Written by Tom French
posted on February 13, 2016 12:56
The River inspires people in all kinds of ways, whether it’s through art, painting or drawing, gardening, architecture, boating, or just finding solace and spiritual reflection. The list is endless.
For me, it has been through writing stories and songs. Most of the time it’s hard work, but like a good sweat, it’s fulfilling and enjoyable. Stories can take years, and even then it’s questionable as to whether they’re really done. Most songs require at least a few days, if not weeks or months. “Another Song on the Radio”, a song on the first Buoyrockers, CD, which seems so simple in retrospect, took over four years before the lyrics finally came together.
But “Island Sunset,” arguably my best-known song along the River, was done in fifteen minutes. It was true inspiration. I don’t know where it came from. It was a gift from the gods. Just as Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” the song was already there, on the River. It’s not my song. I didn’t write it. I just found it. It’s hard to explain inspiration like that.
I was sitting on the end our dock in Crystal Bay, at Thousand Island Park, facing the setting sun when I found a chord pattern and rhythm. “There’s nothing quite like an Island Sunset” spilled out of my mouth. I wrote it down, and fifteen minutes later the whole song was finished – break, verses and all. There’s nothing quite like an Island Sunset!
I wasn’t even cognizant that it was three-four, or a waltz for that matter, until Dave Knapp pointed it out. He told me that was the genius behind the song. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was a nitwit and had just stumbled upon it. I was nineteen, a self-taught guitarist, and didn’t know a time signature from a shear pin.
I’ve always been surprised by the response to the song. Dave grabbed hold of it immediately. You know when you’ve written a good song (or not) by the response Dave gives it. He either says, “play it again,” or quietly lets you move on to the next song. I remember showing him “Island Sunset” at his Otter Street Studio in Alexandria Bay in the fall of 1982, prior to my leaving for Africa for six months. I’d put together a rough cassette tape, one-mic recordings of some songs I’d written. He immediately wanted to hear it again and grabbed his guitar.
But the response from others has been equally gratifying. When Dave, Win Price and I began playing it live as the Buoyrockers, people wanted to hear it a second time, at the end of the night, as an encore. When they started chanting “Island Sunset” and wouldn’t leave until we’d played the song again, you knew there was something special about the song. We gave up trying to play it early in the evening with the other slower songs.
For years I’d fantasized about what an “Island Sunset” music video would look like, thinking it would never happen. I imagined setting up a tripod on Mosquito Island in Eel Bay, marking its exact spot, so it could be repeated for multiple sunsets over the course of a year (winter too), and then merging the sunsets into one time lapsed shot. Alas, that didn’t happen for this video, but the availability and quality of consumer-level video equipment and editing software has allowed me to make what I call a “concept video.” If I had access to all the fancy gear and professional lighting, this is sort of what it would look like. And despite my technical limitations, video production is fun and certainly allows for a creative release.
I am fortunate to live amongst family and friends willing to volunteer for my shenanigans. And I’ve learned to appreciate the musical and creative spirits along the River “when I’m far away.” I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by other songwriters since before I started playing – my Uncle Jeremy Taylor, Emilie Cardinaux, Monica Behan and a host of others, in addition to Dave & Win. I thought that was just the way it was everywhere - that most musicians were songwriters too. It wasn’t until I left the River that I discovered it’s a bit of a rarity. I chalk that up to the inspiration of the River too.
Editor’s Note: “Island Sunset” and other songs by the Buoyrockers are available for download at Buoyrockers.com.
Tom’s other music video along with spoofs, how-to’s, historic archival films, and a couple other artistic visions can be seen on his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJvPVXHcwYc.
By Tom French
Tom French was raised on an island in the St. Lawrence River. His book, “River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D”, won a Silver Medal in the 2012 Independent Book Publishers Awards for Best Regional Non-Fiction in the Northeast. Tom’s work has been featured in Mac|Life Magazine, Adirondack Life, The Watertown Daily Times, Thousand Islands Life.com, and Stereo World, among other publications. Several of his commentaries have aired on North Country Public Radio. He also maintains a website of oral histories, Riverstories.org, featuring actual recordings of “River Old Timers” and a number of archival movies and photographs. He spends his winters in Potsdam, NY, with his family
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