Banjo, Guitar, Mandolin, Fiddle
I grew up in a house filled with classical music, show tunes, and folk music. I really can’t remember not knowing about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, The Weavers, and Leadbelly. Already a veteran of 3 years of piano and a few months of cornet lessons (I never got past the wet goose noise stage,) I found my home with my first guitar at age 12. I was fortunate to catch on with Jerry Ricks, who later moved to Europe where he toured playing blues as “Philadelphia Jerry Ricks.” Lessons with Jerry formed a broad and deep survey of folk guitar styles–blues, country, bluegrass, and (then) modern folk–fingerpicking and flatpicking styles and techniques. He was also particularly close with Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt and it was my privilege and inspiration to get to know them both a bit, tagging along to club dates at the Second Fret on Sansom St. The John Hurt and Doc Watson repertoires were the core of my student syllabus and as it’s still wonderful stuff and covers at least 2/3 of folk guitar technique, I still feature those tunes with those students who want folk guitar. (I think we call that Americana now.)
During my brief but inglorious academic career I ran the folk music department at WXPN-FM, which at the time was run by actual students. I was responsible for staffing and supervising 35 hours of programming weekly. I then moved to World Control Studios in Germantown, another legendary folk club where I lived upstairs and co-managed the place.
Then I turned 20.
Along the way I’ve picked up mandolin, banjo (5 string and tenor,) and fiddle as well as self taught courses in harmony and theory; developing chops in jazz, swing, piano rags for guitar and many other styles. I’ve been known to receive cash money for playing blues, bluegrass, Cajun, country, swing, Russian, klezmer, jazz, Italian, ragtime, jug band, R & B, Dixieland….
I’ve done concert sound, recording engineering and festival production and also written on music for Sing Out! magazine and the Philadelphia Daily News. I have performed on stages with Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rosalie Sorrels, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Siebel, U. Utah Phillips (The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest) and numerous others. In less formal settings I’ve made music with great artists including Mike Seeger, Michael Doucet, Jethro Burns, John Jackson, Ola Belle Reed, Mance Lipscomb, The Lawtell Playboys, Johhny Gimble (the best damn fiddler in Texas,) the legendary Son House, Dewey Balfa (the Grand Old Man of Cajun fiddle,) Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, and Howard Armstrong (separately and together,) Steve Goodman, the great David Amram, Taj Mahal and so many more–famous or otherwise.
When did you begin playing guitar, and why?
It was 1963, I was 12 and folk music was in. My big brother was getting a banjo so I got (settled for) a guitar.
What other instruments do you play, and what is your experience with them?
Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and prima domra (a Russian sort of cross between a balalaika and a mandolin) –all of them in the 50 year range.
What are your personal goals as a musician?
Play fewer notes. I can already play too many notes in almost any situation, I just want the essential ones.
Do you have a memory of a time when a musical concept or technique really clicked? Something you’ll remember forever?
When I was studying guitar with Jerry Ricks we’d do 2 or 3 songs a week. Until we got to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” in open G tuning. I already knew plenty of Mississippi John Hurt tunes, but “Frankie” had this weird and beautiful intricate syncopation that I just wasn’t getting right somehow. We stayed on it for 3 lessons and once it finally clicked, it was like I was in a whole other dimension. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve modified and improvised on the old songs, but not that one.
What is your favorite piece of advice from one of your past (or current) teachers?
You’re not allowed to forget a song. You can forget about a song, forget that you know it; but having remembered that you know it you must remember the song.
What was your most challenging moment learning an instrument?
Mickey Baker Page One! Mickey Baker wrote THE book for jazz guitar, the go-to for all the blues and bluegrass guys looking for a new challenge. And the first lesson is 25 monster jazz chords–very intimidating. The rest of the book is about how to use them.
What is your biggest musical achievement?
Donating the instrument (and unique folk-art sculpture) made and played by my late performing partner Washboard Slim (Robert Young) to the Smithsonian. I had played with him when he was in his 80’s in bars, schools, parks, and parties, but Slim was on the very first Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record and was a real part of blues history. Picture (worth 1,000 words, at least) and full story at http://www.wavechair.com/washboardslim.html
Favorite thing about teaching?
The feeling of opening up new worlds for the student.
What is a piece of advice you would like to share with anyone learning music?
Strive for “feeling like you’re just starting to get good.” If you think you’re already great, you’re probably not growing. If you think you’re terrible, that’s just discouraging. Feeling like you’re just starting to get good is the sweet spot.
Personal music projects
In addition to solo performance ranging from bottleneck blues to old-time country to contrapuntal jazz, I play lead guitar and mandolin for The Wild Bohemians, doing Mardi Gras in Philadelphia for some 35 years now. I have some historical works that I hope to publish including concert recordings of Blues Hall of Fame inductee Mississippi Fred McDowell (best bottleneck guitarist ever) with myself on second guitar from 1971, transcriptions of Doc Watson’s lessons for Jerry Ricks in 1964, and a memoir mixed with music history, criticism, and musicology.