Tom Neilson Bio
Born on a dairy farm, Tom was raised with long days in the barns & hay fields of upstate NY. Soloing in the Sand Hill Methodist Church at the age of 3, he first learned performing arts under the tutelage of his choir director and church organist mom. He received awards in grade school talent shows and performed in adult theater and musical groups as a child.
His undergrad work was in education at SUNY Cortland. He studied voice with Guy Webb who told him that one day he could make a living with his voice. But by graduation in 1970, Tom had concluded that he had more in common with Vietnamese farmers than he had with the Wall Street brokers who were sponsoring the war. An anti-war organizer in the 60s, he left the US for Colombia where he lived until 1974.
He re-settled in Northern Idaho, where he, among other things, was Athletic Director for Special Olympics. Weekends found him hiking and camping through the western slopes of the Rockies. His first professional work as a musician was singing at funerals in Lewiston, ID. By the end of 1975, he was heading to West Africa where he lived in Senegal until 1978 working in public health. With aspirations to cross the Sahara, Tom moved to Portugal where he taught English and waited for the weather to cool. The Sahara was never traversed, but he did frequent North Africa, managing to be picked up and arrested as a spy in the Southern Atlas by a suspicious Moroccan authority. It was the second time that he had been arrested as a suspected undercover operative, the first being in the town of Fredonia, Colombia.
Back in the US, Tom was a tri-lingual counselor in the Alcoholism Unit at Cambridge City Hospital while getting his M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology from Northeastern. At Northeastern, Tom soloed on his second record (vinyl) of Classical/Contemporary music. As a classical vocalist, he has performed at the Washington Cathedral, New York City’s Town Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and the New England Conservatory of Music.
He continued his academic habit by enrolling in the doctoral program in International Education at UMass Amherst, but after one year accepted a position in Kenya where he worked as a rural development consultant and Training Director for Peace Corps. From there it was a short hop to Somalia with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees where he learned to negotiate an 11 foot basket in a high school gym and bi-weekly sunsets over the Gulf of Aden. He also negotiated the Somali CIA and an enormous scam of foreign aid used to support the Siad Barre administration. In 1985 and 86 he was in Nicaragua working with Construyamos Juntos as an interpreter and carpenter’s assistant to build a school in San Pedro de Lovago, a village that was attacked twice by Contras.
Struck by the blatant US political and media censorship and misrepresentation of his work with the UN in Somalia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, Tom integrated his experiences into a doctoral dissertation examining US political/economic hegemony in the Horn of Africa, as well as in the rest of the world.
That was in 88, the same year that his music friends, Dave McCurry, Bonnie Mullinex, and Mark Lynd told him that he should record his music. First, however, he accepted an invitation from the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) to visit Eritrea, at that time fighting for their independence. Returning from Eritrea, he was again detained in the Sudan for being in a restricted area on the Ethiopian border without permission. He was freed when the authorities thought he worked for the US CIA and they let him go.
The traveling came to a hiatus when Jacob was born and Tom "settled" into day jobs working with people with addictions, HIV, teaching physical education, performance art and coaching. In 2007, attempting to leave the US into Canada, he had his passport taken by US authorities and was detained with the threat that the guards were going to take him and his truck "to the warehouse." He got away to sing another day, but not in Canada.
Tom provides a voice for those who believe in the power of folk music to effect change. His award-winning songs of humor and compassion have been performed in 22 countries on 5 continents. His lyrics are celebrated for their sophistication, political astuteness, & wit.
Combining art with activism, he has appeared with Vijay Prishad, Medea Benjamin, Cynthia McKinney, Amy Goodman, Cindy Sheehan, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Ray McGovern, Howard Zinn, David Cobb, many others, & played at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba.
His travels are reflected in his songs, intertwined with farm roots and a fervent commitment to social justice, as he writes about historical and current events. He has been at the for-front in helping communities organize against water privatization, mountain top removal, nuclear energy, incinerators, GMOs, fracking, & toxic waste.
Known locally as the Bard Insurgent, Tom is a veteran of stage and street theater with his writing, acting, and directing. His songs draw the listener into his musical response to globalization.
He plays at union halls, colleges, conferences, cafes, house concerts, and has performed for countless benefits and causes. His music has been used in documentaries, TV shows, stage and street theater as he tells the stories of people’s struggles against greed & violence, interjecting a good deal of levity along the way. If you ask him, he'll tell you he's just a farm boy with a guitar who loves a good ball game and human rights.
Root Beer Makes Me Burp is a tender and thoughtful chronicle of songs written for the children in his life. He does residencies in high schools and colleges focused on musical theater, songwriting, and social justice themes.
When not playing music, you can find him and Lynn digging in their gardens, stopping coal trains and gas pipelines, working to stop commercial logging in Mass. state forests and enjoying their far-flung family. Tom's other groups include Racial Justice Rising, the Latin American Solidarity Coalition, and human rights in Palestine. You will find him in the gym shooting threes and still hanging in the air, though no longer confused with Elgin Baylor.
Tom and Lynn live in Greenfield, MA.