The Fiddling Seventies – Southern California

by Gwen Koyanagi

I first met Gwen Koyanagi a few years ago when she was playing fiddle with Blaine Sprouse, a fiddler transplant from Nashville Tennessee. Born in Hawaii to Okinawaian  mother and Japanese father, and raised in Torrance, Southern California, Gwen fell in love with traditional American fiddling of various styles — as expressed in the fiddling of old timers displaced from many areas of the  United States and Canada. I have encouraged her to write her story. She has some fascinating tales to tell, as they describe the spread and evolution of eastern and midwestern  fiddling and how it changed in the  fast-moving California scene.  As always, comments are welcome.  –Peter Feldmann]

Gwen with her fiddling friends.

Gwen with her fiddling friends.

In the early 70s (1972?) I heard my first fiddling from Canadian street performers on the old wooden Redondo Beach Pier. I ended up picking up what was in the air and playing my fiddle on the street too. One day we went to a fiddle banjo festival and I saw a flyer about a fiddle club, so I went. It was so much fun I went every time it met (twice a month) for the next 3 years…all during my high school years). There were a bunch of old people there. The fiddlers (almost all men) and their wives (the audience) came from different places (Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, Canada, Ohio, etc.). Most of the fiddlers played all of their lives, and they ALL PLAYED DIFFERENT. And there were so many good players. (I learned from everyone eventually.) They would write their name in the list on a chalkboard and when it was their turn, they would get to play 3 tunes “on stage” with good back up players. This was important because each fiddler played so different and you could really hear what they were doing. They would play their best tunes and were each other’s fan.

In the hallway, there was this scary guy there. He looked at me and played a train whistle sound and a riff and then GROWLED loudly at me. I was soooo scared! He didn’t speak. He kept doing that. So one day I got a tape recorder and taped it. Then I went home and learned the sound and the next time he did that to me I gave it to him right back. He said LOUDLY, “WELL HI THERE! MY NAME IS BOB ROGERS! WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” From then on it was call and response. The game started. Bob Rogers was from the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee, and he played with his fiddle rocking on his chest bone. He wailed with his bow….a sweet wailing sound. When he changed to another string he would rock the fiddle on his chest bone instead of rocking his bow to hit the next string….and he would tap his foot…a big black shoe. As years went by we became good friends.

We just moved to Torrance from Los Alamitos when I was 15. When I was 10 years old I played in the elementary and Jr. High band room (Orchestra class) because it was free and they had extra fiddles (I borrowed school fiddles until one day mom traded one of her paintings for a neighbor lady’s fiddle) but I couldn’t be a real violinist because I couldn’t afford lessons and when we moved to Torrance there were no music programs at school. I was Lonesome so I would ride my bike to Redondo Pier around Sunset so I could see the sun going down on the water. One day I heard my first fiddling. It was a Canadian guy named Darryl (don’t remember last name) with a guitar player playing Old Joe Clark and Uncle Pen. I liked that and he helped me learn a little and I started playing on the pier too and played blues and joined a string band. We played in bars and around town. These guys were older (in their 20s). The string band changed their name every night. One night we were the “Red Eyed Rangers”. Embarrassing. The girl in the band (Marsha Vore) moved to Colorado and one of the guys (Mark Kroner) ran off to Germany with one of the Labae (sorry can’t spell) brothers and a gypsy named Simon Simone. They were from the Tarzan swing band. I played on the street for hours and then at the fiddle clubs on Sundays. Every Sunday at the fiddle club I would try to put out 3 brand new tunes (simple tunes) so things wouldn’t get boring. They were like my brothers and uncles and were just regular guys. Not famous or hooked into a scene.

Johnny K Nevil, Earl Collins with Gwen                 There were times when a small group would all play in unison together for the fun of it, but there was also a healthy competition to see what the other guy was playing and how they were playing it. One guy would play a tune and another guy would say “Well that’s fine, but let me show you how I DO IT!” Then they would play their version. Many times it was between Bob Rogers and Earl Collins. Bob would say “Let ‘er go Brother Collins!” and get Earl excited. Bob called everyone “Brother”. There was “Brother Collins”, “Brother Mel”, etc. Sometimes people would clog dance.

There was not as much concern about drawing a tine between bluegrass and country and old timey fiddling. In addition to traditional tunes Bobby Fenton would play Bob Wills and country songs. Speedy Smith and Harold Hensley would play really fast bluegrass barnburner style. Bob Rogers would play Kenny Baker tunes. Roscoe White would play everything from swing to Howdy Forrester tunes. IT FELT LIKE FREEDOM. IT WAS NEVER BORING. There were soooo many good fiddlers in one place and at that time I thought that was normal, but now I know it was very rare.

But the “secret sauce” (as with any music) was the good backup players. Mel [Durham] played really good slap bass. Ossie White played really good guitar and could even Back up Texas style tunes. There were other really good players back then too. They made the fiddlers sound good and I believe they were the reason the fiddlers gathered.

Roscoe and Ossie White

Roscoe and Ossie White

When you want to learn a tune, you could ask them to show you how it goes. And they would play it (sometimes a little slower) and you better jump on quick…or you could tape it…but they didn’t give “lessons”. It was sink or swim and you learn how to pick up sounds from the air quickly.

Ossie White was the best guitar player for fiddle tunes backup at the club and she came from Oklahoma. When she backed up Bob Rogers, Bob told her “WHOP THAT THING!” because he wanted a STRONG BEAT. Roscoe White came from Arkansas and was the State senior fiddle champion and 2nd in the Nationals (in Weiser, Idaho, right behind Dick Barrett). He was really good and played hard tunes.

There was Earl Collins from Oklahoma (a fine short bow old time fiddler that tapped his foot in double time) and the Durham brothers, “Brother Mel” ended up taking over when the older guys died. John The Canadian was a really good Canadian fiddler but he was homeless. His bow only had a few horse hairs in it and he had to borrow my fiddle to play on stage. Cliff and Maxine Taylor were a married couple that both fiddled, but they would take turns backing each other up on the guitar. Their body language was sooo funny! They dipped and bobbed at the exact same second, randomly. Bud Shields played American Indian tunes. Ed Reagan played lots of tunes. There was Tiny Moore and Bob Smith and Chuck Bealle. Chuck’s daughter married Bruce Johnson (a young fiddler) Bruce’s friend Jerry Higby played banjo. Stuart Duncan was a kid that visited with his dad. Tracy Schwarz (new Lost City Ramblers) followed Bob Rogers around with a tape recorder one day and called him “MR. Rogers”. Jodi Cifra was a gypsy that played bluegrass but would come and play a few tunes now and then. Tom Sauber played bluegrass and old timey. Later, Pete Peterson and Frank Lopez came.

Jake (?) banjo, unknown, unknown, "John the Canadian" - guitar, Gwen

Jake (?) banjo, unknown, unknown, “John the Canadian” – guitar, Gwen

Maxine and Cliff Taylor

Maxine and Cliff Taylor

Later, Ossie invited me to join another fiddle club (C.S.O.T.F.A. district 4) that was connected to the state club and Weiser, Idaho. They focused more on Texas contest style fiddling. I went to that club every month as well.

I asked the fiddlers why their own kids weren’t fiddling, and they said their kids wanted to play rock and roll. I couldn’t understand why they can’t do both. There were so many great fiddlers there but I can’t talk about all of them here. I just know it was a special time for fiddling in Southern California.

Later, Ossie and Roscoe talked me into going to fiddle clubs it was a different scene back then. Since there were no time limits or pre- registration and the men and women were separated back then (there were fewer lady fiddlers and no minorities back then. It was different in those fiddle contests.) Ossie would tell me to go at the last minute and she would tell me what to play at the last minute for every round. I got a bunch of trophies and that was a fun game on the side. One year I won the California State fiddle contest in the junior division. Laurie Lewis won in the ladies division. Mark O’Connor won in the Jr Jr division. Jana Jae won the men’s/over all grand champion division. (I think that was the end of the ladies division in California) She was so good Buck Owens married her and put her on Hee Haw. She moved to Oklahoma. I went to a hippie free school and they encouraged me to fiddle there. So I got to play a lot and got fluid at that time. Then high school was over and I moved to Aspen Colorado and worked as a maid in ski lodges in the daytime and joined a bluegrass band named “Cabin Fever” and played at night in the Apre ski hotels. It was a man Jim Furness and his wife and son and Jim and Lee Satterfield were brother and sister and Lee was only 16 but was also playing gigs with Jimmy Ibitson from the dirt band. Years later I saw a lot of these contest and gig people on tv. A lot of them became professionals.

Cabin Fever - Gwen on far laft.

Cabin Fever – Gwen on far laft.

When I was 19 Ossie and Roscoe told me to meet them and my parents in Weiser, Idaho and I was in the “ladies division” and made it to the finals. It was last minute sign ups and no time limits so Ossie told me what to play at the last minute. My fiddle broke in half (cheap fiddle I traded from Cliff Taylor) just before the final round. Under the bleachers in the dark a stranger (old man) offered to lend me his fiddle but I was scared of him because he was so friendly and I didn’t know him. He just said he heard about my situation. Later I found out it was Benny Thomason (grand fiddle champion at the time). But for the final round I just borrowed a fiddle from someone I knew ( a forest ranger out of Fresno named Bob Sadler). I ended up getting 4th place and I remember Paul Shelasky and Laurie Lewis were watching that night and said “not bad for a hippie”. At one point when I was 19, I ended up in Austin Texas for a short period of time and then back to Aspen and then to the Bay Area and ended up working in a hand made candle factory in the daytime and playing in a house band every night in a gay leather bar. At one point I decided I didn’t want to fiddle anymore. (Some bad personal experiences added up to the point I associated that with fiddling. I laid it down for almost 20 years.)

When I was 40 I dusted it off for a family reunion and looked up the old fiddle club. Most of the guys were dead by then or so old they couldn’t play like they used to. I helped a young girl at the fiddle club who was playing in a Gospel Bluegrass band. Ghost writing for an 8 year old….I was care taking my sick dad and working for Hughes full time and didn’t have time to play anyway, but after dad died I called that guy (Tim Bryant) who had the little girl fiddler I used to help because he told me to call him if I could fiddle again. I joined one of his local light duty bands. “Windy Ridge”. They all have jobs and are hobby players. Just enough playing to play some fiddle but still doing my full time job. While I was working at Hughes I finally got enough money to have lessons so I took lessons here and there to learn how to do vibrato, play in tune, shift higher positions, read better, etc. I took lessons from Megan Lynch (who was teaching the Clarridges) and Dick Barrett (from Texas but living in Montana), Richard Greene and Blaine Sprouse. Blaine met and played with Ossie before she died but Roscoe was already dead. Mel’s club is gone now. Ossie’s club is in its last year. I looked it up and found everyone playing the same song together in unison and Pete Peterson was the last fiddler from the old days but he got drowned out by the younger players and I couldn’t even hear him anymore. There was not enough individuality for me to stay interested but the organizers said they have no choice since there are not enough players to carry off the old way. So I have just been playing in the senior center and Me n Eds with Windy Ridge but then the lead singer banjo player (Claire Wagner) got cancer really bad so we are taking a break while she does her operations and chemo . I just jam with local whipper snappers. (Young enthusiastic Bluegrass guy’s) and look after mom. There is another local band that was looking for a fiddler but they travel and were doing a west coast tour and I don’t want to leave mom for long periods of time. Recently I sat in at a pirate festival in Long Beach and played horn pipes, reels, jigs, sea shanties for hours and that was like playing on the street. Way fun. I met them at the Calico ghost town gig and they got me to play with them at a reenactment camp (cowboy camp next to the civil war camp, Indian camp, mountain man camp) in Kern county with this guy from Bakersfield.  By the way, I ran into Bruce Johnson up north. I was playing twin fiddles with Blaine for the Keith Little band at the Strawberry festival in Grass Valley and there was this rehearsal and it ended up being a reunion for me and Bruce Johnson. What a happy surprise. Bruce said he ended up traveling all around the world with his fiddle. Haha.

Gwen Koyonagi today

Gwen Koyonagi today

Fiddle is better than a sail or paddle!

 

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Lou Curtiss, A San Diego Folk Hero

Lou Curtiss, and old friend in the music through six decades, passed away this week in San Diego. Our friend, WB Reid shared some reminiscences of his life which I’d like to publish here.

Louis F Curtiss has passed away at home at age 79.

In 1972, a few months after I arrived by thumb in San Diego from my native New England, I was on a city bus and saw a sign, “Hoot Night Tuesday” in a shop window. So I screwed up my courage and returned some Tuesday soon after, played a few songs, and was asked by the proprietor to come back and do a weekend concert and, later, play in the locals first night concert at the San Diego Folk Festival. That was Lou at his store, Folk Arts Rare Records. He and his wife, Virginia, his essential partner in all things, kind of adopted me, giving me the third chair in The Old Home Town Band like so many young players before and after me. They introduced me to Sweet’s Mill and encouraged my musical pursuits in countless ways.

Lou Curtiss, Virginia Curtiss, and WB Reid San Diego Folk Festival

Lou Curtiss, Virginia Curtiss, and WB Reid
San Diego Folk Festival

Lou ran quite a salon at Folk Arts, where “folkies” of all stripes would drop in and hang out throughout the day. During the winters, Sam Chatmon came out from Mississippi to stay with his daughter, and spent most of his weekdays in an overstuffed chair up front, socializing with all comers. Hoots one night, shape note singing led by Curt Bouterse another, concerts at the weekend where the best seats were cushions on the floor under the record bins.

Many times I would be hanging out at Folk Arts, and Lou would start out kind of low energy, but suddenly spark to life saying, “I’m gonna make you a tape.” He’d load a 60 minute cassette into the machine, get the first track going, and then graze over his vast collection of LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, festival recordings, radio transcriptions, and pick out the next tune for me, just for me, repeating until the tape was full. I have a half dozen of these I can still find, and each is an eclectic survey where I find the beginning seeds of nearly every branch of music I’ve pursued. Lou sold such tapes as a business, but if he thought you had something to offer, they were gifts; many of us received these.

Lou ran some version of the San Diego Folk Festival every Spring from sometime in the 60s until well into this century. The festivals of the middle 70s were a peak, packed with the greats of the 20s and 30s who, recently retired from day jobs, found a new audience in the revival raging among college students and similarly aged slackers. I don’t want to list them all here…but it was everybody, and Lou made plenty of room in the schedule for all us upstarts who brought so much energy to the party. Performers were very lightly scheduled, resulting in opulent time for mixing between generations and cultures. Dewey Balfa jamming with Aly Bain; Lydia Mendoza playing with Kenny Hall.

Mark Savois, Dewey Balfa, Peter Feldmann, & Rodney Balfa. San Diego Folk Festiva;

Mark Savois, Dewey Balfa, Peter Feldmann, & Rodney Balfa. San Diego Folk Festiva;

I know many musicians whose life and music path was permanently altered due to Lou’s generosity, or to encounters at his wonderful events. There’s a great picture on his page of Lou with the young Tom Waits, who was among the recipients of Lou’s encouragement. I’m pretty sure Del Rey played at that same hoot night as me, and was also signed up for a concert and the festival. The first thing on her website bio is really a tribute to Lou, who told her to “quit wasting [her] time playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and listen to some Memphis Minnie.”

This man had an impact on the world, and particularly my own community, that’s truly beyond measure. I’m so thankful that about four years ago I managed to get down to the shop and visit Lou for a few hours, much of it Lou telling me about all the young local musicians he was excited about. Later we went out to dinner with him and Virginia; the fact that we went to Rudford’s will bring a smile to those that know. He gave me a disc that I cherish with four concerts I did when I was between 22 and 24. Walking from the store to the car was followed by three or four minutes of Lou getting his breath back; I suspected I might not see him again.

My condolences to all his friends new and old, and especially to Virginia and their son, Ben. My life would be so different if I hadn’t seen that sign in the window that day, and tears come as I write that. I’ll miss him, but I don’t think I can really mourn him; he lived a long and thoroughly useful life.

Thanks, Lou.

WB Reid

WB Reid can be reached via his website.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 20. Tony Townsend Pt II.

Harvest Time

Tony Townsend

In the autumn of 1962, Lili Schuler in Santa Barbara asked me to play at the Rondo again. Business had gone downhill. Close to bankruptcy, Lili got the landlord to agree to weekend entertainment. This time I played in the art gallery corner room where the sounds were less likely to disturb the tenants upstairs.

Then, out of the blue, Lili offered the Rondo to Caroline and me. Nothing down, we would be buying the place on time. I didn’t really want to get tangled up in a business, but was just not making enough at music to support my family. I had to do something to bring in steady income, so accepted. Caroline was both enthused and frightened. She wanted someone to go in with us. We thought of Gary Sorenson, and he agreed. Before we could catch our breath, Gary organized a painting party and started redecorating. When he began painting the outside of the building, Lusink came down on us again. Somehow Caroline and Lili resolved that crisis.

The Rondo, 1962

The Rondo, 1962

Meanwhile, I was in Los Angeles recording The Townsend Boys album. My youngest brother Tom, on leave from the army, sang high harmony. My middle brother Tim sang low harmony. I sang lead and played guitar. Don Ralke’s band provided the instrumental backup. My brothers and I sang well and the musicians were great. The first single, “Coming Home,” was suddenly on the air in Santa Barbara and elsewhere around the country in January 1963, shortly after we took over the Rondo. You couldn’t have asked for better timing.

Carrillo Street, the principal access to Highway 101, was closed for reconstruction. Traffic was rerouted along Canon Perdido Street, right past the Rondo. So we put up a lighted sign at the corner advertising thirteen-cent beer during happy hour. Gary charged ahead and I tried to keep up. With no credit, we paid cash for everything. We built a stage in the former art gallery, moved in furniture from the back—and had a showroom. We were open from 4 p.m. till 2 a.m. nightly. And I did four or five sets a night. Plus everything else, it was exhausting but exciting. Soon the Rondo was busy again, not only from our hard work and fortuitous events, but unexpected free publicity.

The DJs at Radio-KIST took a liking to us and played “Coming Home” and the flip-side, “Ocean Breezes,” as often as possible. Hal Bates plugged the Rondo and me, “the hometown boy,” in the morning. Ed Foley did the same at night. Both Hal and Ed came in after work and were staunch supporters.  Then Dick Johnston, owner of classical music station KRCW-FM, started a nightly live broadcast from the Rondo with me as the sole performer. From 11:30 p.m. to midnight I could sing and play whatever I pleased, and even advertise the Rondo. The first broadcast was on February 7, 1963. Dick introduced me from the studio and played our record, “Coming Home.” Live from the Rondo I did a set of eight songs, including a few plugs. Dick recorded the program. It came off well. He was pleased and so was I.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962.

Clean-cut collegiate customers at the Rondo, 1962

Several KEYT Television appearances also took place. I was on Gene Forrsell’s show the day after my banjo was stolen. I performed, we talked, and my stolen banjo was discussed. Gene appealed to viewers who had any knowledge of this to call me. Soon a resident close to the Rondo called. She had found my banjo in her front yard. And it was returned—along with a lot of public interest in the Rondo and me.  KEYT-TV picked the Rondo for their special, “The 10 Top Night Spots in Santa Barbara.” I was interviewed at the Rondo about our business and my music, and may have done some songs. They also took shots of the place. After that, even more people came. Word was spreading far and wide.

Then a big problem occurred. Because the beer license could not be transferred to us unless we leased the premises, and the landlord would not lease to us, we were phantom owners. The Schulers were still responsible. Discrepancies were discovered in Gary’s monthly accounting that accompanied our payment to them. The Schulers wanted Gary out. The lot fell to me to tell him. It was not a happy occasion. He was hurt, but had brought it on himself. We paid him his share and more. And we remained friends.

My brother Tim came to help, replacing Gary behind the bar. Caroline did the bookkeeping and I did the entertaining. Actually, we did whatever was needed. And there was no rest for the weary, because the Rondo took off. According to Dominic Borgialli, the Budweiser-Busch salesman-driver, we were selling more beer than any place in town. At thirty-five cents a glass our price was high, but people didn’t mind. We sold snacks and sandwiches and had a jukebox, too, that included The Townsend Boys. Tim would play our records (three by summer’s end) and sing his part from behind the bar. People were impressed. On a good night we took in a hundred dollars or more.

Tim Townsend and Dee White behind the bar.

I was learning that you can have a business with lots of customers, sell lots of beer, have a record out, have a radio program, be on TV, be thought of as a success, and still not make any money. Caroline and I paid Tim and a waitress, bought supplies, paid the Schulers, the rent, the taxes, the regular expenses, the unexpected expenses, and had just enough left over for basic needs at home. We worked twelve or more hours every day but Tuesday, which I took off, and just barely got by. Plus, we had a kid. When I had time to think about it, I could better understand why the Noctambulist coffee house went under.

Folksingers and musicians descended upon the Rondo. So many played there, in fact, I can’t remember them all. At first we had hoots on Sunday afternoons in the showroom, charging fifty cents for spaghetti and garlic bread. I did several sets and introduced the performers. Soon the best of them began performing on regular nights.

*) The Channel Singers with John Thomas on guitar, Howard Pelky on five-string banjo, and Ernie Brooks on bass, did a wide range of folk standards. They put on enthusiastic, vibrant shows with lots of audience participation, and took a load of pressure off me.
*) Don Robertson’s silvery, agile voice often filled the Rondo showroom with dramatic songs. He helped in other ways as well, including bar tending when Tim was overwhelmed.
*) 
Peter Feldmann did authentic, old-time songs with banjo and guitar (later mandolin and fiddle) better than anyone around. He often assisted as MC of the Rondo hoots.
*) The Terrytown Trio consisted of Todd Grant on guitar, Phil Pritchard on bass, and Bud Boyd on guitar. Their vigorous sound featured tight harmonies and vocal solos by Todd and Bud on folk standards and humorous songs.
*)  The Juniper Hill Trio, soft and sweet singers of folk songs, was composed of Ray Finch on guitar, Susie Hardie as lead vocalist, and her husband George Hardie on banjo. With a bunch of kids, the Hardies couldn’t get away to perform much, but The Juniper Hill Trio left an impression, nevertheless.
*) 
Kajsa Ohman was nervous and bold at the same time. She was pretty and plain, sensual and austere, serious and facetious together. Her singing was both sensitive and harsh. Her songs were traditional and also strikingly original. Using her right index finger as a flat pick, Kajsa played a nylon-string guitar. She also played the autoharp, inspiring me to take it up. I thought she was terrific.
*) 
Campbell Nelson got out of the air force a dedicated flamenco guitarist. A thin, intense advocate of flamenco, he tended to teach during his performances. He played so well, even the bar crowd applauded his talent and skill.
*) 
The Headliners were Doug O’Brien on plectrum banjo, Al Brackett on steel-string guitar, Rod Hillman on classical guitar, and Mike Walsh as lead singer. Their shows combined Rod’s musicianship with the group’s up-tempo songs, ballads, and humorous patter.

Agents from L.A. tried to get bookings for their clients at the Rondo. But we couldn’t sell enough beer in the small showroom to pay what they asked. We considered charging admission, but were dubious. Tim and I sat in the bar till dawn and decided in a non-rational manner to experiment with The Wayfarers, a nationally known group with several albums and a new single out. We called our brother Tom in the army, who loaned us the money to pay their up-front fee. We advertised widely. The posters were designed by our artist-waitress, Barbro Carlsen. Admission was about $2.00.

I first heard The Wayfarers at the Ice House in Pasadena, when Mason Williams was in the group, and thought they were one of the best folk groups I’d heard. Then they disbanded. Re-formed in 1963 with the original bass and banjo players, plus two new guitar players, their music filled the Rondo during Easter week. They were great and everyone had a good time. Listening to them inspired me to take up the twelve-string guitar. Admission charges did not cover expenses, however, so we went on as usual, eventually repaying our brother Tom.

We were lucky not to start formal entertainment, because Lusink was gunning for us. One busy night, at closing time people didn’t leave, continuing the party. Fortunately, we had collected all the glasses, pitchers, and bottles and were cleaning up when a pounding shook the locked door and imperious voices demanded entrance. Lusink and the cops charged in. Checking the now-quiet crowd, the barroom, the showroom, the back room, and the bathrooms, they found no one with alcohol and were obliged to leave empty-handed. Lusink looked angry. We advised everyone to evacuate. To be on the safe side, thereafter we closed at 1:30 a.m.

So many people came to the Rondo, and I was so busy, I can’t remember but a few. Mostly faces remain; only a few names. They were: Pancho the tree man who drank all night and worked all day; Charlie who was so obstinate it took three of us to throw him out; tall, grey-haired Slim who drank, smoked and coughed; Dan the promoter; Bob who didn’t pay his tab; Bob the dreamer; Bob the conga drummer; Steve who stared at his dwindling glass; Jerry the business guy who came across the street; Hal and Ed the DJs who were promoter friends extraordinaire; Bill the DJ who brought his tape deck; and Steve the college student who also brought his tape deck.

They were: Brad the exuberant crusader for justice; the short guy who eighty-sixed himself when the waitress wouldn’t accept a tab; Tom the generous actor; Gloria the Vermeer beauty; Rod the guitarist who requested “Rugged Reuben Rondo”; Dennis who didn’t need to request Tom Lehrer; Frank the businessman; the Swede who sat in the corner; Ed the smoking photographer; the tall, elegant couple from over the hill; the guy who chewed glass; Cathy and Sherri the two sisters who gave me a new banjo case for my twenty-ninth birthday; the short, dark-haired gal with glasses; Edmund who got married and liked “La Malaguena”; Joe the pleasant Latino on his way up; the mariachi Myers brothers; Ray the crazy, sticky, problem drunk; and Bobby the kid of Manson fame.

They were: Ed who played trombone and dogged his wandering wife; Dick and his wispy wife and a car full of kids outside; Hervie who dreamed of flying; his friend who ran the gas station; Chris the driven, pretty girl and her string of pretty girlfriends; Sunny the aggressive gal and a little crazy; the guy with pale blue eyes and twirling mustache who took up with Kajsa; Jan the pretty, dark-haired fan who took up with Campbell; exotic-looking Karin who became Oscar’s second wife, and her friend from Germany; Rick the adaptable bass player who sang great harmony on ”The Bells of Rhymney,” and Michigan wife Cheryl; Dave the harmony singer who passed the stage of sitting in with me; Randy the Minstrel who stayed for all my sets and saw “a new side of Tony Townsend.”

They were: Gordon the stand-up poet disguised as an engineer; Winnie the teacher who tended bar in the beginning; Theo who relished my mocking the old-time religion; Bill the jazz guitarist extraordinaire who died too young; Stan the smoldering volcano of creativity; Mel the lonely fraternity brother and another, Tim who brought his wife; Monty with wounded carpenter hands who trained them to play guitar; Bud the ardent artist lost in a day job; alcoholic Johnny who came lately to my mother-in-law; Elmer the long-lost father of Jamie; Blue Onion Bud who replaced him; Judy and Jim the Brooks photographers; Paula who I scared without intent; the summer Christmas tree couple who introduced me to Leadbelly; Ann and Ed the siblings with perfect bodies; Bill the TV journalist; Bill the fraternity brother and TV writer; Howard who made me a redwood guitar; my relatives; my friends; the formal few; the rag-tag bunch; and God knows all the rest who came to see, to hear, to drink, to socialize and sing, who found in our place a meeting spot, a sanctuary of sorts, a second home, and even a hideout.

I must say, after a life of shyness and anonymity, it was a lot of fun to be a “celebrity” for a while. For the first time I actually enjoyed talking with all kinds of people, and discovered that most of them were basically nice. I had a marvelous time.

Then came the release of The Townsend Boys’ second single, “Hangin’ On,” during the promotion of which I found out that I was expected to commit a crime—and refused. It was a dark day, an experience that revealed in a threatening, personal way the basic corruption of the music industry. Deeply disturbed and disillusioned, I wanted no part of it. That event and that decision sealed my fate, for I never approached the music business again with the same zest.  But there was one more half-hearted try with the third single, “Passing Through.” I took a week off and went up and down California promoting it, at my own expense. And the expense was high because the trip was plagued by car troubles and staying extra nights. In spite of the interviews and hitting all the stations, I was “only passing through this land of sorrow,” as the song said. The best part of the trip was a Mideastern band and belly dancer in San Francisco who inspired me to arrange “Hava Nagila” on the mandolin.

Back in Santa Barbara, Tim had closed the Rondo early. It was Fiesta time and the crowds were crazy. They’d had a fight, somebody had broken a window, all kinds of problems, and it wasn’t worth staying open. It was OK by me; I was exhausted.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Caroline Denny, later to become Caroline Townsend.

Even before Fiesta arrived that August, we were often overwhelmed by the crowds and had to hire more help. Barbro Carlsen could charm the male barroom into submission with her very presence; but too soon, she left. Caroline could escort them out by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants, but she couldn’t be there much. We hired Carola, who sweet-talked and cajoled the customers to keep them in line. We also hired Bill Thomas to tend bar. Bill was an off-season lumberjack who looked like a miniature Paul Bunyan. Not very tall, but broad-shouldered and muscular, Bill could literally throw people out the door. Tim was happy to have his support and Bill was happy to have the job. Then we hired Dee White, who could tend bar and wait tables. Trim and tough, but good-hearted, Dee was a fortunate find.

All of us were working that Sunday afternoon when the hoot turned into “the black hole of Calcutta.” Our plan to limit the number of people in the showroom failed dismally; people just pushed their way in. We had to open up the corner door to the street for air, and they came in that way, too. The noise, the smoke, the heat, the smell, were intense. You couldn’t hear what anyone said. You could hardly hear the music. Guys took off their shirts and the girls didn’t mind. People sat and lay back on the floor. Pitchers spilled; glasses broke. We couldn’t even get to the customers to serve them or clean up. But they were having a jolly good time anyway, laughing, drinking, smoking, making out. And through it all the musicians played their music on the stage in whatever space they could find, because the stage was lined with people and drinks. I got to the stage from the back room and shouted some idealistic plea. But no one paid attention. Peter Feldmann tried to calm the crowd too. John Thomas and The Channel Singers diverted them by playing music in the back room. We may have locked the front door. But nothing worked. We were overrun and out of control. I didn’t understand what was going on or why. How we got through that day without a tragedy or the police descending upon us, I’ll never know. And we didn’t even take in that much money! It was one of those times that strengthened my growing decision to get out of the bar business.

Once in awhile, as on the night when Tim and I gambled on the Wayfarers, we were the ones who overindulged. On one such night, Tim and I were both way over. When the radio program finally came on, it sounded something like this: Following a stately classical selection, the announcer Jim’s mellifluous voice intoned a dignified introduction: “With studios in the world- famous El Paseo, this is KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine classical music. (Pause.) And now we take you live and direct to the Rondo and music by Mr. Tony Townsend.” Suddenly erupted a din and my hollering: “Hello out there in radio land. How the hell are you?” Off into a raucous rendition of “To M’ Ri-de-o” and God knows what else went Tim and I like a couple of alley cats, wobbling around, knocking into things, and laughing out of context. At the end of the program, Jim’s dignified voice came back on: “That concludes the broadcast day for KRCW-FM, Santa Barbara’s home for fine music. (Pause) KRCW-FM is owned and operated by Richard Johnston under license from the Federal Communications Commission…,” etc, etc. Dick Johnston, good soul that he was, smiled but said not to let it happen again.

Naïve? I’m afraid so. Take Steve Smith. On the radio one night in the middle of a song, I became aware of people looking at something. Shuffling along doubled over, clutching his midsection and groaning like he would vomit or collapse right there—on the air—in front of the stage, was Steve Smith. But he kept on going and I kept on singing—somehow. After the program they told me that Steve had refused help and gone home. We got through the night and were starting to close when Steve returned, pale but recovered.

Steve Smith was a silent bar person. Night after night he looked at his glass and rarely spoke. Tonight he wanted to talk. We sat down. He told a disturbing story. He had problems before he started coming to the Rondo, he said, but they were nothing compared to the problems he had now. He had gotten hooked on drugs right here at the Rondo. We didn’t know it, but we owned the biggest drug den in town. The Swede, a blond guy with a jaunty cap who sat in a dark corner with friends, got him hooked—for free—then made him pay heavily. “You don’t know what’s going on,” said Steve, “right under your nose!”

We consulted an attorney and were advised that, unless we caught someone in the act and could prove it in court, there was nothing we could do—without asking for trouble. I was very discouraged. We just let it go. Steve stayed away. And so did the Swede. We kept our eyes open. Then Steve came back again, resumed sitting quietly by himself at the bar or coming into the showroom when there was music.

I finished my last set and went to wash glasses. I heard a crash from the showroom and saw Steve Smith come out and leave. Carolyn went to clean up. Suddenly, she returned looking ill and said, “Tony, call an ambulance quick!”

I used to sing a song called “Blood on the Saddle” that ended with the phrase—which I exaggerated for effect—“and a grrr…eeaat…biig…pudd…ddlle of bll… llood on the ground.” Precipitated on our showroom floor was that “great big puddle of blood” with some fellow in the middle of it. He looked dead. The ambulance and the police arrived within minutes. The corner door to the street was opened for the gurney. Ambulance lights flashed eerily on the ghastly scene of blood, body, broken glass, tipped tables, and chairs askew. The fellow was taken to the hospital. The police interviewed everyone. No one knew what had happened. No one saw anybody jam a glass in his face, around an eye. We cleaned up the spilled violence. We all thought Steve Smith was the culprit. We saw him in the showroom and we saw him leave in a hurry. No one told the police. I thought we should, but no one did. Steve was a regular; no one recognized the other guy. No one knew why.

That was it! I’d had enough! No more Rondo for me! We may have closed for a day, but we couldn’t just walk away. We owed the Schulers. We owed others. So, I went back and we kept on. I followed the news. The fellow recovered, did not lose his eye, but did lose his lawsuit against Steve Smith. A few employees and customers were called to testify, but no one saw it happen and nothing could be proved. Drugs were said to be involved. Steve Smith was a free man.

Life at the Rondo turned more pleasant—until another night after the music was done. Two fellows entered and went directly into the showroom. I waited, then followed. One was standing on the stage looking at the KRCW microphone and the other was looking at one of Joan Priolo’s paintings on the wall. “How’re you doing?” I said. “No more music tonight.” “OK.” Colorless, self-enclosed, poker-faced guys, they wandered around. I returned to the bar, expecting them to leave. Some time passed and I went to check. They brushed by me and left. Then I discovered what they had done: destroyed Joan’s painting by cutting it into pieces and stashing them on a shelf in the men’s room; destroyed Dick’s microphone by unscrewing the front piece, pulling the insides out, and depositing them on the floor. I was just numb. None of us knew them. None of us could understand why. It was just a random, brazen, ugly, evil act. We paid Joan Priolo for her painting. Caroline salvaged the largest piece to decorate our wall at home. We paid Dick Johnston for his microphone, or at least made the offer, and he brought in another to replace it. We carried on. We took pains to make sure there were no unattended customers in the showroom.

But it didn’t matter. The Schulers’ lease expired at the end of August. Mert Lusink—reneging on his promise—refused to renew it. He refused to lease the place to us. We looked frantically for a suitable location. Some of our customers looked, too. Several spots might have worked, but nothing had the good feel of the Rondo or the right location.

Suddenly, it was over! We had to vacate the premises by Labor Day. We rented a garage, and friends and customers helped us move. We had a lot of friends, a lot of goodwill toward us. There was much dismay over the closing of the Rondo. It was a happy gathering place for so many people. We kept on looking, but it was like the Indians’ ghost dance at the end of the trail. It was over. Caroline was full of regret. I was miserable but deeply relieved; I just didn’t have the stomach to continue.

We had a few days off. Then Dick Johnston continued my broadcast from the studio. I started performing, as did Don Robertson, at Gatsby’s, a Roaring Twenties restaurant on East Cota owned by former New York lawyer Tom Sammon. Dick moved the live radio show to Gatsby’s. Then came an additional gig with Denis Hazelwood at Chico’s, a Mexican restaurant in Santa Maria. In a short and final burst of popularity, hootenannies were exploding all over and I was often hired as MC or performer. A Rondo reunion took place in Goleta at the Nexus, the new hub of folk music in the Santa Barbara area, with John Thomas and The Channel Singers, Don Robertson, Todd Grant and Phil Pritchard of The Terrytown Trio, Hal Bates, Caroline and I, and others I can’t recall.

Cracks had opened in society’s walls and a new light was shining in. A new urgency, a militancy had come into folk music. Performers divided along lines of entertainment versus message, commercialism versus reality. Pete Seeger was performing his social commentary. Bob Dylan was storming onto the scene with biting songs about injustice and wrong living. Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were singing of freedom and justice. My music was taking a new direction as well. With a Martin D-28 from Bonnie Langley to add to my array of instruments, I was learning new techniques and songs. Playing three guitars, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and harmonicas, I was embarking on a new phase of my career.  One cold autumn day, I bought a Lightning Hopkins record at the Bonnie Langley Music Company. The clerk said Bonnie was next door at Johnnie’s bar. I was sorry to have missed her, because I liked talking with Bonnie, that gruff woman with the puffy red face and tight curly hair with a bald spot showing through, who sold instruments, gave lessons, and had a marching band and a propensity for drink. I was starting to leave when Bonnie Langley came in the front door like a stranger in her own store. “Some son-of-a-bitch just shot the President!” she said.

The short, nationwide flowering of folk music approximated JFK’s term in office. To my mind, the music and the man represented the best of America: our inclusiveness, generosity, and idealism. The feeling of that time was one of freshness, of innocence. JFK inspired many people. Democracy became real—to be lived. Life was to enjoy. The degradation of fellow human beings was inimical to life. People talked, acted, and sang about it. Folk music was the natural music. It was simple and innocent. It was free. It was democratic. It was traditional and it was new. Anyone could do it. You could see the performers, good, bad and indifferent, transformed by the music. But the innocence died that day with JFK. The music went on, but the simple innocence vanished in the crush of a commercial world, a military world that tumbled on, twisting and turning, crashing and burning, too cruel and hard to withstand.

A few short years it lasted, that time when folk music enthralled the land. In spite of the struggles, those years were the best of my life.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 19. Russ Johnson

The Big Debut. . .

Russ Johnson

In the summer of ’62, Peter Feldmann was performing at Mephisto’s, which was a restaurant in the basement of the building that had previously housed the YMCA. The owner, Dave Bernheimer, wanted it to be an upscale eatery, which couldn’t have been easy given the location.

Peter asked me to fill in for him one Friday night, and because I had zero experience performing, I tried to turn him down. Peter persisted, and I gave in.

My other friend, Bill Thrasher, conspired with the owner to provide some publicity for my debut. Bill was a great guitar player with a talent for drawing. He concocted an ad for me and, unbeknownst to me, had it printed in the News-Press.

That evening when I got home from work, Bill’s wife Maggie asked me if I had seen the newspaper. I looked and was shocked. Bill had drawn a cartoon of me singing and playing the guitar and, though mortifying, it was so funny I could only laugh.

At least the customers couldn’t say they weren’t warned. Since no one asked me back, that was my one and only performance in a very short career as a folk singer.

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The Sixties in Folk Music / 18. Sheri Geiger-Odenwald

From Blue Onion Carhop to Folk Singer

Sheri Geiger-Odenwald

I was on stage for the first time in 1960 at the Noctambulist in Santa Barbara at the age of 14. I was married and already pregnant with my first child, Theresa. I had known from the age of four that I was going to sing or dance. I didn’t play an instrument, but folks were glad to back me on songs like “Summertime” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

By 16, I was divorced (my husband had run off with a woman who owned a Jaguar) and I had a two-year-old and a nine-month-old child. I was singing at the Nexus, putting my kids to sleep on the pizza table in the kitchen so I could sit on the stage and sing with all of the best of the best in Santa Barbara.

I had so many heroes then: The Floyd County Boys, The Channel Singers, and Don Robertson, who gave me my first guitar. I was working as a carhop at the Blue Onion. After work, a bunch of the local musicians would gather in the parking lot, sitting on cars, and have jam sessions. It was then that I finally felt I was really going to be a singer.

I took my two young children to Hawaii to stay with my mother, who was then married to her fourth and last husband. She gave me a place to get my new life together, a job, a place to live, and a babysitter. I joined a band called The Elites. We did more practice than anything else, but we did play some of the service clubs on the Islands. I also worked at the Geedunk, the eatery at Pearl Harbor for enlisted men. “Sherry Baby” was a hit at the time, so all the guys would come in singing to me as they ordered their lunch. It was a very special time in my life. All the band members were in the service and they often went out to sea. Eventually, the band just disappeared.

I was “discovered” on the beach at Waikiki by my future managers, Hank Bryan and Al Cohen. They put me together with a paramarine named Tom (Pussycat) Taylor, and we were now known as “Tom and Sheri.” Hank and Al also handled another duo named Forrest and Randy. We all played the big clubs around the Islands. We became quite well known. When Tom was out on maneuvers, I performed by myself. I had three gown changes a night and jewelry that had to be locked up at the end of the night. I signed autographs and even met the astronauts.

I returned to Santa Barbara, and my manager, Hank, moved to LA. Shortly thereafter, Forrest moved to Santa Barbara and Hank put us together. We played at the new Nexus, as the old one had burned down. I was so proud to do lead-ins for the likes of Joe & Eddie, Travis Edmonson (of Bud & Travis fame), and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary even sat in on one of my sets. Forrest and I often traveled to LA to push our original songs. We were almost picked up by a couple of major labels, but it never quite happened. We married and continued to sing together in Ventura. When the twins were born, he got a real job and I continued on by myself. I performed in Ventura at John’s at the Beach for a few years.

Forrest was a great father, but we were now living more as brother and sister than husband and wife. We divorced when the twins were three years old. I left him the house and furniture, took the kids to the Santa Ynez Valley, and began my life there as Sheri Geiger, performing at Mattei’s Tavern, which had started out as a stagecoach stop. I let my hair grow long and I watched as my four kids thrived. I sang there until it was sold to the Chart House. I also sang at the Mollekron in Solvang and at the Union Hotel in Los Alamos. Then I got a gig at Cold Spring Tavern. I lived on the river by day and sang at the “Tav” by night. I also went into Santa Barbara and sang at Ace Diamond’s Teaser. I moved around a lot in those days until I actually lived in the cabin across the street from Cold Spring Tavern. Four kids in two rooms!  Those were some of my best years, both musically and in time spent with my kids. I learned a lot about building my own fires. Chopping the wood and building the fires from scratch—the only heat we had. It is a good memory, but I’m happy to have a thermostat these days. When I went to the mountains, I left the TV behind. In our house we played music, backgammon and chess, and had great conversation.

After Cold Spring, we moved to Cambria. I had been under some major stress, raising my kids by myself. No child support and singing five and six nights a week to make ends meet. I moved to Cambria with a friend and severed my ties with the Santa Barbara area. I told no one that I was a singer. I took my first real job at the desk of the Cambria Pines Lodge. The wonderful man who played piano and sang there, Howard Davis, became very ill, and the manager found out that I sang. She asked me to fill in till he got better. Well, that never happened. So I began singing again. I also tended bar and did the front desk as well. Good years. New and wonderful friends. I sang at the Lodge, as well as Corfino’s at the Holiday Inn in San Simeon, just north of Cambria. What fun those days were. I held a Talent Night every Wednesday and got the good, bad, and the ugly. It was especially fun when Highway 1 closed down, which happened more often than not in those days. Also, power outages were fun—sitting in the dark with friends and strangers singing and trading stories.

I met the Love of my Life in Cambria and married him. My wonderful Lee. He built me a home and we are living happily ever after. My kids are now grown and we have three grandsons: Tyler 12, Cameron 7, and Lil Eli 4. They are the light of my life. I am still singing and have written many songs along the way, to document the story I have told.

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