Kate would have been proud.
Jonathan Edwards has been among the most frequent artists to play the exquisite Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Main Street in Old Saybrook. His most recent visit Saturday night radiated warmth and sincerity and showcased one of American music’s finest singing voices in a style that crosses between the genres of folk and what we used to call country rock.
Jonathan exploded into public view in the early 1970s with a song that most Americans should recognize. “Sunshine” hit the charts during the turbulent days of the Vietnam War and the protests that followed, but its soothing sound are anything but unruly.
In fact, the works of Jonathan Edwards exude love -- love for each other, love for our planet – and appreciation – appreciation for the 250 strong who filled "The Kate," appreciation for nature, appreciation for the artists he covered – the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Youngbloods.
Edwards’ fingers traverse the strings of his folk guitar with a lightning-like precision while at the same time, his cheeks rapidly puff in and out as he breathes magic into his harmonica.
Edwards was accompanied by two magnificent musicians – Tom Snow on piano throughout the performance and Phil Rosenthal, providing an occasional lift on mandolin. Three people filling the room with music like that had a stunning effect on an audience that wished they'd go on forever.
My first introduction to Jonathan was at Ohio University in Athens circa 1970. He had attended school there two years prior and the impact he made on the local music scene still rang out in the Applalachian air. Some of the lyrics on his first album, most notably “Athens County,” established his legacy along the banks of the Hocking River.
But Jonathan, a native of Minnesota who spent his boyhood in Virginia, is an adopted son of New England. His popularity in the region thankfully brings him back here again and again.
I saw him for free on the Glastonbury green when our 20-something sons were youngsters and in a Groton park when he shared the stage with Aztec Two-Step. Most memorably, we saw him in an intimate show at the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton, a spot that’s filled our hearts with folk music and must fill the performers’ hearts with some consternation knowing that those covered cages behind them house snakes. Now those are some musically educated reptiles.
Going to Roaring Brook is always special but seeing Jonathan there was one of those moments in my 40-plus years as a concert-goer that I’ll remember as one of my best experiences. It was among the Roaring Brook Museum artifacts that I got to meet him for the first time and talk about the days at OU that surely changed us both forever.
I find it more difficult and, from a standpoint of popular music, more agonizing every day. The screeching guitars punctuated by the monotonal droning of singers spewing lyrics echoing hate and defiance.
What happened to love? When did the love go out of our music? More importantly, why?
But an evening with Jonathan Edwards restores the faith and strengthens the heritage of our generation within my heart and soul. He closes his eyes, his voice vibrates with the same beauty that it did more than 40 years ago. His authenticity and integrity cannot be mistaken.
Yes, I dare say that Kate Hepburn may not have understood sitting “around the Shanty and putting a good buzz on,” but she surely would have cherished the thought of the earnestness with which Jonathan Edwards entertains.