Peter Mulvey Live in Harrisburg, PA November 23, 2019. An Interview.

Interview with Peter Mulvey: Gigging is all I’ve Really Wanted to Do

By Curtis Rockwell

Singer, songwriter, and musical troubadour Peter Mulvey plays and performs music with a deep and abiding respect for his craft, for his audience, and for the enormity of time.  I had the delightfully good fortune of discussing the craft with Peter, who will be performing for the Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert series this Saturday, November 23rd, at 7:30 pm Fort Hunter Centennial Barn, 5300 N. Front Street, Harrisburg, PA.

Concert tickets are $20 General Admission, $16 for SFMS members, and $10 for students ages 3-22 and can be purchased here or at the door. For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website at

Early Years and the Boston Scene

“I suppose my first gig in front of people was when I was 16 years old.  It would have been New Years Eve, 1986.  I had a little 12 string guitar and already I’d been playing for eight or nine years at that point.  That was my first proper gig, and I think that gigging is what I’ve always wanted to do.  I spend quite a bit of my time writing, and that’s certainly part of my art form, but I’m only writing so I can put some material together and play a gig, and that’s been my overarching mission in life since I was a little kid.” 

Early influences of Mulvey’s included the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel, which preceded a phase of exploring progressive rock before settling on the troubadour singer and story teller.  “By the time I was in college, I had seen Leo Kottke play music, and I’d seen Michael Hedges play music, and I was fairly certain that I wanted to be a guitar weenie.”

A move to the Boston area in 1992 introduced Mulvey to several musicians who would strongly influence the development of his skills. “I fell in with a fairly wide group of players there and I got turned on to all kinds of things…  Ry Cooder, and Los Lobos and Soul Coughing, and at the same time I met Patty Larkin, and Cliff Eberhart, and John Gorka, and of course they were all kindly people and very good to me and good with an audience. 

Musical Friendship with Chris Smither

But the most influential thing was that I met my mentor, Chris Smither, and we hit it off and we became friends. He brought me on the road and his manager took over and began managing my career and, truthfully, over the next four years, everything that I still have, I built out of the raw material that he gave me which was to wake up at the hotel and get in the car with Chris and drive to the next city, find the venue, sound check, show up, go find food, come back, hope that the audience shows up, and then pay attention to them.  And then take it seriously that human beings have taken time out of their day to find you and to see you.  And that’s been my life since then.”

While in Boston, Mulvey also spent time busking on the subways underneath the city where he describes the experience as “like the movie Groundhog Day except it’s the same nine minutes repeating over and over and over.  There’s silence and an empty platform, a train has just left, and now strangers come down an escalator and you sing them a couple of songs.  Much of it is chance and luck.  If the first person is in a bad mood and doesn’t want to hear a songwriter, then everyone takes their visual cues from them walking past you.  All you have is the tool of singing a song over and over and trying to truly inhabit that song and make it come alive.  Every young painter goes to whatever museum and learns to put their brushes in the places Cézanne put his brush… It’s just muscle memory and repetition.”

TED Talk

As if to continue his subterranean experiences, Mulvey now performs for high school students who are participating in the annual National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia.  “They put them (the students) onto yellow school buses and they take them to this underground cavern.  They take them to this field and then they walk through this long passageway under the roots of a tree into this underground cavern and they are not told anything other than to dress warm, and then the lights go on and I play them a concert there in a cave.  And it’s brilliant.”  

The experience helped Mulvey land a TED Talk in which he performed two songs and a philosophical, musical monologue he referred to as “Vlad” based on an encounter with a scientist he met at the West Virginia camp.  It’s deeply profound, and demonstrates the kind of understanding of time and space one often encounters when talking with a geologist or astrophysicist.  Clearly, Mulvey has a deep perspective regarding time, art, music, and his place in the creative cosmos.  

A Troubadour

When questioned about his future as a troubadour, and whether the life of a traveling folk musician will remain relevant in the days of smart phones and information overload, he reflectively said that, “I’m at peace… I think things are going to be fine.  I’ve done a few shows opening for Colin Hay who was with that band Men At Work, and you know now he plays the larger end of the kind of venues that I played and he packs them.  The guy doesn’t need any of it – he had major hits.”  “He’s on the road because the thing he does is a human need.  It’s bigger than any of the people in the room and it is ephemeral.  You cannot commodify it.”

“I live and die by the live performance.  Live theater has not been replaced by the radio.  It has not been replaced by the phonograph.  It has not been replaced by the cinema. It has not been replaced by the internet.  It has not been replaced by video games.  Boise, Idaho still has a good theater program – I have no doubt that there’s a decent play that’s staged in Boise, Idaho every year.  I’m not worried.  I’m just not worried.”

There is a wonderful intimacy to be experienced at the Fort Hunter barn where the audience is in close proximity to the artist, surrounded by ancient timbers that have stories of their own to tell, and run by an organization that delights in supporting the troubadours of our time. 

“I always appreciate a venue that has a sort of a crowd that is willing to trust the organization that brings people in.  So I take all of that seriously and I try to really make sure that we are there and going to have a good time.  I guess I’m going to shoot for magic, but that’s always the goal – that we’re going to get magic to walk through the room.”  

—-This interview was conducted by Curtis Rockwell, musician, and luthier extraordinaire! Find out about Curtis here:

Interview with Hubby Jenkins Formerly Of The Carolina Chocolate Drops: “The Narrative Of Our Country.”

Celebrated multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will bring his mix of country blues, ragtime, and traditional jazz to the Fort Hunter Barn in Harrisburg on Sunday, November 17th. The evening begins at 7:30 pm.  The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.  More information can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. formation can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. Tickets are $20 General Admission, $18 for SFMS Members, and $10 for students (ages 3-22).  Tickets will be available at the door or online.

Earlier this week, Hubby chatted with SFMS staff writer Peter Winter via email about his roots as a street musician, the relevance of old-time music today, and the African American origins of American roots music.


Growing up in Brooklyn what was your gateway into traditional old-time American music?

I grew up playing saxophone, switching to cello and bass in high school before finally finding the guitar. I got into blues music first from listening to Hendrix and Dylan, which led to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, etc. The first blues song I heard that really blew me away was “Devil Got My Woman,” by Skip James. It was the most powerful music I heard or felt coming from just one person with a guitar. I also had a group of close friends who were getting into prewar American music and we got our inspiration from the musicians of the New York folk scene. We spent a lot of time in the west village like they did; busking in Washington Sq. Park and hanging around MacDougal Street.

What were the lessons you learned as a musician from starting out busking?

I guess I learned a lot about performing. Shyness and quietness are not effective tools when busking. I used to have terrible stage fright and I had to get over it quick if I wanted to make any money. I also looked at busking as kind of getting paid to practice so I think my early chops came from playing the 10 songs I knew over and over again.

Why is this music still relevant today?

This music is still relevant today because within it is the narrative of our country. So many overlooked stories fill these songs. Now a days there is a conflict over what the  character of our country is and use to be, but it’s all there in old time music. That being said, it’s also just real good music for any mood and occasion.

If you were going to play someone one blues song to introduce them to the genre, what would it be?

It’s hard to pick just one, but I think I would have to choose Skip James “Devil Got My Woman” or “Hard Time Killing Floor.” His haunting style of singing and minor tempered playing are so beautiful. The first time I heard him, it stopped me in my tracks.

Do you feel like the African American roots of so much of what is considered traditional American music is being recognized more today?

Absolutely. When I first joined Carolina Chocolate Drops almost 10 years ago, it seemed that most people didn’t know the African and Black roots of the banjo, but nowadays that seems like more of a common fact. I also think that a lot of people just don’t think about it. I mean to say that they do not wonder where the music they enjoy comes from and not in a malicious way. I order a burger I don’t know where it was raised, what it ate, etc. I do see younger black artist finding that they do have a place and a history in old time music whether it be blues, fiddle banjo, hot jazz, folk,  and that is a very important recognition.

What do you want your audience to take walk away with from a Hubby Jenkins show?

I want my audience to walk away having learned at least one thing, that spurs them to learn more and to listen to old time music with a different filter. They should also walk away thinking, “That guy sure knows how to play!”


Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, DJs, runs half of the record label His & Hers Records and serves on the board of the SFMS. He is on instagram