Music has always been a part of Tom Neilson’s life. From singing liturgical music in church as a young boy to serenading women as an undergraduate at SUNY Cortland and more recently, to singing about issues ranging from politics to censorship, music has been Neilson’s driver.
“Music was always something I did,” Neilson said. “It was something fun for me.”
Neilson’s music won him two awards in late December during the Just Plain Folks International Awards for best traditional folk album — “Between the Rivers” — and best political/ social commentary album — “It’s a Crime to Tell the Truth.”
The virtual ceremony was hosted by the Just Plain Folks music organization, which is the largest grassroots music organization in the world with more than 51,000 members from 185 countries, according to a statement from Neilson’s wife and business manager, Lynn Waldron.
The competition this year featured more than 17,000 albums and 230,000 songs.
“It was harder to get a nomination in our awards by the sheer numbers of entries than it is to get a nomination in the Grammys,” said Brian Austin Whitney, the founder of Just Plain Folks, during the awards ceremony.
“I was quite surprised,” Neilson said. He had been nominated before, but 2020 marked his first win.
Neilson, 72, grew up in Unadilla and singing was a part of his life from a young age, thanks in part to his mother, Martha, who was a church organist.
“We sang everywhere,” Neilson said. “At the kitchen table, in the car. I was someone who had music in me.”
One day, when Neilson was about 8, someone heard him singing in church and suggested he join the choir at the church, which his mother directed.
He agreed and by age 10, he was performing The Messiah by Handel in a community choir.
When he entered SUNY Cortland in 1966, he still carried his love for music but this time, he joked, his ego took over and bought an old guitar and learned how to play and write songs. Neilson said he would stand underneath the windows of women’s dorms and play.
With the background of the Vietnam War raging on, it was at SUNY Cortland where Neilson began to develop a sense of activism that would play a large role in his music.
Neilson felt he had more in common with a Vietnamese farmer than American financial supporters of the war, and joined the Peace Corps in Colombia following his graduation in 1970 as a means of deferment from the draft.
He returned to America for a year in 1974, but left again as he felt like a foreigner, he said.
Neilson lived in Senegal and Portugal before returning to the United States in 1981 to get his master’s of education in counseling psychology from Northeastern University.
He returned to working around the world, including as an interpreter in Nicaragua, where the village he stayed at was attacked twice by the Contras. A lack of reporting on the incidents would later fuel his music.
After receiving his doctorate in international education in 1988 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Neilson began recording music on the advice of friends and has ever since, including topics such as censorship, hydrofracking, racial discrimination, the U.S. political hegemony and nuclear war.
Sometimes Neilson is outraged at an event on the news. Sometimes something strikes him as so bizarre it must be turned into a song.
As the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person concerts, Neilson has taken his music virtually, performing Zoom concerts.
Later this week, Neilson is giving talks regarding race and Martin Luther King Jr. as the Jan. 18 holiday regarding the civil rights leader’s namesake approaches.
Editor’s note: This report was updated to correct the name of Neilson’s mother and the reason he learned to play the guitar.