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Spotlight On … Tom O’Donnell ’69

Folk singer Tom O’Donnell ’69 recently released his seventh album, Rothbury in the Fall, and celebrated his 50th Reunion with performances at Alumni Weekend.

1. What do you love most about what you do?

The sheer joy of singing and playing the music I love for others. From the time I fell in love with folk music and the Kingston Trio in 1958, my dream was to be a performing folksinger. But by the time I reached Swarthmore in 1965, rock music was ascendant, and though I performed semiprofessionally around Philly and New Jersey/Pennsylvania/Maryland, it was clear there was no future professionally. So I turned my musical interests to singing with various choirs and choruses for 35 years, until 2006 when I rediscovered my passion for this music. I began recording CDs and performing in Switzerland (where I was working), and, when I retired from my career as an international attorney in 2012, I began to work full time as a folksinger.  I am passionate about this music, and find it incredibly joyfull and fulfilling to be doing—finally—what I always wanted to do.

2. How has Swarthmore shaped your career—and your life?

Swarthmore's influence on my musical career? As a member of the Swarthmore Chorus and Singers, I learned a tremendous amount about how to sing, how to read music, and the joy of singing complex harmonies with others.  Folk music, alas, was in severe decline, and the Folk Festival was replaced by the Rock Festival in 1967, and there really wasn't much going on around campus re: folk music. I did meet my lifelong friend, Alan Hollister '69, my first week at Swarthmore, and we discovered we both loved folk music and had much the same repertoire. Although Alan and I did not perform together at Swarthmore, we have been close friends over the years and since 2007 we meet at least once a year and perform together. We are, in fact, performing together at the reunion.

3. What advice would you give current Swarthmoreans hoping to follow in your path?

Never forget the passions you developed when you were young, but could not pursue. You will find that they can give you great joy and fulfillment when you retire from the day job. 

4. Anything else you'd like to say?

I've been pursuing a folk music career as a serious professional endeavor since my retirement from the day job in 2012. Much to my surprise, I have become rather successful in a small way, and I now perform all over the North of England, where I live most of the year, with occasional gigs in Italy, Ireland, France, and the rest of the United Kingdom. When I'm in the U.S., I perform mostly in the West Virginia/Washington, D.C., area, because that's where our U.S. home is.
Music has helped me become firmly established and weldomed in Rothbury, my new home in England,  My album's title song, "Rothbury in the Fall," is my tribute to the marvelous village and its people.