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Growing Up a Folkie

I always wanted to grow up to be Pete Seeger.

The first folk song I ever learned (well it’s written song but I learned in folkie style, person to person by ear) was Waltzing Matilda.  I learned it from Col. Frank Sampson of the Royal Australian Army when I was probably seven or eight years old living in Tokyo, Japan.

When I was nine or ten years old – about third grade – I was living in Thailand.  My parents had some folk music recordings (along with Broadway show tunes) that includes albums by Burl Ives and Harry Belafonte.  They were influential on me.  But when I went to the USIS (United States Information Service) library – that was where I discovered Pete Seeger.  Yeah, this was about the same time he was being blacklisted because the political witch hunters, so there’s more than a little irony in all this. 

I also remember my Dad singing “folk” songs – Irene Goodnight, for one, and Tzena, Tzena, Tzena for another, plus a smattering of songs from his Army days.

So by the time I went to high school, I had a little bit of this “folk music” stuff rattling around it my head. And about the time I started school, the Great Folk Scare of ‘60s arrived in full force.

Pete, the Weavers, Woodie Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter and others had set the stage.  The Kingston Trio proved commercial viability. And now – along came Dylan and Baez and Paxton and Ochs.  Peter, Paul and Mary led, the Chad Mitchell Trio and other groups flourished. Hootenanny brought pop-folk confections to the small screen like the New Christy Minstrels.

“Wasn’t that a time,” to quote Pete.

My First Guitar

The folkie seeds planted deep in my psyche took root.  I found all the folk music flying around – the commercial stuff and the “ethnic” (that was wheat we called it at the time) stuff – I really liked it. And early on – I think it was during my second year in school, of all people my Old Man – my father – gave me a guitar for Christmas. It was an astonishingly thoughtful gift for him to have come up with.  He was not a sensitive, new age kinda guy, my Dad.  “Children should be seen and not heard” was his take on parenting. Music was never an important part of our thoroughly dysfunctional family life.

And yet, somehow, the Old Man comes through and gives me a guitar.  And it was – in every respect – and absolutely awful guitar. It was a no-name, steel string guitar with an action that put the strings about an inch above the fretboard.  Trying to play it was like trying to play one of the those titchen gatgets used slice hard boiled eggs.  The tone of the guitar – I can’t remember – probably because the thing was so impossible to play that I never actually heard it very often.  But – I had a guitar.  And that was a breakthrough.

When I went back to school after Christmas, I started playing around with the real guitars that my classmates had.  I learned a few chords. Someone on the floor – I think it was Van Penick but I may be misremembering that – sold me a Sears Silvertone classical guitar.  That became my first, actually playable guitar.  So with copies of Sing Out! magazine and songbooks from Oak Publications, I set out to be a folk singer. 

The Good Old Gibson

During the summer of 1963, while working at The Cleveland press as a clerk, I made two important investments.  I bought a Heathkit monaural amplifier (it came as a kit – I assembled it – soldering was required), an AR4 speaker and an AR turntable and assembled my audio system for the next several years.  Tom Rush, Pete and Peter, Paul and May dominated my record collection in the early years.

More important – much more important – I went to Jack Epstein’s Music Store on East Prospect Avenue where I found a used Gibson J-45 guitar that seemed to suit me. It was and is a big instrument with a lot of volume.  Good guitarists tell me it plays easily up the fretboard. 

I was young and foolish – I didn’t know that real folk musicians play Martin guitars. 

I love my old Gibson. It may not be a Martin, but it’s a fine “hootenanny” guitarand pretty good for playing rhythm guitar in a back of a dance pick-up band.

 I’ve done things to it myself (replaced the tuners, mainly) and had work done on it over the years that mean it’s not as pristine and valuable it should be.  It’s got a fair number of chips and scratches.  The finish is well crazed.

But in my mind, I’m thinking it’s just coming into it’s prime.  And I think it’s time for me to invest a little more time in learning how to play it properly, before it moves on to a new owner somewhere down the line.

Dance Caller

Into my mid-40s, I never had an inkling that I could dance.  I used to stand around at the contra dances at weekend folk festivals watching people dance; but not participating (and my friends at the times didn’t tug me gently on the sleeve, either – something that leaves me a bit cranky).

But my Birthday Twin saved me from a life without dancing.  Lorraine Graves and I were born on exactly the same day – November 16, some year a long, long time ago. I’d known Lorraine for years before we discovered our cosmic connection, and she had encouraged me to try out the kind of participatory dancing that she enjoyed and I was drawn toward, but couldn’t bring myself to try.

She finally tipped the scale – I went to a couple of dances in New Jersey and then one or two in New York city and within months, I signed up to go to Campers’ Week at the Pinewoods Dance Camp in Plymouth, MA.

My Pinewoods experience was formative.  We did contra dances, and square, for sure.  But we also did English dances and some funky stuff like the Salty Dog Rag (which I still have not mastered) and lots of dances for children; and I enjoyed it all.

Under the tutelage of Sarah Gregory Smith I called my first contra dance (It was Shadrack’s Delight by Tony Parkes) I began my artistic life as a dance leader.

Now, I have called thousands of dances and led hundreds of dance events all over the United States. And I hope to call a few more “good ‘uns” before I’m done.