Which means a few things are going to have to change for Tom Freeman, who sings and plays washboard in the Muskrats. When he and Jay Rosen moved to the Bay Area from Omaha, Neb., in 1984, they quickly became part of both the local folk scene and, weirdly, the punk scene as well. Maybe that was because of their willingness to do covers of Hüsker Dü and Replacements songs along with Burl Ives and Pete Seeger numbers, or maybe it was the fact that Freeman would set his washboard on fire at the end of every set. That particular act of pyrotechnics was popular enough to inspire Freeman to call his favorite washboard purveyor -- the Columbus Washboard Co. -- and ask if they were interested in sponsoring him. Freeman was told, rather curtly, that the only person who'd ever made such a request before was Mickey Rooney, and that because they weren't willing to sponsor him, they sure as hell weren't willing to sponsor somebody in a small-time folk band.
Freeman never did find out why Mickey Rooney was looking for a washboard sponsor.
No matter. After spending the mid-to-late '80s playing regularly around the Bay Area, the Muskrats all but disappeared. When they'd moved here from Omaha, singer/guitarist Rosen says, "We told our friends that we were going to San Francisco to start a new folk boom, and it was a joke. Well, I wouldn't say it was a joke, but it was just something amusing to say. And as soon as we got out here, it was as if we were not kidding." Rosen explains this in a Valencia Street taqueria that's across the street from Subterranean Records, the local punk imprint that, in the Bay Area punk heyday of the early and mid-'80s, was helping to document the scene. The Muskrats were welcomed and included as well, releasing two albums on Subterranean: 1985's Rock Is Dead and the following year's Soul Francisco.
Rosen and Freeman grew up engrossed in the music of the '60s Greenwich Village folk revival: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, sure, but also the lesser-known, still crucial folkies. The talking blues and political songs of Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs are there in their songs, along with a bit of the anti-folk humor of Tom Lehrer, and particularly the late Bob Gibson and Hamilton (aka Bob) Camp. Most obviously, the Muskrats draw from the rich harmonies of the Kingston Trio, who Rosen first heard as a kid. "I know every line, even the dialogue, by heart," he says. "That's all the Spanish I know." The duo also borrowed the Kingston Trio's matching striped shirts: "The shirts came before the harmonies," jokes Rosen. "All we had to do was buy the shirts. The harmonies we had to work on." That the Muskrats' approach tapped into the punk rock sensibility says a lot about what they shared with members of the punk scene: an emphasis on simplicity, accessibility, political outrage, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of inclusion and support. The band worked benefits and the occasional hootenanny.
But by 1991, Rosen and Freeman had decided to "take a little breather," as Freeman puts it. "We'd pretty much done our thing," he says. "I was ready to call it a day." Except that people kept approaching him to let him know that they couldn't find their old Subterranean releases, and could he dub a tape of the songs? "We were going to put the stuff out on [compact] disc, put out a greatest hits album. And then we decided, 'Why don't we just do new stuff?'"
So last year, the Muskrats officially re-formed, expanding to a quartet that included Ed Ivey on bass and Tim Vaughan on drums. The group's first album in over a decade, Hootie's Hootenanny, was recorded mainly in Austin, Texas, where they met up with some old friends. Within the course of their weeklong recording stint, they ran into the Mojo Nixon-styled folk-joker Charlie Burton and drummer Rey Washam, who's played as an acerbic punker in Scratch Acid, Big Boys, and Ministry. Both contributed to the album's lead track, "Hootie and the Blowfish Were a Helluva Band," a joking folk round that makes the Hootie tale sound as epic as "Wreck of the Old '97." ("They had a racial mix reflecting our great land ... sometimes new wave, sometimes rock/ Hootie and the Blowfish were the talk of the block.") The song gets a couple of facts wrong -- Hootie's breakthrough album was Cracked Rear View, not Cracked Rear Window -- which betrays the fact that Freeman and Rosen aren't familiar with Hootie's music (lucky them). "We haven't heard too much of those guys," says Rosen, "but we've heard about them. We knew that they were popular."
And things that are popular -- things that are on the lips of the general public -- are precisely what you build folk songs around. Excepting the Hootie excursion, the bulk of Hootenanny is a love letter to the band's folk heroes. There are familiar names and songs, like Lead Belly's "Alabama Bound," Pete Seeger's "My Rainbow Race," and Burl Ives' "New York Girls," but they also revel in the good humor and revival spirit of Bob Gibson's "There's a Meetin' Here Tonight," and the late Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry performer Grandpa Jones, whose cautionary tale of doomed romance "The Bald Headed End of a Broom" gets an ebullient treatment.
Rosen and Freeman still don't write much, and they insist writing isn't the point. "We're not great songwriters," says Freeman. "There's a lot of great songs out there that many people haven't heard."
Or, as Rosen puts it: "We write a little bit, but it's folk music, you know? It's passed down. That's what it's about."
A few years ago, the band ran into Hamilton Camp backstage after a performance; he told the group that it was up to them to keep the folk tradition going. "Hamilton Camp told us to keep playing," says Rosen, "so we do whatever Hamilton Camp says."
"Since we've come back," he adds, "my ambition is to make really good music. To do our craft, to do it well. It's not so much to get noticed anymore. When I was younger, that was kind of important. And we did, and we did well, but now we just want to make good folk music."
The Muskrats perform Friday, Oct. 1, at 9:45 p.m. with the Court & Spark at the Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $5; call (510) 841-2082.