A chance encounter on Craigslist between guitarist-composer Elliott Sharp and musical archivist and producer Peter K. Siegel—one time member of the seminal Even Dozen Jug Band and founder of the Nonesuch record label’s Explorer Series—led to the following conversational exploration of American and world musical roots. Siegel learned on the fly in the early 1960s—as, first and foremost, a fan of old-time music, then a member of a jug band (with John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur, Steve Katz and David Grisman), and then on the staff of Elektra Records alongside Paul Rothchild. He has not looked back since.
From modern takes on the jug band music originating in Memphis in the 1930s to traditional Japanese shakuhachi music, from Bahamian guitar virtuoso Joseph Spence to old-time music icons Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, from the ripping electric guitar of Roy Buchanan to Carnatic violin, Peter K. Siegel was there to play, record, and present these musics to a world that didn’t realize how much it needed them. Getting his start as both a musician and a recordist in the early 1960s, Peter is still active and excited about archival projects that are being readied for release.
Our paths crossed in a serendipitous way: I often search Craigslist for interesting instruments and was intrigued by a listing for a 1920s vintage Galiano “Decalcomania” parlor guitar. Visiting the seller at his Upper West Side apartment, I entered a spacious living room with a number of ancient but well-preserved guitars and banjos displayed on the walls, including a charismatic Martin D-28 that demanded attention. After playing and purchasing the above-mentioned Galiano, Peter and I began to talk about music and his work in it and I soon realized that I was in the presence of one of my teenage heroes, a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band and founder of the Nonesuch Explorer Series, a legendary label that stretched the boundaries of music for many listeners. I soon returned to Peter’s house with a recorder and we touched on a variety of topics from his rich history.
EARLY DAYS: Friends of Old Time Music
Peter Siegel: I’ve just made several LPs, the first that I’ve done in years, part of an informal series from tapes that I’d recorded many years ago. What I love about LP’s and miss now is you get all this turf. You can read, look… you don’t get that by downloading a single track.
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton, produced and recorded by Peter K. Siegel
Elliott Sharp (E#): You started as an engineer or playing music?
Peter Siegel: Playing music. My parents had a lot of old records and lived in the Village, part of a gang of people, lived in a house that was owned by a guy named Jimmy Jemail who was the Daily News “Inquiring Photographer” and also living in the house was a guy named Mel Lampell (Millard Lampell) who sang with the Almanac Singers and wrote a lot of the songs they performed, including “Talking Union” and “The Sinking Of The Ruben James”. My dad got to see all these musicians, including Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and he claimed he was part of the gang that would go around to sing the choruses in the songs of the Almanac Singers when they were shorthanded at a union thing. So, when I was growing up, the records that were around were by the Almanacs, Leadbelly, Guthrie – I remember music and guitarists. There was a guy across the street named Toby Kreber, a cowboy singer.
When I was 12 or 13, I really wanted a guitar so my parents got me one, and when I was 15 I really wanted a banjo. I saw Pete Seeger play it and thought it was incredibly cool (though I wouldn’t have used that word then). I set about teaching myself to play and took four lessons from a really great banjo player named Billy Faier. He made a couple of records on Riverside. He taught me how to frail, play clawhammer-style. I loved that kind of music and by the time I was 18 or 19, I had met these guys Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, and John Cohen. I went to school with David Grisman (virtuoso mandolinist and inventor of “Dawg Music”) and Richard Rinzler, who got me involved with his cousin Ralph who was really doing things with this music. He and John Cohen and Izzy Young started this organization Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM) and I became the guy that recorded all of their concerts. At that time, these guys were musicians who played the kind of music that I really liked. I’d gotten the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music and listened to a lot of old time music and blues and they were going around and recording people and putting out records on Folkways.
E#: It seems a lot of the original players of this music were still alive then – did people know that they were alive and even active?
Peter Siegel: It was found out as we went along. People like Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt that we heard on the Anthology that were not presumed to be alive, yet there they were! That in itself was a phenomenon because of confronting the actual person behind this far-off voice that you made up so many stories about. Like Bukka White was supposed to have written Fixing To Die just before he was executed in the electric chair…but suddenly, there he was! Dock Boggs was supposed to be some totally weird strange guy but there he was, a nice old gent wearing a suit, very polite. Damn!..I wanted to be like Ralph, and John and Mike, they were about half a generation older which was, when you’re 19, a big deal.
Dock Boggs at Newport Folk Festival – 1966
Mississippi John Hurt interviewed by Pete Seeger – 1964
E#: Are any of the FOTM crew still alive?
Peter Siegel: Ralph passed away 20 years ago, Mike in 2009, and John in 2019.
E#: When I was in high school, they were legendary figures
Peter Siegel: I wanted to be like these guys, I wanted to record the real thing…and to play the music. I wanted to do both. Their thing was they wanted to play music like the old timers but they wanted to introduce you to the real thing. They had a real reverence for the older people.
E#: Was there a feeling that they couldn’t ever make the real expression themselves because of a cultural distance?
Peter Siegel: It never got talked about but what would get talked about, if people came up to Ralph and said, “Wow, that was great, I love listening to you guys,” he would say “if you really want to hear something great, you should listen to Bill Monroe.” Not sure what mechanism was at play in their minds but they knew…their mission seemed to be, beyond being musicians, seemed to be to introduce people to the older musicians. Ralph was responsible for what you hear today on NPR, for example, play country blues or country music. Before Ralph came along, that stuff was nonexistent on the radio. (Although Henriette Yurchenko had a show on WNYC, Leadbelly would occasionally be a guest.)
E#: How would you listen to things besides old records…was there radio?
Peter Siegel: How I got into it, I bought a tape recorder and a cheap microphone. I knew a guy named Art Rosenbaum, he’s still going, he’s a wonderful field recordist, also a great banjo player, and he was doing field recordings, even took me to Kentucky. He had a Tandberg 3B recorder, a half-track mono. Mike Seeger had a microphone, an ElectroVoice 666, a good dynamic mic…but when I went to look at microphones, it cost $300, a lot of money, so the salesman, in those days you’d go to a real radio supply place, when I told him I couldn’t spend so much, the salesman said to try this EV 664, it’s pretty good. It was really a PA mic – they still use them because they look great, so I bought it, it cost like $30 and it looked cool, the chrome one, that’s what I had, I didn’t really know how cheap a mic that was. But I also have this theory about microphones, which is that, it’s really simple: you put one in front of a really great master musician, it’s going to outperform itself. It’s going to be better than it’s supposed to be…There’s a great interview with Don Reno, a great banjo player, about recording. He recorded for King Records in Cincinnati. There’s an interview, years later Gary Reid, a bluegrass historian put together a Don Reno and Red Smiley box set, with a book “that thick” with extensive notes. One of the things was an interview with an engineer who had recorded Reno and he told a story about how they always used these old beat-up dynamic mics and Sid Nathan (who owned King) bought these new Telefunken mics, like Neumann U-47’s, he made a big deal about recording Don with these new mics. Don said, “That sounds terrible! I can’t stand it, it doesn’t even sound like a banjo.” So they went and got this old beat-up mic, and he loved it.
Now I had this equipment and was ready to make my first field recording. The FOTM at this time had produced one concert in New York, the group included Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, that was in 1961. Anyway, a year later, the FOTM got to put on their second concert. At that first concert, people noticed what a good guitarist Watson was and Ralph had gone to visit Doc at his home in North Carolina and arranged for a concert for “The Watson Family” for lack of any other name and that consisted of Doc, his brother Arnold who played banjo and harmonica, and Gaither Carlton, a wonderful fiddler who was Doc’s father-in-law. They arranged the second FOTM concert, no the third, I’m sorry! The sequence was like this: the first two concerts were at PS41 in the Village; the first one featured Roscoe Holcomb who John had just met in Kentucky, and that concert consisted of four acts, Roscoe, the New Lost City Ramblers, Jean Ritchie, and the Greenbriar Boys. And the thinking behind staging that concert that way was that they were concerned that if they just put on Roscoe Holcomb, who not a lot of people had heard of, they wouldn’t get an audience.
E#: Was Jean Ritchie more known?
Peter Siegel: Oh yeah, Jean Ritchie was very well known and so were the New Lost City Ramblers and Greenbriar Boys. And Jean Ritchie was on the board of the FOTM.
E#: Was she a folklorist or authentic?
Peter Siegel: She was authentic, a folksinger, from Viper, Kentucky. She had come to New York to work as a social worker and she worked at the Henry Street Settlement but she brought her music with her and she was like a grand presence, my god, a traditional beautiful ballad singer who performed with a dulcimer! She recorded extensively because every company that wanted to put out folk music records recorded her, so she was on Riverside, and Tradition, Folkways, Westminster…Anyway the first FOTM concert consisted of those four acts and it was a big success. The second one, I’m correcting what I said before, was the Clarence Ashley one. That was also held at PS41.
E#: How did word get out? Was there a network, handbills?
Peter Siegel: One of the reasons that Izzy Young was one of the founders was that he had a store, The Folklore Center, and he …Let me re-phrase something so as not to fail to credit Izzy’s contribution to this: the fact that he provided some infrastructure in the form of a store was only part of his contribution. And he wouldn’t like it if I just said that Izzy’s job was to hand out flyers.
E#: So he was like a town crier?
Peter Siegel: Yes. He talked to everyone. He had a newsletter that you’d be on the mailing list for… he was very good at spreading the word. The FOTM, you should know, you think of a non-profit arts organization, an office with computers, grants, but this was just three guys who lived in their apartments and talked on the phone, met up once in a while in a coffee shop, I mean it was…they had no infrastructure whatsoever, so what Izzy provided was a lot. Anyway, by the time I had this Tandberg tape recorder and this EV microphone, the FOTM was about to produce their third concert, this was 1963…That concert was going to be the Watson family and Jesse Fuller. [Jesse Fuller] came to New York from San Francisco for this and also played at the Cornell Folk Festival, maybe a few other places. So I basically said to Ralph, “how about I record this?” So I’m 18, take out my tape recorder and record this, this unbelievable concert of Doc Watson and his family and Jesse Fuller, the recordings of both of those artists end up on the FOTM album. After that, I became the unofficial recordist for the FOTM concerts.
E#: How did the sound quality hold up after 50 years? Did you have to bake the tapes?
Peter Siegel: Not bad! No, you’re talking about mylar tapes, this was acetate. Acetate tapes tended to warp, they didn’t stick together so you didn’t have to bake. The tape would warp in such a way that it would look like a scallop so you’d have to find a way to hold it over the head. Anyway, after that, I recorded a bunch of concerts and great music. Funny thing, when these authentic old-timers would appear somewhere and one thing that happened with the FOTM, when they would bring someone to New York City, they would try to get them some extra gigs along the way.
E#: How would they find people? Would they just go drive around someplace asking for musicians? Was [John and Alan] Lomax’s work a guide?
Peter Siegel: There’s a million stories, not quite as simple as going around. Anyway, for me, when someone, say, when Clarence Ashley played at Gerde’s Folk City, I could record Clarence Ashley by asking him if it was okay, there was no money in it. There was no agent or manager or lawyer to jump out and say, “You can’t do that.” The club didn’t mind – I don’t think we ever asked, just put a microphone up on stage. Whenever I had an album come out, we made an agreement, for instance with the Clarence Ashley, we made a full-fledged record deal with his grandson who owns the rights. You could ask “Can I record you?” and they’d say “sure,” but you couldn’t put it out. I certainly never put it out without going back and finding the person and making an agreement. But you could record. My motivation for recording wasn’t thinking about records at that time, but largely I like the idea of recording and there weren’t many albums of this kind of music available. I like the idea of having that music to listen to. So I started recording that stuff and…
Clarence Ashley talks and performs The Cuckoo:
E#: Were you interested in the technical end, how to make your recordings sound better?
Peter Siegel: Later I was. I was in a band called the Even Dozen Jug Band. There was a lot if interesting people in that band.
E#: Yeah! Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian, David Grisman, Steve Katz
Peter Siegel: Almost everyone in that band went on to do something
E#: That bass player who went on to become a cult leader?
Peter Siegel: No, Fritz Richmond was not in it – he was in the Kweskin Jug Band. There was a thing about jug bands for about 10 minutes!
[ed. note: Fritz Richmond was the bass player of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. He was not in a cult.]
E#: Yeah, in fact, I was in a jug band in high school, a little later.
Even Dozen Jug Band live at Fordham University
Peter Siegel: Anyway, Elektra Records made a record of the Even Dozen Jug Band.
1963, I think.
E#: That wasn’t done on multitrack?
Peter Siegel: No, it was on two tracks at 15ips – I got hold of some of the master tapes at a studio called Mastertone on 42 Street. When we got signed, Jac Holzman signed us, Paul Rothchild had just arrived at Elektra as their new hotshot producer, and he had come from an interesting background as well. An actual record producer! And he produced an album of the EDJB. He later produced The Doors, Janis Joplin, all kinds of people. Paul produced us and I got to see what an actual record producer did – I had no idea. So I said, “This is what I want to do!” After that I was hanging out at Elektra and learning stuff from Paul and made some records out of tapes I made and got to know Moe Asch at Folkways, who was a thousand stories unto himself. But I produced a few albums for Folkways, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in Washington D.C. for a bluegrass festival and I heard Hazel Dickens and Alice Foster and with the help of Mike Seeger, I persuaded Moe Asch that I should make an album of them.
E#: Were you still using the same equipment, or had you upgraded?
Peter Siegel: By that time, I had a Nagra and a Sony condenser mic, a D37A, nice mic.
E#: Digging around, I also came upon a note of a recording you did of one of Dylan’s first “basement tapes”, with Gil Turner playing banjo at his apartment in the East Village.
Peter Siegel: No, that’s not true – it was the basement of Gerde’s Folk City, It was right after an FOTM concert on 4th Street at the NYU School of Education, Bill Monroe presented by the FOTM. First, we all got to see Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker on fiddle, Jack Cook on guitar and lead vocal, and Del McCoury on banjo – it was wonderful! After the concert, I ended up in the basement of Gerde’s and there was some kind of jam session going on there with, I don’t remember, there was Gil Turner playing banjo, Bob Dylan singing…anyway, Bob Dylan says, “Would you record me?”, I said “sure” I was hoping he was going to say that. That was about the time of the Freewheelin’ album. He would just have me record him for the fun of it.
Anyway, I was recording stuff for Folkways and eventually I got hired by Elektra like an apprentice engineer/producer. The thing about Elektra at that time for a few years, all their producers were also engineers, worked hands-on. At Atlantic, the producer wouldn’t, Tom Dowd would be the engineer. At Columbia, the producer, there was a union thing, the producer was not allowed to touch the board. Recording engineers were not super hip in those days, most of them came out of radio, wearing plaid flannel shirts – most of these guys, you weren’t allowed to touch the board. They also had a “machine man” in a little room behind a curtain. The engineer would be in charge of the mics and mixing and the engineer would say “Roll” and the machine man would say “we’re rolling” and he would probably also be wearing an old flannel shirt. No one was allowed to touch anything! I think it was all union requirements. At Elektra, for what it’s worth, all the producers were trained to be recording engineers. They had a mixing room. The engineers didn’t have engineering degrees, they knew how to place a mic, operate a machine. I was like an apprentice, they really taught it like, you want to be a chef, you start by washing pots and pans. I had some great teachers: Paul Rothchild, Mark Abramson was a fabulous producer, worked full-time at Elektra, produced Judy Collins albums. My job at first was every morning, align all the machines, clean all the heads with rubbing alcohol and a Q-Tip, then when they could trust me a little bit, they had me do something which is like a thing of the past, put leader in between tracks on an album – white paper leader. Eventually, I got to record stuff. And that’s the answer of how I got into it.
E#: One of the first notable recordings that I found of yours was of Joseph Spence. Had you already known of his 1958 recordings? He has such an individual guitar style, like a piano, impossible to imitate. I hear similarities between his playing and that of Thelonious Monk.
Joseph Spence “Out On The Rolling Sea”
Peter Siegel: How that all happened, the difference between folklorist and non-folklore recordings of the Bahamas. Lomax had been in the Bahamas in 1935. He went with a real folklorist…Bahamas was not about calypso…For whatever reason, Lomax recorded in the Bahamas lots of great stuff. There was a style of singing called “rhyming” – it came out of the sponging: one of the principal industries at the time in the Bahamas was gathering natural sponges. And to do it, these crews of guys would go out on a boat, rickety craft, four or five guys, go out and dive for sponges, really dangerous, a lot of guys drowned. Lot of songs about that. They’d dive for sponges, come up, anything can happen, pile them up in the boat, eventually take them back to port but they would go out for weeks at a time, they would tie up the boats together and they would sing. And what they would sing, and it became kind of a competitive sport, they’d sing old hymns they called anthems, really beautiful three-chord songs where a group of people would sing the anthem over and over again, typically someone would sing the melody, someone would sing the treble, someone singing bass, and the rhymer, would start improvising vocal parts usually based on Bible stories. A lot of them, for reasons which are too complicated to go into right now, the Bahamas shared a lot of culture with African-Americans living in the United States, a lot of people going back and forth, many had hymn books. That style of rhyming WAS the music of the Bahamas, it does not exist anymore, it’s gone. In 1958 Sam Charters went to the Bahamas and recorded what became three and ultimately four albums on Folkways, one a whole album of Joseph Spence, who as you know plays guitar and does two types of vocalizing, one is very incidental sort of like Erroll Garner or other guys who make sounds while they’re playing (and you hear that a lot) and he also does rhyming. In the verses of songs, what he does is basically in a rhyming style. It was improvised but if you do it enough you pretty much get a rap going and Spence had it down. But he wasn’t doing real rhyming because he only had a guitar. The second album that Sam [Charters] put out from the Bahamas trip was all rhyming with some great people, Frederick McQueen, John Roberts – that was incredible. Those two albums…I knew every note of those two albums. Blew me away, both of them. There was a third album of brass bands which I never really got into and then many years later he came out with a fourth one which was outtakes from the Spence and rhyming album, but it was still great.
A seminal event in Spence’s life was the 1929 hurricane on Andros Island in the Bahamas which resulted in the sinking of the Pretoria and the drowning of 20 people. Spence was on a hill near his home and he could see the sinking. He ran down to the harbor to rescue people and helping in the recovery. He describes these events in his song “Run Come See Jerusalem” just now released on Smithsonian Folkways.