Every song has a story…Purchase this CD at http://jimbartholomewmusic.bigcartel.com/
If I had My Way…Finding Bear River
Bear River is the name of the CD that I recorded with my son, Will, producing and released in July. The title comes from the opening cut on the CD, Rendezvous (Bear River Song), which got its inspiration from the little town of Bear River, Nova Scotia. I had never been within a thousand miles of Nova Scotia when I wrote the song, but now that I have experienced Bear River first-hand, I am happy to say that the song and the town seem to fit well together. I don’t think that’s an accident. Bear River, the song, is at heart a 60’s folk song; Bear River, the town, is inhabited by 60’s folk. The fit was pretty natural. By “60’s folk song”, I mean a “folk-like” song, i.e. a song with a story behind it, written not by the anonymous “folk”, but by a singer-songwriter. The story behind Rendezvous (the Bear River Song), the folk-like song, begins with my Uncle Dennis…
In 1958, I didn’t know much about anything; I was eight years old and kids back then didn’t pop out of the box as sharp as they are now. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. My Uncle Dennis, on the other hand, knew a lot about many things. He lived one story below us with my maternal Grandparents in a brick two-flat on Winchester Street, in Chicago. My family then consisted of my Mom and Dad, my sisters Karen and Sue, and my younger brother Dave. Dennis was like an older brother. He showed me how to build model cars, battleships and airplanes from plastic kits that looked just like the real thing. He introduced me to great literature by letting me read his Classics Illustrated comic books. Once, on a family vacation, he shot me in the eye with an arrow (it was probably my fault). He played the glockenspiel in the Weber High School Marching Band at football games played at Hanson Park Stadium; after he graduated from Weber, the band was invited to march in Washington D.C., in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade. Dennis let me tag along when he registered to attend DePaul University where he joined the ROTC and got to wear a red beret. He was a man of many parts, who studied Greek, taught Latin and Geometry, loved to read Science Fiction and had the greatest collection of belt buckles you could find anywhere. And, oh yes, he gifted me with his sense of humor. One critically important thing he did for me was turn me on to MUSIC.
My whole famn damily was musical and when I was little many family parties ended with me drifting off to sleep under a kitchen table, listening to the sounds of polka music, pinochle and laughter. But Dennis had a way of finding music that was new and different and weird and funny. He introduced me to Stan Getz playing jazz in 5/4 time, South American guitar sambas (the Girl from Ipanema), and even some rock and roll (Ricky Nelson!). Thanks to Dennis, I heard Rolf Harris play the didgeridoo while he watched the “sun a-rise” and tied his kangaroo down, I learned what Allen Sherman told his Muddah and Faddah about life at camp Granada and, thanks to the Smothers Brothers, why you should yell ”fire” if you fall into a vat of chocolate (nobody will help you if you yell “chocolate”). I was also introduced to the “cows-mopolitan” song parodies of Homer and Jethro, “Live at the Country Club”. Many years later, when Ted Douglas and I started playing our own brand of “good-time folk and country music” on the Chicago folk circuit, I “borrowed” liberally from these records and actually got to play some dates with the great mandolinist, Jethro Burns.
The albums Dennis bought with the money he earned working at the Wieboldt’s on Milwaukee Avenue were spun on a beautiful blonde console stereo phonograph in the basement rec room of the Winchester house. That’s where I first heard, and learned to love, the folk music of the 1960’s folk revival. At first, I became aware of just a few songs heard on the car radio or on the Wally Phillips Show on WGN, like “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Green, Green”. Then came the Kingston Trio. Their first album was earth-shattering; it was followed quickly by “Live at the Hungry i”. The music was exciting and funny, melodic and memorable; I learned every song and can still sing them, word for word, today. Before long Dennis introduced us to albums by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio – the list is as ageless as it was endless. Along with the musical groups Dennis found some amazing comedians like Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Bill Dana and a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith. We absorbed them all, even Bill Cosby, so funny then, who would prove to be so weird and disappointing later. This was the start of my love affair with record albums, a love affair that hasn’t abated to this day.
Years later, after we moved to the ‘burbs, and Dennis and his bride, my Aunt Adelyne, became occupied with raising my cousins Jeff and Jennifer, I continued to follow where the music led. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Byrds seemed like natural steps in a progression that began in that Chicago basement. Although I found new musical heroes, I never quit listening to the folkies or looking for their albums at second-hand record stores. Dennis and I were always close and he remained a great source of humor and support as my life wound on. Dennis loved history, particularly American History, and he would often vacation with his family at places like Cahokia Mounds, in southern Illinois (and mounds they are; little piles of pre-historically important dirt. You can imagine how the impressed the kids were). When we were much younger, we had walked the fields of my Grandpa’s farm in Southern Illinois, looking for arrowheads and other Native artifacts that got churned up when the farmers plowed. We found quite a few.
After he retired, Dennis would attend Mountain Man “Rendezvous” that were held throughout the Midwest; reenactments of the old-time fur trapper gatherings that featured authentic clothing and skills competitions like in days gone by. He would use leather, beads and feathers purchased at these Rendezvous to fashion medicine pouches which were given to nieces, nephews and other family members on their birthdays, along with the identity of their spirit animal. It was a beautiful way for Dennis to share the spiritual connection he felt between his family, this land, and its original people. It was a terrible shock when Colleen and I returned from a short trip to St. Paul, to learn that Dennis had suffered a major stroke and was in a coma from which he would not awaken. With his passing I lost much more than an uncle. I lost a mentor and a friend. I lost a source of who I was.
At Dennis’ wake, Adelyne asked me to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings”, which I gladly learned. After I finished, I decided to sing “Wahoo”, an old cowboy song that was one of Dennis’ favorites and that I had sung innumerable times with my band, Cactus Jack. Everyone sang along and the sadness lifted a little. Dennis would have liked that. Later on, as I sat with Colleen and her sister, Kari, and Kari’s husband Kevin, in our car positioned behind the silver Cadillac hearse, we talked as we waited for the procession to the cemetery. Kari and Kevin had come from St. Paul to pay their respects on their way to their second home, a little white house on the banks of the Bear River, in the Nova Scotia town with the same name. We had heard a lot about Bear River when last we saw them, and as they described what awaited them at the end of their journey, both Colleen and I expressed the wish that we were going there with them. It suddenly occurred to me that Dennis, with his love for lesser-tamed places and a simpler way of life, would probably have wanted to join us. After that, the song practically wrote itself.
I wrote the first verse of the song in his voice. It was only fair. He had done so much to help me find mine.