On Beacon Mountain
Written by Dick Miller in 1953
My musical education, and this story too, started in 1949 when my brother and I rented a shack on the Hudson for the summer. It was a scabby old dump that years before, had been the ferry landing for West Point, a grey castle from which you can see from right across the river. The high tide of the Hudson came right up under the back porch, so you could sit in an easy chair and fish, or shoot at floating bottles, or watch the tows and ocean ships passing by on their way to and from Albany. And you could look out across the sunken ferries and the river at the Hudson Highlands, the solid green sloping down from the castles on nearby crests to the broad sheet of water was truly magnificent and it wasn’t hard to understand why old Dutchmen and 19th Century millionaires and retired colonels and fishermen and railroaders and farmers and artists and writers and New York commuters and Italian immigrants had all chosen to live around there—making Putnam County one of the few cosmopolitan country-sides in America.
We furnished the five room shanty in middle stone-age style—mostly with stuff scrounged from the river or the neighbors—and it wasn’t long before people took to coming over with guitars and beer and sneaky Pete, sitting on the back porch and singing or square dancing in the old waiting room. As the summer drifted along I acquired a taste for catfish, eels, and guitar playing but it wasn’t until we came back in 1950 that I realized that there is more to music than noise and catchy words. That a good song is something more than the latest on the hit parade or some off-color ballad as I had been led to believe by my previous life in a Cleveland suburb, in the service and in college.
That spring Bob Gibson, a stocky 18 year-old from nearby Peekskill, began to come over and add his voice to those of the neighbors. Soon he became a standard piece of furniture, receiving the nicknames of “Fuzzy” and “the Woodchuck” because of the way he looked and “the Jukebox” because he’d play for hours and hours, never stopping, even when the gloom was as thick as a cup of Italian coffee. Bob, who had collected top marks in English and the history award at Peekskill High – as well as much disciplinary action as the school could devise – sang with a voice which was golden like the guitar chords themselves.
Always friendly, he’d go along with any piece the others would start, no matter how horrible the singing or the music. But left to himself, he’d run through old ballads about people and America that made you feel the story of the rich countryside and those who lived in it a lot more than the songs they liked. That summer the Weavers’ first hit records, Irene Goodnight and Tzena, Tzena, Tzena came out and soon they were among our favorites. Bob and others would sing them everywhere: in bars, in front of the preacher’s house, to the Cold Spring police, on the dock, sitting on the magazine rack at the general store, to the farmers in the fields, at parties, afloat the river, or just walking down the road.
Bob’s brother Jim (on rt) in 1949
I had a steamboat ticket to France which I was going to use at the end of summer and a few days before I left Garrison for a last visit home, a venerable Indian carried a more venerable guitar into the general store and said, “You want to hear me play “The Campbells Are Coming” on one string?” This he proceeded to do and presently I found myself two bucks lighter, walking out of the store with the guitar. I bought five more strings, a book, learned a few chords, and went back to Cleveland. Russ Kane, my old next-door neighbor, and the second guy in this story, was fascinated by the guitar. His family was just as non-musical as mine, but Russ enjoyed hillbilly guitar players and folksong records and decided that if I could learn to play a guitar, so could he. He filled me in on some of the background of the songs and the people who sing them, speaking particularly of Pete Seeger and Bess and Alan Lomax. So I bought
It used to be said that if you sit at a café table in Marseilles or Cannes for a month you’ll see everyone you’ve ever known, but the modern version is ‘spend a few weeks wandering around Washington Square or Madison Avenue in New York. At any rate the next time I got to New York, I met Reavis on Madison Avenue and we promptly composed a letter to Pete Seeger inviting ourselves up to his place the following Saturday.
Bob Gibson, by this time had married and helped start the Reading Laboratories in New York. A few days before Reavis cropped up on Madison Avenue, Gibson and I had investigated the rumor that every Sunday guitar bashers and banjo pickers go to New York’s Washington Square to play, sing and square dance. Checking up, we found it to be true. On Sunday the square becomes an urban Ozark—hundreds of people collect to perform or watch and everyone has a fine time. So, when Reavis and I wrote to Seeger, we mentioned Russ Kane, threw in some pix of Washington Square as bait and, as an excuse, told Seeger we wanted to do a story on him.
Although Reavis and Bob had never met we included Bob in the invitation. There was no way of telling how well they’d get along, but all of us were so enthusiastic about meeting Seeger it seemed they’d like each other well enough. So Saturday we met at Bob’s place. Still no answer, but we decided to go up to the country anyway. When we got through loading John’s car it looked like a hockshop. There were three guitars, a banjo, and a tipplay in the back plus numerous books and accessories.
The day was fine – everything was fine—except that we probably wouldn’t get very near to Seeger. We were all wearing open shirts and beat up shoes; John had on some shabby gray pants and Bob and I were dressed in Levis. We weren’t quite sure how well these hobo uniforms would go over at Seeger’s, but we probably wouldn’t see him anyway and if we did, he’d find out soon enough that we were tramps at heart. Clothes wouldn’t hide that, so we might just as well dress as we usually do.
As soon as we got out on the freeway Bob climbed in the backseat, selected a tipplay (10 string uke) from the hockshop, and sang the Cornell song for John. It sounded pretty well and, by the time we’d run through the story of Jesse James and a few verses about what Careless Love can do and more about a dying cowboy, I could see that John and Bob would get along okay. John has five years of college, three years of age, and three years of age on Bob – but they both have good imaginations and like music and people so that didn’t make much difference.
The country was beautiful. We couldn’t remember it being as green before. Everything was coming off so fine that I kept putting off calling Seeger, for fear the day would be ruined. So we stopped at my cousin’s house in Ossining, played a few songs for his family, and headed up the river. John brought up the subject of Seeger and we decided to stop in Peekskill, buy some banjo strings, and call him. None of us really expected anything would come of it but we were afraid to establish that as a fact.
So I changed the subject from Seeger to the country in which he lives, telling John that there is nothing quite so beautiful as the Hudson Valley from Peekskill to Poughkeepsie. Explaining that, because the land is mostly rocks, all the mountain slopes are still forested. We told him about the Revolutionary roads and forts and iron mines you can see in the backcountry– about the Dutchmen who lived in the hills around Ossining and demanded a bottle of gin as tribute from each captain who would pass safely through the Tappan Zee. We also mentioned Anthony Wayne’s capture of the British fort across from Peekskill, the iron chains that the continentals had stretched across the river from Bear Mountain and West Point to stop the British fleet, about Continental Village where General Putnam’s stores were burned by the English.
We told him that this is the country of Kenneth Robert’s ‘Disputed Ground’ where fierce bushwhackers plundered farms between British armies on Manhattan and those of Putnam in Peekskill. Robert Fulton’s first steamboat passed between the sheer green slopes at Peekskill where, nearby, the surplus Victory and Liberty ships from the last war are tied up in ranks. This is the country of Benedict Arnold, the Robeson Riots, rodeos, fire department parties, and the shad run where, for a couple of months a year, everyone stops work and drifts for the great schools of fish which come up the river to spawn.
And, up near Seeger’s, the American Rhine begins. Impelled by delusions of grandeur certain 19th Century millionaires built themselves castles on mountaintops. They half believed they were European nobles but, despite turreted castles and phony ruins and peasant cottages and monuments to themselves, it hadn’t quite come off, making a truly American story. Currents of American history and civilization as deep as the Hudson itself flow through these mountains and it was reassuring that Seeger had chosen them as his home.
Soon we were in a Peekskill music shop; Bob fixed up the banjo and John and I tried out all the guitars on the rack. One, a deep speaking Martin, tempted us so much that we considered exchanging it for one of our guitars. The clerk had seen us coming in with a guitar and would see us leave with one and that would be that.
But we couldn’t put off the call any longer, either with music or fancy. We went to a soda joint and found the [telephone] booth, but there was a teenage girl inside, exchanging endless confidences with someone. Rapping on the window I asked her to cut it short, but she only obliged so far as to mention that there was a bar across the street.
There was. And soon Seeger’s phone was ringing and then Toshi, his wife, answered. I introduced myself and she said: “Didn’t you get our card?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, we’ll be glad to have you come up. Pete’s outside now, digging a new foundation, and I’m going to have my hands full with the children until about eight-thirty, so come along then.”
“Fine, we sure will.”
“Know how to get here?”
“No, not exactly.”
She gave us a complicated set of directions. Just beyond Cold Spring we’d find a tunnel, beyond a bar, and then a yellow house. A road, which looks like a driveway, goes straight up the mountain to the right. They live in a log cabin near the end. “Hope you have a good car,” she said. “But if you get scared or can’t make it, get out and walk.”
Soon we were on the road again, going north. We were really hitting the songs by this time, joyful ones, crap kickers we called them. There were a few hours to kill so we decided to pass through Garrison and show John our old shack, then go to Jack Collins’ in Cold Spring. Jack likes guitars and calls us the Hudson River Pirates from times when we’d walk up to his tavern from the dock in bare feet. Bob had found his heart once with a rendition of Ivan Skivinsky Skavar, Jack’s favorite song, and he was always glad to see us come around.
On the road to Garrison, we talked over everything we knew about Seeger. How nice Kane said he was, how friendly his wife sounded on the phone, how he’d revived the five-string banjo and helped popularize folk music. We ran through such songs as we could remember from the Weaver’s records—Irene Goodnight, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, The Saints, Roving Kind, On Top of Old Smokey—hoped we could get him to play Sloop John B. and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.
We passed in sight of Greymoor, a Catholic institution where anyone can have free meals and a bed, a nationally known for tramps where the only regulation is that you must stop playing pool during prayers. I pointed out Osborne’s Castle on top of a nearby mountain, a locally known institution where some big wheels can have free meals and a bed with a minimum of regulation, and then we wound the hill to Lower Garrison.
We showed John our old waterfront slum dwelling, the John and Bob sat on the station platform and played some requests for old friends and a West Point football coach who stopped his car to listen and encourage them with quarters.
The boys packed up the hockshop and headed toward Cold Spring, stopping by a sign, which reads: “For Sale. One Partially Finished Concrete and Steel Castle.” Wondering how the castle market is these days we drove up the mountain, to Dick’s Castle, an enormous structure of empty windows and unfinished rooms.
The owner, a casual Austrian with two children, was standing by a clothesline on which fluttered dungarees and tee shirts instead of jerkins and doublets. Craftily avoiding our questions about the price, Mr. Chmela showed us around the place. What was designed as the Grand Ballroom had become a curious guest book as had, indeed, the rest of the walls. Previous visitors had left remarks like “Joe Loves Betty” and “Jerry Brown, 1949”.
Chmela’s kids thought that “living in a castle’s okay” and didn’t see anything unusual in having a phony Roman aqueduct lead up to their home or, for that matter, in the medieval structure itself.
The Baron of the Fortress told us that Mrs. Evans Dick, the wife of a New York financier, had spent hundreds of thousands on its construction, but that Dick had lost a fortune in the Panic of 1907. As a result the workers were the only ones to have received any previous benefit.
Just before we left Chmela obliged us with a price. “You can have her as she stands for a hundred thousand,” he said. We protested the figure as a bit too high and he cut us short with: “Hundred thousand don’t go a hell of a long ways these days.”
On the way down the hill we decided not to stop at Jack Collin’s but go straight through to Seeger’s. Soon we passed through the tunnel, which was the first of the Seeger landmarks, and arrived at the bar, which is second. Bob selected a guitar and tipplay out of the back seat hockshop and we stepped inside.
John ordered a case of cans, figuring it wouldn’t be right to drink out of Seeger’s jug in the event a party developed, and Bob tuned up his tipplay. Bob’s tipplay, so Bob says, is a guitar with an inferiority complex, and that’s why it makes so much noise. At any rate Bob likes noise too and soon the diminutive instrument was giving out with loud, ringing chords, and launched us into the story of Jesse James. The bartender cut off the jukebox and a pretty girl came over and began making requests.
Several beers later it was a party, Bob going into a little dance and everybody singing. By this time we’d had enough beer to telescope the past and the future into a glorious Now. It was the sort of moment when you can meet a friend’s eye and say: “Man, they can kill us now because we’ve lived.” The whole day had been a sustained mood of that kind and it occurred to us that we were singing and drinking – and postponing the trip to Seeger’s for fear there’d be an anti-climax.
It was already after 8:30 so we asked our host to call Seeger and say we’d been delayed. We packed the beer in with the hockshop and found the place where we were to head up the mountain. The road, a steep trail which climbs between the thick, green undergrowth, is a great deal as it was 100 years ago – like most of the back lanes in the mountains. It doesn’t take much imagination to meet Revolutionary soldiers or Dutch settlers coming around some quiet bend, especially at dusk, and we all beginning to see them when we went up a particularly steep hill, turned, and saw the cabin through the heavy screen of foliage.
But there were cars in the drive. We stopped next to them; sang “When The Saints Go Marching In” as a satirical comment on ourselves; decided to leave the beer and instruments in the car in hopes that we could contrive an excuse to come back for them.
Seeger opened the door and it was just as Kane had described him, just as he should look. Slim, old clothes, big army shoes, and an air of backcountry neighborliness. He smiled and introduced us to the other people in the room in a pleasant, cultivated voice. His wife, Toshi, greeted us in a way which suggested that there would be no anti-climax here and her father, Mr. Tokashi Ohta, made a dignified bow.
There were about seven people included in the round of handshakes so I made a bad joke about how quickly one forgets names then, taking advantage of an eddy in the conversation, I looked around the room.
The room, about 30 feet by 15, was dust brown, with bookshelves at one end and a sink near where we were standing. The party had been seated around a wooden table on which there was a bucket of little fish and on the wall that famous banjo.
Seeger picked up an electric lantern and suggested that he and I step outside, where we could talk without interruption. He led me out through the yard to a tree house. It was dark now, but you could still see the magnificent view, the black shapes of the mountains, from Bear to Storm King, and the river and the lights winking at us from miles distance.
After we had hung up the lantern with one of my shoestrings I mentioned the original point of contact – the Sunday gatherings on Washington Square – and Seeger thanked me for the pictures. He’d been there several times, it seems, and thought the spontaneous nature of the gathering was fine. “Guitar and banjo pickers began sitting around the Square, more came, and now it’s an institution.”
We looked out at the mountains and asked him about one of my favorite theories. It has always seemed to me that you can tell American history in folk songs. Each deep current of life that Americans have really felt has compelled them to make songs and if the current is broad enough, those songs have lived. This, I often thought, is the popular history of the U.S. as told by the men who built the nation rather than by the professors who read about it.
When I proposed this idea Seeger smiled at me and said: “ History of the U.S. taught in folk songs? I’m teaching a class like that right now. But, really, to do a good job it’d take more songs than you could sing from now until breakfast. Even the occupational songs would take that long. And that includes more than sailors and coal miners.”
He propped his chin in his hand and spoke again, more to the mountains than to me. “Some of the most beautiful poetry in America is found in the lyrics of folk songs. You read between the lines and you discover how people lived and felt in those days. Like in ‘Betsy From Pike’ you can see the life of a pioneer woman who was dragged out on the lonely plains…
A verse or two of this piece, a favorite of the ‘49’ers and settlers who followed them across the wide west, sang themselves to me. And I could see what he meant; it was plenty tough for Betsy and her sisters, but the story is told in ribald, satirical way.
“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Betsy from Pike
Who crossed the big mountain with her lover Ike
With two yoke of oxen, a large yaller dog
A big Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog
“The Shanghai ran off and the cattle all died
That mornin’ the last piece of bacon was fried
Poor Ike got discouraged and Betsy got mad
The dog wagged its tail and looked wondrously sad
“The Injuns came down in a wild yelling horde
And Betsy was skeered they would scalp her adored
Under the wagon, old Ike did crawl
And Betsy fought Injuns with musket and ball.”
“… And the slave songs,” Seeger was saying, like Jimmy Crack Corn. Can’t you see the contempt the slave felt for his master…?
And more verse:
“When I was young I used to wait
On master and give him his plate
And pass the bottle when he got dry
And brush away the blue tailed fly
And one day rode around the farm
And flies so numerous they did swarm
One chanced to bite him on the thigh
The devil take the blue tailed fly
The pony run, he jump he pitch
He threw my master in the ditch
He died – the jury wondered why
The verdict was the blue tailed fly.
… Many people think that’s just something nice for kids to sing, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Because folk songs are made for neighbors and friends they go right over the heads of lots of people.”
He stopped and glanced down the river, in the direction of West Point. “There’s a little town near here called Greenhaven which was settled by escaped slaves. People in these parts were strong Abolitionists in those days.”
That struck me. I know plenty of people who’ve lived out their lives in the Highlands, but Seeger was the first to tell me about the Abolitionists. Actually many of the natives don’t know anything at all about their time-rich country. They are flat, two dimensional, contemporary. They do not extend down in time or have vision ahead. They have neither roots nor branches. Feet nor eyes.
Then, remembering I was on a reporting job, not a historical binge, I asked Seeger to tell me something about himself.
“I don’t know quite where to start, really, but I was raised in Connecticut and went to Harvard, but left Harvard in ’38 when I ran out of money. So I hung my banjo on my back and hitchhiked around the country. I guess I must have seen every state in the first year.”
He paused, and then spoke a little more quietly. “You it’s a real education for a young guy to hitchhike around this great country.”
I knew what he meant. Russ Kane and Bob and I had, at different times, seen quite a bit of the U.S. travelling by thumb and agree that it was no waste of time.
“It sort of makes you feel what it took to build the country, doesn’t it? Some people sneer at the idea, but travelling like that makes you see that it took the heroism of an entire people to build this country. There were heroes in those days. People tend to forget that now, but sometimes the old songs get them to see it.”
I thought of the five years in college and how few times the professors had made me see it. In all those five years there were only about a dozen teachers who were worth listening to. Many of the students graduated as two-dimensional, as contemporary as those residents of the Highlands who don’t know anything about the country in which they live. Or people who sneer at the thought that it took heroes to build the U.S. Or the McCarrans and McCarthys who’ve forgotten why earlier generations of McCarrans and McCarthys came to a new land and cut their farms out of the wilderness.
So I said to Seeger: “Seems to me a fellow can learn more about America by seeing it and talking to people than he can in school.”
He tapped his foot against the floor of the tree house. Beats me how a person can waste four years of life in a college. You know, I learned more in a year of travelling than I ever did in Harvard.”
We discussed this for a while, then he said: “Folk songs, like they sing on Washington Square, help people remember the epic story of building America—of the melting pot. Some people think that ‘melting pot’ means melt them into Anglo-Saxons, but the songs like the ones about building the Union Pacific, about the Irish and the Chinese gangs racing each other to the meeting point, remind you that other people made contributions.”
I glanced off at the Hudson and the distant mountains, a vista like a grand, American cathedral, and told him about Cleveland. That one of the finest things about the city is that other cultural groups—Czechs and Slavs and Negros and Germans—are so strong that the best of their civilizations have had a great effect on Cleveland life. Many of the people who vegetate in the suburbs don’t know it, but you can find customs and architecture in Cleveland, which are the same as those in Rome or Berlin or Belgrade or Moscow.
He mentioned Washington Square again, saying: “It’s really fine to see national groups which are usually at war, like Anglo-Saxons and Italians and Puerto Ricans, swapping folk songs and making friends. Seeing the beauties—feeling them, more—of each others cultures.” We were silent for a minute then remembering again that I was a reporter who should be nosing out the Who-What-Where-When & Why, I asked him how he’d happened to start playing the banjo.
”My family is musical,” he said. “My mother was a violin teacher and my parents have always been interested in music and people. I never studied music, but I banged away on everything I could see. Played in the school band, then found a five-string banjo. There was nothing printed for the five string back in ’38, except for a few adaptations of European music, so I painstakingly transcribed songs note by note from Library of Congress records.”
“I memorized most of the music, but I did work out a book for the five string. I can read music now, but in the beginning I depended entirely on my ear. Many people who have come out of conservatories can’t play a single note without having a printed page in front of them. It’s a handicap for them. Songs played by ear challenge the creative ingenuity of the musician; he remembers the skeleton and invents the variations. That’s the very reason why many of the finest new things in music are developed by people who play by ear.”
I thought this over, remembering stories about jazz being born in inspired jam sessions – by trial and error method. I recalled Big Bill Broonzy, one of the best blues guitarists and composers, saying: “Man, I can’t read music. I don’t mess with chords and chords don’t mess with me. Record company calls up Friday and says come on over and cut a few discs so I works out some new songs and takes them in on Monday. If I went and learned all about couldn’t play anymore. I try to play what I feel and each time it’s different. What’s written down’s what the other fellow feels, not me.”
A car started up in Pete’s driveway and he excused himself, to say goodbye to his father-in-law and some guests. I got a can of beer out of our car and waited till he came back. It was cooler and he had a leather jacket on.
“You know,” he said, adjusting the light so it hit my notebook better, “Most people don’t realize it, but the banjo’s an African instrument which was brought to America by Negro slaves, long before the Civil War. In those days people thought banjos were vulgar and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But, then, a teenager near Appomattox, a sharecropper’s son named Joel Walker Sweeney, picked one up and learned how to play it and in twenty years the banjo was the most popular instrument in America. It was heard in the high-class music halls, in farmhouses, at barn dances. It crossed the prairies with the wagon trains.
“The banjo was very popular in the Civil War, with both sides, but it died out in the nineties. There was a revival in the twenties of the four-string variety, but during both periods people made the mistake of trying to fit European music to an instrument which is basically African. The five-string is becoming popular again, chiefly in the South, and it is being used for the music that suits it.”
Seeger began to tap his foot as he warmed up to his subject. “Banjos ran from three to eight strings, but the five-string outlasted then all because it is closest to the ones the slaves brought over. It really is the best. The guitar gives a sustained sound, the mandolin rings, but the five-string banjo gives a needle point of sound. It sparkles.
“We Americans really haven’t been playing these stringed instruments long enough to put them together right. In Washington Square everybody bashes away, competes. But in Mexico, where people have been playing guitars for years, you’ll find that three guitars will take three parts and fit them together. One bass, one high, the third for variations. We have some hillbilly musicians, though, who know how to make guitars fit together.
“You have to have the right music for an instrument to get the best out of it. In the 19th Century, believe it or not, they even tried to fit the William Tell Overture to the banjo.”
Then I asked him if he planned to be a professional musician. He shook his head. “No, never. I like people who don’t think of themselves as professional musicians, people who just pick up something and play. The last thing I ever thought of was being a professional. Music was for fun.
“You know,” he said, “Actually, I always wanted to be a farmer, or a reporter.” He turned away from me and looked at the mountains.
“You should be here on a clear night. Sure is beautiful country: dogwood grows like a weed.”
When he looked back I asked him how he happened to become a professional musician.
“Well, when I was hitch-hiking around, I’d knock on doors, do any kind of work for food. Play any place I could for fun or whatever people would give me. Hear music in the country and sometimes I’d stop, but sometimes I’d feel shy and go on. There’s nothing like travelling when you’re broke. You’re forced to meet people, make friends. That isn’t true if you have money, even enough to stop in hot dog stands. I used to be shy, but a rumbling stomach made me change.”
I thought of all the friends he’s made all over the world—without knowing it. So I told him about American music being our best ambassador to other countries. About the tourists on the Liberte singing Irene Goodnight on the way across in 1950; about the entire generation of European kids who know six words of English – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” About kids singing his songs in youth hostels in Europe an Africa and the Dutch soldier on the Veendam playing and singing American folk songs for a group of immigrants. Then I mentioned Russ Kane, John Reavis, and Bob Gibson; how they live and think something like he does and how he’d made lifelong friends of them before he ever met them.
He glanced off at the river, then said: “I’ll never forget many nights walking down walking down a country road and hearing a fiddler or a banjo picker in a farmhouse and stopping to listen. After a while I’d start playing and pretty soon we’d all be friends.
“You know,” he want on, “an instrument’s the best way to make friends.”
Then he leaned back and sang a verse from “Rye Whiskey.”
“I’ll tune up my fiddle,
I’ll rosin my bow,
I’ll make myself welcome
Wherever I go.
That’s what I mean. I used to sing whenever there was a chance and picked up lots of nice friends that way. And change, too, sometimes. Nickels, dimes, dollars, and pretty soon my only income was music.”
I mentioned the coach from West Point throwing quarters to Bob and John earlier in the afternoon and he smiled, “Me, I used to sing in places high and low. A musician gets himself into strange situations; meets millionaire and hobos. I used to play on street corners, in churches, homes, bars, parties, penthouses, fields – everywhere people would stop and listen.“
I asked him about the songs he’s collected and he mentioned working out guitar chords in “A Treasury of Folk Songs”, a pocket book that is much better than any ten-buck edition. He spoke of his banjo manual that came out in ’48 and other collections he and his parents have edited or arranged. Then, smiling shyly, he said: “But the book I’ve just done, and I don’t mean to be immodest, is one of the best collections of Christmas songs there is—The Caroler’s Songbag. Christmas is a time for all good people to pick up their instruments and this book will help.
Then he suggested that we go inside and see the others and I reached up to jerk the lantern down, but he wouldn’t let me. He untied my shoestring, so I wouldn’t lose it, and waited for me to thread it back into the shoe.
Walking back towards the house I thought over what he’d said and it seemed to me that he and Joe Sweeney were brothers, perhaps, separated by 100 years. Sweeney, a teenager in a teenage country, had seen farther than the prejudice of his neighbors when he learned how to play a reviled, but moving instrument. His vision blended this bit of Africa into the fabric of America, becoming part of Confederate bivouacs, New York music halls, gold camps, and the wide prairies. Then Seeger, another teenager of another century, had slung Sweeney’s banjo over his shoulder, gone out to find the real threads of America, and come back to remind us that we are all deeply rooted in all the lands of the world, that these roots have combined into a common trunk, and that the future hold promise of the fulfillment of the dreams of all those dust, bloody years of civilization that finally came together in the United States.
Opening the door we found Toshi, Bob, John, Bill – a reporter from the Newark Times- and a girl seated at the table. They were talking about music and Seeger produced an African piano and began to play it. It was a keyboard made of flexible strips. Pete would push down a strip and it would pop back up and twang. That was all very fine, but I kept glancing at that banjo on the wall, hot to hear it run.
So, as an excuse, I suggested a picture of Pete playing the banjo, an underhanded trick as I knew very little about cameras and could see that Pete was tired out from the day’s work.
Toshi covered up the icebox, took the candle off the table, and Pete got down the banjo. Jim had a strobe attachment and was going to show me how to use it when we discovered it wouldn’t fit. So Toshi got out a camera with a flash and we worked out a deal – she’d say “One – two – three” and I’d click and she’d flash. You could see that cameras made Pete a little uncomfortable, so after a couple of tries I gave up the camera and Toshi took me over to the other end of the room and gave me some mats of Pete which she put in an envelope marked “Pump”.
We walked back to the table and I stood there, watching. Pete was really going by now, with John and Jim giving guitar background and Bob working in a restrained tipplay.
They were playing “Cindy”; the banjo sounding like lightening would if it could make more noise. Pete’s leg was sawing up and down like it was cutting a hole in the floor and he was bouncing the banjo on it, the neck sticking up about two-and-a-half feet above his shoulder.
Every time they’d get to the chorus Pete’d lean back and shout up into the air, loud enough to push the stain right through the logs. “Git along home – Cin – Cindy, Ah’ll marry you some day.” Then on verses they’d slush down the beat a little bit and solo, in turn:
“Y’oughta see my Cindy
She lives away down Souuuuth
An she’s so sweet the hon-ey bees
Swarm a- round her mouth
They were all facing each other around the table and it was almost a syncopated conversation:
“Cindy had religion
She had it once before
But when she heard my old banjo
She’s the first one on the floor
“GIT ALONG HOME CIN – CINDY
GIT ALONG HOME
I’LL MARRY YOU SOMEDAY”
Then, dammit, they stopped, and Toshi said: “If I’d known you came up from New York especially to see us I’d have invited you to dinner. You called from Peekskill so I thought you had friends there. I really must apologize for being so thoughtless.”
I could see what Pete meant about her doing too much for guests and I was trying to phrase up a nice compliment when Bob said: “That’s real nice of you, but we had to come up here anyway. We were visiting friends in Peekskill. We used to live near there, in Garrison.”
“Garrison,” she said, “imagine!” She went over behind the table and took a letter out of a box. “Listen to this. Maybe you know some of these people. I’ve had this letter around here for years.”
“My God,” I thought, “It couldn’t be.”
But it was.
“Just think of a letter like this coming from a place like Chagrin Falls, Ohio. It’s from a reporter named Russ Kane.”
As a Clevelander I’d never though of how ridiculous the name Chagrin Falls sounds; it’s right out of the chirping bird opening of some B movie. But I’d never seen such a remarkable coincidence outside of a B movie either, so I braced myself to meet the laugh that was rolling in our direction.
She read Kane’s letter aloud.
It mentioned how happy he’d been to meet The Weavers in Cleveland, asked for a banjo book, then said there was a group of folk singers who hang out in the general store and the old ferry shack in Garrison, suggesting that, as Garrison was only a few more miles away, they should go down and investigate.
“Well, we did,” she said, “but we couldn’t find any of them.”
“Toshi,” I thought, “You couldn’t find any of them there right now, either.”
“Maybe you know some of these people?”
I held my breath.
“He says in particular: ‘Be sure and look for Bobby Gibson, a dissolute youth who can make old women, and young ones too, cry in their beer’… Know him?”
I pointed at Bob. “That’s him right there.” An enormous laugh burst out of Bob and soon everyone with it. When the atmosphere stopped quaking she read off another paragraph– this time about me.
Again, that straight line.
When the last of the second laugh had soaked into the logs, she said: “Doggone, we should write a story about you.” I clumsily evaded this compliment and told them more about Russ Kane, sorrier than ever that Russ wasn’t there in a more substantial form than in an old letter. I remembered one of his parting maxims, a most intriguing truism which makes you regret that life is complicated. Kane says: “The longer the neck, the better the banjo.”
So, I checked this theory with Seeger.
“Now I wouldn’t say that’s always true, but I did splice a couple more frets into the neck of mine.”
Then he smiled, swung into “Midnight Special” and the famous train proceeded to shine it’s ‘everlastin’ light’ on everybody.
But, momentarily, the everlasting light winked out.
“Fraid I’ll have to quit,” Pete said. “Our son Danny and I went fishing and I promised him we’d have fish for breakfast. So I’ll have to get to cleaning them.”
Knowing full well that my fish cleaning skills are superior to my banjo picking, I offered to take over for him, so soon Toshi and I were working over inch long fish and Pete and the others were knocking out songs.
By now he was really hot, really making things bounce. His feet shook the whole house and I kept dropping fish on the floor. Bob said later that he got so lost in the music that he played the same chord through an entire song without noticing it and John discovered his mouth was hanging open. An Ida Red, a Frankie and Johnny, a Darlin’ Corey, and several other songs later they broke off for a minute. Toshi called Pete, suggesting that it would be a fine idea to dispose of some of the more miniscule minnows, but Pete said: “Nothing doing, Danny counted them all.”
Then he said: “Here’s a little chant I heard once in Philly,” rared back and yelled, “Beat on your dish pan- here come’s the fish man – porgies at five cents a pound.”
A whimsical look came into Toshi’s eye. She took one of the minnows and stuffed it down Pete’s neck; they played around for a little while, then she went back to Danny’s fish, laughing, and Pete sat down at the corner of the table. John volunteered to take over the fish cleaning and give me his git-fiddle. Now I was across from Seeger, Bob was next to him, Jim next to me, and the girl was at the end of the table. It was really fine – it was just like eating in the kitchen, only the food was music.
So we ran through some more songs: John Henry and Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies and Jesse James and it wasn’t long before the part of my mind which wasn’t soaked with music noticed that Seeger never tried to complete with the others. When we’d quiet down in deference to his superior skill he’d say: “C’mon everybody sing,” and when Bob or Jim would take off on something he’d let them have it, his banjo tapering off into the background. Stopping sometimes.
But too much was going on to waste time noticing things. Jim and Pete got off on a sea-song kick, which should have set Danny’s fish to swimming. The, finished, Pete decided it was time for bed, but we were still conspiring against him. I asked him to play “Poor Howard’s Dead and Gone” and “Sloop John B.” for Russ Kane and he did this right lustily.
The Bob and John asked him to play his own song, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” and he did, for Bob and John, inventing verses about how tough it would be for Jim to drive back to New Jersey that night and how it would be better for him to stay over.
That was all she rode; we couldn’t impose on him anymore. But here happened to mention to John that he wanted the words and music of the South Korean national anthem and, lo and behold, another B movie coincidence. One of John’s best friends in Korea was a lad who has a doctorate from the University of Seoul in music and John promised to contact him and get the song for Pete.
So they led us to our car, said goodbye, invited us back and, going down the drive, John said: “God, what nice people.”
He ran into a rock.
We pulled away from it, went further, and stopped to unload some used beer. And, just as we climbed back into the car, the foliage parted and there were Pete and Toshi and Jim.
“Something happen to you?”
“No, nothing, thanks.”
As we pulled away again Bob said: “You know, I’d like to come back and carry rocks or help him cut wood for his cabin.” He paused and watched our lights brushing across the green undergrowth as we eased around the bend. “I hope Seeger knows that there’s plenty of people who’d help him carry rocks and dig his foundation even if he couldn’t play a banjo.”