Lee Murdock is a man whose passions are rooted in the everyday world — its natural rhythms and its common people.
He sings its praises as a Chicago-area maritime folk singer, turning his gaze toward many muses, including the Great Lakes. His repertoire runs the gamut, which is why he refers to himself as a "folk festival in one person." And his love for the human spirit can also be seen in his service as ambassador for Chicago's Christmas Tree program.
“I am inspired by the human condition and the emotional response to things that happen," said Murdock, who lives in Kaneville, Ill.
Before he began producing "the music of the people" as a career, Murdock explored the depths of the natural world in school. He received a bachelor's degree in earth studies from Drake University and pursued an interest in continental glaciation for a time.
It seems fitting that when he embraced singing as a vocation, his artistic expression found a home in the Great Lakes, natural beauty that was formed by extraordinary glacial activity.
“There was a guiding hand in all of this," Murdock said. "When I am talking about this, I am vibrating about it because there is a natural resonance with these songs, and the artist needs to follow that."
Folk music caught his interest when he was a young boy in the 1950s, an era when The Kingston Trio and Burl Ives were popular. Murdock's specialty in maritime music can be traced back to his discovery of a collection of folk songs compiled by University of Michigan professor Ivan Walton, which is housed at the Bentley Historical Library.
Walton had interviewed elderly sailors who had worked on tall ships on the Great Lakes when they were young, and they had told him about the songs they had sung while working, their voyages and the characters they had met.
Walton’s work helped Murdock see the Great Lakes as a repository of great folk songs.
“There was this whole completely different world of folk songs I didn’t know existed as extensively as it did,” Murdock said, comparing Great Lakes folk songs to those of the Appalachian Mountains and the blues of Mississippi's Delta Region and Louisiana.
Murdock has found his true calling as a maritime folk singer, based on his remarkable success. He has released 18 albums of maritime folk music and three books over his career, and he presents 150 shows annually, mostly in the Midwest. His most recent album, Here We’ll Stand, recalls the War of 1812 on its 200th anniversary and offers British, Canadian, American and Native American perspectives on the war.
“I am very proud of that work,” he said.
In addition to performance, Murdock channels his devotion to music through teaching. He has taught others to play instrumental guitar for the last 30 years.
He learned the instrument on his own, an experience that opened his eyes.
"When you teach yourself, you don’t know what you’re not supposed to do, and it opens up horizons," Murdock said. "It’s a great journey.”
He is dedicated to activities that positively influence the human spirit, which is why he participates in Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship program.
The program provides Christmas trees to deserving families each year on a Saturday in December.
“You see the looks on the kids’ faces, and it makes it all worthwhile,” Murdock said.
Murdock lends his name to the program and appears at the event. In a desire to portray the hard work the volunteers do and the joy the recipients feel, he made a music video, “Christmas Tree Ship USCGC Mackinaw Comes to Chicago 2009,” set to his song, “When Big 'Mack' Comes to This Harbor.” It's available on YouTube.
To learn more about Murdock and his music, visit www.leemurdock.com.