Tom Rush: No discoveries

Tom Rush to perform at Berkshire Museum on Saturday night

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 19, 2004) – “I didn’t really discover anybody,” says Tom Rush, wanting once and for all to dispel the notion that he singlehandedly launched the singer-songwriter movement of the late-1960s by discovering James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.

“If I helped bring the spotlight to those writers, then great, they deserved it,” said Rush – who performs on Saturday night at the Berkshire Museum at 8 -- in a recent phone interview from his home in Wyoming. “But I wasn’t in the business of discovering anyone. I was just looking for songs.”

Whether or not Rush should get credited for discovering the three J’s, as he calls them, it’s indisputable that he was one of the first to record their songs, thus garnering them attention. In particular, his versions of Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” and “The Circle Game” were incredibly influential in giving her a leg up on her own career as a recording artist and performer.

But Rush prefers to be thought of as his own man – as a folksinger whose work, whether written by himself or others, stands on its own merits. “It’s disheartening after a while to be defined in terms of other people,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s the audience’s perception. It’s what the media goes for because it’s a big fat hook sitting out there in plain sight.”

The native New Englander attended Harvard University in the early 1960s, just as Cambridge was becoming the nexus of the burgeoning folk revival. Intending to become a marine biologist, Rush switched to majoring in English when an introductory biology course turned out to be “an atrocity.”

“It was very difficult and pointless and frustrating for everyone,” he said.

Casting about for something else to major in, Rush settled on English literature. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” said Rush. “English literature as I now know doesn’t prepare you for any career path in particular.” But it proved to be an appropriate choice. He took all the courses having to with the oral tradition and folk music, either in the English department or as related studies.

More importantly, he began hanging out at the legendary Club 47, where folk revivalists including Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan frequently performed. By the end of 1963, Rush had recorded several albums, including “Got a Mind to Ramble” and “Blues Songs and Ballads,” consisting mostly of traditional material. Subsequent albums, including “Blues and Folk” and the eponymous “Tom Rush,” continued in this vein, mixing traditional folk and blues with songs by Woody Guthrie and the like.

By 1966, Rush began mixing things up a bit, recording tunes by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Willie Dixon in the incipient folk-rock style heard on Dylan albums like “Highway 61 Revisited.” But 1968’s “The Circle Game” was his real breakthrough album, featuring three Mitchell tunes, two by Taylor and one by Browne, as well as a few Tom Rush originals, including perhaps his best-known song, “No Regrets.”

Rush says that his turn away from traditional folk toward doing songs by contemporary songwriters didn’t come without some grumbling.

“In Cambridge there were way too many purists who’d look down their noses at a Bo Diddley tune and start stirring their coffee vigorously,” he said. “Some of my colleagues were specialists who did nothing but Woody Guthrie or delta blues or Appalachian ballads.

“I was more of a generalist, doing tunes from here and there. But the fact was that I’d run out of tunes I felt that I could do. Maybe I hadn’t dug deep enough. But I was casting about for new stuff because I had an album due, and along came Joni, Jackson and James all writing stuff that had a folkie sensibility but that was very different, more literary and musically sophisticated, but still compatible with what I’d been doing. It didn’t feel like a leap. It was a leap but not a gigantic leap for me. The audience seemed to like, and away we’d go.”

In some ways, says Rush, it’s been all downhill ever since. “That original crop was quite remarkable,” he said. “There are a lot of other writers out there since then and now who are writing stuff that I don’t think I can do -- good material that doesn’t necessarily suit me, so I haven’t been doing their tunes.

“There are also people who occasionally write the odd song that I just love, but they don’t crank them out like J, J and J.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 21, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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