E r i c... A n d e r s e n
"One of the best ballad writers and song writers."
Eric Andersen has spent most of his life roaming Beat Avenue. It isn’t a street that’s led to fame and fortune – too full of left turns, both deliberate and involuntary – but it’s enabled him to follow his muse into a unique songwriting style that combines the poetic and the plainspoken, the throb of an open heart and the cynical second glance of the betrayed lover, the perpetual motion of a soul on fire. It’s been a long journey to get where he is, and he hasn’t stopped moving yet.
In the four decades since Eric was discovered by Tom Paxton in a San Francisco coffeehouse and dispatched to New York’s Greenwich Village to join the blossoming singer-songwriter scene of the early Sixties, he has gone from new kid in town to international Grand Master status at the art of meaningful, personalized contemporary songwriting.
Andersen has long been recognized as a special talent. The late Robert Shelton of the New York Times presciently described an early Andersen composition as “typical of the new language and poetic patterns of what will one day be called ‘an Eric Andersen song’.” Almost four decade later, in a New York Times feature on Andersen’s provocative 2003 Beat Avenue 2-CD set on Appleseed, Anthony DeCurtis affirmed that “very few songwriters have built a body of work as consistently strong as Mr. Andersen’s.”
The unique qualities of “an Eric Andersen song” have been captured on more than two dozen original albums (including six solo albums and a collaboration with the late Rick Danko and Jonas Fjeld all issued in the last decade by Appleseed), and his compositions have been recorded by artists ranging from Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary and Linda Ronstadt to the Grateful Dead, Fairport Convention and the Blues Project.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1943, Eric grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he taught himself to play guitar and piano. In his teens, he formed folk groups to perform the political songs of Woody Guthrie and The Weavers. His immersion in the writings of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and the “Beat Generation” writers and poets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso magnetized him into hitchhiking to their West Coast haunts in 1963 to meet and mingle with his idols and inspirations. The “no rules” outlook and rootless freedom of the Beats have remained Eric’s inspirations, both in his world-wandering lifestyle and his poetic, sensual songs, with their motifs of love, lost innocence, and the flow of travel and time. .
After his “discovery” by the touring Tom Paxton, one of the earliest of the New York-based urban folksingers to write his own material, Eric relocated to Greenwich Village, the hub of the blossoming folk scene, and started writing his first classics – “Violets of Dawn,” “Thirsty Boots,” “Come to My Bedside” – which helped set the template for the poetic, introspective singer-songwriter movement that blossomed in the late Sixties. Andersen’s circle of contemporaries included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, and David Blue, among others – he paid eloquent tribute to them on his two of his most recent CDs, 2004’s The Street Was Always There (Great American Song Series Volume 1) and 2005’s Waves (Great American Song Series Volume 2), performing vibrant versions of some of their signature songs.
Despite a career studded with some heartbreaking near-misses (almost signed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein before his death; the mysterious loss of the follow-up album to his breakthrough 1972 Blue River on Columbia – eventually rediscovered and issued in 1991 as Stages: The Lost Album), Andersen has blazed his own creative path, influencing such songwriters as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. He took part in the legendary 1970 trans-Canadian train tour as the lone solo performer amongst the Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin and numerous others (a trip captured on the “Festival Express” film and DVD), briefly joined Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and hung out at the New York’s Chelsea Hotel with future punk poetess Patti Smith, constantly expanding his own musical and poetic vocabulary to encompass blues, country and other genres. A thoroughly distinctive songwriter, Eric has also collaborated with Lou Reed, Wyclef Jean, and the late Townes Van Zandt, among others.
One particularly fertile partnership blossomed in 1990 when Andersen, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko (formerly of The Band and now deceased) and Norwegian singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld performed an impromptu gig in Woodstock, NY. The trio subsequently recorded the award-winning Danko/Fjeld/Andersen CD, which Bob Dylan has called “one of my favorite albums of all time” (reissued as One More Shot by Appleseed in 2002 with a bonus disc of a 1991 live performance) and 1994’s Ridin’ on the Blinds.
Although Eric temporarily diverted his own steady flow of original compositions while recording his two “Great American Song Series” volumes of songs by other seminal Sixties singer-songwriters, the most recent CD of his own new songs, 2003’s Beat Avenue, showed him at the peak of his creative powers, with one disc of torrid, frequently rock-powered songs and a second disc that included a 10-minute country blues and a successfully experimental 26-minute title track that cinematically recreated Eric’s experiences among San Francisco’s Beat community of writers on the day of President John Kennedy’s assassination.
In recent years, Andersen has released a steady stream of acclaimed CDs on Appleseed and maintained a touring schedule that regularly touches down in the U.S., Canada, Japan, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and elsewhere. He’s performed at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Phil Ochs, at a celebration of Joni Mitchell in Central Park, appeared on the Bravo cable TV channel’s series of artist interviews and has been the subject of several XM Satellite Radio specials. Over the last several years, Andersen has been joined on some concert stages by harmony singer Inge Bakkenes, whom he married in 2006; on the heels of his new, blues-inflected Blue Rain CD, Eric plans to play concerts and festivals using an electric band, as well as continuing his international solo tours.
Aside from contributing a chapter to “The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture” (Hyperion, 1999), Eric has been working on a book of short stories and novellas. And in addition to recording his own music, Eric has contributed tracks to tribute albums dedicated to Pete Seeger (If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 on Appleseed), Beat writer Jack Kerouac (Kicks, Joy, Darkness on Rykodisc), and to an unreleased tribute CD to Billie Holiday.
In 2003, Eric traveled to San Remo, Italy, to receive the country’s most prestigious songwriting award, the Premio Tenco; fellow songwriter, poet and longtime friend Patti Smith was the co-recipient of the award. In February 2007, Eric was one of the recipients of a “Superstar” award during a five-day “20th Anniversary Tribute to the Life and Legacy of Andy Warhol” presented by New York’s Gershwin Hotel. Andersen appeared in the 1966 movie “Space” by Warhol, another native of Pittsburgh who, like Eric, chose to follow the unconventional Beat Avenue to a daring, unpredictable, and completely individual future.
To hear a recent interview with Eric Andersen broadcast in November 2007 on the NPR-syndicated “World Café” radio show, follow this link.
Eric Andersen’s version of Pete Seeger’s “Snow, Snow” appears on our If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 CD. His collaborations with Lou Reed (“You Can’t Relive the Past,” from the same-named Appleseed CD) and Wyclef Jean (a dramatic reworking of Phil Ochs’ “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” from The Street Was Always There [Great American Song Series Vol. 1]) can also be heard on our Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary collection.