Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with country/blues songwriter and storyteller Roy Book Binder about learning at the feet of Rev. Gary Davis, why he doesn’t like soul food and where he learned to tell tales.
CP: You first went on the road with Rev. Gary Davis in the mid-'60s. How old were you when you took your first lesson?
RBB: I was in the Navy, so I missed the early part of the Folk Revival. I got out of the high school and joined the Navy in '62. I got a guitar in Italy. There was a kid on the boat who played guitar, and he taught me some chords. I was reading Jack Kerouac and that stuff and dreaming of being free.
When I got out of the Navy, they offered me money to go to college through the GI bill, so I found this little junior college in Rhode Island that cost $100 a semester, and they were sending me $100 a month. So I was living OK, you know?
The folk thing was still going on in 1965. Dylan probably went electric that year, but there was a little coffeehouse down the street from my apartment in Providence, R.I., and all we did was play guitar, me and my pal.
I did three songs at a hootenanny - an open mike, they call it today - and my buddy was backing me up on guitar. We were nervous wrecks, just shaking like leaves. We went outside after the three songs to discuss the issue, and I said, “I don't know about you, but I'm going to do this the rest of my life.” Everybody laughed, but here I am.
Then, I moved back to New York - I was born there. A guy named Izzie Young had the world famous Folklore Center on 6th Avenue where folk singers hung out and bought strings and stuff. They put on little shows up there, and I heard a guy playing the guitar there who was really good. I asked if he gave lessons, and he said he didn't , but he gave me Rev. Davis's phone number.
I had the number for a while, and I was nervous about calling him up, but eventually I called him. I asked him if it was true [that he gave lessons], and he said he'd give me a guitar lesson for $5. Long story short, I ended up there for a guitar lesson, and it was a life-changing experience.
I wasn't much of a guitar player, but I picked up some stuff. The guitar lesson lasted six hours. Rev. Davis didn't have anything else to do really, and his wife was cooking up some soul food. I was a vegetarian, so it was a pretty scary experience, but I gobbled down some of that stuff. Then, I went back for a second lesson, and Rev. Davis told me not to come by for three weeks. He was going on tour. He was already part of the folk music world. He was a street singer until Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a song they heard him sing.
I told him I had $50 saved up and that I would like to go on tour with him. He laughed at me, but before I left the house, he said, “Bring your $50, and when you run out, I'll carry you.” I dropped out of school, gave up my GI bill and went on the road with Gary Davis in the spring of '66. I was 22.
CP: How long had you been taking lessons from him, at that point?
RBB: I had had two lessons.
CP: What made you decide to go on the road with this man you hardly knew?
RBB: You know, it was 1966 or 1967, and I had just spent three years in the Navy, which was like prison, and I wasn't doing too well at college. I had been reading the beat writers and stuff. My dream was to be Jack Kerouac on the road. I thought, “Whoa, if I don't go for this, I'm out of my mind.”
So we went out to Chicago on the train - 36 hours, which was pretty interesting. I basically carried all his stuff. I was his roadie, so to speak. I counted the money, read him the menu in the restaurants and made sure he had clothes to wear on stage, and he showed me tricks on the guitar.
I didn't want to be a Rev. Davis clone. He had a lot of students who played him, note for note, but I wanted to get some stuff so I could become myself. My heroes of the folk scene when I was coming up were Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. They based their careers on old-time traditional music, but they became themselves. They didn't sound like the old records they learned from. That was my goal. I accomplished that, I think.
I traveled on and off with Rev. Davis for about two years. It was a wonderful experience. Everywhere we went, the guitar players would come to where he was staying. I got to meet some wonderful guitar players. I was still shy about playing in front of them because I wasn't much of a player, but I observed a lot. Like the great baseball player Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just lookin'.” (Laughs.) It's true.
A lot of people went over for a lesson. People would drop in, like Bob Weir from Grateful Dead and Taj Mahal. Anybody who cared about that music would be a fool not to drop in, if you were in Detroit and he was in Detroit. He liked to hang out with guitar players.
It was a wonderful experience. He influenced so many of us. Jackson Browne even did “Cocaine Blues” and The Grateful Dead covered some of his songs. When Rev. Davis passed away, he had good management and they copyrighted and published all his material. His wife lived to be 103, and they owned their own home and had royalties. He did well for a man for a man who sang on the streets into his 60s.
He always said it was God's will. I asked where he learned to play guitar from, and he said, “God gave me that gift when he took my eyes.” Nobody in the genre was as versatile as Gary Davis. His knowledge was so much more than the blues. Blues is a pretty simple form. Especially in his gospel material, it was unbelievable. He was the (Andrés) Segovia of the traditional world. He was in the same class, or better, as Merle Travis. I don't think they ever met, but they would have had quite a time because they knew what they were doing.
That was a great influence on my career. Then, I met another guy I searched for. I had a job in the late '60s at an orphanage in the South Bronx. That was a good job because I had a place to live and three meals a day. In between, I had a vacation for two weeks, so I decided to go find Pink Anderson, whose music I liked. He was from Spartanburg, S.C. He did a lot of novelty tunes. He was a funny guy. He spent much of his life working in medicine shows.
By the time I found him, he was not really well. He missed the folk revival by … days. He had a stroke. His timing was off. He didn't have the success that Rev. Davis had. I got him to get me a note from the doctor that said he wouldn't die on me, and we went on a university tour where we made more money than we ever saw. He was good enough, at that point, and he didn't die on me, which was great.
There was a certain joy in watching him entertain because he was a funny man and had a great sense of humor. I consider myself more an entertainer more than a guitarist. That came from Pink, I think, and from Gary. I never looked at guitar playing as an athletic event, like some young players did then.
I have a few quotes I use here and there, and I always tell young kids coming up today that if you want to make a living playing music, you'll never make a living playing for the front row of guitar players. You've got to play for the relatives and friends they dragged to the folk club kicking and screaming. You've got to entertain to make a living. Don't worry about the guitar players on the front row; they all think they can play better than you, and they don't know shit.
It's got to be fun. People have to have a good time, if you want them to come back.
CP: How do you know when you've won the crowd over?
RBB: It happens pretty quick. Most of them know who I am now after 42 years. I'm there to entertain them. I like the lights up, so I can see their faces because I'm playing for them. I watch their eyes and their laughter. Laughter is a big thing. If you can make people laugh, that might be your ticket to heaven, you know? There's a great joy in [entertaining]. People come up to you and say, “God, that was such a great show. Your music is so important to my life.” I tell them, right on the stage that, “You look like you're having a good time out there, but you're not having as good a time as I am here. You give me that. I'm thanking you more than you're thanking me. At the end, I should stop and applaud you.” Without them, I'm just Roy at the house picking up the garbage.
CP: Do you have fun every night or do you have to fake it sometimes to win the crowd over?
RBB: The crowd always gets it. I no longer put myself in situations where they won't get it. I don't play the bar rooms that aren't known for having real music where they charge $15-$20 to get in. Usually, if they're paying that much money, you're not playing to walk-by party goers. I haven't had a “rude person audience” for a long time.
Back in the day, it was difficult. We're relegated to playing certain kinds of venues. I could work a lot more, if I lowered my standard of where I would work. I'm not going to play a place where I have to fight to get their attention.
In the beginning, there were lots of those places. I cannot tolerate rudeness. If it were such, I would walk off the stage. I'm not that hungry anymore where I will play for $150 to a bunch of partygoers. That's not my thing.
My first heroes in the folk scene, like Jack Elliot, were playing the classier folk rooms. Sometimes, somebody would call me up and say, “We'd love for you to play in our little club here. Do you have a sound system?” I've never carried a sound system, from day one. I don't want to play places that say, “Yeah, why don't we try a folk singer?” (Laughs.)
I've always strived to play the classy rooms that have a reputation for presenting music properly. It's the presenter's job to give you the environment to put on a proper show.
CP: You're closing in on your 70th birthday. At an age when many people might be thinking about retiring, what keeps you on the road?
RBB: I never really made any money. (Laughs.) Nah, I've done alright - thank god. Being on the stage, I often take a quote from one of the Great Wallendas, a high-wire act in the circus for Ringling Bros. for many years. I read an interview one time when they said, “You're going to be 75 years old soon, and you're still walking the hgh wire. What's up with that?” I believe his answer was, “Being on the wire is life itself. All the rest of the time is waiting.” That's kind of the way I feel about being on the stage. It is the greatest satisfaction in the world.
I just played the Philadelphia Folk Festival's 50th anniversary last weekend, and it was just wonderful. The feeling it gives, as a performer, can't be described, really. It was a real honor to be at the 50th anniversary. I had been there six or eight times in the last 50 years. Like I told the audience there, the irony here is that here we are at the blues workshop - me, David Bromberg, Jorma Kaukonen and Tom Rush - and when we were starting out, we used to love go see the old blues players at the festivals. The irony is that we're now older than they were, and we still call them “the old blues singers.” (Laughs.) It's amazing to think about it.
That whole revival was a miracle - that these old guys were found and that anybody cared. If they were found 10 years later, they would have been too old to do it. Many of them were still in their prime, though, and hadn't played to an audience ever. We got it made.
I've been all over the world, from Austria to Australia, from France to Frankfurt. Last summer, we did festivals in Denmark. Not all countries are great for it. There is a language barrier because my performance is more than music, so they miss a lot, if they don't understand the language. Some countries don't have appropriate venues, so you end up playing to a lot of people drinking, and they miss the whole point.
My favorite place to play is right here in America. In 1976, I rented a motor home just to see what that would be like, and I ended up buying it and living in it for 22 years without an address. That was an interesting time in my life.
Now, I have a little motor home and a wife with a little house in Florida. That has made life different. I don't do so well in the house. I go on the road every April, starting with Merlefest, and get home by December or so. I spent seven months on the road, full time. I try to tell people that it's not a career; it's a lifestyle.
CP: You mentioned learning to be an entertainer from Pink Anderson, but that seems like something you have to be born with. How much of that showmanship was innate?
RBB: It's all personality. To be honest with you, I was a slow learner, and I had a small repertoire. When I was first hired to play somewhere, they told me I had to play for half an hour, and I only had four songs, so I started talking about the sources of the songs and where the songs came from. As time went on, my life became more interesting and my stories became longer. I don't make up stories, like a comedian. It's just real life - my life.
When I was invited to the national storytelling festival, that was quite a shock, and I was quite nervous about it. I've been there three times now as a featured storyteller. (Laughs.) The first time I took the stage, I didn't plan anything, because that's not my style. I heard the first guy do his set, and I got really nervous because this guy was a local Carolina fellow. He was on first, and I was second, and that was a segment of this festival in this big tent with 2,000 people in it.
I got down to the festival grounds, and I'm looking at the program and I see someone in charge and ask, “Who's this guy opening up for me?” He said, “That guy is the headliner of the festival.” I said, “How come he is going on first?” He said that was the way they did it. I said, “In my business, the new guy goes on first.” So he said, “Don't worry. Nobody will leave.” It was Donald Davis, who is a Carolina legend.
I walked up there, and I looked out at the audience. I had my guitar behind my back and said to the audience, “I have no idea why I'm here in the first place.” They started laughing, and I started talking. I looked down, and there were just five minutes left, so I said, “I better play a song.” It was just a natural thing.
I started talking about Gary Davis and my adventures on the road. They ended up filming that, and there's a DVD on that out now called “Roy, the Reverend and the Devil's Music.” You never know what's going to happen.
CP: Looking back now, 40 years later, did you ever think at 21 that you'd be as well known at 70 as a storyteller as you are as a blues musician?
RBB: I couldn't have imagined anything. The dream at 21 or 22 years old was to make $100-$200 a week playing guitar. It's like the new wife says, “Well, honey, you've done it.” (Laughs.)
It's been pretty good. It's not uncommon for me to be flown overseas for a weekend festival. That's pretty cool. I never dreamt that would happen. I've met people and been places that are unbelievable.
I was doing a show in Texas a number of years back, say 10-15 years ago, and I was on the bill with JJ Cale. We were doing two shows at this big club called Rockefeller's, which was in this old bank.
I did my set, and I went in the back room and JJ says to me, “That was pretty cool. I like that kind of music. Are you going to do that 'Mississippi Blues' again.” I said, “No, the second set is a totally different set. I don't plan it out.” He said, “That's too bad. I'd really like to try playing along with that.” So I said, “Well, I could do it again, if you'd like to play. That would be nice.” (Laughs.) So I did it again.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise? Do you have another album in the works?
RBB: Not really. I haven't recorded for about 10 years. I have 10 or 12 albums out, and how many do they need? I'd like to put another album out before I die or all original tunes. My favorite album is called “Singer Songwriter Bluesman” where I redid some songs, but they were all songs I wrote. It's my strongest material, really. I'm a slow writer. I wait for them to drop down from Heaven, I think.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...