The Sixties in Folk Music / 8. Ernie Brooks

Ernie Brooks

My Brush with a Career in Music

A slight but minor one to be sure, but I’ve enjoyed every moment (almost). Like most, my mother played the main role, because in the days just before, during, and after WWII, you did your entertaining at home. Most everyone was basically too poor to “go out,” and one evening of drinks, dinner, and a movie would mean nothing else for the rest of the month.

My parents had two pianos, one bass fiddle, a complete drum set, and various percussion instruments; thus friends and neighbors got together and provided their own entertainment without breaking anyone’s budget. Of course I took piano lessons when I was a boy; who gave up first, I don’t know—my teacher, my mother, or me. Moving on, first the trumpet, then after that (two weeks tops) my father’s alto sax. Then in high school, the baritone sax, which weighed a little less than my truck engine. In high school I started with the double (dog-house) bass fiddle. I found the fiddle more to my liking—and less demanding, in that I only had to worry about one string at a time. A high school buddy, Ray Wells, said his girlfriend’s brother played guitar, and, together with a friend named Jimmy Johnson, we got together and became a group known as “The Moonshiners.”

Doing the standards of the forties and fifties, mostly Country & Western together with some Rock & Roll, we set forth to conquer the world of C&W—forget the day jobs. Finding the world of high-end enter tainment filled to capacity, we kept our day jobs and worked usually Friday and Saturday nights in some strange and exotic places. I found trying to get out of harm’s way, lugging a bass, and dodging beer bottles at the same time to be at least a different way of making a little extra money.

During this time, about 1956-57, I found myself playing two nights a week with a trio, two nights with The Moonshiners, two nights of practice—one with the trio and one with the “Mooners”—and my Guard meeting on one night. My mother was going to work at 7:00 a.m. and my work schedule varied between late night and early morning. “Folk” music was starting to take off around 1959, and though I can’t remember how, Howard Pelky, John Thomas, a youngster named Malcolm Stevens, and I got together—Howard and John on banjo and guitar with vocals, me on bass and wherever, and Malcolm on bongos (Yes! bongos). Initially we were known as “The Travelers,” but finding that name taken became “The Channel Singers.” It was probably the most fun I’d had in my young life, existence being somewhat freewheeling and nothing but good on the horizon for the country. In addition, I’d sneak in with a group consisting of Bob Hoffman, Don Robertson, and Reily Jackson, the “Freeway Singers,” holding forth at Bud’s Other Place down around Milpas and Carpinteria streets. Of course that changed dramatically in the mid-sixties, and I’d finally gotten a full-time job as a Deputy Sheriff.

With this, I put the bass away for about 20-plus years until I was transferred to Transportation Bureau down at the old courthouse jail. There one day I heard the sounds of “bluegrass” coming from the old linen room and found two deputies, Mike Pritchard and Mike Lynch, pickin’ up a storm. I made mention that in my misspent youth I played bass, and was told to bring it to work. So on lunch hour (after the Division Commander chased us way upstairs to the sixth deck), the three of us happily picked away.

For a few years the three of us played (sometimes with a fiddle player who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers), by and large for our own entertainment, not considering getting rich. Casting all modesty aside, we weren’t bad. But, all good things come to an end, as they say, and both Mikes left the Department. I was sent to the main jail and, except for a little backup on a few occasions with a group from the German Club, I don’t think I’ve touched the bass in ten-plus years.

As I wrote this bit of deathless prose, I thought of a number of high points; like going to a performance by Joe & Eddie over at the Iopan coffee house, something I will never forget. Two black guys, one white guitar player, and more music than one would dream possible. They did two numbers in particular—“John Henry” and “There’s A Meetin’ Here Tonight”—each lasting about 15-20 minutes; same words with totally different treatment and arrangement. Mind-boggling!

When The Channel Singers were work-ing at the new Nexus, a rebuilt walnut-shelling shed-cum-bar where a Taco Bell now stands (across the road on Hollister Avenue from where the original Nexus had been situated), I’d sneak in a jam with Sheri Lynn Geiger when she was working there. She lives and works around Cambria, and I’ve not seen her for many years–I’ll wager she still hasn’t learned “Farewell, Angelina.”

Probably other things will jump back in my memory, but I say these were about the happiest days of my life, and so many good times, good friends, and talented people I was privileged to know. As old-age senility, physical deterioration, and short-term memory loss take their toll, thoughts of these times and those people will serve to keep me warm on the cold winter nights.

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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