Dick Weissman: I wrote a book which is called 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own. I found a couple books that I read specifically for the project that stood out above others. One of them was a book about a mysterious character named Lawrence Gellert. He was a guy who was collecting protest songs in the 1920s in the Carolinas and in Mississippi. His work paralleled the Lomaxes’ but he and the Lomaxes were not friends; he accused the Lomaxes of treating Lead Belly like a plantation slave. And the Lomaxes were not a family that took well to people disagreeing with their approach or attitude in any way.
So he’s sort of…I use an expression of people who have been written out of the folk-song revival, and he’s been written out of the folk-song revival. But a scholar in Michigan got interested — Bruce Conforth is his name. So he wrote this book, and the guy’s life turns out to be totally mysterious — like, his dead body was never found, for example. It was very interesting.
There’s a guy named Stephen Wade who wrote a book called The Beautiful Music Around Us, where he went back and took twelve recordings made by the Library of Congress around 1935 to ’40. And he went back to where these people recorded, and he interviewed family members. He interviewed people that knew them, who were younger than they were because they’re all gone.
Some of them are people that are somewhat known in the revival — like Vera Hall was one of the people that Lomax collected, a well-known sort of gospel-tinged singer. A banjo player named Pete Steele, from Hamilton, Ohio, has always been a legend among banjo players. And then eight or nine people that even someone like me had not necessarily heard of. It’s just a very well-written, wonderful book that included a CD of these people, so that a listener who doesn’t know any of them from Adam can say, “Oh, now I know who this guy’s writing about.”
In my teens, following the advice in Pete Seeger’s banjo book, I had bought a five string banjo at a pawn shop in the skid row section of town, abandoning it when I couldn’t figure out how to tune it without breaking strings. While attending Goddard College in Vermont, I met Lil Blos, who offered to teach me how to play the banjo. After graduating from college, Imoved to New York, and spent the next four years alternating between attending graduate school and becoming active in the folk music scene in Greenwich Village.
In the late 1940’s in New York there were very few people playing 5-string. There was Pete Seeger, of course. Joe Jaffe played on Milt Okun’s records, a very interesting banjo and guitar player. Joe Bossum was a traditional guy and there was also Woody Wachtel, and Stuart Jamieson. Stuart recorded African American banjo players for the Library of Congress when nobody seemed to know they were out there, continuing the American string band tradition. Stuart was amazing. I only got to hear him a few times, but he really blew my mind, he was a very rhythmically powerful player. He was just killer.