My student life as a folk singer


I came from New York City in the fall of ’59 to study architecture. Although Miami had a good reputation, the choice was partly because it promised the independence that I could not have if I stayed in New York. But I soon found that my background, music tastes, and political ideas led inevitably toward the more bohemian elements that were in short supply at MU. Nearly 700 miles from home, 14 hours by car, if we were lucky. Might have been another planet. The Great Folk Boom was then almost unknown to Midwesterners, but a few of us, including Miami classmates Kathy Davis, Philip Sharaf, and Tom Loughead, drove down to a Pete Seeger concert in Cincinnati. A former member of the folk music quartet The Weavers, Pete was prominent in the 1950s and ’60s for singing protest music and was under a Contempt of Congress indictment for refusing to answer questions about his politics. The concert inspired us to organize a regular folksong group. Bob Strippel, who ran the YMCA at Miami’s Student Union, let us use the Y’s lounge on Friday nights.

From then on, there was a weekly “hootenanny,” which outlived my time at MU. We loved The Weavers, traditional singers and interpreters, hated The Kingston Trio and other commercializers. I formed a trio, The Wanderers, modeled on The Weavers, with fellow student Nick Bocher and “townie” Lynn Sandage. We took first prize at the MU talent show of 1960. We organized the first Miami Folk Festival, inviting Kentucky banjo picker Pete Steele, who had recorded Last Payday at Coal Creek and other songs for the Library of Congress in 1938; and The Stoney Mountain Boys, who played Cincinnati bars. I worried about how Pete (and his wife, Lillie) would go down with students who had never heard anything remotely as authentic. To my delight, they were cheered wildly. The Stoney Mountain Boys left the students open-mouthed with their virtuoso Bluegrass picking. We broke boundaries and rules, often neglecting formal studies. Once we drove 300 miles to Chicago for a Seeger Family concert with a borrowed tape recorder in the trunk. I still have the recording.

In 1961 we spent an evening at Oberlin with Scottish folksinger/ songwriter/socialist Ewan MacColl and American folksinger Peggy Seeger (Ewan’s wife and Pete’s halfsister) before Ewan was banned from the U.S. The following year, I tried to organize a concert for Peggy, touring on her own, but the Council of Deans refused to back it on the pretext that the Miami Folksong Group was not a “recognized organization” with rules, constitution, etc. The Wanderers dispersed, and I formed a duo with Kathy Davis, playing gigs in Mac & Joe’s basement bar and other venues. That friendship and love of music endures to this day, together with a lifelong friendship with (now) Texas bluesman/songwriter Stuart Michael Burns. He and I caroused and womanized (the pill had only just become obtainable) with a gang of mainly Western coeds and English majors, one of whom was David Standish, creator of the irreverent off-campus mag Plague and later Playboy editor

We joined the Civil Rights movement and sang for it locally. I still regret missing the legendary Selma march, under pressure of my architecture thesis. Taking up a post-graduation job offer in London, I immediately looked up Peggy and Ewan, as well as American guitarist, banjo, and fiddle player Tom Paley, who left the contemporary old time string band New Lost City Ramblers to move with his wife to Sweden and then England. I spent the next seven years with my British contemporaries’ The Critics Group, honing my skills, touring clubs, performing with Peggy Seeger and Tom Paley, writing songs, and acting.

The Vietnam War had made me into a draft resister, fugitive, and leader of the Stop It Committee, the American anti-war group. In 1970 news of the Kent State massacre struck deep. It could just as well have been Miami I thought. So I wrote The Kent State Massacre, recorded by blues, and jazz singer Barbara Dane. For me, it was an honor to resist the war, although I would just as soon not have faced arrest back then. With Jimmy Carter’s amnesty of January 1977, I was free to return to the U.S. But, having made a life in England, I stayed, continuing to sing and write, as well as practice architecture, fittingly perhaps, dealing with heritage and vernacular buildings.

I count myself lucky to be where I am.