Connecticut’s first state troubadour Tom Callinan couldn’t be happier to be rid of the tragedies and troubles of the past year.
He is sharing his trademark humorous observations in a brand-new little ditty, “Good Riddance to 2020,” a sardonic farewell to a “miserable” year, including the restrictions caused by the pandemic — all which he can’t wait to leave behind, said Callinan, 73.
He is ever-so-clear in his newest ditty how he views 2020.
“I’m bidding adieu to this horrible year, I’m tipping my glass upside-down. My hopes have been raised by that shot in the arm that I hear is making the rounds,” “Good Riddance to 2020” starts off.
“You never know where inspiration is going to come from,” he said.
This time, it struck two days before Christmas, said Callinan, a Middletown native, a former 29-year resident of Clinton, with his wife, Ann Shapiro, executive director of the Connecticut Storytelling Center at Connecticut College in New London.
On Dec. 22, the musician played “on a wind-swept hill” at the Masonicare senior living center in Wallingford, just ahead of a holiday-themed car parade for residents. He was there for more than two hours.
It was brutally cold outside, said Callinan, who was “chilled to the bone” by the wind, despite being dressed in flannel-lined pants, Long Johns, fingerless gloves and Eskimo hat.
“I had no idea I was going to be blasted from the back like that,” he said. The next morning, Callinan was still freezing, he said. He began to practice for a New Year’s Eve performance in New York City, first being sure “my fingers would still move. I plucked a couple of notes and this tune came out, and, all of a sudden the song came out, too.
“Apparently, the logjam in my brain had been flash frozen and thawed out, and I was able to capture it while I had a pen and paper near me,” Callinan said.
“Good Riddance to 2020” has been well-received by people, many of whom have been expressing similar sentiments over the past year. Callinan says they tell him he “hit the nail on the head.”
Callinan and his wife founded Crackerbarrel Entertainments in 1982. They now live in a circa 1793 home listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Norwich.
He served stateside in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam-Era, from 1970 to 71, and earned his master of arts in liberal studies from Wesleyan University, then went on to teach English and reading at the former East Hampton Junior High School.
Callinan was named troubadour in 1991 by former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.
Lyrics most often come to him as a fully formed song, sometimes in as little as a third of an hour, Callinan said.
“It’s guesswork for me. I feel like I have these sensors that are tuned to things — impulses, whatever, a word or phrase, a smell,” he said. All of a sudden, things click into place.
“It takes that impulse to my brain receptor somehow and something comes out. I sometimes say to people ‘I don’t know where that song came from. I don’t think I’m smart enough to write that song,’” he will quip.
“I’m lucky enough to receive it from somewhere and then my hand can write it down. It’s baffling to me,” said the musician, who is prone to self-effacement.
In one case, however, it took an extraordinary amount of time to write just a single song in his repertoire. It took ages for Callinan to finish “Autumn in New England,” because he was stuck on “orange,” a description of leaves. That’s one word without a rhyme partner in the English language.
“I got a mental block,” he said.
“I love autumn. You’re out driving around with the orange trees and the pumpkins. It’s like [the trees] are mocking me,” he said. “‘Ha ha. You can’t write,” he imagines them saying.
Then, one day, three years into his “agony,” he got a postcard in the mail advertising leaf-peeping tours.
On the front were five “brilliantly” orange maple trees, Callinan said. “I was so revolted, I said, ‘even the mail is mocking me now,’” then flung it away, and in that moment saw the color orange as a flash of fire and decided to use that word instead. Then, “I wrote the song in 20 minutes.” he said.
He now tells audiences, just before he performs the song, that “Autumn in New England” took him three years and 20 minutes to write.
He, like countless other artists during the COVID-19 breakout, have had to share their talents on Zoom and other virtual programs to maintain social distancing. Much is lost, however, Callinan said.
“It’s sort of dehumanizing. You get no feedback like you do with live audiences,” plus, with everyone wearing masks, there’s no way to gauge reactions. His loss of hearing from his time in the service doesn’t help matters, he said.
The connection that Callinan and others so need with their audiences is lost, he said. “There is a vast need for human contact. I know people crave this kind of interaction.”
The musician is a regular visitor to the Veterans Home & Hospital in Rocky Hill, where he will sing from home, and staff “bring me around virtually” from patient to patient. “They really warmed up to it,” he said of the veterans. “It was almost like having a conversation and throwing a few songs in,” Callinan said.
He humorously compares social isolation to monasticism. “Even Trappist monks take a vow of silence, but they get to hang out together,” Callinan said.
He characterizes the last year as a “hiccup in our lives — and a pretty big hiccup at that.”
“I’m sick of making the lemonade from the lemons the virus has brought,” goes the last stanza of “Good Riddance to 2020.”
“And I can’t wait to throw out my masks — all of the many I’ve bought. I can’t wait ‘til ‘social-distancing’ becomes an obsolete phrase, and when we won’t put ‘new’ before normal, like we did in the good old days!”
For information, visit Crackerbarrel-Ents.com. To watch a video of Callinan playing his tune, visit Ann Shapiro’s Facebook page.