Folk Scene: The 1960s in Santa Barbara
In 1960 I attended Defiance College in Ohio. There was a beatnik fellow named “Doc” there. Both of us lived in WWII Quonset huts over that summer. Doc taught me to appreciate the arts: poetry, writing, music, painting, and from a culinary standpoint, “Upside-Down Pudding Cake in a coffee mug.” He sure gave me the right outlook for life! What I wanted to do began to take shape as a result of Doc’s gentle teachings.
Folk music was gaining in popularity and I loved the songs of Joan Baez and The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger on the radio, and record albums…better known today as CDs. I also had an up-close encounter with folk singer Guy Carawan, who came to Defiance to do a concert that fall. It was on that evening I met someone who would be a lifelong friend, a hound dog by the name of “Ole Blue.” We wound up doing a lot of gigs together, and every now and then, when things are jest right, I can still hear him paddin’ alongside-a-me, lookin’ up, smilin’ and droolin’!
In the fall of 1960 I went back to the East Coast and took a four-month course in Commercial Photography at New York Institute of Photography, on 34th Street in New York. I met a young man by the name of Hayes, who one evening said, “I’d like you to come to dinner in Brooklyn and meet my uncle.” We took the subway there, and that’s how I met Lee Hayes, the large man with a deep bass voice; the anchor for The Weavers. I’ll never forget that night. Also there was Cisco Houston with raw tape of his upcoming album devoted to Woody Guthrie. From that point on, I was hooked on folk music.
The younger Hayes was also responsible for introducing me to Greenwich Village, and especially Gerde’s Folk City. We went there every Monday night for the Hoot. The house act was a black blues singer known as Brother John Sellers. He was backed by a guitar and harmonica player who later became singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. I never heard him sing, or talk at all, at those Monday performances. He sure made up for that later, and still continues to.
A Chronicle of History
What made folk music, to me, was that people listened to the songs, even if they were very long, as were many of the English, Scottish, Irish, and French ballads. They were stories of events that happened; bore repeating to others not yet informed; a river of music that flowed from country to country, continent to continent. Folk music was the email of the Middle Ages:
What news, what news my bully boy; what news you bring to me?
My castle burned, my tenants robbed, my lady with baby, my lady with baby?
(Matte Groves: Child # 81)
Many of those old songs went through transformations, depending on when and where they were being sung. Foreign songs migrated to the United States along with the people of many countries, and were popular throughout our history. They took on the local color of that particular location. Most of them were passed down from generation to generation; even to these, our autumn years. From California to the New York Island, backwards.
In January of 1961, I drove the old Route 66 west to California, to work for American Machine and Foundry Company at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was a trip that brought the words of Woody Guthrie to life, for I’d never experienced the physical wonders of the United States.
The Iopan—Santa Barbara, 1961
Throughout it all, I’d never been to a “coffee house.” I’d heard about a place called the “Iopan.” It was located in a beautiful white Victorian house on the corner of Chapala and Micheltorena streets. I walked into a large room warmly lit by candles in red glass holders on each table. There was a low, well-lit stage on the street side of the room. Someone was singing, and the customers were paying rapt attention.
Iopan co-proprietor Marilyn Berner brought me coffee and chatted. Later I met her husband Bill Berner and third partner Dan Barrows. Marilyn and Bill went from table to table, chatting with customers.
Dan eyed the instrument lying on the table in front of me. “Just what is that?” he asked. “It’s a uke with a hormone problem,” I chuckled, “a baritone uke.” “Do you play it, sing?” he asked. “A little,” I said, and meant it. Dan shook his head, smiled, and walked off. Soon he was back and asked, “What’s your name?” “Don Robertson,” I said, “I really like your place!”
People came and went, and the entertainer was in the middle of the second set. Dan sat down. After a while, he casually asked, “Would ya like to sing the break? Do maybe two or three songs?”
Folks chuckled as I walked up to the stage. I made a strange sight: a fat guy clutching the neck of a smallish baritone uke! I opened with an upbeat version of “Pretty Polly,” followed by a slower song, and finally said, “Ladies and gents, I’d like you to meet my dog…and sang my version of “Ole Blue.” At the end, there was silence…and then the crowd broke into applause. I think we stunned each other. It was my first gig in a coffee house; my first in Santa Barbara, California.
The Berners and Dan Barrows were the people who started me on a folk-singing career. They were not only starting a lot of local talent out, but brought in some great acts as well.
Johnny Swingle was one of my favorites. He was the only entertainer I knew that played the zither. It looked like an Autoharp but had no buttons. It was played by laying one’s hand on certain sections of the strings. Johnny also played the Autoharp, and knew a lot of old Mountain and Child ballads, singing them with a rich baritone voice. Johnny was tall and lanky; looked a bit like Abe Lincoln.
Phil Campos was a hard-singing-and-guitar-playing entertainer who could really hold an audience. His renditions were full of emotion and heartfelt soul. He also had a group called “The New Folk Trio,” which sang in Santa Barbara as well.
Joe & Eddie came up from LA and put their wonderful sounds and arrangements together, trying them out on a very willing Iopan crowd. Bill and Dan had found them at the Troubadour in Santa Monica. They established a large group of fans, many of whom went to see them when they returned to the LA-area folk clubs. They started recording and became a very well-known act. Joe & Eddie contrived some of the best folk arrangements I’d ever heard!
Local acts included Tony Townsend, Todd Grant’s Terrytown Trio, with Phil Pritchard and Bud Boyd; and flamenco guitarist Chuck Kaiser, a great talent.
I’m sure there were many more, and hopefully other contributors will be able to identify them. There was René Leyva, who had a quick wit and could sing anything, and Bill Thompson, whose renditions of “A Cockney Funeral Dirge” and “When You’ve Got a Viper” knocked the crowds out.
There was one other aspect of the Iopan’s history that certainly bears noting. One night, while singing the last set there, I noticed a group of men come in, all carrying instruments—jazz instruments. They sat down quietly while I finished several songs.
Coming off stage, one man came up to me and said, “Man you are great! I’ve never heard anyone sing with as much ‘soul’ as you do!” The man’s name was Chico Williams, a stand-up jazz bassist. He and the other musicians were in the Air Force, based at Vandenberg Air Force Base. They asked if they could “play a few,” and the owners agreed. Oh man, did these guys play jazz!
They were so good they played many times at the Iopan. Chico Williams became a good friend, teaching me whatever I still retain about soul and jazz. He took me down to LA one night to some jazz clubs and gave me an introduction to what it is, that I have never forgotten. He also introduced me to LA’s best fried chicken at The Golden Bird. Chico’s definition of jazz was pretty simple: “It’s the changes, man! Ya got to know the changes! That’s all.” After-hours jazz became popular at the Iopan; musicians dropping in after playing their own gigs.
Early Folk Clubs in Santa Barbara
There was a pizza bar up on the Mesa called “Bud’s Place.” The Terrytown Trio sang there a lot. And I think it was the place that saw the birth of The Mountain Dew Boys, along with the inception of the popular soft drink. The group featured Todd Grant on guitar, Chuck Flannery on five-string banjo, Phil Pritchard (The Kid) on bass, and Doug Sherwood on fiddle. They would set up on an old flatbed truck sporting hay bales and sing in shopping malls all over town. Naturally, their theme song was “That Good Old Mountain Dew.”
Either Todd or Chuck wrote this novel verse (I think!):
Why the science guys got hot,
they sent up an Astronaut,
he must’ve gone a mile or maybe two!
And if you wondered what propelled it,
all you had to do was smell it!
It was that good old Mountain Dew!
This group evolved into The Floyd County Boys, who are still bringing good bluegrass and country music to audiences today; over 40 years later. Now that’s a long gig! It was my pleasure over the years to share the stage with these good friends on rides in Orange County and with the Rancheros Vistadores in Santa Ynez, where we made many good friends and had some of the best times of our lives! We also sang together at Santa Barbara’s famous Fiesta celebration.
I became a member of a folk trio called “he Freeway Singers. The customers at Bud’s Other Place gave us the name by voting on it one night. The place was located on the corner of Milpas and Carpinteria streets. The group was made up of Riley Jackson on bass, Bob Hoffman on five-string banjo, and Robertson on guitar. We held forth there many a weekend and had a lot of fun imitating The Kingston Trio. Folks loved us so much they’d shout, “Go out and play on the freeway!” It was close by.
The folk evolution went from coffee house to beer bar as time went on. One of the great folk bars downtown was the Rondo. It was opened by a German couple and was then bought by Tony and Tim Townsend (The Townsend Brothers). I became a regular there.
The Rondo was unique in several ways. You had to sit on the floor (pillows provided), and no clapping was allowed. Instead, customers were told to snap their fingers. If someone was really good, it sounded like a giant rattlesnake was loose in the place. There was a beer bar in front and a showroom in back with a stage. Behind that was a room for entertainers. In those days I was not a lightweight. I was rotund, corpulent, downright fat. Tim used to take great joy in yelling up at me on stage, “Why don’t ya paint USN on your sides and go hunt submarines!” He was always quick with a quip, but in reality he was a salesman…and beertender.
Audiences never tired of hearing Tony Townsend perform. Many of the songs he sang were ones he’d written, about all kinds of life situations, accompanied by his excellent guitar, banjo, and mandolin work. He was a number-one song weaver that led the audience on wonderful journeys into the fanciful and the real. He is an artist to this day.
The Earth was located off Milpas Street, down a long alley. One evening I opened for Hoyt Axton there. By chance, my parents, Don and Gertrude Robertson, had come into town. They had never heard me sing professionally. After I got off the stage, I sat down with them. My mother said, “I always knew we should have given him musical training….” My dad said, “You did very well, and the people seemed to like you.” Dad had been the leader of a small band when he was in college; played the violin. They didn’t say much more about it.
Gatsby’s—Santa Barbara lawyer Tom Salmon opened a Roaring Twenties theme club on Cota Street. It was the only bar in town that had a drum-fed .45 Thompson submachine gun on the wall behind the bar–1920s style. Salmon loved all kinds of music, including folk and Dixieland jazz. It was pretty noisy, but a fun place. After Gatsby’s, Tom opened John’s at the Beach in Ventura.
Don & Tina
I had met a talented woman named Tina Fletcher, and we decided to put a duo together. We worked long hours and learned a lot of good folk songs that featured some very tight harmonies. I had learned about different mountain harmonies from Peter Feldmann, and we worked toward a “sawmill” harmony in our arrangements. We also wrote some songs together. Several of them were about young kids, with us portraying six- and seven-year-olds. In another song they were eight and ten. Tina was raising two girls by herself. I loved that family with all my heart.
Late in our relationship we were invited to join a folk tour and drove to Kentucky to sing at Kentucky Wesleyan University in Owensboro. Some other acts had left before us on a bus. We were to meet them there. The others never showed up! KWU had no knowledge of any of us singing there! My parents wired some gas money, and I drove from Owensboro to Santa Barbara in a little over 48 hours in a VW bug against a stiff headwind all the way!
The last job we played was at The Commercial Hotel in Elko, Nevada, for two weeks, on a stage built behind the bar. After that, we parted company on returning to Santa Barbara. Tina traded singing for a paintbrush and proved that she was a fine artist as well.
Pure vs. Commercial
There were several big rivalries that were part of the folk scene. One of the largest was the hassle between entertainers that sang “pure” folk and “commercial” folk. Seemed to me it was a tempest in a teapot! There were a lot of purists that lived up on Mountain Drive in Santa Barbara. It was a very arty community known for its “Pot Wars” and “Grape Stompings.” They also turned out a group of incredible musicians.
A lot of musical talent from the Drive became known when Peter Feldmann bought The Bluebird Café. Peter was a self-taught ethnomusicologist who played everything with strings draped off of it, well. He also sang well. He not only knew about some of the best-known mountain instrumentalists and singers, but blues singers of all ilks. He featured many of them at The Bluebird. He taught Santa Barbara what purist folk music was all about. He also featured locals from the Drive. Big Jim Griffith offered a variety of cowboy and old-time mountain music. Kajsa Ohman sang alone or teamed up with Gene McGeorge and Peter as The Scragg Family. They were one of my favorite acts. Kajsa had one of the fastest picking hands going.
The Scraggs presented their audience with a great time; a combo of good clean comedy and wonderful pickin’ and song. Peter also introduced me to Mance Lipscomb, Bill Monroe, Mike Seeger and his sister Peggy, and many other famous artists.
In 1963 I started a folk radio show, “Folk Sounds,” on KGUD FM One day Peter Feldmann dropped in, and became my permanent co-host. He educated Santa Barbara on how folk music evolved through the ages. We made several trips to the Monterey Folk Festival, meeting and interviewing some of the biggest folk acts of the 1960s there. Tony Townsend and I met Bud & Travis there at Denny’s late one night and had a good talk. The funny thing about that is, neither Tony nor I knew either one of them! I saw Bud come through the door, stood up and yelled, “Hey Bud! C’mon over and sit with us!” He did, andTravis was not far behind. Nothing like a little friendly assertiveness!
Some years after that I got to know Trav better than Bud. They parted company. But every now and then Travis came to play in Santa Barbara, and I’d always go see him. He played the Yankee Clipper on upper State Street one night. Two gals sat at the bar talking. Trav ended a song and one of them turned and asked him to play a song he was well known for. He agreed and went right into the song. The woman turned back to her companion and started talking again. Travis got past the halfway mark of the song and just stopped playing, staring at the woman. She turned around with a stunned look on her face and asked heatedly, “Well aren’t you going to finish it?” Trav stared at her, shaking his head back and forth. “Lady,” said Travis, “why don’t ya stick your thumb in your ear and go bowling!” The whole place roared with laughter and applause. The woman and friend stalked out. If you request a song from someone, you should have the common courtesy to clam up and listen to it! Just plain old common sense, wasn’t it? Another night at the same place, the bartender managed to bug Travis. In turn, Trav locked the bartender in the club, somehow! The cops had to come and set him free.
Tina and I went to the El Paseo when we heard Travis would be performing there. We walked in with our guitars, having sung earlier for some kids. Travis waved us over to his booth. “Sit and have a drink,” he said amiably. “You two can do me a big favor, if you would. I just drove in from Colorado and I’m dead tired. Would you two do my show for me tonight? I’ll get up and introduce you, myself.” We did three sets that night and at the end of it got a standing ovation! I couldn’t believe it! Tina and I went to see Trav work the following night. They stood and clapped for him too! Oh boy, did they!
During the folk infusion, little clubs sprang up all over Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Isla Vista, the University of California’s bedroom-mate-community. I used to sing at a coffee house sponsored by Saint Mark’s Catholic Church there. I also recall Linda’s place, Borsodi’s, where most of us sang. At various times there were three or four coffee houses tucked away in IV: the Fishbowl, the Limbo, and Omtae, were a few (thanks Tony!).
In Goleta, there was a very popular beer bar called the Nexus. It was a great place to sing. One night after it closed, it burned down! I recall doing an obit via telephone the next day from a booth across Hollister Avenue from the site for KIST radio. But happily, the Nexus rose from the ashes, directly across the street from the old site, under new owners Jim Greenwell and Dave Daris. It was my favorite folk bar in Goleta at the time and also the place where I met Bob Lentz, who played jazz. We put some tunes together and enjoyed delivering them as The Bob Lentz Trio. It was a lot of fun; a lot of straight-out wingin’ it! Much beer flowed there; a lot of laughs, and good music. I think most of the Santa Barbara entertainers sang there.
Louie Velliotes had a place called The Timbers on the outskirts of Goleta. It was a very good restaurant that had a wonderful bar in the back. Outside of the great food, it was also known for its collection of newspaper articles and artifacts from the Ellwood Oil Field shelling by a Japanese sub in World War II. That site was located right across the 101 Freeway from The Timbers, fronting the Pacific Ocean. The Timbers opened in 1963, but folk music didn’t start there until 1966 or ’67 and flowed into the 1970s.
Louie was Greek, loved people, a good joke, good times, and good food always! One evening I popped in there and we talked. I asked if he’d like some music in his bar. He creased up his head and thought about it but never said yes or no. But Louie was a good businessman. I offered to come in and give a little show one night. Right away he said, “You betcha!” When I came in, I unlimbered my 12-string and sat at the end of the bar. I asked the barmaid to tell Louie I was there. “Just start playing and he’ll be in,” she said with an impish smile. Her name was Karen. I broke into an opener, singing out in full voice. Karen’s jaw dropped. Folks started drifting in from the dining room and ordered drinks. The growing audience gave me a nice hand. Louie came and sat down the bar looking at the people who continued to come in, listen, order drinks, and applaud. He was now grinning. “You’re great, man! I love it!” he said, his head nodding up and down, “when can you start?” “I think I just did!” I quipped.
I don’t know how many years I worked for Louie. I got some other acts to come out and sing, and The Floyd County Boys were very popular there on the weekends. During the week you got Robertson. Eventually The Timbers closed. The CHP picked up more and more drivers leaving by hiding in the Union Oil station on the corner. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, with hand grenades! But Louie opened another bar on Hollister in Goleta called (strangely enough) “Louie’s.” I not only sang there but tended bar and made meatloaf sandwiches and high-powered chili at Lou’s famous barbecues. Between the two places, I came to know and love many of the steady customers and staff. Louie would throw a “Que” for any birthday, anniversary, or anything else that came to mind, at one of Goleta’s wonderful parks. A jam session was always part of those affairs, featuring musicians from all over Santa Barbara just having a good time together, and with everyone else. Louie is still having “Ques” once a month just off the beach in Santa Barbara. He and his dad, Sam, taught me how to play pool. He taught his son and me how to tend bar…and a whole lot of people how to drink, and eat, and most importantly–laugh!
Cold Spring Tavern was the most picturesque folk venue in the county. The facility was a stagecoach stop and jail a long time ago. Audrey Ovington was the owner in the ’60s. She was a one-of-a-kind woman with a sharp mind and keen business sense. Her dad Earle was the first man to fly airmail. I sang there a lot in the middle to late 1960s.
The regular customers were a colorful lot: cattle ranchers, pig farmers, cowboys, and Indians. I learned to drink whiskey there. A fellow by the name of Gunner Johanson saw to that. He liked to buy the boys a drink, and if you didn’t join him in knocking one back, it was said he’d turn you into raw hamburger and roll you to the bottom of the ravine the creek had carved out. It was a long way down! Everybody drank with Gunner! I was working up there one Sunday when the peaceful silence was shattered by the roar of motorcycles, a whole lot of them, snaking down Cold Springs Road from the top of San Marcos Pass. One by one they pulled in and parked; a rough-looking motorcycle gang. They wore colors and some had German helmets, others just bandannas tied around their heads. It was like something in a movie. I’d never seen anything like it and wasn’t sure how to handle it! I walked out the door and started playing “This Land Is Your Land.” They all stared at me, even when I finished. Then one guy started to clap and they all clapped and whistled. Their leader liked it, so they all did too! Yep, it was right out of a script. They hung about for the whole set, then “Brando” got up and they all mounted up and roared away down the mountain. Bill the bartender came out, looked at me incredulously and said, “I can’t believe you did that! Come on in. I’ll buy you a shot!”
When The Floyd County Boys played outside there in the afternoon, people would get the word and flock to the place from both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. Cars and pickups would be parked up around the curves of the road and there would be a huge crowd jammed into very little space. The CHP became very upset with all that. Bill got hammered one day and kicked us all, crowd and performers, out. So FCB packed up, and there was a huge caravan on the 154 headed for Santa Ynez, where we unloaded, set up, and played until the place closed! Not one bar customer had stayed at Cold Spring! You never knew what would happen next up there. But it was always a good time.
The Great Oil Spill took place in Santa Barbara on January 28, 1969. It killed off a lot of wildlife and made a mess of the beaches from Pismo Beach to Oxnard on the Pacific Coast. An anti-oil group called GOO (Get Oil Out!) sprang up, and Todd wrote a song that would become the unofficial anthem of that movement: “The Union Oil Song.” One of my greatest memories of that time was singing at a “Hoot” at Earl Warren Showgrounds. Someone passed a note up to us late in the show. It said: “See the guys in white shirts and ties in the front row? They’re from Union Oil. Sing it!” Todd and the group did just that, after dedicating it to those gentlemen, who became livid by song’s end, crying out, “Lies!” The crowd drowned them out with cheers for the song and well-directed “BOOs!” as the Union Oil contingent stalked out.
Rex Johnson is a fellow that liked to see different places and meet people he didn’t know. He always had a guitar on his back or by his side and wore a white porkpie hat. Rex could play it, blow harp, and could sing well too. We met each other at East Beach leaning against the wall jamming. It wasn’t long before we were working a various bars and the pier. Rex didn’t really make the scene until the 70s. But he was there for The Floyd County Boys 25th Anniversary! Everyone liked him. One day we were playing out there and I saw a guy tie up a pair of dogs outside one of the restaurants. “Look at that will ya?” I said, “I bet those dogs can sing! Let’s see.” I started playing chords and yowling like a dog, quickly joined by Rex. The dogs leapt up from a prone position, immediately lifted their heads, and joined in. It sure was pretty. Their owner came smoking out of the eatery, yelled some things, shaking his fist, and rudely dragged the animals away! People all around us were really laughing hard. I turned casually to them and said, “Gee! I thought they were great, didn’t you?” Last time I heard from Rex, he was singing in Czechoslovakia. I really miss him.
Outside of “Folk Sounds,” Tina and I were invited to do a late morning show called “The Brunch Bunch,” geared toward women at home. The show was hosted by Anne Lincoln, a witty, well-educated woman who appreciated our music and shared it with her live and listening audience.
There was a wonderful Santa Barbara poet; an Irishman named Tom McGann. He already had a growing family, and his wife Diane informed him he would soon be a father again. Eight months into the pregnancy, Anne Lincoln decided to have a surprise baby shower On the Air. I wrote a song as my present: “Lullaby for Diane McGann.” Tina and I sang it in public for the first time on that occasion. It was also included on my record album. The baby girl that joined us all a month later has grown into a beautiful young lady, making her parents very proud.
Hal Bates, a popular disk jockey at KIST, loved music of every kind and was very well known in Santa Barbara. He enjoyed his life and mixed well with everyone he came across. He also helped a lot of local musicians, including me. Somehow my song, “Yesterday’s Rain,” magically made it to the top of the KIST charts…and stayed there for several weeks! I sure didn’t understand it, but later found out the old axiom “Money talks and BS walks!” was absolutely true. I honestly don’t know if Bates had anything to do with that. He was a friend. When I found out he had died, I cried. Indeed, he was everyone’s friend!
I know there are people I have skipped or forgotten here. Kenny Maytag comes to mind. He helped me to write songs and just plain live. There are entertainers that I have skipped over mainly because I don’t know enough about them, or they too will be contributing to this book. One of the groups was the Finch Family—George, Ray, and Rosemary Finch—who sang at a beer bar known as “30 West.” Their sound was pure and natural. I really enjoyed them a lot. Zarita also sang there. She had an operatic voice. Here was a woman with an operatic voice singing folk music into a mike taped to a broomstick! What an image! Is that class, or what? The owner’s name was Frank Heinz.
As far as I’m concerned, the 1960s were the best years of my life. It was the only time I was happy, the only time I ever did something I was any good at; the only job I ever loved! People were more concerned with one another back then. It is the kind of thing we are witnessing today in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Folks concerned for those in need; wanting to help any way they can. But we really need to ask what is going to happen to all those who lost their homes, jobs; their ability to exist.
Over time, New Orleans will probably be rebuilt. Developers will buy up land destroyed or abandoned and build hotels, casinos, and business sites. A lot of money will be made. Those displaced will have little desire to return to The Big Easy. It doesn’t seem like things have changed much at all, does it? As Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin! You better believe it! Look what has happened to our globe since the 1960s. A whole lot of Bad, and not a lot of Good. We should try to change that!
Yesterday’s grey clouds have scattered and gone. The sun rose this morning, a rosy pink dawn.
We met and we loved, but we’ll not meet again; except for the mem’ry of Yesterday’s Rain. ©DSR
Hope we can get together again. Many thanks to you all!