I was saddened to read in the New York Times recently that a canary in the coal mine has died.
And a true songbird he was, filling Carnegie Hall in 1966 with his guitar and his blues before chucking his abbreviated fame and embracing the tranquility of rural Perryville in South Kingstown.
This was more than 50 years ago, when South County moved at a slower pace and Patrick Sky played his music no longer on the concert stage, but beside a pot-bellied stove in the sagging, colonial farmhouse he rented.
Sky came to Rhode Island just a few years after the height of his popularity in the folk music revival, when his peers and friends were the likes of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Pete Seeger.
He had moved to New York City from the South in 1960 with his then-girlfriend Buffy Sainte-Marie, a noted folksinger in her own right who would become familiar to audiences at the Newport Folk Festival.
Few in South County knew their reclusive neighbor, who adopted the area after being introduced to it by a friend who vacationed there. He mostly stayed out of sight, finding contentment in hand-making Irish bagpipes, writing about music, and occasionally taking his guitar to a coffee house in the basement of a local church.
By the time he left, years later, prescient in his warnings that the old South County was evaporating, he had married a Cranston girl, Cathy Larson, and at age 46 was the dad of a first-grader.
The last time I spoke with him, in 1987, he resembled an Okie fleeing the Dust Bowl. Readying to leave, he had loaded his 1973 station wagon with guitars, mandolins, banjos, pots and pans, foot lockers, and suitcases, some tied to the roof, as he prepared to move his family to a quieter retreat in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains.
He died several weeks ago in nearby Asheville, at age 80.
An outspoken iconoclast of Irish and Creek Indian heritage, Sky told me that the South County he once knew was becoming “Yuppie-ized, homogenized, and high-pressurized.”
Not one to mince words, Sky – that was his real name, by the way – insisted that South County was “awash in investment hysteria and asphalt… its tax burden is too heavy, and decent folk who want to raise a family can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Plus, he said, “You drive into town and all of a sudden people are blowing their horns at you to get out of the way,”
Cathy Larson Sky voiced similar feelings, saying, “It’s almost as though Cranston has followed me down here.”
Her husband, who had a college degree in poetry, seemed always searching for quietude. He told me he gave up the excitement of celebrity because he couldn’t abide the pressure of managers and agents and exploitation that affected not just him, but people like his friend and idol, the iconic Delta bluesman Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt, who was in his 60s when fame searched him out, was another familiar performer at the Newport festivals.
Though he eventually moved on, Pat Sky did provide South County a legacy. The third song on his 1975 Leviathan Records album, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” is his original “Perryville, R.I. Reel.”
Sky never did return to the limelight; in fact, social media fundraisers were held for him over the past few years as he struggled with illness.
Despite latter-day health issues, one suspects the quieter years of his life brought him the fulfillment he sought.
As he told me one day while he was still a South Countyite, “All I want to do is write, make my pipes, and play my music.”
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.