Peter McDonough Jr. is known to many as Rutgers University’s vice president of external affairs. To others he is former Gov. Christie Whitman’s communications director. Then there is that small segment of people who follow folk music in Garden State and New York City coffee houses who know him as Pete McDonough, blues musician.
Area audiences will get a chance to know that side of him when he performs at Cafe Improv at the Arts Council of Princeton on Saturday, October 28. The performance marks the release of his first CD.
“I discovered blues in my basement listening to early Eric Clapton,” says the Pennington resident. “And as I read more about him and others, they all tracked back to Robert Johnson,” the early-20th century creator of the blues staples “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Come on in My Kitchen.”
Raised in Plainfield in the 1960s, McDonough says he learned more about the blues by spending hours in the public library. “They had a vast record collection there, and they had the Folkways (recordings) stuff and all the old Alan and John Lomax stuff. It was hard to really hear that music because the recordings weren’t very good, but I just fell in love with it. I would go into the listening room there for hours.”
That music was foreign to the world in which he grew up. McDonough’s father, Peter, was a Republican state senator and his mother, Betty, owned a women’s clothing boutique on Park Avenue in Plainfield. McDonough, a middle sibling, was raised with two sisters.
“We didn’t have a lot of music in the house,” he says, “but my parents certainly listened to the music of their day, and it was part of what the culture was for kids back then. Plainfield was just full of music.”
Up until the riots in Plainfield and Newark in the late 1960s, Plainfield was an integrated community, says McDonough. “Everybody was into soul stuff and Motown stuff as well as rock ‘n’ roll.”
“My parents were very outgoing people,” he says, “and it’s probably in the family genes to be performers. Whether you’re playing a guitar and singing or giving a stump speech, it’s all a performance.”
Although he picked up the guitar in high school, he didn’t begin to get serious about his guitar playing — folk music and blues — until he was in college at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics and English.
“Bethlehem was then, and still is a hotbed, of music,” he says. “There were several of us in a band called Buckdancer’s Choice (named after a Grateful Dead song). It was funny, people would show up at gigs thinking we were a Grateful Dead cover band, but we would play [folk singers] John Hartford, John Prine, and things like that.”
McDonough has been patiently plying his craft for years in small coffeehouses in Bethlehem, Trenton, and New York City. He took guitar lessons for a number of years in the 1970s with noted guitar teacher Woody Mann, still based in Manhattan.
As a Caucasian playing music connected to Americans of African lineage for the last 30 years, does McDonough find resistance among folk purists?
“That’s something that anybody who is white that plays blues kind of struggles with,” he says. “I see it from time to time. I’ll have someone come up and get in my face a bit about appropriating some style. I’ll say, ‘I’m not appropriating it. I’m pro-creating it. If people don’t keep playing it, it will die.’ ”
“If I’ve dedicated my musical career to anything — because I’m not going to win a Grammy Award and I’m not going to be a rock star — I think it’s really important to keep this music alive.”
McDonough met his wife, Molly, at the Alchemist & Barrister in Princeton. They have two children, Sarah, 28, an attorney who will begin clerking for a federal judge this month, and Tom, 25, who works in outdoor education teaching leadership and life skills to students in the Adirondack Mountains.
Of Molly, he says, “She’s an extraordinary singer and songwriter. She was in several Princeton-area a capella groups, and she took over the shows at the War Memorial in the late 1990s.”
There she worked with Woody Mann to produce a series of well-received acoustic blues and folk shows where the audience — perhaps as many as 150 people — sat on stage and enjoyed acoustic or lightly amplified music in a more intimate setting.
Now speaking of his recent activities, McDonough mentions his debut disc, “Fat in Paris and Other Peoples’ Blues.” It’s something he says “grew out of people saying to me, ‘We might be interested in having you play here, send me something.’”
The recording — which will be available at Cafe Improv — includes a mixture of original pieces, songs covered by others, a Robert Johnson work, and music by other influences.
“‘Fat In Paris and Other Peoples’ Blues’ doesn’t represent what the Pete McDonough live show is entirely about,” he says, “But I tried to find some things that people would be familiar with. I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like to hear me play this kind of music, just me and a guitar.”
At his live shows — like the one at Princeton Arts Council — McDonough breaks up the music with stories. “I like to take people on a walk through the blues,” he says, “draw on my knowledge of the players from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and tell stories about (influential early-20th century blues singers) Blind Willie McTell and Rev. Gary Davis. When you know these stories about Robert Johnson and (Mississippi blues singer) Bo Carter, you come to appreciate these things more. I owe it to them and the music to give an understanding of what this music is all about.”
Peter McDonough, Cafe Improv, Princeton Arts Council, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, October 28, 7:30 p.m. $2. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.