The first stop was an international meeting of the UAW-CIO (‘makes the army roll and go’). They needed me to stand on a stage in front of a giant American flag and sing in as many languages as possible while the auditorium filled up. Imagine someone finally asking for some arcane skill you happen to have.
After that, I rambled across town to the next gig. The RETORT was a new and classy little club PETE CANTINI opened in the basement of the MOUNT ROYAL HOTEL, which belonged to Pete’s mother, who was the kind of (black) woman who would—and did—take the new Rolls Royce on which her (Italian) husband had squandered good money down to the chop shop and have it arc-welded into a pickup. The hotel eventually burned down, though not because of that.
Pete was a kind and perceptive person but a bit of a crank in his way. He’d studied a lot of chemistry (not why the hotel burned down) and named his club after those beaky glass bottles they mix potions in. The club was an immediate success, and so was I. In fact, after the first week Pete decided he should be my manager. (About now, I should tell you that I have never ever had a manager; something happens between the bright idea and the signature on the contract. And you are probably beginning to understand why.)
He kept thinking up promotional gambits, but I didn’t like any of them. He even came to me with an offer of a bit in Vogue, which he’d gone to a lot of trouble to get, but I hemmed and hawed and declined. Why? ’Cause I am not a bit. Something like that. Truthfully, the prospect of even a mention in a major magazine scared the whiz out of me. I might find myself on that superhighway to success and then have to follow through—to do what I was claiming I could do. After that, Pete got pretty annoyed with me. He even said, “Okay, you are never going to get anywhere, and you know why? Because you refuse to kiss ass, that’s why.”
At the time, I took it as a compliment; of course I would not kiss ass. But if we change the image a little, to ‘you refuse to let other people feel important,’ then suddenly I recognize the truth of his words and now am forced to look back over a long life of resolute non-ass-kissing in this awful perspective.
The NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS were playing the club across the street. MIKE SEEGER, TRACY SCHWARZ and JOHN COHEN, a study in black and white with their black string ties on white shirts, black vests and trousers. I went over quite often on my breaks and got an earful of terrific music. Also the chance to strike up acquaintance with some extremely nice (remembering that ‘nice’ is a wimpy and nondescriptive word) musicians. They used to do a number about ‘that awful, hungry hash house where I dwell;’ sometimes they said it was their hotel, but if they saw me it became the Mt. Royal.
One night, Mike Seeger picked up an autoharp and played and sang ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’ The whole thing was exquisite—the black instrument cradled beside his angular face, black shadows and brilliant white spot, the blackness of the song itself—and I had to have it, whatever it was that made it all happen. I asked him about the autoharp, having never heard of one, and he gave me a darn good quick lesson on the spot. He also gave me some extra fingerpicks and showed me how to put them on turned so they would brush, not pluck, the strings.
Next day I ordered an autoharp from the Sears-Roebuck catalog for $30; three days later it was delivered to my upstairs cell in the Mount Royal. So I sat on the bed and played with it all day. Then that night I performed on it, really fantastically. I tell this laudatory story on myself because I seem to be telling so many demeaning ones that I have certainly earned it.
I will not tell about how husband #1, Pete Cantini and Ed Pearl all converged for my closing night. Enough to say it happened. And that wasn’t how the hotel burned down, either. [But I can tell about how Ed walked on snow, for the first time in his L.A. born life and was almost excited, saying in his bemused way, “I’m walking on snow. I’m actually walking on snow.”]
Anyway, they worked it all out, whatever it was. And as two of my shows had already been cancelled, husband—-aright, aright, his name was Lee–and I looked in the driver-wanted ads and drove a stranger’s car straight to Los Angeles. Back to the Ash Grove.
And, oh yes. Somewhere along that drive through the southwest, we were listening to the radio when came the news that a plane crash had taken the lives of several well-known and beloved country musicians. I hadn’t heard of any of them, having not yet discovered contemporary country music, but the news was singularly moving, probably because we were passing through country-music country and the DJs were all choked up. PATSY CLINE was one. And COWBOY COPAS, RANDY HUGHES, and HAWKSHAW HAWKINS.