Giving up music for life is something I do periodically. Whether this is due to some innate fear of failure or another fear—that music is so wonderful and powerful it might take over my life—I don’t know. I do know that the giving up never lasts long; in fact, at this moment my musical dedication is stronger than at any time before, even though I have no foreseeable venue or marketplace.
It was in one of my “give it up” states that I first arrived in Santa Barbara in 1963. By that time I had performed several times at the Ash Grove in Hollywood, among other places, and decided I wasn’t cut out to be as competitive and self-assured as the folk music circuit apparently required.
Further, I’d just returned from a trip through the Appalachian South, where folk music seemed real, where it was the lifeblood of real people. I saw myself as reduced, inadequate—a rather squeaky mouthpiece for a musical culture that had staggered me by its ability to express the very bones of our past. If people who sang life so well could simply grow out of the dirt and coal dust of poverty, what possible use was I, the dilettante child of Greenwich Village Bohemians? I should quit while there was still some chance of developing some humanness of my own. (I was 23 at the time.)
In Santa Barbara I rediscovered nature, cooking, drinking wine with delightful people. These things would be enough to sustain me. I didn’t need to keep slugging away at this damn music thing. Hanging my guitar (in those days a Martin 0018 classical) on the wall was like taking a heavy pack off and resting by clear waters.
I also, however, discovered the Rondo. I do not remember what force dragged me downtown to a place known to feature folk music. I do remember that I almost immediately had a job there. And a nice review in the News-Press. The environment was a lot more friendly and less pressured than Hollywood; there was no one who hated me, no one I needed to hate. Tony Townsend was absolutely supportive. So was Don Robertson, who took some lovely photos I still have.
And so was Peter Feldmann, who came “backstage” one night to discuss possible mutual acquaintances. We had quite a few. Our friendship was immediate and warm, fueled by a whole lot of music-playing. I was just making a transition from using a folded matchbook as a pick to using the nail of my index finger, a feat Peter seemed to find amusing. I was truly glad to have taken my Martin off the wall—nothing like strapping on the old pack and continuing along the journey!
Before my trip to the southern mountains (which included an over-long stay with the great singer Roscoe Holcomb), I had specialized in border ballads and foreign songs. In fact, I remember sitting on Roscoe’s porch singing a Greek song in 7/8 time, to the profound perplexity of the whole Holcomb family. But I’d just discovered bluegrass, thanks to another precious friend now gone, Clarence White. Clarence played guitar in a way I hadn’t ever known about—with a flat pick, for starters, and with melodic infusions of great complexity between the chords. He taught me how to go about doing this, in a general sort of way, as did John Cohen, who had taken the trouble to learn Clarence’s solo on “Journey’s End” and claimed a person needed a road map to get through it. John was actually a very good map—I learned the piece, and I wish I could remember it today.
Let me backtrack a bit here. Thinking of John Cohen reminds me that before coming to Santa Barbara I had recently played at a Detroit club across the street from where the New Lost City Ramblers were playing, and I spent my breaks listening to them. Mike Seeger played the Autoharp, a creature I had not seen before. With it, he performed “Man of Constant Sorrow,” while I sat with the dropped jaw and glazed eyes of a person who would have to have an Autoharp immediately or die. Mike told me I could, without dying, get one for $30 from Sears & Roebuck’s. My Autoharp arrived very quickly, so I was able to sit in my hotel room and learn all the tricks Mike taught me.
This in turn reminds me that in those days, thanks to the Ash Grove mostly, I had come to know quite a few “important” people; and while this is an aspect of my life I tend to dismiss as of no importance, it actually was a matter of considerable importance. I was learning. From John and Mike. From Clarence. From Jack Elliott, from Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, from John Herald. In those days, a gig would be a month’s booking, so one had plenty of time in the dressing room to share, to listen, to absorb, to show off.
So, now there I was in Santa Barbara, with my 4-year-old son, with a divorce on the burner, with no visible means of support but lots of new friends and the very attractive Mountain Drive community. It seemed a good place to be—a good place to find a home, something I hadn’t had for many years. And as luck would have it, a musical group was beginning to form, in a careless and unstructured way, usually involving Maria Cordero on guitar, Gene McGeorge on violin, Tom Sheldon on guitarron, Bill Neely on harmonica—all dependent on the instrumentally multi-tasking Peter Feldmann.
I was happy to be a part of this; playing in a group removes absolutely every speck of nervousness or ego-fear, at least for me, and so I got to have all the fun of music with none of its terrors. We became regulars at the Sandpiper in Summerland and kept the place hopping.
“The Scragg Family,” we called ourselves, after the street called A.P.S., or Alameda Padre Scragg—Bill Neely’s chronic joke. We gave ourselves fake “mountain” names: Peter was Hanley, Gene was Seth. Maria was Sally, Tom was Uriah. Our sound man, Dick Johnston, was Electron Scragg, I was Ruby Lee.
All things change. I lost my little son to death. Gene McGeorge and I became one. Soon we had a baby, Gavin—Black Diamond Scragg—who always lay in his basket onstage. My guitar was now a Martin D28. The Scragg Family played at the Ash Grove. After that the ante went up. We wanted to go on the road. This resulted in a sort of natural selection, between those who could or would travel, those who couldn’t. The Family became three—Peter, Gene, and me. We got an old school bus, painted our logo on the side in red, white, and blue, and headed out to seek our fortune.
As it happened, our fortune for that summer was Virginia City, Nevada. We hadn’t been able to tempt anyone else into hiring us, all through our California travels, although had it been a movie we would have. Undaunted, one night we pulled the bus up before the Red Dog Saloon. We didn’t get out, because we were changing into our costumes. By the time we entered the club, we had excited considerable interest from the bus alone. We asked for a job, and the owner said it would be nice if we could play there all summer. We said we would check our schedule but it seemed highly possible. The owner asked if we wouldn’t mind playing a tune or two, if we weren’t too tired, that is. We obliged, and he was not disappointed. This was particularly flattering because the band of the previous summer had been the Grateful Dead [Actually, Big Brother w/ Jannis Joplin – PF] , whose light show still pulsated on the back wall of the stage.
I’m not sure I got all these events in straight order. I do know that pretty soon it was 1967, and the Scraggs were disbanded. Gene and I bought 160 acres of land in a remote area of Montana—such a thing was possible in those days—and took up a different kind of life, one we live still. And oh yes, Peter did come up to Montana once. We played at a local bar, the Antlers, getting maybe the biggest crowd they’d ever had. It was wonderful—dozens of shots of Jack Daniel’s were lined up along the stage and the piano top, courtesy of the owner and many customers, in case our inspiration should flag. In the middle of the evening, the crowds parted and up walked a very tall, old hawk-eye with tall cowboy boots, a tall Stetson, and a navy blue suit. He held out his hand to Gene and said, “Well, I guess we’re neighbors then.” That’s how we met the rancher-next-door.
Since then, my own musical experiences have gone farther and farther afield. I played solo or in bands, in a piano bar, at festivals, at innumerable college concerts. For a while we even moved back to Santa Barbara so I could expand my career. I began writing my own songs and to some extent gave up on folk music. The fun and excitement always alternated with the old desire to give it up and just stick to my cookin’. I got pretty deep into country and western, then popular music, then rock & roll. When in the 90’s I found myself doing vocals in my son’s heavy metal band, I knew for sure it was time to quit.
But you see, one does not ever stop. Never. All the old music still lives, and all the new. I know the words to 500 songs and find myself, at someone’s request, dredging up lyrics I didn’t know I ever knew. I’m even about to publish a book of four decades of my own songs. Musical styles overlap and interweave. I write, I steal, I plagiarize, I synthesize, I try to catch the errant drifts that ripple through a dream and make me think I’m hearing some ditty from Sappho’s day.
And if anyone reading this little memoir wants to join me in a tune, I’ll probably jump at the chance. The strings on my D28 are fresh, I have an electronic tuner and a whole bag full of picks, and I will soon be coming to a town near you.
P.S. I just read Gene’s contribution and find to my great surprise that we said all the same things and hardly contradicted each other at all. This is truly amazing and proves the veracity of us both.