By Bill Chaisson (http://m.ithaca.com)
Fiddler John Specker came to Ithaca in 1973 after fiddler Danny Kornblum sought him out in the Catskills, where he was making an effort to farm. Together with Cornell student Bruce Molsky on banjo, Timmy Brown on harmonica, John Hayward on wash-tub bass, and Jim Wexler on guitar, the two fiddlers formed the Correctone Stringband.
The Highwood Stringband was already living in the Ithaca area, and Specker was in awe of them. “The Highwoods were the Lewis & Clark of the city kids who played old-time,” he said. “The alternative was the eggheads like the New Lost City Ramblers.” While Mike Seeger’s played in a style that was less sanitized than that of the Weavers, of which his older half-brother Pete was a member, the New Lost City Ramblers style – forged in 1958 – seemed to a younger generation to miss the point of the mountain music: it was a hell of a lot of fun.
The Correctone Stringband proved to be a crucial link in the chain of being that became “the Ithaca old-time sound.” The Highwood Stringband brought the hell-for-leather style to Ithaca from the Bay Area, and they found a receptive audience in the hippies who become the Correctones. In the wild simplicity of the Appalachian music they heard one of the sources of the rock and roll attitude.
Specker had been moving toward the mountains for a long time. He started in Astoria, Queens. “Our oldest brother Peter got the rest of us into music,” he said. “He had this little fold-out record player and he brought home everything: doo-wop, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the blues, and Dylan. At an early age I developed an RBA, a rural black attitude.”
He picked up the violin at 13 as part of mandatory school orchestra class. “I took outside lessons until I was 15,” Specker said, “which was when Dylan went electric.”
Three years later as a student at was then the Philadelphia College of Art in 1968, Specker took up the guitar. “I fell in love with Doc Watson, like a lot of people,” he said, “but everybody played the guitar, so I figured if you want to hook up with a female, you need something different.” That’s when he heard “that hillbilly music,” specifically the song “Old Dan Tucker.”
Appalachian culture was often satirized on television, in the movies and in cartoons. In the mid- to late 1960s the original 78 RPM records made in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were reissued in compilations in 12-inch LP format. “I was looking for trance music,” said Specker.
In addition to the reissued music, Specker was captivated by the Holy Modal Rounders combination of old-time and psychedelia. “They were right up my alley,” he said. Specker dropped out of college after his third year and went to Great Britain, spending several months in Newcastle, where he met members of the British folk revival, including Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and the High Level Ranters.
“And then [the Band’s] Music From the Big Pink made all the hippies want to move to the country,” he recalled. He left a job as a maintenance man at the Frick Museum and moved to a house in the Catskills that his family had used as a summer home for many years.
During his years with the Correctone Stringband in Ithaca, Specker began to develop his distinctive style of playing, which is rife with double and triple stops and includes a certain amount of footstomping. Although he was playing a wash-tub, Hayward (who would go on to play bass with the Horse Flies) was executing complicated runs of single notes. Brown eventually added mandolin to his harmonica contributions. “He played like an Irish guy,” said Specker of Brown’s rapid-fire harmonica style, which does in fact resemble button accordion playing. All this plus the twin fiddles of Specker and Kornblum, and sustained commitment to having a good time, meant that the Correctones were following the lead of the Highwoods, but adding distinctive twists.
They recorded an album, Black Eyed Suzie, in 1976 with Phil Shapiro producing, but broke up later that year. At loose ends, Specker spent 1977 living with the Puryears and then moved to Vermont to pick apples.There he met and married Susan Leader, a potter.
See previous John Specker post and listen to the Correctones’ classic version of “Black Eyed Suzie.”