Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The (Tom) Rush of Time

To hear what it was like to play professional football in the early days of the NFL, you'd want to talk to a guy like Y.A. Tittle. Interested in the history of the feminist movement? Go hear a Gloria Steinem talk. George McGovern could tell you all you needed to know about trying to change a political party.

And if you wanted to learn about folk music -- which reaches back several centuries yet still shapes the music we hear today -- you couldn't do much better than going to a Tom Rush concert.

With stylishly shaggy silver hair and his trademark mustache, Rush is pushing 70 and has had a musical career of nearly 50 years. Yet as amply demonstrated by his show last Saturday night at the Vergennes Opera House, he remains one of the most important links in the chain.

No other folk singer has been so closely tied to New England. A New Hampshire native who went to St Paul’s School (which meant, he said, “I grew up in 18th century England”), he now lives in Norwich, Vt., after some years living out west. With a sound developed and polished in the folk clubs of the early 1960s, his songs transport an audience back through the decades, to when he and his listeners were young.

Rush was there when the great Delta blues men were being rediscovered by white college kids back in the early 1960s. Coming down from Merrimack County, he was a Harvard undergraduate when he began playing the clubs during what Tom Paxton calls "the folk scare."

Like Bob Dylan, Paxton and a number of other youngsters who revivified the blues, Rush helped bring the music and personalities of Southern black America into the mainstream. Those young folksingers met the old bluesman at gigs, invited them back to their Cambridge apartments for late-night jams, learned their songs, copied their idiosyncratic picking, and reinterpreted a lost, distant music from the Mississippi Delta for a white audience of millions.

Saturday night, Rush closed the first set of his show with "Panama Limited. " He made his old Epiphone acoustic guitar sing like the wheels, brakes and bells of a freight train, channeling a century of the blues through the licks he learned from Bukka White.

But as Rush wryly observed, he just can't do some of the old blues songs anymore because they are so politically incorrect. Take for example "Big Fat Woman," the old number by John Hurt, who sang of "the meat shakin’ on her bones." But as Rush added, Hurt’s song has the rare and beautiful rhyme, "Big Fat Woman great big legs/ Ev'ry time she moves, move like a soft boiled egg."

It's just not the same if a white guy tries to write in that genre, Rush said: "Imagine if a yuppie wrote a blues song. It would go, ‘Woke up this mornin’. Both cars were gone.’ "

Rush is right up there with the funniest of the singer-songwriters, among whom I would rank Richard Thompson, who played a Middlebury show back in August, and the late, great John Stewart. Rush has revived the old Fred Koller/John Prine song "Let Talk Dirty in Hawaiian." And he clearly relishes the telling of a corny joke. Like the one about the ex-girlfriend who became a street walker in Venice, and drowned.

But Rush has also built his career on moody, evocative songs delivered in a honey-tinged, smoky voice. He wrote a few of those himself, such as the classic "No Regrets," but most of them are covers. He’s famous as the first to record the songs of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor before they had their first records.

His delicate reading of classics such as Joni’s “Urge for Going” (the best song ever written about autumn) and Jackson Browne's "These Days" sparked many a memory.

Several of us spent the intermission regaling each other with memories of past shows he had performed in Vermont, including one during the Middlebury College 1969 homecoming weekend. I recall seeing him in Burlington in 1975 with his very loud folk band (featuring guitarist Trevor Veitch, "of no fixed address"), on a double bill with Linda Ronstadt.

Yes, the average age of the audience last Saturday night was well north of 50. But when Rush encored with “Child Song,” in which the young narrator explains why he’s collecting his things and leaving home -- "Goodbye Mama, goodbye to you too, Pa ... I love you but that hasn't helped at all" -- the 1970s were as new as that morning's sunrise.

It's one thing to hear those old songs on CD. It's quite another thing to see and hear them performed live, just one man and his guitar. Only a familiar old scent can so powerfully evoke the past. Tom Rush proves again that music is our one true Time Machine.


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