The Gillette Brothers, Guy and Pipp, play music that is rooted in the history of the West. Tamara talks to them about Texas, playing music and running a business with one’s brother, and the many types of music that they play.
TK: Most of what I know about you is related to the music you play. Tell us a little bit about the family ranch and how you ended up back in Texas to run it.
GB: Our Grandfather V.H. Porter started the ranch in 1912, and 2012 marks the 100th anniversary. We spent our summer vacations working with him and have been interested in ranching ever since. The ranch had been leased since our Grandfather’s retirement and we had been playing music up and down the East coast. In 1983 the lease expired and we decided to combine our music with our desire to get involved with ranching. We continue to run a commercial cow/calf operation, much the same as our Grandfather.
TK: What led you to playing music? Did you have any musical relatives?
GB: Our paternal Grandfather, Merlyn Gillette, was a singer and piano player, and our mother played piano. The biggest influence, however, were the records our parents played for us as kids which included many cowboy songs by Cisco Houston, Hermes Nye, Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
TK: What is it like to play with your brother? You also work together. How do you keep your relationship friendly and collaborative?
GB: We share similar interests and have always enjoyed being and working together, so it’s GREAT!!!
LISTEN to Jingle Up the Horses
TK: Your music represents many different styles, from Celtic music to minstrel music. How do the different styles connect to make the music cowboy music?
GB: These were among the popular musical influences of the original cowboy period and came together on the cattle trails when Irish/English/Scottish cowboys worked side by side with recently freed African American cowboys.
TK: Many of your songs are prefaced by stories, some of which are about your family history, some about the history of the song. What is the importance of history to the songs you play?
GB: It brings the songs to life by putting them in an historical context and illustrates lessons that are still viable. Our Grandfather Porter was a wonderful storyteller and has left us a lot of material.
LISTEN to You Give Me Your Love
TK: Like Sourdough Slim, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, you play more instruments than the standard guitar. How is expanding your talents beyond the guitar important to making music? How do you decide which instrument to play when you are arranging a tune or creating a new song?
GB: The instruments are ones that were popular at the time the songs came into being and are another element that helps to recreate the period. The variety also makes the presentation more interesting for us and, we hope, the audience.
TK: Some of the instruments you play are whimsical or unique. How do the bones or a harmonica enhance the songs?
GB: The harmonica was cheap and portable and a cowboy staple. The bones have a long and interesting history, in spite of the fact that most folks are not familiar with them today. They were extremely popular in the 19th century. These instruments add spice and diversity.
LISTEN to Brazos River Song
TK: Besides music and running the family ranch, you make bones (a rhythm instrument made out of animal ribs), and host concerts at the Camp Street Café, which you renovated into a theater. Is there anything you don’t do?
TK: Is there anything I missed? Anything else you want people to know about you?
GB: Pipp carves wooden decoys in a time honored tradition and makes whimsical masks made of paper-mache.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
GB: Tamara…Our pleasure and we’re looking forward to another great gathering!!
Meet the Gillette Brothers at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. You can learn more about the brothers and Camp Street Café at www.campstreetcafe.com.
Mike Beck regularly performs his solo show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and with his band at the Stray Dog in Elko. Tamara talks to him about singing ballads, training horses, and his connection to all the places he’s lived.
TK: You play both as a solo musician and with your band, The Bohemian Saints. Some musicians play the same thing solo or with accompaniment, but you have different styles when you’re playing with the band than when you’re playing solo. Why do you play differently with the band?
MB: My acoustic solo shows are more intimate. They allow me to reach right into the folk tradition and be more of a storyteller. As a young boy I got to see a few folk acts that really put an impression on me, Pete Seeger for one. He made you feel like he was in your living room, took you someplace. Arlo Guthrie, too—his Alice’s Restaurant was, in my humble opinion, a direct link to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. That style of storytelling . . . it just moved me.
I’ve added that element to the band too, maybe a different flavor, but it’s there. Fronting a band is kinda the same—you should be taking the audience somewhere—that’s your job. Otis Redding—he could take the audience somewhere. I try to learn from the greats. The Bohemian Saints are really a west coast band. There’s a lot of freedom, musically speaking, in our sound. We all grew up there, so it’s in our DNA.
TK: Your solo work is a lot of ballads, and you often tell anecdotes and stories to set up the songs. How are stories important to your songwriting and to your performances?
MB: I have always liked a good story and a good storyteller. It’s an art. When I cowboyed for a living, a good storyteller was a plus on the crew, and I heard some good ones, and that affected me I’m sure. The bottom line in a great song to me is how it affected the listener. Did it move you . . . did it take you someplace? Same with a story.
TK: Many of your songs are about people, and “Patrick” is about a horse. What inspires you about a certain person or a particular animal?
MB: In the case of “Patrick” it was a way for me to tell a bit of Bill Dorrance’s life by saying things about Patrick , a horse he owned. A way to tell a story really about Bill. In songwriting, there are no rules, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it!
LISTEN to Patrick
TK: Your music with the Bohemian Saints has been described as being influenced by the Byrds, as well as other rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Do you put on a different persona when you are playing more rock-influenced music?
MB: Not so much. But I do try my best to get my head in that space and just let it breathe . . . just let it create its own place, see where it takes us. That’s the big adventure!
TK: Where is the line between rock music and cowboy music? How do they connect for you?
MB: Is there a line? Not really. I grew up in California. I loved music, and I still do. I cowboyed for a living, and still do a lot of work with horses, so my sound has evolved from all that influence. I did not grow up in Texas listening to Bob Wills (which I love by the way); it was CS&N, Jackson Browne, Byrds, Buck Owens, the Brit bands, The Who, Traffic—the list goes on and on. Of course all that moved me, influenced me. Naturally you become a product of all that.
TK: You got your first horse in third grade, and you were inspired to play music at 13. Like many cowboy musicians you spent some time as a cowboy. Growing up in Monterey, California, you could have found inspiration from many places, like the mountains or the sea. Why did you choose to become a cowboy and a cowboy singer, rather than, say, a sailor?
MB: Well it was almost the sea that took me—came close. But Nevada, the Sagebrush Sea, it got me good!!
TK: You don’t live in Monterey anymore, but you return regularly to play there. Why do you make the trip to Monterey so often? What is the draw?
MB:. Monterey will always be home. I have family there, friends. The Bohemian Saints, we have a following there. It’s beautiful, the coast line, the weather—I can never stay away too long!
TK: You lived a short while in Elko, and you play at the local bar, The Stray Dog, every January during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Why do you come to Elko every winter, even when you aren’t playing at the Gathering?
MB: The Stray Dog is where we’ve played as a band for a while during the Gathering. If you have to ask why we come back there and play every year, well, all I can say is get yourself in there when The Bohemian Saints are smashed together on that tiny stage and find out for yourself. It can be magic!
TK: You’ve lived in Montana for quite some time now, returning there after your stint in Elko. How has each of these places influenced your music? What is it about these places that you can’t shake?
MB: Montana is just a nice place to live. Everything gets more complicated when you leave Montana. You gotta look out for Moose on the road, though, on your way back from late night gigs!!
LISTEN to Don’t Hurt My Heart
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
MB: Tamara, it’s been my pleasure. See ya in Elko at The Gathering!!
You can learn more about Mike and his band at www.mikebeck.com, or meet him at the Gathering. Mike Beck and the Bohemian Saints will be performing at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4.
Sourdough Slim is a regular performer at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, entertaining the audience with his humorous songs and anecdotes. Tamara Kubacki tries to get beneath the comic exterior to find out what drives Rick Crowder to perform as Sourdough Slim and how he so easily taps into everyone’s playful side. Note: All of the music samples are from Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong’s newest release, Oh, Sweet Mama!
TK: The tagline on the bio found on your website, sourdoughslim.com, is “Last of the Vaudeville Cowboys.” Can you explain that?
SS: First of all, it immediately gives reference to the era and style of entertainment I present. I think it has a nice ring to it too. My stage show combines cowboy crooning, yodeling, comedic sketches and an occasional rope trick. Much the same as a variety act you might have seen on the Vaudeville circuit of the 1920’s
LISTEN to Hesitation Blues
TK: When did you discover that you have a knack for tapping into the joy of music? Both your humorous songs and other traditional and old-time songs bring a smile to everyone’s faces. Where do you find that magic?
SS: I guess I am a natural born ham. I realized at an early age that I was blessed with a gift to make people laugh. I love playing music and entertaining. When you’re having fun on stage it just naturally spills out into the audience. Of course 40 years of entertaining and honing your stage-craft in front of every kind of audience imaginable helps too.
TK: You also write original songs. Are all of them inspired by the music of the past? You grew up on a ranch outside of Hollywood. Are any of your original songs drawn on your childhood experiences?
SS: My fascination and passion for the music and culture of early 20th century America is a big influence on Sourdough Slim. Although I was born in Hollywood, I did spend a considerable amount of my childhood on our 700 acre family cow ranch in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. Many of the songs I have written have come from my memories of that time in my life. “In Old California,” “I Am A Yodeling Cowboy” and “Ridin’ High, Singin’ A Song” to name a few.
TK: A lot of the musicians who play in Elko are influenced by the music from the past. Why do you think that the history of cowboy music is important to the music you are playing today?
SS: The old cliche “In order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you came from” comes to mind. I think it is important to make available a link to the origins of cowboy music and culture for anyone that is interested.
TK: Speaking of other musicians, most of the other solo musicians performing at the Gathering play the guitar. You play the guitar, but you often play the accordion instead (you also play its cousin, the harmonica). When did you learn the accordion, and why is it featured in your performances?
SS: I have always liked the sound of the accordion. It wasn’t until 1988 that I bought one and taught myself how to play it. Many people are not aware that the accordion was a featured instrument in most cowboy bands of the 1930s and 40s. I like the full sound and musical possibilities. It’s like a one instrument band. You can play the bass, melody and chords all at the same time. Not to mention what a cool Western fashion statement it is.
LISTEN to Mexicali Rose
TK: At the Gathering, you usually perform solo, but you have played with Robert Armstrong and often jam or perform with Dave Bourne. How does your performance change when you play with other musicians? How do these two musicians complement your music (or vice versa, how do you complement their music)?
SS: Robert and Dave are both passionate about the same music from the same time period as I am. There is a shared joy and reverence for this music when we play together. We play a lot of the same songs I play solo but when we play together the performance is focused on the ensemble sound. The excitement and joy of two or more musicians in the groove, playing the music they love, can’t be beat.
TK: You and Robert Armstrong have a new recording, released just this year, called Oh, Sweet Mama! Please talk about the CD and about working with Robert on this recording.
SS: My last two CD’s, Classics and ClassicsII, featured classic popular cowboy songs, both traditional and from the singing cowboy era of Hollywood. Early cowboy entertainers were often influenced by a wide variety of popular music including blues, pop songs, novelty, jazz and ethnic music and included them in their repertoire as well. The songs on Oh, Sweet Mama! are a mixed bag of originals, country blues, old-time string band, pop and traditional western music. Some of the songs are very obscure. Robert adds his instrumental virtuosity as well as some wonderful vocal harmony. Most of it was recorded live in the studio, many tracks from the first take. The joy we share playing this music together shines through on this one. We think it really captures the sound and feeling of early 20th Century rural America and showcases what we do best.
LISTEN to The Sunset Trail
TK: Many schoolchildren have been educated and entertained by your performances. Some performers aren’t comfortable with children, but you seem to enjoy playing for them. We at the Western Folklife Center think it is important to not only expose children to cowboy music, but also to teach them something while they are being entertained. How do you do both so well?
SS: The key to my success as a children’s entertainer is to just be myself. Be at ease and have fun. Keep the show fast-paced and involve the kids in the show as much as possible. Kids love physical comedy and they like to be tested. If you want them to listen to you, you have to listen to them. I catch them off guard. Because I’m having so much fun myself, they can’t help getting caught up in the fun too. And in the process they end up discovering and appreciating something about the culture I am sharing with them.
TK: What are the differences in performing to children and adults?
SS: Of course the material you choose is going to be different. I enjoy entertaining for both groups but children are definitely more of a challenge.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
LISTEN to Slim’s Sweet Mama Blues
Learn more about Sourdough Slim at sourdoughslim.com, and follow the links to purchase his newest recording, Oh, Sweet Mama. You can also meet Sourdough Slim in person at the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4, 2012.
Tamara Kubacki interviewed Skip Gorman about the appeal of cowboy music, playing with other musicians, and the importance of teaching and learning about history.
LISTEN to Buffalo Hump
TK: You listened to and watched musicians from an early age, and you received your first guitar when you were eight. When did you become interested in cowboy music?
SG: I think I first became interested in cowboy songs when I was around 10 or 11 years old and heard recordings of Jimmie Rodgers. He wrote and sang a few very authentic-sounding western songs. Then Bill Monroe covered Rodgers’ “When The Cactus Is In Bloom,” and of course, Bill used to sing Cliff Carlisle’s “Goodbye Old Pal” a lot when I started listening and playing bluegrass music. Later when I was in grad school in Salt Lake City and in the Deseret String Band, Hal Cannon and I used to find and listen to old 78 records of some of the cowboy greats like Carl T. Sprague, Powder River Jack Lee and Jules Verne Allen. Also around that time in the 70’s Glenn Ohrlin was re-discovered by the old-time music crowd at folk festivals. So this all piqued my interest in the history of the music of the West.
TK: Your music brings not only a glimpse into the history of the cowboy, but also a truth about life on the ranch or the range. You worked as a cowboy in Wyoming for awhile, too. What is the appeal of the cowboy to you and to fans of the music?
SG: Though I lived in Utah for 6 years, I was not raised in the West. So I never started riding and working on ranches until I was in my 40’s. Then I was hired on at a dude ranch to entertain at recreations of 1880’s cattle drives. It was then that I got a good taste of what I had been singing about for 20 years. It was a fascinating way to go!
What appeals to me most about the cowboy is similar to what appeals to me about old time New England Farmers: they have an astute sense of independence . . . the dogged determination to get things done right, even under lonely, very difficult circumstances.
TK: The songs and tunes you play were influenced by many different traditions: Celtic, Appalachian, Spanish and African-American music. It’s quite a diverse tradition. How do you wade through the long history to find the songs that speak to you?
SG: Because I’m so partial to old-time sounding, unplugged music, I’m always charmed by melodies that speak with a historic flavor, whether they are Celtic based or south of the border in feel. And then the lyrics that tell the story are the icing on the cake for me. Ironically, this appears to be the opposite of how many of the old time cowboys put together their “songs.” For them the story was the primary focus. Therefore, lyrics came first and the melody was often attached to the story line later. Their stories and poems were of prime importance…. not music or any hot picking or licks. I like being transported back to a time before Hollywood and jazz, swing and blues seemed to permeate and take over most everyone’s musical sensibilities.
TK: Along with playing music, you also teach workshops and school programs on playing music, cowboy songs, and the history of the West. You will be teaching a fiddle workshop and giving a talk about the history of cowboy music at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Explain the importance of teaching.
SG: Yikes! One can cover acres answering this question. I think teaching is merely introducing to someone—in an exciting way—something that they may not be familiar with at all, or being able to convince a person to view something from a very different angle.
When I go into schools to teach kids about the West, they are often surprised to learn that there’s a lot more to it than cowboys in fist fights, gun battles with Native Americans and yodeling.
When they hear the flavor of the older music and actually see a map of an emigrant or cattle trail, they are often pleasantly surprised and fascinated.
TK: You play solo, as a duo with Connie Dover, and with a group, The Waddie Pals. Connie and the Waddie Pals will be joining you at the Gathering. Will you talk about what it’s like to play music solo, with Connie, and with the Waddie Pals? What makes a good partnership?
SG: Playing gigs as a solo act certainly allows you the freedom and spontaneity for a concert or program to develop freely as you size up and play the audience. Yet, doing this alone is often much more work, lonely travel, and usually not as exciting. Singing with Connie Dover gives me a stellar voice to try to match. It takes me to another level and I enjoy being with her immensely. Like Connie, the Waddies are old friends. What’s more fun than spending time with old musical pals?
LISTEN to Powder River, Let ‘er Buck
TK: You have a new recording in the works, Fiddles in the Cowcamp. Tell us a little more about it, please.
SG: When I saw how people were enjoying Mandolin in the Cow Camp, which I recorded a few years ago, I realized that there was a need for a similar project with the fiddle. Yet, doing all the mandolin playing on close to 80 tunes on a double set had been a load of fun for me but a huge amount of work.
I immediately thought of some of my fellow fiddler pards in the West whose music very much deserves to be heard more. People like Ron Kane, Tom Carter and Ruthie Dornfeld have something special when it comes to rendering an old fiddle tune with time-honored nuance and a true sense of what the music most probably sounded like before Hollywood. Their music is the style of fiddle playing that would have been done in cow camps before the 1930s or so. They use older bowing styles, cross-tunings, clawhammer banjo accompaniment and rhythm as was done in the West as far back as the 1800s. We’re excited about this project and it’s with great old pards.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
SG: Thank you Tamara! We’re looking forward very much to being at the Gathering this year.
The Western Folklife Center received a TourWest grant from WESTAF to help cover some of the travel costs for Skip Gorman, Connie Dover and the Waddie Pals. Skip and Connie will perform on Tuesday, January 30 and Saturday, February 4, 2012, and the Waddie Pals will join Skip during some of the daytime performances, February 2 – 4. Skip is also conducting a two-day fiddle workshop on Tuesday, January 30 and Wednesday, January 31. Please join us at the Gathering.
Each year, the Western Folklife Center invites artists to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Unfortunately for all of us, the Gathering is only a week long, hardly enough time to get to know all the artists. Through this blog, we hope to give you a closer look at some of the artists. To start things off, Gathering Manager, Tamara Kubacki, interviewed Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges. As part of the interview, Andy Hedges sent along two tracks from their upcoming album, The Outlands. Get an exclusive first listen here!
LISTEN to The Crooked Trail
TK: You have a new website, andyandandy.com. After three albums, does this mean that yours is a permanent partnership?
AH: We’ve also just finished recording a fourth album that will be released by the end of the year. I don’t foresee us ending the partnership but I am sure that we’ll both continue to do solo projects and perform solo at times. One of the nice things about our arrangement is that there is no pressure and no expectations. There was never a formal beginning. We just sort of fell into working together and I’d like to think that if it ever ends, it would be the same way.
AW: Exactly. There are two other important factors to consider. First, we’ve never come up with a cool band name. Second, at my age a permanent partnership really doesn’t mean much!
TK: You also released a new CD this year, Mining the Motherlode. Many of the reviews I’ve read point out that much of the subject matter is the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Andy Wilkinson said, in a review by Margo Metagrano of cowboypoetry.com, “The history of the American West was openness. The future of the American West is water. Mining the Motherlode explores that future by using the lens of art to look at our present and our immediate past.” Will you expand on the idea of using art to look at the present and immediate past?
AW: The principal business of art is storytelling. And the principal business of storytelling is to give us an understanding of the world that is distinctly human. The historian sees their view, even though it is ever-changing, to be the objective truth. The artist knows that the ever-changing nature of truth can only be captured in a story.
TK: What about using history to explore the present and future? A lot of the songs you perform, not just on the newest CD, are arrangements of traditional and folk songs. How are traditional songs relevant to today’s listeners?
AH: Traditional American folk songs are weird, strange, funny, scary, sad, and intriguing stories about the human condition. Bob Dylan said a person could learn how to live listening to folk songs. And all American music comes from this, whether it’s rock-n-roll, country music, blues, or cowboy songs. It all grows out of this same tree of American folk music and it is as relevant now as ever, especially in a time when it’s hard to find anything that’s real. These traditional songs are honest. With that said, I don’t approach the music as a traditionalist or a purist. I am not trying to duplicate the sound of a 1930s recording. I am simply an interpreter, trying to bring what I have to the songs and looking for ways to change them – new verses, new melodies, combining songs, anything that makes the songs fit. It’s all part of the folk process.
TK: Your collaboration is rich with dichotomies that prove that opposites attract. Your voices are very different from each others’: Andy Wilkinson writes original material while Andy Hedges arranges the traditional songs; the topics you explore cover both history and the future; and Andy Wilkinson is a bit older than Andy Hedges (sorry for pointing out your ages!). I find it interesting that all of these opposing ideas work so well together. How do you do it?
AH: I’ll add another one: Wilkinson is a poet and I am a reciter. But, we do have the same name! I think it’s the differences that make our collaboration work. It would be boring if we were both the same age and both songwriters.
AW: I’ll add only this: our souls are the same age.
TK: Speaking of your ages, people might assume that because Andy Wilkinson is older, he is a mentor to Andy Hedges. But as I’ve gotten to know you, it seems to me that you are truly friends and that your musical relationship is a partnership rather than a teacher/student situation. Is Andy Wilkinson a mentor or more?
AH: I don’t really think about or notice the difference in our ages. I’ve always been friends with folks who were much older than myself. Andy Wilkinson IS a mentor to me but he’s much more than that. Or maybe he is exactly what a mentor should be: a friend who is generous with their time, talent, and knowledge, who treats you as an equal and is also eager to learn from you.
AW: I should add that I learn every bit as much from Andy Hedges as I hope he learns from me.
TK: I am also interested in Andy Hedges’ attraction to traditional and older styles of music. Where do you find the songs you rearrange? How does working with Andy Wilkinson help your process?
AH: I immerse myself in all types of old time and American folk music. I have a special interest in cowboy songs but I listen to a little bit of everything and it’s all connected. I listen to old 78s and LPs and I buy lots of CDs and I download music. I collect old folk songbooks and I’m always keeping my ears pricked for something that I can use. Sometimes Wilkinson writes a song that will remind me of something I’ve heard or will send me in search of a certain kind of song to pair with it. For example, Mining the Motherlode originally started with Wilkinson writing a little bunch of songs for a program we did about the “next Dust Bowl” and we wanted to include some depression era songs and some Dust Bowl songs so I began digging deeper into that material.
TK: Andy Wilkinson, you also seem to be interested in historical figures and are presenting your show Charlie Goodnight: His Life in Poetry and Song” at the Gathering this year. Can you speak to writing original material, especially music, that draws on history, and how Andy Hedges’ traditional sensibilities affect your current work?
AW: I am fond of saying that I write from history because I’m lazy; there are no better characters, no better plots, no better stories than what can be found in the real world, and if it’s already happened, it’s history. So in that, I am already a traditionalist. Besides which, good songs are timeless — no song speaks to me just because it’s old, or just because it’s new, or just because it comes from some particular tradition or genre.
TK: A lot of your music not only illustrates a time in history, but also evokes a sense of place. What role does living in Texas play in the music you create?
AW: I don’t think living in Texas makes any difference. I do think that living in this particular part of Texas plays an enormous role. Out on the Southern Plains, we’re still very close to a history that’s particular to this place. Cities tend to develop in many of the same ways, but each countryside seems — at least, to me — to have its own, unique history.
TK: On your latest release, Andy Hedges’ wife, Alissa, and Andy Wilkinson’s daughter, Emily Arellano, play a more noticeable and prominent role, each of them singing lead on two songs: “Dust Can’t Kill Me” (Emily) and “Old-Timey Heart” (Alissa). Both of them have beautiful voices that complement your voices in different ways. Why have you decided to include them in your collaboration, and how has it enhanced the recording?
AH: For one, they are much better to look at than the two Andys! And, as you have pointed out, they have beautiful voices that complement what we are already doing. They also allow us to perform some songs like “Old-Timey Heart” that would not make sense with a male voice. The thing I really like about performing with Alissa, Emily, and Andy is that we are all friends and family. When we make a record, we record almost everything in real time with very few overdubs and we don’t use any session players. Everything you hear on the new record comes from the four of us. It’s a very natural way to make music.
AW: And I’ll add that my son, Ian, is playing harmonica on our newest and as-yet-unreleased project. I can’t imagine doing something as important as art with people other than family and friends. We’re very, very lucky.
LISTEN to The Old Chisholm Trail
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Readers who want to know more about Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges can visit their website at andyandandy.com, or, better yet, talk to them in person at the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4, 2012.
Speaking of Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, I have a story about how everyone in Elko comes together to make these performances happen. For those of you who don’t remember, I’m Tamara, Gathering Manager. That title is apt for what happened yesterday.
I got a call at 7:15 am on Wednesday morning. This was early for me, especially since workshops and shows weren’t starting until 9:00 am, but I dutifully answered the phone. Geno was calling to arrange a ride to the airport. He and the band got in on Tuesday, as planned, but their luggage stayed in Salt Lake City. They were told to pick up the luggage Wednesday morning at the Elko airport.
I headed in to the Folklife Center, planning on driving the 15 person van to the airport. Luckily, I ran into Carol Gamm and handed her the keys. She took them over to the airport while I handled some other issues (our shuttle coordinator fell ill with a nasty bug that’s going around, so I was filling in until we could get things straightened out, which we did by 9:00 am). At 8:30 am I got another call from Geno. Their luggage did not make it onto the 8:00 am flight. Their luggage, which included their instruments, was coming in at 11:30 am.
Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie were scheduled to perform for the CowKids’ Stampede at 10:00 am.
We couldn’t disappoint 900 kids, of course. So I got on the phone to find three instruments: bass guitar, single-note accordion, and frottoir, the washboard. First I called Mike Polise, of Polise Music. He had a piano accordion and bass guitar. Easy. Geno said he could play any kind of accordion, so we were set there.
So then I had to find a washboard. Sure, Elko is a town that holds on to its past, but where was I going to find a washboard at 8:30 in the morning?
Luckily for me, Rori Holford, who helps with the exhibits, remembered seeing one at Cowboy Joe. She called over there to see if we could borrow the washboard. The women working at Cowboy Joe were gracious enough to lend us their antique washboard.
The look on Demetric Thomas’s face was priceless when I walked in with a washboard. Carol ran to get some spoons and Darryl Guillory (Geno’s neighbor) found some rope. A frottoir was born!
Mike Polise dropped off the bass guitar and the accordion, and then ran back home to grab some drumsticks. In the meanwhile, Geno had decided to play the keyboard, and Colin, the sound engineer, set it up on stage in less than seven minutes.
900 kids were treated to the show of the year, and the show even started on time! Many thanks to Mike Polise and Cowboy Joe.
photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland
The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is off to a great start! Thanks for being here, and enjoy the show!
P.S. All the luggage came in on the 11:30 am flight.
Geno Delafose and his band French Rockin’ Boogie, a cowboy zydeco band from southwest Louisiana, performed at the Gathering for the first time last year. Listen to what he had to say about his experience.
Geno and the band are returning this year and will be playing the Saturday Night Dance, among other performances. We just can’t wait to get out there on the dance floor! Dick and Sandy Sturm hosted zydeco and cajun dances at the Western Folklife Center all summer and part of the fall, so there are lots of Elkoans who are ready to shake their groove “thang.”
It’s that time again… the Western Folklife Center is abuzz with activity. The kids programs are in full swing in the G Three Bar Theater and in the Pioneer Saloon, where the kids are donning their Wrangler bandanas and drinking sarsaparilla at the bar after a morning of leather tooling (imagine 30+ hammers pounding in unison), a musical performance by Merrily Wright, and a tour of the Hungarian exhibition. It’s how we start every Gathering and seeing those school buses out in front of the building really puts us all in the spirit of the event.
It is always amazing to me how this event comes together every year. Every staff member and volunteer has a job to do and everyone puts his or her nose to the grindstone and does whatever it takes to make this event a success. There are challenges and setbacks, victories and meltdowns, but by the time people start arriving in Elko, we will be ready for them—”Come hell or high water!” as my mama used to say.
Throughout this week and next, we will be posting to this blog and sharing our experiences with you. For those of you who are traveling to Elko, we wish you safe travels as we eagerly anticipate your arrival. For those who can’t make it, we will miss you and we encourage you to read this blog, watch the Cybercast on our website, which starts on Wednesday night, and keep an eye out for new guerilla videos on our YouTube channel on Friday and/or Saturday. Every time we post to our blog, we’ll give you a heads up on Facebook so you will know to come and take a look.
And away we go!
Posted by Darcy Minter, Communications Director, Western Folklife Center
Hal Cannon writes about a recent visit to Ella Gant McBride, who was recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s singing with her family in Austin, Texas.
I felt guilty recently as I drove south from Salt Lake City to Santaquin, Utah, to visit Ella Gant McBride. Years ago, Bess Lomax Hawes had told me about the Gant Family. Beth came from a long line of folklorists: her father, John A. Lomax, had recorded rare folk songs from the Gants in the mid-1930s when they all lived in Austin, Texas. The Gants were Mormon, and Bess knew I’d grown up in Utah. She thought I should follow up, but I’d taken my sweet time.
John Lomax recalls visiting the Gants in 1934 on a weekday, late in the morning. It was so quiet he almost left the house. Finally a woman answered the door in her bedclothes. Yawning, she whispered “Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” Eight children were still asleep and their mother, Maggie Gant, was staving off the Great Depression the only way she knew how. As Lomax reported in his 1941 book, Our Singing Country, she told him that “the singing kept us so happy, we couldn’t go to sleep.”
Bess remembered meeting the Gants when she was a young girl. While her father recorded the adults in the family’s shanty on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin, Bess and the younger Gant girls, Foy and Ella, hid out under the porch telling stories to each other and listening to the music that drifted down through the floorboards. Mike Seeger, who incorporated songs from these early field recordings into the repertoire of his group, the New Lost City Ramblers, liked to talk about “true vine,” the music that grew organically through family, occupation and community to be passed on through generations and occasionally shared with outsiders who cared enough to search it out. This image, of John Lomax and the rest of the family in the living room singing while the girls whispered and giggled below rooted by their own interests, brings the concept to life.
I played music with Mike just a year ago. He was one of my mentors and is gone now. John Lomax died in 1948, the year I was born. All of John Lomax’s children have passed on including Bess. And of all the Gant family that Lomax recorded, Ella is the only one left, sitting in a place called the Latter Day Assisted Living Center 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. As I drove down the highway I began singing one of those songs that Mike Seeger learned from the Gants, a song that many people have covered over the years including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia.
When first unto this country, A stranger I came I courted a fair maid, And Nancy was her name I courted her for love, Her love I didn’t obtain Do you think I’ve any reason, Or right to complain
Earlier, Ella’s son Wayne had told me repeatedly not to expect too much. I didn’t think I’d gone with expectations. I wanted to meet someone who had actually been recorded by John Lomax. I brought a CD copy of a few of the songs from the Library of Congress that Ella had recorded with her sister Foy when they were just girls. I fantasized that Ella would hear her girlhood voice and start singing along with those recordings. I would record this blending of the old lady and girl and my guilt would be assuaged. In addition, I’d get some good tape for our radio story about John Lomax.
The moment I walked into Ella’s room I realized I would not be recording anything that day. Ella had barely a whisper left as she sat in her recliner clutching a blanket, her eyes opening halfway to talk to me. I asked if she remembered the time under the porch with Bess and Foy and she answered yes. Then she asked me if I liked her. I answered yes. She opened her eyes a little and looked at me, saying in her faint voice, “I love you.” I asked if she still remembered the old songs from her family. Again, she said yes. I told her I had brought some recordings of her singing and asked if she would like to hear them. Again, “yes.” I put the CD in her bedside player and listened as the scratchy sound of the original 1935 acetate disk began to play. The recording started with the archivist saying, “AFS 64, A side.” He set the tone arm on the ancient disc three times before it would track from the beginning and then the music began—two sweet untrained voices, singing in unison.
My Love’s a jolly cowboy, he’s brave, he’s kind, he’s true, He rides a Spanish pony and throws a lasso, too. And when he comes to see me, our vows we do redeem He throws his arms around me and then begins to sing
I could tell Ella was listening, recognizing the song. Just then, I noticed a homemade binder under her bedside table. A piece of paper was pasted on the cover, which read: “Ella loves to have these old songs read or sung to her.” I opened the binder. On the first page was a telling inscription: “dedicated to my eternal husband Mark.” Following were pages of family photos and a sheet talking about the importance of keeping and preserving family songs. Then came the collection itself, at least a hundred songs, both words and music all compiled by Ella. I knew many of them as old ballads from Great Britain, popular songs from the Civil War era, cowboy songs, sentimental songs from the day and original songs Ella had written. When she was compiling the book she consulted her family for the accuracy of lyrics and it brought them together. It started to dawn on me that Ella was the very last of this singing family who knew the joy of music mixed with the bitterness of hard times. These songs were at her core.
I turned off the first recording and asked her if she remembered the song. She said, “Oh yes.” Then she looked at me again and said, “I love you.” This time I don’t think she was talking to me. Maybe she was speaking to Mark, her eternal husband. She began to cry, “I love you so much. I love you so much.” She held out her hand and I took it. In her hand there was such love. It seemed for a moment that all that was left of Ella Gant McBride was a shell of a body, some scattered memories, and a clear deep abiding love, pure love. At that moment it didn’t matter that I was not the love of her life she was talking to. I was simply the conduit for her love.
I’ve thought a lot about interviewing, and have interviewed people all my life. The great practitioners approach interviewing with a variety of values. Some think it is all about listening. Others keep a critical mind and make an interview into a game of outfoxing the other. For me it is all about empathy, trying not just to listen but to feel what the other person is feeling. I’d never tried to interview someone with dementia before. With Ella I sought to feel what she felt as she listened to the songs. I’d never known her before today so I could not compare her to the way she was. I was there without judgment. In a way, meeting Ella for the first time was like joining her in her dreams. She did not have much language or voice left to express herself but she had feeling, strong feeling, and that feeling was love. We listened to the next song both sitting silently.
When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll Sent me on a bus and then we had a show
Listen to Ella and her sister Foy sing“LongCameJohnny.” Courtesy of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
After it ended I said, “Isn’t it amazing, 75 years later, we can still hear you and your sister singing? You were just girls. Do you remember singing with Foy?” This time she said, “Foy was my sister. I love her so much. Foy, I love you so much, I love you Foy.” Again, she started crying. It was almost as though Ella was calling out to Foy on the other side, calling for her sister to find her. I had come to express my gratitude to Ella for the Gant Family songs, but now I began to feel uncomfortable being a stranger in this very personal place. I told her I thought I better leave. She took my hand again: “Please don’t leave, stay a little longer.”
So, having no questions, no answers, I put on another song.
No more have I a mother’s love No more have I a father too No more have I a mother’s love
We sat and listened and I could tell she was taking it all in. Now it really was time to leave. I told her next time I’d bring my guitar. She said, “Good, I’d like that.” She asked for my hand and again told me she loved me. She took my hand to her lips and kissed it tenderly, then looked up and said, “I just want to die, I need to die.” I answered that I understood… and I do.
The very first thing that happened at the rodeo Hal and I attended on Sunday involved four cowboys on four bulls, all set free at the same moment and holding on for dear life. It’s called the Angola Bust Out…and a pun IS intended…because Angola is a prison. Formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and informally as The Farm, Angola is the nation’s largest prison with over 5,000 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences. A few times a year, the gates are swung open and the public is invited to attend a rodeo that features inmates competing in various events. Our visit to Angola was the culmination of a week-long field trip tracing America’s ballad hunter, John A. Lomax, on some of the paths he took in the 1930s and ‘40s combing the South in search of folk songs. Some of his most fruitful collecting came from prisons, including Angola where he recorded the famous songster, Leadbelly.
A prisoner shows off his creation at the Hobbycraft fair at the Angola Prison Rodeo.
I’m not a rodeo aficionado by any means, but this one was remarkable to me in many ways, primarily because of how “normal” and unremarkable it felt. Here we were wandering the grounds with hundreds of prisoners all around us, working the concessions, selling art and “hobbycrafts,” and performing music on several stages. All these men were convicted felons, but had achieved the status of “trustee,” which meant they could interact with the public (under the watchful eye of security). We interviewed several musicians throughout the day, many of whom had been there for decades, and who would never leave the confines of Angola; there is no parole for a life sentence in Louisiana.
Wayne Guidry a few minutes before singing the national anthem to open the Angola Prison Rodeo.
Each and every person we spoke with was thoughtful, articulate and fascinating. It seems that their incarceration had forced them to come to terms with their past and their future in ways the rest of us rarely do. Maybe we’re just too busy with the responsibilities and distractions of daily life to philosophize like they do. We met Wayne, the young man who’d been asked to sing the national anthem at the rodeo, who was so humbled by this honor that he’d studied the words and thought deeply about the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers to secure the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, even though he’d forfeited his right to those same freedoms.
Michael Palmer became a Gospel rapper in prison, and was a "gangsta" rapper in his previous life.
We also met Michael, a 27-year-old who writes and performs gospel rap songs, but who previously had rapped about his life on the streets as a “gangsta.” His new songs were positive and upbeat as was his conversation, but at one point he hinted at his sense of frustration and hopelessness in the early days of his incarceration. After we followed up on this point he took a deep breath, paused, then told us in detail about the night he attempted to commit suicide, and how the only reason he’s still alive is because he couldn’t find a place from which to hang himself. He then went on to talk about finding a bible that same night, and beginning his conversion to dedicating his life to studying the teachings of Christ. Because the rodeo was so loud, I had to get very close to him with the microphone, and I’ll never forget how his eyes locked on mine as he explained his ordeal. I don’t think I blinked for five minutes.
Inmates not allowed to mingle with the public watch the rodeo from bleachers surrounded by a high fence.
We spoke with many other prisoners that day and—to a man—I found their stories moving. And this leads to perhaps the biggest surprise in spending time with these inmates: my own reaction. I generally believe in being tough on crime, yet here we were with convicted felons…and not only did I feel comfortable, I felt compassion and empathy. On an intellectual level, I know these people have committed crimes, and that these crimes involved victims..some of whom may not have survived the incident. This is one of those experiences that’s going to take a while to process…and as crazy as it may sound… I look forward to my next visit to prison.
The Huntsvile Texas Prison Museum displays the creativity of captivity both in weaponry and in the less harmful arts.
After a lovely dinner with our old friend and Houston City Folklorist Pat Jasper, we spent the night and got out of town driving through miles of urban sprawl. Finally the East Texas countryside opened up as we rolled into Huntsville, home of the Texas State Prison and its Museum. We had been turned down to visit the prison here so the Museum had to suffice. We had interviewed Bob Pierce earlier about the creativity in prisons so we got to look at many actual artifacts he had collected both showing real weapons and less direct weapons, remembering the old Woody Guthrie idea that his guitar was a weapon against fascism. After checking out a mural depicting Leadbelly on the side of a building near Huntsville’s main square we drove on north toward Lovelady where the Gillette Brothers make their home.
Taki, Steve and I interview Pipp and Guy Gillette about their historic East Texas ranch near Lovelady.
I’d known Guy and Pipp Gillette from Elko but my admiration for them grew as we witnessed their passion for the old-style life of East Texas ranching. Their ranch, its historic buildings, and the loving way they keep the traditions of their grandfather, all attest to how much they care for place and tradition. It was a joy to be taken through the construction of each out-building and then to the ruin of an old place on their ranch which used to be the social center for the black community in the neighborhood.
Cousins Harry James Scott and Pastor Harry Fred Scott, at the Gillette Brothers' concert venue, the Camp Street Cafe. Camp Street was once the African-American center of the small East Texas town of Crockett.
We got so wrapped up in the tour we were late driving into the community of Crockett where the Gillettes have established a music civic center called the Camp Street Cafe with music at least weekly. Folk musicians from all over go out of their way to tour to the Gillette’s venue. There, we met a black preacher and his old cousin to talk about Camp Street in Lomax’s time, contrasting the music scene today with that of the day when Lightnin’ Hopkins played for nickels and dimes on the street which used to be the center of African American life in the town. We ended our visit with chicken fried steak, another fine American tradition and a final visit to the statue of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Steve Zeitlin, Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis stand next to the statue of Lightnin’ Hopkins honchoed and maintained by the Gillettes across the street from the Camp Street Café, where Lightnin’ used to hang out and play songs for the local African American community.
John Lomax grew up on a farm hearing the songs of cowboys on the trails and also the songs of freed African American slaves. Something in those two experiences guided him through a life of preserving and valuing those two particular traditions. He was a man of his times, so his attitudes may not jibe with how we see race today; nevertheless, Lomax never wavered from believing that these two musical traditions were essential to the American character. We spent the morning at the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin with John Wheat and folklorist Roger Renwick. They both have studied extensively the life and times of John Lomax and we were able to have a really interesting conversation and interview about the man and his work.
John Wheat is the curator of the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin, and has been a great resource in understanding the life and times of John Lomax.
On the drive from Austin to Houston we listened to archival radio shows that were recorded by the Library of Congress narrated by John Lomax. The series The Ballad Hunter brilliantly and unabashedly laid out a rationale for the importance of folk creativity and what it means to a democratic nation to value the voice of the people. It’s an inspiring radio show that in our cynical world everyone today should hear.
Downtown Houston is not fun to drive into after the lovely Texas countryside full of spring blooming wildflowers. We checked into a big impersonal hotel and made our way to the offices of the Houston Press, a weekly hip tabloid. There we sat with the great grandson and namesake of our subject, John Nova Lomax. At 40 years old, Lomax is the past music editor for the paper and feels a deep connection to the Lomax name. He loves his city in all its diversity and creative talent and works to bring out the finest talent of Houston. He also has a keen interest in social justice and combines all to carry on the Lomax name.
John Nova Lomax is a journalist for the Houston Press and writes extensively on the new music of Houston and the complexities of one of the most dynamic cities of our century.
Don Edwards standing by his Texas Trail of Fame Star at the Stockyards in Fort Worth.
Taki Telonidis and I are in Texas for the week working on a radio documentary on the legacy of John Lomax, the first folklorist to record cowboy songs and other great American musical traditions. We’ve just been here a couple days but spent most of the first part of the trip with Don Edwards who showed us the Fort Worth Stockyards where Lomax recorded cowboys in 1909.On the second day, Don took us to Meridian, Texas, where Lomax grew up. Don was very generous with his time and talents.
Next stop was to visit Rooster Morris and his wife Jody Logsdon. These days Rooster is in the schools all the time talking to kids and playing his fiddle. It was really wonderful to see them and talk to Rooster about his great uncle, Jess Morris, who was recorded by Lomax and was a wonderful cowboy fiddler.
Cowboy fiddler and children's author Rooster Morris shows us his modern fiddle and tells us about his great uncle, Jess Morris who recorded the famous "Old Paint" for Lomax in the early days.
After that we interviewed a folklorist/historian/prison archivist who talked about Lomax’s recording of prison work music and discovering singers like Leadbelly. That was interesting too. Today we visit the Lomax archive at the University of Texas speaking to John Wheat and Roger Renwick. Then we drive to Houston to visit John Lomax IV who is a young music writer and great grandson of the original Lomax. We will have dinner with folklorist and friend Pat Jasper. On Thursday we spend the day with the Gillette Brothers in Crockett Texas and talk to them and members of the African American community about cowboy music, blues and folk music in East Texas.
Steve Zeitlin, director of CityLore, is co-producing this with us and he and Taki are then taking me back to the Dallas Airport where I have to fly home for a day to attend my brother in law’s funeral. I join them back in Louisiana on Saturday to record at Angola Prison where Lomax recorded Lomax and other Black musicians and singers.
Each year thousands of diverse people descend on Elko for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Amongst the talented performers, the excited audience members and the frantic volunteers are a chosen few members of the nation’s and the world’s press corps — all in town to capture the unique stories that are part of this annual event.
Hidden away in an upstairs room at the Convention Center — pseudo-sister’s Darcy and Lora Minter (no we’re not related — just one of those weird coincidences) — work with newspaper and magazine journalists, film makers, radio show hosts, television crews and photographers who come to town in search of hidden insights into cowboy poets and musicians.
Our job is to overview for reporters all the opportunities the Gathering brings for education, entertainment and collaboration. We arrange interviews, provide background information, guide reporters to unique stories and solve a lot of problems behind the scenes. That job takes us to some interesting places. We might huddle on top of the Western Folklife Center in the snow while a photographer aims a long lens off the roof. We might track down a sound man for an odd metal fitting to connect a National Public Radio reporter into a sound board. We might carry a camera for a NBC crew. The job is varied, sometimes stressful and ALWAYS interesting! Along the way we encounter some great people who are deeply interested in learning about Western life and who wonder about the future of the culture in a rapidly changing, modern world.
Often the working journalists that hail from big cities arrive with preconceptions about small town citizens and rural inconveniences. The majority leave at the end of a hectic several days, amazed at what they have heard and seen, exhausted from way-too-late nights and many early mornings, and more knowledgeable of a lifestyle they’ve come to respect. Almost always they remark on how friendly everyone was. The Gathering provides an opportunity to educate the world about cowboy culture, the West, and a little town called Elko — all through the stories these working professionals release out into the wide world. We’re happy to be a small part of spreading the word. We couldn’t do it without our media guests who come to learn — or the wonderful local newspaper, television and radio reporters who share their stories with all of us.
Darcy Minter and Lora Minter (from the press office)
The staff of the Western Folklife Center is hard at work preparing for the big event. After 25 cowboy poetry gatherings, you would think we would have this down to a science. Unfortunately, we don’t. It’s a moving target. But it’s never dull and we thought you might enjoy reading about what happens behind the scenes leading up to the Gathering, and during the week of the event. The Western Folklife Center staff will be sharing our experiences, our excitement and possibly our nervous breakdowns with you as we get closer to January 23rd. During the week of the Gathering, we hope to be joined by other bloggers who will be sharing their thoughts and impressions about performances that touched them and those that didn’t, and about the interstitial moments that are sometimes the most meaningful and memorable for Gathering fans and friends. Please join us on our journey to the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 23-30 in Elko, Nevada.