Local Noise: Papa Carl & The Healing Power Of Music

“On Sept.17 of ‘04 I got a call at 5 a.m. They had found a donor match,” recalls Papa Carl Anderson, about the fateful night that led to his recovery from kidney and liver failure, as well as the unlikely music career that followed in its wake. “I have AB blood, so that was no easy thing to have happen. I received a liver and a kidney from a single donor. The rest is history. I came out, started my recovery and almost as amazing as the transplants were the circumstances that led to music playing such a big part of it all.”

Papa had played guitar in his high school years, but never did anything seriously with it. “After my transplants, I knew I needed something to help me focus on my recovery,” he relates. “I chose music again. Joe Zook introduced me to Ernie White, and I started taking lessons from Ernie.” Joe and Ernie are legendary performers in the Trenton music scene, and have influenced numerous musicians over the years. “That process, coupled with learning how to live as a transplant recipient, did a lot for me. I had something to rely on to help me with the bad times emotionally and psychologically.”

That process has led to the release of Papa Carl’s debut CD, and although it comes later in life than most new artist’s debuts, it has the benefit of a lifetime of experience. “I will be 65 soon, and I’ve had a very rich life,” he says. “I’ve had a ton of varied experiences and I like to use everything I’ve seen and done to write about. In ‘Came To Be’ I’m drawing on things I experienced as a child listening to my grandfather who had come here from Sweden. He came here when he was 17 years old, alone and in a new country. I took those ideas and referenced them alongside what I see happening in the country today. ‘Dark Night’ is about something I know a lot about, the horror of alcohol. It’s been decades since I’ve had a drink. I wanted to write about it from a perspective of the person in the nightmare. The opening tune on the CD is ‘New York City 1969,’ and it’s a very happy song. It’s about the night I met my wife, Jean, at a party in Greenwich Village. We met on May 31, and got married on Aug. 2nd, only about eight weeks later.”

The CD is steeped in blues, and Papa is heavily influenced by classic blues artists and the legendary performers he used to watch in Greenwich Village clubs in the ‘60s. “Blues of all varieties have always been a huge influence,” he muses. “I can still remember finding a bargain LP of Lighting Hopkins in a grocery store. They used to have these racks of cheap albums. They were mostly bootlegged stuff recorded very poorly. I was about 13 at the time. I liked the cover and the name of the artist. I was hooked instantly.”

Papa called on his many friends in the local musical fraternity to help with the recordings. “Except for a tune or two where it is just me playing, Ernie White is on all of the tracks. Lisa Bouchelle is on several too. Lisa and I do a mix of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ we call ‘Redemption In The Rising Sun,’ with Joe Zook on lap steel. Others who are on the CD are Mike White on drums, John DiBianco on drums, Tom Reock on keys, Reed Thomas on bass, two great young guitarists, Charles Laurita and Anthony DeCarlo, Ernie Smith on drums, Hans Schneider on bass and Brian Summers on mandolin.”

Papa’s musical renaissance has also led to the formation of an organization that is making a real difference in the transplant world, called Papa Carl’s Jam For Life. “On the first anniversary of my transplants, we had a party in our backyard,” remembers Papa. “We rented a big tent and did a huge BBQ thing. Basically, it was a way of thanking all the people who had done so much to help me and my family during the whole ordeal of my illness. After that first jam, we decided it should be something we did every year. It took off from there.”

The jam has since moved to bigger venues each year, and features many of the musical stars of central Jersey. “I really believe that music has a tremendous power and can make huge differences in important movements toward positive change,” Carl says. “So, I want the Papa Carl’s Jam For Life Foundation to prosper, and continue to use music as a vehicle to bring about change in how we, as a broader culture, think about organ and tissue donation and transplants. Every single day, the number of people who die traumatically and who do not have their organs used about equals the number of people who die while waiting for a transplant. We can save lives, and a lot of those lives are children and young adults. We just need more donors. I’m hoping that maybe what we do through music can help. The gift of life is a gift of love—what better way is there to express love than with music?”

Papa Carl’s CD, Song To Soul, is available from his website.

Illustration by Erin T. Scarnato.