tuning on that. Other than that I'm not performing any of her stuff, except for "Urge for Going." I think "Tin Angel" was the only other one I recorded. But I believe that I may have introduced her to open tunings. That may be another false memory!

WB: So did you work the club circuit in Canada? For example, in Toronto and Calgary?

TR: Yes, there was a place called the Riverboat on Yorkshire Street in Toronto and we had some good times there.

WB: And was Joni with you there sometimes? Because I know she played there, too.

TR: I don't remember that. I mean, she was probably there at different times then I was. I don't remember being on the same bill with her at the Riverboat. In fact, the Riverboat was the kind of place where you would start about 7:30-8:00 at night and play until 2 in the morning. A 40 minute set, half an hour off, another 40 minute set, half an hour off, and the audience would kind of circulate through. There was only one act on the bill, as I recall it.

WB: What about The Depression in Calgary?

TR: No, I never got to Calgary. I played Toronto, Montreal occasionally, Ottawa fairly regularly, at a place called Le Hibou (The Owl).

WB: Oh, yeah, I've heard of that one. And I guess in Detroit, besides The Chessmate, you played The Playboy Club and The Living End?

TR: No, I never played either of those.

WB: How about in Philadelphia at the Second Fret or the Main Point?

TR: Yes, the Second Fret and the Main Point both.

WB: Those were nice places.

TR: Yes, they were. There was another seedy little place just down the street from the Second Fret. I can't remember the name of it but it was one of my first gigs on the road. Well, the guy had promised me room and board, and after the first show I asked him where I was staying and he had apparently forgotten about the room and board part. And he said "Well, you can stay here," and he pulls out this reclining lawn chair and puts it on the stage and says "Here's your bed, I'm locking up, good night!" I couldn't get out if I wanted to. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and there was gunfire in the room, and this flashlight beam shining around and this guy yelling "Stay still. I'll get the sonofabitch!" He was trying to shoot this rat who was running around the room and running under my lawn chair as he was shooting at it. It was a pretty exciting introduction to life in the fast lane.

WB: I wanted to have you comment on some other folkies from the sixties, if you have any memories of them. Judy Collins, for example?

TR: Yes, I've known Judy for a long time but we've never spent a lot of time together.

WB: She was pretty famous. Wasn't she one of the most popular folkies? I know that she was selling a lot of records.

TR: She was selling a lot of records. She wasn't as big at that point as, say, Joan Baez, who was Boston's own, as to being New York's own. Baez was a big deal, Judy was not quite as big. Judy, I think, has played her cards right though, because she managed to stop being a folk singer just about when folk music stopped being sellable. She put on a feather boa and became a chantuese!

WB: I hear that she's a real character now. I have an acquaintance who's trying to revive her career. How about Buffy St. Marie? You probably ran into her a lot.

TR: Buffy I haven't seen for a thousand years, but she used to be part of the folk scene. She was obviously very intensely into the Indian affairs aspect of things.

WB: She was also one of the people who recorded Joni's songs early on. She recorded "Song to A Seagull" and "The Circle Game." That song certainly got around a lot.

TR: Yeah, it did. And it deserved to do so.

WB: How about Dave Van Ronk?

TR: Dave I know from the New York scene. Way, way back. Never spent a whole lot of time with him.

WB: He recorded "Both Sides Now" and called it "Clouds," as some other people do.

TR: Right. Now talking about false memories, he showed me the C tunings that I use for a lot of my stuff, and said he'd learned them from Dylan. I talked to Dylan about it some years later, and Dylan said "I don't know any C tuning." So who do you believe?

WB: What are your memories of Dylan in those days?

TR: My recollection of Dylan in those days was that he was a not infrequent visitor to the Cambridge scene. I remember thinking when his first album came out that it was just great, I loved it, and I thought, too bad a guy like this can't ever really be popular because his voice is so bad and it's not what's happening on the radio these days.

WB: Little did you know!

TR: Little did I know how little I knew. Then he got big. I remembering him being at a party in Cambridge where everybody was trying to be so cool, that they were ignoring him because nobody wanted to be perceived as fawning over the now famous Bob Dylan. So he would walk into a room and it would empty out because everybody was too cool.

WB: How about Gordon Lightfoot, did you run into him a lot?

TR: I saw Gordon from time to time. He was a funny case. There should be a movie or a book about Gordon. He was a farm boy who wanted to be Hugh Hefner but didn't know how. That was my read on him. When I saw him last at home, he had gotten this huge house in Toronto. Again, no furnishings. I think he had one room furnished, he had just moved in. It was this huge house, his wife had just left him, I think, and he gave me this tour of the house with all these empty rooms, and it just broke my heart. He was knocking around in this mansion by himself. But he sure has a knack of coming up with a new hit every five or six years.

WB: Beautiful voice, too. How about Eric Andersen?

TR: Eric, as I said before, was managed by Arthur Gorson at the same time I was, but we never really spent a whole lot of time hanging out together.

WB: I believe he lives in Norway now.

TR: I think it's Norway. He is back and forth a lot.

WB: Is he? Yes, I'm hoping to talk to him sometime soon. He had a lot of contact with Joni in the early days, and over the years they've still remained friends. How about Loren Janes, do you recognize that name? He was Chuck's classically trained partner before he met Joni. Do you remember him?

TR: I remember the name, but I don't remember him. I probably did meet him though.

WB: What about George Hamilton IV? Joni says "At one point George came to Detroit and I remember meeting him but I think he must have heard 'Urge for Going' from Tom first because he seemed to already know it." Another false memory?

TR: Could be true, I don't know. I never met George Hamilton IV. Don't think I ever met the man.

WB: How about Tom Paxton?

TR: Paxton I keep bumping into over the years at different festivals and such. He's a great guy. He's working a lot less now that his daughters are all out of college. At one point he was killing himself, he told me, on the road because he had three tuitions to pay at once, but they are all out of college now, so he's semi-retired. He's a very funny guy, a good fellow.

WB: Pete Seeger was around before the folk revival but he was still performing in the 1960s, wasn't he?

TR: Well, he fomented a folk revival of his own quite a bit earlier with the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and all those people. The 60s was not the only folk revival. It happens every 20 years. He is still out there on an occasional basis. His wife is being pretty protective of how he spends his time these days but ...

WB: He's probably in his 80s now.

TR: Yes, he's in his mid to upper 80s.

WB: You need someone to worry about you when you're that age, if not before.

TR: He's a piece of work. Last time I heard him on stage was probably about 10 or 15 years ago in the Village at a club, and I'm not sure what was going on but there were a lot of performers on stage playing three or four songs apiece, and Seeger was there, and he got up, did a couple of songs, and then he said, "Now I would like to sing for you a feminist song that I learned the other day, it's called 'Show Us the Length of Your Dick.' A hush fell over the room as Pete sang this song, which featured that line prominently in the chorus. I was certainly impressed.

WB: Impressed by the length of his dick?

TR: (Ha!) No, here's THE Pete Seeger singing a song called "Show Us the Length of Your Dick."

WB: Singing a dirty song! How funny. Just one more person that I have on my list here- Odetta.

TR: Odetta is a sweetheart.

WB: And she's certainly still around.

TR: Yes, and she's doing very well as near as I can tell.

WB: She was pretty popular in the 60s, wasn't she?

TR: Yes, she was. In fact, after I decided I wasn't going to be Josh White, I decided I wanted to be Odetta, which was a much tougher challenge.

WB: Your voice might be closer to hers though.

TR: I don't know anybody who has a voice like that. She's a marvelous person. I just saw her last winter in Nashville. We were recording for Nancy Griffith, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Part II.

WB: Oh, yes, Part II. That's not out yet, is it?

TR: Not that I know of, it was supposed to be out in February, '98 but got delayed. Nancy was one of the new faces on a couple of my Club 47 shows at Carnegie Hall and at the Kennedy Center.

WB: I want to get into that, but one more question first. You had albums that charted on Billboard through the mid 1970s, including Merrimac County, one of my favorites, and Ladies Love Outlaws, etc. but you seemed to disappear after that for a few years, as far as recording went anyway. What was that about?

TR: Well, I was recording for Columbia and they sent me a renewal notice that was two weeks late before I made Ladies Love Outlaws, after Merrimac County, so I said "Ok, that's it." Two weeks late, I'm outta here. And they got all upset and said, "No, no, no, if you try to sign with anyone else, we'll sue." And my manager at the time led me to believe that this was a credible threat. We finally hammered out a deal and they assigned me a producer, Mark Spector, who's now managing Joan Baez, and we made Ladies Love Outlaws. It was an attempt to capture a new audience which it failed at, and it didn't do that well with the old audience. Then they dropped my contract. I was told that there was no audience for this stuff anymore.

WB: Could you still make money touring?

TR: Yes, I kept touring for a bit, but touring with a band is really hard work, so I finally quit showbiz. I can't remember exactly what year it was, but I decided I was going to stop this nonsense and just retire to my farm in New Hampshire and drive my tractor. That lasted for about 9 months, and then I started doing occasional gigs again, and then eventually I started getting curious because I was reading all about the terrible woes of the record industry, and Columbia, I think, had lost $53 million in 1980 when I went in for a talk with them because I had gotten intrigued as to where this audience had gone, because it was a huge audience. How come all of a sudden ... did their ears fall off, did they all die? It would have been in the papers. So where did they go? The upshot of it all was that they were still around and they are now once again buying records and going to concerts, but I had some pretty amusing conversations with record industry execs about this problem. There was one board meeting that I went to where the question of why the baby boomers were not buying records, had finally occurred to these executives. This is the biggest pile of money in the history of the world, the American Baby Boom, and the record industry let them walk out of the room without a fight. They somehow decided that 18-23 was their target market, and at that time that demographic was dwindling every year, and they let this huge audience get away from them simply by ignoring them, and this one executive stood up at this meeting and said "Maybe the reason they're not buying records is that we're not making records that they want to buy." And there was this long silence and the guy got embarrassed and sat down and the conversation went on to other things, but basically that is what happened. They stopped making records that the baby boomers wanted to buy.

WB: But you were still able to tour. Your bio says that you returned to touring in '81.

TR: It was probably a little before that. Maybe in '79. Because at the end of 1980 I did the first of the Symphony Hall shows.

WB: That would be the Club 47 concerts?

TR: Well, they evolved into that. I had been playing Christmas shows in Boston forever at different venues, and I ended up playing in a place called the Paradise which is Don Law's rock and roll club, and attendance had been slipping from year to year and in 1979 between Christmas and New Year I failed to sell out that 500-seat room with a $7 ticket. A guy showed up on my doorstep just before that show and said "I'm from the University of New Hampshire doing my marketing thesis and I would like to use you as a case study." We did a survey at that show, at the Paradise, market research audience survey, and it turned out that all these guys were doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Knowing that, I decided that next year I would do something that lawyers and dentists and doctors like to do and I booked Symphony Hall, which has 2500 seats, and doubled the ticket price to $15, which on the face of it is insane, and everybody was giggling up their sleeves. I admit I was very nervous about it, but it felt right so I went out on a limb and did it. It sold out 10 days in advance, which shocked even me. The moral to the story for me was: the audience is out there you just have to do it the way they want it. They wanted to go to Symphony Hall, they did not want to go to a rock club and wait in the rain to have their hand stamped to get in.

WB: They didn't mind paying a little extra money to be in a nicer venue.

TR: Right, in fact they like to go to Symphony Hall for anything.

WB: It's a lovely place, I used to live on Gainsborough Street in Boston for a while. Symphony Hall was just down the block.

TR: Well, it worked out extremely well, and the moral of the story is I have to play nice places, and I can live with that!

WB: Yeah, why not!

TR: So anyway, I then formed this company called Maple Hill and started trying to figure out ways to reconnect this music with its audience, and started my own record company/publishing company/media production and artist management, booking agency, and it became too ambitious and I was stretched too thin, but in some ways it worked out very well, and one of the things that came out of it was the Club 47 idea of having shows with a couple of well-known artists and a couple of newcomers sharing the stage.

WB: And who were some of the people that joined you in the early days?

TR: Shawn Colvin, Nancy Griffith, and Alison Kraus were new faces on some of those shows.

WB: And some of the older faces were Bonnie Raitt ...

TR: Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Richie Havens.

WB: Oh, there's a name I forgot to ask you about, Richie Havens. I recently talked to Mark Roth who worked with Richie for a long time in the 70s and co-wrote the song "Minstrel From Gault" with him. Did you know Richie in the 60s or did you only get to know him with these concerts in the 1980s?

TR: I knew him in the 60s but not terribly well. He was one of the New York guys.

WB: Do the Club 47 concerts continue to this day?

TR: Yes, they do, and it seems this may be the year of Club 47 shows because for some reason or another there seems to be a lot of interest. I had gotten away from doing them because they were a lot of work to put together.

WB: Were any of the shows recorded for a live record?

TR: Well, there was one show that was a PBS special, it wasn't called Club 47 because we hadn't come up with that name for it yet.

WB: So this would have been in the early 80s?

TR: Yes, the early 80s. Recorded at the very end of '81 and then broadcast in '82. It was myself, Emmylou Harris, and David Bromberg. Buskin and Bateau were the new faces.

WB: I guess they're still new faces because I've never heard of them.

TR: Well, they're not even playing together anymore which is really a shame. Anyway that was the prototype show and a couple of years later I was at Symphony Hall doing an actual reunion of Club 47 alumni, inviting a bunch of people who had actually played there, including some new faces, and somebody said "Do you have permission to use the name?" and I said "I don't know, I wouldn't even know who to ask." So my lawyer did a search and found out that the name was unencumbered and so we signed it up to basically cover our butts.

WB: That's why it has that registered symbol on it.

TR: Yes, and then we thought it would be worth it to do some more shows under that flag. This year there seems to be a lot of interest in it. In fact, we're doing a show for Newport.

WB: Oh great. Who will be playing for you there?

TR: It will be Janis Ian, myself ...

WB: She's wonderful. So honest.

TR: Yes, I love Janis, and a lot of fun to work with, too. Janis, myself, Susan Werner and Vance Gilbert.

WB: Those are the new people?

TR: Yes.

WB: So I read in your bio that you perform 50 shows a year. Are these with the Club 47 or are these solo shows?

TR: No, there are hardly any Club 47 shows except for this year. They are once in a while kinds of things, and my goal has been to put together a package that I actually take out and tour without having to change artists every time. That may be coming to pass in the next year or so.

WB: So the 50 shows or so that you do each year are solo shows?

TR: Yes, those are Tom Rush shows.

WB: Are they generally on the east coast in the old cities where the club circuit was in the 60s?

TR: A lot of the shows are in the Northeast, I think partly because most of the country's population is in the Northeast, and then I do an annual West Coast swing, and the Midwest.

WB: Let's see, just a couple of more questions here. Did you ever ask Joni to join in on the Club 47 concerts?

TR: I have not. Partly because ...

WB: She doesn't perform much anymore?

TR: Partly because she doesn't perform much but more important I'm looking for artists that are comfortable playing and singing with other people and doing things that are spontaneous and my impression is that Joni likes to do what she wants to do. She's a stand alone entity. This isn't a bad thing at all, but the Club 47 shows are by nature involve a lot of pretty spontaneous collaberation.

WB: Did your friendship with her continue beyond the 60s?

TR: I haven't seen her in a long time.

WB: If you ran into each other would it be a warm welcome do you think?

TR: I think so. We had dinner together about 10 years ago or more, but other than that I haven't seen her.

WB: You may have mentioned this before, but do you still perform her songs in concert?

TR: Yes, I still do "The Circle Game" and "Urge for Going."

WB: And there's probably still a big reaction to those songs.

TR: Yes, those are some of the old favorites. You know, I'm constantly introducing new stuff but I feel I'm obliged to sing the songs that people came to hear. So I rotate. I don't usually do "The Circle Game" and "Urge for Going" in the same show, but I'll do one for awhile and then the other.

WB: I noticed with interest that you have another occupation, which my best friend Jim is getting involved in, which is voice-over work. Do you do a lot of that?

TR: Ain't it great?

WB: I guess you can make a lot of money if you hit the right vein.

TR: It's our kind of work. Too much money for hardly any effort!

WB: Is that where you make most of your money these days?

TR: No, I'm primarily making money from songwriting and performing, but the voice-over stuff is great when it happens.

WB: Have you done anything that's been on TV?

TR: Yes, some Tylenol Allergy, Sinus, Cold, Flu commercials, Bell south, Chrysler in Canada.

WB: Really, gosh! Do you make a lot of money on those?

TR: Yeah, but it's very erratic.

WB: Do you make money every time it plays?

TR: Well, it works in different ways. I was the voice of Bell South for a year and they paid me a chunk money up front as an advance against residuals. The nice thing about that system is if the company decides to use another commercial you still have the money. The other way is straight residuals. It comes in spurts and it's great when it happens but there is always a possibility that they'll decide to drop the campaign.

WB: What are your plans for the future as far as music goes?

TR: I plan any minute now to spend a lot more time writing. I've been planning to do that for about 10 years, but I'd like to do more writing. I'm about ready to make another album but I'm not sure on which label. I'd prefer not to do it on my own.

WB: How many albums have you had out since the Columbia days, in the 80s? I'm not really familiar with them, I'm sorry to say.

TR: I just put out a couple on my own label.

WB: So this may go beyond that. You would like it to.

TR: Yes, albums from my perspective have usually been as much a publicity tool as a money-making venture. They are number one an artistic venture, but from a business perspective the visibility is great and helps sell the concert tickets. I can put out an album on my own and sell 30,000 copies and do very well dollar wise, but that's only 30,000 people that have it and know it exists, and anybody who is not on my mailing list, doesn't know it. Whereas if it's on some label that's widely distributed, then it's in the papers, it's on the radio, it's in the stores. Plus having your own label is a lot of work that has nothing to do with music, really. It's way too much time spent worrying about shipping schedules and signal to noise ratios.

WB: You know, someone who has done a really good job with that is Loreena McKennitt. Are you familiar with her?

TR: No, I'm not.

WB: She's a Canadian artist. She used to play on the streets and sell her CDs there and she now runs a whole company distributing her records in Canada and America. It's amazing how she's built it up into something very fruitful.

TR: Well, good for her!

WB: Yes, so it can happen. One more question from a friend of mine. On one of your albums, and he thinks it's Take A Little Walk With Me, you credit a piano player named Roosevelt Gook. Is this a pseudonym for Bob Dylan or is there really a Roosevelt Gook?

TR: No, who was Roosevelt Gook? He wasn't Dylan. There's also a guitar player named Daddy Bones on one of them, and that was John Herrald. Roosevelt Gook was Felix Papalardi, no it wasn't Felix. It was Al Kooper, who was doubling and didn't want to get paid as a double.

WB: There's a huge Dylan fan base out there, and that was a question that no one could answer because apparently he's used that name before.

TR: Really? Well, then he must have gotten it from Al.

WB: There you go. Did Dylan ever play on any of your albums?

TR: No, he never did. Although I never really went as far as I could to discourage those rumors.

WB: Why bother, right? Well, Tom. Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

TR: No I think you've got the whole nine yards.

WB: I appreciate your talking so long with me, it's been a pleasure, and I thank you for your wonderful music that's been a part of my life for 30 years. I especially thank you for the energy you put into introducing Joni to all of us.

TR: Well, you're more than welcome. It was well worth it for me, too.

WB: She's a wonderful artist.

TR: Yes, she is.

WB: Thanks, Tom.

My thanks to Tom Rush for the conversation. Thanks also to Sue McNamara for transcribing the interview.

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Added to Library on November 15, 2005. (17829)


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