By Dave Thompson
It is true when people say that truly seminal albums tend not to be made deliberately; that they come together from the random collision of cause and effect, circumstance and coincidence, luck and love. That is certainly the case with “The Circle Game,” an album that appeared to muted applause in 1968, but two years later was heralded as the godfather of the entire singer-songwriter movement.
It was there that the songwriting of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne was sighted for more or less the first time. Browne had a couple of earlier credits, alongside Nico and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to his credit, but for the most part, all three were as obscure at the time as they would be renowned a few years later. But Tom Rush, the folk legend who placed them all together on one platter admits that it was luck, or maybe “divine intervention,” that allowed them to arrive there.
Two years had passed since the onetime beacon of the Boston folk scene’s last LP, the half-trad, half-rock “Take A Little Walk With Me,” two years that Rush had spent on the road, at the same time as “trying to find enough material to make another album and coming up empty handed. I just couldn’t find enough traditional folk music that I felt I could bring anything to.”
Five past albums had already established Rush as a major talent. The consummate East Coast folkie, the epitome of what the era still knew as “city folksingers,” Rush was born Feb. 8, 1941, in Portsmouth, N.H., raised in Concord, Mass., and educated at Harvard. It was there that he slipped into the now-legendary Cambridge folk scene, although he admits “I had to be totally re-educated.”
He had grown up listening to the likes of Pete Seeger, Josh White and the Kingston Trio… “I wanted to be Josh White. That didn’t wash at Harvard. It was like being sent to a camp by the Communist Party, to cleanse your aberrant belief. I was told that Josh White was commercial, and that was bad. What they wanted was ethnic, and the ethnic guys were, of course, the old actual sharecroppers, coal miners, chain gang etc. Incredible music.
“So I was re-educated, and I did my best to be ethnic, although it was difficult for all of us because we were a bunch of Harvard Students singing about how tough it was in the coal mines and on the chain gang …”
Rush’s education continued on the road. By 1962, he had a weekly residency at the Unicorn Café. It was there that he was approached by “a gentleman who turned up and asked if I wanted to make an album. Well, I’d heard this a few times before, so I just said sure, and he actually showed up the following week, dragging a tape recorder the size of an oven downstairs into the Unicorn. We pressed up this LP, 300 copies, and he took them around to the record stores in the back of his Studebaker.”
Today, the prosaically-titled “Tom Rush Live at the Unicorn” is regarded as one of the centerpieces of the early 1960s American folk movement as it grew up in the wake of Joan Baez and the slowly developing slipstream of Bob Dylan — whose own debut LP, “Bob Dylan,” had itself only appeared that same March. Certainly there was only one other act on the Cambridge scene, The Charles River Valley Boys, who could likewise point to an LP of their own. Regardless if Rush had intended it, he suddenly found himself regarded, if not as a regional elder statesman, then at least as a “serious” folkie.
That made it all the more alarming when an aspiring young producer named Paul Rothchild descended upon the area, bearing with him a seemingly bottomless sheath of contracts to record for Bob Weinstock’s New York-based Prestige label.
Primarily a jazz-based concern, Prestige was moving into folkier territory, and Rothchild had been recruited to ensure the move went smoothly — for some people, anyway.
“Paul signed up a bunch of us, but not me,” Rush laughed. “Pretty soon, everybody inside the 128 beltway had a record contract except me, which I guess was payback for jumping the queue with the Unicorn LP.”
It was early 1963 before Rothchild “finally came to his senses and signed me up,” Rush recalled. The Prestige Folklore label debuted later that same year with releases by Rush, Geoff Muldaur and Erik Von Schmidt. A second Rush album arrived the following year but, by that time, both Rothchild and Rush had departed for Elektra.
By 1965, Rush was boiling with such a vast and varied repertoire that his first two Elektra albums, “Tom Rush” and “Take A Little Walk With Me” were all but released back to back. And when observers remarked that the latter electrified his audience, they were not merely reaching for hyperbole. Drawing in Al Kooper, whose organ playing was such a feature of Dylan’s still-fresh “Highway 61 Revisited” noisefest, Rush abandoned his folkier side altogether and dedicated Side One of the album to rock ’n’ roll — literally.
Rush was 15 when rock ’n’ roll hit, and he was an immediate convert.
“Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and on and on, and that was really quite a phenomenon. Suddenly there were all these artists who were completely different from one another, who were amazing and energetic and talented and outrageous,” Rush recalled. “If your parents liked it, it couldn’t be good.”
Now was his opportunity to capture some of that energy and outrage for himself. Across three days of breakneck sessions, while the likes of Dylan and Judy Collins watched from the control booth, Rush and Kooper pounded through a half-dozen classic rockers to create a suite of songs that both reflected on the rock that most modern folkies had actually grown up with and showed how they had taken those flavors and fed them into their own modern muses.
If that album brought the past into the present, however, its successor was to do a far more difficult job. It brought the future back to the present. What became “The Circle Game” was birthed in Detroit.
“Joni Mitchell came to a show I was doing at the Chessmate in Detroit and asked if she could do a guest set, and I was blown away,” Rush said. No less than three of Mitchell’s compositions were earmarked for the new album, including the title track and the opening “Tin Angel.”
Taylor contributed two songs after Rush met him at the Elektra offices in New York one afternoon and hung around long enough to hear the fellow Massachusetts boy sing a few songs. Browne was brought forward by his own music publishers.
“I think these three artists being represented on the same album got people’s attention. People cared about who wrote the songs in those days, and the fact there were these three unknown writers coming up with this brilliant stuff, all being represented for the first time on this project, that got people’s attention,” Rush said. “If they’d been on three separate albums, perhaps nobody would notice as much but it seemed to indicate that something’s going on here.
“Now this was not my intent,” he insists. “I was just looking to make an album and here were some songs I could use.”
But “The Circle Game” ignited friendships that would see Taylor and Browne continue to contribute to Rush’s albums until deep into the 1970s — when Rush finally tired of the music industry and retired.
It took 35 years before Rush released a new album, “What I Know” — a handful of live sets preceded it — but today, he is back on the road, back planning new records, and, as the 50th anniversary of his debut LP looms, making his own plans to celebrate the event. With his entire catalog available for the first time (www.tomrush.com) and his live shows a guaranteed draw across the U.S., it is clear that Rush retains every ounce of the magic and passion that made him stand out so far in Cambridge.