Pearls Before Swine Folk Singer Tom Rapp Dies at 70

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Tom Rapp

Folk singer Tom Rapp, whose career encompassed apocalyptic songs and envelope-pushing releases that told hard truths about the human condition, most frequently with his band Pearls Before Swine, has died at age 70.

According to the Washington Post, Rapp's son, David Rapp, confirmed that his father died on Feb. 11 at his home in Melbourne, Florida.

Rapp's short, fascinating career earned him cult status, but ended after less than a decade when the singer became disenchanted with the machinations of the music business. The underground figure never took the easy way: With his prominent lisp and sometimes confrontational lyrics, Rapp borrowed from the great poets and Greek myths, injecting his songs with a cynicism, bite and darkness that was an antidote to some of the more agreeable folk of the late 1960s. "Bodies on bodies/ Like sacks upon shelves/ People are using each other/ To make love to themselves/ We all use our bodies/ As a place to hide," he sang in "Love/Sex" from Pearls Before Swine's penultimate album, 1973's Sunforest.

Rapp, whose psychedelic folk band took its name from the biblical verse that's a well-known warning against giving something valuable to someone who might not appreciate it, released their debut, One Nation Underground, in 1967. The album mixed folk, rock and blues amid unique instruments such as autoharp and finger cymbals. In addition to protest songs such as "Drop Out!" and "Uncle John," Rapp pushed against censorship in the banjo-driven "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse," which spells out the word "fuck" in Morse Code. Adding to the rebellious spirit, the cover image used a bit of Hieronymus Bosch's iconic dark fantasia painting "Garden of Earthly Delights"; it eventually sold more than 200,000 copies, making it Rapp's most successful musical venture. 

The original group only lasted two more albums, splitting after 1969's debut for Reprise Records, These Things Too, followed by a string of albums recorded with Rapp's wife and session musicians, continuing his efforts to write unblinkingly about the war in Vietnam and a dim science-fiction future. On his most famous song, the emotional "Rocket Man," he yearned for an absentee father who "often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars." Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin have said that they were inspired to write John's "Rocket Man" by Rapp's own tale of gazing up longingly at the skies with his mother. "My mother and I/ Never went out/ Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out," Rapp sang on the melancholy track. "Or to escape the pain/ We only went out when it rained."  

According to the Post, Rapp toured with Buddy Guy, Gordon Lightfoot, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, and was even invited to appear at 1969's Woodstock festival, but turned down the invitation to continue writing songs in the Netherlands.

Thomas Dale Rapp was born in Bottineau, North Dakota, on March 8, 1947, to schoolteacher parents. After obtaining a guitar at age six following a move to Minnesota, Rapp began writing songs and entered a talent contest in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, when he was 8 years-old, coming in third, two places above another budding Minnesota singer/songwriter named Bobby Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan); the winner was a "cute girl in a red sequined costume who twirled a baton." Even after a long break from the business, Rapp had not lost his facility for weaving metaphors about the kinds of injustice he found in the world and in music, a place where "everything is always falling down," ("Space," from Rapp's final album and first in nearly a quarter century, 1999's A Journal of the Plague Year.)

After failing to earn a living in music -- he once claimed he never earned more than $200 in the business -- Rapp gave it up in 1976 to become a civil rights lawyer focusing on discrimination law in Philadelphia after earning a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. Two years before releasing his return album Plague, Rapp performed with his son's band, Shy Camp, at the psychedelic Terrastock music festival in Providence, Rhode Island.