Tom Lewis’s 360 Degrees: All Points of the Compass

cover art for 360 DegreesTom Lewis is a former sailor, a submariner, who came ashore to play his own brand of folk music a few years ago. As he sings in “Port of Call,” “No sixty year old sailor is wanted on the sea …” Indeed, I saw what happens to a sailor without a hobby, when my father was forced to retire. It’s not a pretty sight. Fortunately the retirement date for folk singers hasn’t been set yet!

Lewis begins with what Borealis calls a “folk equivalent to ‘bye bye Miss American Pie’ ” and I guess that’s essentially what “Radio Times” is. Name-checking musicians from Bill Haley and the Comets through Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, jumping to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Hollies, the Stones, Peter, Paul & Mary … this sort of epic trawl of rock’n’roll is sung a capella, with label-mates Tanglefoot providing solid harmonies. The interesting third verse recalls more obscure folkies including Bert Jansch, Ewan MacColl, Stan Rogers and a handful more.

“Port of Call” (written by Kieran Halpin), features a nicely fingerpicked guitar by Steve Lalor, and Reggie Miles on crosscut saw. The saw adds a haunting wail behind the melody. “Nassau Bound” is a reinterpretation of the traditional “Sloop John B,” which offers added lyrics and some new melodic directions. More guitar by Lalor and whistles by Steve Peterson introduce the Irish celebratory tune “St. Patrick’s Song.” This original repeats the declaration that “in Erin’s Isle so green, no snakes there can be seen.” It invites all to become Irish on one day a year, and lists a selection of liquids one might imbibe from Belfast to Galway. Last summer I managed to find Guinness everywhere, but certainly there were other choices!

“Christmas at Sea” is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson set to music by Lewis. He accompanies himself on button accordion. “Dutchman’s Trousers” is a bouncy tune Lewis plays on ukulele, with his lead vocals ably supported by Tanglefoot on the chorus. Another classic writer makes an appearance: Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Land” is a history lesson. From Diocletian to “ol’ Mus’ Hobden” in eight minutes. The proximity of a capella songs diminishes the power of them. While Lewis’s voice is clear and true, and quite impressive on one song at a time, when two or three are stacked up together it gets a tad tiresome. One yearns for the minimal accompaniment of uke or squeeze box. But there’s no denying the quality of the singing, especially when Tanglefoot gets involved!

“Blow the Man Down” is a perfect example of the power unaccompanied singing can have. This time it’s a group called Broadside supplying the backing on the refrain, another of my Da’s favourites. “According to the Act” is another traditional song outlining the elements of the Merchant Shipping Acts. “There’s nothing goes on in a Limey ship contrary to the Act!” “If I Had a Boat” is a Lyle Lovett song which makes no more sense here than it did with Mr. Lovett singing … except it’s one of the highlights of this album. Fuller instrumentation makes it a standout, with some nifty resonator guitar by Dave Harmonson.

“One Big Ocean” is a children’s song Lewis wrote in response to a 4th grader who stumped him with the question “Can you name the seven seas?” Lewis couldn’t do it, so he invented this clever response. “It’s really only one big ocean, joining up the seven seas.” Including the water in our bodies, I might add! A children’s choir joins on the chorus. The participants are listed individually in the booklet.

360 Degrees: All Points of the Compass is filled with the warm singing and personality of Tom Lewis. It may not be my first choice to slide into the CD player, but there are many things worth hearing again on this new Borealis release.

(Borealis, 2004)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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