I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, November 30, 1957. I have two older sisters and a brother. As a child I had some trouble learning to tie my shoes, causing my father considerable frustration. He worked at Bell Labs and most of the rest of the time on a system of philosophy expressed in mathematics. He read us the Bible for two hours every Sunday, although we preferred horsing around with him. My mother liked to cook and made jars of oatmeal cookies. She read us wonderful books and poems, including the Iliad – 5 times – walked fast and yelled a lot. She paid me a nickel to memorize Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Aengus.” My brother memorized all of “The Congo,” by Vachel Lindsay. “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room, barrel-house kings with feet unstable, sagged and reeled and pounded on the table.”
My mother leapt from topic to topic in conversation, sometimes in mid-sentence. This influence is revealed in manic songs like "Never Enough" and "A Seat in the Mezzanine." We lived in a large Victorian house in Long Branch, New Jersey, which had a carriage house, a grape arbor and raspberry patch, and two apple trees. There was a stained glass window, a coal bin, and rooms full of aborigine shields and weapons in the basement. The place had been owned previously by an archaeologist.
I became and remain a baseball fan and played all day most days with my brother Matthew, who generously handicapped himself to include me. My mother attended Middlebury College in Vermont for five summers en route to an MA in French. I remember getting up very early with my brother Matthew and sister Ellen and crossing the bridge over Otter Creek to get a glazed donut at the bakery. Nothing has smelled nor tasted so good before or since. We'd go to Lake Dunmore many days. A good deal of my time was spent in searching for dimes in phone booth slots, and finding Pepsi bottles to return for two cents. Marvel Comics (Thor was my favorite) cost 12 cents then. Once at the end of a languid day at Lake Dunmore, Matthew was looking to round me up so we could go home. A friend of his pointed to a distant trash can with two legs sticking out of it. I emerged momentarily, with a Pepsi bottle.
In 1968, my father was transferred to Naperville, IL. I played a couple of years of Little League baseball, one of the only experiences of childhood which brought me into harmony with my peers. I threw a slow pitch, which would sink over the plate, not due to spin but due to lack of velocity, with pinpoint control. And I played outfield and first base.
My mother had been teaching high school and a couple of students with family troubles came out from New Jersey to live with us. They were hippies, and played guitars, so I asked for one. My first useful lessons were with Anne Jones, whose family still teaches folk music in Lombard, Illinois.
In 1970, my mother read a blurb in the Chicago Sun-Times about a mailman who sang his own songs. My parents went down to hear him, and then brought the rest of us with them, every weekend for a year. It was John Prine. I was usually up late trying to learn Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt fingerpicking tunes, and would have dropped out of Glenbard West High School except for one great English teacher, Bernice Pond. I listened to Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Etta Baker, Joseph Spence, Martin Carthy, Joni Mitchell, Leo Kottke, Ewan MacColl, Leonard Cohen, Odetta, etc.
My earliest performances were as part of The Osbornes, a group comprised of me and my brother and Doug Tursman on banjo. We gave free shows in our basement. At 13 I began writing songs and performing in coffeehouses (after the bitter break-up of the Osbornes) solo. At 15 I lied about my age and worked all summer at Cintas garment factory to earn the money for a Martin D-28. At 16 I began driving into Chicago to play at open stages at The Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else's Troubles, etc. On Monday nights, you could start at Troubles, go over two doors to Papa's III if you could stand the noise and smoke, thence to the Earl which had a 4 o'clock license. Chicago was a good place to be. I saw Odetta, Jim Post, Cyril Tawney, Jean Ritchie, Clancy & Makem, Rosalie Sorrels, Blind Jim Brewer, Art Thieme, Margaret Christl, Homesick James, Paul Geremia, Gamble Rogers, Andres Segovia, Vassar Clements, The Newgrass Revival, Leo Kottke, Kris Kristofferson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin, Bogan and the Armstrongs, Norman Blake, Jean Redpath, and Leonard Cohen perform there when I was in my teens. And some great people you've never heard of. Steve Goodman borrowed my Martin one open mike night at Troubles.
From age 17-20, I read most of the complete works of Joseph Conrad. I performed monthly at a social center for street alcoholics founded by James Harper, called "Save the Alcoholic" and later the "Center for Street People," now "Harper House." My first recording, Water Street, was funded by a couple on the board, Dick and Nan Conser, and recorded by Mike Rasfeld at Acme Studios in Chicago. That 1983 recording, Water Street, finally got me working in Chicago clubs and led to two more LPs during the 80's with Flying Fish, The Gates of Love and Walk Me To The War. James Harper, ex-alcoholic and ex-con, was ordained a minister two days before his death from cancer. He requested that I sing "You Will Know God" at the ordination. His wife Anne, a good friend who ran the coffeehouse/music part of CSP, died of a heart attack a few years later.
I married young, had a couple kids, the estimable Louis and Casey, and got divorced. I published a book, Twenty-Four Poems and a solo guitar tape, Banks of Sweet Primroses. I played for 4 years as a solo guitarist (classical, folk & blues) at Evanston's Blind Faith Café, and for a year at Chicago's Third Coast Coffeehouse. In 1990 I went to the Kerrville festival where I connected with other songwriters. I teamed for several years with Kat Eggleston. We toured the US and Europe, and made a couple duo tapes of folk songs, ballads and tunes (Jack Spratt and First Comes Love, from material we performed at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin for several summers, both out of print).
In 1992 I founded an artists' cooperative label called Waterbug Records. Waterbug released 125 titles by some 40 artists, and carried many more hard-to-find titles by mail order. I loved discovering devoted artists and helping them to be heard. Waterbug was the first to distribute music by William Pint and Felicia Dale, Cosy Sheridan, Kate MacLeod, Sam Pacetti, Shinobu Sato, Dar Williams, Erin McKeown, Rose Polenzani, Steve Fisher, Gina Forsyth, Sloan Wainwright, Sons of the Never Wrong, Erin Corday, Michael McNevin, Anais Mitchell and others.
I made 3 more CDs during the 90's, Hope, Phoenix Envy and Where Blue Meets Blue. Waterbug was honored with a two hour mainstage showcase at the Kerrville Festival in 1999. In 1997, I began teaching songwriting groups with a human potential angle, and continued to work at music. I moved to Portland, Oregon in late 1999. Here I went through a horrendous bout of tendinitis, and if you have something similar, check out activerelease.com and find an active tissue release practitioner. The Graston technique is great as well. But the preventive, and no doctor will tell you this, is rope weights, pulled over the head from behind. I worked some temp jobs and used the time to write some reviews, memorize poems and work on songs. My songwriting turned in the direction of story songs.
A highlight of my 5 years in Portland was a friendship with Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Dave created a vocal arrangement for my song "Joy" on Thanksgiving, 2001, and he and Tracy and Claire Bard sang on the recording for Tiger Tattoo. Dave Carter died in July, 2002 at the age of 49. I was visiting my folks in Illinois the week he died, and began learning his "Gentle Arms of Eden." My mother was disabled and bedridden. I sang it through twice, and she said, "Who wrote that?" "Dave." "David in the Bible?" I went on a hundred day tour that Fall, the longest of my life, and took Dave and Tracy's CDs with me to sell and told their story. Tracy learned the guitar parts to songs she used to play fiddle on. A few days after I returned to Portland, she, with Donny Wright on bass and guitar, played a rehearsal show for their upcoming California tour, performing Dave Carter's music. It was so damn sad to see them up on that stage without him. But Tracy was poised, and funny, and genuine, she belted and bent notes and gave us back the music, even when it was breaking her heart, and by the end of the night there was nothing in that room but joy. It's the bravest thing I've ever seen a person do. Dave told me early in the summer he died that he wanted to retire from the road and have Tracy be the voice of his songs. And so it is.
My songs prove useful for certain people at certain times. A man in California wrote to me: "I like your always surprising poem-songs, all of which demand from a listener a certain kind of attention. I always come away from listening to one of your recordings looking at everything with fresh eyes; thank you for that, for it helps me get back to a place when I once met the world everyday as if I were going into it for the first time. It's hard some days to remember what the world looked like before you had a word for anything."
And so one keeps on. I've performed at coffeehouses, cafes, coffee bars, bars, clubs, pubs, corn roasts, festivals, nursing homes, reformatories, prep schools, high schools, colleges, house concerts, Renaissance fairs, Highland games, farmer's markets, poetry slams, and on a float, sitting between the legs of a giant frog. It was to save "frog hollow," an undeveloped part of Palatine, IL, and the float won first prize. I received $50 and a sunburn. A few other performances stand out in my memory.
At the Sheepshead Café in Iowa City in the mid 80's, I was playing in their outside seating area, a few picnic tables, a small stage. Toward the end of the night I played three songs in a row, "The Hanging," "Willie," and "You Will Know God/LaGrima" and no one applauded, they just listened. An older man came up to me afterwards and said, "so there's hope." One night in the early 90's at Chicago's No Exit, I was singing with my eyes closed, and had the feeling I was singing to a spirit in the room. I opened my eyes and everyone in the audience had their eyes closed.
In my early twenties, I had a weakness for Peppermint Schnapps. At Durty Dick's Pub on Chicago's West Side, I was finishing my third set at midnight, when someone sent up a schnapps. I downed it, and did a funny song. Someone sent another, and I did more funny songs, and comedy bits, and improvisations, keeping straight on until two AM. People were crying and holding their sides. I drank seven schnapps, and have never been so funny before or since. Linda Black (Maio, now deceased) and I went to Dunkin' Donuts and drank a lot of coffee afterwards.
I spent more of 2003 obsessively translating oral tradition ballads from Scots; the result is the CD Telfer's Cows: Folk Ballads From Scotland, which came out way better than I'd hoped, and scored me some ink in Dirty Linen, from an interview with Pamela Murray Winters. Shadow of a Wing followed, 18 songs which to me represent my crazed journey through the world of love; a look at the workings of idealization, betrayal, forgiveness and acceptance.
2004 saw the revival of the Waterbug label with a new team of artists, among them Jonathan Byrd, Anais Mitchell, Louis Ledford, Rachel Ries, Michael Troy and Karen Mal, and two new samplers, Waterbug Anthology 7 and Vote in November: Election 2004 Anti-Theft Device, our first political CD. Arie Koelewyn hand-printed a new collection of my poems, Hay, released in April of 2005 on East Lansing, Michigan's, Paper Airplane Press. In 2005 I recorded Staring at the Sun, a solo CD of songs I wrote between 1973 and 1981.
These days I do poems in my shows - Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and had plans for a CD alternating songs and poems by different writers, where Dave Carter and Annie Gallup would hang out with Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay. However, I was declined permission to record some of the poems, so it is not to be. I can record any published song for a standard (and reasonable) fee, but there is no standard for recording poems.
My mother died on the 30th of April, 2006. The night before she died, we sang her songs she'd taught us, including "All God's Chil'n Got Shoes". Since she hadn't been able to walk for her last year, the song hit home in a new way. And it struck me that the heaven in the song was not some concept of heaven, but, simply, the glorious and infinite sky around us. And that my mother was going there. "When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, I'm gonna walk all over God's heaven." In the wake of her passing, I began tracking down spirituals and studying their history and the story of slavery in America. There's a great source book called Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, full of obscure gems - I've only ever heard three of the 130 songs performed - and it includes the original, more lyrically vivid "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", a Sea Islands rowing song addressed to the archangel Michael, a prayer for safe passage. This book is a pure source of the real thing. The spirituals were popularized in classical choral arrangements, but to me the original, wild way of using songs in participatory ritual to bind and lift an oppressed community is much more interesting. You can hear it on Alan Lomax's field recordings (Rounder's Southern Journey Series) of Bessie Jones, John Davis and the other Georgia Sea Island singers, recorded around 1960 and still performing in the old call and response/ring shout style. My mother was Jewish, a former union steward who shouted "Jim Crow Must Go!" on sound trucks in the early Civil Rights movement, and drove into the Beethoven School in Chicago to tutor poor kids until she was too sick to drive. I'm fascinated by the connection between the Biblical story of Exodus, and what the African Americans did with it, finding the living heart of a religion twisted beyond recognition by centuries of institutionalized idolatry and sham. I expect to record some of this music after a few more months of research. Because, you know, it's public domain, as, in the new Jerusalem, everything will be. I try not to take these songs for granted anymore.
Bessie Jones sings,
My name written on David line
My name written on David line
My name written on David line
I'm goin' to heaven on the wheel of time
Adam and Eve, don't tell it to me
Just meet me at the door...
"I did not come here myself my Lord
It was my Lord who brought me here
I really do believe I'm a child of God
A-walking in the heaven I roam..." -anonymous enslaved theologian
Bound to Go, a collection of 35 African American spirituals and secular folksongs with 18 musicians/singers, was released in early 2008. Cover painting by Jonathan Green.
It’s always the beginning of the dream
That started with the men behind the scene
With the lotus ever-knowing and the holy women rowing
I know you know exactly what I mean
After Bound to Go, I thought I'd make a quick download album of familiar folksongs over a summer. It took that summer to work out the guitar part to "John Henry", and Grapevinetook two and a half years to make, me and a guitar, recorded at home. The passing of Liam Clancy, the last surviving member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, pushed me in an Irish direction so I worked up "The Little Beggarman," "The Foggy Dew" and "Gartan Mother's Lullaby" for the recording. The "brave engineer" Casey Jones has a picture out there on the web, plus the story and records of his fateful crash on April 30, 1900. So I rewrote that one from the facts, and learned the tune from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag.
My daughter, Casey Calhoun, joined me in a singing duo. Bound to Go opened up some opportunities to work in libraries and perform in schools. We did an Underground Railroad show involving songs and readings annually at the Graue Mill site in Oakbrook, Illinois. For several summers I have did a lot of busking, both with Casey in Evanston and at farmer's markets close to home. Winter of 2009/10 I hibernated with the complete poems of Emily Dickinson, a stream of revelation and source of profound reassurance, and also the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who sings. Summer 2010 I attended a Lakota sundance in Northern Nebraska with a friend who was attending the ritual for the 12th time. Sweat lodge for three nights, dancing, hauling water, teachings of the medicine man, sage, a naming ceremony, healed my bronchial tubes and gave a new sense of direction. Someone, somewhere, is leading a genuine revival of meaning and spirit.
Summer of 2011 found me working up some jazzier songs like "What a Wonderful World" and "Shine On Harvest Moon," as well as incorporating a better understanding of harmony into my own songs. In 2012 I published a book of humor called The Trilogy Trilogy, and received the Lantern Bearer Award from the Folk Alliance Regional Midwest. In 2013 I put out Living Room, first recording of new songs in nine years. In 2017 I released Rhymer's Tower, a double CD of Anglo-Scottish Border Ballads which took five years to finish, and about defeated me; and Artemis Books published Warlock Rhymer, the result of several months work rendering of 85 of Robert Burns' Scots poems into English. With the help of Melissa Dagenhart, Casey and I crowdfunded our first duo CD, Skeins, released early in 2018. I'm working on a new project of my own songs, another batch of "Lonesome Valley" spirituals, and a Robert Burns songbook.
in 2023 I am living with my father. He is 95, has survived three strokes and a broken hip. As the pandemic was hitting he was becoming unable to deal with daily life. So this has been my gig. I'm putting the Burns songs - a couple of hundred of them, anyway, on my YouTube channel for ear musicians to use in conjunction with the book. Burns's song legacy has been mishandled since his first publishers; after 8 years of intensive research I've replaced 337 tunes of 410 songs. most from source books that Burns owned and worked with. Some of the tunes have never been published; some of his best texts are buried in the footnotes of the multi-volume scholarly editions. I hope to find a publisher for a selection of them, and publish the whole shebang as an E-book.
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