Without Tom McHugh, there would be no Rock Hall FallFest, the annual street fair that celebrates its 24th anniversary on Sat., Oct. 9. Without McHugh, there would be no Mainstay in Rock Hall, the casual but celebrated music venue on Main Street. Without McHugh, there would be no thriving liaison between the local arts community and Kent County’s public schools. Without him, there would be no catalogue of his songs celebrating the history and culture of local waterways, from the Chester River to the Chesapeake Bay.
As FallFest approaches, however, being without Tom McHugh for the first time is a sad reality. McHugh passed away in May at the age of 83 due to complications from a stroke, and the chasm left behind is huge for those who knew him and those who knew of his work and enjoyed his contributions to the community.
“He was one of a kind,” said Tom Anthony, longtime bass accompanist to McHugh’s banjo and harmonica in a variety of musical groups. “I don’t know anyone quite like Tom. He was a teacher, and not just in the classroom.”
As long as there is a FallFest, and a Mainstay, and an emphasis on music education in local schools, and a wealth of his music to enjoy, and a long list of friends and co-workers to carry on the vision, Kent County will actually never be without Tom McHugh. His legacy will be renewed and celebrated on Oct. 9 as Main Street once again comes alive with FallFest after a year’s absence.
“He loved his town and his music and his art,” said Tom’s wife, Peg McHugh. “He had the ability to tell wonderful stories and get everyone excited. He believed in giving everyone an equal share and he gave so much to the town of Rock Hall.”
McHugh modeled FallFest, which began in 1998, after the Clifden Arts Festival in Galway Ireland, which he first visited as part of a Fulbright program designed to share educational and cultural traditions among nations.
“It was all about community and family and bringing people together using music and the arts,” Peg McHugh said. “He wanted to create a festival like that in his own town.”
McHugh was a lifelong educator as well as a musician. He grew up in modest circumstances in Philadelphia, working his way through Temple University and then a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. His first professorship was at Washington College in Chestertown in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and he fell in love with the area.
He was hired by Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in 1974 as a professor and chair of the school’s Education and American Culture departments. While at Vassar, he became involved with the Clearwater project, the environmental effort focused on the Hudson River that was founded by folk musician Pete Seeger. McHugh had dabbled in playing the banjo up until that time – his first instruments were trumpet and harmonica – but getting to know and work with Seeger inspired him to take it up more seriously.
“I met Tom when I was a student at Washington College. He would play around with the banjo on the back of his boat and it was fun,” said Sue Matthews, a vocalist in several of McHugh’s later musical endeavors. “He was led to the banjo because the quality of that sound was something he loved. It’s an instrument you can use to tell stories and that’s who he was, an educator.”
McHugh retired from Vassar in 1993 and moved to Rock Hall, although there was no retiring from the things that moved him throughout his career.
“I vowed to my students that I would take the things I learned there and convert them for use in some other setting,” McHugh said in an interview, reflecting on his goals after retirement. “Those things that Vassar taught me were a love of community service, that every act is a teaching act that the best learning takes place in settings that are artistic and creative, and that the arts are critical to any learning atmosphere.”
He established The Mainstay not just as a musical venue, but as an opportunity for patrons to experience music and cultures from around the world, and for the musicians to share the stories of their varied musical influences.
FallFest was a natural outgrowth of that philosophy, although the event has morphed into so much more than a music festival. A dominant theme in the last decade has been a celebration of the annual “return” of the oyster as a means of kicking off the season for commercial oystermen. More than 4,000 oysters were consumed in the previous edition in 2019 and the organizers are hoping to as much as double that this year.
In addition, Main Street is lined with craft vendors of all artistic bents, and there is traditional street fair food available, and a dedicated Kids Kourt with a wide variety of games, prizes and activities for the younger set. Admission and parking is free and proceeds help fund non-profit programs to benefit the Rock Hall community.
Music is still a centerpiece, of course, with two stages hosting five different acts almost continuously during the 10 a.m – 4 p.m. hours of operation. As always, it is a diverse mix of musical genres and styles, including the always-popular Catonsville High School Steel Band.
Also playing this year are the Louisiana and Cajun-tinged Philip Dutton and The Alligators; the eclectic, wide-ranging music of the Ian Trusheim Group; Rosewood, an all-acoustic cover band; and Dave Robinson and His Jazz Pals, who play everything from swing and bop to avant-garde jazz.
McHugh would approve of the mix, as he did during his time as musical director at The Mainstay and chairman of the FallFest committee. He stepped away from those day-to-day duties in 2015, but immediately took on the role of facilitator for fine arts for Kent County Public Schools.
Among his more whimsical accomplishments in that role was establishing the Rock Hall Elementary School Kazoo Band, which he delighted in leading. The current edition of that band will perform on Main Street during a brief FallFest tribute that will dedicate this year’s event in his memory.
“He always said that music is not just music,” Peg McHugh said. “You use music to help people think and find peace in their lives.”
That was one of McHugh’s gifts. He could find a way to help people think and find peace even while a kazoo band was playing.
“That was a highlight for him,” Anthony, the bass player, said. “That was the thing about Tom. He had a great sense of humor, and it came through in a lot of his songs. He liked to introduce his songs with humor, and quite a bit of it was impromptu. Being a storyteller was a big part of his personality.”
The story of FallFest continues on Oct. 9. It is one that was started by Tom McHugh, but which will be carried on by others, hopefully for years and years to come.
“Being at FallFest with Tom, I remember how happy and proud and excited he was that Rock Hall accepted and picked up on it, and made it their own,” Sue Matthews, the vocalist, said. “It was his adopted town, but they adopted him as well.”
By Bob Ford