The Universal Notebook: Old folks, old folkies

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My lovely wife Carolyn and I recently attended a Tom Rush concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland. It made me feel really old, not just because folk legend Tom Rush is now 81. Heck, so are Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie.

It took me a half hour of sitting in the roomful of white heads, gray hair and baldpates to get used to the idea that these old folks were my contemporaries, men and women in their 70s and 80s who used to listen to Tom Rush when they were in their teens and twenties. 

Edgar Allen BeemTom Rush was at the forefront of the contemporary folk music revival in the 1960s and he is an enduring emissary to this day. He’s a bit stooped and snow white at 81, but his voice is as mellow and strong as it was in 1966 when I saw him perform at the Newport Folk Festival. 

My heroes when I was young were folk singers like Dylan, Baez, Rush, Buffy, Dave Van Ronk and Tim Hardin. I was one of those soulful teens who, alone in his room, listened to Tom Rush sing “Circle Game” and “Urge for Going” until I wore out the groves on the 33 RPM album.

In July of 1966 we went to Newport because the summer before Dylan had shocked the music world by going electric, backed up by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Mike Bloomfield. My best friend Chris Couch and I drove down in his blue and white 1953 Chevy along with a couple of other Westbrook guys who needed a ride. I still have the Newport Folk Festival July 1966 program in a musty old briefcase down in the cellar. 

My girlfriend joined me in Newport the day after we arrived, so I was romantically distracted most of the weekend, but I do remember the sea of sound, pot smoke, hippies, musicians and collegians. Rush was just three years out of Harvard himself. He was 25 and I was 17.

I enjoyed John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Richie Havens and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, but rumors of Dylan sightings all turned out to be wishful thinking. Dylan, the eternal troubadour, is still touring the country 56 years later, while Sebastian does folk nostalgia shows on PBS even though Lovin’ Spoonful tunes were never my idea of folk music.

We saw a bunch of great blues musicians, among them Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James, Bukka White and Son House. In fact, while searching online just now for things to jog my memories of Newport 1966, I came across a photograph of Son House singing to a small crowd of young people. Front and center is my old friend Christopher, who died five summers back.

I am one of the few people alive who knows that Chris and I could have died on the way home from Newport that July weekend. He and I were asleep in the back seat when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and the old Chevy flew off the Maine Turnpike in the wee hours. I woke up on the floor with Chris bouncing on top of me. Miraculously, we simply plowed through a field, digging up clots of sod, and pulled right back onto the highway.

Everyone was immortal in the summer of ’66.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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