By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
Gordon Bok is the living embodiment of the musical traditions of Maine's seacoast. Many of his songs deal with schooners, seafaring people, fishermen, and the mythology and life along the coast of the Pine Tree State.
But, with his mix of contemporary and traditional songs, the Camden, Maine-born multi-instrumentalist, baritone-voiced singer, choirmaster, poet, songwriter, and master wood carver projects a more global view. His repertoire includes, not only songs from North America, the British Isles, and Australia, but, also, tunes from Italy, Portugal, Mongolia, French Canada, Latin America, and the Gaelic Hebrides.
"The coast of Maine was such a trafficked area, when everything moved by boat that all of the islands had access to the latest entertainment," Bok said. "Barges would come with circuses and opera singers. We either made up our own songs or imported them."
The grandson of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of "Ladies Home Journal," Edward Bok (1863-1930), Bok, 71, grew up with harmonies ringing throughout his family home. "[Singing] helped us to get through washing the dishes," he remembered. "[My parents] sang when they cooked. I had two aunts who loved to go walking in the woods but not together. They'd take off over the hills (separately) and call back and forth to each other. They used to do poems together, especially at meal times. That was our entertainment when I was a kid."
Though he continued to build on his musical skills, Bok was drawn as much by the lore of the sea. "During the summer, I'd work on boats and make quite a lot of money," he said. "Not many people did what I did, sailing other people's boats for them. In the middle of the summer, I'd work on the big schooners that sailed out of here. They were originally working boats, but, now, they carried passengers. I was the highest paid mate in the fleet for quite a few years."
After a summer of sailing, Bok would head to New York or Philadelphia and focus on music, quickly attracting the attention of the then-burgeoning folk scene. Invited to record an album by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary), he resisted for a half decade. "I wasn't ready [when he first asked me]," he said, "and I didn't have anything that I thought was good enough. I hadn't been performing much."
Relenting to Stookey's pleas, Bok recorded his debut album in 1965. The eponymous-titled album included the now-classic tune, "Bay Of Fundy."
"[Stookey] set it up so that I was comfortable," Bok remembered. "I didn't like microphones. I remember he shut off the lights in the studio and left them on in the control room and opened the window. It was raining outside. This was in New York City. We were up high enough so that we couldn't hear the traffic. That's when I remember recording 'Bay Of Fundy.' The mood was just right. He was a kind, hospitable, encouraging guy."
Despite the connection to Stookey, who was then riding the crest of Peter, Paul and Mary's popularity, Bok failed to commercially capitalize on the release. "I was in the habit of avoiding publicity," he explained, "and I wasn't convinced that I wanted [to play music] for a living. I was pretty stubborn. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it my way, whatever way that was."
As the original mate on the sloop Clearwater, which sailed up and down the Hudson River promoting environmental cleanliness, Bok had plenty of opportunities to sing songs of the sea. During one performance, he was overheard by Sandy and Caroline Paton, owners of a traditional music label, Folk-Legacy. Releasing his sophomoric 1970 album, "A Tune For November," on the Paton's label, he remained with the label until launching his own company, Timberhead Music.
"[When the Patons made me the first offer], I talked it over with [Stookey] and he said, 'I could push you to some big company, but, I think, you'll have more artistic freedom with an outfit that respects traditional music as much as you do.' It was a good way to go."
In addition to performing as a soloist, or with his wife, harpist, and vocalist, Carol Rohl, Bok has participated in a trio with Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir. "The part that we cherish the most is working on the music," he said. "I remember working at a friend of Annie's house, and, in one week, we solidified the arrangements of 80 songs. That was the most fun. We loved putting those songs together. It was eat, sleep, and work on songs."
Bok will perform at Audubon Society Center in Glastonbury, Conn., on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. For further information, call (860) 633-8402.
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