|‘Sing Out!’ really hated the commercials!
Didn’t they? I liked Bud and Travis and people like that, I thought they were tremendous. I saw them, they were all people I liked to see. That was one of my problems, I liked everything. A lot of my banjo stuff was like that. I had John Cohen come up to me and he said, “That banjo’s so loud. Why are you using that banjo with a plastic head and slinky strings on it?” I said, “Well, John, I like the sound of it.” But he said, “It’s not right, it’s not traditional.” “Well,” I said, “do you want to go all the way back, huh?” John was great, he was a great digger-upper of folk music, he had a great 78 record machine. Mike Seeger was another influence on traditional folk. Seeger was mad, and still is mad, but he brought out all the craziest stuff. He now plays harmonica and fiddle at the same and dances.
He was a big influence on me. He and Mike McClellan, both those guys were multi-instrumentalists. I thought if they can do it, I can do it, and I went after that. McClellan was a madman. He had a car accident and it screwed him up for a while, but he came back. He played 12 string like you never heard. Leo Kottke would shake if he heard it. They were banjo/fiddle contest people. McClellan was in the first one, too. I was in Intermediate Banjo, and liked to aim for the banjo/fiddle contest all year, to practice all year round. Get three tunes that no-one else could do, and things that no-one else had heard before. And it worked. I aimed for those contests, maybe that’s one of the things that produced the banjo style I now have. Trying to improved upon what I had all the time. I was really young, I had the appetite to get better.
Could anybody enter?
Yes. Now they come from far away, they come from all over the place. At one time it was a real competition thing, not like the real heavy contests back in the South, where prizes were, like, everybody puts in ten dollars, there’s two hundred entrants, and the first prize is a Cadillac. It’s not like those, it’s not like the Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove, which is a real exam. A real traditional thing that’s been going on for years. The West is a transplanted Southern-ness that moved out to El Monte, rural places like that, they brought all that music with them. San Joaquin and San Bernardino. A lot of those people, besides the Spanish influence, brought the music with them and, of course, they had to get together. Weddings, square dances and things. They would have fiddles, and then they’d have contests.
The biggest of the media banjo contests was Topanga, there was one at Long Beach, the UCLA one, there’s a whole bunch of them. There were a few during the rock thing, the love-ins, happenings, things like that. I remember one Topanga banjo/fiddle contest when I tied with Taj Mahal, we tied for first place in traditional banjo. It was like a love in, everybody took acid and turned on. There were announcements from the stage like, “Don’t touch the green kool aid going round, we don’t know what’s in it, but don’t touch it.” There was a traditional music festival in Virginia, all these hairies on acid dancing around and rolling joints, and campers, senior citizens sitting in rocking chairs, listening to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The traditional music thing was huge in my life, and that merged with the rock thing out of control. Things just happened.
I got very disturbed by the whole traditionalist attitude to, “Show me if you can bottle-neck like Ry Cooder?” Ry Cooder was the standard. Everybody used to put him, Bromberg and McClellan together. If you played at McCabe’s or the Ash Grove or the Troubadour, you would be compared to one of those people….. or in Berkeley. Berkeley was another hotbed of that, Garcia’s country, you would be compared to this person or that person. I didn’t like that attitude at all. I said, “Fuck all of you. I’ll show you something that will burn your balls off.” That’s one of the things that made me angry and made me practice, too, was that attitude, because who played flamenco things on the banjo? I did. I did because I saw some guy in what was called a commercial folk group play that, and they now have a television show in the States that the critics hate, and I said, “I’m gonna steal that.” I had a Seeger neck. Remember the contest between the Seeger neck, and the traditional 5 string neck?
Your approach to folk music is very like that of The Chieftans in that you have an understanding of, and a feeling for, the past and heritage of the music, but you don’t get so involved with it you can’t have a good time, which is what everybody did when they played folk music.
Of course. And rock ‘n’ roll is folk music, complete folk music. Jazz is folk music, very sophisticated folk music in a lot of cases, and so is pop. That was popular in its time. A lot of classical music was taken from regional folk music. You can hear it if you listen to the music of Bulgaria. They’ve said, “He stole that tune. That tune is 400 years old.” A lot of this the Tartars brought down, spreading it all over the place. Ancient Chinese music, I have Tang dynasty music, you would swear it’s Irish, Celtic pipes, and it’s from there.
Do you have a big record collection?
I have a select record collection. I buy a lot of records over here in England. The finest records I have bought over here. I bought the music of Islam from a record shop in London that has the music of the Middle East. I have the music of East Anglia, too, all accordions and whistles. Jackson turned me on to Alan Stivell. He loves all that and bought me records. Don Henley and Jackson and a whole bunch of people went to see The Chieftans in Los Angeles. They’re all totally into those guys now. That really has depth. Joni Mitchell’s sources where she got a lot of her stuff, Mimi and Richard Farina, all those people have. The CSNY Band listened to the music of Bulgaria. They’ve all heard it. They’ve taken from it time after time.
What is your approach to what you expect from your music?
I’ve gone after each instrument in terms of the tone, more or less. I went through eleven banjos before I found the one I have now. Different slides for different sounds for different bands. I don’t play the same set of slides for Jackson that I do for Crosby and Nash. They have different amps, different set-ups. You get the right tone that goes with the sound that goes with the band. What’s appropriate for one just screws for another. I have a sound in my head that I hear occasionally coming out of records or when I’m on stage or when I heard someone sing. It’s become more than just one sound now, but it’s more or less the same thing, and when it happens I know it. It’s a kind of vocal sound. The slide gets very close to it, the guitar’s good, I think maybe it’s harmonic. The viola almost gets that sound. I’m very fond of the cello, I love that deep sound.
Your electric guitar sounds like that on stage sometimes.
You have the right setting, the right design in guitars to get that sound. The Dervishes have this thing that it’s the sound that’s important, not the notes you play. The long pipes that they play are real breathy, they sit around in a circle and pass around the functions of a drone. It’s part of the Dervish thing with the circle, moving closer to your God. From what I’ve read and seen in pictures, and from what I can gather, that’s what is happening. Unless someone does circular breathing and is a real mother to keep it going.
The tone of the Irish pennywhistle appeals to me, like the one Sean Potts plays. I had a great talk with Sean over a liquid breakfast in Los Angeles. He talked about traditional American music. He said, “We have ours, but what happened to traditional American music, is there a movement like that?” I said it was similar to the Scottish, Irish type of thing, with a lot of African music, and he said he meant American Indian music. I said, “You’re right, nothing, very little.” It really shocked him that we had forgotten about that. It was very strange that someone from another vantage point had seen that, and seen it clearly. He was really right. That was real American traditional music.