The wind is blowing along the ocean shore. It’s the summer of 1966, a time of change in America. A teenage boy balances on the stonewall walking down Third Beach, holding tightly to his transistor radio taking in the music that defined his life. While the transistor radio has gone out of style, Thomas Perrotti again calls Newport his home and works locally as a musical director.
Sitting at a small table by the window, Perrotti lunched in the local store the “A Market,” enjoying his first meal of the day with some hot chowder. While the “A Market” is really an organic grocery store, the few tables by the cash registers offer a front row seat to people watch in the town center. A small section in the back offers hot food and pre-made meals that can make an enjoyable lunch. Looking a little different from his image as a teenager, Perrotti has long white hair and tinted Lennon glasses that gradually adjust to the light. Feeling most comfortable when talking about music, we began discussing the intricate nature of Folk music, the genre that served as both an entertaining pastime and educator in Mr. Perrotti’s life.
Perrotti, a long time Newporter, is the musical director for Common Fence Music, a non-profit organization interested in presenting music to the community through different venues. The Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals serve as the inspiration for the concerts and musical workshops the organization offers.
Perrotti describes Folk music as “people music,” representing whatever culture it comes from. It serves as a connection to the past for people who truly listen to it. Common Fence Music aims at getting people to listen and appreciate the music that is played. Additionally, the organization doesn’t sell alcohol at their events. The performances are not meant to be a “bar scene” where people come to dance and chat. Guests will frequently bring a meal and wine, but when the music starts the room gets quite, and the messages of the music are transferred to their audience.
Perrotti views his position as a part time job but is very active in finding national and international bands, as well as keeping up with the website, emails, and execution of performances. Dr. Laura O’Toole, a member of the board of directors for Common Fence Music, calls him the “one man band,” as he frequently juggles multiple tasks at once. Common Fence Music finds unique but powerful folk, roots and world performers. Some upcoming concerts include Malcolm Holcombe, Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line, and the Jammin’ Divas.
Perrotti incorporates his passion for music into his work and tries to keep the focus on human expression rather than profit. “There’s a gap between the joy of music and the reality of the music business,” says Perrotti. Most musicians want to play their music for the emotions it provokes and its connection to other people. However, Perrotti concedes a musician can’t be too “pure” that they’re not promoting their work. If artists don’t spend time packaging themselves, their music won’t be widely heard. Perrotti hopes to find these talented underdogs and bring their music to Newport, maybe even finding the next Bob Dylan.
To promote the Common Fence organization, Perrotti was involved with their first major fundraiser, a dinner dance with a silent auction. Dr. O’Toole described the event as very successful and was most proud, not only of Perrotti’s work, but of his outfit. “Tom’s characteristic ‘uniform’ is a t-shirt, some sort of shirt-jacket, and of course his jeans,” said Dr. O’Toole jokingly. “So I was really surprised when he showed up in a suit! And I think he was even more surprised when I made him dance with me.”
As a musician himself, Perrotti has experience playing the piano, accordion, guitar, and mandolin. He enjoys playing Irish music, usually in the minor keys, resulting in sadder songs. Perrotti enjoys the human emotion that results from these gloomy melodies.
Somewhat struggling to find the proper words, Perrotti describes the experience as a “neurological exercise” that activates an unconscious part of the intellect. A certain feeling is illuminated when these minor keys are played; the music “speaks differently” to the instrumentalist. Perrotti is also liberated by the prospect of expressing an idea. He views society as always needing to be bright and cheery. But when a song has the ability to articulate a reality, to Perrotti, “the truth is refreshing.”
Folk music, he says, is the ultimate venue for expressing ideals. Folk music has been a part of Perrotti’s life since he was a child. His father was part of the Kiwanis club and sold hamburgers and beer at the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. These performances cultivated a range of folk and blues music that would exceed the boundaries of society and attract an audience interested in both innovation and tradition. Having free access to the event, Perrotti would often tag along and soon realized he wanted to go every year. The music he was exposed to became his key educator for the “intellectual and philosophical change of direction going on.” Perrotti found himself “lost in the middle of something,” and thus turned to music to help shape the open and free attitude he still holds today.
The festival didn’t control crowds back then. Swarms of people would cover the beach, creating a “quilt” of people dancing, sleeping, falling in love and absorbing the music. “The festival wasn’t free, but the spirit around it was free,” Perrotti remembers.
Reminiscing, Perrotti described a particular year when a riot broke out. Thousands of people tried to reach the sold-out festival, ending in a quarrel with the police. Unfortunately, Perrotti was busy taking a typing lesson at a secretary school, per his mother’s request. Stuck in class, listening to the news reports on the radio, Perrotti wondered, “What the hell am I doing here?”
After graduating high school in 1967, Perrotti describes the time as “lightning bolts going off in terms of awareness.” The Civil Rights Movement was in affect and the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak. Perrotti’s participation in the festival and civil rights advocacy was a significant part of his life, but would sometimes lead to actions he wishes he hadn’t taken. As a teenager, Perrotti described himself as arrogant, rude, young, and protesting everything. While looking back at some of his rebellious actions over the years, he described his “flaming youth” as one of his regrets.
Expressing his thoughts through a different outlet, Perrotti created his own band in the 70s. The “Viking Town Trio” as they called themselves, had multiple performances including a television appearance on a variety show. Newport’s historical heritage was expressed through the clever band name, uprooting the mystery of the Old Stone Mill, a round stone tower located in Touro Park. Speculation as to who the original architects were is still being questioned, but the Vikings are one of the rumored architects of the structure.
Despite moving to Connecticut to attend Fairfield University, Perrotti continued practicing his music as a solo artist. Perrotti graduated with a major in English and minors in music and history. Marrying young, Perrotti decided to move back to Newport with his family where he taught at a high school for 20 years.
Dr. Debra Curtis of Salve Regina University was a student of his for her 9th grade creative writing class. She described Perrotti as a very inspiring, creative, and alternative teacher. His unique classroom atmosphere was beneficial for troubled children in particular. “He created a space where students could imagine the unimaginable,” said Dr. Curtis. As a teacher, Perrotti was able to provide kids with the understanding that there is a place for them in society even if they were non-conventional.
Sneaking in a spoonful of soup before starting a new topic, Perrotti was interrupted by a friend passing through the market.
“Hey Tom, where’s Eddie?”
“He was here, he left about a half hour ago.”
Their exchange continued, concluding with a bellowing laugh and a friendly wave goodbye.
Perrotti spent most of his life in Newport, and frequently encounters his friends in town, particularly at “A Market.” Not much of a cook himself, Perrotti enjoys stopping by this eatery for the healthy food and pleasant company. “I keep a day bed behind the painting,” he jokes, pointing to a mural behind the table. Throughout lunch, two other friends stopped by the table to give a quick hello, confirming the frequency of his lunch spot.
Perrotti likes to remain open to new ideas and welcomes the change that occurs around him. Having lived through drastically evolving decades, Perrotti recognizes the different values, economy, and sense of security in America. Fear and doubt have become a prominent feeling in today’s society. “I don’t feel that I have a blueprint to help you understand the world that you’re emerging in,” comments Perrotti, referring to the 21st century generation. While he can’t predict how life will turn out, he still learns a lot from his three children.
From his two marriages, Perrotti has 43, 40, and 27-year-old children. He finds that in this generation, it is easier to reach his kids through text, a change he is just getting used to. In addition to the cultural information he receives from his kids, Perrotti also feels that he needs to look through several different sources of media to understand what is going on in the world. The news that used to surround his adolescence is now becoming a struggle to find.
Today, Perrotti takes pleasure in spending time with what he calls his “extended dysfunctional family” but also hopes to open up his life to travel. Having had the best vacation of his life in Ireland, traveling to other parts of Europe is on Perrotti’s bucket list. Italy is a particular destination that Perrotti would like to go, to potentially teach music or English to children.
Whether he is listening to the radio in the car, organizing concerts for Common Fence Music, or simply playing guitar at home, music consumes Tom Perrotti’s life. When looking into the future, Perrotti imagines himself sitting in the corner of a restaurant, “people eating, drinking, and tapping their toe” to the Irish music he plays softly in the background.