Big Tent – Small Tent Reconsidered (the Beginning of a Musical Autobiography, Part I)

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For about a dozen or so years my wife Irene and I have spent a goodly portion of our lives listening almost exclusively to bluegrass music, that grand amalgam of old English folk music, gospel, jazz, western swing, and, yes, pop that emerged from Bill Monroe’s restless search for a way to express the music within him and make a living some other way than in the factories of northern Indiana. My first exposure to bluegrass came in the mid-sixties when a friend gave my mother a reel-to-reel tape of Flatt & Scruggs, I think it may have been the Carnegie Hall concert. I listened to it some, but didn’t much like it, although between that recording and the album of 10” 78 RPM recording from my childhood of the Almanac Singers (Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger) called Sea Chanties sparked lifelong interest in the banjo. But these weren’t the only musical influences in my early life.

Our house was filled with music. There was album after album of the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan. These now nearly forgotten pieces of late nineteenth century comic musical plays featured operatic singing supporting wonderful melodies and always interesting plots. We also had a book of the plays themselves, allowing me to listen to a song, then read the dialogue. I can still sing a few of these songs. My Dad loved Broadway shows, so soon after the invention of the LP record, albums like South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, Guys & Dolls, Kiss Me Kate and many more were available, and I avidly devoured them. Finally, the great bass Paul Robeson’s 1940 recording of Ballad for Americans captured my imagination so much I wore it out. At the height of the Red Scare in the late fifties, I scoured the record shops around Greenwich Village in New York City seeking a used copy of this wonderful patriotic piece. It was then I learned the Robeson was a communist whose works shops wouldn’t carry. When I went back to my Aunt Dot’s home on 15th street, she said, “Oh, we have a copy of that. Why don’t you take it?” I was thrilled. At around the same time, Dot’s husband Frank Mollenhauer, a fine artist, took me to his studio, where I heard him play his White Lady banjo and his 1940’s era Martin dreadnought for first time. Uncle Frank had grown up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. We went to the Yankee v. Cleveland Indians double header in 1955 which the Indians swept on their way to winning the pennant and breaking a five year Yankee run of World Series victories. During the same period, my mother took me to see Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic. Toscanini conducted without a baton, and she talked a lot about his beautiful hands. Meanwhile, my Dad took me to the Metropolitan Opera to see Rigoletto. During this period, while my parents’ marriage was dissolving, I was studying violin, which I not-so-cordially hated. I wish there had been electronic tuners then! It was a pretty big tent.

For me, as for so many people for whom music has been important (that’s most of us, isn’t it?), high school and college were crucial elements in setting my musical tastes as they coincided with puberty and sexual awareness, where much of our musical consciousness resides for the rest of our lives. Read Daniel Levitin’s excellent book This is Your Life on Music, the best explanation I know of why we love the music we love. I graduated from high school in 1959. Westtown School was a Quaker boarding school in suburban Philadelphia.

A bunch of us spent endless hours in the dormitory listening to music – Dave Brubeck’s jazz, Chris Connor, a magical, sexy blonde jazz stylist, Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook series of Gershwin, Porter, Rogers & Hart and others, The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, and on and on. Somewhere during this time I picked up my first guitar, and took a few lessons from a graduate student in Philadelphia who later became the chair of the Folk Music department at the University of Texas. There was a group of guys at school who regularly traveled to Sunset Park in West Grove, PA to listen to country and bluegrass music, I wasn’t one of them, and the music escaped my attention then. So, for the most part, did Elvis and the Beatles. I think this was because I was fat, awkward, and didn’t think I could dance very well, so I stayed away from dance music, although during this period I did see the Louis Armstrong All-Stars at Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, PA. I also saw live concerts by Pete Seeger, Josh White, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The Stan Kenton Orchestra, and Ray Charles, along with 15,000 mostly black fans in the Palestra at the University of Pennsylvania. During this time I met Irene at a football game and we began our journey together.

While she majored in Physical Education in college, she had been an active member of the band in high school, sang barbershop quartet, played the flute and other woodwinds, and (still maddeningly accurate) sang close harmonies to anything we heard on the radio. Her listening background was in her father’s beloved Big Band music and her mother’s preferred country music.

What has sparked this first effort at exploring my own musical roots? A couple of weeks ago I began reading a new biography of Billy Joel. I also realized that I was at home in New Hampshire with unlimited bandwidth. I re-activated my Spotify membership. Since Spotify streams almost every recording a listener could imagine, I embarked on an orgy of listening to Joel. As I read about his life I was introduced to some of his early music I was unfamiliar with, allowing his intense driving musical hunger to again reach into my consciousness. It was wonderful way to experience his music, even with the ads, and I think I wrote a pretty good review of the book. Next on my book list was a new thriller by Tim Hallinan. At the end of each of Hallinan’s wonderful books he attaches a list of the music he listened to while writing. I jotted down Tim’s list (he has become a Facebook friend of mine) and started listening to it. He introduced me to a bunch of new Indie musicians I’d never heard of, but some of whom I found I really liked. At the same time, our son Alex, a guitarist and lover of, particularly, the works of Bob Dylan, but also widely literate in rock music mentioned some of his favorites I should try, too. The easy availability of Spotify and some new influences have begun leading me down some new paths. While writing this piece, I revisited many of the artists mentioned, each raising wonderful memories. Next month I’ll pick this up after Irene’s and my wedding in 1964, and continue down the musical journey, which has given our life such richness during not only the last decade or so, but for the past fifty years.

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