In early 1973 I was working on an album at the Bearsville Studio in Woodstock with Eric Von Schmidt. When we were done, Eric and I went down to Brooklyn to deliver the album to Kevin Eggars, who owned Poppy Records. While there we met another artist on the label, Townes Van Zandt, who knew who Eric was and was glad to meet him. I’d never heard his music, but I was intrigued by the title of his new album, “The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt,” which reminded me of the way disc jockeys for a long time always referred to Hank Williams. I’d say that’s the connection Townes had in mind. Townes wanted to be as sad as Hank and never got over it.
Later that year I came down to Nashville from Woodstock to check things out and was beginning to find other singers, songwriters and musicians. There was a tavern on West End Avenue called Bishop’s Pub. It was just a beer joint with a pool table, but it had become home for a group of songwriters from the Houston area. Guy and Susanna Clark, Rodney Crowell and Richard Dobson would sing songs and pass the hat. I met Townes Van Zandt again. He seemed to be at the center of this group. He and his girlfriend Cindy lived outside of town in sort of a country shack with a front porch just right for making music. It was easy and laid back, and I soon got a feel for Townes as a songwriter. He had soaked up much of what the Houston music scene had to offer. He was into the music of bluesmen like Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Townes Van Zandt, Mimi Lomax, Antoinette Hopkins Charles, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. (photo: John Lomax III)
He couldn’t escape hearing people like George Jones and Lefty Frizzell who were carrying on in Hank’s footsteps. He also was attracted to the old English and Appalachian ballads. When he connected with Jack Clement, who, more than most in Nashville, understood where country music, blues and folk ballads all came together, Townes found a way to bring his songs out into the world. Right away, on the albums they did together there was “For The Sake Of The Song,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Pancho & Lefty” and “If I Needed You.” It was easy to see why the other Houston writers were drawn to him and were inspired by him to up their writing game. That influence continued expanding on through the years to other Texas songwriters—Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Steve Earle.
I finally got a chance to work with Townes on an album with Jack Clement in 1987. Even though we hadn’t spent lots of time together lately, Townes and I had a very solid relationship. There were some people who almost worshipped him. A certain mystique had grown up around him, and whatever Townes did was beyond reproach or criticism. I think it made him uncomfortable to be the object of such adulation. I never had that kind of relationship with him. I think he knew instinctively that I wasn’t a game player and that I understood where his music came from. The result was that we had a great time making this record, which we called “At My Window.”
Together with the earlier albums that Townes did with Cowboy, I think this turned out to be one of his best, and it shows why all those other writers looked up to him. The songs came up through him from a deep source. He sang them to us in a voice as burnished and dark and light as the whiskey he loved. His was an old soul telling and retelling the old stories that show us how to pass through this life and go on to the next. Townes closed the album with an exceptional song, “The Catfish Song.”
Well, the angel of springtime
He rides down the southwind
The angel of summer he does just the same
The angel of autumn
She’s blue and she’s golden
And the angel of winter
Won’t remember your name
Down at the bottom of that dirty ol’ river
Down where the reeds and the catfish play
There lies a dream as soft as the water
There lies a bluebird that’s flown away
There lies a bluebird
That’s flown away.
That was Townes.
Please help me welcome the newest member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Townes Van Zandt.
[Ed. note: Bill Keith died on October 23, 2015, soon after this was posted. He had been ill for some time.]
Last week I was able to connect with two of my long-time musical families–the Bluegrass Family and the Folk Music Family.
I went to the IBMA Bluegrass Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina to participate in the induction to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame of my long time (56 years!) musical partner Bill Keith.
I started off by recounting how Bill and I started our journey together:
I heard recently that Steve Martin said that, for him, there were three banjo players–Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith. When I met Bill Keith in early 1959 he was playing a Pete Seeger model long neck banjo and had just gotten to the last pages of Seeger’s instruction book which described Scruggs picking. Bill had also bought Flatt & Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” I told Bill that I knew some of those songs because a few years earlier I had heard them played on the radio in Boston by Everett and Bea Lilly, Don Stover and Tex Logan–The Confederate Mountaineers. So Bill and I started hanging out together, playing a mixture of folk music, early Bluegrass songs, and instrumentals. We were going to Amherst College in Western Massachusetts, and on our Spring Break I made it a point to bring Bill into a joint in Boston called The Hillbilly Ranch to see Don Stover. Learning from a book or from records is one thing, but when Bill Keith laid eyes and ears on Don Stover in person, everything started to make sense. The impact of Don’s drive and inventiveness was incalculable. Bill also realized how much more there was to learn. He listened to J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Eddie Adcock, Don Reno, Allen Shelton. He wanted to learn–and has never stopped learning.
Playing a Boston TV show (1960)
By 1962 we were lucky enough to team up Joe Val and Herb Applin, as well as Frtiz Richmond on washtub bass, so we were now a full-fledged bluegrass band. Around this time Bill started working on “The Devil’s Dream” and “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.” He wanted to play them note for note just as his neighbor June Hall did on the fiddle. It wasn’t an attempt to be flashy; he really just wanted to play the melody. That Fall when we made an album for Prestige Records called “Livin’ On The Mountain.” Bill recorded both tunes together in one take. It was pretty amazing.
As Bill had been drawn more and more into the playing of Earl Scruggs he slowed down all of Earl’s solos and started figuring out a tablature system which would enable him to play them note for note. Thanks to our Boston manager Manny Greenhill, Bill demonstrated it for Earl, who then invited Bill to come to Nashville to help him work on his instruction book.
Companion LP to tablature book
Naturally, Earl took Bill to the Opry. Before too long Bill joined a jam session backstage where he played “The Devil’s Dream” and “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.” Jaws were dropping. One of them belonged to Bill Monroe! A while later he sent Kenny Baker back to Bill Keith. He said, “If you ever want a job with Bill Monroe, you’ve got it.” Four years after he had gotten to the end of Pete Seeger’s instruction book, Bill Keith was going to be a Bluegrass Boy! As soon as Bill joined the band Monroe recorded “The Devil’s Dream” and “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” and started featuring Bill on his Opry shows. Our “Livin’ On The Mountain” album came out and suddenly the Bluegrass world was starting to talk about “Keith” picking. Banjo playing would never be the same.
I shared the honors of inducting Bill with one of my favorite people, banjo player Alan Munde. I will share with you what Alan had to say about Bill’s influence on banjo players:
“My good friend, picking partner, and colleague at South Plains College, Joe Carr, wrote a song of advice for our Camp Bluegrass attendees with the basic message of “we didn’t mean to change your lives, we only wanted to teach you G, C, and D.” As we all know too well, G, C, and D can change your life and in fact become your life. Bill Keith could likewise say “I didn’t mean to change your life, I only wanted to play ‘Devil’s Dream’ on the banjo.” And likewise we all came to realize that he changed not only the banjo world but the whole of bluegrass as Neil Rosenberg noted in his book Bluegrass, A History: “Keith’s impact on bluegrass was revolutionary.” It certainly was for me as it was for an untold number of banjo players that followed. Bill Keith’s style of playing, first of fiddle tunes and later adding his own expansive view of banjo possibilities, has given immensely to banjo players tool box of performance techniques and allowed the banjo to become more adaptive in the contemporary world of our music.”
Jim and Alan announcing the Bill Keith induction
I have always liked Tony Trischka’s comment that in bluegrass to be different you don’t have to be very different. Playing an old tune, “Devil’s Dream,” in a new way can be likened to playing the old song, “Mule Skinner Blues,” in a new way. To some they can both be viewed as not very different renditions of the originals, but like learning G, C, and D, they are differences that make a big difference. Bill Monroe invented the music with “Muleskinner Blues,” and Bill Keith changed the trajectory of bluegrass music with “Devil’s Dream ” and all the adaptive techniques and musical concepts he explained to us through his recordings, workshops, concerts, and thousands of hours of private time spent with individual interested players. Bill led us all to a new way of thinking about the banjo and in turn bluegrass music . Through the portal of all that he brought to the banjo and bluegrass, Bill helped in a big way to bring us to where we are today.
Bill Keith and Tony Trischka at Newport Folk Fest circa 1969 (photo thanks to Mark Sukoenig)
After Alan spoke I recalled what Bill Monroe had to say about Bill “Brad” Keith. (Monroe didn’t want any confusion about who the “Bill” in the band was.)
“Brad Keith, he understands music. He’s a good listener and he’s a good man to listen to. He’s done a lot of good for music and especially for Bluegrass. At a time when I needed a boost, I think Brad gave it to me. I think it came in just when I needed it. Before he came along no banjo player could play those old fiddle numbers right. You have to play like Brad could play or you would be faking your way through a number. It’s learned a lot of banjo players what to do and how to do it where they can come along and fill that bill today.”
At this point a video was shown from the Grey Fox Festival showing Bill Keith playing the “Devil’s Dream” with a young fiddler named Johnny Cody. It captured Bill’s openness in sharing his talent with any young person who was willing to learn.
When the lights came up I said,
I would like to think that if Bill Monroe were with us here tonight he would join Alan, me and all of you in welcoming Bill Keith into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
The audience stood and gave Bill a resounding ovation. The smile on his face told the whole story.
The night before we were able to spend time with Bill in the company of lifelong friends Happy and Jane Traum, Tony Trischka, and Sam Bush. On the night of the award Bill and Del McCoury recalled their days as Bluegrass Boys together back in 1963. Now they are both in the Hall of Fame.
Happy Traum,Tony Trischka, Sam Bush,Jim Rooney,Bill Keith 2015
I was also happy to congratulate my fellow Irregular and former Forerunner Music songwriter, Shawn Camp for being voted Male Vocalist of the Year. Shawn is one of the most talented people I know. Check out his Oh Boy Records album “Live At The Station Inn.” It’s a total winner. His award at IBMA was the result of his recent work with the Earls of Leicester, who won every award they were nominated for. My great buddy Jerry Douglas masterminded this project. Like Bill Keith, Jerry has taken the dobro to new levels. We have worked together on many projects over the years. His enthusiasm and creativity never end. These people are all part of my Bluegrass family. And it was a joy to be with them all.
Shawn Camp at IBMA 2015 with The Earls of Leicester (photo: Shelly Swanger)
The day after I returned from Raleigh Carol and I drove down to Cambridge to a memorial gathering for Byron Linardos, who managed the Club 47 from 1962-65. I have already written about Byron, but I thought is was a great tribute to him that 50 years later so many of us from those early days showed up to share stories with his wife of 57 years, Catherine, and his daughters Pavan and Felice.
Jim and Byron
Tom Rush, Geoff Muldaur, Betsy Siggins, “Spider” John Koerner, Carol and I were all helped enormously by Byron when we were starting out. He was demanding and encouraging. He wanted us to become better at what we were setting out to do. He really cared, and it made a big difference to all of us. Whenever we get together there is that sense of belonging to a family. We are bound together by the love of music, which still motivates us to get out in the world and share it with whoever wants to listen.
BYRON LINARDOS MEMORIAL GATHERING Front (l. to r.): Tom Rush Betsy Siggins, Dave Wilson, Carol Langstaff, Elizabeth Butters. Middle: (l. to r.): Spider John Koerner, Jim Rooney, Tom Curran Back: Geoff Muldaur [Photo: Don West]
This afternoon I heard that Byron Linardos–Byron Lord Linardos–had died. I gathered myself together, went out back to our pond, sat down with some Bacardi Dark Rum (somehow Eric Von Schmidt had shown up) and some Greek olives, looked up at the clouds passing by and whispered “KaloTaxidi” (Have a good trip!) to my departing friend. As I did that a kingfisher appeared and just as quickly disappeared. An elegant crested bird–a master at what he does. Not unlike Byron. A few days earlier I had been stacking wood and suddenly Byron came into my mind. And I thought I should give a call. I knew he was coming to the end. A few months back I had stopped by to see him, but he didn’t want to see anybody. So he was with me when he died while I was stacking wood. He wouldn’t have answered the call. He had called me instead.
Byron Linardos with Jim Rooney at Club 47
Right from the start I knew Byron was special–how many people do you know who were named after Lord Byron?–but I didn’t know how special. It was January, 1962. The Club Mt. Auburn 47 had been closed for a few months by the police for various imagined infractions and was just reopening under new management. It had become well known before the closing mainly because a young folk singer named Joan Baez had started enthralling all within the sound of her voice there before leaving with her family for California. The Club was organized as a non-profit and had a Board of Directors gathered from the community. The two women who had started it had decided to move on so the Board cast about for someone to manage the place day to day. They came up with Byron, who had already had a hand in running a couple of coffee houses in Boston and Cambridge. He had grown up in Cambridge and was a mixture of a street-smart local and someone who had a passion for music and the arts. He was Greek-American — a great combination.
My musical partner Bill Keith and I started playing at the Club and Byron let us know right away that he liked what we were doing and gave us a regular weekly spot. He figured this out right away–that if you had a different artist (he thought of us as “artists” not “acts”) every night on a regular basis, an audience would build for each one. So the schedule would be like this for any given week: Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, Keith & Rooney, Jackie Washington, The Charles River Valley Boys, Geoff Muldaur.
Then Byron had an inspired idea. Due to the weird Cambridge laws about having live music in a “club.” The 47 had been organized as a private club exempt from these rules. Which meant that everyone who came in had to become a member (for $1) and fill out a card with name and address. Which meant that Byron had a mailing list. Which led him to create monthly calendars with great old-time graphics which the members would receive (and, in many cases, keep to this day). Thus, there were no other advertising costs. It truly became a club for the members. All of us “artists” treated it that way too. We were there many nights a week. Byron made us all feel that it was our home.
We were lucky to have Byron also because he actually knew how to run a coffee house, serving coffee, tea and flavored soda drinks at a profit–not exorbitant, but real–
And having only one item on the menu–locally made baklava! A Byron touch. It all seems simple and obvious now, but it wasn’t then, and Byron’s nightly presence reinforced the idea that this place was special, that he wasn’t going to tolerate sloppy, careless performances or sloppy, careless service. This place deserved respect. Byron insisted on it.
In the Fall of 1963 the Club moved to a new location, 47 Palmer St, off of Harvard Square. This gave Byron a chance to help create a space which was simple and elegant–using the brick and granite in the basement walls, using tables and chairs out of handcrafted wood, white walls for art exhibits, an efficient kitchen space. The programming expanded to include Early Music and guitar recitals on Sundays, children’s concerts on Saturday afternoons, regular art exhibits and openings. Byron was able to fulfill his vision of the Club becoming a real artistic center in Cambridge.
However, Byron, of course, was never satisfied. He wanted more. He was Greek! Maybe a small theater, a restaurant, more possibilities. The Club was doing very well at Palmer Street. There were lines down the block , but the space was limited to what we were doing, and Byron finally decided that maybe he had done what he had come to do and it was time to move on. It was 1965. The Folk Revival that we were all part of was exploding. The artists that Byron had helped get up on their feet were now traveling around the country, doing concerts, making records. The Club was changing too. It was no longer possible to have a different local artist every night. They were away a lot of the time. The “club” atmosphere that Byron nourished and cherished had changed. It was now becoming a “Club” where you went to hear music. I think Byron didn’t feel comfortable with that change, so he moved on.
One of my great connections with Byron was because he was Greek. As a result of studying Greek for several years I was lucky enough to get a Fulbright Fellowship to go to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I was never much of a scholar, but that year made all the difference for me as I came to understand and appreciate the deeply creative and passionate energy of the Greek people over the course of thousands of years. I now could understand and appreciate Byron’s passion, his creativity, his restlessness, his love of music and the arts, his refusal to accept second best, second rate, second anything. In 1966 Byron, “Spider” John Koerner and I took a trip to Greece. We did it all–the Acropolis, the museums, the temples at Delphi, but most of all we went to hear these incredible Greek musicians and singers the Byron knew all about–the bouzouki master Yiannis Papaioannou, the singer and composer Mikis Theodorakis. One night we found ourselves in a small downstairs restaurant in Athens which catered to people from the island of Crete. Crete was never conquered by the Germans. The great writer Nikos Kazantzakis, creator of Zorba, was from Crete. It was a Sunday night when we came into the place. It was full of people in their Sunday suits eating and drinking at small tables while two musicians played in the corner. One was playing an oud, the other a one string upright fiddle called a lera. After people were through eating a group of men from one table got up and started a circle dance, slapping their heels, the leader twirling a handkerchief. They sat down and another group got up and one of them eventually jumped up on the corner of a table still covered in dishes and bottles and didn’t miss a beat or touch a dish. The place went wild. Byron’s mouth was open, his eyes popping. Still it went on. Another group got up and this fellow who didn’t look anything like Anthony Quinn’s Zorba–you wouldn’t have looked twice at him on the street–crouched down by the corner of a table, arms held high, fingers snapping, took the corner of the table in his teeth and lifted the whole thing, dishes, bottles and all, off the ground! That was it. The place went wild. Everyone bought everyone else a bottle. Byron leaned over and shouted at me, “If you had told me this, I never would have believed you!”
That kind of energy made Byron a restless soul. He loved his wife Catherine and his daughters Felice and Pavan, but he had a hard time staying at home. He had to be out. He was driven and addictive. Gambling and cards were a passion. He loved the night. But he also loved opera, art, classical music which he shared with Catherine and the girls. He told me once that he had taken Catherine and Pavan to see Glenn Gould who was going to do a recital at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. Byron was crazy about Glenn Gould. They didn’t have tickets and when they got there, there was a long line of people waiting for the doors to open. Without hesitating, Byron took Catherine and Pavan to the front of the line and knocked on the door. When it opened, he brushed past the surprised usher saying, “They’re expecting us.” That was Byron.
As I sat by the pond saying my farewell to Byron, the lines of a Hadjidakis song came into my mind. In English the words say in part, “The clouds they may bring the sleet and rain, let the rain come, the sleet come, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” When Byron did the calendars for the Club 47, his signature image was of a man under an umbrella with the rain coming down. Byron is out from under the rain now. It doesn’t matter anymore. Kalo taxidi, my friend.
I first laid eyes on Tex in 1953. It was in the studios of WCOP in Boson. My buddy Dick Curley and I had found our way in to the radio station after hearing the Confederate Mountaineers (Everett & Bea Lilly, Don Stover & Tex) on their daily radio broadcasts and deciding that we wanted to see them in person. Tex cut quite a figure, tall & handsome in a Clark Gable sort of way, and very physical as he moved in on the mike with his fiddle. When he played, he put everything he had into it. I’d never heard anything like it before–or since. I wouldn’t have known it then, but I was witnessing a totally original musician. The one and only Tex Logan.
In the weeks following I saw Tex several times on the Hayloft Jamboree shows at Symphony Hall or, most memorably, on the night of my brother John’s graduation from Harvard, at a joint called the Mohawk Ranch on the corner of Dartmouth Street & Columbus Avenue in Boston. Even in a place like this, Tex would give you something to remember him by. It was a sound that would get in your head and stay there.
In subsequent years I saw Tex when he sat in with Bill Monroe in New York in late 1962 and later in 1964 in Boston. At a party after Monroe’s concert in Boston Tex jammed all night with Joe Val, Peter Rowan and myself. Tex wouldn’t stop. He kept going. He wouldn’t let his fiddle go. It possessed him.
Over the years we became friends. Tex and his daughter Jody came to Bill Monroe’s festival at Beanblossom, Indiana, every year. Whenever Bill Monroe was in the New York area, Tex would have a big party for Bill at his house in Madison, NJ. Tex would take a couple of days off from work (from the Bell Labs where he was dreaming up communications gadgets which would change our lives). He would put on a white lab coat and spend two days cooking up Texas barbecue. A couple of hundred people would come–musicians from all over the Northeast, co-workers at Bell–and after we all ate, the music would start. Tex had a big Tudor-style house with a big room in the middle just right for music. He’d have a sound system set up, and off we’d go. The whole point of the night was to stay up until dawn with Tex and Bill Monroe. It was a “take no prisoners” situation. I think that those times were what Tex lived for. He had to go to the limit.
For about 10 years I had my 50th birthday party at the Station Inn. One year Tex and Jody were in town and I invited them to come on. To my great surprise they did come down, bringing Bill Monroe with them. Needless to say, that might have been my best birthday present ever! But Tex did something I’ll never forget. He asked if he could use the telephone and called his wife Peggy up and held the telephone up the entire time so she could hear our set with Bill Monroe! Only Tex Logan would have done that.
In the early ’80’s Bill Keith, Peter Rowan and I did some tours in Italy. We especially loved playing in Naples where the people are very warm and demonstrative. One night we were talking and it occurred to us that the Neapolitans would really take to Tex and his playing. The more we thought about it, the more we liked it, so we called Tex up and invited him to come with us for our next visit to Naples. We played in a big tent which held about 1500 people. From the moment Tex started to play they were on their feet, whistling, yelling. Tex’s music was their music–from the heart, from deep down inside.
The last time that I saw Tex was at his 85th birthday party organized by Jody. It was a wonderful night of music, but the highlight for me was when Tex got up and played “Sally Goodin” for about twenty minutes. He took his time getting up. As always, he was dressed impeccably–hat on at just the right angle, pants with a crease you could cut butter with, boots shined. He fussed with his fiddle, fussed with his amp, started playing, making faces because it didn’t sound right, then he leaned into it, he bore down, and never let it go. There it was. That sound. That Tex Logan sound. Cross tunings like nobody else had. He pushed it. He pulled it. He finally let it go. That was it for me. Nearly 60 years earlier I had first heard that sound. It pulled me into the path I have followed ever since. Thanks, Tex
P.S. I’m supposed to say, “Rest in Peace.” but that wasn’t Tex’s style. He was full of energy and restlessness. Always reaching. But he’s got lots of time and space to move around in now–to keep reaching for that sound he always heard in his head.
Much love to Jody–a better daughter no father ever had.
Another link in the chain is broken. Jean Ritchie has left this world. Jean was a dear friend, surrogate mother and teacher to my wife Carol Langstaff. Carol’s mother Diane Hamilton and Jean were good friends. Jean was a role model for Diane as a collector and recorder of the songs she carried with her from her home and family in Viper, Kentucky. She brought those songs to the world when she came to New York and joined up with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Almanac Singers, and Oscar Brand, among others. If you want to get an idea of where Jean came from, read her account of her early days in Kentucky, “Singing Family of the Cumberlands.” She paints a vivid picture of a life that was short of material goods, but rich in its culture, which is what Jean took away with her. An audio account of this life is beautifully captured in a Folkways recording that Jean made in 1958 and which is still available, “The Ritchie Family of Kentucky.”
However, Jean was more than a carrier of her culture, she was a messenger who had to tell the world of the forces which were destroying that culture. She wrote songs which told the sad story–songs which have been taken up by artists from Pete Seeger to Hazel Dickens to Kathy Mattea: “Black Waters,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Last Old Train’s A Leaving.” Jean was a red-head and had a temper. She had no time for those who put profit ahead of people. Here is what Jean had to say in the liner notes to her album “Clear Waters Remembered.”
“For this is the day of the giant bulldozer, the hideous grinding auger, machinery of the strip-miner, and the smoke and the dust of them hang like a pall of sorrow over the ridges and hollers of Eastern Kentucky. This is the time when the sins of past generations have caught up with us.
For my mother’s father, Grandpa Hall, it was an unwitting sin. He, along with almost all his neighbors, sold the mineral rights to his land to the friendly, likeable man who said he represented a company who thought there might be a little coal on our land worth getting out. The company, he said, was willing to take a big chance and pay Grandpa fifty cents an acre, and, since Grandpa had better than a thousand acres, this amounted to around five hundred dollars, a handsome sum in those days. For a man with a dozen children, it was also impossible to refuse.
Mom says that her father signed an agreement to give up coal rights only, but I looked up the old longform deed in the Hazard courthouse, and it now reads to include all minerals, even salt water, and has a guarantee from the farmer to grant access to the mines. Grandpa and his neighbors had no way of foreseeing that mining would not always take place underground, leaving the surface unspoiled.
To my mind, then, the sins are upon the heads of the strip miners and their collaborators, whose consciences let them maul the land and haul out, severance-tax-free, untold millions of dollars worth of Appalachia’s great natural resources (in addition to the strip mine which has gashed up one of my own beautiful ridges and left erosion, ruined timber and a dead stream; our property also has two natural-gas wells, and we have to pay for the privilege of having gas in our home). We pay tax on the land, what’s left of it, and the people who still live on their land are faced with poor schools, a scarcity of decent jobs, and an increasingly scarred and mutilated landscape.
……Today’s children will call me old fashioned. They are right, but I’m hip enough to know it, and I make no apology for what I feel, say, or sing. Indeed it is my hope that these few poor songs, small voices in the wilderness, may help in the long road we have ahead of us to right those evils we have let happen to people and to nature.”
Jean never gave up that fight until the day she died. She wanted no money spent on flowers to remember her by; she asked that contributions in her name be made to: Appalachian Voices, 125 Grand Blvd., Boone, NC 28607, or visit their website: www.appalachianvoices.org.
Over the years my wife Carol often closed her Flock Dance Troupe performances with Jean’s song “Now Is The Cool of the Day.” It calls on us to look after and care for the beautiful garden of creation, which we all have inherited and share. Pay attention to the words and remember Jean Ritchie.
And my Lord, He said unto me, Do you like my garden so fair?
You may live in this garden, if you keep the grasses green, and I’ll return in the cool of the day
And my Lord, He said unto me, Do you like my garden so pure?
You may live in this garden, if you keep the waters clean, and I’ll return in the cool of the day
Now is the cool of the day, Now is the cool of the day, Oh, this earth it is a garden, the garden of my Lord, and he walks in His garden in the cool of the day
And my Lord, He said unto me, Do you like my pastures so green?
You may live in this garden, if you will feed my lambs, and I’ll return in the cool of the day
And my Lord, He said unto me, Do you like my garden so free?
You may live in this garden, if you keep the people free, and I’ll return in the cool of the day
Now is the cool of the day, Now is the cool of the day. Oh, this earth is a garden, the garden of my Lord, and he walks in His garden In the cool of the day; yes, he walks in His garden
Yesterday morning I got the news that my dear friend Herb McCullough had passed away at his home in Florida. Herb (or Herbal as my girl friend Judy liked to call him) and I went back a long way to our early days in Nashville in the mid-’70’s. We were living the honkytonk life at the time, hanging out in a beer joint called the Kountry Korner on Music Row. I think both of us eventually figured out that we didn’t want to wind up as miserable as a lot of the guys at the bar who never tired of telling you how much they loved their kids while they ordered another beer. We left that life behind and started spending our time with more positive, creative people.
In the course of time our paths crossed in a serious way after I had started a publishing company called Forerunner Music with Allen Reynolds, Terrell Tye and Mark Miller. Herb came by one day and said that he wanted to join us as a writer just because he liked us and trusted us. He also introduced us to a young writer he had befriended named Shawn Camp. Shawn had been going through a tough time as a result of a record deal with a major label that wasn’t what he hoped it would be. Shawn was all about music. The label people were all about marketing. Herb helped Shawn recover his confidence and his belief in himself just by being a friend–a friend who would listen, a friend who would quietly encourage, a friend who wanted nothing more than to help. In time that friendship would manifest itself in songs like “Travellin’ Teardrop Blues”
Herb McCullough with Shawn Camp
One day Herb turned his attention to me. I was totally immersed in our publishing company, listening to songs, demoing songs, producing records. Herb decided I needed help. It was January and he stuck his head in my little office in the basement of Jack’s Tracks and announced to me that he’d made a New Year’s resolution to write a song that year with every writer in the house, and then–looking me in the eye–“including you!” Right away I started backing up, telling Herb how busy I was, how I hadn’t written a song in years–blah, blah, blah. “Does that mean you won’t do it?” For a quiet guy Herb had some steel in him. “No, of course not, Herb. I’ll do it when I get the time.” He made me get out a calendar and we made a time. The day came, but I was busy mixing an album. Herb came in to my office. “I see you blew our writing appointment off.” So he made me pick a new time. He wasn’t going to let me go.
Herb’s Forerunner showcase at Douglas Corner Cafe 1994: Dennis Crouch-bass, David Schnaufer-dulcimer, Herb, Kenny Malone-drums, Shawn Camp-mandolin, Joy Lynn White-vocals
Finally, we got in the writing room together and Herb and I started talking about things like the true friends we were. I had been spending time in Ireland and he was curious about the situation there where Catholics and Protestants were still blowing each other up. Before long, we had our guitars in our hands and a song called “Point of View” came out. This is part of it:
If your future’s in the past
There’s no need for you to ask
Which road you’re on or where you’re going.
Is that the best that you can do
When your child looks up at you
Herb and drummer Pat McInerney
With hopeful eyes, such hopeful eyes Maybe in the back of our minds we were recalling those losers at the bar. When we were done, we were both happy with the results, but Herb still had to drag me back in there to write another. This time we definitely focused on our early time together. This is what came out
If misery loves company
You’ll never be alone
He’s always out there calling you
You never stay at home
You’re trying to get lucky
Trying to play it smart
You never see the sunshine
‘Cause you’re too busy stabbing in the dark
When you’re living on the devil’s level
You’re living on the devil’s time
When you’re living on the devil’s level
He’s gonna make you walk that line
Yes, he will make you walk that line
He will make you walk that line We didn’t leave it there, though:
Someday you’ll meet an angel
She’ll teach you how to fly
You’ll walk out on that party
Never even say goodbye
Was that glass half empty
Or is that glass half full
It’s hard work, but it’s worth it
The choice is up to you
The choice is up to you, boy
The choice is up to you Herb made that choice. In his case that angel was his wife Joann. Every single day he thanked her for her love and support. Herb had plenty to give to others, but sometimes he didn’t have a lot to give to himself. He didn’t take life easy. It pained him to see people in need, and he felt obliged to help. In his last years he spent a lot of his time and energy bringing music and friendship to those who were in hospice care. Faced with his own health problems in the end Herb had nothing left to give, so he passed on. I know I will not be the only one to say, when asked about Herb, “He was a help to me.” I will never forget him.
At 2:30 this Morning, April 1, the spirit of Sandy Mason left this world, but not really. She will always be with us though her songs
When I moved to Nashville in June of 1976 to join Cowboy Jack Clement’s crew of “dreamers, poets and clowns” one of the first people I met was Sandy Mason, who qualified on all three counts. Sandy walked on her toes, her eyes were always shining, her smile dazzled. She was permanently excited, glad to be alive, and she made you glad to be alive just by being around her. At that time Sandy was excited because Crystal Gayle had just recorded her song “When I Dream.” The song was a dreamer’s anthem:
When I dream, I dream of you
Maybe someday you will come true.
Crystal Gayle did have a hit with the song, which helped keep the wolf from Sandy’s door for many years. But the song belonged to Jack Clement. On my first official recording session in Nashville in early 1977, I had the honor of playing acoustic guitar on Jack’s recording of “When I Dream.” It was the best recording I ever played on. Jack totally inhabited Sandy’s lyric:
I could have a mansion that is higher than the trees
I could have all the gifts I want and never ask please
I could fly to Paris, oh, it’s at my beck and call
Why do I go through life with nothing at all?
But when I dream, I dream of you
Maybe someday you will come true
I can be the singer or the clown in every room
I can even call someone to take me to the moon
I can put my makeup on and drive the crowd insane
I can go to bed alone and never know her name
But when I dream, I dream of you
Maybe someday you will come true
This is classic clown material. Laughing on the outside; crying on the inside. Sandy had lived the life of a clown as a ventriloquist, starting when she was a young girl, eventually working all around the country, but always returning to her native Pittsburgh, where she met the pianist and arranger Charles Cochran. Together they wound up in Nashville and inevitably became part of Jack Clement’s musical family. Jack also recorded another of Sandy’s songs on his first album:
All I want to do in life
Is to love somebody with all of my might
That was it for her. Love was it. Accept no substitutes. Even if you get your heart broken. And you will. Sandy did. But that never stopped her. She’d get back up on her toes, eyes shining, smile dazzling, and tell you about the newest song she was writing.
It only seemed natural that Sandy would soon come to write with Roger Cook and John Prine, who had also been drawn into Cowboy’s vortex. Roger and John were also true believers in the power of love. Roger had written the anthem “I’d like to teach the world to sing in simple harmony” and John had simply asked us to open our hearts and say “hello in there.” Sandy, Roger and John all shared a belief in simplicity. What could be simpler than love? This is what they wrote:
You may live alone
And close your eyes, some folks do
You may dream a dream
That’s twice your size all night through
When the morning comes, who’s to tell
Your dreams to? Only you
Only love, love only, only love will do
Only love, love only, only love comes true
Nothing else, you see, there’s nothing else
Only love, only love
I have known a love
Within my heart, one or two
Where one love would end
And one would start I never knew
If love should come your way
You’ll learn to say, I love you, I love you
Only love, love only, only love will do
Only love, love only, only love comes true
Nothing else, you see, there’s nothing else
Only love, only love
When Sandy learned recently that her days were numbered, she didn’t hesitate. She packed up her few belongings and headed for the sea. She wanted to be able to hear eternity in the waves and see beyond the horizon. She wanted to be as close as she could get to the love which is at the heart of our existence.
Nothing else, you see, there’s nothing else
Only love, only love
[There will be a Forerunner Music reunion of sorts at Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville on June 8, 2015 with a focus on Sandy]
The great Cowboy Jack Clement singing his favorite song in this outtake from the Gordon/Neville documentary, which Sandy posted on YouTube:
One of the things I don’t like about getting old is that more and more of my friends are leaving this world.
While in Nashville recently I was driving home in my car one night listening to Eddie Stubbs on WSM and was shocked to hear him say that George Hamilton IV had had a heart attack and had passed away. I had a special place in my heart for George. In early 1978 Allen Reynolds called me up. He was making an album with George. They had recorded my song “Only The Best,” and he was inviting me over to Jack’s Tracks to listen to it. What a thrill it was to be in that control room listening to that mix! I’d been in Nashville less than a year. I’d known George since the time we invited him to come to the Newport Folk Festival in the late ’60’s. George had been one of the country artists who had made the connection with the folk revival with hits like “Abilene,” “Early Morning Rain,” and “Last Thing On My Mind.” When I had sent him a letter inviting him to the festival and explaining how we paid $50/day, I received a very nice, hand written letter back from him saying how honored he was to be asked and here was his $50! I set him straight on that, but he was a genuinely humble, self-effacing man. There was not a false bone in his body. So my song brought us back together. I was doubly honored that Allen, who was such an accomplished songwriter himself and a serious judge of songs, had thought enough of “Only The Best” to record it. After we had listened, he then told me that they were going to recommend to the label that it be released as a single. Two or three months later I was up in the Northeast driving somewhere. It was a Saturday night, so I made a stab at tuning in WSM. Almost immediately through the static I heard George singing, “She was only the best, No need to sit here and cry” I couldn’t help it. My eyes filled up and I had to pull over. A dream had come true.
FEELS LIKE A MILLION (Anchor Records UK 1978) with “Only the Best”
During the time Carol and I were in Ireland, George would always call when he was touring and have me get up and sing with him if he was close by. The last time I saw him was when we had a book party at the Station Inn for “In It For The Long Run.” George wouldn’t let me give him a copy. He insisted on buying two! Then he got up and sang “Abilene” and “Only The Best”–as it turned out, for the last time. A truer man would be hard to find.
George Hamilton IV at Grand Ole Opry 1950s (photo by Les Leverett)
When I first met Paul Craft he was playing banjo with Jimmy Martin. An odder couple would be hard to imagine! It mattered not at all to Jimmy that Paul had a seriously high IQ (he was a member of Mensa). He was a straight ahead banjo player. That’s all that mattered. Our paths crossed seriously when I first lived in Nashville in 1974. By this time Paul was beginning to establish himself as a songwriter and had become involved with banjo player Ben Eldredge and John Starling who had a new Bluegrass group called the Seldom Scene. They recorded Paul’s song “Keep Me From Blowing Away” and introduced the song to Linda Ronstadt, who also recorded it.
One night I ran into Paul and he invited me to come along with him down to The Pickin’ Parlor on 2nd Avenue. On the way we stopped at a hotel and picked up Linda Ronstadt! I had met Linda when the Stone Poneys played at the Club 47. Before the night was over we were all on the stage at the Pickin’ Parlor singing “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and “Keep Me From Blowing Away.” When I came back to Nashville in 1976 and hooked up with Don Everly, Paul often joined us for Sunday afternoons at Don’s apartment where we enjoyed some great food and conversation. Paul had one of the liveliest minds of anyone I know. He loved wordplay. When Don recorded a solo album on Hickory Records Paul’s song “Brother Jukebox” was the title song of the album. Paul summed up the sad story of a man with a broken heart. All the family he had left was “Brother Jukebox, Sister Wine, Mother Freedom and Father Time.” Brilliant.
STRICTLY COUNTRY RECORDS (Holland 1998 – photo Sherry Oates)
In recent years Paul’s health deteriorated, but his spirit didn’t. I last talked to him two days before his long awaited induction into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.” I called to tell him that I had just returned from the IBMA Convention in Raleigh where the Seldom Scene had been inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. John Starling that night singled Paul out for contributing to the band’s success with the quality of his songs. I thought Paul would like to hear that, and he did. I congratulated him and told him I’d see him Sunday at the Hall of Fame induction dinner. Paul did make it to the ceremony and had his picture taken with the award but was stricken during the meal and had to be rushed to the hospital.
He wasn’t there to hear Britt Ronstadt [daughter of Linda’s cousin] sing,
“Lord, if you hear me, touch me and hold me
And keep me from blowing away.”
(photo: Bev Moser)
Paul also wasn’t there to smile as Bobby Bare sang, as only he could,
“Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life
End over end, neither left nor to right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life”
Paul Craft would probably not refer to himself as a religious man, but it did strike me on this night that his last words to us were the prayers of a mere mortal who was smart enough to know what he did not know.
[On February 4, 2015, there will be a tribute concert celebrating Paul’s life and work at the Station Inn, Nashville, organized by Shawn Camp)
2.4.15 Poster by Mike Armisted from an painting by Ginny Canfield
GEORGE IV TALKS ABOUT MUSIC, Family Heritage, Baby Ruth Candy Bars, Patsy Cline – Nashville Legend & MORE on Canada’s 100 Huntley Street TV Show. (Solo Acoustic Versions of: “A Rose & A Baby Ruth” & “Abilene”) [YouTube]
I’ve been busy recently. I was in Nashville for the Americana Music Association’s annual convention where I participated in a showing of “For The Love of the Music” (Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman’s documentary about the Club 47) along with Betsy Siggins and Taj Mahal. I had recently gone to see Taj at a concert in Lebanon, NH, and was blown away by his continuing creativity and energy. I also did a reading and book signing at Howlin’ Books from “In It For The Long Run” and “Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters.” It was a nice surprise to see my friend Greg Trooper there. It’s interesting store specializing in books about music run by Will Kimbrough’s wife Jessica. Later the same day I was a guest on the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, a wonderful radio show which normally originates from the On The Square Bookstore in Oxford, MS, and is broadcast over Mississippi Public Radio, I read some of Muddy Waters words describing how he brought the Delta Blues sound to Chicago, then I sang “Sitting On Top Of The World” (originally recorded by The Mississippi Sheiks and which I learned from Bill Monroe) with the great house band. I had a great time and would love to do it again.
A NEW TOM PAXTON ALBUM
Following that, my dear friend Tom Paxton came to town and we recorded a new album (our fourth studio album together). Cathy Fink served as executive producer on this project and helped organize a very successful Kickstarter campaign to support the recording. Cathy played banjo on several tracks and also sang harmonies on a couple of songs with her longtime partner Marcy Marxer. Tom had a great collection of 14 songs, most of which were written in the past 5 years. On the title song, “Redemption Road” (co-written with Geoff Bartley, who played National steel body guitar on the track) Tom was joined by none other than Janis Ian. It is a beautiful, moving recording. John Prine joined Tom on a very sensitive song called “Skeeters’ll Gitcha (If Your Screens Ain’t Tight)!” Many of my favorite musicians joined Tom on the sessions, including Mark Howard, Al Perkins, Pete Wasner, Kirk “Jellyroll” Johnson, Tim Crouch, John Mock, Dave Pomeroy, Pat McInerney, and long time accompanist for Tom, Robin Bullock. Suzi Ragsdale and John Wesley Ryles sang harmonies. We recorded with the one and only David Ferguson, assisted by Sean Sullivan, at The Butcher Shoppe. I think this will prove to be one of Tom’s best albums in his long and illustrious career. On Thursday night Tom joined me and Rooney’s Irregulars at the Station Inn. He sang “Ramblin’ Boy, “Bottle of Wine,” “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” and “A Lesson Too Late For The Learning.” Everyone in the place sang every song. It was one of those unforgettable moments. You had to be there.
After that I headed over to Raleigh, NC, to the IBMA convention. There I had a chance to meet Laurie Matheson, the editor-in-chief of the University of Illinois Press, publishers of “In It For The Long Run.” They had many of their books about music on display, including Neil Rosenberg’s definitive “History of Bluegrass Music.” I first met Neil at Bill Monroe’s park at Beanblossom, Indiana. Neil was elected to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame this year in recognition of his lifetime spent writing about Bluegrass. The recognition was well deserved. A personal highlight came for me when the IBMA gave my long time partner (55 years!!) Bill Keith a Distinguished Achievement Award. Banjo player Alan Munde recounted all of Bill’s singular achievements, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bill was one of the most significant innovators in the history of the banjo. Bill has never been one to blow his own horn. This recognition, if a bit overdue, was very gratifying.
Now it’s back to Vermont to finish getting my wood in for the winter, watching the leaves change colors and playing for a dance during my stepson, Matthew’s annual Ciderfest on Columbus Day Weekend. The fun never ends!
With Pete and Toshi: giving Pete the first Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award
Like countless others, my first introduction to Pete Seeger came from listening to “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall” album. “Good Night Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “Darlin’ Corey,” all found their way into me as did the sound of the 5-string banjo. About the same time, I’d say in 1957 or so, I bought the “Talking Union” album with Pete and the Almanac Singers, my first taste of political songs.
I saw Pete in person for the first time with Bill Keith when the Weavers played a concert at M.I.T. A friend of Bill’s, Charlie Close, was their tour manager, so we got to go backstage and I got to feel Pete’s shy, nervous energy up close. Not too long after that I went with the Lilly Brothers to New York where they were part of Pete’s annual Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall. I saw then how generous he was at sharing the stage with others. He included everyone in his embrace, especially the audience. There was no way that anyone would be left out. Music was for everyone.
In June of 1965 I went down to Nashville to visit Bill Keith, who had joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Bill had a few days off so we drove over to North Carolina to visit Doc Watson. Doc had been up to play at the Club 47 a few times. Being the musician that he was, Doc appreciated what Bill Keith was doing on the banjo. In the course of his visits to Cambridge, we had become friends, and he had extended an open invitation to visit him at his home in Deep Gap, so we took him up on it. The hospitality and warmth of welcome were genuine. Songs and tunes flowed well into the night.
The next day, we went with Doc over to Asheville, where he was to play a concert at the Municipal Auditorium with Pete. The front page of the local paper featured a lead story about the local American Legion protesting the appearance of the “Communist” Pete Seeger. We could see that there was still some life left in the “red scare,” but it didn’t seem to scare off the audience. Doc had already become a totally relaxed concert performer. He was the same on stage as on his front porch. His warmth and casual demeanor just served to further highlight his virtuosity on the guitar. He would take your breath away. Needless to say, he got a huge ovation at the end of his set. Then it was Pete’s turn. He came out with his long necked banjo, sleeves rolled up, red socks. His reception was on the cool side, especially in contrast to Doc’s. Pete was in no hurry. He played a couple of mountain tunes on the banjo, did a couple of Woody Guthrie songs, got the audience to join him singing “Rock Island Line.” Gradually he drew them in until, at the close of his set, he introduced a song he had just been singing with a singer named Guy Carawan at a place called The Highlander School in East Tennessee. The song was “We Shall Overcome.” Pete started quietly, inviting the audience to join him. Gradually people joined in. He kept encouraging them, finally urging them to get on their feet and join hands. Before long everyone was up, singing, swaying, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Indeed, Pete had overcome. With music. I never forgot that performance.
From 1965 until 1971 I served on the Board of the Newport Folk Foundation, which put on the Newport Folk Festival. Pete was the head of it. There were a lot of strong personalities in the group–Alan Lomax, Frank Warner, Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler, Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, Theo Bikel, Oscar Brand, Bernice Reagon, Bruce Jackson, Ethel Raim–but with Pete guiding us (firmly backed by his wife Toshi) we had no choice but to work together. Which we did, with amazing results.
Much has been made of Pete’s reaction to Bob Dylan’s performance in 1965. I can’t say, because I wasn’t backstage. He might well have been upset at the sound; he might not have been happy with Bob’s approach, but I never, ever heard him say that Bob didn’t have the right to express himself any way he wanted to. He didn’t have to like it. But that was beside the point.
It was during this time that Pete came up with the idea of building a replica of a Hudson River sloop called The Clearwater to serve as a teaching tool to educate the people living along the river about the necessity to repair it, revive it and respect it. I am proud to say that I have had my Clearwater membership for nearly 50 years. Pete often said that he felt that this was his most significant achievement, because there is little doubt that the Clearwater played a major role in cleaning up the river. The beauty of it was that it was so simple. Pete believed that if you brought people together at the river’s edge to combine work with play–cleaning up the river while singing songs and eating together–it would inevitably lead people to support the political and economic reforms needed to bring about the reversal of the years of pollution and neglect which had so harmed the river. Pete looked out on that river from his house every day until the day he died. One of his mantras was, “think globally, act locally.” Every day he could see his local vision coming true. But every day he knew there was more to be done. He was tireless.
Tonder Denmark 1990: Pete Seeger, Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg w/ Rooney in back
There is no telling how many people were lifted by Pete’s simple vision around the world. I can give one example. Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Kenny Kosek and I were flying to Denmark to play the wonderful Tonder Folk Festival. As it happened, Pete and Toshi were on the same flight. In the airport lounge Pete was excitedly showing us sketches of a Viking ship he was working on. He’d been asked to talk to a group who wanted to do a similar project to The Clearwater on the Baltic using a Viking ship. Pete and Toshi were with us in the back of the plane sleeping under a blanket–no business class for them. When we got there, we happily headed for a hotel bed, but not Pete. He hit the ground running and went off to share his vision with the Danish group. Eventually he joined us at the festival. Arlo Guthrie was sharing the closing concert with Pete and then we all went out to join in on the final song. As we were leaving the stage, I was sort of pulling up the rear next to Pete. I heard some singing coming from somewhere and at first thought it was coming from the performer’s tent backstage. However, it suddenly dawned on me that it was the audience singing. I grabbed Pete’s arm and shouted at him (he was a bit deaf), “Pete! Pete! Go back! They’re singing to you!” and I whirled him around and sent him back out. He stood at the center of the stage, his arms out to the audience, as they sang “We Shall Overcome” to him. They were thanking him. He affected people everywhere this way. He worked tirelessly to help us find our hearts, our common humanity through music. We were blessed to have him with us.
May 1921. Washington, D.C. Professor Charles Seeger, a composer, his wife is a distinguished violinist, Little Pete Seeger, 2 years old, and family along with their camping rig, While Living Outdoors LIKE WANDERING MINSTRELS.