Interview with John McLaughlin
Reprinted fromThe Folk Life, February 1978
[This interview took place in Genes office at Kalish & Rice, the Philadelphia advertising firm where Gene, as he puts it at one point in the interview, was making his living, "in that crass, commercial world." Good-humored as always, he allowed us to take up a considerable part of the late afternoon, with his full and thoughtful answers to our questions sparking other questions in turn. Radio DJ, MC of the Philadelphia Folk Festival since its beginning, TV writer and producer, teacher and friend to folkies of all persuasions, Gene Shay remains one of the principal reasons why Philadelphia is such a warm and hospitable place to musicians and their music. We hope you enjoy the following conversation as much as we did.]
John: Can you tell us how you came to meet Joni Mitchell in the first place?
Gene: In the same way that Ive come to meet most of the singer-songwriters, interpreters concertina players whatever most of the musicians that Ive met, on my program. Or met in the sense that Ive been able to talk with them about their music. I came in contact with them through my program, which has been going on now, I think its in its seventeenth year. Since my program was on a Sunday night, and the coffeehouses in Philadelphia, even in the time of the Blue Laws when bards couldnt open on Sundays coffeehouses could operate, so at one time, especially during the folk music revival, the American folk revival of the Sixties, from 62 on, even before that, every Sunday night there was another performer passing through Philadelphia, or else in the clubs. There were always clubs. There were clubs all over the place. Levittown had one. There was The Second Fret, The Gilded Cage, there was The Main Point .
John: World Control?
Gene: No, World Control Studios came a lot later, towards the tail end of the 60s, the early 70s, as I remember it.
John: I only heard of it through Chris Dewalo.
Gene: Oh, there was The Guitar Workshop, and also a place called The Philadelphia Folk Workshop, in the Nicetown area of the city. It was a house. They were one of the earliest groups, apart from the Philadelphia Folksong Society, to sponsor concerts and workshops. They had Doc Watson doing a workshop, for instance. Joni Mitchell came to town for her first performance in Philadelphia at the Second Fret. At the time she was married to Chuck Mitchell, who was on the same program. He opened for Joni, and they came on my [radio] show together, even though they didnt sing in performance together, they each had their own act. And Chuck Mitchells act was art songs, Kurt Weill/Bertolt
Brecht, "The Threepenny Opera" material.
John: The kind of thing that Judy Collins was doing then?
Gene: Well, Judy Collins was just getting into Jacques Brels music we all were. Its funny you mention that, because every time Id see Judy Collins shed say, "How are you doing, Gene, what are you listening to?" And I remember when I told her we were listening to The Incredible String Band, and she said, "Yay! So am I!" And just a few months later her album came out, and shed recorded one of Robin Williamsons songs, "First Girl I Loved." You know that one?
John: I love that song. She has it on her "Hello Hooray" album, as I recall, and Robins version is on The Incredible String Bands "Chinese White" album "Layers of the Onion."
Gene: Right. So thats how I met Joni Mitchell the same way I met Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, all those people.
John: Dave Bromberg?
Gene: Dave Bromberg. Its also interesting that a lot of the people for instance, when I first met Bromberg, he was not Bromberg the solo performer
John: "Le Grande Frommage"?
Gene: No, he was an accompanist. But when I did meet artists who had other musicians with them, second guitar, bass player, whatever, some of these people went on to become recording artists in their own right, years later. So I had the opportunity, a terrific opportunity, to meet these people over the years, and watch them gain popularity. When I first saw them, they were making their first gigs in Philadelphia. Arlo Guthrie. It was the first time he had worked, had sung professionally except for some things close to where he had lived when he came to Philadelphia. And invariably most of these performers had a good time on the show, so the next time around it was much easier for me to get them to come around. People were wary of the medium, if you understand what I mean. They were a bit afraid of the standard kind of radio interview done in the old style. And my style was it took them aback a bit, at first.
John: That couch.
Gene: No. No, it was just sort of like the looseness and informality, so wed forget it was an interview, it would just be a discussion, you know, or a jam session, because I either had artists who were playing two or three clubs at the same time in the area, whod all converge, or whatever. I think I answered the question about Joni Mitchell, didnt I?
John: I guess so!
Gene: And you also have to remember that Joni liked Philadelphia a lot and she became quite friendly with some people here. She wrote "Both Sides Now," and performed it on my show three days after it was written. She used to hang out in Philadelphia. She once had a gig at I think The Second Fret one weekend and The Main Point the next it could be vice versa during that week she stayed around. She used to shop on 20th Street, buy antique jewelry and clothes, sit in, shed go over to The Trauma, which was the beginning, our first psychedelic club.
John: Early disco?
Gene: Well, there wasnt any we didnt know the word "disco" back then. It was the first psycho-delic entertainment place, before the Electric Factory concerts open up, at 22nd and Arch. The Trauma was where Just Jazz now is, on Arch Street. It was owned by the same gentleman who owned The Second Fret. Im just .
John: Im fascinated. Because I never knew any of those places. I was elsewhere then. This may be a crazy question, just jumping in, but as a matter of context. Your radio program, now on WIOQ, I think you could say its become famous over the years for these interviews with performers. This may be a nutty question, but who was your best interview over the last, oh, six months to a year?
Gene: Hmm. Thats a tough one. A tough question, because I have to think over it . I wish I had a list of all the people Ive interviewed. You know something I do. Let me just I may have a list here (Searching among the papers on his desk). I do keep a calendar of people, of upcoming interviews, that I dont .
John: I know it was on your show that I first heard that Kevin Roth would be giving dulcimer lessons to Judy Collins and that was within the last six months.
Gene: Right. Though I dont know if that was a particularly good interview. I know In the past six months Ill tell you one that I enjoyed very much was with Lou Killen. Because it was the first chance that Id had to sit down and talk about British Isles music with someone like that. Ive always been quite frankly envious of Lou Killens vocal equipment (Laughter) I think hes one of the best singers since I have a penchant for British Isles music and I guess it is Northumbrian
John: In Lous case it would be.
Gene: Well, Lou does a lot of those sea shanties those melodies! and to have him bring his concertina and just sit there, without any interruption, and just talk about music and singing and the Ewan MacColl-Peggy Seeger influence in Great Britain these are the things I read about and hear about and talk about with performers, but I was getting it first hand from the man he is part of that, the early days of the revival in Great Britain.
And that gave me the chance to make mental notes in comparison, between the revival as I experienced it here, and that over there.
John: Hes very articulate. I spoke with him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this year, and he talked a lot, not only about what hed sing, but also about media questions problems of radio interviews, live performance in different contexts hes very sharp.
Gene: Yeah! Its really hard for a performer to open up Im not talking too much in an interview sense, I mean even doing a good performance with no audience present. I know some performers who just have to have people around them, and one of the nice things about my show is that the waitresses from The Main Point or from The Second Fret or wherever would always come over, and thered always be some people whod for ma little bit of an audience. And that can always, you know, stimulate any performer who needed that kind of thing.
John: Lou Killen could perform with an audience of one. I saw him with Charlie Chin
At one of he Philly festival hotel sessions, and Lou sang a couple of ballads and then Charlie played this huge Chinese ceramic flute across it. And just to catch the two of them together
Gene: A zither-like instrument?
John: No, I dont know what youd call it. I think its a sakahachi David Amram could probably tell me
Gene: Oh, I know what you mean!
John: He played that, and Lou sang just lovely music. Not to change the subject or anything and its not, really but youve MCd the Philly Festival for I dont know how many years
Gene: Every year.
John: I didnt know that.
Gene: Every festival. Well, I was one of the founders of the festival, one of a number of people who started it. And at that time, since I was the person on the radio, it fell logically to me to MC the evening concerts, I guess. So Ive been doing it every year since then. This will be my seventeenth year coming up I think my seventeenth. [Its now his fortieth, as of 2001 Ed.]
John: What changes have you seen in, lets say, the last five years?
Gene: The last five? Well, I think Ive seen for a while the trend to more contemporary music and song its varied from year to year. But there has always been a fairly good balance. I felt that this year the balance wasnt even though the festival was, it was a very good festival and I enjoyed the performances but I still felt there was something missing certain areas of music that were missing this year. But I think this would be improved on. The festival is, as you know, and always has been run by the folksong society. The booking part of it used to be run by fall on the shoulders of one person, with the advice of others. And of course occasionally some performers would be booked, and then you have a performance that is nicely balanced, with just enough blues, just enough bluegrass and so on, and then invariably something will happen, someone will cancel or something, and then suddenly youre out of balance. Then you have to make very quick changes! Thats happened. The most dramatic change in the festival booking has been this year, going back to a much quieter, more laidback, folkier program. Something that I dont object to at all! But thats really no excuse to be boring either! Being traditional and getting back to more "roots" music and to traditional singers or interpreters of traditional music, there are an awful lot of exciting performers and performances. I didnt see to many exciting performances this year, and that was a disappointment to me. Perhaps there were Ive been told there were some exciting moments during the workshops, and because I MC the evening concerts I stay up pretty late, and I unfortunately miss a lot of workshops that Id like to see. Thats something I cant quite seem to reconcile, though.
John: Thats the thing thats difficult about a festival with 17 or 18 workshops all over the place theres a synergistic argument for it, but you can also argue the other way.
Gene: Yeah, that concept I understand at the Winnipeg festival it isnt worked that way, and thats a good one. There are no conflicting workshops there.
John: Well, Winnipeg is Mitch Podolaks baby.
Gene: Yeah, Mitch, right. Well, its just a different concept, but there are arguments both ways. It all depends what youre after. I would like to see a festival with fewer performers on the evening stage, so that we can get more of those I think twenty minutes is not a set, as far as Im concerned. Sometimes it takes it 25 minutes to get off the ground!
John: I know the Red Clay Ramblers I have all their albums and Ive seen them kin performance elsewhere, and they were very different at the Philly Festival from any time I head them before I asked them about that, and they said themselves that theyd had to change tempos, to squeeze thing in
Gene: To keep up with the schedule?
Gene: Well, thats a shame.
John: On the other hand, I did hear Odetta do, "The Water is Wide," and the same night Lou Killen did it, and the difference was startling.
Gene: Oh, yeah, Im not saying look, in ten minutes you can captivate an audience!
Certain people Odetta is a powerful performer, Lou Killens a powerful performer certain people can do that. Certain people can excite an audience even with a slow song, can be very compelling. But Id still rather have, rather than ten acts of 20 minutes, I would prefer four acts with a lot more time to get to know that performer, and get to know the material. I think its a question of I think people who run festivals feel an obligation to keep the balance so that you have a certain amount of bluegrass, you have to have a certain amount of blues, you have to have old-timey, they have to have Scots-Irish, British Isles Clogging! Bagpipes! And you know, put them all together, and you get either its pandemonium or else its very choppy one act on, one act off, that kind of thing.
John: Its the same thing at bluegrass festivals I think bluegrass festivals are always over-booked.
Gene: I would like to see a festival this probably wouldnt help sell tickets, but it would be my kind of festival one night would be country music, one would be old-timey and bluegrass, one night British Isles and sea-shanties, one night blues and Black religious music. With maybe three acts or four performers. But its a different kind of festival.
John: The Middletown Folk Festival this year put Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys one right next to a Black Baptist church choir. So you had the Bluegrass Gospel and the Black Gospel right there next to each other.
Gene: White Gospel and Black Gospel? That would be nice. Because then you could probably hear some crossover things.
John: Oh, you can tell, when you listen to Irish music and then to American old-timey bands, that theres a syncopation influence from Black African music thats so clear in American music, and its just not there in the Irish tradition.
Gene: Oh yes, Black music has influenced just about every kind of American music there is, including symphonic. Contemporary composers like John Cage. Just syncopation itself and the whole call-and-response thing. Though thats a workshop thing you can probably get from the shanties.
John: Thats probably a much more restricted influence though,
Gene: I was thinking of things like prison songs, field hollers, that kind of thing.
John: You remember Bob Dylans old line about that "Went down south to get me some chain gang songs, but they wasnt singin!"
Gene: Well, Alan Lomax went down, and they sure were singin! (Laughter) Either the wrong prison, or . Im not sure what made the difference there.
Ive another question I wanted to ask you. I think a lot of people
are aware of some of the things youve been doing MCing
the Philly Folk Festival, hosting your show on WIOQ, helping with concerts
like the all-nighter over at Widener College are there other activities
that maybe people should know about?
Gene: Oh. Well, Ive often thought of my program and my interest in music as a hobby!
I make my living in the crass, commercial world of advertising, Im a writer, a producer for television and radio commercials. I work a few days a week doing that. And Ive owned my own advertising agency, Ive been creative director of a number, Ive won a number of awards for my work, and right now Im also getting into record production. Im producing albums. Im just starting to get into this. Ive just produced my first musical TV not program, but live performance piece for television. What else am I doing? Im writing, performing even, and producing, along with a few other people, a new comedy and music program for syndication if its going to be syndicated, it might be carried on some FM stations, and sold to that stations ownership, or to a number of stations, part of a small network. What else? Oh, Im going to be teaching a course at the Entertainers Workshop, a closed-circuit operation Im really excited about this one, since I have been producing TV commercials with on-camera talent, ever since I first got into advertising, in 1963 or 64. Right from the beginning I was doing the RCA commercial.
We used to rehearse them, then do them live, so you can imagine all the mistakes on the seven oclock Channel Six News ! Of course, now we videotape all our commercials, but Im still doing that kind of thing. But the Entertainers Workshop is a closed circuit situation, using both videotape and stereo sound, and Ill be teaching a course in Commercial Presentation, for men and women, boys and girls, anybody who has the looks and the potential to stand up in front of a camera. Thats giving the person the opportunity to learn all the little tricks of the trade the techniques of how to read a cue-card and not look as if youre reading a cue-card. And thats just another night of my week.
John: I should take that course its always one of those crossed-eyes things, right?
Gene: Well, with videotape and instant replay its going to make it a lot easier for people to critique at once how someone looks in front of a camera. At the same time the school is also for performance development, in a sense that a trio thats never been on television could come into the Entertainers Workshop, and see themselves on TV, see how they look, and say, "Oh my goodness, I never realized I had this nervous habit of raising my hand up to my right, that looks just terrible!" And something that turned off an audience before could be corrected. Of course, theyd be getting the suggestions also from people who are professionals, a professional comedian whos going to be doing the comedy course, Ill be handling the commercial presentations, and a vocal coach, and a performance coach. So thats just one of the new things. So Im going in a lot of different directions. But Id like to stay in the music area. If I had my druthers, I think Ive always had this secret desire to be a folklorist and get to graduate school. But maybe Ill wait until I retire! I envy Mick Moloney I envy all those people Ken Goldstein, the MacEdward Leaches, Tris Coffin, all those people. I used to audit those classes I would sit in on their ballad courses with Kenny and MacEdward Leach.
John: I wouldnt be a bit surprised if there was maybe a wee bit of envy going the other way too, Gene.
Gene: How do you mean?
John: Well, I wouldnt be at all surprised if there are some people on the other side, saying, "I wish I was Gene Shay!"!
Gene: Well, what can you say?
John: The funny thing is, that next question I had for you was, "If you had your druthers, would you try to focus on one or the other of these activities, or would you diversify even further?"
Gene: You know, I didnt even mention the magic book? Talking about diversification
As you know, last year I did a book about magic, and Ive been planning to do a book on music, using a .lot of the verbatim answers transcribed from the early interviews Ive done, with people like Jim Croce and John Denver, Arlo Guthrie and Jerry Jeff Walker, Janis Ian, Melanie, those people. But the research involved is overwhelming, and also one of my biggest problems is trying to recapture them. I didnt tape all of those early programs, and some of those interviews are unfortunately lost in the vapor. Every now and then I run into someone who has one of mine. I just got a Doc Watson interview I did. But getting back to what we were saying, if I had my druthers Id like to do something new every year. I feel like going into these different areas not only is fun, and is challenging, its adventurous, it keeps me on my toes. So maybe next year itll be TV. Maybe Ill syndicate my program I have been talking about doing that for years. Or taking snips and pieces of these interviews where I do a valid comparison. I might take a basic Child ballad, where the primary story is pretty clear, and do two completely different variations. I have some modern jazz versions of "Gypsy Davey," for example, I have synthesizer versions of the Irish ballads. Now compare that with Joe Heaney singing, back to back, youve got almost two different things, but based on the same theme .. Im thinking about and this is not necessarily in answer to your question about the way Steeleye Span and Fairport over the last few years have been very dynamic, and do really good music, and are also, I think, very true to the background.
Even though it is electrified in most cases. The song is done with a certain amount of integrity and respect for its traditional roots. I was thinking is there an American group that does that? Am I overlooking somebody?
John: I know that Robin Williamsons "Journeys Edge" has a Celtic thing underlying it.
Gene: You mean Robin Williamson and his Merry Band?
John: Right, not The Incredibles. They do this one, "Voices of the Barbary Coast," thats both very sweet and also very complex. Its a mingling of themes from the kinds of music youd have been liable to hear out in California over the last one hundred years or so.
Gene: Hm. Its something thats been missing from the American folk or, "folk rock" scene. Or perhaps Ive just missed it.
John: I wonder. Bill Hicks, of the Red Clay Ramblers, has been using an electric fiddle in some of their more recent gigs. And their version of old-timey music is the most I dont know jazz-influenced?
Gene: Hmm. I dont know. I dont know the Red Clay Ramblers work as well as I feel I should. Thats a problem, with me in particular because Im going in so many directions at once. So many new albums coming out so many old albums coming out! I do feel its important I do my homework, and that means listen to as many of the records as I can. I have to keep this kind of thing in balance. The rest of my activities are pretty time-consuming. For example, I go out a lot in the evenings because a lot of the performers ask me to come hear them. And people ask me how they can get on my program, and I say "Do me a favor send me a cassette. You dont have to go into a studio just s home-produced cassette." Ive actually auditioned people over the phone! They didnt send me a tape I just said, "Put down the phone and sing me a song." I mean, my standards arent Im not a Gong Show! [Laughter] But at the same time I would like to hear everybody whos on my show, and 99 percent of the case every record that you hear on my show is one of my favorites, or its something I like. I rarely try a new album out on the air, or even a new cut.
John: I know the band Watertite that you had on the air
Gene: I know Watertite, and theyre very good. I never did answer your question, what was my best interview. I think Lou Killen was my most successful in some ways, but Ive had some tremendous Watertite now, I just got a new tape from them. That band has changed a lot. Ed Rhoades is a very sensitive musician, who I think is adventurous in the sense that hes very innovative, hes always looking for new material, hes always looking for very good sources, and hes selective. So they have a fairly nice repertoire.. I havent heard the new tape, the current one, but I have it on my list of tapes that I have to listen to in that stack of things to do tomorrow or maybe the day after! [Laughter]
John: The last regular question I had to ask you we had some backups if we have the time is whether you have any plans for the immediate future that youd like to share with our readers.
Gene: Oh, I think weve covered that so far. I think we did talk about my long-term dream, if thats what youd call it, to package my program and syndicate it. Ive been told by people from New York and the West Coast, people who travel around a lot, like Josh Dunson, that the show is very unique. And the old tapes I started to talk about earlier if anybody could come up with them, get in touch with me, who has tapes I remember seeing an ad once, someone who was writing a book about Richard Farina, and who wanted to get hold of the old interview I did withy him. Now I dont even have that tape!
And Mississippi John Hurt thats an old tape thats missing. Fred McDowell Phil Ochs, maybe five or six times, a long time ago, and I only have one or two of those tapes. You see, I couldnt tape every station I worked at. But if I could get some of the back, Id like to do something with them.
[And time for a break in transcribing the pages of this interview from our old magapaper, The Folk Life. More to come, after this break . Stay tuned, for memories of Phil Ochs and other old friends of Gene from his early days on radio about David Amram about Genes love for Miles Davis .
In the meantime, youd probably like to know that Gene is now broadcasting, every Sunday night, from WXPN, the University of Pennsylvanias NPR outlet in Philadelphia "Folk Music With Gene Shay "-- besides, as it happens, currently putting the finishing touches to a 4-CD boxed set of music, with an illustrated 50-page booklet, from his 40 years with the Philadelphia Folk Festival, on his own label, Sliced Bread Records, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Folksong Society. Check out his website youll be glad you did.]