Barry Ollman Collections
Paul Epstein, owner of Twist and Shout Records, Interviews Barry Ollman
...speaker at "Weaving the Threads"
Originally published on Twisted Spork Blog
July 16-21, 2010 In honor of the upcoming Woody Guthrie Festival (Weaving The Threads) at Swallow Hill and The L2 Events Center on July 30th and 31st it seemed appropriate to do some sort of blog about Woody. One of the featured speakers at this event is Barry Ollman who will be giving a talk he calls "Collecting Woody." I have known Barry for a number of years and I thought an interview with him might be interesting and might inspire some folks to attend this great event. I met Barry at Twist and Shout when he walked up to me and, out-of-the-blue, said "I understand you collect Dylan." I did and I do, and I answered in the affirmative. We started talking about Dylan and I quickly realized that this guy knew a lot and, from what he described, he had some really cool collectibles. Over the next few months we had a number of casual conversations about Dylan and all kinds of music. Barry is a humble, unassuming guy, so our friendship grew in a relaxed fashion. I came to understand that Barry was a VERY serious collector, and that his real specialty was Woody Guthrie. He tantalized me several times with a casual offer to check out his collection, which he keeps at a site away from his house. I finally got serious and made an appointment to go look at it with him. We set a time and I met him at the appointed place.
The next couple of hours were an amazing blur as we sat there and he opened one museum preservation box after another that were filled with the most mind-boggling cornucopia of amazing historical artifacts this side of the Smithsonian Institution. Knowing my predilection, he started with Dylan. "Here's Highway 61 with Dylan's handwritten lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" on the cover." "Here's the original hand painted poster that sat in the glass case outside Town Hall for Dylan's first actual concert." And it just kept going. Unbelievable, hall of fame level items, each more historic than the last and it is starting to make me go cross-eyed. Then he gets to Woody. I have seen a lot of collections in my life, in fact I have made a career out of looking at collections, but this was the most serious, historically minded group of items I've ever seen. Woody wrote and drew on everything within his reach, and somehow it seems a fair wind has blown much of this stuff into Barry's loving hands. It seems to me that this is THE Woody Guthrie collection. I feel comfortable saying it is the world's greatest Woody collection, at least in private hands. But that's all I'm going to say about it, because you should go to Weaving The Threads and hear his talk on "Collecting Woody."
The tour continued. Barry doesn't just collect musicians. There was Steinbeck, Lincoln, Thoreau - the depth and breadth of his collecting is humbling indeed. Here's the thing about Barry Ollman though; it's not about him at all. He is one of the most generous and sharing collectors I've met. He loves showing the stuff he has and talking about it and letting as many people enjoy it as possible. He has a museum-like institutional attitude about his stuff and that is a rare quality indeed. As I left, my head was spinning. It was like that feeling you have when you leave a great museum show - full of inspiration and the desire to explore further.
Throughout the years I have stayed friendly with Barry, and I have gained a greater appreciation of Barry's place in the world. When I went to see the traveling Dylan exhibit, Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, I was surprised to notice that many of the best items were "from the collection of Barry Ollman." I have seen his name attached to almost everything associated with Woody - CDs, movies, books, and he seems to pop up in all the right places... And then there was Graham Nash. One day I was in the store working and Barry walked up and said "Hey Paul, I want to introduce you to someone." I turned and looked at a friendly, smiling, middle-aged man. "This is Graham." He was in town for the three CSNY shows at Red Rocks and he was looking for a certain hard-to-find Dylan single. Thankfully we had it, and I had a great talk with a true musical hero. And that is the way Barry is - he knows everybody and is unbelievably well connected, and happy to share it all with everybody. What is surprising is that he is such a mensch. So without further ado, here is our interview.
1) Why Woody? Is it his music or his socio-political impact that draws you? Or is it the unique nature of Woody as an outsider?That's not fair. Your first question is 3 questions! It's like a White House press conference...
I think I'd like to start with a little deep background.
I actually remember hearing "This Land is Your Land" somewhere around early 1964 and feeling excited by the whole feel of the song. I was 11 and the Beatles were already gods to me, so a simple little folk song like "This Land" had to fight pretty hard for my attention. Somehow it got lodged in there. By then I was already playing "Blowin' in the Wind" on my $19.95 Marco Polo guitar, which didn't sound much better than the cardboard box it came in. I immediately loved everything I'd heard by Dylan but had no idea of the Guthrie/Dylan connection. As I continued to get swept away by all things Rock and Roll, somewhere in my heart and mind I kept a place for those simple folk songs and I guess "This Land" was one of the first and best.
My dad was a Midwest Correspondent for Billboard Magazine during the glory years, 1949 to 1975, so I grew up racing home from school every Monday to read the charts while my mom and her friends played Mahjong, which they still do to this day. Believe it or not, pretty much the same group of women has been playing for 50 years! They all outlived their husbands so maybe they're on to something. Recently my oldest daughter, Angie, who by the way is the hippest DJ in San Diego, has discovered Mahjong and she loves the game. Will the circle be unbroken? Back to my dad… As a result of his incredibly cool occupation (not particularly lucrative at .02 a word but what dad had a cooler job in 1964 Milwaukee?) I wound up with a tasty little autograph collection including The Stones, Zappa, The Smothers Brothers, Carlos Montoya, The Blues Magoos and many others, so the seeds of my collection had definitely been planted. In 1980 my folks sold the house we grew up in and moved to a condo and in the move, my collection mysteriously disappeared. I suspect it was stolen by someone who went into the house during their yard sale but I'll never know. It still haunts me a little but I've got to say, it really haunted me back then… I felt violated on a sort of sacred level. I mean how could somebody take my Stones autographs and live? Not to mention a lock of Ringo's hair from my neighbor friend who actually watched him get a haircut at the Milwaukee Holiday Inn in September of '64!
Much to my astonishment, life went on. Then one day in about 1982 somebody offered to sell me an old British autograph book with signatures of The Beatles, The Stones, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Kinks, The Hollies and more, all for $400! I was broke but I didn't blink. Obviously, that put me on a slippery slope… One thing led to another and suddenly I started finding all sorts of amazing things. I felt like a treasure hunter. Back then the market was blissfully disorganized and inefficient. Remember, there was nothing like an internet to screw things up! I just went from bookstore to antique store and asked everyone I met if they happened to have any autographs of famous people. They mostly laughed at me, which was how I knew I was on to something! I always thought if I had a dollar for every time someone said "I'll give you MY autograph, ha, ha, ha..." I'd at least have felt rich.
During those early hunting days, I met an autograph dealer on the east coast who put out regular catalogs, black and white, with newspaper quality illustrations of his offerings. One day I came home from work and tore into his latest mailing and there between autographs of Knute Rockne and Teddy Roosevelt was something that blew my mind: a pen and ink letter with a self portrait by Woody Guthrie, for only $495! It was almost like something was awakened inside me. This distant memory of loving the simple power of "This Land Is Your Land" combined with the realization that Woody had been an actual guy, who wrote letters and had a life. Somewhere along the way I guess he had become this sort of mythical figure, and all of a sudden he was no longer in the same category with Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan! I immediately called the dealer to buy the letter and was crushed to hear him say he had just sold it! All I could say was that I really needed to buy it and I asked if there was any way he would consider introducing me to the guy who had gotten there first. He said something about privacy and etiquette but I kept working on him. A few weeks later he agreed to at least give my name to the guy. It turned out the buyer was an entertainment lawyer in Chicago and when he heard I was willing to pay a premium, he called me. I made up an excuse to take a business trip to Chicago and visited the guy's office which had wall to wall signed photographs of various B-grade show biz types. Think Broadway Danny Rose. I knew I wasn't going to leave without that letter, so after a bit of expert negotiation on both of our parts, only $2,000 poorer, I walked back to my hotel, ecstatic.
Back to your questions...
The next thing I did was to buy Joe Klein's book, Woody Guthrie, A Life. I bought a nice first edition in that great dust jacket and a paperback to make notes in. I basically approached Woody's story like a detective. I wanted to meet people who had known him, and Klein's book turned out to be quite a road map.
In the course of following my collector's instinct, I learned the basic story of Woody's life. If you haven't read one of the primary bios, you really should. First of all, for most people who came in contact with Woody, he was not exactly an easy hang! He wasn't particularly reliable, to say the least, and he poured out his writing like his life depended on it. He never seemed to go anywhere without his guitar. How many of us do that today? We're all so mannerly! Woody was a total force of nature. The more I learned about his story, the more excited I got. His almost totally non-commercial attitude towards his music and his life was, and still is, so refreshing. He had this natural instinct to stand up for the "little guy" and in my bones I knew that this was what I ought to be looking for. Woody wrote about everything that mattered to him: politics, love, homeless people, war, greed, gambling, immigrants, floods, outlaws, and anything else he thought about. Not to mention a huge body of kid's songs, many of which are still sung in kindergartens everywhere.
Slowly it dawned on me that the entire "folk scare" of the sixties was spawned by Woody and his circle, and Woody had been at the heart of the whole thing. I knew that I had to very quickly get out there and find everything I could dig up related to Woody, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Dylan before all this great stuff got thrown out or disappeared. I was suddenly a man with a mission.
How'm I doing? I can talk for hours about what happened next but let's just go to the next question.
2) How did you narrow your focus? Was it a natural process or did one item/event start you on this road?
My collection is pretty broad so I'm not sure that I have narrowed it all that much. My main interest has always been in collecting hand written or typed and signed letters, preferably on really cool old letterhead, with interesting and relevant content, ideally related to what the person is famous for. Simple signatures don't do that much for me unless they're really rare. I once found a real Charlie Christian signature but I let a dealer talk me out of it. Sigh… Personally, I was never very comfortable going up to some famous guy and asking for an autograph. In fact, I've very rarely done that myself. As far as areas of interest, my main rule is "no Nazis, and no baseball players." This isn't to say I won't buy an occasional Babe Ruth item just to break my own rule. Even then, I'd prefer a Jackie Robinson. I just don't like areas that are collected in a self conscious, deliberately profit seeking kind of way. In my mind, most areas of collecting after about 1970 have been tainted in one way or another with financial expectations. Before 1970 there were all sorts of famous and intriguing individuals who wrote hand written letters with no thought of being exploited and thus were not particularly self-conscious in their communications.
I can say that within my overall collection that I've developed a number of sub-collections that mean various things to me. When I think about it in this context I guess I can say that focusing on Woody has led me to an overall theme of people who fought for the "little guy," not "small people" in the British Petroleum sense, but underdogs and less privileged people. So I've sought out and found a lot of great women's material and Civil Rights related material. One way I've described this area is 20th Century American Social Movements, 1920 to 1970, with an emphasis on music and literature. For me, Woody, Lead Belly, Seeger and Dylan put a pretty strong spotlight on that subject.
3) Do you think there's a difference between acquiring and collecting? What is it? Do you do both?
When I started collecting, I think I wanted to have a big, all encompassing sort of collection that would take me in a variety of interesting directions. Back then there weren't a lot of people competing with me so I was able to buy some pretty big collections, intact, for not very much money. That was good, because I didn't have much! Of course, there was no Antiques Roadshow telling us that everything old was worth a fortune and no eBay to "help" us price stuff so it really was an amazing time to get started with this. Paul, how about you and I go back in time, just for a week or two! Could be fun… In the early days I guess I was more of an acquirer and as I became more successful at finding great things, I started getting choosier and became more of a collector. Now I want what I add to the collection to relate to some of these basic ideas. I'll still buy a good deal, of course, but I find I'm less inclined to buy something just because it was signed by some famous dead guy.
4) Do you need to use/display an item to consider it officially "collected"? I sometimes feel that way.
What I collect isn't always as visually exciting as what you collect, for example. Poster art pretty much asks to be displayed. Autograph items are maybe a little more subtle and need to be sat with and read to be appreciated and understood. A good poster was meant to grab you by the throat from twenty feet away. I think letters tend to serve a different function… I do have some things displayed but my serious stuff is in your basic "secure, offsite location."
5) Did your interest in other collectibles (American History etc...) grow from Woody or vice versa?
I've always been interested in history but I've definitely gotten an education from building this archive. Some of these historical characters really come alive through their letters. As I said before, I didn't really appreciate Woody's place in history until I met a lot of his old friends and read a couple hundred of his letters. Then it started to come together for me.
6) Because the second half of the 20th century was more well-documented than any other era in history, do you feel it is somehow less collectible or more?
There are people out there who collect everything you can imagine. If you're into the War of 1812 there are collections that illuminate every aspect of that event. Of course, much of the great material is in institutional collections and I've been fortunate to have had a chance to go "back stage" and see some important ones up close. Places like the Morgan Library and The Ransom Center have tremendous depth and breadth. I love the collection at the Rock Hall in Cleveland as well. One thing that seems obvious now but didn't necessarily scream out at me as I got started was the way that more current items tend to hold more value for new collectors. A lot of younger collectors very likely have no clue who Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony were but they know who was on the second season of Lost. So again, just because something is old doesn't mean it's worth a lot of money to today's up and coming collectors. There will always be serious money chasing after the "blue chip" names like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, Einstein, Elvis, Marilyn, The Beatles, Dylan… But for every one of them, many other once famous people do that slow fade towards obscurity, at least in autograph land… From where I sit now, Woody Guthrie is a bedrock, wholly American, inspirational figure. It may seem a bit cliché, but I believe this: no Woody… no Dylan, no Springsteen, Clash, U2, Wilco and on and on. Maybe it's just another dumb metaphor but I think of him as the root of this particular tree, and I feel fortunate and honored to have figured this out when I did. I'm constantly blown away by Woody's wit, and creative drive, his generous spirit and humanity. The fact that he was also incredibly musical, and inspired almost every musician I love, is a total bonus! To me his influence is, shall we say, incalculable. And did I even mention his artwork? Pick up a copy of Nora Guthrie and Steven Brower's beautiful book Woody Guthrie Artworks (Rizzoli, 2005) and spend a couple of hours with it. It'll blow your mind.
I think I've gone off topic.
7) How far does your interest flow from Woody? For instance, I know you have some very interesting Dylan items. Did this come from your interest in Woody?
Historically speaking, I wouldn't say that Dylan is all that far from Woody! But I know what you mean… I'd say my interest in Woody came from Dylan more than the other way around. By the time I got around to actually hunting for Woody's papers in the mid 80's, I was well aware that Dylan was at the top of the food chain in music, poetry, and in culture in general… Tapping into Woody's world was almost like discovering our musical ancestry or DNA. Speaking of Dylan, one of the greatest people I was lucky enough to meet along the way was Harold Leventhal. I loved Harold. His life story was amazing and I loved listening to his stories. He worked for Irving Berlin in the thirties and was in the room when Berlin was writing "White Christmas"! He was a great India-phile and he met Gandhi while he was stationed in India during World War Two. Then he brought Ravi Shankar to America for his first tour of the States, which made a really big difference for Norah Jones! He went on to manage The Weavers, Woody, Pete, Arlo, a very young Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Jacques Brel and many others. Just an amazing guy… I used to go to New York regularly for business and my favorite stop was always to go to the Woody Guthrie Archives, then on 57th St, and take Harold to lunch. Whenever I called him he'd always ask "Where are you? Are you in town?" like 57th St. was the center of the universe! Who knows? Maybe it was. Anyway, one day Harold called me and said he was going to sell the hand painted poster that he had commissioned for the glass case outside Town Hall for Dylan's first major concert on April 12, 1963. Incidentally, that was the only time Dylan ever recited a poem in concert. He read "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie." I think it's available on The Bootleg Series [it is - ed.] and it's an experience unto itself. Harold had been talking to Sotheby's about auctioning it but he wondered if I might be interested. I told him I was thrilled that he called me and that I'd take good care of it. We agreed on a price (Sotheby's estimate) and hung up the phone. A few minutes later I got this nervous feeling. What if there were two of them? I know there's more than one glass case outside Town Hall. I called him right back and asked the question. In classic Harold form he said "Are you kidding? It's hand painted. You think I could afford two of them?" Harold is clearly the prototype for the promoter in A Mighty Wind. When it first came out I asked him if he had seen it. He just laughed and said "I don't want to talk about it."
One of my other favorite Dylan items also draws a straight line to Woody. It's a copy of Bob's first album and on the front of the jacket he writes five lines from "Song to Woody," signed Bob Dylan '62. Both that album and the poster, along with 11 other pieces from my Dylan collection traveled in the touring museum show Bob Dylan's American Journey 1956-1966, curated by Jason Emmons along with Bob Santelli up at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. It was a great exhibit and I think you got to see it in New York at The Morgan Library, didn't you?
8) Give us a few "fishing tales" of collecting. e.g. Hardest to get? Most expensive? Most surprising?
I was never a very good fisherman. I enjoy sitting there but I never seem to catch much… Oh, well... As for the hardest to get? Easy. That's the stuff I'm still working on! There are certain items, which shall remain un-described for now, that I've been chasing for many years. Sometimes you have to be really, really patient for the best things. I'll let you know when they come through. Back to that question… Let's start with the cheapest. A couple of years ago I bought a piece that I really love, on eBay, for about 25 bucks. It's a 1936 phone directory for Pampa, Texas. It lists Woody and Mary Guthrie and for Woody's occupation it says "Pntr," short for painter! Nora Guthrie says that when Woody left Pampa for California he carried paintbrushes. We all picture him walking down the road with his guitar but he was making his living painting signs back then. I just think that's a great find, and only on eBay could a guy stumble on a 1936 phone book for a town as small as Pampa. I think I've spent the most on certain Dylan items and a beautiful Guthrie songbook where he made and painted the binding and filled it up with about 100 typed song lyrics, all broken up into different sections with pen and ink descriptions on each divider page. It's a beautiful thing. On the inside of the back cover he paints "Start Again." I could go on and on. I'm sure I have hundreds of war stories. Speaking of which, I remember hearing about a small military auction where I thought I might find some autograph material and when I looked at the catalog, I had to laugh. There was a beautiful handwritten postcard, in English, from Mahatma Gandhi! What a perfect place to buy a Gandhi letter. Let's just say it went cheap. All I know is, the best stuff always seems to show up when I'm feeling the most broke! And I've definitely made some of my best buys when I just had to swallow hard and go for it. The weird thing is I sometimes think just as much about the ones that got away as the ones I've bought! And believe me, there are plenty of those. My wife tells me not to dwell on what didn't happen, and I know she's right, but I think it comes with the territory for some of us who have this particular condition.
Here's a strange story I just thought of... About seven or eight years ago, a lady found me on the web and said she had just bought a First Edition of Bound For Glory, signed by Woody. She bought it on the street in New York for two bucks off of one of those tables. It so happened that I was going to New York a couple of weeks later and we got together. It was definitely in Woody's hand but it was nearly illegible due to his slide into Huntington's Disease. I bought the book anyway, at a considerable percentage gain to her, and took it over to the Guthrie Archives. When I showed it to Nora and Harold they took one look at it and said it was inscribed to Arlo! Woody had written it to Zibber Zee which they told me was one of his nicknames for Arlo, who was about seven or eight at the time. It had obviously been lost or stolen somewhere along the way. Of course, I had just paid a bunch for it but I wanted to do the right thing. They both suggested I hang on to it for a while, as Arlo had just gone out on tour, and that I'd know what to do with it when the time came. Sure enough, about five years ago, Arlo was playing up in Lyons at the Folks Fest and I called his office about getting together with him. My daughter and I went up for the day. We sat down with him and I showed him the book. He just about lost it when he read the inscription. I told him it was his and we hung out for a while, hugged him and went out to watch his set. As he started his encore, right in the middle of "This Land is Your Land," he told the story of how he'd just been given the book his dad had first given him 50 years earlier. It was a sweet moment and I'm so glad my daughter, Alissa, was there with me.
9) I've found with collecting that there is the item you seek, and then there is the social/emotional context attached to that item, the "human context" of the item, if you will. Woody had a lot of "human context" associated with his life and work. Has that made for a rich pool of people to collect from?
If I understand your question, I do feel that I couldn't have picked a more interesting or rewarding subject to study and collect. First of all, when I got started a lot of Woody's old friends were still around which, unfortunately, is less true today. There are quite a few of them still with us but a number of the people I met along the way have passed on. I had a lot of amazing visits with these people and they all had a certain twinkle in their eye and great stories to tell. I feel very fortunate to have met each of them. Harold Leventhal, Woody and Cisco's pal in the Merchant Marines, Jimmie Longhi, blues radio pioneer, author and ethnomusicologist Henrietta Yurchenko, (Martha Graham) dancer and choreographer Sophie Maslow, Woody's brother in law, Matt Jennings. They all had this tough, recognizable sort of spirit and sense of purpose. I'm glad to say that Woody's little sister Mary Jo is very much alive, as is his sister in law Anne, his first wife Mary and his original singing partner Lefty Lou. They are tremendous people and they've all led incredible lives. I think it's hard to appreciate the times these folks lived through, but it made them some of the most interesting people I've ever had the chance to meet.
10) How has Woody's legacy changed since you started collecting him? Has public perception of him broadened or flattened? What do you see as the most important parts of his legacy?
I'd say that 20 years ago Woody was much more a symbol of the world of folk music and that over the years his persona has evolved into that of a far more complex individual. I attribute that largely to the vision of his daughter Nora, along with Harold Leventhal and Archivist extraordinaire Jorge Arevalo and their enormous efforts to create a world-class center for Guthrie scholarship and study. As a result of what they've accomplished, Woody's music, artwork and message have reached a much larger audience, worldwide. A lot of people became familiar with Woody through the Mermaid Avenue project with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco and the great Billy Bragg. But Nora has gone on to work with a lot of excellent musicians like Jonatha Brooke, Ellis Paul, Joel Rafael, Tim O'Brien, The Dropkick Murphys, Anti-Flag, The Klezmatics, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Jimmy LaFave, Steve Earle and many others, allowing them, in effect, to collaborate with Woody by putting their own music to his unrecorded lyrics. The project continues to this day and I feel it's been a true gift to the world of music. The Guthrie Archives has created a bunch of other award winning projects as well, such as the Grammy winning The Live Wire recordings which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn't had the pleasure. The My Dusty Road project on Rounder Records is also terrific. Check these out at www.woodyguthrie.org or should I say www.twistandshout.com! It's very high quality work. There's another project coming out very soon that people are going to love called My Name Is New York. Watch for it!
By the way, shortly after I met Nora and Harold in 1996, they asked me to join a new advisory board they were forming for the Guthrie Foundation and I said I would be honored to sign on. I should add, just for the record, that I first met Harold back around 1988. I felt bold one day, knocked on his office door and introduced myself. We spoke for a while and he showed me around the Archives, which at that time was undeveloped and pretty disorganized. Basically, it was three or four rooms and lots of filing cabinets filled with amazing stuff. I think I bought five first edition copies of Joe Klein's book from him, three of which I gave away as gifts to various friends. Anyway, a few years later when they got around to publishing the list of everyone who had agreed to join that board, I was blown away to see legends like Harry Belafonte, the late Ahmet Ertegun and Studs Terkel, Theo Bikel, Dylan, Springsteen, Milt Okun, Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Stetson Kennedy and other heavy weights. Nora and Harold were operating on a pretty high level! I mean, what was I doing there? So I just try to be available as a worker bee to justify my place in that group… Back to Woody's legacy; I think he stands as a symbol to artists and musicians everywhere that we can and ought to cut to the chase and not be afraid or ashamed to say that we'd like to make this a better, more just, world and that that's something worth singing about. I think that's a pretty good legacy, right there.
11) I know you've recently started taking your own music very seriously. Talk about your development as a musician, the influence Woody has played on your development and maybe some of your thoughts on the place of art in this modern digital world, and the ability of the simple written word to impact modern people.
Well, I've been playing guitar since I was seven or eight, so that's fifty years now. From my point of view, once you've gotten the chords down it really starts to be about what you've got to say. In fact I just finished recording a new song about that very subject called "Something to Say." By the time I was about 16 or so I was writing quite a bit and performing as a folkie/singer songwriter in my hometown of Milwaukee. I remember one night in '69 or '70 when I played in a concert series at a place called Marietta House on the UWM campus. My brother Rick had been the headliner the week before, playing his unique blend of classical guitar and jazz. After my sets, the fellow who put the shows together said I should be sure to be there next week to hear a friend of his, a songwriting mailman who was coming up from Chicago for the gig. Of course that was John Prine and he was as great as you'd imagine. A few of us went back to somebody's house afterward and played for hours into the night. A year later when his record came out I recognized a bunch of those great tunes like "Sam Stone" and "Donald and Lydia." I bumped into him some years ago at a Dylan concert in Chicago and mentioned that night to him. He said he remembered it well because it was the first gig he ever played outside Chicago! I'm just guessing but I bet I remember it better than he does. Around that time I hitched a ride to L.A. to try my luck with my music. I actually cold called Peter Asher and he invited me to his house to play some music for him which in retrospect is kind of amazing. He was producing James Taylor at the time so while he was really nice to me, the message was pretty much of the old "don't call us, we'll call you" variety. The short version of all this is that I wound up pursuing a decidedly non musical career and raising a family, playing guitar pretty much every day, but happy to not have to make a living from music, which was clearly a tough gig. I mostly played with friends and had a band here in Denver for ten years called The Thrills, sort of a Soul/R&B/Big Chill/Men's Group mix but at some point it occurred to me that I really wasn't writing my own stuff anymore and I wasn't happy about that. I look back now and think I was just too inhibited and self-conscious being at the intersection of all the different worlds I was living in.
I should add that somewhere around 1990 my brother Arthur, who is well known in the photography world, offered to introduce me to a new acquaintance of his, and one of my lifelong musical heroes, Graham Nash. Only now can it be told that I used to stand in front of my dresser in 1964, with a drumstick lodged into the third drawer as my "microphone," and me holding a tennis racket doubling as some sort of fantasy electric guitar, singing along to my Hollies 45's of "I'm Alive" and "I Can't Let Go" with all my heart and soul, pretending that all the cute girls in my class were out there screaming in my imaginary audience. Thank God that wasn't captured on some prehistoric webcam! Five years later, I got into a car with some friends and drove to Chicago for the first concert EVER by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Joni opening. Graham has also told me that that was the concert where a kid named Dan Fogelberg sat in the audience and decided to be a musician. Well, two nights later CSNY played Woodstock. What I'm trying to say is that my answer was "Hell yes, I'd like to meet Graham Nash!" I called Graham that same day and in shades of things to come, he couldn't have been nicer. He invited me to visit with him at their next Red Rocks show, which was coming up. As it turned out, we not only really liked each other but we had a bunch of friends and interests in common. Over the years my friendship with Graham has been very meaningful and inspiring to me. There's a reason he's widely considered to be one of the truly great guys in the music world.
Once during the CSNY tour of 2002 I went to Milwaukee to visit my mom and to see their show. I was backstage with Graham after their sound check and we wandered into the dinner area. Before I knew it, I was sitting at a dinner table with Graham, David, Stephen, Neil and Gerry Tolman, their late manager who had become a pretty close friend of mine. The rest of the room completely disappeared and for about a half an hour it was Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Tolman and Ollman! Anyway, I mention this because at one point Graham told the guys that I had been at their first performance in Chicago. I told them one of my main memories of that night was when the curtains opened and there were about forty or fifty beautiful guitars on stands all across the stage. Gretsch White Falcons, Martin D-45's, Gibson Firebirds all gleaming in the spotlights. Neil got this dreamy look on his face and said "yeah, man... that was a thing of beauty..." Needless to say, that was a really memorable experience for me...
In 2005 I was fortunate enough to be able to leave my day job, after 25 years, and focus on my other interests. One day, a couple of years later, I was sitting with Graham at his house and I was playing a lovely pre-war Martin and for no particular reason I started playing Paul Simon's "Bookends"… "time it was, and what a time it was"… and Graham started singing the Garfunkel part so I took the lower melody and for about 30 seconds we were singing this little two part harmony and something in me just woke up, musically that is. I'm pretty sure Graham doesn't remember it at all but for me it was one of those great moments. It's almost like I gave myself permission to go back to that creative place inside. It was a small thing but it really opened something up for me. Of course, I still wasn't writing. Again, Graham played a role there… During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Nick and Helen Forster were asked to do a major Etown show at The Temple Buell Theater in downtown Denver and Nick asked if I could persuade Graham to get some version of CSN to perform. Nick had already gotten James Taylor and Ani DiFranco to agree to play and I knew Graham would be into it if the guys could work out the scheduling. In the end, Crosby and Nash, JT, Ani, Irma Thomas and Tom Morello played and Nick interviewed Robert Kennedy Jr. For me, it was one of the all time great Etown shows. Graham even wound up playing the old Guild D-41 guitar my dad bought me on my 13th birthday. Two nights later, Graham and his son Will sat with me and my family at Invesco Field for Barack's acceptance speech and the whole week turned out to be total magic. So, in November when the votes were counted and it was clear that there was not going to be a President McPalin, I sent Graham an email with the heading "Greetings From Blue Colorado." I mentioned that I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months. Much to my delight, within an hour I had written the first song I'd written in about 30 years, "Blue Colorado"! A couple weeks later I mentioned it to Nick and he said "come over and we'll record it." I said, "seriously?" He said "absolutely. How about Saturday?" Well, it happened and Nick played some of his typically soulful guitar parts and Helen sang her perfect harmonies and Todd Ayers mixed it and I was hooked. Back in the game! Graham liked the song and so did a lot of other people and it was extremely encouraging for me. Since then, so far at least, the writing has kept coming and I've been recording a bunch of these new songs with Dave Beegle at his studio in Loveland. Dave's one of my all-time favorite musicians and a great person too. The great Christian Teele of the Etones has played drums on all of my songs and other fine players have chipped in as well.
I wrote a tune called "See Ya' in Okemah" as sort of a theme song for the annual Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma (July 14-18 this year) and my friend David Amram, the incredibly versatile and inspiring composer, author and Kerouac collaborator offered to record some penny whistle parts, which you've got to hear, if you haven't had a chance yet. A few years ago, David was commissioned by the Guthrie Archives to compose a symphonic work based on "This Land is Your Land" and it is beautiful. The actual title is "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" if you want to Google it. It's been performed by a number of orchestras already. I know there's a performance of it on the web somewhere and it's well worth tracking down and listening to.
I guess my overall sense of things is that I now have a chance to transform some of that music, which has been so important to me my entire life, into a form that I can share. Digital recording technology has made it so much easier for me to capture the ideas I hear in my head and I'm having a blast with it. And I could be wrong but I think Woody would have been all over this home recording stuff.
As for where this is all headed, I think that's less important than the ride itself. In today's music environment it's gotten really hard for most musicians to make a lot of money. For me, these days, I feel success is just getting to play a lot of music with great musicians and to keep on following that muse... I feel very fortunate and grateful for the whole experience. Back to Mr. Guthrie: I find Woody's musical spirit to be a huge inspiration to me, personally, as he didn't really run by any particular rules when it came to his writing. If he felt something ought to be said, he just said it, and in such an artful, yet simple way. That direct approach really speaks to me these days and I hope it always will.
12) What should folks look forward to in your presentation?
Well, I've developed this talk and "slide show" that I call "Collecting Woody" that I've given for the past four years at The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Woody's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. I do my presentation in the Okemah Historical Society and I love the whole scene. This was the 13th annual festival and a pretty good number of the musical acts have played at all thirteen events. I think the list consists of Jimmy LaFave, Joel Rafael, Ellis Paul, Terry "Buffalo" Ware, The Red Dirt Rangers, and Don Conoscenti from Taos… Bob Childers was also on the list and has been sort of the patron saint of the festival since he passed in 2008. And Woody's wonderful "baby sister" Mary Jo holds a pancake breakfast every year as a benefit for the battle against Huntington's Disease. It's so great having her around. Think about it: all the musicians play for free and people come from everywhere just to hang out in "Woody Land" for a few days. A lot of musicians say it's the best-kept secret on the music festival circuit. I wouldn't know 'cause it's the only one I go to!
Arlo headlined this year, on Woody's 98th Birthday, in the old Crystal Theater where Woody used to go to the movies when he was a kid. In past years they've had Pete Seeger, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Judy Collins, Tim O'Brien, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Steve Earle and lots of other great acts all playing for expenses and to honor Woody. By the way, there's a movement afoot called Save the Crystal and I'd like everyone to stop reading this right now, log on to Facebook, track down Save the Crystal and send them a few bucks. This is important! We need The Crystal...
Anyway, in my presentation, I show images of some of my favorite and most interesting finds and kind of weave together my story of rediscovering Woody, combined with my passion for rescuing our past. I've been really moved by my interaction with the audiences and people tell me they get a lot out of it so I think it's a worthwhile endeavor… I've been working with the good folks at Swallow Hill for about two years to put this program together and it's going to be great. We've got Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, who are terrific singer/songwriters, Tao Seeger of The Mammals who's been touring with his Grandpa Pete for the last fifteen years or so, Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt fame along with a lot of other national and local performers. I'm also glad to say that my friends Anna Canoni (Nora's daughter) and Jorge Arevalo will be coming out from New York to give presentations about their work at the Guthrie Foundation and Archives. Not to sound too promotional, but they've got a lot to say, and if you come, you'll wish we had more time.
Thank you, Paul. It was my pleasure!