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Songwriter ‘totally immersed’ in Great Lakes tales


This article was published April 3, 2014 at 2:59 a.m.

Lee Murdock

When music fans think about watery tales of the Great Lakes, chances are the song that comes to mind would be Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but there are other singer-songwriters with vast reservoirs, so to speak, of music centering on that part of the United States that contains 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water.

Singer-songwriter Lee Murdock, performing a Little Rock Folk Club show Saturday, is one of the folk singers who could not help but be influenced by the song.

“When I heard that song, I was working in a guitar store in Des Moines, Iowa,” he says. “That same storm, when it came through Iowa, we had four big picture windows before the storm, and one afterwards. That was Nov. 10, 1975, and the song became popular in January and February of ’76, and it was a magnificent story. It’s come to represent more than those 29 people who perished and the role that they played.”

Murdock, a graduate of Iowa’s Drake University with a degree in geology, never fully intended to become a folk singer, but merely thought he would try his hand for awhile before settling into a “real job.” He grew up in the Chicago suburbs and now lives in Kaneville, Ill., some 50 miles west of Chicago, not along the shorelines of any of the Great Lakes he has come to love and commemorate in song and story.

“Well, I’m a folk singer, and you know what waterfront property sells for,” he says with a laugh. “So whenever I go to any of the lakes, it’s a great experience, something you don’t take for granted. Back when I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, there wasn’t much of a concept of what Lake Michigan, for instance, was all about, as in the role that waterways played in our nation’s development.

“I had always enjoyed music that told stories, whether it was folk or blues or cowboy songs, so I was a big fan of ‘Tom Dooley’ and so on. When I was 11 ½, I got my first guitar and started learning to play it. It was a wonderful way to pass the time.”

As his skills at singing and playing guitar developed, Murdock made a conscious decision to pursue a folk career rather than pop stardom that many embraced in the Beatles era. After a decade, he discovered Songquest: The Journals of Great Lakes Folklorist Ivan H. Walton, who collected the songs and stories of aging sailors who lived along the shores of the Great Lakes in the 1930s.

“By 1991, I’d released myfirst album of songs, Cold Winds, and a couple of years later another one, Safe in the Harbor, and after more than 20 years, I’ve become totally immersed in this music,” Murdock says. “I’m about to finish my 19th album, which is probably going to be called After the Storm, and will focus on not just storms, but also the sort of conflicts we have around us, such as the political scene we are in.”

Murdock also has written books, some of which have CDs of music, such as a classroom favorite, Lake Rhymes, plus Christmas Goes to Sea, which includes the tale of the ship that carried 5,500 balsam and spruce Christmas trees that sank in late November 1912 in Lake Michigan.

“I see my role as like a little oasis amid all the turmoil around us,” Murdock says, “and I hope to remind people of the old times and how other people dealt with adversity.”

Lee Murdock 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Little Rock Folk Club, Thomson Hall, Unitarian Universalist Church, 1818 Reservoir Road, Little Rock Admission: $15; $8 for students with IDs; free for accompanied children 12 and under (501) 663-0634

Weekend, Pages 33 on 04/03/2014

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