By Paul V. Palange
Jon Campbell was going to be honored on April 26 at a Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF) induction ceremony at the Pump House Music Works in Wakefield. At the age of 68, the multi-talented Campbell was going to receive some well-deserved and hard-earned recognition.
That plan had to be put on hold, however, because a serious illness struck Campbell, and there was no chance the musician, songwriter, artist and craftsman would recover enough to attend the induction. The RIMHOF board intends to reschedule the event, according to Vice Chairman Mederick “Rick” Bellaire, but the immediate focus is on getting Jon back on his feet.
Campbell’s story is sort of a case study of older musicians who navigated the local entertainment scene for decades while working other jobs to make ends meet. They stayed involved, whether it was performing, writing or producing for the love of the art. Their passion fueled the fire within. Satisfaction was high, but the monetary return on investment was low. Like many of today’s seniors, they don’t have a solid emergency fund or that $1 million in savings the financial experts stress people need to retire. Some even lack adequate health insurance.
Leading the effort to assist Campbell is his longtime friend Joe Houlihan, who said the induction of his buddy into the RIMHOF is overdue. “I’ve been tooting his horn for 45 years. …I’m really happy for him. It’s about time,” he said during a recent telephone interview.
In their younger days, Campbell and Houlihan performed together and produced three albums.
Their bond was based on writing, said Houlihan, who is a columnist for the Block Island Times and has self-published a few books.
Houlihan said his friend is a “real prolific songwriter” with a great sense of humor that’s a combination of Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor. “He’s a great writer, which pisses me off because it shows he’s smarter than me,” Houlihan said, citing songs such as “Frederick’s of Galilee,” “One Clam Cake” and “Winnebacome, Winnebago.”
A few times during the interview Houlihan said Campbell “is the guy Tom Waits wished he could have been” even though Waits is a critically acclaimed and Grammy winning singer and songwriter.
Campbell’s also a “multi-instrumentalist,” Houlihan said, He plays the guitar, mandolin, bazooka, flute, tenor banjo, kim whistle and uilleann bagpipes. But that’s not enough for Campbell. He’s built several instruments, too, including bagpipes.
Houlihan gushed over Campbell’s instrumental talent, saying he has “music spilling all over him.” As one example, he said, Jon was asked to record a difficult bagpipe track for an album and nailed it in one take.
“The engineer looked at me in amazement, and I just shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘What the (heck),’” Houlihan related.
Campbell produced four albums as a solo artist, and several of his songs have been recorded by artists in Europe and America such as Irish singers Tommy Makem and Robbie O’Connell and others from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to Cape Disappointment, Wash., according to information from RIMHOF.
His work has been archived by the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Rhode Island Historical Society. Since 1982, Campbell has been a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts folk artist, and he has performed at the New Bedford Working Waterfront Fest, Mystic Seaport Sea Music Fest, Kodiak Alaska Out Loud, Block Island Maritime Institute and the Astoria Fisher Poets Gathering.
Hall of Fame board members characterize Campbell’s career as remarkable and uniquely “Rhode Island,” while quoting the performer as saying, “When you live in an interesting place where interesting people are doing interesting things, all you have to do is make it rhyme;” which exemplifies the self-deprecation Houlihan says his friend has.
When Houlihan and Campbell stopped collaborating and performing together because they ran out of money, they found other ways to produce incomes so they didn’t have to abandon the stage. Jon went to work in the film industry, doing a variety of jobs; and Joe went to work for the Narragansett School Department as a high school English and theater teacher. Joe also took a job with the company that runs the Block Island Ferry, and still works there at the age of 69.
Bellaire said it’s scary to see a member of the Ocean State music community hit so hard by illness, and that older performers like Campbell have more than health issues to overcome.
“You generally have your time on top, but that eventually ends because someone new comes along and styles come and go,” Bellaire said. “You lose your audience as well, the disposable income of your audience shrinks and people in your audience have health issues that prevent them from attending performances.”
On the bright side, Bellaire said “everyone came together quickly” to rally around Campbell, and “everything has happened the way it should,” including the GoFundMe campaign launched by Houlihan. He set the goal at $20,000, and as of the second week of April the fund had gone over the $15,000 mark.
To contribute, visit gofundme.com and search for Help Local RI Musician Jon Campbell. I would guess the goal will be exceeded, and that won’t surprise the many people who know Jon is, as Houlihan says, “the real deal.”