The other Arthur Godfrey

Friday, September 12, 2003

Before considering the music that draws comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt, the name must be dealt with.

He was supposed to have been named Joe. But when it was time to sign the birth certificate, his father, a really big fan of a certain ukelele-strumming TV host during the 1950s, decided to name him Arthur. Arthur Godfrey.

That start hasn't stopped the 47-year-old Boston native from creating a minor musical cult. Neither has a slight conversational stutter or the fact that he has made his living as a postal worker for the past 20 years.

"Hey, I'm a mailman from Boston," he says.

But in 2001, Godfrey's song "Simple Man" won the grand prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. He won $5,000, an EMI recording contract and the opportunity to perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same year his self-produced first CD, "East Side of Town," won critical raves from the folk/Americana reviewers.

Now he's friends with actor Sean Penn.

While shooting a movie in Memphis earlier this year, Penn happened to walk into a club where Godfrey was playing and walked out a fan who later in the year brought a bunch of buddies to Nashville to hear Godfrey sing. Penn has called Godfrey "a deeply moving storyteller with a vocal grace and an acute heart."

Godfrey and dobro/saxophone player Bruce Wandmayer will perform Saturday in the Underberg House Concert Series in Cape Girardeau.

For many years Godfrey, just as lots of other people do, made a sideline of playing covers of other people's music. Even though his natural voice is raspy, he tried to sound sweet like James Taylor. That's what people wanted to hear, he said in an interview from his home in Prunedale, Calif.

Finally friends who knew the pleasures of his original songs asked him what he was doing.

"I went out and played my songs, and people just dug it," he said.

Godfrey grew up in a three-decker house behind the projects on the hard edge of Boston. It's called Whiskey Point. That childhood informs many of the songs on "The East Side of Town."

"Air so thick cut it with a knife/Snitch in the back beg for his life/Junkie and Monkey man did their thing/Whore upstairs began to sing" he sings in the title song.

Even when the songs appear to be about other people, he's in there too, Godfrey says.

"It's All Part of the Story," another award-winning song, is about a girlfriend whose father used to rape her. Godfrey wrote it about her but says the same thing happened to him as a boy, only it was his baseball coach.

"Simple Man," a song about Godfrey's firefighter father, won the Lennon award. Also in 2001, his song "Danielle" finished second in the folk category in the Billboard International Songwriters Contest.

His songwriting skills and singing often draw comparisons with John Prine, the late Townes Van Zandt and Springsteen. There are echoes of J.J. Cale, author of "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," as well.

The roughness in Godfrey's voice imparts a natural gravity to whatever he is singing, just as it does for Waits and Springsteen. All of the above are heroes of his, but, he says, "I don't really know where my voice comes from."

Godfrey became a letter carrier because he needed a job after finishing a stint in the Navy and graduating from college with a political science degree. His girlfriend became pregnant. Soon they had a second child. "Life kind of happened to me," he said.

He eventually advanced to the position of postmaster. A divorce and marriage to a woman from California led to his move to Prunedale in 2000. Prunedale is on the central coast of California, not far from Monterey and Santa Cruz.

The response to his appearances on a Sunday night show on radio station KPIG in Santa Cruz led to the recording of his first CD, which included backup by harmonica virtuosos Norton Buffalo and ex-Doobie Brother keyboardist Dale Ockerman.

Godfrey has since recorded a CD of cover songs by writers he admires, including Springsteen and Woody Guthrie. He has just finished recording another album due to be released in January.

Like many independent musicians, Godfrey is a one-man company. He still doesn't make much money as a musician. He hopes to return home from this five-concert tour even.

But in two weeks, he will quit his postal job to give music the big try.

For a musician, being named Arthur Godfrey should be more blessing than curse, he says.

"Even though most people don't know him or remember him any more, ... it still rings a little bit of a bell."

335-6611, extension 182

Want to go?

What: Underberg House Concert featuring Arthur Godfrey with Bruce Wandmayer

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $8; for reservations and directions, phone 334-7692.

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