Folksinger Tom Callinan has been entertaining for 45 years
Most textbook definitions of "imprinting" — the biological phenomenon wherein an infant mammal or bird forms attachments and begins to develop an identity and personality — do not mention the Gay '90s tune "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover."
Tom Callinan did not write any of those textbooks.
Now 74, as he enters his 45th year as a professional entertainer and folksinger/songwriter, the Norwich resident says singing "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" with his dad at an early age set him on his life's path.
"One of my first memories, when I was 3, is of my father singing that song in the car," Callinan says. "He was in a barbershop quartet, and we were heading to the old Savin Rock amusement park in West Haven where they were playing. I remember I started singing along with him — badly."
As the inaugural Connecticut State Troubadour (1991-92) and a gentleman who has written over 150 songs, recorded over 20 solo albums and many more with the folk group the Morgans — and who, until COVID, played dozens of dates annually — it can be safely inferred he no longer sings badly.
"Dad was my role model," Callinan says in a phone interview last week. "If I was anxious or couldn't sleep as a child, he'd put me in the car and drive, and he'd sing all these wonderful, incredibly infectious Gay '90s songs to me. Pretty soon I could sing the melodies and he'd jump to harmony. And then I learned to sing harmony."
Recently, Callinan came across an old 78 record that he and his father had made in a cheap recording booth that day at Savin Rock. The disc was scratched up and basically unlistenable, but Callinan took it to a studio and had it sonically cleaned up and enhanced and transferred to digital.
"When I played it and heard my dad's voice again, I just blubbered," he says. "I hadn't heard his voice in so many years."
The makings of a folksinger
By the time he was in high school in Middletown, Callinan was working weekends in a band called The Twisting Tornadoes, and he continued playing in groups until he dropped out of college and enlisted in the Marines during the Vietnam War. On the day his unit queued up for deployment to Southeast Asia, the marine in front of him was the one who filled the quota and Callinan stayed at Camp Pendleton. He never left the states.
After the service, he graduated from college with a degree in English with a concentration in music, then went to work teaching middle school students in East Hampton. Callinan also got back into the live music scene playing weekends with the Morgans at Mad Murphy's Pub in Hartford. Those experiences fed his musical passion and he started working solo gigs on the folk circuit.
"I started getting more and more serious about it. I think in a way I knew I'd eventually go full time, but I was a little cautious," he says. "My dad warned me that a musician's life isn't easy, that I couldn't make a living at it. I got an advanced degree in music from Wesleyan in 1977 and, at my master's recital, my dad was there." Callinan laughs. "He was very proud of me, but professional all the way. He didn't like the sound mix at the recital."
It wasn't long after that, Dad's misgivings aside, Callinan became a full-time musician, and he hasn't looked back. He credits his long running to marriage to Ann Shapiro, who is head of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, as providing solid balance.
"Believe me, we don't run out of things to talk about," he says.
Riffing on Robert Frost, Callinan says, "'Two roads diverged ... and I took the one less traveled.' Some were my choices, and some were not. I think back to pure luck during the Vietnam War. One more place in line and I'd have gone. I think I've felt survivor's guilt since, but that has also helped inspire me to write and do positive things."
Indeed, a great deal of Callinan's songs — he estimates he's written about 150 in his career and is still composing — are about historical and military events, many associated with the Nutmeg State. It's also true a great percentage of his live shows are for veterans groups or in VA hospitals or ceremonial occasions.
"I like to write about historical things and not just because they typically get a good reaction from the folks I play for," Callinan says. "These songs mean something to me, and it feels good to capture and give attention to these things."
Callinan can find inspiration in all sorts of ways and places across the state. He mentions songs about Nero Hawley, a slave in Connecticut who earned his freedom fighting for the Continental Army; the Gold Star Families Memorial in Berlin; the National Iwo Jima memorial in Newington; and the 250th anniversary of the 1st Company Governors Foot Guard.
"There's such great history in the 13 colonies and in our state. There's no shortage of things that can serve as a catalyst," Callinan says. "A student at Old Saybrook High School called me. 'Are you the guy who writes the songs about history?' He was working on a project about Bushnell's Turtle, the first-ever battle submarine, invented in Connecticut. He wanted to know if I had a song about it. I said, 'No, but now you've lit the lamp.' I wrote it in about an hour."
It makes sense that, as a former English major who's fascinated by history, Callinan always writes the lyrics first and then composes the music and melodies. And his adherence to traditional folk structures is important, he says.
Loves the form
"I love folk music. It's that simple," he says. "I've had the same license plates since 1986. They say 'Folk it.'" He laughs. "I pulled up for a performance at a high school and one teacher was angry about the license plate. She told me I had a lot of nerve coming to a school.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm a folk singer.' But she wasn't having it and kept railing at me with her slings and arrows. I finally said, 'Maybe you're illiterate or have a dirty mind, but YOU have no business teaching kids.' I haven't played there again, but that's OK. I've got plenty of work."
Of course, COVID cut heavily into Callinan's gig schedule. Calling himself "old school," he resisted virtual performances at first, but eventually adapted and even appreciated some of the aspects of the situation. He'll always prefer live shows, though, and was delighted earlier this month to be part of Norwich's annual "Lights Out for Benedict Arnold" event that marks the divisive traitor's birthday by turning off the city's holiday lights.
"I have to revise my schedule monthly based on the situation with the virus," Callinan sighs. "But we'll do the best we can with the circumstances. I always tell my grandkids, when they're impatient or worried, 'Time will pass, and SOMETHING will happen, so just enjoy it.' Now, if I get out of sorts, they throw those words back at me — and it's wonderful."