Don McLean: The FolkWorks Interview

Part 2

By Ross Altman

July 14, 2014, Woody Guthrie’s 102nd birthday—a day to celebrate folk music.

Don McLeanRA:      Let me ask you about your father. You said at some point in the interview that I read that you were being encouraged to quit music because you weren’t making enough or weren’t successful enough and then the way you looked at it was you were making more in a day than your father made in a week…

RA:      Okay, so to repeat that you were making more in a day than your father was earning in a week, which was about $150, and so you couldn’t see the argument. So I wanted to ask you, what did your father do for a living? And what influence did he have in terms of values and the things that you saw around your home?

DM:     My father was a district manager for Consolidated Edison, the utility.

RA:      Oh, okay.

DM:     And he sold gas heat to people. And I never knew one single thing about what he did. He never spoke about what he did. He never talked about himself too much at all. He was taciturn in some ways, but near the end of his life when we were together, he told me all about childhood which was very tough. And then he died when I was with him.

RA:      Oh, my God.

DM:     And my father…

RA:      And what year was that?

DM:     1960.

RA:      Okay, so you were still…

DM:     He was 61. It was January 18, 1961. And my father prided himself on his – he didn’t pride himself, he just was an honest person. He wouldn’t like for somebody and he wouldn’t go along, you know, with things. He was – that’s the one thing that I think I wanted my life, and my children, I think are the same way, to look in the mirror and say, “I did the thing I really was put here to do” rather than let somebody else tell me what to do, or let a record company dictate or a manager dictate or whatever. So that’s caused me a lot of problems in my life, but in the end it happened because I have done things that I’m proud of and it means something to me rather than things just to make money. And to judge whether or not I was doing okay in the music business by the metric of my father’s income is a very pedestrian thing to say that even, but from people out there.

RA:      I thought it was impressive. I didn’t think it was pedestrian at all.

DM:     But, you know, to base it on money that your father made, but to me, it was why my father was so high in my esteem—because he paid for everything and took care of everything, and so when I said, “well, to be able to do that and do it quickly, much better and do something that I’m enjoying,” whereas his job killed him. It kills a lot of people. My father’s story really was the story of “Death of A Salesman”. He was a Willy Loman, exactly like him.

RA:      Really? My God.

DM:     But he wasn’t a braggart. There’s a difference between my father and Willy Loman. He just was devoted to the company; his job and his family, and it basically wore him right down.

RA:      Probably like a…

DM:     So one of the things I never wanted was to have a boss and a lot of times when you become successful, you put on golden handcuffs…

RA:      What a great phrase.

DM:     …like with a lot of bosses.

RA:      Have you ever put that in a song?

DM:     No.

RA:      That’s a great phrase.

DM:     But I never wanted that, so I would go – by the way, I wanted to mention one thing. Apropos of nothing, I saw an interview that you did with Peggy Seeger and I always liked her version of the Spring Hill Mine Disaster. It was on an old Vanguard record. I think at Newport that I had and I just wanted to mention that.

RA:      Oh. Well, thank you. I really enjoyed talking to her. I talked to her because - the pretext was to talk about her brother when Michael died and then it got into other things. Let me ask you, at least for a few minutes, to talk about the banjo. Oh, for a long time, I really thought of you as much as a banjo player as a guitarist because of the banjo pieces that you did, in fact, I think you even did “Babylon”?

DM:     Right.

RA:      Arranged on a banjo. Just one of the most beautiful banjo arrangements of anything that I’ve heard. It was just glorious and…

DM:     It’s such a wonderful instrument and I probably should go back to playing it. Actually, sometimes I go back to playing it now. I left it for many, many years and never even touched it, but lately, in the last few years, I’ve played it again. I have a whole different feeling about it now because I used to be kind of locked into the Pete Seeger-Earl Scruggs universe.

RA:      And Erik Darling, too.

DM:     Erik was locked into that universe, too. He was one of a bunch of players. Frank Hamilton, Billy Faier, you know.

RA:      Yeah.?

DM:     …who played that way, but I figured a way to get around it and – not that I don’t – you know. It’s all so wonderful and beautiful, you know, that you can’t do it better than the original people, but…

RA:      Well, Erik Darling added some things to what Pete did.

DM:     Well…

RA:      Erik mastered – I think you mastered both.

DM:     Erik Darling was a very unique person. He was not egotistical at all. In fact, at the end of his life, it’s interesting – I’ll tell you a little bit about him. When I was about 16 years old, I called him on the phone and rather than just putting up with me, he said, “If you ever come to New York, you can come to my house and we can play some music.”

RA:      Oh, my God.

DM:     And he invited me to his apartment which was up near Columbus Circle, and of course, I was not familiar with the city, so I took trains and brought my guitar, and I was like 16, I guess. And we sat there for the afternoon and he gave me some food and we played and talked and this and that. And then I remember the apartment very well. I remember the ceiling. I remember the smell of the place and the hallway.

RA:      And this was about 1961 again?

DM:     1962, I guess.

RA:      Okay, so that’s after he had joined the Weavers…

DM:     And started the Rooftop Singers.

RA:      Oh, okay.

DM:     And shortly into that year, he had a number one record.

RA:      He certainly did.

DM:     And he was very busy, you know, with his group and the success that they had.

RA:      Uh huh.

DM:     And still, he always spoke to me the same way and whenever I wanted, he would invite me, if he had the time, when he was free, to the apartment to spend some time and play some music. That’s the kind of person he was.

RA:      Did he have a 12 string at the time you met him?

DM:     He had just ordered them. He had two 12 strings custom made by Gibson for this group. I saw those…

RA:      Just to do “Walk Right In”?

DM:     Before the group hit, so he made the records with those and he also had a new banjo made exactly like the old one from Vega, and he had a new – a couple of new 000-28’s made so he said to me, “Why don’t you take my old banjo? You can take it home.”

RA:      Wow.

DM:     So he gave me this banjo and I took it home. My mother – I lived with my mother in Larchmont in an apartment and I took it home. And first of all, I was crazy about this cover that he had with a stop sign and the banjo hanging on the stop sign. It was just called “Erik Darling”. It was the title of his album on Elektra Records.

RA:      Elektra.

DM:     I loved that photograph and that banjo was different from any other long neck because the fifth string peg was set back one fret from where the normal fifth string peg was if you bought a Vega banjo from Vega.

RA:      Oh, my goodness. Was it set forward, or was it?

DM:     Backwards. It was toward the rim. So there were eight frets – seven.

RA:      I see.

erik darlingDM:     Before you reached the fifth string peg. And I eventually learned – and let me tell you a little story. So I took the banjo home and I took it all apart and I cleaned it all up and I fixed it all up and I put it all back together, and I made it sound really, really good in about two weeks—he never asked for it back. But I couldn’t keep it for more than that. I felt it wasn’t right, so I brought it back to him. And it was all shining and beautiful and everything. And I never forgot that and then Erik and I kept knowing each other. I performed –-I was a sideman on an album by Lisa Kindred.

RA:      I’ve heard of her.

DM:     That he produced for Vanguard and then around 1966, he was getting tired of, I guess, the Rooftop Singers and he wanted to form another group and so he brought me to his – he asked me to come to the apartment to audition to possibly sing with three other people. He – Eric and two other people – so it would be a four man group. And I sat around and listened to some of these songs he had written and they were doing all this – they say he’s sort of theatrical and dramatic, as well as musical, and it was quite off the walls and I was a little older now. And he called me up and he asked me what I thought, and I said I didn’t think the songs were very good and he got pretty mad at me.

RA:      You told Erik Darling and these were songs he had written himself?

DM:     Yeah, I didn’t like the songs.

RA:      Oh, my God. That was some good stuff.

DM:     So he said, “Well, I can’t work with you.” And I said, “That’s okay,” so we didn’t talk for a long time.

RA:      Do you remember what the name of the group was going to be?

DM:     I don’t remember the name of the group. But they wore masks.

RA:      They wore masks? Oh, this has the sixties written all over it.

DM:     Yeah. They had masks and it was a whole different…So anyway, he was just two years away from completely quitting music altogether.

RA:      Uh huh. Well, he went into writing mysteries.

DM:     Pardon me.

RA:      When I met him once at McCabe’s in Los Angeles and got a chance to actually talk to him, and he was writing – he told me he was writing mysteries. He was living, I think, in Arizona and he had quit music and he was making a living writing books, writing mysteries.

DM:     Well, he spent many, many, many years writing his biography which he finished just before he died, and all the Weavers’ photographs in that book came from me.

RA:      Really?

DM:     Erik didn’t have one single thing. I just want to tell you a little bit about him. He had a breakdown of some sort. He told me that he went to the top of a building and he wanted to jump off.

RA:      Oh, my God.

DM:     In ’68. But everything snapped.

RA:      Did he say anything about why?

DM:     He didn’t really know why, but he never – he gave lessons and he never wanted to make music anymore as far as being on stage or being involved with any of that. Then he fell in love with a police officer who was a woman and she went out to New Mexico and he followed her out there, and he lost his apartment which was rent controlled because he sublet it. So, he was out there with her and that fell apart and he ended up staying in New Mexico. And he was always close to Bill Spano and Bill Spano married his first wife, Joan Darling. And the three of them were very close.

RA:      I see.

DM:     And so they were all together out there in New Mexico, and then they moved…

RA:      Yeah, that’s where it was.

DM:     Yeah, New Mexico.

RA:      So it was New Mexico.

DM:     Anyhow, I’m going to cut to the chase here a little bit, so many years pass, like 40 years pass. This is ’66, ’76, ’86, ’96, 2006, 40 years passed and there was a book being written by my webmaster, Allen Howard, about me called, “Killing Us Softly With His Songs.”

RA:      Okay.

DM:     And I said, “You have to have a picture of Erik Darling in here because he was very important to me and so Allen reached out to him by the internet and found him. And he wrote a beautiful letter back about how much he remembered our relationship and how much he liked what I did, and all this good stuff. And so I talked to him. Now 40 years later, and we began to talk about, just like we did when I was 16 on the phone.

RA:      Oh God, that’s beautiful.

DM:     And I asked him all kinds of questions. I said, “What happened to you?” and he told me he had this breakdown and he was at a therapist for a while and he did all kinds of different things, but barely making it. And he was now in North Carolina, where his ex-wife and her husband, Bill Spano, lived, so the three of them lived down there. And I said, “Well, maybe if you ever get to Maine,” and he said, I guess his ex-wife and Bill Spano, I don’t know if they have money or something, but they had a house in Kennebunkport, Maine, and I said, “Well, if you’re ever up here I’d like to take you to dinner.” So they came up, the three of them…

RA:      All three of them.

DM:     …all three of them, and Erik is very old at that point and he looks like he looks in that last go-around with the Weavers that they put on YouTube with “Sinner Man” and stuff. They’re so old they can hardly stand up. They should never have done it, but he was there with the two others and my wife, and I took them to dinner at this restaurant in Kennebunkport and then we spoke and got to meet again. And so on, and that was that. We had a nice night together and then shortly after, I was told he died.

RA:      Oh, my God.

DM:     I had no indication that he was ill, but he did sit on a pillow. I guess he was having some kind of pain or something.

RA:      Was he still playing music, even though he wasn’t performing?

DM:     Oh yeah. He was playing more beautiful guitar than ever. He played – his guitar playing became more lyrical and cascading. I mean, you could hear some of those later albums that he made.

RA:      Yeah, I have one of them.

DM:     Unbelievable, his playing.

RA:      He completely redid “Walk Right In” and made it a lyrical…

DM:     Well, one of the problems that Erik had, and he told this to me, was he really couldn’t learn new songs and he couldn’t find new songs. He was always going back to the same stuff all the time. And that was kind of a shame because he needed somebody to help him find melodies. The problem that I had with the music that he was making for that group is that it was flat lining. It wasn’t really melodic and maybe it’s the Italian in me or something, but it didn’t speak to me. But I want to tell you one funny thing that I loved that banjo so much that I went ahead and ordered a banjo from Deering Banjos with the peg back one fret, in more or less a duplicate of his, and I was playing that and you can see me on the internet playing that when I was looking around through Mandolin Brothers, they sent me the catalog, and there was the goddamned banjo for sale, the real one.

Erik Darling - Banjo Medley
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LUElCuk2JI)

RA:      Wow.

DM:     And I bought it right away. And I have it.

RA:      And what year was that?

DM:     It’s the best, most amazing sounding instrument you could ever imagine. All those banjo records that you hear with him on Ed McCurdy and behind Jack Elliott and…that’s the banjo.

RA:      I see.

DM:           And all the Weavers’ records. The new banjo that he got, he played at the reunion concern in 1963, and it’s kind of plunky. It didn’t really have the sparkle of the original one.

RA:      And it was still a Vega Banjo?

DM:     Well, yeah. And actually that banjo, the banjo that I have which was his first banjo, was the first long-neck banjo ever made by Vega. The first one ever because he, rather than elongating the neck, which all those guys did, Seeger elongated that neck that he used in the Weavers at Carnegie Hall in 1955. Eric elongated the neck that he used on the banjo that he used with the Tarriers which had those block inlays.

RA:      So they did the craftwork themselves.

DM:     Basically he called and said, “I want you to make me one.”

RA:      I see.

DM:     That’s long-necked, it has the three extra frets, but they put the fifth string peg back one fret so it had eight frets where I can capo up instead of seven. And they did that and made it in a blond style and that is the first long-neck banjo ever made by Vega.

RA:      Wow.

DM:     After the Kingston Trio became famous, and around that time, they started making the regular Vega neck which Pete Seeger – is called the Pete Seeger model and I’m sure that Pete was the first person to elongate the neck.

RA:      Oh, well, of course he was. Nobody else has ever claimed that.

DM:     But Erik was the first person to have Vega make one.

RA:      I see.

DM:     That’s a long story.

RA:      Oh, that’s the kind of story I was hoping to hear. Well, all right, did you – when you were starting out – might as well finish this section – when you were starting out, did you, like everybody else I knew, start out with Pete’s little red banjo book?

DM:     Absolutely. I locked myself in – I swore I was going to play this goddamned banjo and you know there was no YouTube and there was no video, and there was no nothing.

RA:      Yeah, of course not.

DM:     You had to read these words and try to figure this out, and bump-titty, bump-titty made a lot of sense, you know? You know, bump was the pickup and lunk-thunk, so it had the sound of bump-tinny, bump-tinny. And so I bought this thing and all the banjo book was the same as all of the liner notes that were in these wonderful folk records, Folkways’ records. So much attention was paid to the lyrics and these little stores and pictures of drawings.

RA:      Oh yeah. That’s – Moe Ash’s…

DM:     I mean, these liner notes in Pete Seeger’s Folkways’ records were as interesting almost as the music, and the banjo followed the line. They got someone to do drawings of him or a guy who looked like him playing the banjo, and the thing that I loved about Pete Seeger was that he always seemed to have his face up towards the sun and he was playing his banjo and he had it all totally to himself. He didn’t need anyone else but his banjo and his guitar. And when he had them on his back and he would create a world like that. That’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what was my – but then the problem was, and it happened to Brian Wilson, it happened to a lot of people – they started making songs that you couldn’t do by yourself or that you couldn’t do alone and you’d start involving other things with it and you want it to have another sound. But I continued that thing all through the 1970s. You listen to the solo album on Universal.

RA:      Yeah, that’s a beautiful album.

DM:     When I finished that record, I said, well now I’m going to do something else, but I did that – in all the major halls of the world, many times I did that.

RA:      Is “Ancient History” on that album?

DM:     “Ancient History” is on “Playin’ Favorites.”

RA:      “Playin’ Favorites.”

DM:     And that’s an album, a song that I heard – a Johnny Cash song that his secretary wrote, or so he told me.

RA:      “Ancient History”? Yeah, it wasn’t written by Johnny Cash.

DM:     No, it was written by his secretary. You have to understand that I’m a loner, I’m an outsider. I’m really not – I don’t know a lot of people.

RA:      I want to read the poem you wrote for Pete, and so it gets in the interview. It’s the last page of the wonderful Clearwater book that you edited. It’s called “For Pete”. And maybe you could say something afterwards:

He’s a sailor, a bumbling, crafty, thoughtful, dreaming, chopstick drummer.

A lover, a brightly colored creature, root that knuckles through the soil to reach you.

A sculptured banjo body setting humane thoughts on careless scraps of paper leaves,

a voice of fiber bark, tenderness and April bud. A raging, flaming, autumn fire.

Tall, strong, bending in the breeze, but growing natural as wood,

a shady place for all these children of the sun.

DM:     That’s how I felt.

RA:      It’s a beautiful poem.

DM:     I don’t feel that way anymore unfortunately.

RA:      I saw that on your – I certainly noticed that in the interview…

DM:     I don’t feel that way anymore.

RA:      I noticed that.

DM:     And I’m sorry about that. I wish I did.

RA:      Was there something that changed your attitude?

DM:     Many things. By the mid-70s, I felt there was so much hatred around him toward America that I just didn’t want to hear it anymore I remember him saying on stage once, “If I were a black man, I would drown America in my babies.”

RA:      Oh, my God.

DM:     And I thought to myself, what is this guy thinking? And analyze that for a second. I would put out a lot of children that nobody wants so the system gets clogged up and breaks down? That’s what you want? You know? I mean, I heard that and I said to myself, it’s time for me to move on.

RA:      And that was enough.

DM:     And there’s much more I could tell you. I don’t want to do that.

RA:      Yeah, I know.

DM:     With this interview. I want to say that because of him, I found my way in to this business and found a way to express myself, and also I loved the time that I knew him, but I don’t agree with him. I never understood how someone who loves humanity can also love totalitarian government. I don’t understand that. And the ramifications of that are very, very large. And so…

End of Part Two; in Part Three Don McLean talks about Pete Seeger and his time on the Clearwater.

Don McLean and Judy Collins will appear in concert at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on Friday, July 25. For further info and tickets see www.DonMcLean.com

Ross Atman will perform a tribute to Pete Seeger on Saturday, July 19 at 2:00pm at the Santa Monica Public Library; sponsored by the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest Free Family Concert Series; in the North Courtyard outside the library.

Saturday July 26, 8:00pm Ross Altman and Jill Fenimore perform at the UnUrban Coffeehouse Gallery Opening for an exhibition of the late Change-Links Editor John Johnson’s paintings; 3301 W. Pico Blvd. Santa Monica, CA. 90405; 310-315-0056 ; Jill will play Don McLean’s Vincent in honor of John.

On Thursday evening, July 31 Ross will appear with the Geer Family Singers and other performers at the Theatricum Botanicum Re-Pete concert for Pete Seeger. See their website for tickets.

Saturday afternoon August 9, at 2:00pm on the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Ross performs Countdown: The Cold War Hit Parade at the Allendale Branch Library in Pasadena; 1130 South Marengo Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 626-744-7260 ; it is sponsored by the library; free and open to the public.

Sunday morning August 31 at 10:30am Ross performs his annual Labor Day Sunday Program at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill Street in Santa Monica 90405; free and open to the public. 310-399-1631 .

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com