(The following is just a beginning, and started as part of a letter to a friend several years ago. Then I realized it was too involved for the purpose, but not quite involved enough to explain the Beardsley graphic. I'm gonna work on it [so it'll change betimes], though I think more for my interest than for edification of others. The real question I'm wrestling with is: why have I been so fascinated by music, and whence cometh the Devil's Elbow?)When I was perhaps 6 or 7 one of my (much older) brothers gave me a radio for Christmas (that one, David, was/is an electronics genius, and got into radio as a kid in the 1930s) and I often listened to it early early on Sunday mornings, when there was an Armenian Hour which broadcasted to the (enormous) Armenian community near Boston, all the way down at the low end of the dial, and only on Sunday mornings and in mostly Armenian (occasionally there'd be a commercial in heavily-accented English). I immediately loved the music, ouds and odd scales and incomprehensible lyrics and non-4/4 rhythms. As I write this I have a CD playing on the computer of THE music I listened to then --one of the growing number of CD reissues of old 78 RPM records, this one called "Armenians on 8th Avenue" and comprised of late-40s recordings made in New York and sold throughout American Armenian communities.
My other early musical loves were Bach for 4 harpsichords and Schutz Weihnachtshistorie --I still have the old LP records (from my parents' collection), though I have more recent recordings of both of course. My brothers also had obscure records (one of them worked at TransRadio, a Boston recording studio) that I sometimes played when my mother wasn't around to censor them (she was NOT broad-minded about lyrics she called "suggestive" [Sophie Tucker was one so branded], and now that I know what she was protecting me from I guess I see why...). Some of those were what later came to be called "folk music", though that term wasn't applied in the early 50s. And there was a guitar-playing singer of OTHER people's music [Shep Ginandes] whom a friend of my parents knew and gave them the record --I played that a million times, learning Yiddish and Ukranian and French songs by phonetics and some English songs as well (long murder ballads, mostly). But really there wasn't much commercially available 'strange music' in Cambridge Mass. in the early 1950s. I didn't participate in "popular" music of the time (really not until we moved to California in 1956), and I never had the opportunity to study music. I did express interest in bagpipes, but nobody took that seriously (or, perhaps, nobody thought that listening to me learn to play bagpipes would be much fun...)
I was VERY fond of Tom Lehrer's records, and committed their lyrics to memory (where they still reside). There was also a Dunster Dunces recording from the early 50s that I absorbed, slightly eccentric songs like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". And in the mid-50s I had a brief infatuation with musical theatre --Brigadoon, My Fair Lady-- and the William Walton accompaniment to Edith Sitwell's "Facade" made a deep impression.
Anyway, I didn't really have an opportunity to start collecting music on my own until about grade 10, when I started to hang around in Berkeley with some college-age folks, and then I bought weird records --Japanese koto music, German student songs-- probably as a part of being cool (or attempting to make the moves in that direction). Some of that is painful to recall, though it was a lot less anti-authoritarian than what the young do now. On the other hand it was also part of an effort to differentiate myself from California Blah teenagehood, which I never felt comfortable with. And (with a few exceptions) 'ethnic music' was more appealing to me than jazz, much of which I couldn't grasp (and I still can't --Coltrane and Ornette Coleman are beyond me, Miles Davis I never really liked despite the hype, but the MJQ were close enough to chamber music that I DID respond to them, and Thelonious Monk whacko enough that I responded to that immediately). There were some brushes with early 'folk', in the forms of the Weavers, Kingston Trio, Marais and Miranda. And then along came Gene and Martha Hemmer, whose musical playfulness and taste and experience were so important to me in the last two years at Chadwick. They allowed me into their home and their lives, and would entertain and educate for hours on end. From them I imbibed the idea that all sorts of music could be interesting, that it was the SOUND I should listen for, that the rules existed to be surmounted. Such oddities as Harry Partch and Moondog were revelations.
Sometime around 1960 my brother John gave me a belly-dance record, red in colour, saying that it was more my sort of thing than his. Picture of a voluptuous female-person on the front, slinky oud on the grooves... I loved it. Tried to play it once on Richard Siegel's record player, which was sacrosanct to Mozart. He banished it and me.
A self-described 'minstrel' named Seraffyn Mork (supposedly --Uncle Frank Quinlin said that the name reminded him of "a fart in the bathtub") visited Chadwick with a lute, the first I'd ever seen up close. The exotic again was probably the most attractive element.
And then in the winter/spring of 1961 Joan Baez' first record came out, with ballads like "Silver Dagger". That was for me the beginning of a deep infatuation with the American "folk music" revival (I'd started playing guitar the year before, learning chords from anybody who knew one I didn't). Theodore Bikel belongs to that same era, again the exotic being the main attraction I think. And so does Odetta.
When I arrived in Cambridge in June of 1961 there was a full-scale folk revival in progress (actually it had peaked the year before in Cambridge, and was moving elsewhere --there's a book about it called "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down"), and I was on the outer edges of it --too intimidated to play publicly myself, socially unable to join the milieu as anything but a very occasional spectator (I went to some concerts [New Lost City Ramblers, Ravi Shankar, Odetta]), but I didn't know any of the people who were actually doing it). So I bought records, listened to radio, kept playing at being a guitar player, tended toward the exotic as a way to distinguish myself from conventional groupies. Records like one by Sven Bertil Taube and a collection of Greek folk music I'd play over and over, longing to be able to play like that or whatever... I was interested in old blues and the traditional end of American mountain music, such as it was (I wasn't aware that there'd been a lot of both on 78s, so I didn't start collecting them). I was barely aware of the Club 47 scene, and never went there when it was still on Mt. Auburn St.
My first guitar was a Biltmore Ritz f-hole, bought from a person at Chadwick. I strung it with nylon. At Harvard I was given a broken Harmony Sovereign and repaired the headstock so that it was playable, but it wasn't good for much really. I finally got a "good" guitar in 1964, found it in a junk store ($10) and got it repaired (for another $40): an 1898 Cole, a real prize. It wouldn't stand even light steel strings, so it's always had nylon.
Koerner, Ray and Glover, Dick and Mimi Fariña, and Sandy Bull were the greatest discoveries of 1964-65 --Sandy Bull especially for his use of the oud. And early Bob Dylan. I wish I'd known about the Holy Modal Rounders at the time (when they were playing in Cambridge), but I didn't and it's probably just as well.
So by the mid-60s I was musically pretty hip in an odd way (shared with almost nobody else), and pretty much out of it in terms of contemporary mass-market music. The Beatles' Hard Day's Night was of greater cinematographic than musical significance for me, but the rest of the edges of rock'n'roll didn't affect me much. We went to Sarawak in summer 1965 (I'd bought an autoharp in Hawaii), and the two years we were away was a time of vast changes in the popular culture of our contemporaries. I continued to buy and collect odd things as I encountered them in Singapore and in Sarawak (including a 12-string guitar that I bought in a store I'd gone into to buy a pair of socks), and got into the mid-career Beatles (Rubber Soul, Revolver), and just before we returned to the US in mid-1967 somebody brought a copy of Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow" --the very first I'd heard of the psychedelic explosion of the 1966-1967 period. Some of that blew me away (Jorma's 'Embryonic Journey' especially), and all of it was full of a kind of musical energy that I didn't understand but that was very compelling.
We drove across the country from Boston to San Francisco in July 1967, hearing "If you go to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair..." on all the radio stations. My record collection fit exactly across the back of our VW.
Once in California we looked up an old friend from Cambridge who had moved to Berkeley to work in street theatre and went to a party at which John Fahey's "Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes" was playing. I'd never heard anything like it, an improvised and modal acoustic guitar style based in open tunings --what [I realized] I wanted to play myself. In the ensuing years I bought a lot of records (Skip James, Dock Boggs, Robbie Basho, Gordon Bok), listened to a lot of different sorts of current music (Stones, Beatles, some other electric/psychedelic stuff, though I didn't really like most of it and found the Fillmore scene frightening), but really was most involved with non-standard musics that were beginning to have an air of respectability. I didn't know at the time about Kaleidoscope, an acid-era band with ethnic sensibilities (David Lindley was one of its members), which would have galvanized --and perhaps derailed-- me if I had encountered them. I knew about Indian music long before it became hip (went to a Ravi Shankar concert in 1961...), and about Balinese and Javanese gamelan, and so on. I kept playing by myself, pretty much in isolation, but did make a couple of musical friends, with one of whom I started playing improvisatory duets. I didn't treat music as an explicit part of anthropology, but I _did_ have an FM radio in my office at Stanford, and I listened to several very strange radio stations, which tended toward the bizarre and sometimes toward the out-and-out ethnic.
When we went to Nova Scotia in 1972 the record collection was considerably larger, and I had quite a collection of instruments (dulcimers, autoharp, several guitars, banjo). Nova Scotia offered very little in the way of record stores at the time, but on forays to Cambridge I'd make stops into various stores in search of records and books, and by 1975 there were a couple of mail order sources for records (Roundup Records, later Rounder, and Down Home Records) that specialized in the obscure, the traditional, and even the ethnic. I started to do a brisk business in importing vinyl, buying what tempted me largely on spec, and occasionally having unpleasant surprises. It would be interesting to reconstruct the chronology (and I might be able to do so from old mail order catalogs, which I still have in a box somewhere).
I bought a Boys of the Lough record in about 1974 --really the first of an immersion in Celtic stuff that continued through the 1970s, into the 1979-80 sabbatical in Palo Alto. I can't reconstruct the order of things, but I was deeply into Irish music in the late 70s, and branched to some degree into Scottish (Dick Gaughan particularly) and English (Watersons, Martin Carthy).
Ron Brunton arrived in Nova Scotia in 1973, and we started playing soon thereafter, and developed a large repertoire of tunes we'd play on Friday nights to amuse ourselves. I started writing them out in simple tablature, and extended the repertoire with aids like Mickey Baker's jazz book --and so started writing tunes, some with words and some without.
Another stream was set flowing in 1976 with the David Grisman Quintet record, one of the "most significant" in my musical evolution. I got it in the mail --John Cordell heard it on the car radio, drove to a record store, bought two copies, mailed me one of them. From the very first moment of E.M.D. I was transfixed. Eventually it turned me into a mando player, though it wasn't a matter of wanting to be David Grisman.
Gordon Bok played an interesting part too, after Ron Brunton and I organized a (money-losing) concert with Gordon and Nick Apollonio. The upshot was that I visited Nick a couple of times, and spent a week hanging out 'apprenticing' on our way to California in 1979. He gave me a mandobanjo (broken --he helped me repair it enough to get it on the road again) and that started me experimenting with mando tuning.
I commissioned a laud (6 courses, short neck) by Nick, and played it for several years. It developed a back separation, and instead of fixing it Nick gave me a 5-course cittern he'd just built. I have it still --tuned like an oud, but strung with light-gauge steel.
On the way back to Nova Scotia after our 1979-1980 California sabbatical I bought a Gibson mandolin (1924, A1 snakehead) at Elderly Instruments, and within a year I'd also acquired a mandola (Gibson H1, 1925) from George Gruhn's Nashville store. I searched for the elusive mandocello for a couple of years, and finally found a 1918 K1 at the Music Emporium in Cambridge. It's been my primary instrument ever since, though I've binged on various others from time to time.
In California I bought a lot of the necessary tools to set up a shop to build musical instruments --bandsaw, sander, clamps, etc-- and once back in Nova Scotia started to do just that in the shop I set up in the barn. The first instrument started out to be a mandocello, but after I got the K1 it was superfluous in that configuration, so I converted it to an octave mandolin and started on others, eventually turning out a very nice 4-course cittern (which Daniel Heïkalo now has), a passable oud, and a 3-course buzuk. I fiddled with other noisemakers too, but the cittern was the only truly successful project.
Upon return to Nova Scotia I decided to audit Bob McCarthy's music theory for laypersons course ("Music for dumdums"), which I really enjoyed. We agreed that we ought to teach a course together, and in '83-'84 we taught the first year of Cross-cultural studies in music as an Interdisciplinary Studies course. It grew over the years to be my main outlet for the vast explosion of music I bought and studied.
Another very important element was friendship with Daniel Heïkalo, who could understand and appreciate even the most bizarre of my musical enthusiasms, and contributed greatly to the expansion of my musical horizons. We started playing free improvizations, and traded all sorts of ideas and influences. That continues, despite about 900 miles of separation. I gave him the cittern I built, and it appears to great effect on his CD (Thoughts for My Father).
Passes through Harvard Square have been important sources for new recordings for many years now. I once put my back out hauling vinyl back to Nova Scotia, and a chief virtue of CDs is that they're lighter. It is hard to track the evolution of my collection, and it's a shame that I didn't keep better records while it was happening.
And six months later... the trip to Nova Scotia in June included quite a few hours of music with Daniel, a good bit of it taped. The saz turned out very well, and the other one is still in process. In late July we went to Seattle and I bought an oud at Lark in the Morning --made in Izmir, the real thing. And in November I was in Rochester and visited the House of Guitars and came away with an Ovation mandocello. In short, my obsession is undiminished.
In the fall of 1998 I bought a laouto from Dino Bersis, a builder in Astoria (Queens) NY, and spent the winter figuring out something of how it wants to be played.
In April 1999 I spent a vacation week recording with Daniel at Horton Landing (see notes to accompany a couple of tapes for some details).
A trip to California in fall '99 led to a bouzouki from Lark in the Morning and a cumbus-based tanbur. I was also reunited with the Biltmore Ritz, which turns out to be pretty funky (it mostly stays in the open E minor tuning) and leads me to suspect that those f-hole archtops (probably built by the Kay factory) are due for a renaissance --there are probably lots of them in attics all over America.
And towards the end of 2000: an August visit to Horton Landing produced two CDs worth of remarkably good stuff, and I now have (in the form of a Marantz CD Recorder and CD-R capabilities on the home and office computers) the technological wherewithal to make CDs myself. I'm thinking about ways to mine my sound archives, and to keep track of what I do as that activity evolves.
Picking up again in spring of 2004, more instruments (a Dell'Arte mandocello and Dell'Arte Stella 12-string copy, a magnificent K4 Gibson mandocello ca. 1920), more CDs, more schemes to eventually do more with my holdings and interests... and (seemingly) less time for any of that. Every summer I've managed a few days of playing with Daniel in Nova Scotia, and we've recorded more but got no further with actually releasing anything to the world. I'd say that the world isn't exactly awaiting with bated breath anyway.
And in May 2007, it occurs to me that I could update by linking to a musical rumination written in August 2005, just before I retired from Washington & Lee, and just before I made an appearance on a WLUR music program, talking and playing: House Mountain Radio.