Dick Weissman: "I didn't choose to play music just to make money"

Categories: Interviews

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John Denver had a hit with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert's song "I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado." The tune was actually inspired by banjo master Dick Weissman, who's back in Denver after a decade living in Oregon. He produced Danoff and Nivert's album Reincarnation and a number of other records during his time in New York City.

See also: Best of Denver2000: Best local-music how-to: Making a Living in Your Local Music Market: How to Survive and Prosper by Dick Weissman

Weissman moved to Denver in 1971, and since then, he's written books on playing banjo, American music and politics, and the music business, a subject that he taught at the University of Colorado Denver for twelve years. Last April, he released Near and Far, and this month, he's releasing 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own. We recently caught up with Weissman for a chat in advance of his upcoming show this Thursday, February 6, at Swallow Hill.

Westword: You have a new book in the works.

I have a book coming out soon, which is called 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own, and it's published by Rowman & Littlefield. They do a fair amount of music titles. It's a little odd, because it was originally supposed to be with another one of their companies called Scarecrow Press, and they converted everything. Their music titles are now all going to be on Rowman & Littlefield.

It makes very little difference, but it's a little weird to tell people, as I did a while ago, "Oh, it's going to be on Scarecrow." It's not going to be on Scarecrow Press. Nothing has changed. It's still with the same editor. It's the same people. It's the same mechanism. So that's coming out. It's listed for February. I'm hoping I'll have a few of them at the show, but I don't know if they'll get there that fast.

Can you talk about the book?

The book was not originally my idea. One of the things that's weird...I get a lot of work from editors. It's probably wrong to cite your own experience as the universal, but it seems that once people understand that you're capable of delivering a manuscript in a set amount of time, when they get ideas about stuff they want to do, they say, "Well, who can do this?"

If it's your first book, they'll be a little nervous and say, "Well, I wonder if this guy is actually going to deliver the book on time. Is it going to have three times as many pages as we discussed, so when I'm selling it for $28 it will become ridiculous because it's 800 pages long?" Once you've done enough books, that's sort of out the window.

I had to read maybe 300 or 400 books to make this list. A lot of the books were -- like the book that Inside Llewyn Davis is based on was one I had read before because Dave Van Ronk was a friend of mine. But I read it again, because I'm not going to review again on the basis of having read it four years ago, and I may or may not remember the important things in it. So that was interesting.

I found a couple books that I read specifically for the project that stood out above others. One of them was a book about a mysterious character named Lawrence Gellert. He was a guy who was collecting protest songs in the 1920s in the Carolinas and in Mississippi. His work paralleled the Lomaxes' but he and the Lomaxes were not friends; he accused the Lomaxes of treating Lead Belly like a plantation slave. And the Lomaxes were not a family that took well to people disagreeing with their approach or attitude in any way.

So he's sort of...I use an expression of people who have been written out of the folk-song revival, and he's been written out of the folk-song revival. But a scholar in Michigan got interested -- Bruce Conforth is his name. So he wrote this book, and the guy's life turns out to be totally mysterious -- like, his dead body was never found, for example. It was very interesting.

There's a guy named Stephen Wade who wrote a book called The Beautiful Music Around Us, where he went back and took twelve recordings made by the Library of Congress around 1935 to '40. And he went back to where these people recorded, and he interviewed family members. He interviewed people that knew them, who were younger than they were because they're all gone.

Some of them are people that are somewhat known in the revival -- like Vera Hall was one of the people that Lomax collected, a well-known sort of gospel-tinged singer. A banjo player named Pete Steele, from Hamilton, Ohio, has always been a legend among banjo players. And then eight or nine people that even someone like me had not necessarily heard of. It's just a very well-written, wonderful book that included a CD of these people, so that a listener who doesn't know any of them from Adam can say, "Oh, now I know who this guy's writing about."

Then there were a lot of books that weren't so good that I thought were either badly constructed or just not accurate, just uninteresting. When I started the project, I was very skeptical about it, but I actually got to like it better after I finished it, which is rare for me. Usually if I finish a book, I'm done with it. It's like a record -- like you make a CD. I don't spend a lot of time listening to my CDs

How long did it take you write the book, including all the research?

That book took about a year and a half, which, for me, was a very long time because I usually work pretty quickly. But it was just too much stuff to go over.

You mentioned Dave Van Ronk earlier, and I was hoping you could talk about him and your experience living in Greenwich Village. It sounds like you met Gary Davis during that period as well.

Yes, I used to go to... Tiny Ledbetter, who was Lead Belly's niece, used to live on East 10th St. in the same building that Lead Belly lived in and his wife continued to live in at that point, so I actually met her once. But she used to have a gathering on Tuesday night, and Gary Davis would come over, and for me it was like going to music school. I mean, I was nineteen years old, and Tiny was really nice to me.

I was very young and raw and immature, and they were just very nice to me, and Gary was actually very supportive. For whatever reasons, he liked the way that I played. I say that like if he heard me now, I would say, "Oh, that's nice," but at that point, I would say, "What does he see in me? What am I doing that's worth anything compared to what he's doing?"

So that was really a shot in the arm to me. All kinds of people would show up. Erik Darling, who was in the Rooftop Singers, the Tarriers and the Weaver. He was Seeger's replacement. All of those people were there. There was a guy named John Gibbon, who ended up being a psychologist. He was the first of Gary's kind of lead boys, you know, that would take him places and do stuff. Stefan Grossman was probably the most famous of those guys. He's written, you know, 8,000 how-to-play-the-blues books.

And a bunch of DVDs as well...

Right. He's got a company, and he himself is quite a good guitarist. Then other people... I once met Woody Guthrie there. The only time I ever met Woody Guthrie. And you think about Woody Guthrie in these large terms. He was tiny. He went into the hospital right after this. But I didn't know Woody Guthrie. I'd never actually seem him live. I thought, "Who is this midget?"

When was this? In the '60s?

It was in the late '50s and early '60s. When I was first met Tiny, it was more like middle '50s. I was a college student. I went to college in Vermont called Goddard College, which is kind of like Evergreen State. We had a winter work term, and that's how I ended up in New York. There was a record label called Stinson that had recorded Woody and Cisco and a lot of people. And I used to buy records there, and a guy and I got to talking, and he said, "You ought to go to this place on Tuesday night." So I did. And Tiny, as I said, was very nice to me and said, "Any time you want to come, just come by."

Can you talk about your musical history over the years?

I was kind of a roots-music fanatic, and I was in a pop-folk group called the Journeymen, and what happened with that was, I met John Phillips on a recording session where I played banjo and twelve-string guitar. John's first group was called the Smoothies. They recorded for Decca, which is now Universal. So we started hanging out together a bit and became friendly, and he suggested starting this band, the Journeymen. The third guy was Scott McKenzie, who had also been in the Smoothies. Scott was like the classic one-hit wonder -- later he did that "San Francisco" record.

I gave this a lot of thought, and at that point, it's hard to explain the stuff I was doing. It was in its own time, more like -- and I'm not talking about the actual contents of the music, but just the concept -- Chris Thile or Béla Fleck. I was writing fifteen-minute banjo pieces, which, at that time, I thought, "There's no one in the world who's ever going to make a living doing this" -- which turned out to be totally wrong, but it's like 45 years later. I think I was certainly right for that time and for me, personally.

So then I did the pop thing, and when Scott and I left the Journeymen, I went back to New York and produced records. I also worked for a company that was part of Universal. I produced everything. I produced R&B, I produced country and folk, I produced jazz, even electronica a little bit, and some rock and roll. I did that for a while, and would continue to do sessions because I was playing on a lot of that stuff, which in New York meant a combination of commercials and records.

The record business kind of left New York in the '70s, and I found that suddenly about 80 percent of my work was playing on jingles, and I went though this sort of really introspective period, and I thought, "You know, this isn't why I got into music." I can make money doing this, but I didn't choose to play music just to make money. I was just trying to support myself. So that's how I came to Denver in the first place.

And this is sort of a weird sidelight. Your editor, Patty Calhoun, had some stuff about "I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado." That song is about me. It refers to my sitting in an office in New York City and playing the banjo. Most people think it's about John Denver, but John Denver never worked in an office in New York City, and he didn't play the banjo. The people who wrote it were people I had produced at ABC. Their names are Bill [Danoff] and Taffy [Nivert]. They were the Starland Vocal Band later and had that monster hit "Afternoon Delight." So, that song that they wrote about me was their first recorded song.

When I moved in here, which was in 1971, initially, I was driving down the street and I hear Mary Travers singing this song about me as a commercial for living in Colorado. I can even begin to explain how weird that was. Since I'd moved here. I also lived in Oregon for ten years. I just moved back here. My wife is a painter, and at the time we left, which was around 2000, to be honest -- and readers won't like to hear this -- but the Denver art scene was not happening at that point, to any degree. It seems like there's infinitely more activity now in terms of the number of art districts that exist.

We had a lot of motives for coming back. Harry Tuft, from the Denver Folklore Center, is my best friend. And he and I are originally from Philly, so we kind of really go back in time. So that's another Colorado connection that I had. And also taught at UCD for twelve years.

What I taught there was music business. This is something that I usually say in shows, but this is good enough maybe to use, one guy voted against hiring me because I played the banjo, and that was not a musical instrument. So I get a big kick out of that since I did get the job. I wasn't really bitter about that.

I know you've written a few books on the music business. I was kind of curious to get your take on how the music business has changed over the last few decades.

It's a very sort of confusing picture in my mind because -- I don't mean that I'm confused -- lets say I'm 25 years old and I just decided to quit school, or now I'm out of school and I want to do this: On the one hand, it seems as though there are so many vehicles. There are like 8,000 labels. There's, what, 30 or 40,000 CDs that get done every year, even though nobody buys CDs anymore. I mean, that, in itself, is really bizarre. And the problem is, I think, for musicians is that it's so difficult to monetize all these new media forms, and the royalties from Spotify or Rhapsody or whatever are minute compared to what people used to get.

Of course, we all know that the record companies didn't usually pay people royalties because the expenses of recording were always charged against the artist anyway. There weren't a lot of Bruce Springsteens or 50 Cents or whatever, or Jay-Zs. I mean, one thing that I'm fascinated by is the way the whole black music thing has changed in the sense that, you know, historically... Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield were the first black artists that controlled their own publishing. And Curtis also eventually controlled his own recording rights.

Before that, we had all the Chubby Checker-type thing or the people that recorded songs, and the white guys recorded their songs and four times as many records got sold. Now, the guys at the top of his heap, like Jay-Z...they're beatmakers, they're songwriters, they're artists... It's kind of an amazing thing that they sort of, in a way, have a lot of control over the business because I think that the white executives have reached a point that they reached with, say, acid rock. You know, if you get them in a room, they say, "I don't know. I don't understand this crap. I need to find somebody that does that'll do it for me."

One of the things about Dave Van Ronk, by the way... I spoke about him briefly. One of his things was... Dave Van Ronk was quite a good songwriter, but he didn't write many songs. And he said, "The world would be a lot better if many of the songwriters would sing other people's songs." And you know, I really agree with that. I'm not against singer-songwriters, and obviously people like Joni Mitchell had amazing runs of stuff, and Dylan in his own way.

But, you know, you go out to clubs or wherever you go, and you hear people, and they're singing these songs, and 98 percent of them are about their own personal dilemmas. And they're all the same dilemmas that usually start with the word "love," or "sex," whichever you prefer to use. It's become, I think, like it's own cliché. Did you see the Inside Llewyn Davis movie?

I haven't seen it, but I definitely want to check it out.

I actually wrote a thing that No Depression posted on their website that's pretty long, but the short version is there are no black people in that movie. There are no black people performing. No black people in the audience. There aren't even any black people on the streets. And there are no Italians. Who lives in Greenwich Village? Italians. It just sort of blew my mind. And they did stuff that's factually incorrect. They called the Gaslight a basket house. And a basket house meant that you passed the basket.

The Commons across the street was a basket house. Say, you're in the Commons and I'm playing, like I did. We had these set speeches that they told us to give that we don't get paid and please contribute to the basket because that's how we get paid. In fact, they did pay us, like $3 or something. But the Gaslight actually hired people.

The other thing about the Gaslight that's funny was that the Gaslight had upstairs neighbors who, first of all, were not crazy about the music, but second of all, they didn't really want to be up until 2 in the morning and hear Dylan rasping.

So they worked out this thing where people didn't applaud, they snapped their fingers. And that's not an important point, but the thing is if you're making movies about that environment... To me, that's kind of interesting. Like how many places do you know... like you go to Herman's Hideaway. Do people snap their fingers?

I kind of instantly attach the finger-snapping thing to the Beats.

Yeah, it became a Beatnik thing, just like lighting matches became a big thing in the '80s at big arena concerts. That kind of weird stuff.

Tell me about what you do musically.

As far as what I do musically, I would say there are basically three components. One is the instrumental music. What I do is a little unusual, because most banjo players play one of two styles. They either play sort of modern bluegrass, à la Béla, -- not many of them are that good, but they try. Or they play what's called clawhammer banjo, which is an earlier technique. I play both of those styles, but basically, what I do is more like what a guitar does, so I'm playing with my fingernails.

Kind of like fingerpicking?

Somewhat. One thing I do... I do a Brazilian tune, I do a flamenco-ish tune, I do a Tunisian tune. The Tunisian tune do is in a tuning that I just made up out of desperation. The whole banjo is tuned in different octaves of C's, except for one note and the one note is the middle string, which is the G. play it with a slide.

The reason I play with a slide is so I can get the sound between the frets like they do on the oud. A lot of things like that interest me. I've been interested in music from various parts of the world. I was in Tunisia for a while. We were on a trip there for about a week. I was able to hear people play and see people play and watch television and all of that.

To me, it's like I'm not really interested... I mean, I play traditional music because I like traditional music but I'm not one of those guys who learned to play from my grandfather or cousin. I grew up in Philadelphia. Neither of my parents were musicians. I basically learned in various ways and I studied much after I started to play it.

The other thing that's odd about me is that there's a connection... I was a semi-professional ping-pong player when I was fifteen years old. I was in Philly, and most of my rivals were in New York because there are more people and there were more tournament level players. So I go up to New York, and these guys all went to these high schools like the High School for the Performing Arts, and they were in Broadway shows. And they were listening to Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, and I'd never heard of these people.

So, this was kind of an influence on me in that I didn't try to do that but it sort of influenced my attitude. What I like to say about what I do is that it's not jazz but it's kind of music with a jazz attitude. I improvise a lot. That's always been a problem with me with traditional audiences because some of them really expect you do a verse and play the same solo twelve times, and I have no interest in doing that. I don't put down the people that did it. I find it hard to understand why somebody that's 26 now would want to do that.

When I learned how to play the only thing out there was Pete Seeger's book. I mean, now you can go to the Denver Folklore Center or Rockley Music and the number of banjo books alone will terrify you.

You latest record came out April of last year, right?

Yes, what it was about was I met a guy in Portland who's name is Mitch Imori, and I've always wanted to play with an oboe. Like I had something in my head that the sound of the banjo -- the way I play the banjo -- with an oboe would be kind of an interesting set of colors.

So I was a little nervous because oboe players are kind of a tribe of their own, and they don't tend to improvise. And they're not jazz guys. Well, it turns out that Mitch Imori learned how to play the banjo when he was ten. He was living in Tokyo, and his brother was a classical musician. His brother said to him, "You can't just play banjo. You have to go to music school in the United States."

So he got a degree in oboe at Eastman. And the guy plays clarinet, French horn, oboe, English Horn... It just goes on and on. Plus banjo and guitar and mandolin and all that. So he played on the record. He plays on three tracks on the album. He plays English Horn, oboe and oboe d'more, and oboe d'more is kind of an obscure alto oboe, and the only reference I can give you the record by Sonny and Cher -- "I Got You Babe." So he was great.

I've played over the years with a guy who lives here named Bob Rebholz, who's a saxophone and flute player. I was in Portland when I made this record, so I used a guy there named Noah Peterson, who's a friend of mine. Then I actually did one session in Denver because I wanted to use Mollie O'Brien. I also write songs, and I wrote kind of a country rock song that I thought she would be great for. She is. She's a great singer. So I did one session here with her. That's actually the first thing that I've recorded that has drums on it.

Really?

Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of drummers. I like percussionists but I'm not a big fan of drummers.

What made you want to go with a drummer on this cut?

I knew this guy Larry Thompson who lives here, and he plays with Otis Taylor. I've always liked him personally, and I knew he listened, and I knew that he doesn't pound, which I don't like. This is a reasonably aggressive song, but I just don't like that sort of drummer that sounds like a metronome-type feel. I used a bass player named Ron Bland, who I know, who teaches at Metro. He's played a lot of jazz gigs.

So I like the idea of shaking things up where I'll use some people. Mitch, despite his versatility, is really out of the classical world. So I like the idea of using people that don't necessarily think the way I do. What I will generally do is I will write out a part of a thing and I'll have them play what they want the second time around or something.

Dick Weissman, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, February 6, Swallow Hill, 71 East Yale Avenue, $5-$7, 303-777-1003.

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