Archive for January, 2012

STILL RAMBLING 6

NEW JERK CITY (but ya gotta love it)

We arrived on the Greyhound, having left our car back on the California desert. Our possessions were even more pared down, but I still had my baby and my guitar, and a bag of dirty diapers. And my ever-more-burdensome load of ambitions. I also had an introduction to ALBERT GROSSMAN, the manager of JOAN BAEZ, who’d just come out with her first record. So now, if this were a novel, I would really be on the superhighway to success. That’s what I hate about novels.

New York in summer is so hot it’s hard not to take it personally. It seems to surround you, crush you, pant on you. You step out of a roasting bar onto the sidewalk and that heat hits you with a grin, “Hey-oh, here we are again!”

Albert Grossman’s apartment, a short walk from my father’s, was as New Yorkie as could be. Wide old dirty windows opened down onto the street where cars honked and cabbies yelled. Smells of exotic cooking from every other apartment, all commingling out there in the heat. A fan in every window. People, people, people—so different from L.A. where people tend to avoid walking. And Al himself—see how I am? Already ‘Al’—in sweaty shirtsleeves and crumpled slacks, was like a corned beef and pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut and a dill. In the sense, I mean, that he was quintessentially New York.

That’s all the excitement I can provide about Al Grossman. He could have been a major character in the story of my life, but he made his own decision, which was to listen to a couple songs, nod sagely and tell me he already had Joan Baez in his stable so why did he need me? So, out he goes.

Except that a while later my old friend Avril, who used to dance to my Jewish songs and who never got over being a Jew because she really was one, came to New York, and within two weeks she was telling me about this new boyfriend; she thought she might like him or not, Bobby Dylan was his name, he had just come to town from some weird midwestern place and was an opening act at Gerde’s Folk City and wasn’t necessarily all that good of a boyfriend but time would tell. Al Grossman became BOB DYLAN’s manager, probably right about then. And there went Bob, and Joan too, off on that superhighway to success.

Meanwhile, back at the pitiful poorhouse…..It’s a funny thing, but in New York I met very few musicians. I was off my turf. Los Angeles was my turf. I went into a music store in the Village one day and could have been a ghost; not even a ‘May I help you, miss?’ Like a Hell’s Angel in a Christian book shop, or more like a Christian in a Harley shop. I did manage to get them to sell me a capo, of the sort classical guitarists use, with a wooden peg. But I didn’t meet anyone, get any gigs, or even be a paying customer at Gerde’s Folk City.

One thing I did do was play in a small frat club, where halfway through my set some guy in the back yelled, “Hey, you’re no Joan Baez!” I was quite shocked: This was supposed to be a bad thing? Nothing against Joan, but I was KAJSA OHMAN.

Another thing I did was go to a Pete Seeger concert. And I mentioned earlier that I would have more to say about the song, ‘My Children are Laughing Behind My Back.’ Which Pete sang that night.

My mother—it’s time to give her a name. ELEANOR OHMAN. My father bought her a pretty blue and pearl accordion after she laid aside the guitar, and this she did learn. It suited her. She wrote ‘My Children are Laughing’ on the accordion in a natural sort of way; it’s so easy to segue from major to minor on an accordion because you just have to move your two chording fingers a speck to the side and you’re in minor. Why those lyrics, though? What was she thinking? Of me? Here’s how they go: (Think, oomp-pah-pah.)

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
They loll their tongues and they roll their eyes,
They’ll yell and sing when their old ma dies.

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
They’ve blown out the candles that burned by my head
They’ve rolled in the coffin to set by my bed.

My children are laughing behind my back (2)
For my eyes are blind and my lips are blue
And my children they think that my life is through.

But I won’t die for a long long time,
I’m gonna live on for a long long time,
I’ll sit by the window and drink my gin
And be as old as my grandma been.
I’ll sit by the window and I won’t cry—
I’ll LAUGH LIKE HELL when my children die.

Anyway, that’s my mom. As it happens, she died. I’m the one drinking gin by the window. Not laughing, though. Still a little disgruntled about the song.

So there’s Pete Seeger, up on the stage before a large Swarthmore audience, doing this song and saying, “It’s a strange old ballad, no one knows where it came from,” and I knew. Ha. I knew and I would tell him.

I’d tell him and he’d be impressed and want to know more, were there any other wonderful old songs I knew, and I’d say, oh you bet, just listen up. Listen to me. Listen to me! I NEED TO BE LISTENED TO! Ahem, yes. Anyway, I went backstage after the concert, where there was already a half-mile line of people wanting to be noticed by Pete Seeger. Poor saps, I felt sorry for them, none of them having a mother that wrote a song Pete wanted the origin of.

After a long, long time suddenly it was my turn. I was in front of him. I was inside his aura, a thing I hadn’t known he had—and it was completely flattening. My knees went weak, my mouth couldn’t speak. I’d never experienced this kind of thing before, the way a person who’s used to living in the public eye becomes so much larger, brighter than ordinary people. Guess that’s why they call them stars. I barely managed to not faint as I told him about my mother writing the song. But he was kind. Mildly excited even. He jotted down her name and said he was glad to know. Did he believe me? Did I, all at once, believe my mother?

I do believe her. The song is her. It’s her voice. She was always producing weird stuff like that. And as I say, it could only have been written on an accordion. Who writes songs on an accordion? Songs like that?

[The one other time, by the way, that I experienced the paralysis of star proximity was when I met RONALD REAGAN. I’m sorry. But I gotta be honest. I was secretary for a news correspondent in the California state house then, and Reagan was governor. My boss was granted a brief sidewalk interview; the governor was en route to a TV studio and already had his pancake makeup on, which looked slightly creepy. At one point I found myself being introduced, and Reagan looked at me. Looked AT ME. All-inclusive, with even a little merry glint for my miniskirt. The look was so perfect, so impeccable. So practiced. And, again, I was flattened, speechless. Now, I’m not comparing ‘Pete’ to ‘Ron.’ I can’t see any other similarity—but they both were stars, and they both knew it. I’ve met stars since, but never, never ever wish to feel that response again. I have my pride. In future let me be the emanator of stardust, thank you]

Meanwhile, my personal life was going to hell in a hand basket. I’ve intended to stay away from personal history that’s not to the point, the point being guitars and guitar players, but that turns out to be hard to do. I feel I have to say that I was stuck in New York, with no visible musical future; already I was nearly 23, and life was passing me by. #1 and I were not proving out well. He had a drinking problem—I had a shrieking problem. He had a breaking-things problem—I had a bolting problem.

When things were about as bad as it seemed they could get, suddenly Ed Pearl reappeared on the horizon—not in person, but with a series of engagements he had lined up for me without my knowing. The tour would ramble me back across the country, ending up at the MONTEREY FOLK FESTIVAL. So I left my little son with an aunt in Vermont and got back on the Greyhound, ‘alone again, naturally.’

Look out, DETROIT.

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STILL RAMBLLING 5

JOURNEY’S END

Roland White struck me as a princely person, courteous and caring. The responsibility for the band—his band—seemed to be all on him. And he could handle it, too. He’d been doing that job for years, since they all were little kids. He had large, sympathetic brown eyes that often wore a look of ‘where-did-I-put-what-happens-if-I wonder-whether-anyone-I-hope-they-won’t….’

Sometimes he’d tell me in detail what I should do to get healthier. Take a multivitamin (he named the brand). Drink gelatin to strengthen my nails, especially if I wanted to keep using my fingernail as a pick. Do the Daily Dozen. It was important to keep your shoes polished, not for health but just because it looked more professional, which was actually good for your health.

He was easy to talk to, easy to listen to. I listened but didn’t take his advice. I meant to. It just seemed at the time like my physical health was the least of my problems, though of course my shoes have always been near the top of any list. But it felt good just having someone care enough to give the advice.

Eric, Leroy and Billy were nice as well. (Nice—that meaningless word; let’s assume I mean that each of these people had some kind of quality that makes your day better. For instance, that Billy Ray would touch his nose to his chin.) And so was Clarence, nice, in his particular way, which was generally guitar-related. He didn’t talk much, as everyone knows. He had some issue with his L’s and his R’s, which made it not that easy for him to pronounce his own name. But he didn’t need to talk to spend a lot of time trying to teach me ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and ‘Journey’s End’—a solo JOHN COHEN said would take a road map to play. He’d just show me again, and then again.

I didn’t learn well at the time; I wasn’t Appalachian enough to realize the value of hard work. Also, letting go of the chords in order to pick a solo gave me vertigo. Plus both songs, of course, would require a pick, and I was convinced I could not, could not, ever use a pick. I couldn’t hang on to it. Clarence would just shrug and say, “Okay, use the matchbook then.” In those days, we all smoked; there were always matchbooks around to pull the covers off of, and they do work, sort of. And eventually he gave me a pick. To own. “Keep it.”

I wish I still had that pick. I could sell it to TONY RICE, assuming I didn’t want to embed it in the peghead of my Martin, or my own forehead. Tony Rice reportedly has Clarence’s guitar now. Which one, I wonder—the D18 from those early days?

I read in Roland’s book that Clarence shot his guitar with a BB gun, and that the hole was still there. And that he once filled his guitar (the same one?) with sand and there was still some sand inside. If that’s the guitar we’re talking about, then I am very, very jealous, Tony, but I’ll get over it. Anyway, I once tipped my D28 off a stage and broke its neck, and later I dropped a waffle iron on it for good measure; that’s the kind of thing I learned from Clarence.

It’s just a guitar.

It’s just a guitar.

When Clarence was killed, it was as if a guitar limitlessly full of music got smashed to splinters and all the music flew out, everywhere, back into whatever unknowable deep space music comes from.

But right know he’s not dead, just very engrossed in his sandy, BB’d guitar, and I am asking Roland why they don’t ever let his brother take a solo when we all so much want to hear one, and Roland is looking kind of worried and explaining that it’s because if Clarence played a solo then he, Roland, would have to play rhythm guitar or the song would sound weak, and then he wouldn’t be on mandolin—which was okay for maybe one song, and well, maybe if the mood were right on the last set they might do one that way. They might do ‘Journey’s End.’

They did ‘Journey’s End.’ The one I was learning. I am always, always learning ‘Journey’s End.’

But my time at the Ash Grove was up, for now. Ed and I had had a terrible quarrel (one in which I now publicly admit I WAS WRONG, sort of) and #1 one and I decided we needed to escape to New York City. Not a completely miscellaneous idea, since I was from there and my father still lived in our same old apartment on University Place.

I said goodbye to Clarence in the parking lot, and in a passionate burst of instruction I listed a bunch of guitar players and kinds of music I thought he ought to listen to. Please! Listen to flamenco! Classical! Manitas de Plata….Julian Bream….Django Rheinhardt…….

[Note: Apparently JOE MAPHIS had the same idea, that Clarence could well widen his musical base, and I know Django was on his list, too. For that matter, Joe himself was a terrifically wide-based guitarist. And he had a dandy motor home he and his wife ROSE traveled from gig to gig in; he gave me a tour of it, and that greatly influenced my future life.]

For some reason it seemed incredibly important that I give Clarence this advice. The temptation to influence a young talent is hard to resist. In fact people were constantly trying to influence me. And Clarence probably took my advice about as much as I took theirs. I should have been looking to my own musical base instead of standing around in parking lots telling other people how to become great. But, see, he wasn’t ‘other people.’ He was Clarence, who was—remember?—almost me. Anyway, he nodded and said something, one of the two or three words he ever used, like ‘yeah,’ or ‘okay.’ Then there was, ‘Bye, I’ll see you.’

Next morning #1 and baby and I loaded all our possessions into the trunk of the ’49 yellow Buick convertible we had bought two days earlier from the fly-by-night mechanic shop across the street for fifty dollars and headed east, not knowing that the car had only 300 miles left in it. Sometimes rambling is more like running.

Journey’s end? Not hardly. Not yet.

STILL RAMBLING 4


CLARENCE

The Country Boys came from Maine, which is pretty close to Vermont, where I used to live. They wore sharp red jackets and black pants, they slicked their hair back and smelled good, like something out of a bottle. They were CLARENCE, ROLAND and ERIC WHITE, dobro-player LEROY MACK and banjoist BILLY RAY LATHAM who could touch his nose with his chin. Sometimes they were firecrackers, other times the fuse didn’t quite take but everyone forgave those times. “That young Clarence,” said Doc Watson, standing in the kitchen eating a sandwich, “he’s comin’ right along. Right along.”

Now I want to talk about why the arrival of the Country Boys at the Ash Grove was a meaningful event in my life. In a lot of lives. I have to talk about who I was, too. It’s all knitted together.

I’ve said I was Jewish then. Since I wasn’t, it means I was sailing under false colors. This is not unusual for me, during those periods when I’m searching hardest for my true colors.

I was 21, with a baby and a husband, a Martin classical nylon string guitar and a deepening suspicion that there was a music—a deep, dark music from the mountains of Kentucky—that was sounding more and more like my true colors. Whenever I heard it, done the way I liked to hear it done, my soul felt full and strong, angered but at rest. I don’t know how else I could say it.

It’s very old music. John Jacob Niles knew that. My great-great-great-great-great rural ancestors sang and played it. It probably didn’t sound that different, either, if you know what you’re looking for. I felt and feel that I was raised up by it, schooled by it, churched by it, kissed, married and pregnant by it, laid in my grave to it many times. Over and over and over. That still house.

On the other hand, it was getting harder to be Jewish, now that I was becoming Appalachian. What matters it? I just wanted to be something, to have come from somewhere, to have the weight and power of some communally shared experience that would back and sustain me. I always felt the answer would lie among the downtrodden, but maybe I needed to change my downtrodden, pick some closer to home. Not that Kentucky coal miners were close to my home—wait, I didn’t even have a home, except the Ash Grove.

One evening I put the baby to bed in a corner of the dressing room and walked out, into the dark passageway that led into the kitchen of the club. I was going to see if there was anything I could slyly eat. Plus I wanted a glass of FICKLIN PORT, a newly discovered wine we carried because #1 was doing some of the menu-planning by then. I saw, squinting, that three or four unidentified people were milling about. And one of them had a guitar around his neck.

Playing it. Now, here was an odd thing: the guitar was HUGE, and the player wasn’t any bigger than I was. He wore that uniform red jacket, a ruby ring on his finger, and oh, wow, he was using a flatpick. YESSS—I was just starting to figure out about flatpicks.

Picks. All my life I’d been three-fingering on those nylons, but recently I found I wanted to pick, to make more noise, be more precise. I didn’t have a pick, so I would use either my first fingernail, which was pretty flimsy, or a folded matchbook cover, which was really flimsy and lasted about one song. [You do the fingernail thing by holding the tip of your first finger really tightly between second finger and thumb, should you wish to try it, and good luck to you.] Anyway, this boy was using a pick, perfectly easily, and really focusing on the picking, too. In the almost-dark, that was mostly what a person could tell: here was a kid of—as it turned out—sixteen who was completely, totally focused on something. Something that wasn’t a bicycle or a pair of skis or an engine, something uniquely important in my own life. A guitar.

Also: he had dark eyebrows, dark eyes with defined bags under them, a certain detached scowl. Just like me. I felt at once as if I was looking in a mirror. But a weird kind of mirror, one that showed myself as a > boy playing a > big >steel string > guitar with a > flatpick. Maybe I could do it; maybe I couldn’t. Maybe I could only watch him do it. Those seemed the two alternatives.

A third alternative was, I could be him. BE him. This was a strange feeling, because good lord, I certainly would never want to be anyone but who I am. Would you? Heck no. But I did want to be Clarence. I wanted to slip that guitar strap over my shoulders and take up a plastic flatpick and go to town on steel strings. I wanted to know a guitar that well.

All through the Country Boys’ Ash Grove gig, that sense of wanting to be him didn’t get any less. During the down-time when various players would be hanging out in the dressing room, and Clarence would be sitting on the couch—well, I’d even study the way he sat. I couldn’t sit that way, slouched back, an ankle over a knee, picking and picking and picking—over and over. I would have loved to, but girl folksingers didn’t sit that way in 1961.

Yeah, that’s how I wanted to sit. I would hold the guitar just that way. (Well, actually, I’d have to; we were both so small we had to kind of peep down over the top, if the guitar was a Dreadnaught.) I’d have a Marlboro burning beside me.

I’d play something a hundred times till I got it the way I wanted it. I wouldn’t ever smile, except when I felt like it. I’d feel at home in the middle of a busy room. I wouldn’t care who was listening or not.

Most of all, I’d know my guitar. I’d know all the strings, of course, and the frets, and the tuners—but much more than that. I’d know where the music came from, what the actual note fragments were like before they became music. I’d know how the wood inside the body worked, how it felt when the music was rolling around in it. I’d know its voice, its capacities, its needs. I’d listen, play, listen, play, and I’d never tire of it. The miracle of the music deep within the darkness of guitar would never end.

Am I saying I realized I wanted to be a guy? Nope. I wanted to be able to do what I would like to do if I were a guy, which I’d have to be if I were to do the things I wanted to do. Play a Dreadnaught with a flatpick, for instance.

Well, we are not done with this matter yet.

STILL RAMBLING 3

STILL RAMBLING 3
The furious downstairs neighbor

At first we virtually lived at the Ash Grove, because for a long time we had no place else to live. It was a very nice home, if a bit—uh—homey. It was the kind of place that felt perfect to some, horrifying to others. People who really loved folk music thought it was paradise. People who shoot their cuffs and twitch up their trouser pleats were afraid a cockroach might fall on them from the rafters.

Of course there are lots of cuff-shooting trouser twitchers who love folk music—I didn’t mean to polarize, God knows there’s enough of that going around. And there were lots of signs that the club was legit: a nice glass display case in the foyer, a red velvet cordon for crowd control, a regulation ticket booth, theater seats, an elegant menu, and waitresses (yep, that’s what they were called and no apology) who didn’t talk or take orders during performance. Full lights up in those (cockroach-filled?) rafters and a light booth. Fine sound system.

In those days Ed would book an act for a month at a time, as did a lot of clubs. My first gig there was a month, and the main act was THE TARRIERS. With BOB CAREY, CLARENCE COOPER, and ERIC WEISSBERG (who later did ‘Dueling Banjos).

I loved the Tarriers. I hadn’t known it was okay to like ‘folk groups,’ since in those days Kingston-Trio bashing was a favorite sport in certain circles. Why? Because they were popular. Because they were popularizing folk music, which was considered to be the sacrosanct property of a select group. Because they did an ad for Coca-Cola. Or some damn thing. But here was this folk group, the Tarriers, and here was me liking them, even playing songs with them in the dressing room. Yes, I had a lot to learn.

When the month was over, we kept on living at the Ash Grove. For one thing, #1 was now running lights and being part-manager. For another, there was that business of, was Ed Pearl (now ‘Ed’) going to manage me or wasn’t he? I was proving to be stubborn and quarrelsome, nor was Ed himself known for a Za-Zen approach to life. Was I going to cooperate in any way with anyone trying to help me? Was he really going to set me up with a voice coach and a guitar teacher? Was the Ash Grove even going to survive, in view of wavering finances and militant political arsonists?
[Keep in mind that this is all my version of how things were. I would like to remind you readers that if you know things were different, or think they were, you are more than welcome to weigh in.]

Now I want to go back for a minute, to that Israeli song I did at my audition. One of the ways I used to while away my not-in-high-school hours was to listen to the ORANIM ZABAR, which featured composer DOV SELTZER and singer GEULA GILL—from Israel, of course. I had their Folkways record, and I wore it pretty thin.

This became my Jewish period. Their music, still very beautiful to me, filled me up to the brain cells with desert sand and ancient rites, which meant I had to be a Jew, which was fine since I wasn’t anything else. And surely the songs would provide me with a tradition, a past, a way of defining myself. So I set about learning those songs, and while I played and sang them, my sister and our friend Avril danced. I have a picture of this happening at the old Fugazi Hall, which now is the Beach Blanket Babylon but then was a favorite venue for beats and Wobblies.

After I was married, I settled on trying to perfect one of those Israeli songs so it could be part of what I was hoping would become a repertoire. ‘Bona habanot’. Bona, bona habanot, maherenah lish’ov’ something something—I practiced it forty times a day for a while (that loony-bin mindset I was talking about) until late one afternoon I heard a loud, angry knock at the door, more like a bunch of whams. It was my downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged, portly, florid, gay Irishman I’d never spoken to, and he was so mad his eyes were protruding out of his head.

“Over and over and over,” he yelled. “OVER and OVER and OVER, the same damn song, always the same song, over and over until I’m about gone out of me mind!”

I told him I was awfully sorry, that due to a lifetime of relative insensitivity to the pain of others I hadn’t realized I was bothering anyone, but that I thought it was a beautiful song and I really did want to get it right. And he said that by this time I had killed it from grinding it into the soil, and him too. Over and over and over.

So I asked him, not knowing what else to say, if he would like to come in and have a glass of wine.

“Oh,” he brightened. “A glass of wine then? I would be delighted. Oh, yes!”

An hour and three large glasses later he left, even more florid. We were old friends now. He said he loved the song, was it in some kind of foreign language then, and that I could sing it as often as I wished. He would be looking forward to it. He loved Jewish music. In return I told him he and his roomie could use the old wringer washer I had set up down in the yard. Such is the curative power of music—oh, no, wait, it was wine.

And lo, while I was semi-resident at the Ash Grove, Ed booked Oranim Zabar for a month! I got to talk to them, and to hear them every night—except the nights when Geula had a bronchial infection and couldn’t sing, which meant that when she came back, no one was allowed to smoke cigars in the first four rows of the audience. And I know you are thinking, what? They could before?

Then came the Appalachian acts. ROSCOE HOLCOMB. CLINT HOWARD. DOC WATSON. THE STONEMAN FAMILY. And other acts that weren’t Appalachian exactly but did that kind of stuff I was gradually beginning to recognize as a semi-viable form of musical expression.

This took a while; I was a genuine prejudiced priss-pot, not easily budged, and besides, I was now Jewish. But my mother had luckily inducted me into mountain music without my knowing, by playing JOHN JACOB NILES, over and over and over. Also, she had a rendition of ‘Wake up, wake up, darlin’ Corey,’ to her own piano accompaniment, that slayed me as a child; when she got to the part about ‘The revenue officers are coming, gonna tear your still house down,’ I would dissolve in blubbering tears. That still house. Gone, forever. Appalachian music can still do that to me.

And THEN there were acts that didn’t come from Appalachia but did ‘that kind’ of music. Like—THE COUNTRY BOYS. Tune in next week.

STILL RAMBLING 2

The hungry i

 Fast forward about a year and we’ll be in San Francisco. In North Beach, which is the equivalent of Greenwich Village. There was a club called the HUNGRY i. Eventually it became an ‘exotic’ club, but then it was a high-powered folk venue for JOSH WHITE, HARRY BELAFONTE, THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS and such ilk. And that’s where I wanted to play. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t; I was a lot better than when I’d debuted for the D.A.R. So my mother and I walked down to the i one evening and asked for the owner, HENRICO BANDUCCI. Not surprisingly, we were told that our chances of talking  to Mr. Banducci were as likely as talking to President Eisenhower.

The main act that month was PROFESSOR IRWIN COREY, THE WORLD’S FOREMOST AUTHORITY.  Authority on what? That was the joke. He was middling-young then, and charming, and the absolutely funniest human being on the planet. And here he was, right out in the anteroom, schmoozing the audience between acts. Especially he wanted to schmooze my mom, because she was a natural schmooze magnet. So we explained our mission, and he laughed and said my chances of performing at the hungry i were the same as my talking to Henrico Banducci. He also wondered how old I was, because I certainly couldn’t play there if I wasn’t eighteen. “Oh, I’m eighteen,” I said while my mom gave her most serious nod. “No you’re not,” said Irwin. “I can tell by your hands. You still have a child’s hands.” I glared at my traitorous hands; I glared at him. And then, good move, my mom invited him to dinner.

Irwin came to dinner after that almost every night during his engagement at the i, then again through his return engagement. I like to think he was lonesome from being on the road so much, and that  my mother, sister and I provided a ‘family away from home’. Anyway, that’s the explanation we’re sticking to. He bought me a tape recorder! He was always gifting us, inviting us to his show, taking us to a football game at Cal. AND—one day he said he’d arranged for me to sing on stage at the club. One song. Before a live audience.

If this were a novel, the world would have recognized my genius right then, and I’d have been on the superhighway to success. But no. However, that was one hell of an exciting night. The showroom was black and big, with rows and rows of people in a semi-circle around me and a blinding light in my eyes. I remember I sat on a high stool and was worried I’d fall off. I remember I wore a scoop-necked black top and a plaid circular skirt, gold hoop earrings and high heels. I remember that the song was, inappropriately, the murder ballad “Pretty Polly.” I remember that my hand froze into a claw so I couldn’t pull off the complicated guitar double-stops I’d arranged but just flailed across the strings without finesse. I remember I thought I’d die from heart-stoppage before the song was done.

Odd, though, my uncle was in the audience (this was a major family event) and he took a picture; in it, I looked as relaxed, smiley and gracious as could be. Could this possibly be true? Certainly the audience was as kind and enthusiastic as if they’d been able to see how terrified I was, which I’m sure they could, so bless them.

Afterward, Irwin explained to me that all this was meant to show me that I was not NEARLY ready, and that I should keep going to high school and helping my mother cook dinners. And that I should start learning how to capture and hold an audience , by seeming to single out one person or another with a wave, a grin, a wink—well, all those things we see presidential candidates doing. One needed to learn to seem to be one’s self, certainly not tobe one’s self. (Still workin’ on this one.)

Fast forward three years. By this time I’m married to husband #1, and I’ve done a little more playing, in situations a speck more worldly than the Morrisville D.A.R., and this time I AM SURE that I should be playing the hungry i.

This time I managed to land an honest audition; the manager—PAUL GOLDENBERG—would be willing and even happy to hear a few songs in the afternoon, it would relieve the boredom. So down I went with my guitar, and husband #1, and there was that same dark stage, dreadfully littered and seamy in the daylight, and Mr. Goldenberg heard my stuff and told me to go away, and to get some funny patter to turn my songs into a cohesive act.

I thought I was done for. One thing I certainly could not do was talk to an audience, especially in a funny way. But #1 and I sat down and worked out a routine anyway. Then I called Mr. Goldenberg—now ‘Paul’ since I’d pestered him so often—and told him I thought I could be funny. Unbelievably he granted me another audition. It was great! He laughed loudly at all the jokes we’d made up—and then told me to go away and just get a lot better because I was certainly not going to be hired at the i, even if I wanted to sleep with the owner, which, he assured me, was a likely requisite.

But the most important thing he told me was to go down to Los Angeles and try out at the Ash Grove, because I was like a little flickering flame that needed a protective globe around it until it could burn as bright as it promised it was going to, and the Ash Grove was that globe.

The Ash Grove was that globe to many people. TAJ MAHAL lived in the dressing room (a few years later) and worked odd jobs around the place while he got his act together. THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS were callow and unformed when they first showed up there. And of course there were other flickers of potential flame that no one ever heard of, many of whom are burning bright today.

I went to L.A., where my sister lived anyhow, and phoned ED PEARL, the owner of the Ash Grove. Some different from Mr. Banducci—Ed was actually the one who answered the phone that day. To my amazement, he said, “Sure, come on down and do a set tonight. Twenty minutes.”

Again that black stage, that black hole, the blinding light in the eyes, a room full of carnivores—actually more of them, arranged this time in a rectangle. But Paul Goldenberg was right, this was not as frightening, not by half. These people were not going to eat me and pick their teeth with my bones. I cruised through “House of the Rising Sun,” “Delia’s Gone,” an Israeli song and one my mother had written, called, “My Children Are Laughing Behind My Back.” [More on this song later.] At the end of the evening—a very long evening of suspense—Ed told me he wanted to be my manager.

So husband #1 and I packed up and moved to L.A.

Another Victim of Romance

STILL RAMBLING 1

STILL RAMBLING

     Today I rambled into DUSTY STRINGS in Seattle. Partly I wanted to find out how they’re doing with the neck reset on my ’51 Martin D28; I’m pretty nervous having it operated on. But also I wanted to buy the CLARENCE WHITE book, by his brother ROLAND WHITE, as a gift for my son.
     

     It’s a terrific book. And as I was waiting for the clerk to ring up someone else, I was looking at a photo in it. Suddenly the clerk—MARLENE is her name, and she’s a wonderfully friendly person—commented that Clarence looked so young in this picture. I said, “That’s the way he looked when I knew him, back in ’61.” Marlene said, “You knew him?” And I said I did, I knew him from when we played together at the ASH GROVE in Hollywood. She asked who else I knew.
     

      I would have been glad to keep name-dropping, since I was getting such good mileage out of it. But I find my memory isn’t as sharp as it never was. I did remember BROWNIE MCGEE and SONNY TERRY—remembered, in fact, being on stage with them one New Year’s Eve, singing Auld Lang Syne, along with THE SCRAGG FAMILY.
     

     Anyway, Marlene said, “You need to write about this! You need to write about all those people you’ve known over the years!”
     

      Her enthusiasm made me thoughtful. I really have been around a lot of guitar players, guitar-playing venues and guitars since the mid-fifties. I didn’t get famous, not yet anyway, but guitar playing has brought me a truly fabulous life. And I would like to share it, if only to share my own snarky perspective on how and why guitars are played.
     

     To share how Brownie McGee once saw my guitar in its open case, picked it up, strummed a few licks and said, “My God, girl, you play this thing?” It was that same aforementioned Martin only the neck hadn’t been reset so it was literally impossible to play. And I’m a small-handed small person. So how did I mange to play that monster? Desire. Brownie could have played it, too, if he’d wanted to. So I picked up his guitar, and it was absolutely impossible to play. I could have if I’d wanted to.
     

     A lot of my encounters with guitarists have been just about that exciting, nothing to write about in Rolling Stone. But they add up. Also, some of the best players I’ve met or played with haven’t gotten famous. And I want to introduce you to some of them—in due time.
     

     Here’s how I ended up at the Ash Grove. I’d been teaching myself to play for about six years and I’d gotten fairly good at it—for a girl, as I was told more times than I can count. And hey, it’s not really an unfair judgment. At that time there were hardly any female guitarists. Even today there are far fewer than guy ones. Just like there are fewer female snowboarders. The loony-bin mindset that compels some people to do something over and over and over and over until it amounts to something didn’t used to be considered a feminine trait. And perhaps it isn’t. Nothing wrong with that. Or perhaps we are just discovering that it is.
   

     Really, when I first started playing, on my mom’s old Harmony Patrician, which she didn’t play, which had four strings on it, hardly anyone played the guitar at all. In New York City and other such places a folk revival had been going on since the ‘forties, but in Vermont, where I was living at 15, I can truly say I didn’t hear one other guitarist. So it was kind of hard to learn, since I had no leaders, no role models, no teacher. I also had no friends—that’s not true but it’s close enough—so I was glad to have something to do besides sit and pine for a social life.
     

     And there were records. I heard SUSAN REED; though she played the harp, she sang folk songs, all of which I learned. I heard BURL IVES, whose songs I didn’t learn, but he did play the guitar. From Montreal came a daily morning broadcast of a folksinger/guitarist called ALAN MILLS. [I just looked him up on Wikipedia, and you can too.]
     

     Also I had my mom’ stories. When she first moved to Greenwich Village from Florida, she briefly read her poetry at the VILLAGE VANGUARD, where the main act was LEADBELLY. Leadbelly had just been brought from prison to New York (yes, there is a difference) by ALAN LOMAX to become a legend. He made a huge impression on my mom. So, once while visiting New York I stopped in a tiny record store to see what my two bucks would buy, and found a pretty horrible 10” LP of this legend—and he made a huge impression on me, too. It was an unfussified recording, nothing there but just the raw power of the man, with no EQ or reverb or compression or even minimal production. Which, of course, was how a lot of folk music was in those days.
    

      Besides, when my parents lived in Greenwich Village, they were popular party-givers, so people like RICHARD DYER-BENNET and WOODY GUTHRIE were visitors at our apartment even though I was a kid and didn’t care anything about it.
     

     Armed with five songs I’d gleaned from these various sources, I did my first public appearance—an afternoon tea party of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Morrisville, Vermont. They liked it. What can I say? They couldn’t very well not like it, since these were some exceedingly polite ladies and I was a nice little girl performing some genuine Americana. I do recall that I was scared shitless.
     

     But I am slowly moving toward my goal—to talk about the early Ash Grove and how I came to be there.