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No More Walls - A Conversation with David Amram Print-ready version

by John McLaughlin
The Folk Life
February 1977

[This month, we bring you one of the finest pieces of conversation it has even been our privilege to be a part of. David Amram called us after he’d seen Eugene O’Donnell’s picture on our December, 1976 cover, and we made arrangements to interview him for the January 1977 issue. But then an automobile accident – up one side of Blue Mountain coming home from Godfrey Daniels was rain, down the other side was glass ice, so we swapped ends in our station wagon a few times, taking out a guard-rail over the cliff at one point, and the baby, Niamh, sat up, from her bed among the bundles of Folk Lifes in back, clapped her hands and said, "Hold tight!" and we got home safely but a bit shaken – intervened, and we had to call back to make new arrangements. Acting with the spur-of-the-moment cheerfulness that is part of his great charm, David asked us to rig a tape-recorder at the phone, and he’d call us back when we’d done so (it was a big old Marrantz deck I bought from John Krum, and I jammed the mike into my ear, for those of you into technical details). The conversation that followed was so fine and rich that we asked David for permission to reproduce it practically intact in The Folk Life, without the background sound-effects, of course (Niamh wanted the phone quite a bit). There was no problem by David, except that it had taken both of us over an hour to get said what we wanted and what had come up, and we were sorely tempted to chop it into two issues. But after a few brief stabs, we laid down our blue pencil in despair. It all hung together so well, and we realized, looking it over, that it owed its form as much to David Amram’s jazz background as to his symphonic training – major themes laid down early, key ideas picked up and elaborated later on – and extended riffs traded off to one another, yes!

It was a privilege and a pleasure for us, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. And now – David Amram:]

John:
I think I’ve got it working OK – yeah, those needles are flipping over. OK. David, talking about your American Indian piece – one interpretation that was offered to me was that it was a Bicentennial piece. Is that a fair assessment?

David:
Oh, no. Let me go back over that a bit. It goes back to the 4th of July last year, when I had been playing in concert with the Davis Park Volunteer Fire Company – Davis Park, on Fire Island, New York. And there were Native American people there as well as the jazz people – Ray Mantilla, a great Latin conga player, who played with us at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Charlie Chin, who played guitar and banjo and so on. One friend, Dottie Stark, and her daughter, who are Cherokees, were there visiting, and they were singing traditional Native American music, just as I was finishing the last note.

It was truly amazing – it was almost the whole picture, of a large part of this country which was descended from immigrant people – like myself – and two people, whose people had been here for fifty thousand years. And what I did was write a dedication at the beginning of the piece, and if I can just read it to you over the phone, you can probably take it down, okay?

John:
OK, go ahead, this tape deck seems to be working out fine here.

David:
OK, this is the dedication I wrote to the piece. Quote:

"In the mystery of the spirit world of Native American people, there is the same quality of timelessness that there is in all true music.

"Marcel Tabiteau gave all musicians who knew him a higher sense of what music was about. This will always be, through the recordings of his playing, the part of him that lives and is passed down through his students. This tradition cannot be described. It has to be felt, in the way that he felt about music.

"Like most people in the USA, he was from another country and settled here.

"The oldest and first Americans have a tradition in their making of music that best expresses the feeling all of us in music have when we honor a musician. Leonard Crowdog, Sioux medicine man, said this to Richard Erdos in 1970:

‘When you are dead and gone, the younger ones among us will remember you. At a pow-wow, somebody will give a donation to the drummers, go to the announcers’ stand, and tell the people. They will sing a song for you.’

This is for Marcel Tabiteau."

And it was signed, "David Amram, July 4th, 1976."

That’s the dedication of the piece. And Marcel Tabiteau was the oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, for over thirty years, who set the style, not only for the oboe, but for a tremendous number of styles of music and musicians of the day. And I knew him, I had a chance to meet him and listened to him when I was six years old.
When I was asked to write a piece – I was commissioned by the Rittenhouse Square Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Orchestra – I was asked to write, and could write, a concerto for oboe and orchestra, and the oboist, John Delancy, was Tabiteau’s favorite student and favorite oboist, and is now the first oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. And John suggested to me that I use a mezzo-soprano, and not just have it a concert for oboe and orchestra, and when I took the suggestion I decided that I would use writings and some traditional music of Native American peoples, having played benefits for Native American causes, schools and educational programs, for many, many years, and having written music for a television play about Ira Hayes back in 1960 – "The Americans" – I was really interested in trying to write a formal piece that would use elements of folk music in this country that was thousands of years old, and also poetry and writing.

A lot of my friends, like Lloyd Westerman, whom I’m sure people who read The Folk Life will know of for his great work in the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and friends of mine in the States, helped me, along with a number of other people who taught me a lot of traditional music, and helped me to find the writings, and helped me to find a lot of the old music, which has never been even written down.

And in this particular piece, the texts are: a Navaho "Prayer of the Twelfth Night" – translated into the English, of course; a part of the Iroquois Constitution – on which our Constitution is based; and a "Song of the Sky Loon," which is a Tengua-Pueblo people’s song; and a speech by Chief Seattle, which he delivered to Governor Ira Stevenson in 1854.

In the piece there’s about 30-40 traditional melodies that are used as rhythms, and most of this material I learnt from people in just the way that we would read in Sing Out! Magazine or one of the other wonderful folklore publications of people’s music. And it was music that mostly hasn’t been handed written down before, or notated. I think what I’m trying to do is what Bartok and many, many others composers did, to use folkloric materials, with love and respect, not as a trifling matter, but appreciating the value and the deep spiritual quality of music that has survived thousands of years because it was real, and it meant something to succeeding generations of people.

That’s the reason I love to play at folk festivals. Places I’ve been to, like Mariposa and Winnipeg and Philadelphia, other festivals – the Kerrville Festival, which specializes in old-time and Texas music – festivals up in Canada, where there’s mostly French-speaking people – I’ve found not only have I been able, hopefully, to share something with them, by showing them the kinds of music I learned when I was in Kenya, American Indian music, jazz, different percussion patterns, but also the different kinds of music that I learnt from being with folk players – and also the Great Spirit that we have here on the Planet Earth among musicians. Number one for fun, that’s the primary thing, because they love music, and we love to share music, the true spirit of all music, I think, and we try to being that, not only at the times we appear that are considered to be "official" activities, but also when I’m playing in a jazz context – I’ll be at the Newport Jazz Festival for the first time this Summer – and I’m going to be giving a concert, and I’m going to have some folk players with me. OK: I have a man from Africa who plays the traditional African music, and I have a man who plays banjo, and I’m going to try to show the folk backgrounds of jazz – folk-jazz – to the young people, and when I have folk players with me, coming to sit in with the symphony orchestra, and we try to show the relation of folk music to symphony music.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, years ago we had an amateur orchestra who would come and play at the Philly Festival, and Ken Bloom, who’s a multi-instrumentalist and present it as fun for the people.

John:
Do you know about Ken’s bandura?

David:
Yeah! – he played between each piece and he showed people the folk basis.

John:
Yeah, well, he’s got a gigantic bandura he made for himself about four years ago. He was playing it in one of those hotel-room sessions after the concerts last year at Philly, in a room with Eugene, Mick, Vin Garbutt, some other people.

David:
Well, Kenny and I played with Steve Goodman. A set on New Year’s Eve, the first and second, in Chicago. The first part of the show Steve would play with me and Kenny, then we’d go off, take a ten-minute rest, then some people would come out, so we’d go out and play with them – whatever – different kinds of musicians, all kinds of music, we’d play with each other.

This is where I think the folk festivals are so tremendously important, not only the concerts, but also the idea of having workshops, with audience participation, is very important for everybody in every field of music, and for all people who are audiences in any musical event – and the musicians themselves are supposed to be the number one musical fans themselves, to help show other people alternatives to the idea of the manufactured, built-up "star" – created by greedy people who don’t respect music or even respect the star they’re creating – who by definition two years later is supposed to be in some mental institution, or become a real estate agent again! The field of music, they say, is money. The real musicians stay in it for life – it’s a life’s devotion, and it’s fun, and it’s a hobby, as well as a profession. That is the tremendous importance that the whole "folk artiste" philosophy has, to keep people out, as we enter the late 1970’s. For me, being able to write a piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra, being able to use Native American music, or being able to use Irish folk music as I did in my "Triple Concerto,"
which is probably going to have its world premiere next year, and Middle Eastern music which I used in my "Concerto for Jazz Group and Orchestra," which the Philadelphia Orchestra and many other orchestras have – all of my music has all kinds of folk-art music.

And I should mention, that for people who want to write and compose music – whether it’s for voice and guitar, a three-minute song or a thirty-minute symphony –
Every time you use something that’s been shown to you, that’s from another culture, whether it’s in the public domain is besides the point, you should always give the name of that piece, who you learnt it from, and who taught it to you. Then you’re morally correct.

Whether or not you can be… you don’t have to do it, according to the "music business" laws, if something is in the public domain. But if you don’t mention that you’re morally incorrect, and that will create bad karma in your life. And of course we know people who have taken fine old folk songs and they’ve never given credit, even to what the name of the original song was, and they live to regret it.

Because it doesn’t cost anybody to say where they learnt it or what the original song was, ‘cause then it’s to your credit. To do that, it shows you’re honest. And if you should do that, I should mention, people will be anxious to know you, and to show you and share with you, if you’re really in it because you want to be sharing credit, giving credit where credit’s due. And if you don’t do that, you will develop a thief’s karma, and no one will show you or share anything with you. Because they know you are going to steal it. That goes for everything in life, and especially with music. I should mention that there are some famous folklorists who have copyrighted other people’s music under their own names, and we don’t have a very high regard for them.

John:
A lot of crimes, David.

David:
What did you say?

John:
I said there have been a lot of crimes committed in the name of music, David.

David:
Well, the wonderful thing is that you see it’s also a healing process. Anyone who has played in prisons, with people who’ve committed crimes and gotten caught –

John:
What a number! Go, David!

David:
-- And gotten slammed for them, you know, all of us who’ve played in prisons know that – or for people who are emotionally disturbed, or in very tough neighborhoods where people are struggling – where it’s too hot in Summer or too cold in Winter -- know that music really is a soothing force. Odetta always said to me, when we used to get together – we played many, many concerts together, and there were good times when we would just get together for fun, and she always said, "Don’t forget – Music Heals." And I think that’s – she’s really an example of how… the Power can pass right through someone into you. That’s why she’s one of our greatest artists, in all of American music. She has become the vehicle for the great music that she sings, to everyone else, and people have had a chance to experience that, and it’s why she’s one of the greatest experiences in all of American music.

There’s so many wonderful people I’ve met, who might not even be known outside of their little towns, in the US, in Canada and Africa, Europe. I think it’s good for all of us who play music to keep on the right track, and keep on the right road, and keep that flame alive. Because this is a necessity now, for us to further the idea of real music, of real people’s music. Because there are a number of young people coming up who don’t have a very healthy picture of music. By that, I mean people who are already cynical or disillusioned about "the music business." When I was in high school, as you know by reading Vibrations, I was like a musical fanatic. And everyone encouraged and inspired me – most of them did. And so if I meet a young person who’s going crazy from trying so hard, I remember they encouraged me and helped me.

And so when you go to a folk festival, you don’t go and sit around. Like, Steve Goodman and I did this at the Philadelphia Folk Festival last Summer, we just went up unannounced to where all the campers were. Up there, after midnight, we played with all the campers. And that’s what it’s really all about. I mean, I’d like people, especially when they get a little more recognition, to try to do that. I mean, when the Philadelphia Orchestra does my piece March 3rd, I’m coming down three days earlier, and I’m playing a benefit for a nursery school, with Ray Mantilla, a great conga player, and Eddie Gomez, a bass player, and Charlie Chin, and wonderful musicians from Philadelphia – Saul Broudy, Winnie Winston –

John:
I didn’t know Winnie Winston was from Philadelphia.

David:
Yeah, he’s an art teacher there, and a wonderful artist too.

John:
Well, that’s a whole other side of Winnie Winston I never knew.

David:
Well, I never knew he was from Philadelphia either. He used to sit in with Rosalie Sorrels back in the ‘60s.

John:
Rosalie Sorrels? Did you know she was playing at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem just a couple of months back?

David:
Isn’t she great?

John:
I didn’t see that show. But that’s the same club that had the Red Clay Ramblers?

David:
Oh, right! Right! Well, I’d be playing at the Village Gate with my jazz group, and I’d go and sit in with Rosalie after I was done, and I’d tell her Winnie was there, and Jerry Jeff Walker used to come down and play. And she used to tell me that I was her favorite C&W French horn player! (Laughter at both ends of the line)

John: Well, listen, that’s sort of a strange league, let’s face it, David. I’m trying to think of the three other guys I’ve heard play –

David:
Well, at that time there weren’t too many, but now, I try to encourage, when I go out to play with symphonies, I try to encourage the French horn players to step out and learn to improvise, not only to play jazz, but to learn how to back up folk musicians.

John:
And of course, joking aside, there’s also the Nashville Symphony, isn’t there?

David:
I’m proud of the fact that I was invited back to the Kerrville Festival, which is all Texas music, mostly country music, and they’ve asked me back.

John:
When is Kerrville this year?

David:
Memorial Day Weekend.

John:
You know, the National Folk Festival’s new 1977 Calendar is not out yet, it won’t be available until April 1st –

David:
Oh, my goodness!

John:
Yeah, and a lot of people are simply depending on last year’s Calendar, to get a rough guide of what’s going to be going on, and of course a lot of 1976’s Bicentennial events will simply not be repeated and so forth.

David: Well, Kerrville is an amazing festival. The quality of music in Texas is simply fantastic, there’s so much there, a lot of Indian music, and people writing songs. I just wish people back East, my friends in other places, could have a chance to get out there, to a place where they not only have the most fantastic writers, but Red River Dave comes, Harmonica Frank – and Carolyn Hester, who’s from Texas, who I’d never seen perform in her home town, I’d always seen her in Greenwich Village and loved her, you know – but here I had a chance to meet all her relatives, you know – and the way the music is presented, it’s just so beautiful. After you’ve been there a day or two, you feel like you’re a Texan. The welcome in everyone’s heart is so amazing. Amazing experience. And I’ve never appreciated that music so much in all the years I’ve been enjoying it, as much as I’d heard and played with so many people like that. In the Army I was in Special Services with Vassar Clements, "Thumbs" Carlisle, really terrific people, not necessarily well known, but that was ‘way back in 1953 or ‘544. In Germany, we used to be in the same barracks. I was with the Seventh Army Symphony, as I mentioned in my book, and they were with us.

John:
These were the guys called "the hillbillies" in the book.

David:
That’s right – they didn’t even call it "country-and-western" music then, it was called "hillbilly music."

John:
Well, you know, if you saw our January issue, what Charlie Daniels says – you know what he calls "folk music"?

David:
No, what?

John:
Quote, "Suburban trash on a guitar." [David laughs at that line.] Yeah, well, there’s a lot of redneck response exactly to the term, "folk music," David, and that’s one of the things you’ve got to deal with. A lot of people look at he cover of our magazine, and they see, "The Folk Life," and as far as they’re concerned that puts it out of the park immediately, because they’re interested in country music.

David:
Well, you know, Louis Armstrong has a great answer to that. Someone once said to him, "Louis, you know your music has such a great appeal, and seems to be rooted in so many traditions of American music, Caribbean, Cajun music, and New Orleans, and blues, gospel, jazz – so many different roots put together. Would you say that what you are playing is in fact "folk" music? And Louis Armstrong is supposed to have looked at the interviewer and said [David does Louis Armstrong’s voice] "Well, I don’t see any trained seals playing it!"

John:
Gotcha.

David:
I think the idea was that all music that has universal appeal is for and by folks.
And that word folks refers to all of us.

John:
Well, Dickie Betts, of the Allman Brothers Band, refers to what he does as "folk music," so I guess he doesn’t agree with Charlie Daniels.

David:
I think all great music is "folk" music. And I believe all people are "folks." The stratification of music, and the stratification of people that you get, the kind of snobbery….

John:
I’m curious about that. When you’re talking about Bach, it seems to me that he was a very humble church organist who regarded the gigue and the sarabande as equally as valid forms of music as the sonata and the oratorio. Yet for some reason or other there are people who listen to his Suite No. 2 in B Minor and think that Bach was making fun of folk music.

David:
No!! No, I think that when you look at the Goldberg Variations, one of the great pieces of music for the keyboard, which sounds just as beautiful on the piano as it does on the harpsichord or the clavichord, he uses three folk themes right near the very end of the piece – and I don’t think it was because he ran out of ideas! – I think it was because he wanted people who heard these beautiful melodies to hear his endorsement of this folk tradition, and you can see how Beethoven did the same thing.

John:
I’m curious about another thing. If you go back that far, do you think that as far back as Bach there had been developed culturally a distinction between popular music, and folk music, and classical music, such that Bach would feel some kind of propagandistic need to bring "folk" themes across to a classical, aristocratic audience?

David:
No, because I think that there was in the 17th and 18th century, among the cultural leaders of Europe, a real love of "folk" music. Because I found that when I was in South American countries, when I was in Brazil, for example, although there are some awful political problems there – but then so do a lot of other countries, including our own – that the people who were running the symphony orchestras could also get up and dance the samba and liked bossa nova music. In fact, the conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony, who was also a leading music critic, had a PhD, and went to Tanglewood, when he was through conducting complete Beethoven program in Sao Paulo, a city of nearly six million people, afterwards said to me, "Come on, David, we’re going to hear some real Brazilian music!" So he took me down to this little place, changed from his white tie and tails into his real relaxed type of clothes, and I walked into this place, and I thought, "My God, how can a place this size have a forty piece band!" And all the people were playing matchboxes, shakers, everything – the whole "audience" was part of the show! And he got up and played the conga-drums, played the guitar, sang with the band, and then got up and was a fantastic dancer! This is 1969, and I said, "Here is a man who is just so incredible, and when I get back to the USA, I’m going to be working even harder in my efforts to bring down the barriers between music and audience!

John:
David. In late 1957, maybe early 1958, I was on a trampship in the British Merchant Navy, and we got to Santos – the port for Sao Paulo? Then down to Rio Grande do Sul, then back up to Santos? For six weeks, right at the time of the festival, the "carnavhao."

David:
Right!

John:
Right. And we went ashore, every night, from the ship, and we got involved in the carnival, running up and down the streets, dancing our asses off—

David:
Yeahh!

John:
--Until three or four o’clock in the morning –

David:
Yeah!

John:
So when I first came to this country, in 1959, I went to see the movie, "Orfeo Negru," about four or five times – it’s a gorgeous story! And when you gave me your album, "No More Walls," with the Brazilian piece on it?

David:
Right!!

John:
Right! Very tranquil jazz. And then when I heard Lloyd McNeill down at the Tin Palace -- Paul Pines tells me Lloyd has gone back down to Brazil to play flute down there –

David:
That’s right!

John:
So all of these things are tied together for me. That’s a very personal note. But it’s one of the reasons for my initial response to your autobiography, Vibrations.

David:
Aw, that’s beautiful!

John:
So now you know where I’m coming from.

David:
Well then, you know too, from being a merchant seaman, that when you travel you really have your eyes opened.

John:
Why do you think I got on so well with Cathal McConnell? [David laughs at that line] The way I first met Cathal was that when he came to Eugene’s room, which was where I got that session tape with "The Shamrock Shore" on it that I gave you a copy of, well, he came back to Eugene’s room later that night, because some of the other Boys had taken over their room, I dunno, some girls or something, and so we all spent the night in Eugene’s room, and the following morning after we got up we sat around and replayed that tape, and he and I talked about what it’s like to be a, quote, "exotic foreigner" to rich American hippies [David is laughing at this]. And it is a trip, I tell you.

David:
Well, the thing I admire with Cathal is that he’s in the funny situation many people are at these folklore festivals, where seeing the real thing is the exception, and one of the reasons I admire him so much is that he is so kind, especially to younger people who want to learn how he plays. I saw him come to a couple of these sessions, and one young woman who had only been playing six months, and he said, "That’s great! That’s so wonderful!" And she kept going, and I’ve seen her since, and she’s made just incredible strides, and she has so much confidence from that.

John:
Yeah. I have a letter from Cathal on the desk right now, as a matter of fact.

David:
And Cathal is so very nice to old-timers too.

John:
Well, that’s one of the things Cathal has never forgotten, and he knows of course that it was old Irishmen who taught him, and he’s never forgotten that. By the way – did you know that The Piper’s Broken Finger is out in Ireland already? I haven’t gotten a copy here yet. We’re in touch with Philo. But in this letter here, Cathal goes down the list, about what he thinks of the new album. Quote, "We think it’s our best record yet. Two of the best tracks on it are us playing with a Scottish pipe, Finlay MacNeill – marches and reels. And then there’s ‘Lament for Limerick, ‘ related to ‘Lochaber No More.’" And let’s see, it says here, "Robin sings ‘The County Cavan,’ and Robin and I sing ‘The Green Rushes’ together." And then, "And I sing ‘The Shamrock Shore’."

David:
Wow.

John:
Can you get into that?

David:
Definitely.

John:
He also goes into other things on the album too here, but that was it.

David:
You know, Malachi McCord told me about something that might be good for a feature in The Folk Life at some point. Well, there’s The Bells, about two or three bocks from where I live in New York, and the Lion’s Head Bar, and the old White Horse Tavern, where I met the Clancy Brothers’ Liam, twenty-one years ago, and they told me ‘way back then, "Well, you have to hear the old-timers. If you like our songs, we’re just –well, you should hear how they do it back home!" And there are so many traditional players that they love and respect. The Bells used to have these sessions every week, one night a week, and all these people would come in, all these old guys who had manual construction jobs, and their hands wold be so banged up you couldn’t imagine they’d be musicians according to the usual picture.

John:
Difficult to be a fiddler, with hands like that.

David:
Well, they’d be drinking boilermakers and everything, then they’d get out their tin-whistles and pipes and fiddles and accordions, and start to play. One night Joe Heaney came in, and everybody had so much respect for him, and he did this a capella song. And I said to Malachi, "Malachi, that sounds so old! Like Middle Eastern music or something, coming from ‘way, way back." And Malachi said, "Well, that’s the Druid spirit, before Christianity came to Ireland and wrecked the whole scene."

John:
That’s great! The romantic sonofa…

David:
The other time this happened to me was back in 1969, when I wrote music for Eli Kazan’s movie, The Arrangement, music about the old times in Anatolia, the influence of Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and the old Anatolian music itself. And there was this wonderful old musician, he’d come over from the old country, and was playing in a belly-dance place, this old guy, and he was playing, in between takes, traditional music and music I’d written, and I said, "God, that sounds so old!" It was beautiful. And he looked at me, real deep, and he said, slowly, "That. Is. The. Idea!" And it was so amazing to hear somebody say that, 1969, at the height of Flower Power, music promotion where nothing lasted for more than two days. Here was someone interested in preserving a tradition that was five thousand years old…And at the same time he appreciated the fact that I was also trying to use Middle Eastern music – not just in that movie, but also for the symphonic piece I’d written, the "Triple Concerto" – to be able to do something with the old music in a new way, for he knew I was studying it and respecting it. I picked up something from that. When we speak of folk music, we sometimes forget that it’s always the old reverence and love for the old and the traditional – combined with the spontaneity and the new – but the definition of "new" isn’t what sells four million records, it’s something that happens and catches us and makes us feel good.

John:
You mention Eli Kazan’s movie, The Arrangement. Did you ever have much contact with Joni Mitchell?

David:
No, I just met her one time, in California, back when I was working on that film. She wrote some words.

John:
The song, "The Arrangement," is a lovely poem, and I always assumed that she wrote both words and music for that.

David:
Oh yes, that became a song that she did write herself.

John:
"You could have been more than a name on the door in the 33rd floor in the air" –

David:
And then they didn’t use that in the film. Originally she had written some words, after I had written the music, and I met her at that time. And she liked the music, but I never saw her again. There was something that the lawyers who were working on it wanted to do, to give it more "pop" appeal. And Kazan refused to have anything in the movie but my music. He wanted something that sounded like what it had been – he didn’t care about that other thing.

John:
Oh. Well, I think the lawyers presented Joni Mitchell very poorly to you and to Eli Kazan then.

David:
What?

John:
I said I think that Joni Mitchell was presented very poorly to Eli Kazan and to yourself, then, if that’s the case. Because that’s a sad barrier, I mean. I won’t talk about what she’s done with herself since, but at that time I respected her very much as a poet, and if she was presented as if her music was just something that would make the film more "pop-ish," then that’s sad.

David:
Oh yeah, she’s great! I love her stuff! It wasn’t that. You see, she just wanted to write words, but what I heard was that her manager said no, you have to get to write the whole thing yourself, or we’ll throw it out.

John:
Oh well. That’s what you said earlier, about business people coming in between the music and other people.

David:
I would have been glad if they could have used something of hers – my God, if they had used the words that she wrote to my music, today a lot more people would be aware of he music. And she’s a beautiful person.

John:
And you’re a beautiful talker, can I say that?

David:
Well, thank you.

John:
I mean, I’ve listened to your Subway Night album time and again, but what you’re doing just now, it’s just blowing the top of my head away. It’s amazing. Just amazing.

David:
Oh, great! Hey, I made another record up in Canada, called Summer Nights, Winter Rain, and I’ll have to get you a copy of that. There’s probably better lyrics in that.

John:
Well, that was some years ago, of course.

David:
Subway Night?

John:
Yeah, and you’re dealing with something entirely different now. I mean Subway Night all seemed much more political, much more of a message, than No More Walls. You know – "Remember when you grease your hair, Nixon greased his too – Shananana, lalalala, shooby-dooby-doo…."

David:
Oh, yeah, well, "The Fabulous Fifties Song" was done really because I thought that the same people who were promoting rock-and-roll were the same kind of people who were responsible for Richard Nixon.

John:
I thought they were more into selling golden oldie packages on TV than they were into the real music, essentially.

David:
It was also a tribute to all of the original rock-and-rollers, like Screaming Jay Hawkins –

John:
Yeah!

David:
BB King, Chuck Berry –The Platters, the Flamingos, the Coasters – who never got one hundredth of what was coming to them. I did a concert at the Felt Forum with Gil Evans band, Ray Moretta’s band, a band of my own called The One World of Music Orchestra, that had Steve Goodman and Charlie Chin playing guitars, Ray Mantilla playing congas, Eddie Gomez on bass, Pepper Adams playing baritone sax, Mantuilla Yomo playing the balaphon, George Mgrdichian playing the oud –

John: Of course!

David: -- and twelve Native Americans playing as community percussion choir. It was fantastic. And then they also had on he program Otis Blackwell, the man who wrote almost all of Elvis Presley’s hits –

John:
Apart from all he got from Arthur Crudup –

David:
And he never got the money he had coming to him. And now he’s out singing himself. And with all due respect to Elvis Presley, Otis Blackwell is one incredible singer. The way he did it originally—the man is just so great. I admire him for being such a fantastic songwriter and performer, and the guy has such a beautiful attitude, not coming off bitter with people, and I said so, and he said, "Well, David," he said, "You have to remember Elvis made maybe a few hundred million dollars from my music. And he’s made so much money, he’s out showing he’s tops in his field. And he also proved that I’m tops, in my field, because I’m the guy who wrote the stuff." Now, there’s a guy who knows his own value. He also knows that not only did he write that stuff, he can go out and write a whole bunch more.

John:
Lots more where that came from.

David: We had a whole audience clapping and singing, a lot of polyrhythms, a lot of rock music fans really got into that. In fact, that was what I found out when I was in Africa, the music is made that way a lot of times.

John:
Oh, yeah. If you’ll recall playing beside the pool at the Stouffer’s Valley Motel at Philly a couple of years ago?

David: Oh, right – wasn’t that a real party?

John:
The Green Grass Cloggers put some plywood down near you, and they were clogging while you were playing with Tambo.

David:
Wasn’t that great?

John:
What a party!

David:
And the Cloggers are amazing. As a matter of fact, Beverly Cotten showed me some of those clogging rhythms, and I wrote them down, they were so powerful! I wanted to learn them so that I could use them some time in a symphony orchestra.

John:
Sometime you’ll have to watch John Krum. He plays with the Ballyhoo String Band in Philadelphia, and he clogs and plays fiddle at the same time. It’s the kind of thing that John Hartford does too.

David:
Well, John Hartford does that so well – I have a picture of him right here, right next to Pepper Adams!

John:
He gets into the most intense, trance-like concentration right before a concert, when he’s putting his pieces of equipment on stage and so forth. You can’t violate that.

David:
I think he’s one of the real masters.

John:
Well, he lifted the Bloomsburg State College audience last October just totally out of their skulls, by sheer force of will. Just amazing.

David:
I get aboard every festival I know he’s going to appear in, so that I can try to get a chance to see him, and play with him a little bit.

John:
By the way – going back to what you were saying about folk and classical music? A couple of years ago, Eugene O’Donnell was running a session backstage at Philly with Jean Carignan, Gilles Losier, Sue from the Buffalo Gals, Pete Renzetti – a whole bunch of people. And John wanted to sit in. But when I finally got him a chair, he didn’t know the Irish music. So Eugene stopped everybody, and said, "OK, John, you know Vivaldi, right?" And Hartford said, "Sure." So Eugene says, "OK, we’re all going to play some Vivaldi, then." So that’s what they did, for ten minutes or so. Then Eugene halts them all again, and says, "OK, if you can play Vivaldi, you can play Irish jigs, then, because it’s the same kind of music, essentially, do you see?" And away they all went – he taught him Irish music in about ten minutes, right on the spot, using Vivaldi!

David:
Well, that’s it! I mean, when you listen to Bach’s Gigue and Sarabande, you’ll hear a lot of those licks, you know, that are in the Brandenburg Concertos.

John:
Well, the same kinds of progressions are in Scottish folksong too – you know, "I’m going courting, are you coming with me – la-la-la-la-la." It’s a common kind of European folk music, more or less recognized by most classical composers, as far as I know.

David:
Oh, yes, most of the real classical composers have so much folk music in their music, and that’s why most of their music has survived. When I was playing at the Main Point, I told that to the audience and everyone cheered!

John:
Oh – when were you at The Main Point, then?

David:
Well, I’m going to be there next week as an "unannounced guest," to play with Steve Goodman, who’s going to be there. And then Steve’s going to come and play with me at the college I’m playing at, also as an "unannounced guest," the week after.

John:
Which college is that?

David:
Ah, Seton Hall.

John:
In New Jersey?

David:
Right.

John: What’s the date?

David:
February 14th.

John:
February 14th, at Seton Hall. Listen, I’m glad to have a piece of tape running here, because I’d never get all of this down.

David: And of course I’ll also have that nursery school benefit the 28th. That’s before the Philadelphia Orchestra date. And I’ll be playing a lot of colleges, like Bucknell University.

John: You’ll be at Bucknell?

David:
Yeah, in April.

John:
That’s less than 25 miles from here!

David:
My man, I’ll see you, April 13th through 15th! Yeah, I’m a composer in residence, we’re going to do a concert, a classical concert, a jam session, whatever.

John:
It takes about half an hour to get to Bucknell from Bloomsburg.

David:
Fant-isimmo!

John:
Boy! Hah! I’m a convert, by the way – a true believer! I can’t argue with that.

David:
Oh, that’ll be great! And then in October, I got a call, I’ll be doing a tour of six Central American countries for the State Department. I’ll be conducting the symphony orchestras in each country, we’ll be having jam sessions with all different kinds of folk music and jazz, whatever. We’ll have everybody bring along their own instruments, and hopefully we’ll have sessions where the symphony players can get it together with everybody. And I’ll show people what I’ve learnt at different folk festivals, and different styles of music I’ve learnt there.
John: Can I throw a curve at you? Can I ask you a question?

David:
Sure.

John:
Is there any – do you see any limits, any boundaries, at which you might say, "I know music is a universal language, but this is a strange, strange dialect!" Do you follow me?

David:
Certainly! Sure! A lot of music! Asian music, for example.

John:
I would have thought that might be it.

David:
Sure. I’ve listened to Charlie Chin, and he plays the sakahachi, and when he travels, he’ll sometimes have a tape-cassette recorder, of modern Chinese music.

John:
Is Charlie still with you?

David:
Sure, whenever we get a chance to play with each other.

John:
Would you ask him if he remembers what he told someone from Sing Out! A few years ago? Abut his national heritage. Somebody from Sing Out!, I guess, asked Charlie to sing them a song from his national heritage, as I recall it, and do you know what he sang them?

David:
No, what?

John:
[Sings] "I’ve been working on the railroad…!" [Both ends of the line fall out laughing] He is some dude!

David:
Oh, yeah, he is great! Well, I’ve learnt to appreciate it, but I’d never go sit in with a band.

John:
You’re aware of a gulf there?

David:
Right. I would listen, out of respect. Maybe if I was in Asia for a while, but there are thousands of different kinds of music there.

John:
We have a friend in Philadelphia, from the Bangladesh area, and he sings the folk-songs from there. They’re very weird, a capella songs, and I’ve sung Scots folksongs to him, and he’s sung these songs to me, and we just sort of sing and we look at one another, because neither of us can comprehend why the other should find his tradition beautiful. We respect it as beautiful, but we’re not quite sure why.

David:
Well, all right! Oh – after our Latin American tour, I’m going to India in February. So what I’m doing right now is studying Spanish, for Central America, but when I come back, in November-December I’m going to try to study some Hindi. You see, I know people from these countries, from when I was in Kenya for the World Council of Churches –

John:
Yeah, I saw a thing in the Lutheran Church magazine about that.

David:
Yeah, well, I was called a "Community Music Maker," and I had this mission, to get all these African people to play with me, and all these people from all over, not only European countries, but all over. And I met a lot of people from over there, and took some addresses, never dreaming I would be going there. And I’ll be doing he same thing in Central America, with the symphonies and jazz musicians. And between November, December, when I come back from there, I’m going to try to study a little bit about that music. But music, not just from Asia, from India and Pakistan, is so complicated!

John:
Yeah, I know that Ravi Shankar has said that he has never heard a Westerner play the sitar properly.

David:
Right. But I can enjoy that music, and the more I listen to it, the more I can appreciate it. And any kind of music can be studied.

John:
Tell me something. Do you ever find yourself going back to Jewish themes?

David:
Oh, sure. One of the things I just finished up was doing, "Native American Portraits," for violin, piano and percussion, and I’ve written a Passover opera, as you know from reading Vibrations, and I’ve also written a sacred service, and what I’m doing now is trying to write a piece using Ladino music as a base, which is Sephardic, Jewish music, and combining that with Middle Eastern music, which all comes from the same sources.

John:
Wold you regard that as Indo-European music?

David:
No, I think of it as pre-European music.

John:
It seems to me that it’s more Asian than European.

David:
Oh, right – I mean, a lot of Arabic music comes from Africa, and so on.

John:
I have some Armenian music here, given me by a friend from Philly, and it sounds very "Jewish" to me.

David:
Right!

John:
You mention Mgrdichian, and in the book, Midhat?

David:
Yes?

John:
And it strikes me that both of them – on No More Walls – sound very Jewish to me!

David:
They are! Or they might say that we – that I’m very Armenian!

John:
Or Turkish!

David:
Yeah! Or a very Syrian player! I feel such a closeness with that whole region –with the food, with the language – that it just seems to me the way anyone would feel when they came home.

John:
It just strikes me as such an artificial division in the Middle East, between these Semitic peoples.

David:
Well, the difference is three letters – O-I-L!

John:
Och aye, we’ve heard o’ that in Scotland too!

David:
Or five letters – M-O-N-E-Y.

John:
Can I give you my new slogan for Scotland?

David:
What’s that?

John:
"The Ile Belangs Tae Glesga!" [David laughs at that line.]

David:
Oh yes – I know, with many of the Arabic peoples and with the older Jewish people, they’re all from there, that’s their home. But one of the great things that’s a great inheritance from the English colonialism is "divide and conquer," you know.

John:
I’m glad you said "English" colonialism.

David:
Well, the fascinating thing was when I went to the folk festivals and heard these English singer, I said, "My God, man, I never realized, apart from the other kinds of music, there was so much fantastic poetry and singing – and all that craziness going on.

John:
Well, it’s difficult for a Scots singer like Archie Fisher to sit there and hear English singer cop Scottish ballads and keep his seat, you know.

David:
Oh?

John:
Aye, well, they took the land, they took the people, they took the oil – and now they want to take the songs too? Whew! I mean, that’s a bit too much. It’s getting culturally intrusive.

David:
The problem is hat it’s so very difficult to put yourself in a historical perspective. And a lot of younger players, English jazz players, rock players too, really got a picture of colonialism, because they felt they were being colonized in their own country. Now there’s no more colonies, they’re not going to send them to kick the backsides of people four thousand miles away, there’s really no use for them. And a lot of these people sort of identify with soul music.

John:
Yeah, well, one of the things you’re observing in Britain is a kind of ultimate lumpenproletariat. These people have a sense of the "ab-surd," there’s no use for cannon-fodder when there’s no more cannon to shoot at people any more. And a lot of kids are putting on their tackety boots and their Rod Stewart faces – and haircuts – and they’re running around looking for people to kick. There’s a lot of violence in the air, and it’s liable to spill over, I think. That’s very heavy.

David:
I think that’s going to change too.

John:
Do you think that cultural nationalism will take us out of there?

David:
No, I think there’s going to be what in the 18th century was called "a New Age of Enlightenment."

John:
I hope so.

David:
And I couldn’t think of anything happier than being alive and being healthy to see it happen. That’s another reason I love to go to schools and universities too. People say college students are apathetic – that’s a bunch of crap. A lot of students are now studying and not consuming as much as easily, they’re a lot more suspicious, they’re thinking, and that’s a good sign.

John:
You really enjoy them, don’t you, David?

David:
Well, that’s one reason Steve Goodman and I went up to the campers’ area at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, because a lot of them, I found, never went down to the concerts at all, but just stayed in their tents the whole weekend. And I thought, if some people would go up there – say, "Jeez, man, well, you should come on down to these workshops, bring your instruments and play with us, we’ll have a ball." And a lot of people don’t even know about that. I mean, being up in your tent is fun to do, but it isn’t all there is to the festival!

John: Listen, Dave, can I ask you something that’s almost by-the-way, but not really.
Would it be possible for you to pass along some copies of The Folk Life to Steve Goodman?

David:
I’d be glad to!

John:
Because we’ve said some things about Steve here in the past, and I’ve just got to come around to an article up front and centre, on the man, because I think he’s bloody great!

David:
I agree! Isn’t he great! Yeah, Steve and I played together the first and second at The Earl of Old Town. Now Chicago, that’s a place that has a fantastic folk scene, you know.

John:
Well, The Earl of Old Town is supposedly the place where Steve Goodman introduced Kris Kristofferson to John Prine.

David:
He what?

John:
Apparently, well, on John Prine’s first album, I guess it would be, back in 1971, Kris Kristofferson wrote that it was Steve Goodman who took him down to the Old Town to check out this guy.

David: Oh, right! Well, we play there every New Year’s Eve. I’m already booked for next New Year’s Eve.

John:
What can I say?

David:
Oh, I have a ball, man!

John: You know, I ran into Steve Goodman backstage at Philly this year, and out of the blue, for no other reason, decided just to tell him what I thought about this song he does, and I stopped and said, "Steve, I’ve just got to tell you. Every time I hear you do [Michael Smith’s] ‘The Dutchman,’ I just fall over." And he freaked out, like no one had ever told him that.

David:
Oh, no! But they have a lot of fine songwriters out there. Harry Waller? He’s a fine writer. And Bonnie Koloc? She was just here. She’s another great Chicago song-writer. And Sally Fingerette? She was at the Philly Festival. She’s real young, but very good. And also a guy named Jim Post.

John:
Jim Post? I love Jim Post! He is a beautiful guy! "I’m driving down the highway doing fifty-five, and this hitchhiker says to me, ‘I wish you would not do that, driving and writing at the same time,’ And this cow over in the field looks over and says, ‘Say wha’? Can I help?’" Aw, he is just funny, he is a zany!

David:
Jim Post is Laurence Olivier and Rasputin combined.

John:
What a combination!…. Well, you know, you can’t be in two places at once….

David:
Well, Chicago is a great place. I’m going to be doing a Sound Stage out of there within a few months. It comes out of Chicago and I’ll have to go out there. We’re going to have the Chicago Songwriters’ Choir, in conjunction with The Earl of Old Town Celestial Singers. That’s going to be everybody who came to the bar with us over the last…[Laughter drowns the rest of it].

John:
Get John Prine to do that one, "Sometimes I feel like a awful fool, spendin’ my life on a ol’ bar stool…."

David:
You know, at Mariposa a couple of years ago, John and Steve were at a workshop with Michael Cooney, and then snuck in later, to the festival, the back way.

John:
For why?

David:
Oh, you know, they just wanted to hang out and play with us, and they came in unannounced, and performed with us, and it was really fun. They’re just so beautiful as people.

John:
What people. I still remember, I have a very vivid picture of john Prine, a couple of years ago, after the condition he’d been in backstage expecting Dylan to show up in his black coat, up on stage, chasing away a bee, and then getting into "Sam Stone," and singing that song made John straighten up, and forget that bee and everything else that was interfering withy the music – and he is just another incredible one.

David:
Well, what can I say?

John:
What can I add?

David:
Well, listen, man, it’s been great talking with you.

John:
David – listen, thanks for the time. Before I stop, my wife wants to know something. She wants to know if it’s possible to copy some of the photographs so that we can have accompanying artwork with this article-interview.

David:
Oh, sure – no problem.

John:
Well, you know, we’re just trying to make sure about this.

David:
No trouble – they’re all friends of mine, and it’s OK.

John:
Well, you know – we don’t want to just use it. We want to give credit, you know.
We don’t want to say that we did it. You know the sort of thing.

David:
Do you have the picture of me walking down the beach?

John:
Let’s see – we have the one of you jogging at Fire Island.

David:
OK, do you have the other one?

John:
No, what we have here is the double album, No More Walls, and the other one.

David:
Yeah, good. I probably should mention that all those records are going to be released soon, as "One World of Music, Volume One, " two, three, and so on.

John:
And what’s the label going to be?

David:
RCA-Canada. And then we’re going to import them into this country under a different label. So by the Fall, anyway, probably even by Summer, all of my music will be out again.

John:
Well, great, about time too. And what will the label be down here, can I ask at this stage of the game?

David:
Flying Fish, I believe.

John:
Flying Fish! Fantastic! Hartford’s on there – The Red Clay Ramblers – Sweet Honey in the Rock – a whole bunch of great people. So now they’ll have you to boast about in their catalogue too! You know, I hate to get into this, but this whole record company thing is total double-think. It really is a totally irrelevant lawyers and businessman thing that has nothing to do with the music. But then at the same time – equally true – the musician has a right to a living, to the credit that’s his, to peace of mind so that he can go on about his business. So it’s doublethink.

David:
Well, what can I add? It’s been great talking with you, man.

John:
And what can I say, except "God bless you," man.

David:
And God bless you too, my man. We’ll see you at Bucknell in April.

John:
For sure – if not before!

[And the snow finally did melt, and the car got repaired, and we did get over to see David, over at Bucknell, being a "community music maker" – there’s a review of that concert somewhere in the newsprint copies of The Folk Life – but that’s another story, isn’t it? For those of you who’d like to catch up with David’s recent doings – he just never stops, this man – you can bop on over to his website, and check him out. Say hi, willya?]

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