Gordon Thomas Ward

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Pottersville artist releases first CD featuring musical reflections on life in Somerset Hills

By Amy Baratta, The Bernardsville News

September 20, 2013

BEDMINSTER TWP. – Author and lecturer Gordon Thomas Ward is at it again.


Ward, who spent his formative years in Bernardsville and now lives in the Pottersville section of Bedminster Township, is fond of calling on his local roots for inspiration and has penned such works as “A Bit of Earth in the Somerset Hills: Growing Up in a Small New Jersey Town.”


Now, the 54-year-old has released a music CD, “Welcome to the Past,” that includes a handful of original songs about the area.


“(Music) is a huge part of who I am,” Ward said. “I grew up playing clarinet and guitar and my dad used to play the saxophone. I was in bands all through high school and college, writing my own material.”


Even after he married and had children, Ward kept playing and writing songs.


“I hoped someday to get (them) out there in some way shape or form,” he said. “I was writing complete songs – lyrics and music – I just never did anything with them.


“I’m not about getting into playing bars every night. I was writing some songs to go along with the stories and essays in my books and I started doing them at my presentations.” They were a hit, and audience members began asking him if he had a CD, Ward said.


“I would say ‘no, but that’s a good idea,’ ” he recalled.


A friend put him in touch with Eric Troyer, a respected recording engineer, performer and session musician, and last December Ward began making weekly trips to Hunterdon County so that Troyer could record and mix his material at Charlestown Road Studios in Hampton. Another music industry heavy-hitter, recording engineer and producer Paul Wickliffe of Skyline Productions in Warren, mastered the recordings.


“Welcome to the Past” is an aptly named collection of 13 tracks that features “a variety of moods and topics ranging from an instrumental to ballads, story-songs and anthems performed in a solid, folk-rock style,” according to Ward’s website, www.gtwservices.com.


A few of the songs were written years ago by Ward and have since been reworked. Other, more recent “story-songs,” as Ward calls them, bring alive the history of the Somerset Hills area.


“The Tale of Phyllis Parker,” for example, is based on a chapter of Ward’s 2008 book, “Ghosts of Central Jersey: Historic Haunts of the Somerset Hills.”


“If you live in Bernardsville, you’re going to know it,” he said. “It tells the story of the haunting of the building (that formerly housed the Vealtown Tavern and the Bernardsville Library).”


The story, set during the American Revolution, describes the romance between a local woman and a man suspected of spying for the British who is ultimately captured and hanged. “It’s a blend of myth and history,” Ward said. “You have to decide where that line is.” “Hardscrabble Life” examines the history of the Hardscrabble Road area in Bernardsville and the different groups of people, from Lenape tribe members and Revolutionary War soldiers to mill and field workers and those who labored on the large estates in the early 20th century, who lived there through the centuries.


‘Layers Of History’


“I’m a real big fan of looking at the layers of history that have occurred in the same place,” Ward said. “All of these groups of people inhabiting that area all had (hardship) in common.


“It’s a very local song but it also applies to anywhere,” he added. “You can think about who’s been here and what’s going to be the imprint I leave behind on this (area).” A third song with local roots, “Rockabye,” was inspired by the Rockaway Valley Railroad, also known as the Rockabye Baby Railroad, that ran through the Pottersville and Gladstone areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Told from the perspective of a ghostly railroad engineer, Ward said “the song talks about the life of a railroad man making the same runs day in and day out. The inspiration is my house in Pottersville. I can look out my front window and we’re 40 feet from (the old) tracks.


“I gave a talk once in town and a guy came up to me and said, ‘You know there’s a tale told here that on certain nights you can still hear the Rockabye Railroad.’ ”


As Ward noted in his website’s song notes, “I didn’t need much more than that to get me going.”


Even the CD’s cover art – a photo of an iron gate at the Cross estate in Bernardsville - is a nod to Ward’s Somerset Hills upbringing.


“It happens to (reportedly) be made by the father of (Jack Oakley), someone who I went to school with in Bernardsville,’’ said Ward, who attended Bedwell Elementary and Bernardsville Middle schools before graduating from Bernards High School in 1977. “The father (Frankland “Frank” Oakley) was (among) the last caretaker (staff members) for Mrs. Cross.”


Ward, who has been playing guitar since he was 12, actually plays all of the music – five different guitars and an eight-string walkabout dulcimer - and sings all of the vocals on the CD, “except for the appearance of a guest artist here and there,” he said.


Those who lent either their vocal or musical ability to the project include Bernardsville resident Maggie Fischer, a junior at Bernards High; Jim Kurzenberger of Bedminster; Dave Shapiro of Morristown; David Rimelis of West Orange; Tom Rosenthal of Branchburg; and Keith Goellner and Troyer, both of Hampton.


“I’m really happy with the way the CD turned out,” said Ward, noting that it took seven months to finish. “I’m getting really good feedback from people who have been around the block once or twice.”


Ward will perform selections from the CD from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, located at 11 Hardscrabble Road in Bernardsville. Afterward, he will sign books and CDs, which will be available for sale.


“Welcome to the Past” also can be purchased in Bernardsville at The Bookworm, 99 Claremont Road, and the Rebecca Collection, 2 Mine Brook Road.


Online, songs can be purchased at www.gtwservices.com or through such distributors as iTunes, Rhapsody and Amazon.com.