“I met John Cohen in New York before going up to Yale. One of the interesting things about the math department at Yale (actually most math departments) is that an awful lot of mathematicians are also musicians, just amateur musicians, and the ones who aren’t actually players of anything tend to be very much caught up in listening to music. We had a department string band there, the only string band on the campus at Yale, and one of our Professors, Professor Beagle, liked to call square dances so we had department square dances. The fiddle player knew the standard fiddle tunes, our mandolin player was from Tennessee and knew the stuff from down there.
John Cohen wasn’t really part of the band but he did sometimes play with us even though he was from the Arts school. But we didn’t mind a non-mathematician come along and do some playing. And I had listened to loads of records (right off 42nd street and 6th Avenue in N.Y. there were a few used record shops I used to prowl around looking for some of the old recordings) and also other people I had met. So I had a large store of tunes that I was familiar with.”
“Interesting thing is how I got interested in old time country string band music as opposed to what most of the people were doing in the so called ‘Folk Revival’ in New York (It wasn’t being called that, back then). I didn’t have a record player at one point but I was already playing guitar. I did have a radio. One time it was on and I was turning it down and suddenly I heard Pete Seeger doing Cindy. It was one of the 78s in the album Folksay which was on Asch records. I was familiar with that album as I had heard it at various friends’ houses. So I listened to that and then they they played another one from that – I think it was Woody Guthrie doing something… and wow!!
So I started listening into the programme a little bit more which was called David Miller’s Hometown Frollick, I may have got his name wrong but it was something like that on W.A.A.P. or W.P.A.T. a Jersey station. I found there were a number of these country music record programmes and began listening to these as much as I could in hopes I’d hear Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie ’cause they were the ones I was familiar with. Then I also began to hear some other people I’d never heard of before; The Carter Family, Wade Mainer, Uncle Dave Macon and some of the more old time country players. There were loads of them, then, more modern country music performers and I’d listen through hours of stuff that I didn’t really care for in order to hear a few of the older things. Gradually it got so I was really more interested in hearing Uncle Dave Macon and the others than in Pete or Woody or Josh White or Leadbelly or those people. I was interested in them too but this old timey country music I was beginning to hear was what really began to excite me.”
“And then somewhere I discovered the Library Of Congress recordings and there were a few things – it wasn’t so much the unaccompanied ballads that interested me right at the beginning – there was one album that had several fiddle tunes at the beginning and then it had some banjo tunes. (At that time I was nearly as interested in fiddle as I was in banjo). It had Pete Steel doing Coal Creek March, it had Wade Ward doing Old Joe Clark and Chilly Winds. And so I listened to that stuff and other singers and players. I really began to go after that stuff and that’s why I started haunting those record shops.”
“There were a number of musicians that were very influential I heard through recordings. Apart from Uncle Dave Macon and The Carter Family (especially Maybelle Carter) there was Clarence Ashley, Sam McGee, Wade Mainer and his group The Mountaineers, and Doc Watson, to some extent. Specifically on the guitar was Roy Harvey and Norman Woodlieff from Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers. They had this interesting syncopated way of playing those runs… and The Ramblers’ whole approach to a string band, the way the fiddle took the melody, the banjo plucking a brittle rhythm, and those runs going off the bass strings of the guitar. It worked together so beautifully. That’s one of the approaches to a string band that I like and the other one is Riley Puckett in the Skillet Lickers. Riley Puckett’s playing was influential on my backup playing – not so much my solo playing – but when I backup other musicians.”