I was 14 when, in 1954, my father bought a guitar at an auction, his favorite place to shop. It was a gigantic, blond 'Buckaroo' with f-holes and action to kill your fingertips holding a string to the fretboard without buzzing. Pop was a fine singer and I thought it would be great for him to learn to play. But he gave it up after a few sessions.
Relaxing with a book one evening, I had overheard him practicing the two chords of 'Down in the Valley.' Between phrases, the mumbled, 'fuckin' fatty fingers' drifted through the air, and I was shocked to hear that word spoken aloud in our house by anyone besides me. The guitar went back in its case and didn't come out until we returned to Philadelphia two years later. By then my friend Eliot was taking guitar lessons.
Singing sounded a lot better with accompaniment, and when he put the needle down on the special cut of his new record, 'A Young Man and a Maid,' I knew the time had come to rescue the old guitar. The song that drove me to it was 'Coplas.' This racy Mexican duet was recorded by Cynthia Gooding and Theodore Bikel. One double meaning followed another in a series of raunchy references including a cuckold's horns and a black cat wearing a hat and trousers climbing out a window.
We were on comfortable teenaged, dirty ground. Eliot figured out the strum and showed me how the right hand made a single accent on the strings, a roll down, a light tap with the knuckles, then down/up strokes in a sharp pattern suggesting flamenco. Even harder for the left hand, 'Coplas' had five chords, including a barred 'F' with tough fingering compounded by the wicked Buckaroo action. My fingers would have to hold the 'F' and all the others tight enough not to buzz. It was like learning to dance with lead shoes, and I was driven. Fanning, stroking and tapping the complex strum on the guitar or my right knee for hours, feeling like broken glass had been ground into the tips of my left fingers, I memorized chord charts and fingering diagrams.
After hours a day of this for weeks, blisters became tough callouses, fingerpicks stayed in place for the now-automatic strum, and in a couple months, I could play and sing at the same time which made me a folksinger, like Eliot. The effect of 'Coplas' on my life cannot be overstated. Thanks to Mom's rule of 'making the weakest part become the strongest,' it taught me everything I needed to know. After 'Coplas,' it took little to learn new chords and progressions, together with base runs and percussive accents. We played and sang along with Cynthia and Theo non-stop and it wasn't long before we had arranged the Mexican couplet song for two guitars and plenty of suggestive mugging.
'Coplas' was our mother, our mentor, launching our careers and my international repertoire bolstered by the Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Scots, and Irish tunes I had absorbed over the years. It tapped into an appetite for raw energy discovered in offbeat tunes such as 'Leatherwing Bat' and 'Katy Cruel,' or travelling songs like 'The Rock Island Line' and 'Greenland Fisheries.' Eliot pursued his taste for raunch with rags and blues. Our songlist blossomed with favorite old tunes and the new ones we were learning and arranging, especially those with good harmonies: Our repertoire derived not only from Theodore Bikel and Cynthia Gooding, but also from Leadbelly, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White and the Spanish Civil War. Not to mention Camp Kinderland and the whole Progressive Kinderland. From 'When I First Came to This Land' to 'Delia's Gone,' Eliot's robust tenor and my strong alto were mutually supportive and made room for our individual styles.
We shared a love of topical songs, sang union songs and worked out 'Times Are Gettin' Hard,' and 'Dark as a Dungeon' with great harmonies and progressive messages. We carried our guitars to parties for sing-a-longs, and performances which soon became expected, even anticipated. Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women, They'll drive you crazy, they'll drive you insane.