Monday, 20 April 2020

John Thomsen, “The Golden Voice of the Boise Basin”

John Thomsen
Nestled up in a crook near Idaho City, folk musician John Thomsen and his wife, Linda, live in a colorful, amazing and eclectic house he built himself and christened “Loafers Glory.”

It’s a honey of a home; inside there are ornately carved walls and cabinets holding various forms of memorabilia. Outside, it’s surrounded by a seemingly magical garden complete with an array of flowering plants, whimsical statues and brightly-painted traveling wagons.

Thomsen turned 80 in August and Linda threw him a huge bash — more than 80 attended.

And that’s because Thomsen is a pretty cool guy who has a really great voice. Dave Daley, who played with Thomsen in the Mores Creek String Band, calls him “the golden voice of the Boise basin.”

To commemorate his 80th year, Limberlost Press, a local publisher that focuses on local and regional artists, has also released Thomsen’s first CD —“John Thomsen and Friends: Songs from Loafer’s Glory.”

An American tradition

Folk music has always been the music for the people, but perhaps more importantly, folk music tells the stories of the people. Thomsen said the stories are the most interesting to him.

“Folk music, to me, is a legacy in and of itself,” he said. “The songs tell stories about how people lived. People are using folk music to interpret life,” he said.

Thomsen said when he was young, everyone sang all the time. “It’s just something I did, it’s something everyone did,” he said.

And while the popularity of folk music has waxed and waned, shifted according to the times, it has never disappeared. Rick Ardinger, editor of Limberlost Press, remembers what local folksinging legend Rosalie Sorrels, who was a longtime friend of Thomsen’s, always said: “Folk music comes back when people need it.”

John Thomsen
The artist’s story

Most of the songs Thomsen knows, aren’t written down, they are in his head. “When we first got together I had a cowboy song book and he knew all of them ... he knows so many songs,” said Linda. Indeed, Thomsen seems to be a veritable catalog of folk music. Maybe that has a little bit to do with the way he grew up.

Thomsen was raised in Minnesota with his six brothers and sisters. They didn’t have electricity until he was 10, he said, and he taught himself to play guitar using a book of old folk songs. His first guitar was old and didn’t have a proper bridge — there was a matchbook in its place.

He would listen to “The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio at night, turning it down low when his father told him to go to bed. Then, waking “at the crack of dawn” to do chores, he would sing the songs he’d heard the night before all day long.

Once you start learning music, “you get a little obsessed,” Thomsen said. It paid off but being a musician was never Thomsen’s full-time gig. He was busy in the Navy and was also a master wood carver. But Thomsen can play over seven instruments, has played with or around some of the most respected folk musicians in Idaho and even wrote his own parody song to the classic tune of “Tennessee Stud.”

“The Idaho Spud”

Thomsen never considered himself a songwriter, he preferred to sing and play, but he always thought he could write a parody. The old folk tune “Tennessee Stud” was written by Jimmy Driftwood and released in 1959. It was one of Driftwood’s most famous songs and was covered by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., and, more recently, by The Meat Puppets.

But the popularity of the song isn’t why Thomsen chose that melody for his parody. “People would ask me to sing ‘Tennessee Stud,’ and, well ... I never learned the words to it,” he said with a laugh.

Thomsen’s version is a satirical protest song that imagines contaminated water from the Idaho National Laboratory leaching into a potato field causing disastrous results for both the potatoes and the children that consume them. The song ends with the verse, “I got a cute little mutant on the cabin floor. Another half a kid to stop the door. They light right up like green tomaters — Cuzz I’m feedin’ them youngsters on nuclear taters.” It’s a toe-tapping song with an edge, and the quick-witted lyrics couple smoothly with Thomsen’s “golden voice.”

And if that doesn’t “mash your potatoes” — the CD is full of other folk-music classics, and comes with a booklet of photos and tributes by admirers.

•By Tracy Bringhurst

•culled from

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