Old Lyme Songwriter’s New Album Explores New England Narratives

Jim Lampos


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Old Lyme songwriter and recording artist Jim Lampos has released a new album, “Occulations,” which reached No. 1 on the NCAA college radio station Folk Adds Chart in February. 

Lampos, who grew up in Norwich and Groton, developed his craft playing in New York City clubs in the 1980s and later toured across the country. He returned to live in Connecticut in 2006, putting down roots in Old Lyme.

Today, Lampos wears several hats. He owns and manages a family restaurant, the Groton Pizza Palace, he’s the Democratic selectman in Old Lyme, and he can also be found hiking and writing on subcontinental fault lines and geological strata in the area. 

But songwriting has remained a central meditation for Lampos. His music charts a literary-spiritual history of his home territory. His lyrics invoke poets and philosophers like Thoreau, Whitman and Hawthorne, while the music reflects other folk-blues poets: Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Leonard Cohen. 

Several of the songs on “Occulations” delve into New England locations and the historical markers that imbue them with meaning. 

For instance, “Crossing Longfellow Bridge” is a pilgrimage, taking the listener on a journey from Boston Common across the Charles River at Longfellow Bridge, through Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery — where writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe and Oliver Wendell Holmes are buried — and west across Walden Pond to arrive in Waltham, Mass. The song travels back in time to an observation point at Brandeis University, where the city was surveyed by John Winthrop the Elder in 1632. 

It’s a trip back in time for Lampos, too.

“I went to college in Waltham, and that specific time was coming back to me vividly. It began with an image of a woman coming down Beacon Hill. It’s an impressionistic journey,” he said. “Like the American Impressionist [Frederick] Childe Hassam, the 19th century and 20th century overlapped for me. Certainly, the Transcendentalists are the way I think about the world. So the song is organized by the trek from Boston Commons out to Waltham. You can see the whole city from there. So, Longfellow Bridge is a real place, but it’s a literary passage, too.”

The song also pays tribute to a local Connecticut hero, John J. Kelley, the 1957 Boston Marathon winner and a teacher at Fitch High School in Groton. 

“Johnny Kelley is a legend around here, a great person, and he had an open house constantly. He lived on Pequot Hill in Mystic. He’d be there, or he wouldn’t, but there was always a whole cast of characters there — runners, musicians, poets,” Lampos said. “It was the center of the universe. He was a huge influence on me, introducing me to the Transcendentalists. And he was a huge Dylan fan.” 

Like many teenage musicians in the 1960s, Lampos’ life was changed when he encountered Dylan and The Beatles. The Beatles’ “Let it Be” was the first 45 vinyl record he ever bought, but the American folk poet impacted him much more.

“I first heard Dylan when I was 13 years old. I had played the trumpet before, but when I heard his guitar, I knew it was all over. That was the direction,” Lampos said. “My first guitar was a Stella, $40. Really solid wood. But it was so difficult to play — it would make my fingers bleed. But I would come home from school and play it obsessively, over and over. I think the callouses I still have on my hands today are from trying to play that Stella when I was 13 years old.”

Lampos followed Dylan’s influences, listening to blues guitarists like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Fahey, and integrating their fingerpicking styles. By the time Lampos moved to New York City and began playing in clubs there, he’d developed his own voice in folk blues.  

Inspiration for the song “Blood Street” began 20 years ago when Lampos was starting to get involved in local politics. While visiting Benjamin Franklin’s rock-carved milestone on Johnnycake Hill Road in Old Lyme — the inspiration for his song “Franklin’s Milestone” — he followed the watershed system upstream to Rogers Lake and its northern boundary, Blood Street.

“First of all, Blood Street is just an evocative name. The topography there is amazing; you are in the uplands of Lyme. And it’s a political song, but not in the way you think of partisan politics,” Lampos said. “It’s about civic concerns: thinking about the mills, the pre-Industrial Revolution, the commerce, how people organized themselves in civic life. Oftentimes, these features can remain ghosts on the landscape, haunting our collective psyche. ‘Following the millstream up to the source’ is the key line in the song.”

Lampos’ songwriting indeed marks the miles and tracks both real and metaphysical streams. 

“In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in border towns on the Texas Rio Grande, at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans — very powerful places, very distinct cultures,” he said, remembering his years spent on the road, touring from town to town. “But this is the amazing thing: When you access these places through music, you cut through all the normal divisions. Music cuts through like an underground stream. It makes connections on a deep level. The land itself brings up music.”