Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson
(March 3, 1923 – May 29, 2012)
Family friend and musical maestro Doc Watson has passed away, love to all his family at this time.. my Dad who knew Doc well passed away last year and maybe they’ll get to sit on an old front porch somewhere, shoot the breeze and pick a couple of tunes sometime..
Often it is the professional writer, a well-known musician, archivist or college educated musicologist who is held on high for promoting or recording for posterity certain musical genres, songs, artistes or histories; but I believe that traditional music is preserved for the future in the hands of the dedicated enthusiast more so than it ever will be by musicologists and ethnographers.
I would include my father who recently passed away in the category of dedicated amateur, though he certainly blurred the divisions comprehensively during his over 50 years of interest in the traditional music of North America. He was as he himself described, verging on the obsessional when it came to the history and culture and sound of American Traditional Music.
In writing this musically driven obituary I want not only to honour my father, as would most sons, but to share one man’s journey into music and in so doing to prove the theory above AND trace a musical lineage as it continues to live into a future that he no longer can.
By using his life long passion for ‘Folk’ music and the music in particular of North America I hope to illustrate a key moment and movement in recent popular musical history and the way in which he and many like him make music from the past come alive in the present.
The perfect soundtrack
While reading this you may want to have some of the music he loved playing in the background, just hit the below link to make that happen. You can put this music on pause when you come to a video or soundfile in this article that you want to listen to.
Born in 1930’s suburban London Dad became interested in Traditional Jazz in London in the 1950s, attending concerts in the city and also notably at Chiselhurst Caves a venue now almost legendary for its place in the history of Jazz and later, Rock music in the UK.
His interest in Trad Jazz mutated into a much more all-encompassing interest in Skiffle, a hybrid of Jazz, Blues and American Traditional music that became the ‘do it yourself’ musical phenomenon of the late 1950s in the UK. Much like Punk in the mid 1970s adherents were encouraged to pick up an instrument, learn a tune and go and play it in front of others.
The ‘King’ of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan was a big influence and a selection of his hits appear in the You Tube video below.
In amongst the repertoire of Skifflers like Donegan, Long John Baldry and the Chas McDevitt Group was traditional material, music that was still being played by artists in America who could claim direct lineage to the songs, people like Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White and Leadbelly. It was to this deeper tradition, an unbroken line of song, that people like my father, who were interested in a fuller understanding turned for education and then aspired to emulate.
Pick up thy Banjo and Play
The youth of Great Britain began to pick up instruments and play, my father too. In his case a Banjo and a Guitar.
Though it was the instrument of choice for any newborn ‘Skiffler’ guitars were incredibly difficult to find or purchase in Britain during the 50s so by using woodworking skills picked up mainly by building model aircraft and then by training as a pattern maker, he made his first instrument sometime around 1959. He made a 12 string guitar sometime shortly thereafter in honour of Huddie Ledbetter, and to my Dad’s desire to play Leadbelly’s songs. This was apparently such an unusual and remarkable feat that his local newspaper took note of it and published an article ‘The man who refused to wear a tie’ in their local edition. An early case no doubt of reporting a youth movement that stretched an establishment’s ability to understand what the hell their sons and daughters were up to. Skiffle it appears was quite the revolutionary youth movement of the time and wearing a beard and opened toe’d sandals an open act of rebellion to established norms!
Yes… you’re right, it all sounds very tame now, but like Rock N’ Roll which appeared a short time later, Skiffle and Skiffling was a statement of separateness and an establishment of a youth culture that goes virtually unrecognised in our now entirely cynical world.
Dad and many like him played Banjos, Guitars, Fiddle and sometimes Tub Bass badly on the Circle Line, travelling all evening for the price of one ticket, going round and round, staying warm by playing the few tunes they had hence learnt. Most likely I would guess to the total bemusement and annoyance of their fellow passengers.
At this time in North America the musicians and singers who retained these songs for the future were generally only of interest to the folklorist or cranky half crazed song collector, people like Alan Lomax or Moses Asch, Charles and Pete Seeger or the Library of Congress.
Yanks in the UK
The Skiffle revolution however helped to pave the way in the UK for tours of some of the musicians who held American traditional music within their repertoire and whom with their first hand knowledge were linked to an unbroken history of that music. People like my Dad and his friends were crying out to hear American music first hand, instead of something translated into an entertaining but poor imitation by UK Skifflers.
My father talked particularly of concerts he went to in London by Big Bill Broonzy and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot as essential to the growth of his interest in American Traditional music. Elliot though not an artist who could claim the music as part of his bloodline was a lynchpin about which both Traditional American music and its hybrid ‘Skiffle’ turned. You can download some Jack Elliot here – HFTVJ at Podomatic.
Learning the Banjo from an expert…
Having started playing, ever the perfectionist and wanting to learn how to play the Banjo ‘properly’ Dad spoke with Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete, who said that if he could get a small group together for lessons she would teach them how to play. Amongst those she taught with him was yet another ‘name’ known to the U.K. folk world, Pete Stanley. Years later I would find out that a girl sharing my digs at Art College in West Surrey and also studying a fine art degree was Pete’s daughter. The world is full of strange little connections.
Putting on the style
What was being seen in the late 50s in London England in regards to Skiffle and the growing interest in American Music were the early stirrings in the UK of what would become the 60s U.K. Folk Music revival. A movement in music that gave birth to the succesful careers of countless recording and touring artistes on both sides of the Atlantic. It also led eventually to the re-fashioning of ‘Folk’ as Folk Rock and then towards the era of singer songwriters and the musical troubadour. Artistes like John Martyn, Cat Stevens, or Roy Harper for example, a trend echoed in even later years in the outpourings of Ron Sexmith or perhaps in a group like Mumford & Sons.
This modern movement was of course being defined in the USA too, particularly on the East Coast where musicians like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan took the baton from predecessors like Woody Guthrie and finally ran with it.
Blues with its feet firmly planted in the (re) discovery of this once ‘Popular Music’ as a folk tradition by those such as Lomax was to be redefined slightly later than this first wave of ‘Folk’ enthusiasm by musicians like John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Peter Green and the Rolling Stones. But the parallel is glaring.
Will Folk Move Yah?
This Folk ‘movement’, if that’s what we can call it (or want to); which had sat festering in the musical and cultural background for some time, nurtured by musicians and political activists such as the very famous (but in my opinion overly earnest, tedious and saccharin as all hell) Pete Seeger now through the jump-start of the Skiffle beat, began in earnest in the U.K.
In the U.K. singers and song collectors like Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl were the centre about which a London-based ‘scene’ revolved and it was to this scene that my Dad adhered, becoming known and making himself known to the circles that gathered around such figures.
He knew both men and in 1982 when Bert Lloyd passed away our family was invited to his memorial concert at the Barbican Centre in London. As a young teenager I was impressed, meeting some of the names Dad mentioned from time to time from his days in London. I can still remember as a youngster enjoying the company of Charlie Sayles a blues harp player who had performed at the concert. Sitting with a childish teenage boy on the stairs of Lloyd’s Greenwich town house must have been an odd moment for a bona fide ‘Bluesman’.
Dad it must be said, was less ‘friendly’ with Ewan McColl.
Rude to Ewan!
At a London gig of the time (the 50s), when asked by Ewan McColl, (a comfortably middle class song collector who sung about the travails of ‘the workers’ for whom he felt a solidarity) if he had enjoyed the selection of songs in his performance, my father, a working man during the week on poor pay, said ‘frankly when I come out to be entertained on a Friday night I don’t expect someone to sing about how shit my life is during the week’. I’ve always admired my Dad for his frankness, though it sometimes got him in trouble!
I think what Dad was expressing was an irritation at the ransoming of Folk culture and music by the Political Left at the time. Not only in the USA but the UK too. Folk music had become overly entrenched in its relationship with Unions, protest, and Communism.
I think my Dad’s thinking behind his blunt statement to Ewan McColl may have been that there was no reason why Folk music, just because it was of and about the people (and mainly hard-working people at that) should lean to the left.
Those that worked hard wanted a damn good party on their night off and they needed the right soundtrack for that purpose. It seems entirely reasonable that this was likely not to be some mud wallowing finger in the ear dirge of leftist struggle, emanating from the mouth of a righteous Bohemian.
The residue of Folk music’s kidnapping by the left to this day clings, and smells slightly wiffy and puts people off ever stopping long enough to listen.
Meeting Ralph Rinzler
All this time Dad was working and training as a Pattern Maker with Vickers Armstrong and travelling into London from the Kentish suburb of Eltham in the evenings and on the weekends to listen to music, and to mix with others of like mind.
It was while tracking down and listening to traditional Irish music in the East End of London that he met and became friends with Ralph Rinzler, who was then studying in France and visiting the U.K. on weekends to satiate his appetite for the music he also loved. Ralph would later become a lynchpin of the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife in the U.S.A.
Meeting Ralph was going to be for my Dad (although he didn’t know it quite yet) perhaps the biggest single turning point of his entire life.
It was while attending gigs where artists like Seamus Ennis and Margaret Barry played that he and Ralph put together the Lp. ‘Irish Music in London Pubs’ on Moses Ash’s Folkways Records, a label that is legendary in its reputation for excellence to those interested in Folk and World Music. The sleeve notes hint though at a not all together un-enjoyable process of recording and collection!
Recorders Ralph Rinzler and Barry Murphy thank the proprietors of these buildings for giving them use of the recording machine and “the facilities of the place, …. including drinks.”
Later Ralph returned to the U.S.A. and became involved in establishing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a festival that continues to this day. He also played a mean Mandolin in Bluegrass band The Greenbrier Boys! Check out their rendition of ‘Sleepy Eyed John’ if you don’t belive me!
Keep Calm and Carry On
My father continued his training and apprenticeship in pattern making, whilst restoring his old motorbikes, (one of which is now in the Beaulieu motor museum) attending gigs, learning how to make further musical instruments, such as Appalachian Dulcimers and collecting bits of exotic wood and old Banjo bodies. Something he was still doing up until his death in August of 2011
But let’s get back to the early 1960s!
Meanwhile, in America….
Dad’s friend Ralph Rinzler had returned to the States and was busy organising Smithsonian Folklife centre concerts, he needed someone to help him transport older and less than worldly-wise musicians to these and other gigs, many of whom hadn’t ever been outside of their County let alone across the State line in their lifetimes.
It’s also possible having recently read the only available Biography of Alan Lomax’s life, that Ralph, who had been employed by Lomax to search out artistes for the Newport Folk Festival was at this point busy transporting those very same artists and that Dad became in turn his assistant, in much the same way Rinzler had been helping Lomax.
Simply put what happened was that Ralph contacted Dad and asked him to come to America to help out. My father in a move that would define his life, sold his lock up garage of vintage motorcycles and used the proceeds to purchase a ticket to New York on the Queen Mary passenger liner. On docking in New York harbour he stayed for a short while in Greenwich village, the place that was to become, and was at that time fast becoming synonymous with the 1960’s American folk revival.
A Duty of care
So Dad began his duties meeting with and recording old-time musicians and taking them to the concerts that Ralph Rinzler was busy organising. To go to America and be introduced to the very carriers and originators of the music he so loved must have been a thrilling and exciting adventure beyond his (or my) wildest dreams.
On one trip he recalled often he took Clarence Ashley across country, enjoying not only the experience of coping with an irascible, demanding and cantankerous musician but also the North American landscape passing outside the ‘scenic’ carriage of the train they took. Perhaps this was the beginning of a love affair with the USA, one that would last until the mid 1970s when homesickness and economics sent Dad back to the U.K. He never really left America though, keeping in touch, travelling back and nurturing American culture in the U.K.
Clarence Ashley is an important figure in the history of the 1950s Folk revival, if only for the 1927 recording of ‘Coo Coo Bird’ included on Harry Smith’s legendary ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’, a compilation album originally released in 1952. It was a three album (6Lp) set that was enormously influential on musicians of the 50s and 60s revival. Notably Bob Dylan who performed and recorded the song in 1962.
In the last couple of decades of his life Dad revisited the USA frequently to attend festivals and conventions, see his friends and even met his hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliot again 30-40 years after first seeing him play in London. Ramblin’ Jack claimed at the time to remember him.
Just like Alan Lomax before him, he and Ralph searched mountain roads for even more obscure dirt tracks; where on arrival and a sometimes initially suspicious greeting, they would record and interview people who Dad grew to love and admire. On one notable occassion he was pulled over by the local police while travelling through Hazard County in Kentucky, where the officers took him for a communist agitator, and grilled him as such back at the Police Station.
At that time many young left-wing civil rights protesters were agitating in the southern states and the officers had assumed he was one. Apparently all it took at the time to appear suspicious to the conservative South was the wearing of a beard, something my Dad did nearly all of his life. Even my maternal Grandfather, a Southern Man if there ever was one barred both his sons from growing beards. He must have had a real problem with his Daughter’s husband, my father.
Crafty old Bugger
It was not only the music that he loved, but as a maker of things in wood he admired the crafts and skills of rural Americans too. His journeys were often as much a discovery of the artistic skills of the rural working classes in America. As a child I remember the then rare but now famous set of Foxfire books always lying around , frequently being referred to by Dad and Mum. Foxfire Books.
Dad was taken and introduced to Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley by Ralph Rinzler who was managing both of them at the time. Ralph had collected Dad and taken him back to his apartment, where Doc was already staying. (Check out the pictures of Newport where Dylan is sat and Doc and Clarence are in the seats next to him).
Soon after, Dad was on his way to California with Clarence Ashley where he met up with Doc, Rosa Lee, Clint Howard and Fred Price where they performed at Berkley. He worked on the door of the Ash Grove to pay his way, taking tickets and payment.
Doc’s playing is now world renowned as the blueprint on which so many country pickers have based their style. People like Tony Rice for example.
There is a fabulous photographic slide somewhere of Dad firing Willard Watson, Doc’s cousin’s long hunting gun off the top of the hill near Deep Gap where Doc lives to this day. He and Doc remained friends throughout Dad’s life.
Dad often encouraged Doc to get his Banjo out to play, an instrument he may not be associated with, but according to Dad was no less skilled upon. Somewhere there’s a picture I need to dig out of both of them playing Banjo together at Doc’s house.
Doc and Dad and my Mum and Rosa Lee Watson became good friends over the years and later when Rosalee’s parents moved house from an old one that let snow through the roof to a rather more weatherproof building, both of my parents helped them to make that move. They were also in touch with Doc and Rosa Lee through the hardest of times when they lost Merle, their son, when he was killed accidentally. Merle and his Dad had over time become a close musical duo and the adjustment after he passed away must have been horrendous to undergo. As a Father and Son, friends and musicians together.
Women talk and hug, real Men play guitars???
I often wonder how it must have felt for our Father that both my brother and I play and are very involved with music, and have both been involved to degrees with Folk music too. I bet he was proud and happy, I would have been.
Music was a bond both my brother and I and our father shared and it’s been hard for Chris and I playing, without him around. At the same time it keeps him alive, that and the songs he played.
All country roads lead to Nashville Tennessee
At one point in his wide travels (he even stayed for a time in a beach house in Malibu) Dad was on tour with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass boys, and though only along for the ride and to take gate money he had at one point appeared on stage with them, announced by Big Bill as ‘The English Boy here to play you some 12 string guitar on a guitar he made himself’.
Indirectly his touring with the Bluegrass boys was to lead to settling in Nashville.
The way Dad told the story of ending up in Tennessee is that he left a Monroe tour to go to Nashville expecting the rest of the boys in the band to turn up shortly thereafter, but they didn’t. In fact two weeks later and out of necessity he had got a job at Malone’s Motorcycle shop in the city and had managed in the meantime to keep body and soul intertwined on $1 Krystal Hamburgers (now legendary). Somehow, even as they rapidly arrived back in town, he had found himself accommodation and was ‘settling down’. It was around this time that for a short while that he said he shared an apartment with Del McCoury, who was then playing for Monroe and who would later guest in Steve Earle’s Dukes.
Settle down son settle down…
Somehow and goodness only knows why Dad must have got bored with wandering America because he started renting a workshop.
This led to him setting up pattern making facilities with him the sole provider for foundries in Nashville. But don’t get the idea that this was some hi-tech working environment, in reality he was working out of an old Chicken house at the bottom (of a family called) the Leaper’s garden, where Peter Rowan, Monroe’s then guitarist set up short residence at one time (see picture).
Dad was introduced to Nashville society as it was then and mixed with the Vanderbilt University crowd and musicians. Eventually at a party held by Herb Peck, librarian at the University, handgun enthusiast and a good friend, he was introduced to Miss Mary Cornelia Brown, Southern Lady and employee of the Methodist Publishing House, ex Auburn University alumni, trained in the art of book illustration and ‘Belle’ of the South, who became his pillion passenger and later my Mom.
It was forever a family joke that Dad left the UK saying ‘I’ll be back in 6 months Mum’, only to return properly 13 years later with a wife and two sons his parents had never met!
Both my mother and father grew their little family on the banks of the Cumberland river in the suburbs of Nashville Tennessee; with my brother and I spending some of the long Summers in Centreville Alabama where my mother’s family and my wonderful ‘Mammaw’ lived.
Back in Nashville it was hot, the river was cool and though eventually the Grand Old Opry moved out of the city and into the bulging amusement park that was newly built all around us on Pennington Bend, for a time life was good, at least to a 9 year old’s eyes it certainly seemed to be.
The Grand Old Opry
As he laid down foundations in Nashville Tennessee Dad must have been moving in some interesting circles because another story he told me is of standing in the wings of the stage at the Grand Ole Opry watching ‘Country Star’ Porter Wagoner perform, sweat oozing from his body through the rhinestone bedecked jacket he wore; and this when the ‘Opry’ was still at its original location at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
When Porter left the stage they commenced to talking about music and country music’s lack lustre and simplistic lyrics and I will always remember what Porter said to Dad at this point as related to me by my father.
‘Well son’ – Porter said, ‘You’ve got to keep it real simple and plain for the folks, because they’re just so goddamn dumb, and I mean real dumb’.
My father was understandably floored by this candid expose of Country music’s lyrical depths and the artist’s ‘deep’ respect for his fans; no doubt leaving him reeling as he watched Minnie Pearl take to the stage.
At some point Dad was introduced to DeFord Bailey the first African-American to ever appear on the Grand Old Opry. A musician well-known for his ability to make the harmonica sing, but also the rarest of things, a Black Banjo player.
Dad helped Ralph Rinzler put DeFord on stage at Vanderbilt University and in the long quiet spell in the wilderness that had followed considerable fame if not monetary reward, this must have been a welcome respite to a natural performer like DeFord Bailey. Such is Deford Bailey’s now legendary status as an American musical icon that Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to him in his now legendary book ‘Lost Highway’. This is a deftly written and definitive tome on American music, particularly that of the South and that of working black and white people and I can heartily recommend it, Guralnick is one of the best writers on music that there is.
My Mum wrote me about Deford that….
‘Ralph was still looking for performers for the college circuits, soon after we married in 1965, and brought DeFord, his lawyer and a blues performer whose name I just can’t recall, but an advocate of the festivals, to our apartment. This was to be ‘neutral’ ground for talks with DeFord about joining in this idea.to get him coverage and money. The money was good, but the lawyer was so very protective and once bitten….by the Opry experience…he wouldn’t agree to anything. This was when the broken banjo was mentioned and Ralph got it, gave it to your dad and it was repaired. Dad and I went to DeFord’s barber and shoeshine shop to return it. (as it was Christmas time, I had tied a huge red bow on the neck…he left it there and it was still showing at the Vanderbilt concert where DeFord looked down, saw your dad and gave him a personal thanks for fixing it. He played Fox Chase.) When we returned the banjo we were looked on with much suspicion. The lawyer hung out there and there were 3 or 4 young men sitting on the tall seats, their shoes at the ready to be polished. But tiny DeFord was most courteous and sweet.’
A son’s realisation.
As I grew up wonderful stories were often told, such as of his meeting Libba Cotton the authoress of ‘Freight Train’.
We had picked Libba up on the way to the Folk Life Festival from her house in Washington and she sat in the back of our Dodge van playing a White Lady Banjo of my Dad’s, with me, according to my Mum, sitting in the playpen next to her in back of the pre-seatbelt and child’s car seat era vehicle, being serenaded! Somewhere if I have the time to dig it out is a picture of Libba taken by Dad. A slightly later shot shows a then three-year old (me again) staring up at a Ray Ban’d Muddy Waters performing at one of the Smithsonian’s New York based festivals in the late 60s. ’69 I think it may have been.
On T.V and in my house at the same time??..
One day in particular springs to mind when I try to recall exactly what made me realise, even as a very young kid, that I had something interesting and out of the ordinary going on around me.
As we watched two musicians on the Television with some friends, there came a knock at the door and the two guys who were on the T.V. walked in. They were Jim Rooney, who has worked with Nancy Griffiths, John Prine, Iris Dement and Bonnie Rait in his career since as a record producer; and then following him through that front door was Bill Keith, one of the best and most influential Banjo players of the Bluegrass style, a man who though native to the East Coast had played alongside Bill Monroe as one of his Bluegrass Boys for some time. The Bela Fleck of his generation would be good way to describe his impact at the time. Somewhere according to my Mum, Dad gets a mench in Jim Rooney’s book on his days in Nashville.
I remember them both getting out their instruments and playing, a pattern that would be established forever in a household where Dad’s Banjo was hardly ever out of an arms extended reach. I can also remember engaging the play and record buttons of some early tape cassette machine to record it all, a theme that has run through my life as I continue to record anything that moves and some things that don’t!
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard used to visit us too, according to my Mother, but I don’t recall this. They were both essential to establishing women as performers in Blue Grass music.
Peter Rowan was also a frequent visitor to the family home now that he had progressed from Workshop/Chicken Shed living and there is some old standard eight footage somewhere of me as a 4-year-old annoying the hell out of him no doubt by playing a wheezing harmonica alongside his guitar sitting in the long lush grass of our Cumberland riverside home underneath the giant Cottonwood tree there.
Peter’s music has been of particular interest to me over the years as in the late 60s he, along with Dave Grisman formed Earth Opera an excellent ‘Head’ band signed to Elektra where they joined label-mates The Doors. Earth Opera never had the same level of success, though in my opinion they were a fabulous band and had much to offer.
Peter has over the years been quite flippant or even embarrassed about his time in Earth Opera when I’ve wanted to chat to him about the band, but I’ve always really rated them. Death By Fire is the most incredible Gothic hymn and the Red Sox Are Winning is a great ode to the American way of life.. There’s a light, flippant erudition and minstrel like edge to what they did that, though in the present sounds innocent and unaware, is nonetheless real and heart-felt.
The launch party for Earth Opera’s first Lp was on the 18 June 1967, the day of my own birth. My parents didn’t attend for obvious reasons, but hidden inside our copy of the Lp is the launch party invite. It makes for interesting reading, a perfect example of the heady and innocent era of Flower Power. I’ll probably sell it one day on eBay and buy some rare Reggae (as is my way).
Later Peter would play alongside Grisman and Jerry Garcia in the band ‘Old and In the Way’. A band which showcased it’s members love of Old Timey and Bluegrass music. This was for a time an Lp often played in the Murphy household. Peter has rubbed shoulders with some of the best of the best of players, Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck is playing Banjo in the movie clip above and he’s written for Ricky Skaggs and even played with one of my heroes, Chinna, legendary trend setting Jamaican guitarist from the golden era of 70s Roots Reggae. Peter told me a great story of how he went to a Grounation run by Count Ossie’s son sometime shortly after Ossie passed away and picked up someone who sounds remarkably like it may have been John ‘Dizzy’ Moore on the way there! Typically Peter wasn’t quite sure who it was, and I was dying to know.
Blues ’76 and homesick
In 1975 Dad took us to England for a touring holiday and my brother and I met my English Grandmother for the first time. I can remember the cold and bleak countryside to this day and it remains the only time I’ve been to Hadrian’s Wall, though I’ve now lived in the UK for about 37 years.
In late ’75 having grown disgruntled with the changing face of the USA, as a less innocent era marched in on the old, homesickness for the cold winters and the miserable rain of England beckoned; and so Dad left his family to look for work and a place for us all to live in the UK.
He settled in Sussex and we joined him about 10 months later in May of 1976. The year of England’s last major heat wave, we just thought it was a normal Summer and felt right at home in the sweltering heat of our new ‘Deep South’.
At first he worked for Adlam and Burnett, responsible for building and restoring some of the world’s best and most interesting keyboard instruments. Then he worked for himself, restoring antiques for a local dealer and establishing himself as a respected furniture maker.
His sons went to English schools, had the shit beat out of them for a while, and quickly learnt to sound English. His wife, my mother took 6-7 years to settle, suffering a homesickness all of her own, but gradually the family established itself and prospered.
Collecting and playing
All through his travels, family life and meeting and mixing with musicians and artists my father collected songs, wrote them down, learnt them and placed many of them in a now dog-eared and almost ‘holy’ tunes book. He continued to do this now that he was working hard for his family, but much more sporadically, virtually stopping his playing as other interests like restoring his house took precedence. As he stopped playing, his sons started. They both learned piano and Chris continued on with keyboard instruments while I, Michael, saved up for a second hand electric guitar and then played it for over a year before being able to pay for the amplifier.
Both sons played together and then formed their first gigging band in the late 80s. All through this era American traditional music sat easily in the background and continued to be their musical and cultural grounding. A grounding no doubt that the whole family held onto as they worked out how to become English, a task I will admit to not having completed though I’m 37 years into my adoptive tenancy agreement.
Excitement for his sons, his influence.
Sometime in the mid 80s my brother and I would go for a short three date tour at the invitation of Peter Rowan, when he was playing with Flaco Jiminéz in the Free American Airforce days. I got an enormous kick out of being backstage with the band and particularly in sitting with and chewing the fat with Luz Garza, Flaco’s Bajo Sexta player. It was great kipping of the sofa of some bright dyed red-haired sexy older woman’s estuary side house in Leigh-On-Sea where Waterfront Records the label behind the tour was based. I felt a bit ‘Rock N’ Roll’ for the first time in my life I guess.
Meeting up with the band in the first place, at the Albany Empire in Deptford South London was an adventure I’ll always recall too. As those of you who know Deptford well can probably attest. Years later we discovered that Dad’s new Double Bass player in his string band, Rosie, had been in the support group for that night and she gave my Mom that date’s poster to copy. Again little connections and strange coincidences litter our lives. Connections that would never had have been made were it not for one man’s love for music and his pursuit of it.
I will be forever grateful that my father put me in touch with music making in such a direct and accessible way. No doubt it’s why I fronted a band, why I write and record, play guitar and enjoy putting out an online Radio show featuring Jamaican music. And no doubt it’s part of why my brother played internationally, toured the States, lived in L.A., recorded, played at Glastonbury, sat next to Paul McCartney jamming tunes on the keyboard, and why now years after the higher-life, he plays Cajun Melodian fantastically and with some other wonderful musicians. People like Dan Stewart, Ben Paley and Tab Hunter, with whom it’s been my joy to meet up with recently as we jammed at Dad’s Wake. (See download at the bottom of this article).
Over the following years…
As I already mentioned, the family settled into an English way of life, some distance from the American culture we had all shared and Dad concentrated on restoring our house, creating an amazing garden and helping to bring up his family.
Then later, around the time his two sons left home he began to play again and attend more folk clubs and festivals. With his interest re-kindled he visited the USA on many occasions to go to festivals to play, swap stories and tunes and to see some of the up-coming musicians of that time. It was during this period that he met Jack Elliot again after 40 or so years.
Dad and Mum talked only half jokingly about moving back to the States, buying a Mobile Home and touring the country non stop, on the road. But then out of nowhere on the way home from leaving a car for servicing and while walking he had some sort of seizure. After tests he was ‘repaired’ and carried on much as before; but because of the horrendous health insurance cost implications for any move to and then life in the States the plans to one day just possibly move back to America, were now forever gone and of necessity, forgotten.
Back to the Music
Over the following years he toned down his work as a furniture maker and designer and began to build more musical instruments again, he started to teach students Banjo and effect repairs on theirs and others’ Banjos.
He was in his element, finding time to indulge his passions once again, spreading his knowledge and joy in North American roots culture and music. A whole new generation of people interested in that culture were amazed to find a direct link with some of their now long gone heroes. All the time he was playing more and becoming part of a mainly Southern English scene of American String Band music in the UK.
The Rufus Crisp Experience
During this period of ‘adjustment’ he started to play music with Dave Arthur and they recorded an album together for Fellside records, ‘The Chickens Are A Crowing’ by the Rufus Crisp Experience as they called themselves in a polite nod to Rufus – a long time pickin’ hero.
Dave and Dad had hooked up at some folk club or other and became firm friends, Dad introducing Dave to people like Doc Watson on American trips and Dave introducing Dad to the outskirts of a professional musical life. Dave to this day continues to play and tell stories professionally.
Notably the cover was painted by collector and artist Art Rosenbaum, someone my Dad had met up with on his U.S. travels in later years. Art produced the ‘Art of field recording vols 1&2’ and is known for his work preserving the songs of the state of Georgia in the U.S.A.
Around this time Dad gathered some other musicians about him and also around his wife’s tea and cake introducing both personnel and refreshments to the little studio room in his garden where they could all sip Whiskey, eat home-baked goodies, drink tea and learn and play tunes. With the occasional gig giving them all something to work towards.
Comprising of Dad on Banjo with Tony Wetjen on guitar and John O’Connell on fiddle and mandolin they called themselves Faded Glory. The name was an homage to the Southern States of America and a wry poke at themselves, all of whom might be judged to be, shall we say in the kindest of ways, in the Autumns of their respective years.
The band, particularly with the introduction of his wife Mary (Mum) started to sound pretty damn good and now kept a stricter tempo with the addition of her Banjo Uke playing. After all, in general this was dance music that they were playing and it needed a strong and consistent beat.
Mum continues to enhance the Cajun tunes that her son Chris now skillfully plays with some mean and strict tempo Triangle playing too. You can’t over-estimate the importance of a good Triangle player, unless of course you’ve never heard a bad one.
The band recorded a number of collections of songs, played many gigs and entertained many people.
Though the dates were staggered and nothing is ever clear-cut (and I’ve forgotten), basically the band morphed into a new concern when John O’ Connell and Tony Wetjen left, Rosie Davis joined playing Double Bass and a one time student Dan Stewart now played guitar, sometimes a Banjo too. (As I write he’s teaching himself fiddle)
The Circle Broken?
A final note.
This band was still meeting and playing, gigging and rehearsing, when Dad quietly and effortlessly passed away from heart failure on the night of the 15th of August 2011. He had been planning to attend the Gainsborough Old Time Music Festival in Lincolnshire and no doubt had questions to ask and tales to recount there.
Dad’s life outlined several musical movements, it traced musical cultures and rubbed shoulders with some of the ‘names’ involved in the creation and recording of that music. To have appeared on the same stage with someone who literally invented a musical genre, that of Bluegrass would be enough to write home about, but what my father did was to study, create, collect, nurture and share music and American culture.
It is to him and people like him that music is entrusted. It was his energy and it is the energies of people like him that truly keeps music alive. And by alive I mean heard, and by heard I mean shared, played, and not just recorded and listened to, but partaken in.
His music was music not kept in stasis, not frozen for the future in some dusty groove but music that came alive every time that a Banjo or Guitar got played, or a song was sung. I believe that until the next time someone sings ‘Cripple Creek’ it’s gone forever and all the history and emotion it can summate dispels. Yet somehow all that fathomless depth of ‘past’ re-gathers in mere moments when the first chord is struck and that ‘traditional’ tune is heard again. This is LIVE music.
Writing about or studying a musical culture in my opinion really doesn’t nurture it, it only records it and unlike a physical object in a museum that could be studied at leisure, musicology does not preserve a musical culture or sound in the same way that a temperature controlled specimen case might. Keeping traditional music in the cage of a book or academic study is akin to keeping animals in Zoos, and taking away their voices. There is nothing left alive of music to view or study in a book, or a musicologist, critic or historian’s notes. If music in the sense that it is folk music (music of and by the people) has to be anything, then it has to be alive to qualify.
I feel that traditional music is only kept as a thing of any note by the active creation and re-creation of it on a regular basis and the sharing of that creation. Music is social and in providing a place where people could share that music my father was a curator of American Traditional Music. So many days, so many hours, such a life was all about supporting this music.
His interest was very likely quite selfish, purely about his love for it; but in that self-indulgence he became a repository for the music of America and now he’s gone hopefully some of his knowledge has been passed on.
His teaching I see as a high point in this personal history of a musical curatorship, his passing on of some knowledge and of the baton of knowledge to a new generation. That’s why on the day of his funeral his coffin entered the local parish Church to a tune he recorded with Dan Stewart his then student and a much younger man. It made such complete sense, it truly was in the words of the title of his article for The Old Time Herald Magazine, music going ‘Full Circle’.
Nevertheless to his son, me, slightly lost without him in the world, it feels such a great pity that so much knowledge and understanding may have drifted away and perhaps won’t now be passed on.
Epilogue – The Funeral, and the Wake.
Music was a big part of celebrating Dad’s life both at the Funeral service and at the gathering at my parents home afterwards. Included here is music played by friends and family at the Wake. Please see the links below for downloads and details.
Above is just a little taster to whet appetites perhaps. See below for a much longer collection of tunes. this though is a nice danceable tune recorded during my Dad’s wake last September (2011) Features Chris Murphy, Mike Murphy, Ben Paley, Tab Hunter, John O’Connel, Andy Landgridge, Rosie Davis and many others.
Barry Murphy’s Wake – The Music. < Click this link to download the entire edited music. This music was played by Dad’s friends and family on September 2nd 2011, the day of his funeral at Wartling Parish Church East Sussex.
All rights reserved on publishing to the above article by Mike Murphy 2012 (please ask for permission before copying or reproducing)
First published in English Dance & Song Vol.55 No. 4 Winter 1993
Ask any ‘country’ person in the Southern United States where and when to see the most spectacular autumn colours and first, they will take you out to their front yard to show you the sourwood and black gum trees their great grandfather planted near the old home place when he settled his family in the Tennessee valley, then they will tell you to go over to North Carolina, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-October if you really want to see a sight to behold.
This is as true today as it was in the fall of 1964 when Barry and I struck out from Nashville, Tennessee heading northeast to Knoxville, Johnson city, Tennessee, Banner Elk and Boone, North Carolina and on to Independence, Virginia. We were on a journey to the mountains to visit folks Barry had met soon after arriving in America in 1963. When, crazed by the sound of the five-string banjo and the Appalachian dulcimer, he had left Eltham, S.E. to hear the ‘real’ thing.
With luck we would find people at home, not too busy to play a tune or two for us and with early frosts permitting, witness a ‘sight to behold’ during our travels. By the time we reached Sevierville we were well into hilly country and at Banner Elk the roads were narrowing, winding snakelike along the ridge tops. Shadowed bluffs of the mountains rose hard against our left, while mist-shrouded valleys opened to the sky on our right. We wound down into the valley searching the dirt roads for Edd Presnell, dulcimer maker, a legend in the mountains and now, in England. He lived in a ‘Holler’ somewhere between Banner Elk and Valle Crucis.
At every cabin where we stopped to ask the way barefoot children scurried to hide behind sheds, trees or their mother’s skirts as she, with a wariness and a weariness, pointed down the track in answer to our queries and viewed us with courteous suspicion. Few strangers dare venture down mountain roads unless their wheelbases fit the washboarded, pot holed surfaces, (custom-shaped by countless wagons and timber tugs), and unless they have a damn good reason for being there in the first place. Our reasons were sound but our wheels did not fit and so we bumped and we grounded until we finally reached the clearing at the end of a long, lonesome track. There was no one at home.
Distances can be deceptive in the states, with what appears to be a five-hour drive more likely to be eight. We arrived late in Boone at sundown, Deep Gap after dark and down Wildcat Road (with our fingers crossed and a prayer for the oil pan), well past suppertime.
Willard and Ora Watson were at home with their children, his Aunt, her sister, her sister’s husband, their children and numerous grandchildren, all of whom were standing out on the porch to see who had pulled into the yard. A matching pair of raw-boned hounds stood guard at the bottom of the wooden steps, their fangs visible in the light from the house.
By the way, if you ever go to North Carolina to visit with old-timey musicians or see the spectacular colours in the fall, a good habit to cultivate is one in which you leave plenty of time for friendly ‘howdies’ and conversation before you state your business. This time, ‘howdies’ over, the business was to make as much music as possible in the time and space (in the front room) available. But, before Willard would strike a lick on Barry’s banjo he turned to me and said, “So, yer his’n fee-ance are ye? Tell me, are ye funny?”
The wood fire crackled, sending a flash of yellow light across the green, linoleum floor. The hounds, asleep either side of the door lifted their broad heads and focused deep, dark eyes upon me. Considering my situation as the only outsider in the room, not to mention a deathly silence from the entire Watson clan, assembled to hear my reply – a lot was at stake here. I took a deep breath, looked him straight in the eye, (where an unexpected twinkle gave me courage) and said, “Well, Willard, I know I’m funny looking, will that do?” He clapped me on the shoulder, reached for Barry’s five string banjo and announced, “She’ll do!” The door was opened and the dogs went out. The women crowded into the kitchen to gossip and to watch Ora make up and bake a pan of buttermilk biscuits and fry a batch of sausage patties. The men sat in the front room keeping time to ‘Ramblin’ Hobo’ and ‘Cousin Sally Brown’ with heavy boots while barefoot children danced before them. Soon, everyone was dancing or playing, or both, and devouring sausage and biscuits.
By ten o’clock the children and grandchildren had left and we were all in our beds – Willard and Ora upstairs above the rising warmth from the front room and we, in a deep, goose feather bed just off the kitchen where the constant sound of running water, piped down from a mountainside spring, sang into the sink. Down the drain, under the house, it happily bubbled toward a quick running stream across the road.
Morning was announced by several roosters, strutting and parading their finery before the hens. Younger roosters, their adolescent voices yet to break, croaked in broken tones, their necks stretched as far as possible, their eyes on the hens’ responses to their songs. In the kitchen, Ora was already busy at the stove frying slabs of home-cured ham and sausage meat. Nearby, a pale blue bowl of fresh laid eggs sat in a shaft of pink sunlight, their large yolks visible through translucent shells. On the table a cluster of colourful jars: wild strawberry and blackberry jam, plum jelly, honeys from wild bee trees cast rainbows onto a white cloth. Cooling in the spring-fed sink was a pail of frothy milk, still warm from the cow and a dish of fresh-churned butter.
We moved the pail aside and dashed our faces. The smell of lye soap reminded me of my childhood when the big iron pot was turned up in the back yard, set over the fire, filled with water drawn from the well, stirred with lye soap and brought to a boil on washday Mondays.
‘Made that there lye soap myself,” Ora told us. “It’ll clean up near ‘bout anything you want.” She offered her prized, lye soap recipe. “First, you save up all your wood ash, then you kill your pig and render the fat down real clear.”
Ora’s buttermilk biscuits came hot from the oven, double-yolked eggs slipped onto our plates, sunny sides up, and a couple of hens tiptoed in to peck about our feet as we bowed our heads for the blessing of ‘This food to the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.’
Tales of travelling and of hunting vied with the food for our attention. Our mouths full, we listened as Willard told us tales of the Montana forests where he was once chased by bears and tales of being chased by women at country dances, so far away he would drive all day to ‘git thar’, dance all night and drive back to the lumber camp in time for a bear-steak breakfast before felling trees. Unable to keep from amazing us, he poured Barry a glass full of his finest elderberry wine and dared him to find a better taste this side of Heaven; took down his long-barrelled muzzle loader from above the mantel, slung his powder horn over his shoulder and stepped out onto the front porch. He loaded his rifle with powder, dropped in the shot, packed the wadding and took aim at a row of old tin cans set up on fence posts across the road. Chickens scattered and the hounds looked disappointed that it was only target practice. Ora turned to me as she mounted the stairs. “Come away from all that there foolishness. I’ll show you my quilts.”
Upstairs, we unfolded and I admired a dozen patchwork quilts: Log Cabin, Bear Tracks, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Drunkards Path, all bound for New York City to be sold in a ‘fancy store’ for, “Nigh on two hundred dollars apiece!” she told me, proudly. She would get twenty dollars a piece.
Across the road every tin can gone, Willard was showing Barry his workshop, a lean-to shed that supported the remains of an old log barn. The cow peered out from the open door. In the workshop the men discussed the finer properties of spring steel, from wrecked cars, as a source for handmade carving tools. On the window shelf a variety of automated toys, animals and farmers, were ready to be painted. A fat farmer kicked a lean pig at the turn of a handle or switched a walking mule as he sauntered along behind, going nowhere on a double crank.
It was time to be on our way. We backed out of the yard. The hounds did not stir. Willard was whittling and whistling in his workshop. As we passed the corner of the house Ora stepped out into the road, her faded calico apron full of apples. One by one she handed them to us through the open car window and waved us out of sight.
A few miles away, ‘Doc’ and Rosa Lee Watson, only having returned from California the day before, where they had performed to packed audiences of young, appreciative, college students at Berkeley, were busy with chores. We found them in the kitchen, Rosa Lee making Apple Butter and Doc at the table, his neighbour’s old, wooden-works clock spread out in an orderly semi-circle before him.
“You don’t need eyes to fix a clock,” he explained. “Just ears to hear it tick and a really pretty chime on the hour. Now, don’t those apples smell good?” With a delicate touch he felt the open face of his wristwatch and told us the time.
Outside, a heaving truck lumbered into the yard. Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton, her step-mother and her sister had come to fetch us. They were moving house and needed our help. “We all like our old house better than this new one,” said Rosa Lee’s sister, “But, we gotta move ‘cause that old roof leaked so bad we all woke up buried alive under two foot of snow last Christmas.”
We followed the truck out of Deep Gap and up into the rugged mountains on narrow, twisting roads built on stony outcroppings which, still in shadow, were covered in hoarfrost from last night’s dip in the temperature. Around a sharp bend the two-story cabin came into view. In front of it a shallow, stone-bottomed creek ran down to a little clearing, surrounded by a split rail fence. In the middle of the clearing was a roofless, log barn, one wall leaning downhill. “I sure to like your new home, Daddy,” Rosa Lee teased, pointing to the barn.
Out back, behind the cabin, was a large spring overflowing into the gravely ditch it had worn on its way to meet the creek. It was overgrown and littered with rusted tin cans and bottomless saucepans. Barry and I ‘set to’ clearing it out while the others began unloading the truck. Doc did most of the carrying. Having been ‘shown ‘round’ the place on Rosa Lee’s arm before we unloaded he sailed up the steps and into the house without a stumble while the rest of us teetered beneath boxes and bags which obscured our view of stairs and doorways and we bumped into everything and each other. Before we left we all had a good look at the roof. It was as sound as a dollar. However, the back door was jammed shut.
Doc, Rosa Lee, Barry and I headed back to Deep Gap, slipping down the narrow inclines a lot faster than we had slipped up them. At the junction with the hard road a handwritten sign brought us to a halt. APPLES FOR SALE $1.00 A BUSHEL.
None of us has ever forgotten the taste of those cold, crisp and sweet mountain apples that day – apples ripened by frost and the reflections of trees turned gold, orange, purple, crimson, yellow, scarlet, pink, pearl and pale, pale green.
We found the house full of people when we got back. They had come over to see Doc and Rosa Lee and to ask them about California and to find out if they had seen any movie stars. Merle and Nancy were there and soon the banjos, fiddles, guitars and Mr. Benfield’s autoharp kept the women tapping in the kitchen as they prepared lunch for everybody present, plus three more seen coming toward the house!
In the mountains no one asks you if you want to stay for lunch. If you are in their home at lunch time, supper time or breakfast (by chance or design), a place is set for you and you sit down, bow your head and ‘Thank the good Lord for his many blessings. Amen.”
Before sunset, Merle took us on a long walk through the woods, his rifle at the ready should we see danger or a free meal. He wanted to share with us his favourite spot, his lookout from a high, rocky bluff that towered over a long, deep valley. We watched the sun dip below the far mountain, its rays just catching the tops of trees nearer our view, their colours a cascade of jewels, poured out at our feet.
We had dallied too long and the night was upon us. But, the full moon rose in a starlit sky and we hurried along, more to keep warm than from fright. We neared the house, the lights were on – the moon, behind it, revealed Doc up on the roof, installing an aerial for his new radio! Barry, upset at seeing him up there called out without thinking. “Doc! You shouldn’t be doing that in the dark!” The joke was on Barry. Everyone thought this the funniest thing they had heard all year and the story was repeated to anyone who hadn’t yet heard it.
Mountain folk love a good joke and will spend hours telling them again and again – the best ones told only by the ‘best’ teller of jokes. They will also go to great lengths to arrange one if it strikes their fancy and many a person has found themselves keeping company with strange objects in their beds – their screeches setting off hoots of laughter from all around the house.
By dawn frost had carpeted the yard and iced our car. A deep mist rested in the valley. Above it, the sun swept sweet accents of light over the treetops. The yellow ones seemed to glow from within. The smell of wood smoke and bacon lured us back inside, rubbing our hands. With the taste of red-eye gravy on our tongues, the sound of mountain music in our ears and the sight of Doc at the kitchen table repairing yet another clock, we waved our farewells and took the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Independence, Virginia.
With time to spare, we found ‘Uncle’ Wade Ward and Granny Porter sitting, rocking in the sun on their front porch. It took very little coaxing, once we had stated our ‘business’, to get Uncle Wade to play for us his famous ‘Fox Chase’, ‘Old Joe Clark, ‘Sally Anne’, ‘Half Shaved’…the tunes fairly tumbled out. Granny rocked and jigged her high top boots beneath her long black skirt. At the end of one familiar tune she smiled a broad, toothless smile from beneath her blue and white print poke bonnet and said, “Yessir, Wade can sure ‘nuff take the rag oft bush. He can sure do that!” She lapped her knee and Uncle Wade struck up another ‘rag stealin’ tune before I could ask her exactly what she meant.
Such a statement on the quality of banjo playing may be lost in the mists of time and lonesome valleys. I can only hazard a guess that Uncle Wade’s tunes were so lively that even the washing, draped over bushes in the sun to dry, would leap off and dance around the yard.
Indoors at sundown, the music continued with Granny beside the woodstove, Barry and I seated on the patchwork covered bed and Uncle Wade in the only other chair. In the kitchen, Granny’s youngest, a woman in her thirties, prepared supper.
Once more the table was laid with a feast of home grown fare of wild fruit and home-cured meats. Afterwards, dishes done, the oil lamp lit, we were shown the washbasin, the gourd dipper, the water bucket (a sliver of ice already evident on its surface), and the path to the privy.
Granny’s youngest plumped up our bed, which was in the kitchen near the stove and still warm from the day’s cooking. Beneath the stove a pair of blue tick hounds lay sleeping. “I ‘spect them hounds’ll be in bed with ya’ll before daybreak.” Laughing to herself she took the lamp away.
The sound of sausage sizzling in the pan woke us and we dressed beneath the covers while our breakfast cooked nearby. A quick trip to the privy, our backsides on icy, wooden boards, our hands and faces lathered in an icy basin, we were ready for anything – especially after milk gravy poured over hot pepper sausage, sweet potato fritters, biscuits, eggs and huckleberry jelly.
Uncle Wade was playing a few more tunes as we left his house. Granny Porter was slicing apple circles into her lap and stringing them up above the stove to dry while her daughter begged us to take her back to Nashville where she hoped to find work. “I’m a good cook,” she said. There was no disputing that. Only, we knew she would be lost in a city, knew she would miss the quiet, peaceful valleys, the wild mountains, the good people. We hope we were right to tell her that we were headed north and that we would write her if ever anything turned up in Nashville that we thought might suit her.
Now, if you ask us where and when the autumn colours are at their most spectacular, we will get out our maps of North Carolina and then we will show you our 35-mm transparencies taken in mid-October of 1964.
Barry Murphy remembers those early days of the folk revival
Originally published in The Old Time Herald Magazine – Volume 8, Number 8 / here reproduced with permission from the Author,… my Dad.
My journey towards an almost total infatuation with American Folk culture and music, in particular, was a long one, starting in the mid 1950’s in England, still a drab and gloomy place; not yet free of the scars of WWII that I had been born into, my childhood spent in the heavily bombed area of South East of London.
For many young people the appearance in the pop charts of the many familiar names of early Rock and Roll was a welcome distraction. My path, however, was set a little later when, as if by magic it seemed, the other half of the teenage population carried cheap guitars in even cheaper, soft cases and those that didn’t, toted a washboard or struggled with a tea chest, tub bass. Thanks to Lonnie Donegan and his hit with Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’- skiffle music had arrived.
One evening, at a local skiffle club, my musical horizons expanded greatly, for, apart from the local groups performing, there were two ‘real live Americans’. One short, in denim jacket and jeans with a huge grin beneath a cowboy hat to suit, the other sombre in black hat, black trousers and a partly unbuttoned jacket revealing a fancy gambler’s style waistcoat.
This duo was Derrol Adams from Portland, Oregon and Jack Elliot from New York, Los Angeles, and apparently, everywhere in between. Jack was half hidden behind a huge, battered Gretsch 75 guitar and Derrol held a banjo with a peg halfway down the neck; unlike any of the jazz band tenors with which I was familiar.
With Jack’s intro and patter over, they began to play ‘Danville Girl’. I craned my neck to see across the crowd, for apart from terrific singing, these guys were actually playing tunes on their instruments. I was dumb-founded. I didn’t know you could do that. We skifflers relied on a steady, syncopated strum and a magical three-chord trick.
As I rode home on my motorcycle, highly elated after this evening of entertainment, I just knew I had found the meaning of life. My skiffle period of six months was over. I couldn’t get that modal sound of Derrol playing ‘The Cuckoo, She’s a Pretty Bird’, out of my head; nor Jack’s finger style guitar on ‘Railroad Bill’ or his greasy flatpicking of ‘The Talking Blues’. By the end of the following week I had exchanged my weekly, apprentice patternmaker’s wage of approximately $8.00 for a Lyons and Healy 40 bracket banjo, extracted from a workmate’s attic and sporting that essential 5th string.
But, what now? My American heroes had drifted to pastures new, leaving me with a faint remembrance of those delicious sounds, but not a clue as to what those magic fingers were doing.
I spent endless evenings in front of a mirror trying anything that would get me those sounds, but apart from having noticed Derrol playing an up-picking style and knowing the open G tuning, I was up against a wall. I could see this had no future. I couldn’t even get a copy of Pete Seeger’s little red book – which I had somehow gotten wind of. Then, I hit it lucky a few weeks later when I saw an ad in a London music newspaper stating that the American folk singer, Peggy Seeger, was to appear the coming Sunday night. I made a beeline for the venue.
After the show, despite my shyness, I approached her about lessons. She agreed to teach as long as at least half a dozen other people were interested in learning.
Fortunately, they were found and lessons began: Tuesday nights, Carter family and Libba Cotton guitar styles and Thursdays, five string banjo.
At last I was learning, slowly, but I was on my way. Then, catastrophe hit in a two-pronged attack. Riding my motorcycle to my Tuesday guitar lesson I hit an icy patch and on picking up myself, and the machine from the road, I realized the soft case strapped across my back felt ominously limp. Inspection revealed, apart from the neck, nothing larger than a matchstick had survived. Arriving at the lesson Peggy loaned me a guitar, but announced the sad news that, due to a travel violation of visiting Communist countries, she had sufficiently upset the U.S. Government enough that they, in turn, had pressured the British to revoke her work permit. She went to France to live and, although we corresponded, that was it for those precious lessons.
Out of the blue another American appeared and was living, as Peggy had done, with folklorist A.L. Lloyd and his family not five miles from my home. Ralph Rinzler, a happy-go-lucky guy with a penchant for brown woolly sweaters, corduroy trousers and leather moccasins, wild about traditional music and sporting a large record collection, which he was very willing to share, popped upon the scene. We hit it off well and became good friends.
Ralph, with his deep interest in traditional culture soon got me listening to Uncle Bunt Stephens, Kelly Harrell, Clarence Ashley and many others and also made me increasingly aware of American crafts – weaving, patchwork, and pottery. He also owned a Gibson mandolin, a Bacon banjo and, most timely for me, a D18 Martin guitar which I quickly loaned in order to make a tolerable copy for myself.
Many hours were spent in the Lloyd’s 17th century townhouse. The more I learned of Southern people and culture, the more I wanted to find the links to the traditions and people of the British Isles.
Eventually, Ralph went back home, but would regularly send me records from the steadily increasing flow of albums from Folkways, Tradition, Riverside etc. Now, Jack and Derrol were back in town and Guy Carawan sketched for me his impression of a mountain dulcimer on a scrap of paper. I built one right away, having become enamoured with the instrument after finding an old 78 recording of Jean Ritchie, issued in England in 1948. My dulcimer, although looking more like a piece of folk art, played a decent tune and eventually decorated Ralph’s wall in Washington until his untimely death.
Within another year, Ralph was back in England. Now, his passion was Irish music and the purpose of his stay was to gather together Irish musicians living in London and record their music. This we did, combing pubs in Irish communities and having Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, Paddy Breen, even the great piper Seamus Ennis to sing and play for us. Ralph graciously mentioned my help in the notes of what became, Folkway’s 3575 ‘Irish Music in London Pubs’, though my contribution mainly consisted of lugging Ewan McColls huge, heavy, ‘portable’ tape recorder from place to place and helping to consume tidal waves of Guinness, freely given by pub landlords, grateful for all the publicity.
Ralph had always wanted me to go to the states, travel with him, and so, at the start of the gloomy winter of 1962 I decided I would and started selling most of the things I owned to raise the money for the voyage out on the old Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth with a return voyage booked on the sister ship, Queen Mary.
In those days, with austerity still firmly in force, only £50 per person, (about $180), was allowed out of the country. In early April 1963 I walked towards the railway station, leaving behind parents, friends, and twelve, vintage motorcycles, in store. I carried a suitcase and in my other hand a nearly finished, 12string guitar – as yet another passion of mine was Leadbelly. My plan was to stay for six months, but I returned to England thirteen years later with my Alabama wife, Mary, and two Tennessee-born sons.
On board ship I whiled away pleasant hours each day, enjoying luxury that had, before and since, eluded me and, when weather permitted, sat on deck putting the finishing touches to my 12string. At New York I was greeted by an ever-ebullient Ralph who whisked me through the deep canyons of the city to his Greenwich Village apartment, recently taken over from Alan Lomax. Here, I was introduced to a man sitting quietly at a table. “This is Doc Watson.” Less than an hour later my first hero Jack Elliott breezed in. Johnny Shahn, village artist, came in with the artwork for the Watson Family Album, which was ready for release by Folkways. Things were certainly off to a good start. It seemed that if you knew Ralph Rinzler, you knew everybody.
Within a couple of days of my arrival in America Ralph, Doc and I were heading for North Carolina, taking Doc home. Ralph stayed with the Watson’s and as their house was full, I was dropped off at Willard and Ora Watson’s way down a then, rough, unmade road called Wildcat; named by Willard many years earlier. Willard and his family made me most welcome and by the end of the day I had fired Willard’s black powder, long rifle, learned to pitch horseshoes, spent hours looking through piles of Ora’s wonderful quilts and been down in Willard’s woodshed for demonstrations of his mechanical toys. This was all a dream come true.
Willard was one of those most enterprising mountain people, virtually self-sufficient in all things. Later, when I showed him a set of English woodcarving tools, he inspected them most carefully and, on my next visit, proudly showed me his excellent, homemade versions, hand forged, ground and hardened from car spring steel.
On the second day of my stay at the Watson’s a huge ox-drawn, covered wagon, pulled up outside. Willard and other local men had built it as a part of a Daniel Boone Bicentennial, a remembrance of the pioneers’ long trek from the Yadkin Valley to Kentucky. That night we travelled miles down Wildcat to Darby where tables were bending beneath the weight of pot-luck supper offerings and a stage, set up for Old Time and Bluegrass music and dance. Willard was obviously well known for his dancing – the crowd loved him, and I was experiencing things that should have been totally alien, when in fact it all seemed to so wonderfully natural.
Too soon, Ralph and I returned north, mainly for Ralph to play his final gigs with the Greenbrier Boys in Philadelphia, before preparations were made to get Doc and Rosa Lee out to the U.C.L.A. Folk Festival plus a week’s booking at the Ashgrove. This trip out west with the Watsons had been one of Ralph’s inducements to my coming to the States. However, at the last moment it was decided that Fred Price and Clint Howard would go out as well, and the blue Chevvy station wagon was full. I, instead, was given the job of taking Clarence (Tom) Ashley out by train. Ralph dropped me off at the Ashley’s house in Shouns, Tennessee. From there we drove in his big, black old car to the nearest bus station and rode to Bristol, then by train to Knoxville, then another to Louisville and yet another to Chicago. It occurred to me, in the palatial booking hall, trying to keep my companion from wandering off, that this was a strange situation – a young fellow from London guiding his most favorite banjo player across a country he knew very little about. There was time on the Union Pacific, ‘DomeLiner’ to get the banjo out many times and have Tom play and sing. I never gave a thought to what middle class travelling companions thought of this spectacle. Gradually, I got the hang of his accent but still, always had the feeling he rarely understood me at all.
We finally arrived in L.A. Ralph took Clarence Ashley off while I, along with Doc, Rosa Lee, Clint and Fred went to Ashgrove owner, Ed Perl’s, seaside cottage on Malibu beach. It was small, but we all packed in. Ed also loaned us a tiny, little British car, a Hillman Minx. Absolute rubbish, it was treated with disdain by its chosen driver, Clint Howard. Doc still laughs remembering my comments from the back seat as Clint pulverized the gears to dust, “Sort them out, Clint. They’re all in the same box.”
In the first week everyone was performing at the U.C.L.A. festival, and in the evenings at the Ashgrove. The second week was more relaxed and in the mornings we sat on the beach, joined by Roscoe Holcombe and Clarence. They all played together, including Rosa Lee singing and playing guitar. It was a marvellous way for me to hear these people. I had a job at the Ashgrove, dishwasher, doorman and some nights, running the little record shop in the foyer. This didn’t stop me watching the performances.
In the second week, apart from Doc and friends, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Clarence and Roland White and the Country Gentlemen were on stage. When the two weeks were over everyone left but me. I went with the Dillards and stayed with them out at Topanga Canyon, waiting for Tracy Schwartz and Johnny Herald (that wonderful singer with the Greenbrier Boys), to find a car to carry us all back East.
We arranged a deal with a company that shifted people’s cars – where the owner had travelled back by other means but wanted his car taken home. We needed a big, big car as my companions had loads of stuff. I finally met them at a motel where they had just taken delivery of a monstrous Chrysler New Yorker. Glee turned to despair when we opened the trunk to find it packed to the brim with salesman’s samples. As the non-paying passenger in the group, I was jammed in the back with all the stuff, hardly able to see out.
Somewhere in Arizona, or it might have been New Mexico, who could see out to tell? We were pulled over by a Highway Patrolman for not having an outside mirror -in fact not having any rear view at all, due to all the stuff. On checking Tracy’s driver’s license, something clicked, and the patrolman realized he was talking to a member of a band he followed, the New Lost City Ramblers. After Tracy and John played him a couple of his favorite tunes, standing out in the desert, he waved us on our way, reminding us to get our mirror fixed.
We stopped, next, in Amarillo, Texas to visit Uncle Eck Robertson, the Texas fiddler. He must have been in his 80’s then. I had heard plenty of his fiddling from tapes in Ralph’s collection. I wanted a photo of the occasion, but had to wait as Uncle Eck disappeared to put on clothes suitable for a champion Texas fiddler. He reappeared wearing a white hat, string tie and fancy shirt.
Finally, my companions dropped me off in Louisville, Kentucky where I caught a Greyhound bus to Nashville. Ralph was now managing Bill Monroe, trying to get Bill’s career up and running and taking advantage of the Folk revival and Festival scenes. His plan was for us to find an apartment with Del McCrory and Bill Keith, share the costs. I alighted, just as so many hundreds before me, with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar in the other and checked in, as arranged, at the Clarkston Hotel, only to find that Ralph and the ‘boys’ weren’t in. I took the cheapest room in the place at three dollars a day, no air conditioning, (it was June and I had no idea that the world could be this hot). Next day – still no Ralph and I was now down to nine dollars to my name and a check from the Ashgrove for forty-five dollars that was useless if you had no bank account in town. I lived off of 10 cent Krystal burgers and 5 cent orange drinks. That night, I handed over most of what was left of my worldly riches for my final night’s stay and the next morning went to WSM radio station and boldly asked for Bill Monroe’s phone number. Bill had said at the Ashgrove, ‘If you’re ever in Nashville, look me up,’ and so, with the innocence of youth I was taking him at his word. Of course, the people at WSM were reluctant to help me, but I pestered them all day until, eventually, they called him and in an hour he appeared. At once, he took me down the road to a steakhouse where I ate more beef in one sitting than a British family devoured in a week. Bill also cashed my check for me, so now with riches untold I could endure one more night on the top floor of the Clarkston.
Ralph and the ‘boys’ appeared the next day and we began apartment hunting. The words, ‘Musicians’, or ‘Bluegrass Band’ had the effect of sending previously friendly landlords back into the gloom, accompanied by the slow squeak of closing, screen doors. It was decided that my bearded face and funny way of talking wasn’t helping, so I was banished to hide in the car. When this failed, Del McCrory was also banished. Finally, at nightfall, the two, city slickers, Ralph and Bill Keith convinced a young family in West Nashville to have us. This apartment became known, unofficially, as the ‘Blue Grass Rest Home’. Over time, the list of people who stayed there was a who’s who of Bluegrass musicians.
On weekdays the band was often out fulfilling small engagements that Bill had, himself, booked in nearby states’ High School gyms etc. Ralph was starting to get College Festival bookings for them and, virtually without exception, Saturdays would see them all back for the Opry. I would carry someone’s case and get in backstage.
It was always sweltering hot back there and the ageing stars had a constant battle with riverlets of make-up slithering down onto spangled suits. Most of the music was not to my taste at all, but Sam McGee, the Crook Brothers, Stringbean and Grandpa Jones made it all worthwhile. Plus, I was warming to Bluegrass and certainly enjoyed Flatt and Scruggs, Bill and the boys of coarse, and the occasional visit of people like Jim and Jessie. After the Opry was over, we would usually drift down to Ernest Tubbs’ record shop where the show seemed to transfer itself till 2am, or later.
Some week ends we would pack into a couple of cars and head for Bean Blossom, Indiana, where Bill and his brother Birch had a little country music park. These journeys were arduous, as Bill would not let his ancient Buick be driven faster than fifty miles an hour. That old car was all he had to get to performances. Even if he were asleep, as soon as we exceeded the magic speed, he would awake and admonish the guilty driver. It had 350,000 miles on the clock and he intended to make it last a lot longer. Being skinny, I was invariably squashed in the back between Dell Wood, ‘Queen of the Ivories’, and Bill’s partner and bass player, Bessie. At Bean Blossom I would sit out in the sun at a little table and take the entrance money. When this was done, I’d sit up on the edge of the stage and enjoy the music.
On one occasion, Bill dropped a bombshell when, without warning, he suddenly announced, “There’s a young feller from England’s gonna come up and sing you a song.” I don’t know to this day how he even knew I played. I certainly had never done so within his earshot. I had with me my trusty 12string, as Bill liked to play it now and then and had said he would like to use it for a gospel album. My12 string interest was in Leadbelly and Jessie Fuller numbers. I doubted a Bean Blossom audience would go for that. What to play? Somehow, the guitar was about in tune and, with a dropped bass string, I played ‘Down in a Willowy Garden’ in D, with Bill playing delicious tremolos on the mandolin and Kenny Baker bowing out soulful sounds. I was terrified, but got through it somehow; disappointingly I wasn’t approached by talent scouts with open check books.
Ralph and I made a trip to the Mountain View Arkansas Festival run by Jimmy Driftwood where it seemed people just flocked around the courthouse. There was a stage, but as much activity occurred right there on the sidewalk with people fiddling, an older lady had set up her hammer dulcimer and was playing for a big crowd. Someone had brought a collection of un-restored, ancient homemade banjos and lap dulcimers of every design and had simply leaned them against the wall for people to appreciate. It was so non-commercial. I loved it.
By the end of the year Ralph was off to be a part of Newport Folk Festival and the Bluegrass Boys scattered back to their respective home places to gather again, when necessary, for the larger gigs they were now booking. Unable to afford the apartment on my own I negotiated with the landlord to fix up a little shack at the very end of the garden, set hard against a L&N railroad freight loop where, at night, my little house came alive and trembled with the passing of thundering freight trains. My rent was ten dollars a month.
My work, employed on commission as a motorcycle mechanic, hit a brick wall at the onset of my first Nashville winter. My pay one memorable week harvested a princely, seven dollars. Fortunately, some newly made friends had started a folk club, ‘The Bookstore’ on second Avenue North and here, I could earn the same sum three times a week plus piles of free pizza and jugs of beer. The club members bought me a very nice Goya /Levin guitar and, on the kitchen table in the shack, I was making a five-string neck for a Vega Whyte Laydie Tenor banjo I was buying on time for $40.00. I kept warm by burning, in my potbelly stove, what was left of a nearby rotten fence.
With the arrival of spring, Ralph seemed to stop by quite often. He was doing what he could to get any older, remaining Cajun musicians recorded and playing before the public. I didn’t manage any of those Louisiana trips, but did go with Ralph, and my new Alabama, lady friend, Mary Brown, to hear and record Sacred Harp singers in Franklin, Tennessee and even better in Hackleburg, Northern Alabama where the tradition seemed purer, less affected by scholars and revivalists. We spent a wonderful day at a country church hearing the very best of this music. Not only that, the dinner on the grounds was absolutely, amazingly, scrumptious.
That spring also saw the arrival of an old motorcycle pal from London who came to stay with me. The landlord raised the rent to fifteen dollars a month. He and I went on our motorcycles to the mountains of Kentucky in search of dulcimer players and makers. At this period the coal towns were very depressed and the people suspicious of any stranger. In Manchester, Kentucky we were refused service in a little restaurant, just about the only place that wasn’t boarded up in the town. A few miles further on, in Hazard, the police took us into the Police Station where they grilled us incessantly, unable to understand why any ‘outsider’ would have any business in ‘their’ town Alarmingly, they asked us why we were displaying Japanese flags on our helmets, evidently never having seen a British Union Jack before. They were extremely unpleasant and showed no sign of letting us go. Fortunately for us, two, newly graduated F.B.I. agents, who were there at the time, had heard of the Folk revival and eventually convinced the police that we weren’t union agitators or communists. The rest of our trip was wonderful and we visited Edna Ritchie in Viper and dulcimer makers and players Homer Ledford and Jethro Amburgey. We ended our trip at Roscoe Holcombe’s, (whom I had met in California), now in his remote, home patch. Soon after, Mary and I married and could afford to rent the ‘Bluegrass Rest Home’ apartment.
Ralph, evidently, had never forgotten that I had missed my promised trip out west with him, Doc and Rosa Lee. One cold February day in 1966 the phone rang and it was Ralph calling from Nova Scotia, offering to pay my way if I would come up and travel around Cape Breton with him. His passion was, now, all things Gaelic and we visited singing lobster fishermen, wool spinners and weavers; travelling throughout the island in deep, winter snows in his, still trusty, blue Chevvy station wagon.
Something that I found most humorous, but Ralph soon didn’t, was that when he would make important phone calls to folklorists and other colleagues in New York, Washington etc., the Cape Breton people, who all seemed to be connected to one, circular phone line, would pick up the phone and felt it quite normal to join in his conversations; commenting or advising him on various points.
To me, the most memorable event was an eighty-four year old man’s telling, in detail, of his grandfather’s sad story of when, as a boy of nine, he, his sister and widowed mother were herded, along with hundreds of others, onto a harbor during the last of the west of Scotland’s highland-clearance days and forced onto sailing ships. In the confusion the mother had, unknowingly, boarded a ship bound for Australia and the children, both under twelve, were, eventually, off-loaded onto the shores of Cape Breton, never to see their mother again. Our storytellers’ eyes were filled with tears as he told us that, twenty years further on a letter arrived from his grandfather’s mother who had been searching for them all that time.
Mary and I and my London pal, John Price, made occasional forays into the mountains to stay with Fred Price, Doc and Rosa Lee, Willard and Ora Watson, and Wade Ward, (who played his famous Fox Chase and when done, Granny Porter, who was on the porch listening with us said, “Uncle Wade sure can take the rag off the bush”, a saying I’ve never had an explanation for.
Through the folk scene I met local folklorist, Dick Hulan, curator at Belle Meade Mansion. He and I went up to Westmoreland, Tennessee near the Kentucky line to interview Granny Cline, the lady who had played hammer dulcimer on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920’s. I took a few photos of her there. She entertained us with her dulcimer laid across the kitchen table and told us how the drive to Nashville on Saturday nights was, in those days, a long and arduous one.
Ralph Rinzler had discovered another, early regular on the Opry, De Ford Bailey, who was still around Nashville. Ralph was hoping to interest him in participating in the Folk Revival performances taking place in colleges all over America. We visited with him a number of times in the small shoeshine shop he ran. He could still play up a storm on his harmonicas and we discovered that he had played banjo, left-handed, on the Opry, as well. He said he still had his banjo but it wasn’t playable. I had a look at it and saw that I could fix it and I took it away. When it was repaired, it was Christmas and Mary tied on a large, red bow. He was very pleased to have it back and some months later, when he appeared at a show at Vanderbilt University – along with the Sea Island Singers and Bernice Reagan – he had kept the red bow tied to the peg head and, seeing me on the front row of the audience, announced that I had fixed his banjo and thanked me in front of everyone.
Dick Hulan and I also investigated the South West Tennessee tradition of the double, ‘courting’ lap dulcimers and with these examples to hand I was able to build and sell a few.
He and I drove up to Cookeville, Tennessee one weekend where we took part in the music competitions at the County Fair. We both came home with trophies – Dick became ‘Tennessee State Champion Dulcimer Player’ that year and I, the ‘State Champion Old Time Banjo Picker’. I cannot honestly say the competition was fierce, in fact I can’t honestly say there was any competition, but win we did!
Some years later, after consuming too much Mogen David, I placed my little trophy into the redhot embers of our fireplace and watched as my glory turned into a rather small puddle of molten zinc.
Now married, I was attempting to become a responsible and reliable provider.
However, this didn’t prove to be as simple as it could have been. My workshop was a small ex-chicken shed built as a lean-to against the shack I had once rented out back. Suddenly, Bill Monroe’s new guitarist was in town, wanting to rent the shack. I soon found out how hard it was to concentrate on difficult engineering problems when your – very near – neighbor is a wonderful singer-songwriter like Peter Rowan. When it was sunny he would sit on the step and play, either practicing the band’s repertoire, or his own, constant stream of wonderful, new material. It was almost impossible not to abandon my responsibilities and just listen to him all day.
With a new son born to us, Mary and I eventually broke away for the BG Rest Home property and bought ourselves a house out on Pennington Bend on the Cumberland River, only twenty minutes from downtown Nashville, where we lived most happily; enjoying a rural life that suited us just fine. While we were there we were happy to receive musicians and became the ‘Pennington Bend Rest Home’ for a few years.
Then everything changed. Suddenly, Opryland chose to build on 280 acres of this largely unspoilt area that then, naturally, attracted every other business in search of the tourists’ dollars. We felt we just couldn’t sit idly by while our idyllic life was slowly ruined, so we decided to move. I had been in America for thirteen years and, with my widowed, ageing mother to consider, we decided against moving to Asheville, North Carolina and moved, instead, to Herstmonceux in East Sussex, England, which, unlike Asheville, cannot be considered the Old Time music capitol of the world.
Looking back, I could easily regret not having been more observant about players’ styles, or regret not having been more studious, made notes, more photos, recordings, etc. But, this was not my nature. I was always very content to just absorb the people, the surroundings and the music. At the time, being young, I did not give a thought to mortality and, so quickly, most of my heroes were gone.
Keeping good friendships alive we have, from time to time, here in England, been host to stateside friends and musicians, Ralph, Peter Rowan and his brother, Christopher, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Jim Rooney, and Bill Keith. Happily, a few years ago we met two fine musicians here, in Sussex, who had played Bluegrass and some Old Time for most of their lives and, together, we formed the ‘Old Faded Glory Stringband’. Mary is learning the banjo uke, so all is well with the world.
Our two sons both live within a mile of us – one, a landscape painter/web designer and member of a California based rock band, is crazy about Cajun music. He plays his Marc Savoy accordion with great skill and enthusiasm, (having met the maker in Louisiana in 1993 while on his honeymoon), while his older brother, web designer and composer of his own particular music, is just as mad about Reggae and hopes to one day travel to the West Indies.
So, things go full circle. Long may the music live.
Banjo player and maker of Blue Diamond Musical Instruments
PS This article has been written at the kind suggestion of Alice Gerrard, once a visitor to the Pennington Bend Rest Home, whom we met again in February 2002 at the Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance Festival held in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England – where she performed with Tom Suaber and Brad Leftwich.
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