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Volume xviii, Issue 14 ~ Apri 8 to April 14, 2010

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Farewell Tom Wisner

June 29, 1930–April 2, 2010

photo by J. Alex Knoll

Tom Wisner, second from right, as Bay Weekly first knew him, wading with Bernie Fowler and friends into the Patuxent River, on the second Sunday of June, 1993.

Tom Wisner let go of his life here this afternoon.

That’s how Tom’s friend and colleague Sara Ebenreck Leeland described the Bard of the Chesapeake’s death on Good Friday, April 2, 2010.

At some level, Tom’s Good Friday timing probably wasn’t accidental. Tom was a musician, and timing is buried so deep in a good musician’s bag of tricks that its artistry seems artless. Maybe artless it is, so far is it from what we know as consciousness.

Expanding consciousness beyond what we think we know was Tom’s great gift. He taught us to open up all our senses, especially some we don’t even have ready names for. His songs’ words and lyrics seduced us into the altered states that, for him, were ordinary reality.

We’re told primitive people recognize the spirits in all the world’s creatures, from the lightning to the firefly. Recognize in an everyday way, as you and I would say good day if we met on one of these good April days like the Good Friday Tom died.

I don’t know many Inuit or Aborigines. Most of the people I know have fallen so far under the spell of civilization that we no longer follow nature’s ways.

Not Tom Wisner.

As well as he knew everyday people, he knew the spirits. Especially the spirits who are, in the words of his haunting song, “Chesapeake Born.”

He listened to those spirits, captured them in his songs and introduced them to their denser Chesapeake neighbors. Children were his favorite pupils, perhaps because they hadn’t yet tuned their senses to the frequency of the spirits that animate ink and electronic images.

Not that Tom hadn’t mastered both those spirit languages. He was an artist, often working in pen and ink or pencil. And he kept right up with electronic advances, bending the technology to his music.

Still, his familiarity with the spirit world may have encumbered him in that neighboring world that measures success by prosperity. Tom Wisner never achieved material wealth — not even to a middling degree.

But Tom won friends, for he joined in communion with everybody who ever heard him sing, from kids to musicians to everyday folk like you and me. He earned recognition, including the World Folk Music Association’s 2002 John Denver Award and Maryland governor — and musician — Martin O’Malley’s regard in life and death.

“His life’s work and his life’s hope was to bring about a new era in our relationship to the land and the waters of the Bay,” said O’Malley on hearing of Tom’s death. “He challenged all of us to participate in the great work of restoring the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland will miss his heart, his voice, his poetry, his love and his passion for the beauty of creation.”

Tom has vanished from life here, though his voice will long remind us that he lived — and how he lived.

Look up Tom Wisner in Bay Weekly’s Google index, on our home page at, to reread our many stories about the Bard of the Chesapeake.

from the Editor