Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Passing of Mark Spoelstra

Originally posted April 29, 2007 - Sunday

Although he died over two months ago, I only found out yesterday. This is the letter that I wrote to his family. I include it as an homage to a great folksinger.

To Mark Spoelstra's family—

It was with greatest sorrow that I just read on his website about Mark's passing (http://www.markspoelstra.net). I was checking to see if he had gotten around to setting up a MySpace site in the hopes of "befriending him" MySpace style; instead, I found your notice of his untimely demise.

He was one of the true greats, though perhaps the most unsung, of the 60's folk boom. I had the opportunity to see him in the 60's at the Ash Grove. Then, in the late 60's/early 70's he played a gig at the Rosewood forest in Santa Rosa. The club was owned by Bob Ward of "Bob Ward and the Cigar Band," and my brother, Tucker McMullen, was the Cigar Band (lead guitar, harmonica and harmony vocal). My then-wife and I drove over from Chico to see Mark, who had been one of our idols since '63-'64. I had been performing "White Wing Dove," "My Love is Like a Dewdrop," and "Stranger Blues" for years, and my wife and I had a duet version of Mark's take on "Mobile Line." He was very gracious at the concert. We spent an hour or so with him backstage, including his encouraging us to play a couple of original songs to which he listened and gave honest feedback. He struck me as a genuinely sincere and humble person.

His stand as a conscientious objector was also a true inspiration to me, and my own handing in of my draft card and refusing induction into the military was in significant measure owing to his example.

By 1971, we had moved back down to LA, and I had begun to play the local clubs: The Golden Bear, The Troubadour, McCabe's, The Ice House, etc. Suddenly, when disco hit, nearly all the LA folk clubs either turned disco or rock or closed down, so, not being particularly ambitious, and having quit teaching to take a turn at music, I gave up the quest and returned to teaching. Mark, like his contemporary, Patrick Sky, seemed also to have hung it up; that is, there was no sign of him on the music scene for a great long while. Dylan remained a reclusive superstar, Phil Ochs killed himself, Buffy St. Marie went on Sesame Street, and Tom Paxton was about the only old folkie that kept plugging away.

Then, a few years ago, since I continued to run google searches fairly regularly to see if anything was going on with Mark, I found a site that listed a couple of "gospel" type cassettes, but they were not actually available, just mentioned. A couple of years later, I found "Out of My Hands." Here he was after twenty years, the same gentle flowing voice and the same bluesy, drop thumb guitar: A style, by the way, that had a huge influence on my own playing. It was a great pleasure to find him back on the scene.

Then, last year, a friend phoned to say that Mark Spoelstra was playing in Southern California in Claremont. I jumped at the chance to see him again. He was great that night; still totally unassuming and laid back in his delivery, yet masterful. It was clear that he was really up and enjoying himself. He even read some poetry. As a creative writing teacher for the last twenty-five years, I enjoyed seeing one of my idols hit on the idea of combining songwriting and poetry (which I also do with my creative writing and honors English students). After the concert we spoke for twenty or thirty minutes. He seemed very happy to be back performing music, and he seemed to be excited about plans for pursuing his muse. He actually gave me his card and asked me to get in touch. I, of course, never did. Now my belated praise and admiration comes in the form of a eulogy of sorts. I am pleased that I was able to tell him, both in 1970 and 2006 how much his music meant to me. I am pleased to now tell you the same. You have a great deal of which to be proud.

Mark Spoelstra's professional greatness and his personal goodness will soon convert grief to joy in remembrance of the meaningful but fleeting encounters that I had with him, I trust the same is true a hundred-fold for his family and friends who knew him well.

Deepest regards,
Tim McMullen


  1. Very touching and thoughtful, Tim. I came late to Mark's music, but I immediately embraced him as being a lesser known light in the galaxy of my own guitar influences that included Van Ronk, Bromberg, Von Schmidt, Tom Rush and others who expanded the blues-folk finger picking style. I wish I'd seen him at the Main Point back in the 60s or during his brief re-emergence in this decade. It's good to know that his family can read your words and be reminded of his popularity among guitar enthusiasts the world over, so thank you for this beautiful eulogy.

  2. Thanks, Craig. It's obviously an old post (two years old), but it was heartfelt. I found out the very next day that a friend, Howard Larman, had also passed on. That eulogy will be up next.

  3. You are one of my favorite people Tim. I am glad you have this blog and I will visit here regularly. I took the liberty of adding this blog to my list of blogs. Possibly others will come here as a result. Your friend and brother, Bobby

  4. Thanks, Bobby. I have appreciate it, and I have reciprocated.

  5. Mary asked me to post this note for her:

    Hi, Tim. You are such a thoughtful man. To reach out to the family of someone you knew - to let them know that their loved one was special to you - is such a kind gesture. I've experienced that sweetness from you firsthand. I wish you only the best, forever and ever.
    Mary Muehleisen