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There is no one-word description for what Don White does. He has survived and thrived for twenty years, bringing his audiences to laughter and tears in his live performances, studio recordings, and on the printed page. He is a storyteller-comedian-author-troubadour-folk singer-songwriter. He is a walking challenge to the phrase “file under.” Best to just sort him under “Don White.”
“It’s a weird, unique blend, I think,” he says. “I’m not sure how you sell this. It would be easier if, say, I just played folk music. You could say that. But I kind of have invented what it is I do. There’s no easy way to say it.”
White’s arc as a writer and performer has taken him from his industrial hometown of Lynn, Ma across the country as hitchhiker, through Boston’s comedy clubs and coffeehouses, and onto the stage with greats like Christine Lavin, Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal, Ritchie Havens, Patty Larkin, Bill Morrissey, Tom Rush, and Louden Wainright III. At every point, White has been the ultimate observer, infusing his work with his experiences as a husband, a father, a seeker, and a joker.
White guesses he wrote his first songs sometime when he was eight years old, tuned he could hum or sing in his head. Things started to click when his parents bought him his first guitar at age 15, when White was absorbing music from John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and Bob Dylan. He left his working class hometown after high school graduation and spent three years hitchhiking across the country, building a foundation for his personality and writing.
By the early 80s, White had a wife and two kids, and started thinking he might be able to play music for a living. He took his growing repertoire of songs to some of Boston’s most prestigious folk open mics with the likes of Ellis Paul, Vance Gilbert, Martin Sexton, and Dar Williams. Then came the slots opening for big-name performers like Bill Morrissey, Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler. His first big show as an opener was for Taj Mahal, a show that left quite an impression on White. “I listened to him when I was in junior high school. I was out of my mind. I couldn’t even sleep for days.”
White’s career took a new direction when he started hosting a music open mic at one of the country’s hottest comedy clubs, Catch A Rising Star in Harvard Square. There he developed the toolkit of both songwriter and club comedian – he became “comedian funny,” not “folk funny,” he says. That gave him an act unique in the folk world. “Once I came out of Catch A Rising Star, it was a lot harder to ignore me,” he says. “The room would be roaring. I had a career because I was undeniable at that point. I was bringing comedian sensibilities to a show, and then I had a couple of songs like ‘I Know What Love Is’ so now they’re laughing their head off, and now they’re crying, and that is my niche.”
White applied those skills to his first studio recording, Two Vagabonds in Disguise, in 1992. The album featured one of his most touching songs, “I Know What Love Is,” which captures beauty of love and loss over the course of its subject’s entire lifetime. The album featured two other Don White staples – “Project Girl” and “The Shameful Ballad of Lijah.” Both songs are lighthearted, drawn from real life experience.
Many songwriters use their real lives for inspiration, but few do it like White. He draws inspiration from his family, whether it’s a touching song about the circle of life or an uproarious story about dealing with his daughter. “I’m always amazed by people who write songs about the Civil War in a convincing way and were never there. I assume they were never there. Write about what you know. I’ve been raising kids and being in a relationship since I was a kid myself. I mean, I could try to write about other things, and I do, occasionally, but that’s what I know best.”
In 1995, he played with Christine Lavin for the first time, which gave him yet another career boost. That was also the year White released Live at the Somerville Theatre, a collection that produced his ode to his home town, “I’m From Lynn, What Can I Say?” White followed that up in 1996 with Rascal, adding “Heartbeat of Heaven,” “Great Day,” and the title track to an already strong catalogue. White released Brown Eyes Shine in 1999, a collection that has come to be known as “the teenager album” for all of its material about dealing with adolescents. “Stupid” shows grandparents laughing at their kids as they have kids of their own. His storytelling is in fine form on “Adolescent Rant,” and his epic story of redemption, “Angel In Pieces,” closes out the album.
In 2001, White released Little Niche. In 2002, White headed to the Lafayette Grand Ballroom in Pontiac, Michigan, a region that has become White’s second home, to record his Live in Michigan album. In 2008, White released a compilation, The Best of Don White 1992-2008, and followed that up with a live album with his old friend and touring partner, Christine Lavin, called Live at the Ark: The Father’s Day Concert. He would finally get back to the studio after a seven-year absence to release Winning Streak in 2011. The album contains eight new original songs, a couple of songs by White’s talented friends, and two live comedy pieces.
White has stayed involved in his community, often helping young musicians navigate the local scene, and creating outlets for creative expression like the Speak Up! Spoken Word Open Mic and Don White’s Sunday Night Open Mic at the Walnut Street Café in Lynn. He continues to grow and evolve as a writer. In 2006, he released his autobiography, Memoirs of a C Student. What’s the next stage? Only White knows for sure. “As a writer, I’m interested in all kinds of things now. I have all these ideas now where I want to let the story tell the story, instead of coming out and saying, ‘This is how I feel.’ I want to write that way now.”