A Life In (Folk) Music

I was recently asked how I ended up playing and singing folk music. The fact is I didn’t “end up” doing it – I started out in folk music. And, although I’ve played many styles (rock, blues, jazz fusion) in my career as an electric bassist, it’s always been folk and acoustic music that I most enjoyed.

The first record I ever bought (1962?) was an EP by The Kingston Trio which contained their hit “Tom Dooley”. I loved the storytelling aspect of the song, the harmonies and the acoustic instruments. My next record purchase was the double album Harry Belafonte At Carnegie Hall. Yes, that Harry Belafonte. Recorded in 1959, it had all his calypso hits, but also folk songs from all over the world. “Danny Boy”, “John Henry”, “Shennendoah”, even “Hava Nagila”! His voice, phrasing and the obvious rapport between the singer and the audience captivated me, and I think it was then that I decided I wanted to be a singer.

I joined the school choir, learning more about harmony structures, and developing what ultimately became a three octave vocal range. And then, in 1963, I heard John Gary for the first time. I’ll try to be brief on this subject, although I could (and possibly should) write a book about this man – in my opinion the best singer of popular music of all time. John Gary was an ex-Marine, held records for underwater endurance, a champion archer, a songwriter, actor and poet. Like me, he’d been singing since he was a child and, like me, he had a three octave range. His song selection and phrasing were impeccable and he could sing a line, hold the last note, and then sing another entire line without taking a breath! My parents, bless them, took me to see him perform twice and he became my role model. Until…

The Beatles. Paul McCartney is the reason I play bass. Jack Bruce and John Entwistle are the reason I play bass the way I do (“busy” I’ve been told). The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul brought me full circle to memorable songs played on acoustic guitar with remarkable harmonies. I, like many other teenagers at the time, sought to emulate The Beatles’ myriad achievements, not having a clue until much later of the staggering impossibility of that goal.

I’ve been playing bass guitar (sometimes professionally, sometimes just for fun) since I was fourteen. I’ve been in lots of bands: The Chosen Few, The Mod Set, The Rumours, Spectrum, Skyy, and probably several more whose names elude me, and have played almost every sort of gig imaginable – from private parties to school gyms and community centers, rock clubs and concert halls. In 1990, I joined an original “southern rock” band called Bandit. The lead singer and songwriter was a guy called Jeff Perkins, who wrote wonderful songs. We were together for almost ten years and recorded an EP and two CDs. Although I’ve lost touch with Jeff, I remain one of his biggest fans.

About 21 years ago I started attending renaissance festivals, and there I found people -“long haired hippie people” (like myself )- playing acoustic instruments and singing wonderful harmonies. They seemed to be truly enjoying what they were doing, as was the audience. Within a few years I was a seasoned patron, fully “garbed” and knowing all the words (and crafting harmonies) to the songs I heard at the faires.

Eventually, I decided to take a step back from the rock/blues/fusion I’d been playing for several decades and explore the roots of the music I heard at the ren fests. I discovered – in some cases rediscovered – groups such as Pentangle, Silly Wizard, Planxty and artists like Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Nic Jones and far too many more to list here. This was the music I’d been searching for all along!

Armed with a handful of traditional (and contemporary, but traditional sounding) songs, I sought out renfaire friends and put together a male/female duo which I called Wyldefyre (Martyn Wylde – Wyldefyre – you get it). In 2004 we recorded a CD in my home studio and began performing at renaissance faires, alongside the wonderful musicians who had become my friends while I was a patron. Three CDs, many faires, and several personnel changes later, Wyldefyre ended and I joined two faire veterans, Ty Billings and Jack Stamates to form Celtic Mayhem.

With Celtic Mayhem we tend to play the main stages at faires and to accommodate our rabid, boisterous following. Because of that, it’s necessary for us to play mostly the crowd pleasing drinking and sailing songs that they come to hear, keeping my solo folksinger persona in the background. We have an amazing time on stage. I truly love our fans and playing with Jack and Ty!

But I ultimately recorded a solo album, Minstrel’s Lament, to give voice to the more intimate music which is my first love. The album includes four original songs along with the traditional songs and contemporary material which I’d explored with Wyldefyre. Celtic Mayhem’s first album and mine were released on the same day in February of 2009.

Fast forward to today and I’m performing on my own and with Celtic Mayhem and working on both my second album and the band’s. The band is bringing a fresh approach to traditional music, and keeping that tradition alive, albeit with traces of rock and other genres thrown in for good measure.

My own focus is on the “folk songs of the British Isles”, bringing that music to audiences while adding my own songs to the repertoire. For me, it is not just a musical calling, but a spiritual one, as well. More on that in another post.

The new album, tentatively titled “Celtic Heart”, should be available this autumn. /|\