By Jean Clark
The award-winning folk singer Tom Neilson will be bringing his message of “Music for Social Change” to Pleasant Hill, on Friday, May 31, at 7 p.m. in the Pleasant Hill Community Church, UCC. The Shalom Center for Continuing Education, a non-profit educational center is sponsoring this appearance of the nationally well-known artist. Through conferences, workshops, forums, retreats and artistic performances, the Shalom Center seeks to engage those in the area in a learning process that is lifelong, inclusive, imaginative and celebrative. Although based in Pleasant Hill, Shalom Center has brought speakers and artists of international fame, which attracts participants from Cumberland, White and Putnam Counties or farther. Neilson 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 are parodies of popular tunes, well-known freedom songs and poetry draw the listener into his musical response to social change.
Neilson has been singing since he soloed in the Methodist Church under his choir director and church organist mother. Graduating with a degree in education, Neilson, among other things, was an athletic director of Special Olympics in Idaho, worked in public health in West Africa, taught English in Portugal, was a tri-lingual counselor in a hospital alcoholism unit and received his M.Ed. in counseling psychology from Northeastern University. During these travels he honed his voice as a classical/contemporary 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.
Continuing his interest in international affairs, Neilson accepted a position in Kenya, where he worked as a rural development consultant and training director for the Peace Corps. From there it was a short hop to Somalia with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Neilson integrated his experiences into a doctoral dissertation examining U.S. political/economic hegemony in the Horn of Africa, as well as in the rest of the world. The traveling was interrupted when his son was born in 1991 and he "settled" into day jobs working with people with addictions and HIV, teaching physical education and coaching.
Neilson provides a voice for all those who believe in the power of folk music to affect change. His award-winning songs of humor and compassion on 12 CDs have been performed in 20 countries on five continents. His lyrics are celebrated for their sophistication, political astuteness and wit. His travels are reflected in his songs, intertwined with his farm roots and a fervent commitment to social justice, as he writes about historical and current events that are often ignored in the media. He has been at the forefront in helping communities organize against war, water privatization, mountain top removal, nuclear energy, incinerators, GMOs, fracking and toxic waste. He has received 20 awards and nominations, and at Kerrville, was referred to as the Jon Stewart of folk music.
Neilson particularly enjoys the personal connections provided by 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 and violence, interjecting a good deal of levity along the way. If you ask him, he will tell you he is just a farm boy with a guitar who loves a good ball game and human rights. Neilson lives with his son in Greenfield, MA.
The Pleasant Hill Community Church is on Church St. off of Main St. across from the Pleasant Hill Elementary School. The sanctuary has been acoustically improved, making it an excellent venue for music. The concert is free and open to the public. There will be a reception afterwards to meet the artist and an opportunity to purchase CDs of his songs.