A Swiss Hillbilly Discovers America
My family emigrated from Switzerland shortly after World War II. I recall landing at Burbank Airport in the middle of August (LAX had not yet been built.) The temperature was an even 100 degrees. I aksed my mother “Can we go home now?”
As I grew up in LA during the 40s and 50s, an immigrant kid with little understanding of American culture and Americans themselves, folk music was for me, invisible. Over the radio, which was the way to hear music in those days, I heard the last remnants of the big band era, swing and bebop, along with the pop music of the time. Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and Doris Day were the singing stars of the time, just beginning to feel the pinch of early rock and roll by the mid 50s. Musically speaking, there were many changes just ahead for Americans and the world. The energy and money from the war was being pumped into American culture just as it was into the economic fabric of the country.
We had “music education” in elementary school. I remember a little old lady bringing a clunky record player to our class, with 12-inch 78s of Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. My parents listened to some of the pop and classical stuff via the radio and record player, as well as Broadway musicals via films, etc. Probably the first thing even close to what I’d call folk music came when we visited our neighbors, who had the first TV set on the block. To help fill out the time, the local LA stations KTLA, KHJ, KTTV, and KCOP were showing cowboy films from the 30s and 40s, some of which featured “singing cowboys.” That was the first glimmer I had that there was music out there that had something “real” to say to me about life in the USA. A little later, I was given a 78 album of four records with Tex Ritter singing Folksongs For Little Cowboys — I must have worn out that set listening to the songs.
Even by 1958, when I’d moved to Santa Barbara and started classes at UCSB, “folk music” of any sort was hard to come by. However, about that time, a new local station in Santa Barbara, its first FM station, KRCW-FM, had an occasional show where the DJ would play a song by Burl Ives or Richard Dyer-Bennet. I’d found a guitar in my attic and decided to try to take some lessons with a local jazz guitarist, Nelson Baker, who was Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the local Natural History Museum. I’d managed to scrape a few LPs together by then. The best record store in town was The Gramophone Shop, run by Peter Morse on East Canon Perdido Street, near the Masonic Temple. One of my favorites was a 2-LP set titled How The West Was Won (no relation to the later film by the same name). It was a “concept” or “package album,” put together under license from RCA, and what an amazing package it was! They used the westward expansion theme, with songs of immigration (which I could relate to), gold mining, cowboys, settlers, explorers, etc., performed by quite a mix of singers, including Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (!), but also with the amazing Jimmie Driftwood and a talented, story-telling singer from East Texas named Sam Hinton. I learned a lot of the songs from that album…some I still perform today, but I was frustrated in that I couldn’t figure out what the players were doing on their guitars. Sometimes I could get the chords right, but what on earth were they doing with their right hands??!!
By 1958-59, you could find folk singers at Santa Barbara’s first local coffee house, The Noctambulist, tucked away on a brick walkway in an alley beside the Lobero Theater. The place was mysterious, with dark interiors, small tables, cane-bottomed chairs, even an espresso machine roaring away behind the bar/counter. There was the smell of coffee, smoke, hot cider and cinnamon, accompanied by clouds of steam from the coffee machine.
Clientele tended towards the “Beatnik” or “Bohemian” variety—and those who wanted to get a glimpse of an alternative lifestyle. Music consisted of a small jazz combo, but also included an occasional appearance by singer Tony Townsend, who sang “folk songs” accompanied by his nylon-strung classical-style guitar. While most of the “folk” performers were content to thrash away at simple chords, Tony at least made an attempt to generate settings for his songs on guitar, mainly in the classical up-picking style, but with a touch of flamenco technique thrown in. Tony was one of those guys who had his own personal approach to the music, really a “musical island” that worked best with his own unique style in solo format, but it was an approach that did not resonate with me as did the Sam Hinton and Jimmie Driftwood material on record, even though I could not figure them out, instrumentally speaking.
Then, through “something completely different,” I found myself in Chicago, and at work at the Field Museum of Natural History. I had a one-room apartment, but got some dinners with a local family down the street in exchange for yard work. Bob Parrish was an editor at a Chicago publishing firm, but he was also a magician, specializing in card tricks, about which he wrote several books. His wife, Dorothea, was into classical singing, local politics, and the local arts network. They recommended I stop by a new institute on the North Side, the Old Town School of Folk Music. The building was on the older side, run down, dusty, perhaps an abandoned public school, but filled by a great staff of teachers who knew the music. Win Stracke and Dawn Greening were its administrators. To me, it was like discovering the hidden cave of Ali-Baba! I soon enrolled in a guitar class taught by Frank Hamilton, who covered things like Big Bill Broonzy’s blues guitar runs and Maybelle Carter’s thumb-lead picking style.
Flemming Brown was teaching a claw hammer banjo across the hall, and I watched that class while taking notes on Frank’s guitar instructions. I soon ordered a mail-order, long-necked 5-string banjo from the newly formed Ode Banjo Company in Colorado (serial # 72!), and was teaching myself banjo licks as I remembered Flemming doing them. Also, importantly, the school began bringing rural folk performers to Chicago from the southern Appalachians, presaging the later folk festival movement. It was at the Old Town School that I first heard the North Carolina ballad singer Horton Barker and banjo maker and player Frank Proffitt, whose grandfather sang the song “Tom Dula” shortly after the Civil War. It was here that I began to understand that the “message” contained in a song, the impressions that it left in me, were more than the sum of the words and the melody. What was also important was the manner or style it was performed in. These rural people from the mountain region of the High South had a manner of performance I had not seen before, and I was fascinated by it and by what it suggested, perhaps in a very subtle manner, to me.
By the time I returned to Santa Barbara in the late spring of ‘62, I’d acquired a good foundation of what is generally known as “traditional” performance styles on both guitar and banjo, and deepened my taste for Appalachian folk songs and tunes. I knew I wanted to learn more about the music and began searching both for other musicians and recordings to fill out my musical library. One way of finding other musicians was to hold a well-publicized musical gathering. I selected a small park on the “Riviera,” Orpet Park, and wrote a press release advertising a “Hootenanny,” Santa Barbara’s first. About 150 people showed up, including several, mainly amateur, performers, on a sunny afternoon. It was very informal, there was no PA, but a beginning had been made.
I remember visiting a little bistro, Mephisto’s, run by David Bernheimer in the cellar of what was then the YMCA building at the corner of Chapala and Carrillo streets. David served Mediterranean cuisine and a good sampling of California wines on copper-clad tables with a chalkboard menu. I ran into Jim Griffith, a six-foot-seven, mustachioed man in his early 20s, holding forth with folk songs and blues on his 6- and 12-string guitars. We soon joined forces and began entertaining around town as The Mission Canyon Fret Benders.
Besides Mephisto’s, some music clubs had begun opening around town, including the Rondo on West Canon Perdido and the Iopan at the corner of Chapala and Micheltorena streets. At one of these clubs, I ran into a young folk singer from back East, Don Robertson. Don was interested in topical songs, including those of Woody Guthrie. We swapped a few numbers and eventually talked a local radio station into having us do a weekly show on their FM airwaves. The station was the second or third FM outlet in Santa Barbara, with its studios on the top floor of the Granada Building. I remember one of its early display ads in the local paper: “Welcome to K-GUD Country! – We’ve eliminated all the raucous banjos and squawky fiddles and play only REAL country music!” This was probably the first time that I realized the antipathy between followers of the recent, electrified country sound vs. the more traditional and earlier country performers. I took this as a challenge and accosted the program director in his office. He offered me two hours a week on the air. I invited Don Robertson to help. Don and I would trade off on these shows, and we each gravitated towards the areas most attractive to our tastes. I don’t believe that KGUD’s program directors ever monitored what we were playing—that was probably for the best, but we did develop a loyal listener-ship over the next few months. It’s important to remember that by 1962, in areas like Southern California, the “folk” scene was a very mixed bag. The word “folk” was used by some as a value judgment, without much regard as to what the term may have meant. There were those interested in what came to be called “traditional folk” (which covered a range from Elizabethan ballad singing on through bluegrass music) with emphasis on performance style as well as song content. On the other hand, there was the developing folksinger movement, beginning with performers such as Burl Ives, Peter Seeger, The Weavers, and later The Limelighters, etc. This was later to develop into what is now called singer-songwriter material. I gravitated towards the traditional approach, while Don handled the pop-folk material.
It was an exciting time for music, probably one of the most productive and trend-setting periods in the history of American music. The blend of musical styles, driven by the economic boom of post WW II and coupled with the intense social pressures of civil rights and the pending war in Vietnam, created a maelstrom of new musical activity.
The new music clubs in Santa Barbara reflected this activity, hosting folk singers such as Tony Townsend, future rockers like David Crosby, and old-time/bluegrass aficionados like myself and Jim Griffith. This was also the beginning of the folk festival movement.
In early 1963, I arranged with KGUD’s management to have them send Don and myself up to Monterey, California, for the first Monterey Folk Festival, held at the fairgrounds at the beginning of May. Even a partial list of performers can convey the amazing diversity of musical styles then sharing the public’s attention: Bill Monroe, Tom Ashley and Doc Watson (his first West Coast trip), The Weavers, Bob Dylan, The Dillards, Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, The Ahman Folk Ensemble, The Kentucky Colonels, Mance Lipscomb, B.B. King, Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Reverend Overstreet and the St. Luke Powerhouse Church of God Gospel Choir, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Roscoe Holcomb. Sent up by the radio station to interview Bob Dylan, who at that time was considered a “protest song” writer, along the lines of Woody Guthrie, I wound up paying much more attention to Monroe and Watson, Mike Seeger, and Tom Ashley.
A panel discussion on the Folk Music Revival, hosted by Professor D.K. Wilgus of UCLA folklore, began my introduction to the scholarly approach to the music. I can think of no festival today that combines the scope of musical styles that existed during the early and mid 1960s. Such festivals ran up and down the West Coast, and were paralleled by similar events such as Newport, Rhode Island, and the University of Chicago.
As a biology student at UCSB, I walked a narrow line between my biological and musical interests. Finding apartment life in Isla Vista rather sterile, I relocated, renting an old Airstream trailer from Gene McGeorge in what was considered a “Bohemian Community” on East Mountain Drive. I soon made many friends in the arts from the group of people living in mainly hand-built homes on the small lots purchased from Bobby and Floppy Hyde, the founders of the Mountain Drive community. Homes were generally open to visitors ready to sit down with a glass of wine for a chat or a story. There was a yearly cycle of celebrations and, on a roughly monthly basis, a “Pot War” at the Hyde’s property, where local potters spread out blankets to sell their wares to what we termed the “Flatlanders” from the city below. I soon began forming a group of musicians to entertain at these functions, drawing especially on the talents of a fine singer and guitarist, Kajsa Ohman, who was renting a tool shed for living space from the Hydes. I encouraged Gene McGeorge to take out his fiddle, and talked Maria Cordero into singing harmonies, along with Tom Sheldon on the guitarron. At Gene’s suggestion, we took the name “The Scragg Family” and became regular entertainers at Mountain Drive functions.
My life then evolved into a balancing game between my studies at UCSB and performances with The Scragg Family and other groups. Besides playing at Santa Barbara clubs, the Scraggs began traveling around the state, playing festivals and other venues, including the famous Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Two of our members dropped out, leaving the trio of Gene, Kajsa, and myself. Both Kajsa and I began hosting weekly radio shows on Santa Barbara’s first FM station, KRCW, which had studios on the second floor of the El Paseo building.
Radio was a great way of reaching potential audiences. Besides that, it was a way of sharing the music I was discovering with listeners that might enjoy it. I came to realize that most Americans really hadn’t any idea of the treasure-trove of music that existed “underground,” hidden amongst them. Getting into Don Quixote mode, I inwardly began my battle with pop music. Everywhere one ventured, there was this prepackaged music, coming from hidden speakers in grocery stores, elevators, laundromats, etc. It seemed to be designed to be subliminal; often one did not consciously hear it. That the music was often called “easy-listening” seemed right to me, as it did not require much effort from the hearer to enter the brain. I wanted something more demanding, something almost that one could wrestle, rather than cruise, with. The folk music I discovered wasn’t like that. You had to pay attention, and it was often a real effort. But then again, the listener was rewarded with glimpses into a world that seemed to me to be more human, more connected with the worthwhile things in life, than the pop music found everywhere.
So I dedicated myself to becoming a musical subversive. I found that I could convert people’s musical tastes by exposing them to a kind of music they had never heard before. I soon found that the more they learned about and understood traditional music, the more they enjoyed it. At UCSB, I founded “The Old Time Music Front,” which presented concerts by some of these underground “folk”—Mance Lipscomb, a black songster from Navasota, Texas, who was able to recall the days before there were blues; Bill Monroe, the founder of an entire musical style, eventually named “bluegrass”; Dennis McGee, an 86-year-old Cajun fiddler.
In 1970, I was able to convince the Department of Arts and Lectures at UCSB to host a fiddle and banjo contest that had been banned from its previous location in Topanga Canyon. Two years later, I was invited to begin our own Santa Barbara Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention, hosted for ten years on the UCSB campus. I again wanted to use the event to educate Santa Barbarians in the music. Besides the main draw of a banjo/fiddle contest on Sunday, we’d arrange to have each year’s event honor a particular musician or subject important to American traditional music. One year, for example, was devoted to the original Carter Family, another year to Celtic music, etc. A large poster was designed to depict the featured performer or music; buttons were made with a similar design to strengthen the image. I organized a concert performance featuring the music to be honored that year, along with a weekend workshop on the same type of music. In this way, a base of knowledgeable fans could be built up and even become a base for new and younger performers.
I was also able to establish my own music club, The Bluebird Café, at the site of an old topless bar at 33 W. Anapamu Street. We featured both local and nationally known musicians six nights a week, along with a menu of freshly cooked food, local beer and wines, and good coffee. I wanted to create an environment where young musicians could hang out, trade ideas, and watch touring musicians present their wares. Every Thursday we had an “open-mic” night, where everyone was welcome to take a turn at entertaining an audience. We had a good stage, a sound system, primitive but effective lights, and even a 16 mm film projector, wired into the sound system for Monday’s “Movie Nights,” where one could have a burger (80 cents), a glass of beer (25 cents), and watch a classic film. I’d always enjoyed food and cooking, and always tried to present good quality menus along with the music. Sort of a food for the body and food for the soul type of place. Of course, I had lots of help, including many musicians who worked as waitresses or janitors as well as performing onstage.
An additional benefit to presenting the traditional artists in Santa Barbara, either in concerts or at the Bluebird, was getting the chance to play host to them and learning about their various outlooks on life. I went fishing on the Goleta Pier with Mance Lipscomb, talked baseball with Bill Monroe, got Mississippi-style fried chicken cooking lessons from Fred McDowell, and watched Hollywood Squares with Johnny Shines, while he practiced his blues licks on guitar. I especially remember an evening spent with Dewey and Rodney Balfa, Sid Hemphill, Mike Seeger, Lilly-May Ledord, and others—digging a huge pit in our back yard and barbecuing a giant mound of Cajun-style chicken with a special onion glaze sauce.
But running a club like the Bluebird was an exhausting experience, often meaning 16-hour days without relief. I began to cast about for another way to continue making a living in music while living in Santa Barbara. Selling the café in the mid-70s, I founded a record company, Sonyatone Records, whose first release featured the music of my string band, The Scragg Family. I began releasing other albums, including a series of instruction LPs for fiddle, banjo, and guitar. I also tried my hand at reissue recordings with LPs devoted to the music of Texas fiddler pioneer Eck Robertson and later The Girls of the Golden West. At the same time, I formed and fronted a series of musical groups, gave lessons, and continued work at odd jobs to support my family.
I eventually placed my music activities on the back burner to found a computer consulting company, write articles for PC Magazine and other similar publications, and even take a small computer research company through an IPO.
In 1992, I founded another music company, BlueGrass West, which takes most of my attention today. My band Peter Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys plays shows and casuals around the state. You can always find me on my web site, BlueGrassWest.com. It is my hope that I can continue to make and share the music with my friends until the day I die.
Los Olivos, California
Peter, I remember the Fildder’s Convention at UCSB and went for several years. I also lived up the street from you family on Las Tunas and would hang out with your sisters. so glad to know you are still enjoying your music and allowing others to partake. Yvonne Drammer Rogers.
Thanks for your kind words. I remember Las Tunas very fondly . . . what a gorgeous area, especially in those days! The big empty field is now filled with houses. I remember that every late spring, they burned it for fire control. In the fall, the male tarantulas would come wandering, looking for dates . . . 🙂
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