Around the time it was released in 1967, I brought home an album by The Robbs, a regionally popular band from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. At least two songs from that record were being played on top forty radio often enough to make me fork over some cash for the LP. My band even learned to play one of the tunes.
The Robbs had a regional hit single that year, Race with the Wind. It’s a great song, but it wasn’t my favorite. The album’s opening track, Violets of Dawn, turned out to be the one that grabbed my attention. Scanning the liner notes, I discovered Eric Andersen was the songwriter. The name meant nothing to me. I’d never heard him on the radio, but I sure liked his song. The tune was catchy and the lyrics painted images in my head. One phrase in particular, …petal sprays of violets of dawn, stuck with me like fireworks illuminating an early morning sky.
A year passed. I’d wasted an evening pretending to study in my dorm room when a student from down the hall stopped by with a record album. It was an Eric Andersen recording. He placed the LP on my phonograph and I heard the original Violets of Dawn for the first time. It moved me. Just Andersen singing with his guitar, accompanied by some light percussion from a snare drum and a piano. There were three more verses than what the Robbs had recorded. It was like hearing Bob Dylan sing Mr. Tambourine Man for the first time, after having known only the Byrds’ abbreviated cover. I’d kept up with Dylan’s music over the years while at the same time losing track of Andersen’s, much to my regret. On a recent fall evening, that oversight was rectified.
Eric Andersen performed in concert at a small music hall, accompanied by a violinist who doubled on mandolin, and a percussionist whose bare hands provided a subtle rhythm. While time may have stolen the youthful innocence of his voice, along with my stamina for drinking more than one beer, his performance was a sonic fireworks display of poetry, at times dark and sparse, but consistent in its imagery. The fourth song into his set was Violets of Dawn. Again I was moved, transported back in time, a wave of chills rushing down my spine.
Andersen performed two sets, each a wonderful blend of old and new material. He delivered songs from his past catalog, of course, and debuted a select set of newer material. He unveiled three new songs invoking the spirit of German writer and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, works commissioned by Böll’s descendants and shrouded in sharp satire of the nationalism he despised, especially in a song titled, “Thank You, Dearest Leader.” “The Rebel (Song of Revolt),” inspired by French philosopher Albert Camus, was a call to resist even in the face of hopelessness. Before finishing the evening with his classic “Thirsty Boots,” Andersen turned to the romanticism of Lord Byron, taking Byron’s poem, “To a Lady,” and setting it to music.
It was at once an entertaining and intellectually stimulating evening, one which might have happened fifty years ago in a dingy coffeehouse, illuminated only by …petal sprays of violets of dawn.