Sometime in 2011 I sat down at my kitchen table with my dad and a tape recorder, and started asking questions about his history as a musician and a fan of music. The depth of musical knowledge and experience he has is mind-boggling, even for me, who has been around it my whole life. Believe it or not, the long interview below is an edited version of our hour-and-a-half conversation, at the end of which I turned the tape recorder off because I was exhausted. His response? "Okay, I’ve got a lot more stories I could tell." Below is a kind of "follow along" playlist, with everything he mentions that I could find on Spotify. Stick with it till the end to hear a little bit of him playing.
Josh: So I guess the best place to start is how you first heard blues music, and how old you were, and what it was, where you were, etc.
Dave: I was a freshman in high school, in East Lansing, Michigan. My sister Natalie had an older friend who had been listening to Leadbelly and a bunch of other stuff. He turned me on to it, and I think the first three records I bought were Leadbelly on Capital Records, that one with the yellow cover and the zither player on it, Bob Dylan’s first record, which I think had just come out, and Here’s Little Richard on Specialty Records.
That was my first three albums. And they all were, you know – raw. They had a visceral, almost like a feeling, not only how they sounded, but how it felt. And that really, really turned me on to something. So, from there I started to buy records for myself, and started to learn about blues by buying records and listening, and reading the album covers and that kind of thing.
J: Before you heard that Leadbelly, what was your take on music? Was music even on your radar?
D: It was. But, you know, it was your grandfather’s classical music collection. I would listen to his albums.
I started listening to what was on the radio, and that was really a great time because there was music on the radio that had that same kind of raw, visceral feel to it. It was black music, or black-influenced music. Everything from Motown-type stuff to the Four Seasons, who were riding high back then, before the Beatles hit the U.S.
You know, you could hear James Brown. You could hear Percy Sledge. You could hear Little Eva’s “Do the Locomotion.” All that kind of stuff, it was like “Damn. This really has some guts to it.” So, that’s kind of what I was listening to, but mostly classical when this whole blues thing hit.
J: Do you draw a distinction between when you started listening to blues and listening to the Motown stuff that was on the radio? It sounds like there’s a clear demarcation.
D: Yeah. ‘Cause that was, like, current stuff that’s out now, and the blues was like, “Whoa,” from another place and another time. Totally. Another world, even.
J: Was that part of the attraction? That it was so foreign and mysterious? Did it feel mysterious, or was it kind of like something that you should have been listening to the whole time?
D: Yeah. I think it just hit me as… It just rang so true. You know, I say it was from a different world, but it was one that I almost instantly understood. Yeah. It just spoke to me.
J: What do you think about it spoke to you? What did you understand?
D: It was just so true. You know, popular music has a certain, like it’s a production, a performance. But, that’s the thing about folk music, it’s just there. It’s just true. It’s just a statement of what people are really living through. It also has very deep roots, and because of that there’s a certain timelessness to it. Even though it’s from fifty years ago, in some small corner of rural America, or even urban America, that I would never have a chance to experience – it just rings true. It’s not artificial. There’s no artifice to it at all.
J: Looking back now, what do you think you understood and misunderstood about what that music meant? Were you savvy to the cultural context of where that music came from?
D: Probably not completely. There was such b.s. in those days, on all the stuff about Leadbelly, the notes on the album and all this. They made it sound romantic so it would appeal to people like who I was then. It was kind of this “superman” that did all of these crazy things, and managed to pull it off. Get out of prison two or three times by singing. He was the lead man of the number one work gang in the prison. He was a giant of a man. Yadda yadda yadda.
Did I understand the context? No, not completely. It just spoke to me. The music spoke to me.
J: You just said something about who you were at that time. How would you describe who you were?
D: Pretty sheltered. I grew up in college towns. You know, I had traveled. I had lived in Europe and Australia, but pretty sheltered. I grew up in pretty much all-white college towns. I had been exposed to a lot of culture of the college-town type, foreign movies and that kind of thing.
J: How would you characterize your exposure to, or relationship with so-called black culture up to that point?
D: It was pretty minimal. Again, there was what was on the radio, which was pretty powerful.
My parents had some interesting friends, and one of them was the folk-singer guy. He was on the faculty at Michigan State. I never actually met him, but that put that on my radar. And then I had a friend whose dad owned a record store. So I could go in there and he would kind of encourage me to buy things he thought I’d be interested in.
J: This is in East Lansing?
J: ‘Cause the folk-singer guy, was that a common archetype of the era?
J: Like every big university had a guy who did that?
D: Well, I don’t know about that. You know, he was kind of… You got to understand how conservative East Lansing was in the 50’s and into the 60’s. Anybody who was different really stood out. And he certainly did.
Gene Blustein, by the way. Gene Blustein was his name. He’s got some recordings out. I’ve got some, in fact. A collection that his kids put together from his recordings.
J: Were your parents the kind of people that were more open to people being different and being friends with them?
D: Yeah, for sure.
J: Do you have any sense of what their take on it was when you started to really get into blues music and stuff?
D: Not really. I guess they found it interesting, but they probably thought I was pretty weird.
D: Well, it just wasn’t the kind of thing that they would listen to, you know. Although, your grandmother loved Mississippi John Hurt.
D: Oh yeah, she loved his music. She asked me to play it. That was the only thing in my record collection that she was interested in hearing.
J: I could see that.
D: Yeah. And then your grandfather had a little bit of an interest in jazz, but he didn’t really like too much about it.
J: So, when did you start actually playing?
D: When we moved to Madison. I was a sophomore in high school and went to the Wisconsin High, the university high school the last year it was in existence. And I met a bunch of kids there who were playing music and teaching themselves how to play instruments, which never occurred to me. That was like a light bulb going on.
J: That you could just teach yourself…
D: Right. You could do it yourself, without taking lessons and reading music and whatever.
J: You’d played violin before…
D: I had taken violin lessons, yeah. And then I quit. I took them for a little while.
J: Do you think having played violin was any kind of boon?
D: Yeah, totally. Because what it did was, it developed my ear. My teacher would put music in front of me for me to read, but she’d always play it for me on the piano before I read it. So I was always learning by ear, because all I had to do was hear it once and then the music was just a reminder of what I had heard. So that was ear training, even though she didn’t realize it was.
J: So when you started to teach yourself, you had that…
D: Yeah, I could play an instrument - I could play violin. And then I approached the guitar from the same point of view, just playing single notes. And then, I’ve told you this before, I invented the chords.
J: You invented the chords?
D: I invented all the chords, yeah.
J: So you didn’t have anybody to sit down and show you.
D: Nope, not when I first started. I invented everything. I used to sit by the speaker and play some blues and noodle around to it, and listen to what was going on. And then, like I say, I somehow taught myself chords. At some point, in Madison, I figured out that they were actual chords, and what they were, and what key I was playing in.
So then we started the jug band. I was in tenth grade, a sophomore in high school and we started the jug band. I got a washboard and started trying to play washboard. That came from Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers album. We got a hold of that and listened to it. On the cover he was holding a washboard and he played it on the first cut on the album. And that was it, just that one cut. So, we set the board up like he had his. Then I would listen to what he was doing and try to imitate it.
J: The jug band thing was a whole phenomenon, right?
D: Yep, sure.
J: How did that get started? That was Jim Kweskin, and…
D: Yeah. Well, it goes back to the urban areas in the South. Like Memphis and Birmingham, Alabama where they had these jug bands. There were a lot of different names for them, but the one that became popular in the 60s was jug band, to describe what it was.
J: What are the other names?
D: Um, spasm bands…
J: Spasm bands?
D: Yeah. Juke bands. You know, kind of like where “juke joints” comes from.
J: Spasm bands? I’ve never heard that.
D: (laughing) Yeah. So that goes back to the twenties. 1927 was a big jug band year. There were a lot of recordings in that year. The Memphis Jug Band, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and all that kind of thing. But anyway, twenties into the thirties. Then there were people like Sam Charters who kind of caught onto it in the fifties, and he actually was playing jug band music with some of the original jug band people that recorded back in the fifties.
J: Sam Charters was a white guy?
J: Were most of the original jug bands black?
D: Yeah, there were all black. Pretty much. And, there were a bunch of guys in the Washington, D.C. area – Joe Busser, a 78 record collector. He had a jug band called Jolly Joe and His Jug Band, which was pretty interesting. So, those were white guys, you know. Like in the fifties and early sixties. And then of course Dave Van Ronk, through Sam Charters, got wind of the whole thing. Sam Charters was in Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers.
So, that went from maybe the mid- to late-fifties into the sixties. Then in Boston there was Kweskin and his jug band, which really popularized jug bands. They were the biggest ones. They started in the sixties, I guess it would have been the early sixties in Cambridge. Club 47 in Cambridge. That was what got us going, in turn. They were older than us. Then a little further into the sixties, not too much further, we started listening to recordings of the new guys, and then listened to the old jug bands too.
J: ‘Cause you read stuff, and they’re like, “Hey, we’re listening to…”
D: Well, yeah. I mean, all you had to do was look at the credits on, like, a Kweskin record and you could see that they got a lot of that stuff from the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon and so on.
D: So, you know – one of the things I remember in Madison, this guy… I don’t know if he was a friend of your aunt Natalie, or I met him somehow, but he was a year or two older, a college student. He came over to check out my record collection, and he was like, “Geeze. You got all these race records. I thought you’d have, you know, like the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mamas and the Papas.” ‘Cause I had nothing but, like, race records, you know. All these old 1920s, 1930s black traditional music, blues, and so on and so forth.
J: So that was when you were, what, like sixteen?
D: Yeah, sixteen, seventeen. Eighteen. Somewhere in there.
J: So, the other stuff that’s going on is what? Lovin’ Spoonful?
D: Yeah. Well, it’s a funny thing, ‘cause one of the things that John Sebastian’s done lately was have a jug band, you know. He was into that kind of stuff, but then they started doing more pop-y stuff. But, you know, one of their songs was “Jug Band Music,” you know. He always had his feet in that camp.
J: But you weren’t really interested in that stuff?
D: Only peripherally. I was mainly into blues and old time. Old time country, from the twenties and thirties, same era. And then some bluegrass. That was my thing. Roots-y, acoustic music.
So, in Madison I was lucky because there were a couple of good record stores. One of them, it was kind of the same situation – there was a guy that worked there, who knew what I liked. I would go in there and he would cue me in to… You know, he’d say, “You should really buy this record. This is your kind of thing.”
J: What’s an example?
D: I remember distinctly Percy Mayfield’s “My Jug and I.” Which is classic, you know it’s not country, it’s urban blues. He wrote for Ray Charles, and this particular record was on Ray Charles’ label, Tangerine, and Ray Charles produced the record. It’s a classic record. And he clued me into that when he said, “You should really buy ‘My Jug and I’ that’s really good.” I think he clued me into Johny Otis, too. Johnny Otis was making some recordings that kind of hit the younger, sixties market. He clued me into that, too.
J: What other kind of stuff was in that record collection that was so impressive to Natalie’s friend?
D: Well, it was almost all country blues. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie and Sonny. And back from there, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson, the great guitar evangelist, spiritual singer. Rev. Gary Davis. On and on and on. Bukka White. Robert Johnson. Skip James. A lot of the greats. A lot of whom I actually got to see. I was fortunate enough to get to see them. Some I didn’t. But a lot I did get to see. Big Joe Williams. So forth and so on.
J: And you got to meet a lot of those people.
D: I got to meet a lot of those guys. I met Bukka White and Big Joe Williams.
J: Because you were doing the Folk Society thing?
D: Yeah, yeah. I graduated from high school and our jug band started performing at what they still called hootenannies, on the University of Wisconsin campus. I started to get to know some of the people on the folk scene there, notably Phil Buss and some other people. Tracy Nelson was still in Madison at that time, singing at those hoots. But that was kind of the tail end of her time in Madison, because she met Sam Charters and he recorded her and then she was off and running.
J: I don’t know that name. Who is she?
D: You don’t know Tracy Nelson?
D: Dude. She’s really a great blues singer, and country and gospel singer.
D: A white gal from Madison, you know. Who hit it fairly big and has had a pretty long career. She was in Nashville for a while. What revitalized her career more recently was she made a record with Irma Thomas and the piano player… what’s her name? Oh, Marcia Ball. The three of them put out a record, I think it was on Alligator Records, and it kind of revived Tracy Nelson’s career.
Anyway, as soon as I graduated from high school, since we got to know some of these folkies at the University of Wisconsin, the guy who was running the University of Wisconsin Folk Arts Society was getting near graduation. So, as a freshman I basically took it over from him. I had quite a group of friends, and we started putting on concerts. With people in Madison, musicians around campus. But also I started bringing in people. I brought in people from Chicago, a lot of Chicago bluesman. So I got to meet and put on concerts with a whole slew of people, Magic Sam and Otis Rush. And Johnny Young and Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton. On and on and on. Luther Allison. The list was pretty long.
And then also, I stepped in right when Bill Monroe came and played for the Folk Arts Society, so I got to meet Bill Monroe and I bought an album from him. Then I brought B.B. King to Madison, and put on a concert with B.B. King and got to really actually meet him. Sit in the dressing room and talk with him. That was quite a time. I brought Jim and Jesse to campus, there were part of that first generation of bluegrass musicians. Yeah, that was quite a time.
Then I also was involved in bringing Country Joe and the Fish, who were a pretty big name, you know San Francisco band, somewhat psychedelic. And I was peripherally involved in bringing the Jefferson Airplane to Madison.
J: Peripherally how?
D: Yeah. I can’t remember exactly how, but somehow I was involved with it or knew people that put on the concert. So, you know at that time in Madison we had a big circle of musicians. And some of them were rockers, and some of them were folkies, but we all kind of got along and hung out together. In some ways the lines between the rockers and the folkies wasn’t that big. The difference wasn’t that great at that time. You’d see rockers pick up an acoustic guitar and do a song acoustically, or semi-acoustically.
J: Do you think that’s how it was in general everywhere, or was that specifically a Madison thing?
D: No, I think it was true… I mean, if you think about the California bands, if you take the Grateful Dead, you know, Jerry Garcia definitely had his roots in blues and bluegrass. Country Joe definitely was as much a folk singer as he was a rocker.
J: ‘Cause there was a whole period where people who were into folk music didn’t listen to electric stuff, right?
D: Well, not in that period. We had big ears. At least the people I knew, my friends. When Bob Dylan went electric we were still listening to what he was doing.
J: So, who were the people who were so upset by that? I’ve always been under the impression that there was a period in time when being into folk music was a fad.
D: Yeah, it probably was, but it wasn’t for my crowd. We weren’t into it as a fad. We didn’t have any use for the Kingston Trio or whatever, because we knew the real stuff, where it came from, what the real stuff was. Not the polished-off, pop-y version.
J: Among your group, would there have been a general opinion about people who were into that kind of music?
D: Yeah, I think we kind of thought they were funny, you know. They were kind of funny people because they didn’t understand what the music was and where it came from. Whereas the rockers, who were actually doing something original that had a lot of guts to it, were more similar to us than that kind of pop version of “folk music.” But, I enjoyed Judy Collins, and I actually put on a concert with her on campus. I was kind of interested in what she was doing.
J: Which was what?
D: Well, it was acoustic music, and some of it was folk music, but a lot of it wasn’t. She did Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman. She did the Beatles. But she did an acoustic version of it that was kind of folky-flavored. I was interested in it, but that wasn’t my main thing ever.
D: It was just a little side thing.
J: So you were playing in the jug band, but you weren’t playing guitar.
D: I played guitar a little, not very much. Yeah. I couldn’t play very well and we always had really good guitar players in that band. Always. One after another. We started out with this crazy guy, Al Faler.
J: The guy who pulled a gun on you?
D: Yeah. He was hot as hell, I mean he could really play. He was sloppy, which went along with his personality. But he could really play. And after we kicked him out of the jug band, we had this guy from out east, I think he was from New York, Peter Spellman, who was a very accomplished guitarist. Very accomplished. I sort of got my version of Corrina, Corrina from him. And he got it, of course, from Bob Dylan’s recording of it. Then after him was Ron Amundsen, originally from Gays Mills, Wisconsin. Another really, pretty sophistacated guitarist.
J: I imagine you were hawk-eyed, picking stuff up.
D: Yeah, definitely. I was.
So, I played a little guitar but not very much. I played violin, I was trying to learn fiddle. I played my own version of it. I could improvise back in those days. I was kind of influenced by, as far fiddle playing and jug band fiddle playing goes, we were all actually influence by the The Holy Modal Rounders. Their first record had a big influence on me and everybody else in the jug band.
D: Because it was all the rootsy stuff we were interested in, but it was real zany and was something that we got a big kick out of and it gave us ideas for things we could do ourselves, with the jug band.
J: So, this whole time you were playing guitar, learning blues?
D: Yep. So, basically the first blues that I really was able to play well was blues in E shapes. I spent hours and hours teaching myself how to play the blues progression in E and the turnarounds. You know, I learned about what a turnaround is.
I would just sit for hours and just figure out different turnarounds. Single note, or chords, or two-note turnarounds. A lot of that came from the playing of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Brownie McGee. They were definitely one of the reasons that I learned how to play guitar.
Then, for the kind of bluegrass-y stuff that we sometimes attempted in the jug band I would sort of hammer out a G progression, a three-chord G progression to go along with bluegrass-type tunes. Maybe throw an E minor or something weird in there. We used to do Bill Monroe’s tune “Rawhide,” and I would kind of pound away at the guitar while everybody else was playing banjo or mandolin or whatever.
So it took me a long time to really get proficient on the guitar, but through the years, and especially after I moved to Milwaukee, I was starting to actually get quite competent. I broadened the number of blues players and other guitarists I listened to. You know I have been very influenced by John Jackson.
D: When I got a hold of his recordings on Arhoolie, I knew almost right away that that was a kindred spirit as far as guitar playing. His style really appealled to me a lot. When I had my fortieth birthday I spent a week with him in West Virginia at the Augusta Heritage Workshop. So I got to watch him play a lot of the stuff that I had heard him play on the recording, which helped me to learn his style of playing.
I’ve probably told you this, but in the sixties and very early seventies, when all these guys that did these incredible recordings in the twenties and thirties, and were the original old blues guys, were still alive and I got to see a lot of them play, and even converse with them and watch them… Because I was so young and not very sophisticated, what never occurred to me was that when all these old guys died there wouldn’t be anybody else like them again. You know, I somehow felt like, “Well, this is gonna go on forever.” But it didn’t. When all those guys died, there’s never been anybody like them again. That kind of music, as far as people playing it the way they did, it’s gone. There are people who imitate it, and people who have learned how they did it, but they were the originals. They were the people who created it and they’re all gone. So, I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing then I would never experience again. It was a once in a lifetime thing, and I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be alive then and experience it.
And that goes not only for the country bluesmen, but that first generation of Chicago bluesmen, too. There aren’t people like that around anymore. The people that play Chicago blues now are very different. They’ve been influenced by rock. They play louder. They don’t have the roots that those guys had in the country. In Mississippi and Arkansas and so on and so forth. That was a whole world of music which is really gone. Luckily it’s been recorded, so people like you can hear it on records. But you’re not going to experience it live. You’re not going to meet the guys and see them actually perform.
J: Do you feel like you’re a part of the tradition, you personally?
D: Yeah definitely, I think I am. It’s been really hard for me to… I have a lot of musician friends who know that, and they think really highly of what I do and what I can do. But it’s been really hard for me to find a way to perform and to show what I know. Like, I can sit and play for two hours just myself and I have a whole repertoire of stuff on the guitar that comes from that tradition that we’ve been talking about. Obviously, I’m not an originator of it, you know, but it’s seeped into me and I do it in my own way. But I haven’t really found a musical partner that is really able to let me bring it all out in performance, where other people could actually see me do it.
J: You did find somebody who can do that, but she’s not cooperative.
D: Right, my wife. (laughs) Yeah. I mean, there were a few years where Mom and I performed and I was able to. But I’ve gotten so much better than I was then, I’ve gotten deeper and broader. The problem is that a lot of that stuff is solo guitar playing and it takes a very special person. You know, the old guys were able to do “seconding.” So, if you listen to some of the recordings from the twenties, thirties, and even some of the forties you would hear two guitarists play. You’d have somebody doing a very intricate solo thing, but the other guy was able to do what they call “seconding,” and play stuff that kind of interwove with it. And I haven’t found anybody that can do that, you know. I mean, I know how to do that myself.
J: So, is seconding the rhythm part or is seconding the lead?
D: No, the lead is the lead and when you second you play a lot of bass notes. You can play intricate stuff, but it’s gotta give a bottom to what the person playing lead is doing. Compliment, you know. And what I find is that what happens is that people want to play what you’re playing. Well, that doesn’t work. You know? Because it only takes one person to do what I do, what the lead player is doing. So, you gotta have somebody who understands how to bass it, how to compliment it.
J: If one were interested in hearing this, what would you listen to?
D: You can hear it in a lot of recordings from the twenties and thirties. Especially ones that were done in more urban areas. You can hear it in a lot of recordings from Atlanta.
J: Like who? Give me some names.
D: Blind Willie McTell. There was a guy named Curly Weaver. And, I’m trying to think of some of the other ones that played in Atlanta. There are recordings where, you know, you’ve got two guitarists and they’re totally doing what I’m describing. You’ve got the guy clearly playing the lead part, but then you’ve got somebody else doing something very intricate underneath it, supporting it. So, I would look. Well, I’ve got a lot of recordings of those guys, on LP. And you hear some of the same kinds of things from some of the things that were recorded in Memphis. Then you can hear it in some of the ensemble playing, the guys that came up to Chicago from Mississippi, you can hear it there a little bit.
J: Like who?
D: Well, like, one person who’s really good at that is Johnny Young, who is famous for being a blues mandolin player. But he was really a solid guitarist, and he knew how to do that kind of seconding style of guitar playing.
So. That’s all I can think of right now, but if we were to listen through my record collection you’d hear it, what I’m talking about.
J: So, I’m interested in, you know, was there a point…
D: I want to mention one other thing that was going on in Madison when I was in high school.
D: There was a band called the Goose Island Ramblers. And they were what’s been called Polkabilly.
D: Yeah. They were the greatest bar band I’ve ever seen or heard. It was a trio. There was Bruce Bollerud who was primarily an accordian player, and he knew a lot of Norwegian accordian tunes. Then there was “Windy” Whitford who had a lot of roots in country and even oldtime country. Then there was “Smokey” George Gilberston, who had roots in the Scandinavian music and also country music. So, we’re talking about country music from the forties and the fifties, which still had its feet somewhat in traditional country. “Smokey” George was really a good fiddle player, and knew a lot of old time fiddle tunes. So, they really inspired us ‘cause they were a band that had their feet in a lot of different traditions, some of which went way back. But in some ways they were… I’m trying to think of the word. A lot of what they did was… I can’t think of the right word. Almost like Spike Jones, you know what I mean?
D: Novelty, yeah. In a way. But they were amazing musicians and performers. We used to go, we’d have to peek in the back door of Glen and Ann’s where they played because we weren’t old enough to go in. But we were actually at a couple parties with “Smokey” George, and some of the people in the band got to know them a little better than I did.
So, they were a big inspiration for us and gave us a lot of ideas as far as doing performance things that were show things. You know, not just stand on stage and play. Make a show out of it. And I knew a lot of musicians who sat in with them through those years at Glen and Ann’s. Those were a lot of the same people that I was hanging out with. Most of them were older than me, but not all of them. Some of them were bluegrass musicians, a lot of them, that I knew.
Because that was the other thing in Madison, we hung out with the folkies, the bluegrassers, the rockers. There weren’t that many divisions between us. We all hung out. It overlapped, you know. At least for me it did, I hung out with all those people.
J: Do you think the fact that you guys weren’t the originators, that you were learning stuff from other people, somehow made it easier for you to slip in between traditions?
J: Do you think the older musicians that you were meeting, were they able to do that? Or were they in their thing and that was that?
D: They were totally in their thing and that was that. Pretty much. I mean, you know, Lightnin’ Hopkins could do some Ray Charles stuff, but he did it his own way. It was good, but…
J: But he certainly wasn’t playing any bluegrass.
D: No. No. But, you know some of those guys did have an ear for country, and were able to do kind of country-ish things in their own way. But, no, they were totally steeped in their own music. Totally. Yeah. They did their thing their way. They were originals, drawing on a tradition. Some of them were first generation. I mean, I saw Son House play, and he actually was older than Robert Johnson. He was “the man” when Robert Johnson was growing up. I obviously never saw Charlie Patton, but I met a lot of people that knew Charlie Patton. Not a lot of people, but I met some. Big Joe Williams, for one. Who was very inspired and influence by Charlie Patton. And Son House of course knew him.
J: So when did you actually start performing more straight-ahead blues?
D: Well. I guess a little sometime during the jug band, but mostly when I came to Milwaukee and met your mom. That’s when I started performing blues. Straight blues. You know, ‘cause she could sing it. Who else was there who could actually sing it? Not imitate it, but sing it. She just had it. I don’t know how or why, but she just had it.
J: How did that all go down? When you guys met was music a part of your thing pretty immediately?
D: Yeah, it was. Almost right away. ‘Cause I was playing all these records, and she was like, “What is that?” So I explained it to her, and I would play guitar for her and show her. I helped her to learn how to sing it, you know. She did it by listening and also by working with me.
J: What’s your take on Mom’s take on that music back then? Do you think she had a similar experience to you when you were younger?
D: Well, she sang in an otherwise all-black choir at West Division High School.
J: She did?
D: Yeah. So, a black style of singing was not completely foreign to her. It might not have been all black, but it was a mostly black choir.
J: Do you think she had the experience of that music speaking to her the way it did to you?
D: Totally. Yeah.
J: She’d never heard anything like that before she met you?
J: Do you think of yourself as a bluesman?
D: No, not really. But I think that I play a lot of that stuff in the tradition, you know.
J: So, what is a bluesman then? Why are you not that?
D: Because I do other rootsy music, not just blues. And I don’t really sing much. To me a bluesman is someone who sings and plays.
J: Do you think you’re a blues person?
D: (chuckles) Yeah, probably. But then, who isn’t?
J: What does that mean?
D: Well, anybody who’s dealing with difficult things is probably a blues person, even if they don’t know it. Or, at least, somebody who’s kind of like most people. I don’t think Bill Gates is a blues person, or ever would be.
J: Do you think there’s any synchronicity between being a blues musician and the life that you’ve had?
D: Yeah. ‘Cause most of my life I’ve done blue collar type work, you know. And that’s really the kind of people that blues comes from.
J: Do you think there’s an alternate version of your life where you’re not a blues person?
D: An alternate version?
D: What do you mean?
J: Let’s say we take you back to when you’re, like, ten years old. It’s not obvious that one would predict, necessarily, that you have a life where you work a lot of blue collar jobs, right?
D: Right. Right. Quite the opposite. You’d predict that I would be a professional of some kind, most of my life.
J: Do you think the fact that you became interested in that kind of music when you were young, and that you have had that kind of life is an accident?
D: No. I think it all goes together.
J: How so?
D: Well. I think it’s just, as that music took me away from my culture, you know, classical music, opera, whatever. What I chose to do most of my life took me away from the type of community where that high culture was the main thing, you know.
J: Uh huh.
D: I mean, my parents would never listen to Elvis Presley. He was too declassé. Underclass. Lower class, rather. My mom always told about during World War II when my dad was drafted and they were sent down south for his basic training. And she said there was nothing on the radio but all this whiny music, you know. And I’m thinking, “Dude, the forties,” you know? Country music. I love all that stuff.
So, I think that my circumstances, leaving college towns and going to an actual city and doing blue collar work and meeting a variety of people who weren’t as well-educated, and quote “cultured,” in that high culture sense. Yeah, so my lifestyle and my musical taste kind of converged, to some extent.
J: I guess what I’m trying to get at, is kind of the chicken or the egg question. Which came first? Is the fact that you were steeping yourself in this really working-class music somehow shape your imagination, your idea about who you were and what you should be doing?
D: Yeah, I think so. Mm hmm. Yeah. I think so.
J: What’s your take, both in general and on a personal level, on the phenomenon of white people taking on what previously had been black music. Now generally being the main force for preserving it.
D: Well, I don’t think it’s that big a deal if they do it well, you know, and it has some resemblence to the tradition from way back in the day. Then, fine. There are some people who can’t sing blues, even though they call themselves blues singers. There are some people making big reputations and a good living doing it, and they really can’t, as far as I’m concerned, do it very well. But, then there are others who do it very well.
J: Is that particular to white perfomers? Or is that something you could say about both black and white performers?
D: I’ve heard some black performers sing blues that didn’t sound right. They might be too, kind of stage-y, you know. Maybe have more of a show, or Broadway background or approach to it. But, then there’s people like Alvin Youngblood Hart, who’s younger than I am, but he really has been steeped in his family roots in Mississippi. He’s amazing. I think he does Charlie Patton better than anybody I’ve ever heard.
J: Did you ever feel like you needed to try to be black?
D: No. Not at all. I just loved the music and wanted to play it.
J: Have you ever experience black people being resentful or angry towards you for being involved in that music?
D: No, I haven’t. Ever. Usually, it’s like, “Oh, you like to play that? All right.”
I’ve probably told you the story when Mom and I took a train from Milwaukee out to Albuquerque to visit Penny Pritzel for a while. So, we were on the train, it was late at night, we were in the club car and there were a bunch of young people. I had my guitar with me, somebody else had a guitar. They were all doing music, mostly kind of folky stuff. And we were the only ones in the club car and this older black porter was banging stuff around, he wanted us to get out of there. He was obviously not too happy about what was going on. Then I took out my guitar and Mom and I did, I don’t know, Statesboro Blues or Big Road Blues or something. And it was like he completely changed his demeanor. He was like, “Wow.” He got real happy, came over and was talking with us. Talking about Billie Holliday. I think he had seen her, or met her sometime. Ended up hanging out with us for quite a while. So, I’ve mostly gotten that kind of reaction. Not that what we did was Billie Holliday, but he could recognize the similarity. In other words, it was black sounding. Recognizably, to him. Even though we were not.
J: Do you think that being steeped in that music and that culture from a young age changed, and/or informed the way that you related to your contemporaries who were black?
D: Yeah, I think so.
J: How so?
D: And not only steeped in terms of listening to and playing music, but also reading. I kind of understood some things culturally, and sharing some things even though they’re black and I’m white.
J: I’m imagining again this kind of parallel life, where you take a different path, the one that one might have predicted or expected when you were ten, following in the footsteps of your parents. I’m imagining that person living in the neighborhoods that we lived in when I was growing up in Milwaukee.
D: Well. When I moved to Milwaukee it was very refreshing. I felt like I was in a real place with real people, having grown up in insuluar, college towns. Yeah, those neighborhoods we lived in that were integrated neighborhoods, is that what you mean?
D: Yeah. That would have been weird. It took me a while to get used to that. Whereas for Mom, it was pretty much what she was used to. She grew up in Milwaukee.
J: And her family was poor, so they didn’t live in a part of town where there was only white people.
D: Yeah. And she went to a high school that was very integrated. Amazingly integrated. Whereas my school was virtually all white. I think we had one black kid in the whole East Lansing school system. My dad did have a few black people working in his lab, or as graduate students or whatever.
J: Do you recall going through a learning curve of learning how to relate to black people?
D: Oh, totally, yeah.
J: When did that happen? When you moved to Milwaukee?
D: Yeah. I worked at Mount Sinai and Central Supply, and most of the other people there were black. And then I worked at the docks.
J: What was that like?
D: Well, understanding them. Understanding what they were saying, what they meant.
J: Like, literally understanding their accents?
D: Well, yeah, understanding what they were trying to say, whether it was accent or just different use of the language, different syntax or vocabullary or whatever. And learning not to offend people, or be offended by people. Learning that whole sense of humor.
J: Can you think of missteps, or times when…?
D: Oh yeah.
J: What did you do?
D: I don’t know, but I know there were.
J: Like, you said the wrong thing?
D: Yeah. I remember walking up Third Street when I was first in Milwaukee. That probably would have been sixty-nine. There were all these storefront churches, and Sunday morning I’d walk up Third Street, heading towards downtown from quite a bit further north. I’d stop and listen to the music, which was amazing in the churches. So, it would really be bustling, and there’d be black teenagers or twenty-somethings, and they’d go, “What’s happening?” I didn’t know what to say to that. “What’s happening?” We didn’t say that where I grew up.
I was kind of scared, but I wanted to do it and nobody ever did anything to me. There was no hostility. But, if you’re the only white person for blocks and you’re not used to that…
I mean, it was just weird that I got turned on to this aspect of black culture, and my parents were somewhat involved in civil rights and all. I happened to become a teenager right when there was this big revival happening, so all these records were available. And then the performers started being rediscovered and booked.
I don’t think I’m by any means unique. I think that were a lot of people that experienced the same thing I did. I think I have always been much more limited in my focus. Limited in terms of being so interested in blues and old time, rootsy American music. Some people went in different directions, but I never have. I’ve continued playing and being interested in the same kind of music that I was when I was fifteen, basically. And now I’m sixty-three. So, I think I’ve been a little more single-minded than most people. And I’ve been performing since I was fifteen, you know.