That trip across country was pretty nice. Lee and I were affectionate, hopeful, on good behavior. We’d never had a vacation together, never shared sightseeing or stayed in a motel. We even spoke of saving all the theoretical money I was about to make and going to a Greek island for a year.
However, as soon as we delivered the car to its owner, that was the end of it. I was all done with being married. Maybe it was the prospect of living on a Greek island, so far from the Ash Grove, so far from this music business that had my heart. Whatever, I was done. I refused any proffered compromises to the relationship, for fear I would be tempted to prolong it. I was done. Lee was an intelligent, humorous, good-looking man and in literary and musical areas one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. That was neither here nor there; apparently I was still a bolter. I was no longer married.
But good God, what a decision. Not getting into what it did to him, I discovered that I had pulled the rug out from under my own feet and lo, the floor under the rug was all rotten and crumbling, so that I had to spend all my time looking for precarious bits of joist I could stand on. So I honestly don’t remember much about this period in my life. I had absolutely no idea who I was supposed to be now, what I was supposed to do.
I do remember that the KENTUCKY COLONELS—none other than our old familiar Country Boys with a new format—were there. They’d lost Eric and gained ROGER BUSH on bass; they’d started doing a few pop songs to spiff up their act.(Statler Brothers’ ‘Counting Flowers on the Wall’ comes to mind. I really didn’t think their act needed any spiffing. But what did I know?) Clarence was almost a grownup. The whole act was noticeably more worldly. And they had a record out, on the Briar label.
One strange memory is of being onstage with the senior White, father of all of them, along with Clarence and a number of other musicians including possibly Joe Maphis. I have racked my brain trying to imagine why this would have happened. I even remember Ed Pearl urging me up there. What were we all supposed to be doing?
Making music, that’s what. And broadening our musical bases by contact with one another. I think Ed had a strong sense of the value in this. Each of us had something to offer, but put us in odd juxtapositions and we’d have to reach, to guess, to interpret, to forgive, to keep on our toes—‘You use that chord there?!’—and to grow.
But—I was all of a sudden alone in a way I hadn’t seen coming, no one to cry on and say, ‘Oo-hoo-hoo, he said I was no Joan Baez!’ My confidence vacillated between low and gone. I flew off the handle at people, a thing you can’t do in show business even if you can at home; I butted in where I wasn’t wanted, unwilling to admit I wasn’t wanted; I flirted with lots of guys and was horrified if they returned my attention; I developed the concept of ‘bravado drinking’; I moped in the dressing room and tuned my autoharp so forlornly that Clarence finally took over.
Clarence also went back to teaching me ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and ‘Journey’s End,’ and this time I learned them. More accurately, what I learned was Clarence’s manner of getting to the notes he wanted, a manner that suited me because it follows the path of least resistance, often sacrificing super-accurate picking in favor of overall flow.
One thing we were all doing, however, was waiting around to go up to the Monterey Folk Festival.
Eventually the day came. A lot of people crammed their instruments and themselves into a few cars. I rode in the back seat with JOHN HERALD of the GREENBRIAR BOYS. If only I’d known what I just read on Wikipedia—that he was a New Yorker, maybe even a Villager like me, and used to sing in the Circle in Washington Square—we would have had so much to talk about! But I looked out the window and watched the still-green California hills and dreaded.
The Monterey Folk Festival! First one ever! Reputedly Joan Baez was there, though I never saw her. Maybe Bob Dylan, too, for the superhighway certainly ran through Monterey that day. It was a time when the superhighway and a lot of little paths and trails and country roads and even untrodden shortcuts flowed together for a bit, then separated again.
There was a panel discussion on folk music. A long line of guys—GUYS, yes—at a table: RALPH RINZLER, DOC WATSON, CLARENCE WHITE, maybe ROSCOE HOLCOMB, ethnomusicologist D.K. WILGUS, JOHN COHEN, MIKE SEEGER, TRACY SCHWARZ, probably ED and some I didn’t know or can’t recall. I sat off a ways with CLINT HOWARD and his lads, and what we were doing was practicing long-distance spitting. At least I was practicing; the rest were just spitting, as they’d known how to do since childhood, and kindly teaching me. So why to this day can I not long-distance spit? I want to add at this point, since it will be sadly necessary later, that these boys and Roscoe Holcomb and others repeatedly invited me to come visit them and stay awhile if and when I took the song-collecting trip through the south I kept talking about. “Y’all come!” they urged.
Motel rooms had been booked for us. I went and looked at mine. I would have it to myself, because there were no other females to share it with. To be sure, there was RITA WEILL, a new protégé of Ed Pearl, who was not only starting to perform at the AG but also to be considerably involved in the running of it. She would be performing in Monterey, too, but she didn’t need my motel room. Here’s her picture>>>>
The room didn’t raise my spirits much. It was full of mismatched stuff that wasn’t wanted anywhere else, and its window looked out to the street—or in from it. The holey curtain of flower-print chintz didn’t pull tight enough to shut out the streetlight outside. I decided to go find a place where I could buy a little flask of whiskey and indulge in some bravado drinking.
In fact I would bravado drink right here on the curb, dammit. The very vibe of this spot was cursed. People would see me on this cursed spot and feel sorry and think, oh look, there’s a poor, sad, cursed little girl who can’t even go ahead and live because she ran away from her husband and hasn’t gotten onto the folk club circuit and hasn’t any other justification for taking up space on the planet. Maybe John Steinbeck would see me and use my image for a bit appearance in a story about sad, cursed people. ‘The Girl on the Spot.‘
This was Monterey on a warm spring night, with its cozy store fronts just starting to light up and a waft of smells from ocean and nearby fields. Cars drove by, lots of them; cars are blind. People walked past; they glanced my way or didn’t. Some were musicians, even ones I vaguely knew; a few gave me a casual wave but didn’t stop to talk. Fine.
After I’d gone through half the pint (it might have been half a half-pint), along came Clarence. With a short-sleeved plaid shirt instead of his red jacket. “What are you doing sitting on the curb?” he wanted to know. I told me I wasn’t doing anything, really, just wondering how it would be if I went ahead and killed myself.
“Oh,” he said, “you don’t wanna do that.” And by the way, it isn’t true that Clarence never smiled.
“No,” I agreed. “I really don’t. I was just joking.” Maybe I was. I’m not sure. But it was true, I really didn’t want to kill myself. So I got up, and we left that cursed spot.
Next day was the show, or at least my part of it. The stage was an open-air covered affair, and the crowd was entirely open-air. It really was a crowd—the most people, I think, that I’d ever played for at that time. I have a photo someone took of me warming up, so I know that I was wearing a very cool dress made out of a complex chenille bedspread, and some silver fish earrings from Taxco. The expression on my face is distant yet focused, just like my sailor father at the helm, and makes me inclined to forgive myself all kinds of foolishness.
My performance, though, was somewhat marred by three things: First, I had a hangover. Second, a jet took off from the AF base and took a long time—my whole opening number—flying overhead and drowning me out. Third, D.K. Wilgus, the ethnomusicologist Ed told me it was important to make a good impression on, was emceeing, and his last words into the mic were, “Just wait’ll you hear this young lady play guitar!” Then I walked onstage holding my autoharp, and the crowd tittered. No big thing—just an unintentional, sneaky way to make Mr. Wilgus look slightly silly.
Worse, there was no response to my show. Unfortunately there were two burgeoning flowers being introduced that day—Rita Weill and me—and I don’t know whether she was just better than me or more likeable or better situated on the program or had more supporters, but I do know that the glowing reviews next day in the papers were all for her. And though we were starting to become friends, my nose was sadly out of joint. I didn’t hear her act—nor Joan’s, nor Bob’s.
What praise I did get was from my mother and grandmother on the way home. And when I asked if they’d noticed the kid with the big guitar and said wistfully that I wished I could play like him, my grandmother smiled her wise little smile and said, “Oh, I think that’s for the fellows to do. It wouldn’t do for a girl, not for you. But I think your playing is very pretty.”