Playing Tribute to the Granite State
To paraphrase the song that helped make them famous, the Shaw Brothers would like to teach the state to sing in perfect harmony
There is one song that, more than any other, has tied the popular image of New Hampshire to the folk-singing duo the late Gov. Hugh Gallen called the state’s “musical ambassadors to the world.” It has been played on radio and TV stations, sung in concert halls and formally adopted by the Legislature as an official state song. Everyone in New Hampshire, it seems, took a liking to the recording when it was released in 1981…Well, almost everyone.
“When Rick wrote ‘New Hampshire Naturally,’ I have to admit I didn’t particularly care for it,” says Ron Shaw, “I said ‘Rick, that’s not a Shaw Brothers song. I don’t feel comfortable about it.’ But we did it. And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Few, if any, artists have celebrated their native state in song as much as the Shaw Brothers have. Songs like “New Hampshire Naturally,” “The Ballad of the Concord Coach” and “All Along the Merrimack” have placed a distinct New Hampshire brand on their music for decades. Yet their rich vocal harmonies and unique blend of modern and traditional folk songs have entrained audiences from Hanover to Hong Kong in a career spanning nearly half a century.
“All I can think of is that New Hampshire is where we are and where we’re from,” Rick says of the “ambassadors” status. “We’re part of New Hampshire and New Hampshire is part of us. Whatever we are is a result of our being born and raised in this state.”
If you have ever wondered where great musical acts get started, note that in the case of the Shaw Brothers, it was right above the Coos County jail. “Our parents lived in a little place called Island Pond, Vermont,” explains Rick. The identical twins were born to John and Barbara Shaw just over the New Hampshire border in West Stewartstown, where a single building housed the county jail on the first floor and the hospital above. The proximity of the maternity ward and the lock-up was a standing joke in the Shaw family as the boys were growing up. Sixty-six years later, it still is.
“Upstairs,” Rick likes to remind people. “My mother always said, ‘Tell them you were born upstairs.’”
A few years later the family moved to North Conway, where the young Shaws learned in their schoolboy days to stick together in mutual self-defense. “We protected each others’ backs,” Ron says. “Kids, as you know, like to pick on kids who are different. And we were twins.”
Their father was a local restaurateur who would regale the lads with tales of his youthful adventures. “He and a buddy went running off, riding the rails in box cars,” Rick recalls. “They would get off and work for a while and then be on another box car.” He also impressed his sons with his vocal skills. “He liked barber shop quartets, but he had very eclectic tastes,” Rick says. “He had a very good baritone voice and he loved harmony. I think that’s why he got us to harmonize with him.”
During their years at Kennett High, the twins sang in talent shows and an occasional “gig” in town. With mutual friend and musical partner, David Craig of Gorham, they went to the Eastern Slope in North Conway one summer evening to sing and play for $15. Rick remembers it as “our first professional job, if you can call it that.”
But it was in their college days at UNH that the young troubadours began to make their musical mark on the world. “We were BMOC (Big Men On Campus),” Ron recalls fondly. With Craig, Hal Brown and Fred Corbett, they formed The Tradewinds, a musical troupe that came on the scene at UNH when the folk music revival of the late 50’s and early 60’s was reaching its peak. Groups like the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and Peter, Paul and Mary were invading the pop music charts with songs about war, racial injustice and even a poor man named Charlie who, for want of another nickel, couldn’t get off that subway train in Boston. Meanwhile, the Tradewinds were stirring things up a bit on the Durham campus.
“We made some enemies from male students,” Ron recalls. “We’d serenade the coeds at the girls dorm. The girls would lean out their windows and we’d sing to them. The men would glare at us from the men’s dorm, but that was okay. And it was a lot of fun.”
Soon they were playing—musically, that is– on college campuses around New England and changing career plans along the way. Rick had planned to be an artist; Ron wanted to be a doctor. “I was in pre-Med at UNH,” he says, but changed his major to English when the travels became too much. “I couldn’t do my labs on the road,” he says.
The group got their first big break in 1962 when it played the Club Casino in Hampton, with their folk ballads and up-tempo harmonies sandwiched between sets of big band tunes played by the Ted Herbert Orchestra of Manchester. One member of the audience would play a significant role in their career.
“Charlie Kearn was a booking agent from Manchester who was associated with talent agencies like General Artists Corporation and the William Morris Agency,” says Rick. “He came up to us and said ‘I really liked what I heard.’ One thing led to another and Charlie became our agent with William Morris.”
Renamed the Brandywine Singers, the group recorded “Summer’s Come and Gone” that fall, followed by two albums and several singles. Their travels took them farther now, not only to colleges and universities, but to posh locations like New York’s Plaza Hotel. “Charlie was key to getting us into a lot of showcase places,” Rick recalls. At other times they were touring with Johnny Mathis and appearing on TV’s folk music Mecca, “Hootenany,” on the Mike Douglas Show and the ABC Wide World of Entertainment. The group was booked for the Ed Sullivan and Perry Como shows as well, when Rick came home one day in 1966 and found greetings from Uncle Sam in his sizable stack of mail.
“I only had one week to report for duty,” he recalls, since the letter had arrived a few weeks earlier. “I was trying to put my life on hold and tie up loose ends. Within a week I was at Fort Dix.”
That led to the breakup of the Brandywine Singers, its members moving off in different directions. Ron went down to Nashville and joined a folk group called the Pozo Seco Singers. One of the original members was Don Williams, who later became a star in the country music field.
“Don was trying to move the group into country and others around him wanted to move in that direction,” Ron says. “I look back now and I think maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. But I was not comfortable with it. It was a little too twangy and hillbilly for me.”
Rick returned from the Army in 1968 and began teaching art at a school in Rhode Island. Ron, back in New Hampshire, was teaching music at the Oyster River School in Durham. Neither expected to be touring full time again.
“I was quite sure I would not,” says Ron, citing the personal and family pressures of life on the road. “My wife didn’t like my being on the road and away from home so much and it ended up in our breaking up.”
But Al Ham, a producer at Columbia Records, called and invited the Shaws to be part of a group he was putting together to record a song for a Coca-Cola ad. “We talked it over for a bit and then we said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Ron recalls. The group was dubbed the Hillside Singers and the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” was a huge international hit when an alternate version, without the Coke references, was released in 1971. The Shaws were on the TV and concert circuit again, touring with the Hillside Singers for two years before signing a contract of their own with RCA Victor. In 1974, they made their first album as a twosome, taking a John Denver song for the title tune of “The Shaw Brothers—Follow Me.”
More recordings followed and the Shaw Brothers were soon taking their guitars, banjos and ukuleles to concert stages throughout the U.S. and in the far corners of the world. “Well, let’s see,” says Rick, when asked where their musical travels have taken them. “The U.S., Mexico, Canada, England, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan. Some of the Caribbean Islands. Aboard cruise ships. We’ve dashed around a lot.”
They performed before their largest audience ever in 1987, singing “New Hampshire Naturally” to about a quarter of a million people in Washington, D.C. for the “We the People” bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution in 1987. Their song, “The Day the Tall Ships Came” was adopted as the theme song for “Operation Sail '80” during the city of Boston’s 350th Birthday Celebration. And in 1996, The Shaw Brothers received the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Award for “exceptional contributions to the state of New Hampshire and its citizens.”
Over the years, they formed lasting friendships with many of the folk music legends of their high school and college days. Dave Guard, one of the original members of the Kingston Trio, lived the last years of his life with Rick and his wife Ingrid on their farm in Rollinsford. As Guard was dying of cancer, many of the celebrities of the folk music era made their way to Rollinsford, including John Stewart, who had joined the Kingston Trio after Guard left in 1961. Members of the Brothers Four and the Limeliters joined the steady stream of visitors to the farm before Guard died in 1991 at age 57.
“Dave sort of became a member of our family,” says Rick. “It was very stressful, but it was also unifying experience in that it brought all of us closer together as we cared for him.”
Both brothers still live in the Durham area, where they maintained a close friendship with legendary Irish balladeer and Dover resident Tommy Makem until the singer’s death from cancer in August of this year. “He was a great talent and a good man,” says Rick who remembers Makem as “a great mentor and an inspiration.” Makem’s recording of Ron’s “Tiananmen Square” got international play for the song about the 1989 student demonstrations in Beijing and their brutal repression by the Chinese government. Tommy’s son Rory describes the close bond between his family and the Shaw Brothers.
“They’re like uncles,” he says. “And when my father was dying, they were two guys who were there everyday. Literally, they visited him every day. He meant a lot to them and they stopped in to talk to him.”
In September of this year, their smooth baritone harmonies entertained a crowd of 500 at the Portsmouth Music Hall in a benefit that raised $65,000 for the Katherine L. Jarvis Fund for ovarian cancer research at Harvard Medical School. The concert was their retirement gift to Sam Jarvis, former owner of The Metro restaurant in downtown Portsmouth. The fund was established after his wife’s death from ovarian cancer in 1987.
“There’s nobody around like them,” says Jarvis, recalling that the Shaw Brothers had performed regularly at his Market Square Pub in the 1970’s. “They have a lot of finesse. They came out of that Peter Paul and Mary era and they just appeal to all ages.”
The Shaws are now looking forward to a concert in Florida next month that will reunite the original Brandywine Singers, along with the Brothers Four and the Highwaymen. Next spring, they will appear with the Brothers Four and the Limeliters in California. But it is here in New Hampshire that their performances most often remind them of how much fun and success they’ve had in bridging the gap between generations of folk music fans.
“We were playing Prescott Park (in Portsmouth) all those years,” says Rick. “Parents would bring their kids and twenty years later, their kids would bring their kids.” And it’s not over yet.
“We’ve had an influence on a couple of generations of kids coming up,” he says. “We’re probably about ready for our third.”