My journey towards an almost total infatuation with American folk culture and music, in particular, was a long one, starting in the mid 1950s. At that time England was still a drab and gloomy place, not yet free of the scars of WW II, and I had spent my childhood in the heavily bombed area of South East of London. For many young people the appearance in the pop charts of the many familiar names of early rock n roll was a welcome distraction. My path, however, was set a little later when, as if by magic, it seemed, the other half of the teenage population carried cheap guitars in even cheaper soft cases and those that didnt toted a washboard or struggled with a tea chesttub bass. Thanks to Lonnie Donegan and his hit with Leadbellys Rock Island Lineskiffle music had arrived.
One evening, at a local skiffle club, my musical horizons expanded greatly, for, apart from the local groups performing, there were two real live Americans. One short, in denim jacket and jeans with a huge grin beneath a huge cowboy hat, the other somber in black hat, black trousers and a partly unbuttoned jacket revealing a fancy gamblers style waistcoat. This duo was Derroll Adams from Portland, Oregon and Jack Elliot from New York, Los Angeles, and apparently, everywhere in between. Jack was half hidden behind a gigantic, battered Gretsch guitar and Derroll held a banjo with a peg halfway down the neck; unlike any of the jazz band tenors with which I was familiar. With Jacks intro and patter over, they began to play Danville Girl. I craned my neck to see across the crowd, for apart from terrific singing, these guys were actually playing tunes on their instruments. I was dumbfounded. I didnt know you could do that. We skifflers relied on a steady, syncopated strum and a magical three-chord trick.
As I rode home on my motorcycle, highly elated after this evening of entertainment, I just knew I had found the meaning of life. My skiffle period of six months was over. I couldnt get that modal sound of Derroll playing The Cuckoo, Shes a Pretty Bird out of my head; nor Jacks finger style guitar on Railroad Bill or his greasy flatpicking of The Talking Blues. By the end of the following week I had exchanged my weekly, apprentice patternmakers wage of approximately $8.00 for a Lyon and Healy 40-bracket banjo, extracted from a workmates attic and sporting that essential 5th string.
But, what now? My American heroes had drifted to pastures new, leaving me with a faint remembrance of those delicious sounds, but not a clue as to what those magic fingers were doing. I spent endless evenings in front of a mirror trying anything that would get me those sounds, but apart from having noticed Derroll playing an up-picking style and knowing the open G tuning, I was up against a wall. I could see this had no future. I couldnt even get a copy of Pete Seegers little red book which I had somehow gotten wind of. Then, I hit it lucky a few weeks later when I saw an ad in a London music newspaper stating that the American folk singer, Peggy Seeger, was to appear the coming Sunday night. I made a beeline for the venue. After the show, despite my shyness, I approached her about lessons. She agreed to teach as long as at least half a dozen other people were interested in learning. Fortunately, they turned up and lessons began: Tuesday nights, Carter family and Libba Cotten guitar styles and Thursdays, five string banjo. At last. I was learning, slowly, but I was on my way.
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