Waking down the brick alleyway from the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara to the parking garage, the last studio one passes on the left has a large window, fronted by wrought iron grill-work. It is a dentist’s office now, but back in 1958, it was the home of Santa Barbara’s first coffee house,The Noctambulist. It sported a huge copper espresso machine, a small counter, scattered tables and chairs, and a tiny stage in the rear. The atmosphere was filled with steam, smoke, the smells of coffee, cinnamon, and exotic spices, colored by the presence of mysterious-looking types then known as Beatniks or Bohemians. Some played chess or the Japanese board game, Go, some read poetry or the latest work by Ferlinghetti, while squeezing a twist of lemon rind into their black coffee, accompanied by Baklava or other small pastries. Invariably, the stage was occupied by a folksinger, male or female, usually alone, dressed in black, singing mournful songs with a nylon-stringed guitar, sometimes with bass or bongos as accompaniment. Local radio occasionally featured a song by Richard Dyer Bennett, Burl Ives, or the new hit group The Kingston Trio, a very high-energy group favored by collegiate types.
Following some “dancing lessons from Mr. God”, I left Santa Barbara and spent two years staying in Chicago in 1961 and 62. Working at a day job for the Field Museum Of Natural History, I was amazed with a new institution, The Chicago Old Town School Of Folk Music, which had recently opened its doors. Through the school, I was introduced to traditional singing and picking styles, as well as encountering performers like balladeer Horton Barker and banjo singer Frank Proffitt, whose grandfather wrote the
ballad Tom Dula. I also happened to meet most of the Seeger family, Pete, Penny, Mike, and Peggy, through an old army buddy of Pete’s. I’d also produced my first eight month’s series of folk music programs for WNUR, the Northwestern University’s FM station.
Returning to Santa Barbara after a two year stay in Chicago, I was filled with new energy and enthusiasm. Someone in Santa Barbara had decided to start a country station atop the old Granada building, and I was treated to blaring display ads reading:Taking that as a challenge, I visited the new station and managed to talk the program director into giving me an hour a week to present some alternate views. Sharing the time with my folksinger friend Don Robertson, we covered both the traditional and folksingers’ points of view in a weekly program. The coffee house scene had expanded since the Noctambulist days. Tony Townsend had opened the Rondo, there was a place called The Iopan, a spot on Milpas Street, and Dave Bernheimer’s Mephisto’s, a bohemian restaurant in the cellar of the YMCA building at Chapala and Carrillo streets. It was there I ran into Big Jim Griffith, who was busy singing blues and cowboy ballads while strolling table to table. Jim and I found we had a love of the music in common and soon started performing together as The Mission Canyon Fret-Benders. While playing Mephisto’s, I also bumped into Santa Barbara’s perennial guitar teacher Russ Johnson and his friends Stan Tysell and Bill Thrasher. I soon got a Sunday afternoon song session going, and we spent happy hours picking, drinking wine and downing large quantities of Dave’s paella.
Early in ’63, I heard about a new event, the Monterey Folk Festival, scheduled for May in the same facility that hosted the Jazz Festival. I managed to talk KGUD’s management into sending me up for the entire 5-day event with press passes. This was at the height of the so-called folk revival, and this festival covered all the bases: pop folk with the Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan (in his “acoustic” format); blues with Mance Lipscomb, BB King, black slave songs with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers; early country with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, accompanied by Fred Price, Clint Howard, and a
young Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, The New Lost City Ramblers; bluegrass was represented by Bill Monroe, The Dillards, and the Kentucky Colonels. There were others too, along with workshops, round-the-clock concerts, and special events with speakers such as folklorist DK Wilgus and producer Ralph Rinzler. Armed with notebook, Leica camera, and borrowed tape recorder, I ran myself ragged trying to cover all the bases. The folk festival provided a crash course for me in event production, performance, history, and of course, the music itself. I was supposed to interview Bob Dylan, who was then into his accoustic Woody Guthrie mode of protest songwriter. But after running into Tom Ashley, Bill Monroe, and others, I simply didn’t have the time for Bob – my attention was drawn elsewhere.
That year was also marked by my move to an Airstream trailer, parked next to Gene McGeorge’s house on Coyote Road and commuting to UCSB. I was welcomed into the Mountain Drive Community, founding a string band with the name The Scragg Family. The Scraggs included Gene on fiddle, Kajsa Ohman and Maria Cordero on guitars, and Tom Sheldon on guitarron. The five of us soon became the house band for Mountain Drive functions, such as Bobbie Burns Night, the irregular Pot Wars, where local potters would sell their wares, and our annual Grape Stomp, a true Bacchanal in every sense of the word. The Scraggs, eventually reduced to a trio with Kajsa, Gene, and myself, performed
regularly up and down the California coast for the next decade, including a 4-5 month stint, six days a week, as the house band for the notorious Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City Nevada during the Summer Of Love in 1967 (replacing Big Brother & The Holding Co. from the year before).
In 1971, I was approached by Peg Armstrong of UCSB Arts & Lectures to generate an Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention. Campus security was concerned that it would result in a riot, but their fears were assuaged when a Santa Barbara police captain called the campus to enter his daughter, a fiddle student of mine, in the competition. Until I resigned in 1997, I tried as best I could, with the profound help of DK Wilgus and others, to make the
event an educational as well as entertaining affair. We would usually honor some past performer or aspect of the music with special graphics and a Saturday workshop, then have a concert Saturday night before the contest on Sunday. The Fiddlers’ Convention began its Santa Barbara run in 1962, and continues to this day every October.
In late 1971, I decided to try my hand at running a music club. The Bluebird Cafe opened its doors on Anapamu Street and began presenting a wide range of live music every night. With a lot of help from many friends, the club became a popular venue for folk, blues, jazz, world, and bluegrass musics for several years. My independent record label, Sonyatone and Hen Cackle records, began releasing material in 1973, and continues to this day. I kept myself busy with the music club, performing, record production, giving music lessons, and lecturing for SB Adult Education. I began performing folk music in local schools, and managed to write a CETA grant program which enabled me to hire three other musicians to form a group which played regular weekly folk concerts in every elementary classroom in the Santa Barbara school district. It was always my opinion that it is music and the arts that makes us individuals truly human, and I am appalled that these fields are always the first ones cut to meet budget crises.
The acoustic music scene has changed much in the intervening years. There seem to be fewer and fewer venues, and much more specialization within musical genres these days. It is so important to be open to a range of influences in what I call traditional music. The internet has made the music much more accessible, available at the touch of a button, but that very accessibility has also acted simultaneously to devalue the very music it presents. Now, our musical heritage is hidden in the plain sight of any web browser, but is also buried by a mountain of irrelevant fluff. It remains my hope that people will still make the effort to search out the meaningful, and that true people-to-people music will remain a viable option in the twenty-first century.