By Dianna Troyer
For legendary folk singer John Thomsen, music and humor have always been as natural and life-sustaining as breathing. Since childhood, he has been playing musical instruments and singing. “I’ve always had a need to sing,” says the 77-year-old Idaho City resident. For more than five decades, he has performed for folk festivals, school presentations, political rallies, community gatherings, and other activities. “I just happen to have a natural ability to remember a lot of songs in my head that I heard decades ago.”
Growing up in rural Minnesota, his family sang regularly and invited relatives, friends, and neighbors to join them. “We’d gather around the pump organ as Mom played. I picked up the harmonica when I was 7 or 8. I’d listen to the radio, memorize the song lyrics, and dream about playing with the big boys at the Grand Ole Opry. I learned to socialize through music with like-minded people. It’s been a way of life.” Since then he has toured the West, singing, writing humorous protest songs, performing with a band, and sharing his musical insights as a speaker for the Idaho Humanities Council while also working as a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and U.S. Forest Service lookout. “I’ve slowed down and don’t have a performing schedule anymore – except for every St. Patrick’s Day in Idaho City,” he says. “I still play for pleasure and socializing – nothing formal. I really enjoy watching new talent emerge and playing with beginners and young musicians. I don’t teach lessons but help by encouragement.”
With his humble beginnings in mind, John often tells young musicians to never feel discouraged about learning and refining their musical talent. He began playing guitar at age 21 after he was discharged from the Navy. “My brother had an old caved-in guitar, and I found a book of old folk songs and cowboy tunes that were familiar. The book had words and pictures to show how to play the chords. All winter long – and for all my life thereafter – I’ve been learning how to (Continued on page 39) how to make instruments obey my commands.”
His home is like a music shop stocked with his cherished instruments: guitars, a recorder, dobro, harmonica, mandolin, flute, autoharp, pennywhistle, accordion, and five-string banjo. While earning his anthropology degree at the University of Idaho, John played with an assortment of musicians. Eventually, he and friends formed the More’s Creek String Band. “We played everywhere – the Northern Rockies Folk Festival, weddings, birthdays, holiday parties,” he says. Two of his most requested songs were written as protest ballads. “People still love them and laugh,” he says.
With the folk song The Tennessee Stud floating in his head, he tweaked the lyrics and wrote The Idaho Spud. The song warned of a potato that grew to ginormous proportions after being nourished with water contaminated by nuclear waste from the Idaho National Laboratory.
John again blended music and comedy to protest the U.S. Air Force’s proposal to use the Owyhee Desert south of Boise for a bombing range in the late 1980s. Changing the lyrics of Home on the Range, he wrote and sang Home on the Bombing Range. Eventually, a half-million acres in the scenic Owyhee Canyonlands was protected as wilderness, and portions of rivers are safeguarded with federal wild and scenic designations. John’s protest songs were included in The Idaho Songbag, a CD released through the Idaho Humanities Council featuring more than two dozen historically based songs about mining, murder, labor disputes, politics, protests, and cowboy laments.
His songs are on another CD, An Imaginary Christmas in Idaho, arranged by longtime friend and folksinger Rosalie Sorrels. The More’s Creek String Band strums jigs, sings about the Norwegian delicacy Lefse and Christmas cake, and with Rosalie performs a politically skewed adaptation of Jingle Bells. “Some days I feel as old as Methuselah,” says John, laughing. “Then I start playing and singing, and I’m young again.” ISI