Mark Stepakoff

Quick Q and A with Tom Smith

Tom Smith describes himself as a performing songwriter and singer of old songs. I mulled about that characterization for about a nano-second and concluded that nothing more apt could be said about this extraordinary musician who entertains and educates his audiences with simplicity and authenticity.  Tom is not only a very hard-working musician, but he is a constant supporter of a bevy of New England songwriters which is evidenced by his in person and online words of encouragement.

I noticed that Tom was spearheading an online event at Club Passim for a new project called “Know Better Do Better.” I discovered that this project was an inspirational way for musicians to collaborate on new music that was more inclusive and diverse than many traditional folk songs that we grew up with.  I knew I had to reach out to Tom and ask him about this project – not to mention that it’s high time for me to talk to him about his own music.  He’s a quiet and inspirational leader in our greater Boston music scene.

To get an idea of what this project is about, view this video that describes what prompted Tom to write a non-derivative song related to “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River).”

Here’s Tom’s new song called “I’ll Show You the Way.”


Tell us more about the Know Better Do Better Project and how it came about?

The Know Better Do Better Project just launched to the public on April 15th.

We are a community of songwriters who seek to encourage conversation and awareness of songs that have played a role in sustaining systemic racism, and the writing of new alternative songs. We believe that by facing our music history, creating new songs, and making informed decisions about the songs we choose to sing, we amplify the positive power of music to shape a more just and inclusive world.

About a year ago, as the nation and the world were rising up in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many other African Americans at the hands of police, Boston-area singer/songwriter/teacher George Woods reflected about it on Facebook. He wondered if any of his songwriter friends would like to participate in a discussion to see if there was some way we could leverage our music skills to contribute positively to the subject of systemic racism, especially as related to songs we sing with and for children. As the pandemic was gaining momentum, songwriters Olivia Brownlee, Sarah Fard, Chris Walton and I joined George for several virtual meetings.

Our conversations centered on the fact that some of the songs we loved growing up have a racist history. A great many of these songs are still commonly used in schools, on stage and elsewhere. So as an exercise, we decided to each take one of those songs and write a completely new non-derivative song that we could sing as an alternative.

As our discussions continued, we realized that songs have also contributed to the oppression of Indigenous People, LatinX, LGBTQ+, the disabled and other groups. So we committed to “go public” with a web site and invite other songwriters to contribute new songs. We also expanded to include resources to encourage our web site visitors to take additional actions on the important path to becoming antiracist.

The name of your project is taken from a quote by Maya Angelou.  What is it about the quote that rings true to all of you and how does Angelou inspire you?

Yes, we took the name from this quote by Maya Angelou -“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It speaks to our common experience. We all sang some of those songs with a racist history because we just didn’t know any better. By the time we first heard them, the lyrics were cleaned up and sanitized. To us, those songs we coupled with warm memories of summer camp, living room songfests with family and friends, and memorable records and concerts by popular artists of the past. We didn’t know that for some people, those songs brought up a lot of hurt – a lot of associations that caused pain and made them feel marginalized. So when we finally “knew better”, the next step was obviously to “do better”. We didn’t want to stop at just eliminating those problematic songs from our repertoire. We decided to write inclusive alternatives – to “do better.”

With this project, you’re not suggesting that we eliminate the old campfire songs that everyone knows and loves but to provide more context so people are more aware of the words and the history behind them, right?

Yes, but deciding where, when, and how they are appropriate requires thoughtful consideration. Certainly, it is important to know our history and this can’t be done if we attempt to erase all the “bad stuff”. As teachers, parents, and performers we continually make decisions about which songs (or books, stories, movies, etc.) are appropriate for each audience and situation. For example, sharing the original offensive version of an old minstrel song for adults in an educational program about racism or American history can be done with sensitivity; however, that same song is not appropriate in most other situations, especially for young children who can’t understand its historical context.

Taking it a little farther, I don’t even sing the “cleaned up” versions of those old minstrel songs except in a program where I can put them in historical context. I know that for some, this may seem like it is “going too far”, since the cleaned-up versions seem completely joyful and innocent. Yes, it was difficult for me to take “Turkey in the Straw” out of my set list for kids. It was so much fun to sing:

“Turkey in the straw, haw haw haw

Turkey in the hay, hay hay hay

June bug danced with his mother-in-law

Danced to a tune called Turkey in the Straw”

But the decision became easier when I learned that earlier in its history, people sang:

N**word loves a watermelon, haw haw haw

N**word loves a watermelon, haw haw haw

For here, they’re made with a half a pound of co’l

There’s nothing like a watermelon for a hungry coon”

Your website is jam-packed with facts about the music that many of us grew up with.  Are there other examples of songs that you sang and had no idea that the songs contained racist sentiments?

In addition to “Turkey in the Straw”, mentioned earlier, I used to sing “Blue Tail Fly (Jimmy Crack Corn)”, the song made famous by Burl Ives in the folk revival of the 50’s. Perhaps you remember the lyrics? Briefly, the narrator of the song is an enslaved black man who recalls the story of how his “master” met his demise when a blue tail fly bit his horse’s rump, which caused him to buck. As a result, the master fell off of his horse and died. When I was a young man, I even used it in programs for children. In my naive white mind, I took it as an empowering song in which an enslaved man rejoiced at the demise of the person who enslaved him. Fortunately for me, an African American teacher took me aside and privately told me how that song made her feel, and by association, how it must have made many of the African American children in my audience feel. She also asked me what I thought it communicated to the white children in the audience. I was very embarrassed and haven’t sung that song publicly since. In retrospect, I am so grateful that this teacher went out of her way to help me see the effect of singing that song.

Most of the featured artists on the Know Better Do Better Project website have similar stories of their enlightenment about this subject. Our web site lists many more examples.

It’s most interesting that you and your project leaders dissected a vast array of songs in terms of not only lyrics and themes but style, feel, structure, and memetic values.  Do you have an example of how a song that contains systemic racism can be reinterpreted by changing musical elements?

That idea came from a couple of the Berklee College of Music grads in our group. It was clear that we did not want to simply write new lyrics to old songs. We needed a writing assignment that had some structure. So, we decided to analyze what may be the reasons why these songs have lived a long life — passed on from generation to generation. We looked at characteristics like style (arrangement, vocal range, etc.), feel (tempo, genre, emotion, etc.), structure (how the lyrics are arranged, rhyme scheme, meter, etc.), memetic values (patterns, what makes it catchy, repetition, cultural importance), themes (the ideas/messages the lyrics convey, such as family, spirituality, work, play, etc.), and function (does it have a practical purpose as used today or historically?).

Perhaps that comes across as cold and academic; but we were not very rigid about it. We then tried to retain one or more of those characteristics in our new song. Because each of us had freedom to approach from whatever angle inspired us, the songs are quite different. For example, two songwriters started with the song “Five Little Monkeys”, which has an ugly history; but the resulting songs differed in wonderful ways.

Some of our songwriters are educators who wanted to write songs that they could use to serve a particular curriculum goal. Others were looking to tell a story inspired by the old song. Some just wanted to write a song that is fun to sing. The variations are endless.

Now let’s discuss those of you who got on board with this project nearly a year ago.  You began writing non-derivative songs based on all your research.

As I mentioned earlier, the original group was George Woods, Olivia Brownlee, Sarah Fard, Chris Walton and me. We reached out to friends and friends-of-friends to add songs to our project. Currently our featured artists also include Devin Walker, Kim Moberg, Stuart Stotts, Mark Stepakoff, Martin Swinger, Eric H. F. Law, Kat Bula, Carole Stephens, and Kemp Harris. The group seemed to grow organically.

These folks run the full range from “hobbyist” songwriters to professionals.

To me, the most compelling part of our web site is the front page which contains videos of every featured artist telling the back story for the new song they wrote… perhaps more moving than the new songs themselves.

Tell me about what song you chose to revise and why?

I went into the assignment not knowing what song to choose as inspiration. So, I wandered through some of the lists of questionable songs on our website (prepared by educators Lauren McDougle and Kelsey Gamza), and some simple Google searches. When I came across “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”), I immediately wondered why that would make a list of questionable songs. It is such a sweet lyric, with the singer longing for a time and place that gave great comfort. It was a nostalgic look at the past – something that is universal. To my mind, there was nothing objectionable about this song, so I did a little research.

This song was written by Stephen Foster, often called the “father of American Music.” In his repertoire are several songs that were adopted by the black-face minstrels, and some had coarse lyrics, but “Old Folks at Home” seemed rather innocuous to me, as currently sung.

Looking a little deeper, I learned that it did originally have some offensive lyrics – “Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary.” It became popular in the antebellum South as it fit the paradigm of happy slaves on the ol’ plantation. It was used in campaigns to promote slavery to Northern audiences who had no first-hand knowledge of the real lives endured by the enslaved.

For my new song “I’ll Show You the Way”, I took the same rhyme scheme and melodic structure (not the same melody), and I borrowed from the original’s themes of family, lost innocence and comfort. And because I wrote this right after the birth of twin grandchildren (whom I could not visit due to the pandemic), I decided to make it a lullaby.

Please tell us about the outreach grant that is being offered by Nine Athens Music and about your upcoming show at Club Passim!

In order to accomplish our mission “to amplify the positive power of music to shape a more just and inclusive world”, it is important that everyone can see themselves in these new songs. Our original group was primarily white songwriters. It became obvious very quickly that, as a group, we were writing songs that are rather “mono-chromatic”. Happily, several talented artists of color have contributed new songs but still the percentage is lower than we would like.

When discussing with lots of folks why we found it difficult to attract artists of color to contribute, it became obvious that one reason is the emotional cost for an artist of color to revisit the history of those deeply offensive songs was much greater than the cost to white songwriters. We decided to acknowledge that by offering grants to artists of color who are willing to pay that emotional cost to write a new song.

Nine Athens Music stepped up to the plate to fund our first outreach grants. We are offering four $250 grants, which if successful, will bring our participation by artists of color to almost 50%. Interested artists of color can apply on our website. The application deadline is May 15, 2021.

We will celebrate our project launch (virtually) on Friday April 23rd at 8:00 pm EST in a live-streamed event hosted by the venerable Club Passim.

Noted children’s music performer, “Uncle” Devin Walker and I will co-host as we invite our featured artists to discuss and perform the new songs they wrote for the project.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you a bit about your own back story with music.  I love how you call yourself a singer of old songs. Do you consider your new songs “old songs”?

I am pleased you noticed that. When coming up with the pitch “Performing songwriter and singer of old songs”, I wanted to include both my passion for songwriting and my connection to songs of the past. The term “folksong” is deeply ambiguous, as it means different things to different people. That is why I went with “old songs.” I think of it as a kind of double entendre, as I literally do sing old songs, but the songs I write are often compared to those songs from times long past. I welcome the comparison.

I grew up in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania. I didn’t feel it at the time, but as I look back, we were rather poor. But one thing we were rich in was music. The record player and radio were constant companions. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins would gather around the piano in Grandma’s house to sing popular country songs. My Aunt Carrie taught me how to play ukulele when I was five, and I never looked back.

I landed in Cambridge, MA during what I call the “folk quake” of the 60’s. I have fond memories of singing parties and folk clubs from that time. At some point, I moved from singing in the kitchen to singing at the Nameless Coffeehouse, Club Passim, festivals and other wonderful venues.

You have been a mainstay in the greater Boston songwriter scene for a while now.  Your songs do harken back to a familiar folksy feel like that of Pete Seeger.  You entertain but your songs have punch and poignance.  What’s your songwriting process or does it differ from song to song?

Any time someone mentions the name Pete Seeger when talking about my songs and performance is something I celebrate. Pete is a great inspiration and has been since I was very young. There are also other great influential masters too numerous to mention; and thank you very much for your kind comment about my songs having a punch and poignance. That is intentional.

My songwriting process has changed over the years. Early on I would take out a pencil and write with little forethought or plan, other than starting with a tiny germ of inspiration. I think my songs have improved over the years, now that I spend more time and energy before I start writing the actual song. I do a lot of free writing, object writing and outlining at the “front end” of the process.

Once I decide what the song is about (often the hardest part) I usually come up with a melody with a prosody that fits with what I want to say. The melody then pulls the lyrics out of my head and heart.

Some songs are silly, some have a punch, others more poignant. The best ones are combinations of two or three of those things. I hope they all paint vivid images and tell compelling stories. I also hope that they are all universal, though each listener can relate individually.

Your bio and musical output indicate that you took a break from recording for about 25 years.  During your dedication to career and family, did you still dabble in music?  And how did it feel to re-enter the folk world in a new century?

Yes, in my 20’s, I did try my hand at being a semi-professional folksinger, and for a few years that was quite a ride. In addition to performing in coffee houses and church basements, I leveraged my “day job” as a teacher to offer educational programs in schools, libraries and church basements. But when the kids started coming (Margo and I have three children), I turned my full-time professional attention to something more practical. I have no regrets, especially since my music continued informally within my small circle of family and friends, and in my own classroom. Our kids’ friends always said that we did the best birthday parties since Margo was an expert planner and my job was to entertain the kids with my banjo, several novelty instruments and a few party tricks – like playing my harmonica through my ear. Yes, I can do that. Ha!

Then about sixteen years ago, my youngest daughter, Mally Smith (who was in college in Washington, DC), asked me to teach her how to play guitar, I would send her lessons that I videotaped. Eventually she was getting quite good and was even writing her own songs. I encouraged her to get out of the dorm and play an open mike. She said, “I’ll do it if you’ll do it, Dad.” I resisted, since I had lost all of my performance chops. With her urging, we found a day in the following week when there was an open mike near her in Washington and another one near me. Mine was Ellen Schmidt’s open mike at the Colonial Inn in Concord, MA. Ellen is a friend from the old days whom I hadn’t seen for a very long time, so I felt comfortable playing in public with her as the host. The next day, Mally and I compared notes. We were both “bitten by the bug”. Since then, she has gone on to record many albums (she releases her 9th solo album later this Spring) and writing and performing have become the centerpiece of my creative life.

Do you have a song that you’re most proud of writing?

Oh, that is a question I bet most songwriters have a very difficult time answering. They are like my children, each one born after a great deal of labor and with a character all their own. I love them all, though sometimes I visit some more than others.

In May of 2007, I gave myself the assignment to write and publicly share a home recording of one new song every month. That continues to this day via my blog “The Kitchen Musician.” Yes, there have been some months when life events prevented me from completing this assignment, but I probably have missed only a handful of months in all of that time. Depending upon when you asked me, I would probably say that I am most proud of the song I had just completed. There are a few songs, however that I sometimes privately marvel that I wrote.

Do you have any words of wisdom to aspiring songwriters or musicians who haven’t yet ventured out to play live or record their songs?

Here are some things that have been helpful to my growth as a songwriter and performer.

  • Perform a lot of covers.
  • Find a community of players and songwriters – a community that is supportive but also able to give honest feedback at a level you are able to comfortably take and act upon.
  • Read Pat Pattison’s books about how to write songs.
  • Go to a lot of open mikes. Hopefully this will return to in-person events soon, but there are also a lot of virtual open mikes that can be a lot of fun.
  • Listen deeply to players, singers, and songs that you like.
  • You can start by imitating artists you admire, but eventually you must find your own style and voice.
  • Play, sing and write in a way that brings you joy!

Tom Smith can be found on the web at TomSmithMusic.com