An Arabian Tent Party Wedding

Folk Music

I developed a love for so-called “folk music” in the mid 60’s going to summer camp in upstate New York. Guitar was the campfire instrument. Plucking strings in the rhythmic fingerpicking patterns wove a magic spell when mixed with a flickering campfire, pretty girls, a starry sky, and the smells of the country. I can remember some of the songs- folk songs, Jewish songs (it was a Jewish camp). I met my friend Marty Rothkopf there. He played 12 string guitar, wrote songs, and sang very well. We started a little band- guitar, washtub bass (played by yours truly), and 2 other guys who sang with 4 part harmony vocals. Our big number was “Rag Doll”, by The Four Seasons”. We worked out the harmonies and got a big response.

One day we all piled into the camp truck and drove to a Pete Seeger concert in Connecticut. Nowadays, nobody would have allowed 25 kids to sit on benches in the open air back of a truck with wooden slats for sides, but that’s what we did. We pulled into the parking lot and there was Pete Seeger driving a pickup truck with his grandson, and a canoe and guitar and banjo cases in the back. Marty recognized him, shouted out “Hi, Pete!”, and he waved to us. It was a wonderful concert. He knew the fine art of the singalong, made you really feel like singing, and added fantastic high falsetto parts over the top of the music.

Folk music made me want to play a portable instrument. I was 14 and started messing around on guitar just a little. (I also figured out how to play the jew’s harp.) When I got back to NY, Marty turned me on to a lot more music-Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Hamilton Camp, an Elektra sampler called “Folksong ‘65” that had a lot of artists on it- Phil Ochs, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, etc. Some of it was political, some bluesy, some funny, some beautiful. I learned how to simulate guitar fingerpicking on piano. (Years later I was to learn that a lot of Elizabethan English harpsichord music was derived from lute playing, as was a lot of German baroque, including Bach.)

Folk music was very much a part of the political protest movement that became tied to anti-Vietnam War protests. I was very involved in those from 1967-71. I marched in the big Peace Marches in NY in 68 and 69.

Marty and I started a band with two of my high school friends. It was more in the rock and Jazz direction, didn’t have much to do with Folk music, but it was the start of my first real band, The BMT Change Agent.

I moved to Chicago to go to Northwestern in Fall of 69. I quit in Spring of ‘71, moved back to NY. Then when I moved back to Chicago in June of ‘72, I found myself between styles. Unable to make a living playing Jazz, I found myself still drawn to Folk music, folk rock and at the same time developed a very strong interest in World Music, also entirely acoustic.

And I discovered Flamenco, Bluegrass, as well. I even took some Flamenco lessons annd started playing more mandolin. I played flamenco on keyboards as well.

I got my first “break” into the big time through a mixture of Folk, Swing and Jazz. I met a wonderful singer named Diane Holmes. She was playing at a club in Evanston called “Amazing Grace”. (It started as a soup kitchen at the NU student union during the student strike resulting from the Kent State killings in the Spring of ‘70. After that it thrived as an eclectic venue featuring folk, Jazz, bluegrass- just about everything.) She was singing with a very eclectic artist named Ken Bloom, who played as many instruments as I did, but all different ones. I sat in and felt a great rapport with Diane.

She asked me to join a band called “Swingshift”, led by a very funny singer/guitarist/songwriter named Ron Crick. The band featured the great mandolin player Jethro Burns, the rhythm section of Jim Tullio (to become a big jingle and record producer) and drummer Angie Varias, as well as T.C.Furlong on pedal steel guitar from The Jump in the Saddle Band, who had a hit with “The Curly Shuffle”.

Steve Goodman used to sit in with us, and basically hired us as his backup band for tours in late ‘76 and ‘77. He hired me for my first real recording session with Malvina Reynolds. Then, he produced Martin, Bogan, and Armstong’s “That Old Gang of Mine” and John Prine’s “Bruised Orange”. I played on those albums, and John hired me to tour with him from ‘78-79.

John is one of America’s great singer/songwriters. It was my entree into the big time. In addition to doing 2 albums, we played over 100 concerts, had a tour bus, and carried our own PA, Yamaha Grand piano, B 3 organ. I also played mandolin, pennywhistle, accordian, steel drums (which I learned for this gig), soprano sax, and of course, harmonica.

I got to meet Kris and Rita, Phil Spector (!), Gary Busey, David Alan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Redbone, Mac Macanally, Bonnie Raitt, etc. But it really wasn’t for me. I missed playing Jazz, and the Rock and Roll road life didn’t interest me. My wife got pregnant and I wanted to stop touring with John, so I played my last concert with him at Mandel Hall in Chicago in June 1979. Miles was born July 3.

After that, I branched out in Chicago, joined Chévere, founded the NBV Quintet, co-foundedThe Balkan Rhythm Band, etc, But my strong folk credentials persisted, and I started getting asked to play on records and do more shows. A lot of Flying Fish sessions- Don Lange, Si Kahn, etc, mostly at Acme Studios on Southport and Grace.

I started playing with Bonnie Koloc in 1980. I’m probably the only musician in Chicago to have worked extensively with the “big 3” of Bonnie, John, and Steve. Our first rehearsal was at a club, I think Byfield’s, one afternoon. It was me, Bonnie, John Baney and Steve Eisen. I had heard all these stories about how difficult she was to work with, but the experience was totally the opposite. She was totally sweet, really musical, a great voice, self-deprecating, very open to suggestions, stylistically broad. We had an instant rapport that has continued for more than 20 years. We played many clubs and concerts in the Chicago area, and some touring , too, through the 80’s, until I joined the Flecktones, when my whole life changed. I produced her Flying Fish album, “With You on my Side” in 1987. (I also wrote about 8 songs for her in Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man”, where she was cast as the Cook, the main singing role in the play. I won a Jefferson Award for Music).

In 1982, bassist Brian Torff (Stephane Grapelli, George Shearing, etc) asked me to play with him at The Winnipeg Folk Festival. I had met him when he played with David Amram, who opened for Steve Goodman at The Earl of Old Town’s Christmas shows in 76 and 77, maybe some other years, too. He thought I’d be the right guy to play a folk festival with a Jazz trio, and it worked out well. There, at one of the post-concert parties, I met Lorraine Duisit and Trapezoid, which led to my playing on her album, Hawks and Herons, the ‘Zoids’ “Cool of the Day”, and other albums with Si Kahn, John McCutcheon, Sally Rogers, all recorded at Bias Studios near Washington, DC. It also resulted in us becoming lifelong friends. And for those who don’t know, Lorraine is responsible for The Flecktones, because she made Bela and me play together at the 1987 Winnipeg festival, right in the hotel lobby. (He was there playing with NewGrass Revival.)

Paul Reisler asked me to teach a world music class at The Omega Institute in 1984, which is how I met Glen Velez (which led eventually to the formation of Trio Globo in 1993.) Then he got The Augusta Wkshp. to hire me as a harmonica teacher, which I did for 7 summers (I think). That led to so many things that I can’t even separate them. Many friendships, Harmonica Summits, recordings, Hank Bahnson’s research, my Homespun video, etc.

Meanwhile, back home I was recording with Tom Paxton, Bob Gibson, Jim Post, Bryan Bowers, Jenny Armstrong, Claudia Schmidt, playing on Studs Terkel’s radio show on WFMT…

One year at Winnipeg, I played with Bonnie Koloc, and also played sets with Maria Muldaur, Amos Garret, etc. Noah Adams, who was in the audience, was impressed. He asked me to play on “Good Evening from Minnesota”, a show that replaced A Prairie Home Companion. I played the show several times with Bonnie, Ken Nordine, and others.

So “folk” music and my love for it led to many musical things in my life and career.


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