The Sixties in Folk Music / 5. Phil Earl

Phil Earl
Math Major Plays in Folk Group,
Parents Not Amused

I started college in 1956 at the new campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara [they had just moved to their site next to the Santa Barbara Airport -PF] . I started as a chemistry major, but changed to mathematics. Getting a good-paying job in aerospace was the thing to do at the time.

I became interested in the new and growing folk music scene that was becoming the popular music. The Kingston Trio was very popular and I liked their music very much. Consequently, I decided to learn to play the guitar. I bought a Sears, Roebuck “Stella” guitar for around $12. It was OK but hard to play.

I hung around good players and tried to figure out what they were doing. The guy I learned the most from was Don Beeks. I believe he was a professional singer and player; anyway, he sure sounded like one to me. He was friendly and was willing to teach me all that he knew, specifically his rhythm technique. I believe that he is alive and living in Santa Barbara today.

I knew that I wanted a better instrument and ran across a “Harmony” guitar that was really nice looking and sounded a lot better than the Stella. As I became a better player I started playing with other people, and we sang many of the popular folk songs of the day.  I was living in , in an apartment in Isla Vista, a community right next to the UC campus. There were a lot of parties going on at the time, and playing the guitar was a great way to fit into the scene with the ladies, as I remember. I was dating my future wife at the time, Janet Pedersen.

Around 1958, after playing a Martin guitar at a music store on State Street (Bennett’s) in Santa Barbara, I knew that I had to have one. I worked all the next summer at Parker Aircraft running an automatic screw machine and bought a brand-new D18 Martin at a music store in Torrance for $180. I still have and play this Martin today after almost 44 years.

About this time I started playing with a guy named Dave Johnson, who played an electric Gibson. We worked up two songs, which I have forgotten. We played at the auditorium for a large crowd. After we sang our two songs, they went crazy and asked for an encore, but we didn’t have any more songs rehearsed. The stage manager told us to go on back out and sing the same songs. We went out and sang the same songs over again, and the crowd didn’t seem to notice it was the same material—they loved it. Fun times!

Around this same time I met some guys that were interested in forming a folk group, with the idea that we would get some songs together and perform at various venues. I met John Thomas, who played guitar, Dan Hudson on bass, and Roffie Morris on banjo. We sounded pretty good and John got us some gigs at some parties and fraternities. Our most ambitious and biggest show was put together by John Thomas (our unofficial producer) at the brand-new San Marcos High School. We put together about a 40-minute show, which ended with “When The Saints Go Marching In.” We got a great reception, and the high school principal said, as we ended the show, “Nice show, guys,” which made us all feel really good.

Our group also played on the Santa Barbara campus at a “Road Runner Review” in March of 1960. The group consisted of Phil Earl and John Thomas, both on guitar, Roffie Morris on banjo, and Dan Hudson on stand-up bass (see photo). [no photo] The group, which we never gave a name, went on to play at parties and fraternity get-togethers in the late 1950s. Some of the songs were the favorites of the time: “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Scotch and Soda,” and “Wildwood Flower.” It was the best fun to all be playing and singing together and making music. We would frequently practice in washrooms because of the echo of the bare walls, which made our voices “sound” better.

A coffee cafe opened up in Isla Vista called the OMTAE, the letters standing for Our Means To An End. John Thomas and I played there from time to time—for free hamburgers, as I remember. Speaking of Isla Vista, one night John Thomas had a party at his beach-side apartment. There were a lot of people there, including me and my future wife Janet. The party got a little out of hand and the cops showed up. Janet and I hid in a closet until the law left.

Speaking of Janet, I still have a picture of Janet and me all dressed up to go to a “Sadie Hawkins” dance. She is dressed in a burlap dress that she made and I am holding a guitar; the photo is circa 1959. And we are still married today, after 41 years. We have a 36-year-old daughter, Adrienne, married and living in Mill Valley, California.

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs.

Peter founded Santa Barbara’s Old Time Fiddler’s Convention (1972), UCSB’s Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps – three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled “The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music” (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 – 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, “BlueGrass West!”, based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California.

Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America’s musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.

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