After four decades Tom Banjo is still full of strum-and-drang
Musician Tom Azarian, a.ka. Tom Banjo, sings traditional country music, but you won't hear him belting out anything by Garth Brooks. Although Azarian thinks Brooks is a terrific singer, the 68-year-old former farmer points out that the country star lacks a certain depth. "I saw him on TV once," he says in an interview at his home in a Burlington boarding house. "He jumped through purple smoke with no shirt on." Azarian smiles and chuckles quietly, perhaps trying to picture himself attempting such a stunt. Frankly, it's hard to imagine.
This is not to say that Azarian isn't a colorful figure. Though he now lives in a closet-sized room on Pearl Street, for the past 40 years Tom Azarian has picked his banjo in clubs and coffeehouses from here to Texas. In the early 1960s, he played at northeastern colleges with up-and-coming folkies such as Taj Mahal, Buffy St. Marie and Judy Collins. That's when he picked up his moniker -- no one could remember his last name.
Burt Porter, a mandolin player and ballad singer from Glover, met Azarian at the University of Connecticut. He, too, knew Judy Collins. "She was amazed by him," recalls Porter. "He was just an astounding banjo player."
Azarian also played at parties with mandolin player Dave Grisman, who later occasionally sat in with the Grateful Dead and played with Jerry Garcia. It may just be a local legend, but it's plausible that Azarian is the "Tom Banjo" the Dead sing about in their 1968 song "Mountains of the Moon." "Clothed in tatters/Always will be/Tom, where did you go?"
The Dead might have posed this musical question because Azarian, who does in fact dress in worn, but neat, thrift-store clothes, was something of a drifter in the early '60s, disappearing and reappearing without explanation. Or they might have been referring to his move to Vermont: He dropped out of the burgeoning folk scene in 1963 and bought a farm in Cabot with his common-law wife, artist Mary Azarian (the two split up in the mid-1990s). Instead of touring his folk act across the country, Azarian stayed home, farming, working in factories and raising three sons.
But while he never reaped the commercial benefits of the '60s and '70s folk boom, Azarian continued to play. He has appeared with Bread and Puppet, and recently did a solo show on WWVA, a well-known country-music station in Wheeling, West Virginia. He's also developed a following in Austin, Texas, where he plays when visiting his son Ethan, a musician and visual artist. Mostly, though, Azarian appears randomly in Burlington, performing at lefty political events and busking on Church Street.
Since he moved here in 1995, Azarian has become a fixture, especially to the artsy Radio Bean crowd and the anti-corporate activists -- he draws the posters for Burlington's pirate radio station. Many of his friends are young enough to be his kids or grandkids, and they seem to adore him.
Patrick Johnson, 33, an artist and sometimes musician who performs with him, has known Azarian since Johnson lived down the hall at the Pearl Street house; until 1999, the place was the Green Mountain Student Co-op. "There's no gloss or shine to Tom," says Johnson. "I look up to him . . . he's maintained his integrity. . . and he hasn't sold out a bit."
Katherine Quinn, a folksinger who also lived at the co-op in the early '90s, doesn't know him well personally, but says, "He's sort of like an institution in Burlington."
A sturdy-looking guy, about 5-foot-6, Azarian is easy to spot. He's almost always wearing brown boots, jeans and work shirts, sleeves rolled up, an old black cap shading his weathered face and covering a head of wiry, untamed reddish-brown hair. On summer evenings, he can sometimes be found on his porch, sitting behind the front yard full of sunflowers he plants. And he's usually playing the banjo.
These days Azarian is best known for his "Cranky Show." The act involves a handmade, red-and-blue wooden box. Two wooden cranks protruding from the top turn rolls of waxed paper, on which Azarian has illustrated vaudevillian stories, such as a farmer/flatlander bit called "The Arkansas Traveler," and folk tunes, including "The Cat Came Back" and the hobo anthem "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Azarian was performing that way before it appeared on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. A light bulb inside the box illuminates the drawings, its electric glow making the whole contraption resemble a sort of primitive TV set.
One recent Saturday night at Radio Bean coffeehouse, Azarian did a Cranky Show featuring a new number about labor leader "Aunt" Molly Jackson. Azarian drew a poster advertising the event. It's impossible to mistake his illustrations -- his style, with its straight, sharp lines, is simple but distinctive, and his people are caricatures: the evil capitalist, the buxom maiden, the embattled worker. It's propaganda, but it's also clever folk art. And in this age of computerized graphics, it's refreshing.
At Radio Bean, as his friend cranks the title panel into the light, Azarian strums the banjo absentmindedly and offers some historical background. Aunt Molly, he says, was quite a character. She was a midwife, a traditional folk singer. And, Azarian notes, "She ran a cat house."
When he's through with his short speech, he begins to play. His left hand curls around the neck of the banjo, while his right hand plucks the strings, aided by metal finger picks. He doesn't do anything too fancy, but plays assuredly, as if the music were a continuation of his speech. When he sings, he attacks his lyrics with a high-pitched, earnest voice more suited to a high-ceilinged union hall than this cramped coffeehouse. But the crowd of 30 or so who have gathered to see him -- kids, college students and crunchy folks in their twenties, thirties and forties -- eats it up.
Before the show Azarian worried that the topic wouldn't appeal: The 1931 miner's strike he describes was a nasty, bloody affair. But the audience seems attentive. Azarian has drawn his miners with dark, desperate shadows under their eyes. One particularly haunting panel depicts a burial scene silhouetted against a yellow sky. Early in the show, Azarian's neat script informs the audience that 37 children died in Aunt Molly's arms. When the woman at the crank rolls the graveyard scene into view and Azarian sings, "She tried to save the little ones, feed them sawdust paste," the effect is chilling. After the show, the audience claps and cheers loudly, as usual.
Azarian comes by his populism honestly. Both his parents were Armenian; his mother's family arrived in the U.S. before she was born, but his father, Carl Azarian, emigrated after the First World War. A framed drawing by Carl depicts the mountaintop where he hid for 18 months to escape the genocidal wrath of the Turks. The picture also shows the farm and the peach orchards he was forced to abandon.
After immigrating to the States, Carl worked in factories and joined a union. Tom, his brother and sister lived with their parents on a small plot they farmed in Westfield, Massachusetts. The place was owned by an absentee landlord. "It was a shacky house," Azarian remembers. "We didn't have enough beds. My father never slept on a bed. I never slept on a bed . . . we grew up poor, 'cause we were Depression babies. We went to school really hungry, like they say."
Azarian quit school and got a job in a factory after he finished the eighth grade. He was 16. "My mother made seventh grade, but she said if I could just hold out till the eighth grade, she'd be happy," Azarian recalls. "Nobody in our family went to college."
But if formal schooling wasn't crucial in the Azarian home, intellectual and cultural pursuits were encouraged. Azarian remembers his father coming home from work and reading his daily New York Times. Though Tom's grammar is sometimes flawed -- the Aunt Molly Cranky Show has several fairly obvious "typos" -- he's an avid reader, like his father.
Azarian's father and older brother also played the banjo; Tom picked up the instrument when he was 11, learning by watching his brother. He later took up the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, harmonica and autoharp, and acquired a vast repertoire of country tunes, such as "Turkey in the Straw," "Red Wing," "O Susannah" and lots of Stephen Foster songs. Back then, music was the most accessible form of popular entertainment.
"If you played a guitar or an instrument, you were a big deal in those days," Azarian explains, "more than you are today, 'cause today, you know, kids are plugged in, there's music everywhere they turn. But back then, you were wanted for parties or weddings if you could play an instrument. It was a real big deal."
Azarian fondly recalls the casual jam sessions that brought his neighbors together to socialize. But times changed with the advent of television, he laments. "I remember when television came. All the social activities stopped. We didn't see our neighbors anymore. The jam sessions were gone." He seems almost bitter for a moment, but then he shakes his head and smiles, chuckling at the absurdity of this vibrant culture's demise. "You'd go to visit somebody and they didn't want to be disturbed 'cause their favorite program was on," he says.
Given his opinion of television, Azarian's Cranky Show seems ironic. Though he calls the cranky box the "anti-TV machine," it's still made to look like one. When he starts plucking his banjo and singing about the cigarette trees on Big Rock Candy Mountain, the audience isn't watching him but his drawings. Which is pretty much his point.
"Traditional folk music was about all kinds of slice-of-life things," he explains. "There was . . . protest songs against war, there was railroad songs, lumberjack songs, funny songs, and I notice that the modern kids today, when they play folk music, it's very intimate and personal."
Azarian notes that the trend is not necessarily a bad one. "That's the way it's gotta be; music is always changing," he says. He'd just prefer to play songs written before 1952, the year Hank Williams died. The only newer songs he plays are those he writes himself, such as the one about Aunt Molly Jackson.
This mindset might partly explain why commercial success has eluded Azarian. But it's not the whole story. "I don't think he's ever particularly wanted commercial success with his music," suggests mandolinist Burt Porter. "He's never been one to compromise. He pretty much will only play the kind of music he likes, the way he feels like playing it, and when he feels like playing it."
To make money at it, Porter says, you have to perfect an album's worth of material, and then go on tour to promote it. Azarian does have two CDs, burned by friends and available at local music stores, but he doesn't do much to promote them. The night he plays at Radio Bean, for example, he doesn't bring any to sell. "He's always experimenting and innovating," says Porter. "He doesn't particularly like it when gets too slick. . . He wants his music raw and fresh."
Azarian probably wouldn't mind if someone were to throw money at him as a reward for his authenticity, but his financial situation doesn't seem to bother him. "I like havin' less," he says. "I hate havin' a lotta crap."