These two old vinyl LPs – a double-LP set from folk song legend Guy Carawan – have weathered many moves in their lives with my family. The spines are shredded from that one cat that liked to sharpen her claws on our vinyl racks. The covers are bent, twisted, creased, and the records have been tucked into storage in a dusty closet forever while our turntable was broken. There are probably a few old spider corpses squished in the sleeve somewhere. Now they’re out and on my platter and they’re scratched, and skipping, and rough, but it’s there. The sound of my father, Louis Leger, as a young man, fiddling for all he’s worth, a glimpse of a side of my father I can never know, but of whom I’ve heard endless stories. The past made real, just for a moment, more real than the photographs I’ve seen, and more real than the stories I grew up with.
I grew up with cassette tapes, not vinyl. Sure, we had vinyl, but our turntable never worked and I had no idea how to use it. Even as a kid in the 80s, I knew that cassette tapes were crap. I could never remember which side the auto reverse would play when I stuck it in, and I could never find the song I wanted to listen to. It was all we had, but we knew it wasn’t great. When CDs came in, I was hooked. I’d haunt the record stores all across town, loving that “fnap, fnap, fnap, fnap” sound as you flipped through CDs like rifling through the old reference cards at the library. I never got into the iPod thing. Hell, I actually bought a Discman recently at the airport since I prefer to travel with stacks of CDs, so I can read the liner notes on the plane and write little reviews.
But the thrill is gone from CD collecting these days. Record stores are barren wastelands filled with overpriced CDs from archaic distributors that are never gonna sell. On the other hand, vinyl has seen an amazing resurgence. Most bands release their albums on vinyl as well as CD these days and there’s been a lot of reporting about the huge influx of vinyl for events like Record Store Day and how this has overloaded the few remaining vinyl plants in the US. What all this press fails to mention is that really the main reason vinyl came back was because younger music buyers were looking for something cheap, something a little more special than a CD bought off Amazon, something from the past that might still have meaning now. For me, buying vinyl got me back into collecting records after CDs became so lackluster. Here was the thrill of the hunt again, flipping my way through dusty record stores looking for obscure and lost folk records from the ’60s and ’70s. I found too that a lot of my older musician friends on social media remembered the records I was digging up, and even had cool stories about the recording of these records.
Thanks to No Depression, I’m starting up this weekly column, Vinyl Roots, to discuss some of the rare folk and roots vinyl I’ve been finding and to invite other folk music crate diggers to contribute as well. The point here is not for me to act as an expert on vinyl or vinyl collecting, just as an enthusiastic amateur looking to learn more and record some stories.
Back to that old Guy Carawan double LP, though. It was brought over from Germany by my father, who met my mother there. He was touring with his group, The Stringband, a popular American roots band on the European touring circuit, and he met my mother in the German town of Göttingen. Though The Stringband cut two albums, my father isn’t on either one, so the only recording I have of his fiddling (and spoons playing) is from the Guy Carawan recordings. Released in 1974 by Intercord Records, the first LP is titled Sitting On Top of the World, and features mainly old-time and folk songs. The second LP is Mountain Songs and features mining songs from Appalachia, including classics like Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Black Lung Blues,” and “Black Waters.” Carawan’s voice is beautiful throughout, rich and sonorous, especially in tandem with his wife, Candy, and the music remains nestled in the Appalachian traditions he loved. Though some of the tracks from these LPs were released on later LPs in the US (Green Rocky Road), the LPs remain unreleased as a whole outside of these very, very rare German pressings.
I sat down with my dad to get the story behind these LPs, and he opened up about meeting and working with Guy Carawan.
“Guy Carawan was touring Germany at the same time we were, and I think we had the same manager. It was a time when several bands were touring. There was Guy Carawan, there was us (The Stringband), The Dubliners were touring. All in Germany. Planxty was touring, we met them one day at a festival. Derrol Adams was still alive and he was touring, and Colin Wilkie, who was also on the Guy Carawan LPs. He was an English singer-songwriter. We all knew of Guy Carawan, especially my bandmate Bob Douglas. We got to go to one of his concerts in 1974. That was in a GI Club in Germany. I’m not sure which town the GI Club was in, but there were still a lot of American bases in Germany at the time and this one definitely was a hangout for the GIs. We were hanging out with Guy Carawan and he told us he was going to play “Draft Dodger Rag” by Phil Ochs for the GIs, and we said “No way! You’re gonna get killed!” He did it anyways and it was an amazing success. People were jumping up and down, singing along, whooping and hollering. He had the whole place in the palm of his hand. That was where it suddenly dawned on me the power of song in a social context. He’d grown up doing this kind of thing at work rallies, labor gatherings, protests. You could see how it energized people. That’s why he sang, as a social tool or a social weapon. All his songs had a message.”
“For the recording, Guy had heard that one of us had a National Steel slide guitar. He wanted to make a recording in Germany and he was looking for a slide guitar in it. Every couple of years he made a recording, and I guess his German manager wanted him to do a recording in Germany. It was going to be a double LP, one LP of traditional mountain songs, the other LP of coal mining songs. The guy who had the National Steel was Howard Schultens, a very close friend of ours in Göttingen. Everyone who toured in Germany stopped by Howard Schultens’ house. He was an ex-pat, so we could eat American food and hang out there and Howard played a mean banjo. Great guitar too, kind of Reverend Gary Davis style. He’s a fun guy! Howard told Carawan that he couldn’t really play the steel, but that our bandmate in The Stringband, John Everatt, could. Then it snowballed from there. Howard would play some banjo on the record, I’d play fiddle, and John and Susie Everatt from The Stringband would sing. Carawan was fine bringing us all on so we all went over to Colin Wilkie’s house and I think that’s where we made the album, or it wasn’t far from there [Note: Oops, Colin says it was in Stuttgart]. It was a really nice studio, and the takes that I did on fiddle were the first takes. We just ripped through a couple of tunes. Then the coal mining stuff we worked a bit more on to get the harmonies right. The funny thing is that Barbara [Louis’ wife and my mom] and I were supposed to leave and go to Paris, and instead when this came up, I really wanted to do the recording. She liked doing the recording too, but we kind of skipped Paris and she still remembers that. … Shortly after the recording was done, we left Europe and moved to the States and I left The Stringband. I was ready to leave Europe at this time. I got a haircut at Colin’s, shaved off all my crazy hair, and was ready to go.”
“I remember Carawan as being really calm, a real gentleman. He was very professional, no histrionics, just a really nice guy. Candy was there, his wife, but not his kids. We’d jam with him on hammered dulcimer; it was really fun. I don’t think I got any money for the recordings. We just did it to support Guy Carawan. We were just really honored to be on a recording with him.”
Thanks to my dad for the memories of Guy Carawan. We’ll be back next week with another vinyl discovery. Comment if you’ve heard of these Guy Carawan LPs.
For another version of these Guy Carawan recordings in Germany, and a funny story about my dad and cucumbers, check out Colin Wilkie’s blog post.