A couple of weeks ago, friend of the Southern Folklife Collection, Bob Carlin, brought in a few reels of 16mm film, 35mm negatives, and open reel tapes from the Fred Gerlach estate. More on the film on a future date, but Bob’s visit had me looking into the music of Fred Gerlach. A remarkable and innovative 12-string guitar player I first heard on volume 2 of Tompkins Square‘s brilliantly curated multi-volume guitar series, Imaginational Anthem, Gerlach released only three albums throughout his career: Twelve-String Guitar – Folk Songs and Blues Sung and Played by Fred Gerlach (Folkways, 1962), Songs My Mother Never Sang (Takoma, 1968), and a cassette, Easy Rider (Eyrie, 1993).
An active participant in the 1950s New York folk scene, Gerlach spent time playing with and learning from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Tiny Ledbetter (Leadbelly’s niece). Along with Tiny Robinson, Gerlach made recordings Reverend Gary Davis in 1957 that later became the album Pure Religion and Bad Company (77 Records, 1961). Knowing he spent time in Washington Square Park and the Folklore Center, it was no surprise to find images of Gerlach in the Photo-Sound Associates images in the Ron Cohen Collection (20239). Photo-Sound Associates photographer, Ray Sullivan documented this concert by Gerlach, on his 12-string, and Reverend Gary Davis at Town Hall on 8 March,1958. For more images seeImage Folder PF-20239/007_02 in the finding aid for the Ron Cohen Collection (20239). Gerlach moved to California in the early 1960s and lived there until his death in 2009. He became well known woodworker, luthier, craftsman (he was reportedly building an airplane in his attic) and musician. He continued to play, if sporadically, around town, often at Los Angeles laundromats, and was a regular at McCabe’s Guitar Store where Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal likely picked up a few pointers.
We would love to have been at this concert in 1958. You can hear at least one tune by Gerlach online, his version of “Gallows Pole.”
Fun research in the Southern Folklife Collection today. Always great to have an opportunity to dig through the SFC reference books. If you’d like to join us for some research, please visit Wilson Library and jump right in with one of these texts, like The golden years : Kitty Wells (pictured above).
The Kennedy corridos : a study of the ballads of a Mexican American hero
Medicine fiddle : a humanities discussion guide, a film by Michael Loukinen
Giant photos Country Music program book
Country Music Spectacular Souvenir Album
In 1983, the U.S. State Department sponsored a tour by American folk musicians through Zaire, Cameroon, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. Along with Mike Seeger, the tour group also included Liz Carroll, Mick Moloney, Eileen Golden, Fris Holloway, Sandman Sims, Donny Golden, John Dee Holeman and Alan Belt.
Part of this tour included a Festival of Traditional American Dance held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast between September 26-October 1, 1983, in which the U.S. and Ivorian musicians demonstrated folk music, instruments, and dancing from their respective locales.
The trip was considered a success, except (as noted in the letter below) that one of the American tour members lost track of their Converse sneakers.
These images were preserved as part of the Southern Folklife Collection‘s digitization project, “From the Piedmont to the Swamplands: Preserving Southern Traditional Music,” funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are available in the Mike Seeger Collection as Image Folder 20009/0025.