David Bromberg – Picking and choosing
The fiddle lessons were simply more steps in an ever-widening musical education for Bromberg. He started playing guitar as a kid and even majored, briefly, in musicology at Columbia University, before leaving school to play in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. He backed Tom Paxton, took turns with John Sebastian playing guitar for (as Bromberg puts it) “every gay African-American folksinger in the Village,” and quietly became known in the industry for uncredited electric guitar work on records by faceless hitmaking studio pop bands including the Archies, the Left Banke and Steam (of “Na-na, Hey-Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye” infamy).
It was a longer stand as lead guitarist for Jerry Jeff Walker that brought his first real public recognition. Later, David’s version of Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” would be among the better-known interpretations of the hit on which he had played originally.
Among his serious guitar teachers was legendary acoustic blues and rags picker Reverend Gary Davis. That fact alone serves as a reminder that Bromberg, now 60, is from a generation of interpreters who had close access to some of the leading lights of American folk and popular roots music starting out — and forms a link to them.
Bromberg had gotten lessons from the blind reverend in the ’60s, in exchange for serving as his personal aide and guide. That was a bit of history that would flash back when Bromberg began to make the occasional stray appearance, in this decade, with a reconstituted David Bromberg big band.
“I ran into Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen; we did a gig together in Texas,” he recalls. “We started talking about our formative years, and I mentioned that I’d been a seeing-eye dog for Reverend Gary Davis. Now, I hadn’t played any of that for over twenty years, of course, but I sat down and played some and they said, ‘Man, you really ought to be performing that stuff.’ And that night I put a Gary Davis tune in my set.
“When the Reverend was around and touring,” Bromberg suggests, “it didn’t make a lot of sense for anybody to do Gary Davis tunes, because Gary Davis could do them better! But now there aren’t that many of us who learned directly from him still around, or from Mississippi John Hurt, who was my buddy. And there was something valuable in what we got.”
There are two Gary Davis songs on Try One More Time, Bromberg’s new disc released February 27 on Appleseed Records, the dedicated folk-oriented label that’s been a hospitable home, too, for Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn and Donovan.
Bromberg’s slow return to performing, and finally to recording, began with the establishment of that violin shop in Wilmington five years ago. The Delaware capital’s mayor, in cutting a deal for the downtown store space, had pressed David and his wife, singer-songwriter Nancy Josephson, to help make live music happen on that city’s Market Street again. Bromberg set up a still-ongoing series of “not strictly”-style bluegrass jams on Tuesday nights and blues jams on Thursdays.
“I figured that I could endure this for a few months and then it would probably die on its own,” he admits. “But some really fine musicians and fine people started showing up — and I love them. So if I’m in town on a Tuesday or a Thursday night, which I usually am, I’m there. Like any jam session, there are moments when the music is terrible — but there are moments when it will be very, very good too, and it’s really helped me get back a lot of my chops — and given me pleasure in playing music again.
“You see, I had basically stopped not only performing, but playing, for about 22 years. I would go months without even touching a guitar. So I had a lot to rebuild once I started enjoying playing again.”
The masterful acoustic picking on the new record — on tunes from Dylan, Tommy Johnson, and Elizabeth Cotton, on the rural country bag (“East Virginia”), on early jazz (“Windin’ Boy”) — will not, be assured, strike anyone as the work of someone long out of practice. And the singing, well, that’s notably more resonant and full than it ever had been in Bromberg’s big-label youth. He has explanations for that.
“I started to experiment with all the things that people had recommended I do to improve my singing when I used to be on tour — and it all worked!” he marvels. “I know better how to sing these days, and I enjoy it; that’s a huge difference. I mean, I really love singing now; I had had fun, but I enjoy it much more viscerally now. I don’t know how else to put it. It physically feels like fun.”
Making a record big-time-studio style had hardly appealed to Bromberg even when he was making a string of them. (“The way most people produce a record, and the way I did, it’s tremendously hard and intense work that’s done in windowless rooms for hours on end,” he observes.) Coming back to recording now happened incrementally, and almost accidentally, perhaps the only way it could have.