In 1965, Jerry Rau was sent to fight in Vietnam. He came back as a guitar player with a passion to tell stories.
For more than four decades, the Minneapolis folk singer played on the streets, in coffeehouses, clubs and plenty of nursing homes in Minnesota and across the country.
“His legacy is in his music,” said Jana Metge, a longtime friend. Rau, who had prostate cancer and dementia, was 83 when he died Oct. 15 in West St. Paul.
Growing up in Minneapolis, Rau joined the Army Reserves when he was 18 and enlisted in the Marines two years later, eventually landing in Vietnam. There he picked up an old guitar and eventually learned “House of the Rising Sun” by playing it over and over amid the sounds of war.
“It’s hard to explain war to anybody,” he told the Minneapolis Interview Project — a compilation of oral histories of those who have worked for social justice. “Friends of mine were killed. … It doesn’t go away. Every night in Vietnam was a horror show. “
Those experiences found their way into his songs and led him to become a peace activist and one of the founders of the local Veterans for Peace chapter.
“Jerry became a warrior for the struggle to bring wars to an end,” said longtime friend Ron Germundson. His songs often told the stark reality of what it costs to be a soldier in times of war, he said.
Back in Minneapolis, he drove a taxi but hated it, Rau explained in the Interview Project.
“I decided to see if I could make some cash playing guitar, he said. “My wife hated it.”
But Rau followed his bliss and became a folk singer, Germundson said. He soon became known as the “Minnesota Minstrel.”
“He wasn’t the flashiest musician, but he had soul,” said Bill Staines, a longtime friend and fellow folk musician.
Not everyone, however, was enamored by his career choice.
Rau’s youngest son, John, often heard the disparaging tone when relatives asked, “Is your dad still playing that guitar?” The unspoken question was, “Why isn’t he doing more with his life,” John recalled.
But during his visits to his dad in Minnesota, John Rau, who grew up in Hawaii and continues to live there, realized being a musician was exactly what his father wanted to do with his life.
“He wasn’t a man who was seeking fame or fortune,” John Rau said. “He was just being the most genuine person he could be.”
Unlike his older sister and brother, John Rau had a less complicated relationship with his father because he was only 4 when his parents divorced — too young to remember his father as a Marine who just returned from war or the upheaval of a family that split up.
Instead, he fondly remembers being 9 and spending the summer with his dad and bonding over baseball — a game his father learned to love after seeing it first through his son’s eyes. John Rau’s visits also gave him a peek into his father’s tight musician community.
Denise Braus was a 16-year-old violinist when she became part of that community, joining Jerry Rau’s band in 2000.
“My mom was a big fan of Jerry’s music,” she said. “I listened to all of his CDs that my mom had.
“He left us such a gift,” Braus said. “He will live on in his music and the stories that he left behind.”
Besides his son, John, he is survived by a daughter, Joanne Dymond of Dallas; son James of San Francisco; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.