Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Folk music on the radio

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

So, to continue my saga of how I got into this particular field of music...

I was 14, lying in my bed listening to the radio, and discovered a local program which changed my life.  A local guy, Dave Graham, was hosting a show on KTUC, Tucson's first radio station, about folk music.  I don't even remember the name of the program; but I was electrified by what I was hearing.  Not only was the music mostly new to me, his presentation was engaging, informative, and conversational, not the usual plastic announcing.

Dave had opened a coffee house where he was presenting live acts--a little place off a tiny courtyard literally in a downtown alley.  The alley had a name, and Dave, understanding the main problem in advertising, named his place by its location:
"Ash Alley 241."  (This proved its genius when he needed a larger space to accommodate the growing crowds, and opened "30-15 North Campbell;" although a guy did ask me once, "So, where is it?")

My best friend (whom I would later offend and lose), Dan Webster, was 16 and had the use of a car.  Nights we weren't going to "the game" he would park up the block a bit and I would sneak out the window of my room for an evening at Ash Alley.

We were sooo young, yet we were welcomed, and became enthralled with the incredible performances of artists presented in an intimate, carefully crafted setting.  Sometimes, when Dan wasn't going or couldn't get the car, I'd just hitchhike there and mooch a ride as far back as I could from any willing beatnik.  Yes, beatnik--1960.

It was there we saw Michael Grossman, Barbara Dane, The Blue Ridge Boys, and many more.  It was there I met Bud & Travis.  They were closer to my age, and therefore less intimidating, so I could actually converse with them.  They found out I shared their sense of humor and actually began to use a few of my lines.
This led, later, to my getting to work as a writer for Travis after the duo broke up.

Bud and Travis were born on the same day, a world apart.  Once they met, the blend of attitudes and talent was beyond chemistry, and they quickly became recognized by their peers in the burgeoning folk market as musical masters who understood the power of comedy to turn a recital into a show.  The Limeliters, The KT, Judy Collins,
and The Smothers Brothers all acknowledged to me, at one time or another,
their admiration for these two young men.

Of course, their similarities also made for a volatile relationship, to put it mildly.  Once, Bud actually stabbed Trav with a knife in an argument over a girl.  Their brilliant partnership produced several albums, college concert tours, and even a world tour, but lasted less than five years.

Bear in mind all these artists were in their twenties (except for Theo Bikel and Burl) in those days.  Compare their output with that of today's young "singer/songwriters" and you'll understand a little of the disdain felt by us dinosaurs.

Here's another taste:
Next week, the song keeps growing...


  1. What a cruise down memory lane! Thanks for not only the general memories but also the insight into your star-studded beginnings. Talk about being in the right place, with the right people, at the rightest of times!
    Yesterday I heard of of a poll that asked: "Are American kids better off today or 50 years ago?" If I remember correctly, at that time more than 80% voted for 50 years ago and I agree. Just compare hip-hop and rap to Motown and soul music... not to mention folk (my favorite too). We "Baby Boomers" were sooo fortunate! And it seems you too. And all to our benefit. Keep on singing and we'll keep on lovin' it.

    1. You know, Dave, nostalgia is a grammar lesson. It's for those who find the present tense and the past perfect!
      We really appreciate your comments, and hope you'll "stay tuned."
      In upcoming installments, you'll realize, as I did, that being in the right place can be an illusion; especially if you're too young to know how to apply your advantage!
      Hope you'll come back every Wednesday! (Hint, hint...) ;-)

  2. Very entertaining and insightful at the same time! What similar interests we share, but from totally different musical backgrounds, as I was much more into the rock & roll, being a "city boy", and always considered folk music as associated with hillbillies and "beatniks", and wanted the loud, raucous, flashy stage performances as opposed to intelligent, nuanced, inspirational stuff! As my musical tastes expanded, however, I grew into an appreciation of jazz, and never really clicked with any "folk sound" until I became a Christian. I certainly never had the exposure to the depth of talent that you had, and I'm not certain how that would have affected my musical paths. Interesting to contemplate these things, however............................................

    1. I can remember specific recordings--often heard first on the radio--that were pivotal in shaping my tastes and influencing my eventual style; but my main advantage was two parents who loved a wide range of music and played it in our home on records or the radio.
      And radio was very real and immediate and intimate even when it was fanfare and formality. I got in on some of the best of both show business and broadcasting, and escaped most of the worst; so I'm one who counts it all blessed.

  3. I know what you mean about having parents who like a wide range of music. I often wish I had parents like that! HAR HAR! Seriously, I know that a lot of that stuff sounds cheezey or square to the singer/songwriters today, but it had a professional polish and subtle showmanship that more "modern" stuff lacks for the most part today

    1. It's hard to describe what the live music scene was like to folks born past a certain date. Most young people can't, or don't want to, believe things were so different; but they were. And The Hit Parade featured music no one would hear again. There was more variety, and there was more subtlety. Mass marketing killed all that, for awhile, but I think it lives again, in a distant way, online.

  4. You know it's interesting to me, because growing up as your kid I heard a lot of great music every day from genres that a lot of my peers never heard, or didn't get into until college. But I remember listening to stations in the middle of the night of music that was interesting to me, and how special and formative that was.

    Reading stories about people listening to and discovering music always reminds me of the songs (both titled "Midnight Radio") by Dar Williams and the one from Hedwig, which I really think capture the experience well in different ways.

    1. My mistake, Dar William's song is called "Are you out there"... I forgot that she covers Midnight Radio right after performing it often.

    2. Radio been berry, berry good to me!
      Like everything, it was better done live and local; but, whatever floats to an adolescent alone in the mystic night is important.
      I feel the choices are not as good nowadays, what with the lowest common denominator thinking of the ad industry.
      Support live, local programming!
      And, if you're involved in live, local programming...
      It's not about you. Think of your listener first.
      As Papa Zappa put it: "Kill ugly radio!"
      Thanks for coming by and visiting with a lonely senior citizen!