Close, but no Seeger

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

My first encounter with what we now call folk music was truly an auspicious one. But who knew at the time? The time being 1943 or ‘44. The place: the Abilene High School in Abilene, Texas, home of three Christian Bible colleges — just to give you some taste of the context. I say the Abilene High School because there was only one. And in the spirit of “separate but equal,” there was no high school for African Americans.

Well, who should appear at compulsory Assembly but a white-haired, rumpled Texan, with his son in an army uniform. None other than John Lomax with his son Alan. I don’t recall whether old John played any of his wind-up acoustic recordings or if Alan sang some of the songs with his guitar. I do remember John going on and on and on about his traipsing through the hollers capturing the Folk in Song.

Back then there was plenty of commercial Country and Western music on the radio, called Hillbilly. I really couldn’t see the reasoning behind going to all that trouble to record and preserve the yawps and moans of obviously illiterate and decidedly uncultured people. Besides, I was struggling through the Bach Two-Part Inventions, with Frescobaldi, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons as my musical dessert. (Pearls before swine?)

Nowadays I’m eternally grateful to Alan Lomax for recording the Sacred Harp Musical Convention in Fyffe, Alabama in 1959 (Rounder Records CD 1709, 1710 — 1998). Gratitude also goes to my erstwhile friend Kenny Irwin of Rounder for preserving and releasing this modal singing on CD. The name rounder comes from Holy Modal Rounders: folks who sang rounds in the modes of the Medieval church.

This was the time of another record label, The Stinson Trading Company, operated by none other than Moses Asch, who later was more famous for Folkways Records and the infamous Cue Recording Studio. With Stinson, Ash had the exclusive import rights for recordings from Soviet Russia. So the was our only source of gritty 78-rpm discs from the Soviets. But Stinson also put out some domestic discs of a decidedly left-wing orientation. Ol’ Burl Ives’ first recording came out on Stinson, and it wasn’t “The Blue-Tail Fly,” either More like songs of protest and revolution, as I recall. Don’t know if Burl ever got hauled up before the House Un-Amuurrican Activities Committee as many other leftists were, by no means all Communists. Oh yes, Asch also had a classical label, Musicraft. Carl Weinrich recorded Bach on the Praetorius organ (replica) in the basement of the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Musicraft and Stinson were casualties of World War Two.

1949 was the year when folk music in its commercial clothes hit the airways pop charts with “Goodnight Irene,” a Hudie Ledbetter song as interpreted by the Weavers. (It was John Lomax who got Ledbetter sprung from Angola prison on a murder charge.) In the late ’50s, I went to an anti-nuke rally at Columbia University, presided over by none other than Pete Seeger himself. And there he actually came out with the statement: “What would Albert Einstein say, if he were alive today, if he knew that his discovery of atomic energy would threaten the extinction of life on this earth?” I was old enough to know that it was Einstein himself who wrote to President Roosevelt urging the creation an atomic bomb. (He suspected that the Nazis might be trying to cook up their own.) Well, instead of heckling Seeger, I just got up and left.

Around this time, I was an equipment consultant to Tony Schwartz, the sound collector and commercial recordist. Tony’s most famous, or infamous, commercial was for the Democratic Party: the little girl pulling daisy petals and counting down to a mushroom cloud explosion. That was Tony’s young daughter’s voice. Tony also participated in a world-wide tape-swapping club. Tony told me that one day Pete Seeger came over and asked to hear any interesting new songs Tony had collected. And Tony played him a new folk song that he’d just received from Africa. Pete liked it and asked Tony for a dub of the tape, which Tony gave him. Some time not much later the Weavers released a new hit song called Wimoweh, Copyright Pete Seeger! Nary a credit or thin dime of royalties went to the original singers in Africa! So much for helping out your fellow man ….

While I was still on the Left, a fellow audiophile and neighbor invited me to his Red Aunt’s for Sunday Brunch. I should have suspected more than sociability was involved, but…. The brunch was naturally on the Upper West Side, and Zero Mostel and his wife Katie were also guests. Zero made his usual pain-in-the-ass of himself whenever he wasn’t the center of attention, just like a two-year-old. I knew Zero had been blacklisted from radio, TV and the movies for his politics. Katie had supported the family teaching school.

So my friend’s Aunt took me aside and asked if the ad agency I worked for bought printing for its clients. I allowed as how they probably bought tons of the stuff, with clients like Proctor & Gamble and General Foods. Then she asked if I could pass along a recommendation of a friend’s name to our printing buyer. Seems he had just started selling printing. So I asked the friend’s name. “Alger Hiss.” The president of my agency displayed a picture of himself with President Eisenhower on his desk. I declined to pass along the recommendation.

It was from the late 40s to 50s I used to enjoy a commercial station which broadcast mostly Classical music: WBAF, 99.5 FM. No, not WBAI. This was its predecessor. And it had a weekly Folk Music program hosted by Cynthia Gooding, a very nice lady always on the lookout for new folk talent. Knowing that I lived in the Village, Cynthia called me to check out a terrific new young singer playing at the Gaslight coffeehouse, I believe. I checked him out and called Cynthia back: “Cynthia, you have got to be kidding! This obnoxious young punk can barely play four guitar chords or sing in tune. And his harmonica-playing is excruciating. A Woody Guthrie wannabe who’s accent is even phony!”

It was Bob Dylan.

Also around this time I got a call from Ray Boguslav, who played classic guitar for Harry Belafonte and Theo Bickel. He was going to accompany a young blonde for a demo recording and wanted me to be the recording engineer. He had borrowed a Capps mic and a Ferrograph tape recorder and Bickel’s apartment on Waverly Place as a studio. So I came over and recorded the girl whom I recognized as a 16-year-old waitress from the Café Figaro. Every bar of Shenandoah was at a different pitch! I sure thought that demo was going nowhere.

Her name was Mary Travers.

John Nash and Goon Hill

Now that a movie is being shot in Princeton about the life of the mathematician Dr. John Nash, I guess I can add my two bits’ worth. “Goon Hill” was the flattering appellation applied to the Princeton Graduate College by undergrads. Well, it was on a hill overlooking a golf course: two quadrangles with a pseudo- St Mary Maudlin, Oxford, bell tower. Real bells, too.

In 1949, Princeton University had 1100 students, total, including 300 grad students. No women, no African Americans and very few Jews. Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and anti-Semitism was the rule of the day in the North. I must stress that the Institute for Advanced Studies was also in the township of Princeton, but not connected in any way with the university. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer of atom bomb fame headed the institute, with Prof. Dr. Albert Einstein its star scholar. The university and the worthies in the town looked down on both these accomplished gentlemen. They were Jewish, after all.

Most of the grad students were World War II vets or European refugees, as they were called. They were several years older than kids like John Nash and me. John always wore the same maroon corduroy jacket and rode a clunky Schwinn or somesuch unchic American bike, not the English racing bikes favored by the undergrads. John would ride no-hands around the quadrangle whistling Bach fugues, the Little G minor being one I recognized. He seemed to be in his own orbit even then. And had no friends as far as I could observe. The only time I ever saw him Interact with Others was in the Common Room, playing Go-spiel. The players were back-to-back and had to visualize the stones of the opponent. Sometimes the Go-Spiel games would go non-stop for 2 or 3 days. There was also Chess-Spiel and three-dimensional Go. This was what the scientific types did for recreation.

The math and physics types held students of the Humanities like history, literature and the like beneath contempt. One exception was Murray Gell-Mann, who became head of the Cal-Tech physics department and got a Nobel for the Quark, I believe. Murray was fascinated that I could tell him pretty precisely what Plato or Aristotle meant by such and such a term or phrase.

Denis Gabor was an unpretentious Hungarian who played Bach beautifully on the piano. I knew he was working on something with Einstein, but I didn’t ask what. I probably wouldn’t have understood it even if he told me. Several years later he got a Nobel prize for inventing the Laser. But it took several more years before anyone could figure out how to build one. I also had a nodding acquaintance with Dr Einstein himself. But I never had the nerve to say anything more than: “Guten Morgen, Herr Doktor. Wie geht es Ihnen?” What the hell could I possibly have to say to Albert Einstein? Even in winter he wore sneakers without socks. So the math department smarties also started wearing their sneakers sockless!

We also had in our midst Dr José Delgado, a flamboyant Spanish physician who later did experiments at Yale inserting electrodes into animal brains to control behavior. Rumor has it that these researches were funded by the C.I.A.

A buddy of mine was the physicist, Klaus Wolff, who later went on to RCA Labs and became the Father of the Plastic Laser. Klaus had an old junker car and had discovered a joint in Hopewell that offered $2 pizza. Not very good pizza, but awfully good for $2. He told me he was worried about his father. He wasn’t sick or anything, just European. He had an apartment in the refugee section of Washington Heights and a little printing plant and publishing house. Klaus felt his father would never succeed in America because he believed in giving the public what they should have — not what they wanted. Years later Klaus’ father was offered the American rights to a book that had been turned down by some seven American publishers. But Herr Wolf thought it should be available to readers here and took it on. It was Doctor Zivago! So Herr Wolf got God-knows how much in royalties and then sold Pantheon to Random House for $2 million. So much for not understanding the American market.

Another denizen of Goon Hill was Jim Crudgington. Jim had been in Egypt with the American Friends’ Service Committee when World War II commenced. So he joined up with the British army and helped chase Rommel across the desert. Every summer he used to go to Europe with his grandma on the Queen Mary. His granma was Mrs William Cooper Proctor. Her husband and a Mr Gamble had a soap company in Cincinnati. We ate dinner in Proctor Hall, donated by the same. There was also a quadrangle donated by Mrs Josephine Thompson Swann, I believe of the soap of the same name.

And then there was Rogers Albritton, who saved up all his dirty laundry in two humongous bags big enough to stuff a body into. The laundry would return it in a stack of packages and he would start all over again. Rogers was also a nocturnal animal. He got up in time for dinner, studied all night and then showed up for breakfast before sacking out. Don’t know how he managed to head up the Harvard philosophy department later on. He also mysteriously went to New York twice a week for sessions with his psychoanalyst, a far-out thing back then.

I mustn’t forget my favorite Einstein story, related to me by his cousin, Alfred Einstein, the Mozart scholar. Alfred Einstein came to Princeton for a weekly Mozart seminar. And one evening he was a guest at his cousin Albert’s. Arthur Schnabel was also a guest. So after dinner they decided to play a Mozart Trio, with Albert on the violin. After they started, Albert flubbed his entrance. So they started again. And again Albert flubbed. When Albert missed his entrance for the third time Schnabel said: “For Chrissakes, Albert, can’t you count?”

The Christmas recess of ’49 I decided to stay at the Grad College rather than take the two nights’ sitting up in coach on the train. (I couldn’t afford Pullman.) No meals were served at the college, but there were a variety of greasy spoons in town. And I had a hot plate and some canned goods. On Christmas eve the entire town was shut tight. You couldn’t even find a cup of coffee. So I heated a can of something on the hot plate. And then I decided to enjoy the stars and full moon from the surrounding golf course. It was cold but still. And the snow crunched underfoot. When I was about a half mile away, carols erupted from the carillon in the tower. A truly magical moment.