STILL RAMBLING 11
THE SCRAGG FAMILY
Back in Santa Barbara, PETER FELDMANN had been trying to get his neighbors interested in playing old-timey music. GENE McGEORGE already was a violinist and could surely be taught ‘Bile ’em Cabbage Down;’ BILL NEELY, a potter, could play the concertina and the harmonica, plus he was good at making everyone feel that big things were happening; MARIA CORDERO could not only play guitar and sing, she could also look really good; TOM SHELDON played the guitarón—a kind of half-sized Mexican lap bass you play standing up. They named themselves the Scragg Family, after a famous street in Santa Barbara, Alameda Padre Serra, which Wild Bill always called Alameda Padre Scragg.
All they seemed to be missing was me.
I’ve always thought it greatly to Peter’s credit that he turned to his immediate community rather than go downtown and team up with two or three hotshots, as he surely could have done. Part of the band’s immediate appeal was the very human quality of people who were not primarily musicians, not trained ones anyway. If you heard a tape of us then, you might wonder what the fuss was about.
I think love was what it was about. We loved each other, we loved our audience (since they were already our friends) and we were just plain loveable. We all inhabited a mountain community of eccentrics in hand-built houses on a maze of dirt roads; we lived with a sense of absolute freedom; we lived in a cloud of fun-having, where nothing seemed crucial. It was a pre-hippie time—pre-pot, pre-acid, but plenty of (home-made) red wine—and so we could live in a hippie-like way without feeling as if we were following some hippie-script. (Not to knock hippies! As soon as they appeared, I was on board.)
Peter and I knew a lot about southern mountain music by this time; the others didn’t. We would play records for them, and they’d play the songs as best they could. We ventured into harmonies. We thought up actual arrangements, such as, Let’s start all together and do four verses and stop, okay? We delegated solos, the way the big boy bluegrassers did. We learned to say funny things between songs, and if no one said anything funny, then we’d roll our eyes and be idiots.
We gave ourselves appropriate names and outfits. Maria became SALLY SCRAGG—short dress and tall boots, a wide-brimmed hat over her long, black hair. Tom was JOSIAH LEVITICUS SCRAGG with a kind of bandolero slant. WILD BILL SCRAGG, never without his ranger hat and red kerchief, sold his vinegar from the stage and called it moonshine. Peter was HANLEY J., from his fedora to his batwing shoes with real shoelaces. Gene was SETH SCRAGG: black engineer boots and dust-covered pants from a day on the bulldozer. I was RUBY LEE SCRAGG, in something different every night to make sure no one could pigeon-hole me like I just did all my band mates. And there were peripheral Scraggs, too–like Electron, who owned radio station KRCW and showed us how to rig up a microphone thingy to make us sound louder for the ever-increasing crowds.
The Scraggs were available for events of all kinds where genuine yahoos were desired—it’s amazing how many events of that sort there are. A shopping mall opening? A benefit for abused children? A political shindig? (This one was for Governor Pat Brown, Jerry’s dad.) Get the Scragg Family, they’re really fun and they’re really cheap. And our community gave quarterly Pot Wars—not like Weed Wars, these were about competitive potters selling their wares, and they eventually morphed into the Renaissance Faire. For those venues, we’d set up on the bed of one of Gene’s trucks.
Our longest-running revue was at a little bar down south in Summerland called THE SANDPIPER. We started off playing for the locals, but before long our fans found us and soon were lining up outside because the bar wasn’t large enough to hold them all. Sounds like the superhighway to success, doesn’t it? Well, in a way it was, because I told Ed Pearl I was playing in an old-timey string band and he said, “Bring them down to the Ash Grove!”
We went, and it was great. Except—nothing’s perfect—one night someone sent a note up from the audience. It said, You guys are terrific. You could really make it, you just need to focus the group around that one girl, the really pretty one with the boots. Peter read it aloud in the dressing room and then there was a long moment of embarrassed silence, ’cause fer chrissake, there were TWO really pretty girls with boots in this group, yet there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Maria was the one the guy meant. (Well, okay, I’ve just been trying to think of the various reasons we eventually went 3-piece, and I’m ashamed to say that may have been one of them.)
All this time, I’d been still playing my classical nylon-string Martin, and that was a fine guitar, but you really could not play ‘Black Mountain Rag’ on it. Or any of the other songs my new job description called for. Everybody knew by then that I dreamed of having a dreadnaught—I never stopped whining about it. The squeaky wheel. Then it got to be May, close to the 12th which was my birthday, and Electron Scragg secretly took up a collection from everyone in the community so they could buy me a D28.
The one they found used to belong to DAVE CROSBY, and I think it cost a lot. Gene McGeorge said (I just found this out) that he’d match whatever amount was raised………well, more on him later. Meanwhile, it’s the 12th, and we are all having a picnic in the back country. The weather is already heading into deep California summer; bees are buzzing, birds are tweeting, champagne corks are popping. And they give me this card, and it says it’s good for one D28 Martin guitar which will arrive any day now.
I poured my champagne over my head. I was pretty glad about the guitar, all right, but I was gladder about the enormous communal effort to get it. For a while, there, it seemed like I’d finally found a true home, a place where I was loved and valued. The superhighway to success was temporarily subsumed in this much larger vision. Friends—family—love! Christopher rolled around on the grass, my boyfriend kissed me, everyone beamed. This was like stardom.