Published Date Written by Timothy GillisOGUNQUIT — Legendary folk singer Jonathan Edwards will play in Ogunquit Saturday, July 28, celebrating his birthday by doing what he loves most — making music.
“I’ll be 60 ... something,” he said last week. “Sixty-six.”
Like the Will Rogers Highway, Edwards’s age is something of a marker. He’s been at the center of the American folk scene for more than 40 years, bringing “Sunshine” into people’s lives. His most famous song sounds a lot like a feel-good pop hit, but like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” the song’s singability masks its anti-authority lyrics.
“Sunshine go away today
I don’t feel much like dancing
Some man’s gone, he’s tried to run my life
Don’t know what he’s asking”
The song burst onto the folk scene at a rally in Washington and thrust Edwards into the limelight. The lyrics are as much about a specific man as they are about “the Man” — that nameless, faceless authority against whom protesters rally and rail.
Edwards was also talking about his own father, an ex-FBI agent.
Edwards said he was naive early on, but later learned what his father meant by “military appropriations.”
Since that paternal epiphany, Edwards’ music has been infused with a combination of celebration and cynicism. It’s a musical protest he has waged all this time.
“I still do 60 shows a year, at least,” he said. “Touring today has changed. There are a lot more singer/songwriters. It’s good to have as many voices as we can out there.”
In terms of music as a means of political change, Edwards seemed to remain idealistic about its potential but critical of its current form.
“It’s a young person’s game. I went to Occupy in Washington, (there was) no particular organization, no microphones. In our day there was a stage.”
The Occupy Movement is so idealistic in its aims that it remains leaderless, said Edwards, and prefers mic checks — where people pass the message by word of mouth instead of amplifier — to microphones.
“People aren’t willing to take the tear gas anymore. Everyone is too worried about their own existence. A little disheartening. When the dozers roll, it’s hard not to think about your comfortable life,” he said.
Edwards warmed to the task of identifying culprits, and was loathe to critique the protest movement itself: “The wealthy, the owners, the press, media, record companies, radio stations, everything. And yet some people think this is not a corrupt government. We point our fingers at other countries. It’s hard to develop an independent view from the corporate news were fed. Very few people have opportunity or energy to seek out an independent source.”
Edwards cites his sources as the epoch in which he came of age. He described the origins of his ideology, the first time he played “Sunshine” at a protest event, and how the confluence of the two launched his career and solidified his sense of purpose.
Back in his musical beginning, Edwards was a high-schooler at Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va., in 1961, when he “first saw a guitar up close” and confirmed his eventual calling.
“It was across the mountains from Charlottesville,” Edwards said of the school. “My neighbor had a guitar. I just started writing songs.”
Edwards anti-war stance was solidified when he was drafted.
“I had a draft board experience where they nearly killed me,” he said. “I ended up in the hospital.”
Asked to elaborate, Edwards said, “I was trying to demonstrate how unfit I was for military service.” It was at the pre-induction physical, and Edwards ended up in the ER and the psych ward.
“I ended up with lots and lots of stitches,” he said. “I got out of line in the physical, broke a piece of glass, said, ‘You want some blood? Here’s some blood.’ He hit me in head with one of those big black phones.”
Able to laugh about it now, Edwards still remembers how tense times were then.” And, as my friend Shawn Colvin would say, “I got a song out of it.” That song was “Sunshine.”
“Nixon was president. Everyone was going to Washington. I didn’t have any idea the song would be such a huge hit. We had no idea what we were doing - just following our hearts, the music,” Edwards said.
It was 1971, and his band was scheduled to sing at a May Day rally at the foot of the Washington Monument.
“We finally felt we’d have a chance to register how we felt about the tragedy that was happening in Southeast Asia. We hung around all night for a chance to play, and by the time it was our turn, it was May 2,” he said. “People were getting up out of their tents, the National Guard was assembling, my song was wafting out over the breeze. I had just written this thing, and I never thought I would have to write another protest song about lies and deception, but that’s where we find ourselves.
The singer, who has collaborated with Jimmy Buffet and Emmylou Harris, has musical offspring as well. He recently crowed about his daughter on his website (jonathanedwards.net).
“My beautiful youngest daughter, Grace, just now got her record company, Mercury/Universal in France, to release her most recent collection of songs and artwork called ‘Made For Change.’ This is her best work so far. The anticipation of finally making this music available worldwide has been an exercise in patience and perseverance to say the least, but the wait has been so worth it.”
When asked if he was one of his daughter’s inspirations, Edwards said, “She draws influence from the world.” The singer/songwriter added he “couldn’t be more proud of her. I hope to have her join me in September.”
In addition to “Sunshine,” Edwards will showcase tunes from his first studio album in 14 years.
“My Love Will Keep” came out last year, and the release was a timely rejuvenation for the musician. He said he likes to do an up song or energetic song, and then a slow one, but not just to take a break. “It’s also to pace the show.”
Edwards is also a painter, sculptor and has worked in film. He says he likes to create in all the arts.
“I’m pretty severely ADD. My work follows my fingers, my hands, whatever I choose to work on. I’ve been doing the artwork for albums lately,” Edwards said. “And I love the process of making movies, doing the soundtrack, acting — It’s quite another world behind the velvet curtain. It’s a blast to understand something about it.”
His other daughter, Brenda, harmonizes on his album “One Day Closer,” so music runs through them all. He lives in the Greater Portland area and enjoys playing venues throughout Maine.
It’s been a long journey, but Edwards feels quite at home in Maine. As for his 66th birthday party Saturday, he said, “I’m looking forward to it.”
His concert tonight is at Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, in Ogunquit. Parking is available at the restaurant, as well as across from the Meadowmere in Ogunquit.