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.