Tom Neilson


Friday, March 1st, 2013 at 7:00 pm
Unitarian Universalists
4831 E 22nd Street, Tucson, Arizona
520-887-4101 /

About Tom

Born on a dairy farm, Tom was raised with long days in the barns & hayfields of upstate NY. Soloing in the Sand Hill Methodist Church at the age of 3, Tom first learned performing arts under the tutelage of his choir director and church organist mother. Recognized at a very early age for his vocal abilities, he won awards in grade school talent shows and performed in adult theater and musical groups while still a child.

His undergrad work was in education at SUNY Cortland and by graduation in 1970, concluded that he had more in common with Vietnamese farmers than he did with the Wall Street brokers who were sponsoring the war. An anti-war organizer in the 60s, Tom left the US for Colombia where he lived until 1974. Leaving the country was the beginning of his global education, recognizing that farming and Winchester’s Sawmill were also contributors on his journey to wisdom and enlightenment.

After a short stint at the University of MN (where he caught a pass from Tony Dungy) he moved to Northern Idaho, where he, among other things, was Athletic Director for Special Olympics. Weekends found hiking and camping through the western slopes of the Rockies. Tom again pulled up roots and 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 in 1981. At Northeastern, Tom soloed on his third 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, & 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 semester 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 Barre administration. In 1985 and 86 he was in Nicaragua working in support of the revolution 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 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 as a spy, this time in Sudan as he was in a restricted zone on the border with Ethiopia, but was freed when the authorities thought he worked for the CIA (a different sort of spy) and they let him go.

The traveling came to a hiatus when Jacob was born in 91 and he “settled” into day jobs working with people with addictions, HIV, teaching physical education, and coaching. In 2009, attempting to leave the US into Canada, he had his passport confiscated by 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.

Coach, historian, & educator, Tom provides a voice for all those who believe in the power of folk music to effect change. His award-winning songs of humor and compassion on 12 CDs have been performed in 20 countries on 5 continents. His lyrics are celebrated for their sophistication, political astuteness, & wit.

Combining art with activism, he has appeared with Cynthia McKinney, Amy Goodman, Cindy Sheehan, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader (introducing Ralph at the National Convention), Ray McGovern, Howard Zinn, Bruce Gagnon, David Cobb, & played at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba.

His travels are reflected in his songs, intertwined with his farm routes, and a fervent commitment to social justice, as he writes about historical and current events that are disappeared or distorted in the media. He has been at the for-front in helping communities organize against war, water privatization, mountain top removal, nuclear energy, incinerators, GMOs, fracking, & toxic waste. He has received 20 awards and nominations, and at Kerrville, was referred to as the Jon Stewart of folk music.

Known locally as the Bard Insurgent, Tom is a veteran of stage and street theater with his writing, acting, and directing. His music reflects his involvement with heroin addicts, the poor, human rights, safe energy, and liberation movements from Nicaragua to Eritrea. His original works, parodies of popular tunes, well known freedom songs, and poetry draw the listener into his musical response to globalization.

Root Beer Makes Me Burp is a tender and thoughtful chronicle of songs written for the children in his life. He does residencies in schools focused on musical theater, songwriting, and social justice themes.

He and Jacob, of late, have also begun barnstorming with ex Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee.

He plays at festivals, union halls, colleges, national conferences, cafes, house concerts, & at political and social gatherings. He particularly enjoys the personal connections provided by house concerts and has performed for countless benefits and causes. His music has been used in six documentaries, 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.

Tom lives with his son in Greenfield, MA