When I was a kid (13/14), I would take the bus from my suburban New York neighborhood of Valley Stream, NY, on the south shore of Long Island, into Jamaica, Queens once a week. There I’d visit the home of the Reverend Gary Davis, one of the greatest Piedmont blues/ragtime guitarists of all time. I believe I was Gary’s very last student, my forebears having included the likes of Jorma Kaokonen, Bob Weir, and Happy Traum. Gruff but lovable all the same, Gary taught me a great deal about musical discipline, and about life. Gary died in 1972. He was buried in the old Rockville Cemetery of Lynbrook, NY, not too far away from where I lived. The cemetery is on Merrick Road, across the street from what was for many years the “Hot Skates” roller-skating arena. Until I moved away from the area in 1994 I would regularly (as the saying goes) see that his grave was kept clean.
In 1973, as a 17 year old, I met Pete Seeger and started playing with him a bit, on and off, including backup on a 1974 environmental fundraising album featuring Pete, Don McLean, and a few other notables. In 1976, when he wanted to knock off a quick record of Hudson River related music for Folkways Records (now Smithsonian/Folkways), Pete asked me to join him in the studio and play guitar against his banjo, as well as sing harmonies, so that there wouldn’t be a need for overdubbing on his part. We were in the studio for about a week, and the result was pretty good I suppose (with, I’ll admit, Pete doing most of the heavy lifting … he was the senior partner … I did as I was told). Several tracks from that record are on the 2019 box-set/tabletop book release, Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, which in January 2020 received the Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
In the course of recording the album of Hudson River music I got to meet and work with the brilliant and legendary Moses (Moe) Asch, which – as one might guess – was both an honor and an education. Some who remember Moe will understand me when I say he at first seemed as scary as a grizzly bear, until he gave himself away as instead being quite the teddy bear. Moe was the son of the great Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch, had been the friend, supporter, and recorder of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, and carried with him many amazing stories.
During this period I was enrolled as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz, crashing variously at the Seeger house near Beacon, NY, at another residence in West Park, NY, and in various nooks and crannies of the Bearsville and Woodstock area. I made good friends all throughout that neck of the woods: the upper Hudson Valley and the lower Catskills, including pals Happy and Artie Traum – the only duo I know of who have actually had album liner notes written by Allen Ginsberg.
By the time I got out of SUNY New Paltz in 1980, I had reverted to strictly amateur guitar picker status and had decided to set my professional ambitions in the area of writing and publishing. Save for a few very rare occasions, I stayed off of stages. I lit out for Manhattan and a succession of publishing jobs, while also pursuing my own writing, getting married, having kids, living life. I played guitar for my kids, and with my friends. My kids enjoyed Pete and Toshi, and delighted in “Uncle Pete’s” performances of “Abi Yoyo” and other such songs. When Pete was nearby to us in Rhode Island, where we’d moved in 1994, he’d send up a smoke signal and we’d get together. The only time I came anywhere near a stage was in 2008 when I played a few tunes at WAMC’s Linda Auditorium (Albany) with Happy and Artie, and had a blast doing so. Sadly, Artie was to pass away very shortly after that, although we did not know this at the time.
Not long after Pete passed in 2014, I wrote a well received book about his life during blacklist days.
And that about wraps things up with regard to me and music. I can barely play guitar any longer due to meds which make my hands shake. (I was still doing half-decently, though not up to my previous standard, a few years ago.) And I certainly can’t come anywhere near to playing as well or as confidently as I used to. But, per Tennyson, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.