They Liked To Teach The World To Sing: The Shaw Brothers' N.H. Folk Legacy

Jun 14, 2018

Ron and Rick Shaw, Brandywine album

The interlude is polished and playful.

“I have something very special coming up here. I just kind of have to set the stage .... we have a giraffe that’s going to be performing with us out here.”

The audience laughs away.

This is the opening of a song track on one of The Shaw Brothers’ records. They’re playing live at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. And if you’ve ever enjoyed a concert at the Prescott Park Arts Festival, you can just imagine the giraffe was either a prop or a set painting for a youth theater act that used the stage earlier.

 

Ron and Rick Shaw, The Shaw Brothers, just rolled with it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this famous duo since Ron Shaw died, loved ones by his side, on Easter Sunday. He was 77.

It came up while talking with some colleagues. I think I saw at least one appreciative nod in the group, but that could be a charitable appraisal.

 

"Ron Shaw…of The Shaw Brothers," I said."You know, the guys who wrote one of the official state songs? Well, let me tell you…"

 

Of course, there's that other song they recorded: "I'd like to teach the world to sing." That "Coca-Cola song," as it became commercially known, has had real staying power. Just watch the final episode of "Mad Men" in 2015.

 

"New Hampshire Naturally"

I listened to The Shaw Brothers long before I ever admitted to listening to folk music. Maybe you did, too.

 

They are “New Hampshire’s Musical Ambassadors to the world,” as former Gov. Hugh Gallen called them.

 

As a reporter, I bumped into Ron and Rick once or twice at the New Hampshire State House, where they’d been invited to play a few songs at official events.

 

They were treated like the dignitaries.

Ron Shaw.
Credit Courtesy

For a few years there, it seemed like they were always at the ready--New Hampshire’s resident “house band.”

Musician Rory Makem shares this view. One of the late Irish folk singer Tommy Makem’s sons, he grew up with the Shaws literally playing in his house in Dover.

I called Rory to reminisce about the Shaws. He was saying how it was a rite of passage for people to go see the brothers play at Prescott Park.

“People I would have never thought even knew who the Shaw Brothers were, saying, ‘Oh, they were such an important part of our youth. Our parents brought us to see them all the time.’”

Love For Music

Jessica Shaw has her father’s love for music. In an email, she shared special memories of driving with her dad in the old days—along the coast and up and down New Hampshire’s back roads, singing together.

They sang everything from camp songs to one in Korean. A summer concert is her “happy place.”

 

“I believe I inherited the love and passion from my father," she says, "and I am forever grateful."

 

A Musical Legacy

 

Born in West Stewartstown, the twin brothers grew up in the Mount Washington Valley, graduated in 1959 from Kennett High School, and went to UNH where they started playing at frat parties. They were in the Windjammers, the Tradewinds, the Brandywine Singers. Ron performed with the Pozo-Seco Singers for two years in the mid-1960s, while Rick was drafted to Vietnam, and he did some solo gigs, and even once opened for Janis Joplin at UNH, as his obituary noted.

 

A "Music is Magic" fund was established at the Edgewood Centre in Portsmouth to support musical programs. And Jessica created an "In Memory of Ron Shaw" Facebook group to support the effort.

 

Tom Rush was among those offering tributes and remembrances online. The singer-songwriter wrote, "Ron and his brother could make musical magic, and that magic will reverberate for a long, long time."

 

Richard Smith, of Cuzin Richard Entertainment, recalled what a polished duo the brothers were. They'd pack Prescott Park. "They'd draw as many people as any of the bigger shows today," he says. "They made it. They really did."

 

They were a staple performance for a long time at the park. Ben Anderson, president of Prescott Park Arts Festival, told me recently they were such a crowd favorite for so long that fans would still inquire if they'd be playing in any season.

 

The Shaw Brothers became a duo in 1968. And in 1971, with The Hillside Singers, recorded “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing." The song was written by Bill Backer, and performed and later recorded by the New Seekers.

 

As one of the state’s songs, “New Hampshire Naturally” is unbridled celebration of the Granite State.

Rory Makem recalls that time when the Makem & Spain Brothers were asked by former Gov. John Lynch to play that song during an inauguration back in 2011.

He thought to himself, “Why don’t you have Ron and Rick come out and sing it?”

Because, he reasoned, the Shaws were everywhere. Or seemed to be at that time. That and, well, nobody sings it quite like they do.

“Just to hear them singing together was magical to me,” Rory told me.

“They are legendary, and their songs are going to live on forever.”

The Shaw Brothers were just so professional, Rory says.

“And I took a lot from them and you could see they got a lot from The Weavers, and the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary. They were a crafted show before they were even the duo, back with the Brandywines, and when Ron was with the Pozo-Seco Singers. I mean, they learned their craft from the best.”

The Shaws also sang, along with a number of other well-known musicians, on a Makem & Spain Brothers sessions album. This was around 2014. My friend and former colleague Mike Gillis interviewed the Shaws at the time.

In never-released audio, courtesy of Gillis, Ron Shaw speaks of getting some of their musical talent from their father. At the heart of it all, they said they just love to play music, and were always grateful for their audience. (You can hear Ron Speak in the audio above.)

The Shaw Brothers, Something Special album.

“It was the music when we were in college," Ron Shaw says.

"It was the music. The folk music, The Kingston Trio, and people like that. It excited a whole generation and we were part of that generation. And we just found ourselves swept up in it and we continue to ride it, like a wave. And we’re still riding it, I guess. Smaller wave, but …”

“The music has taken us to places we never would have gone around the world, met people we never would have known, or anything about these people."

There's a nanosecond pause as he reflects on a life in music before he says, "And it’s been a great teacher.”