“Song poet” Andersen celebrates folk
Legendary Norwegian-American songwriter performs in conjunction with New York museum
In conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit, “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” they offered a concert with songwriter and singer Eric Andersen and the Chapin Sisters on Nov. 6. I was lucky enough to get a last-minute standing room ticket to the sold-out show.
Eric Andersen was born in Pittsburgh, Penn., and raised in a small town near Buffalo, N.Y. As a teen he became interested in music and traveled around the U.S., eventually settling in New York as the folk music scene was exploding. From the mid 70s to 80s he lived in Woodstock and in 1983 he began to split time between Woodstock and Oslo, Norway, the country of his grandfather.
His songs have been recorded by such greats as Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Linda Ronstadt. A prolific songwriter, he has cut more than 25 albums. He has also written essays, (including one in National Geographic Traveler, entitled “Coastal Norway”), starred in the Andy Warhol film Space, and collaborated musically on an exhibit in Provence about Albert Camus (“Paintings Out of Revolt”). A documentary is being made about him, due out in 2016. Today, Andersen lives with his Dutch wife Inge in Europe.
The concert began with a welcome by Susan Jones, director of MCNY. She spoke about the folk music exhibit and Andersen’s part in the scene. She went on to describe Eric Andersen as follows: “He’s a star.”
The Chapin Sisters—Abigail and Lily, who are the nieces of Harry Chapin—began with the powerful, haunting “Sweet Light,” unaccompanied by instruments. Most of their other songs included guitar and sometimes banjo. Their next piece, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” had a country twang.
The sisters explained that they had grown up in New York City and towns along the Hudson River, but for the last eight years they have been living in L.A. “Shady River” was their next tune, inspired by their youth on the East Coast. According to Abigail it is “about what you miss, [like] a change of season when you live in a desert,” They have very recently moved back to the East Coast so they wrote a song to say goodbye to L.A., “Goodbye Angelina,” possibly a nod to an earlier ballad recorded by Joan Baez and written by Dylan, “Farewell Angelina.”
Their last song was an original written in response to Occupy Wall Street and the Climate March. Cognizant of the folk music revival activist tradition, they wanted to create a song in that vein. One sister brought the motivation back home: “Uncle Henry [Chapin] believed that “music and singing together and playing in the streets can change the world.” The result was “We Will Not Stop Singing,” and in folk fashion they had the audience join in.
After a brief intermission the man of the hour took the stage, a tall man in black, including his fedora. One audience member told me that she used to follow him all over the Village to hear him sing. He was viewed more like a rock star than a folk star. Andersen doesn’t see himself as a folk singer either, but rather describes himself as a “song poet.”
Explaining that he had a little laryngitis, Andersen began singing solo. He had a beautiful, deep, soulful voice, a little raspy and sexy. When finished, he took a slug of water, triggering something Kris Kristofferson had said to him, “man can’t live on tequila alone.”
After a couple of songs a group of musicians joined him: Michele Gazich on violin, viola, and fiddle; Cheryl Prashker on djembe (drum); Eric’s wife Inge Andersen on vocals; and Steve Addabbo on electric guitar. Plunging into the iconic “Dusty Boxcar Wall,” all were riveted by its wonderful rich tones.
The next number was the tender, poetic and romantic “Violets at Dawn,” first released in 1967, followed by the more country ballad-like, “Close the Door Lightly When You Go.” The powerful lines: “Turn around, don’t whisper out my name, For like a breeze it’d stir a dying flame” explain it all. Before the next song, Eric thanked the audience for “the room full of love.”
He sang the heartbreaking “Salt on your skin,” released in 2003. Some wonderful lines include: “Well, I’ve never played Hamlet, but I learned some good lines, like how good is timeless, when you’re running out of time.” This song about loss and death and not being ready to let go was poignant.
Between songs Andersen told anecdotes about the band. He pointed out that Addabbo had just mixed three Dylan albums and wished he would never hear a harmonica again. Andersen had just been playing harmonica.
He sung the next piece like a joyful troubadour, giving a tribute to the life of a street musician. “They call me the busker, with the songs in my sack.”
Andersen is not resting on his laurels and has two new projects. He’s been working on the first for the last two years, in collaboration with a Zurich museum. The other project involves Lord Byron’s family estate, Newstead Abbey. On one visit to the historic home, he encountered a leaking roof and other needed repairs. He held a benefit concert for the Abbey, including pieces he had created that were set to Byron’s poetry. He played us an original song he composed using Byron’s words, “Mingle With the Universe.”
Leaping in a different direction Andersen asked, “Do you like the blues?” A cheer came from the audience. He added, “I learned music in the Village—not folk music, but blues.” He was even the opening act for blues legend Hooker. The band played, “If You Love Your Woman, You’d Better Love Her With a Thrill.” The next line adds, “cause if you don’t, some other guy will.”
Andersen explained that his last song had been sung by John Denver and Bob Dylan. He joked that he was still waiting for his royalties from Dylan. This tune is one of Andersen’s best-known civil rights pieces, “Thirsty Boots,” first recorded in 1966. It was written about an activist friend of his who had been involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
After the last note dissolved, the audience was on their feet. So a dynamic encore was delivered with Andersen alone on piano and vocals, playing “Blue River.” It was a perfect choice to end with, taking us back to his roots.
The entire evening was wonderful, but it was the first time I had heard this important artist live. I asked Lynn Cole, who had seen him perform before, what she thought: “I am a part of the Folk Music Society of New York and we’re a co-sponsor of the concert. Andersen is a very polished performer and part of the Folk Revival. I haven’t seen him perform in a very long time and was interested in seeing him again. I was not at all disappointed.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.