Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Paul Interviews Barry Ollman, speaker at Weaving the Threads, Part 2

In honor of the upcoming Woody Guthrie Festival (Weaving The Threads) at Swallow Hill and The L2 Events Center on July 30thand 31st it seemed appropriate to do some sort of blog about Woody. One of the featured speakers at this event is Barry Ollman who will be giving a talk he calls “Collecting Woody.” I have known Barry for a number of years and I thought an interview with him might be interesting and might inspire some folks to attend this great event. Read the first part of this interview here

7) How far does your interest flow from Woody? For instance, I know you have some very interesting Dylan items. Did this come from your interest in Woody?
Historically speaking, I wouldn’t say that Dylan is all that far from Woody! But I know what you mean… I’d say my interest in Woody came from Dylan more than the other way around. By the time I got around to actually hunting for Woody’s papers in the mid 80’s, I was well aware that Dylan was at the top of the food chain in music, poetry, and in culture in general… Tapping into Woody’s world was almost like discovering our musical ancestry or DNA. Speaking of Dylan, one of the greatest people I was lucky enough to meet along the way was Harold Leventhal. I loved Harold. His life story was amazing and I loved listening to his stories. He worked for Irving Berlin in the thirties and was in the room when Berlin was writing “White Christmas”! He was a great India-phile and he met Gandhi while he was stationed in India during World War Two. Then he brought Ravi Shankar to America for his first tour of the States, which made a really big difference for Norah Jones! He went on to manage The Weavers, Woody, Pete, Arlo, a very young Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Jacques Brel and many others. Just an amazing guy… I used to go to New York regularly for business and my favorite stop was always to go to the Woody Guthrie Archives, then on 57th St, and take Harold to lunch. Whenever I called him he’d always ask “Where are you? Are you in town?” like 57th St. was the center of the universe! Who knows? Maybe it was. Anyway, one day Harold called me and said he was going to sell the hand painted poster that he had commissioned for the glass case outside Town Hall for Dylan’s first major concert on April 12, 1963. Incidentally, that was the only time Dylan ever recited a poem in concert. He read “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I think it’s available on The Bootleg Series [it is – ed.] and it’s an experience unto itself. Harold had been talking to Sotheby’s about auctioning it but he wondered if I might be interested. I told him I was thrilled that he called me and that I’d take good care of it. We agreed on a price (Sotheby’s estimate) and hung up the phone. A few minutes later I got this nervous feeling. What if there were two of them? I know there’s more than one glass case outside Town Hall. I called him right back and asked the question. In classic Harold form he said “Are you kidding? It’s hand painted. You think I could afford two of them?” Harold is clearly the prototype for the promoter in A Mighty Wind. When it first came out I asked him if he had seen it. He just laughed and said “I don’t want to talk about it.”
One of my other favorite Dylan items also draws a straight line to Woody. It’s a copy of Bob’s first album and on the front of the jacket he writes five lines from “Song to Woody,” signed Bob Dylan ’62. Both that album and the poster, along with 11 other pieces from my Dylan collection traveled in the touring museum show Bob Dylan’s American Journey 1956-1966, curated by Jason Emmons along with Bob Santelli up at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. It was a great exhibit and I think you got to see it in New York at The Morgan Library, didn’t you?

8) Give us a few “fishing tales” of collecting. e.g. Hardest to get? Most expensive? Most surprising?
I was never a very good fisherman. I enjoy sitting there but I never seem to catch much… Oh, well… As for the hardest to get? Easy. That’s the stuff I’m still working on! There are certain items, which shall remain un-described for now, that I’ve been chasing for many years. Sometimes you have to be really, really patient for the best things. I’ll let you know when they come through. Back to that question… Let’s start with the cheapest. A couple of years ago I bought a piece that I really love, on eBay, for about 25 bucks. It’s a 1936 phone directory for Pampa, Texas. It lists Woody and Mary Guthrie and for Woody’s occupation it says “Pntr,” short for painter! Nora Guthrie says that when Woody left Pampa for California he carried paintbrushes. We all picture him walking down the road with his guitar but he was making his living painting signs back then. I just think that’s a great find, and only on eBay could a guy stumble on a 1936 phone book for a town as small as Pampa. I think I’ve spent the most on certain Dylan items and a beautiful Guthrie songbook where he made and painted the binding and filled it up with about 100 typed song lyrics, all broken up into different sections with pen and ink descriptions on each divider page. It’s a beautiful thing. On the inside of the back cover he paints “Start Again.” I could go on and on. I’m sure I have hundreds of war stories. Speaking of which, I remember hearing about a small military auction where I thought I might find some autograph material and when I looked at the catalog, I had to laugh. There was a beautiful handwritten postcard, in English, from Mahatma Gandhi! What a perfect place to buy a Gandhi letter. Let’s just say it went cheap. All I know is, the best stuff always seems to show up when I’m feeling the most broke! And I’ve definitely made some of my best buys when I just had to swallow hard and go for it. The weird thing is I sometimes think just as much about the ones that got away as the ones I’ve bought! And believe me, there are plenty of those. My wife tells me not to dwell on what didn’t happen, and I know she’s right, but I think it comes with the territory for some of us who have this particular condition.
Here’s a strange story I just thought of… About seven or eight years ago, a lady found me on the web and said she had just bought a First Edition of Bound For Glory, signed by Woody. She bought it on the street in New York for two bucks off of one of those tables. It so happened that I was going to New York a couple of weeks later and we got together. It was definitely in Woody’s hand but it was nearly illegible due to his slide into Huntington’s Disease. I bought the book anyway, at a considerable percentage gain to her, and took it over to the Guthrie Archives. When I showed it to Nora and Harold they took one look at it and said it was inscribed to Arlo! Woody had written it to Zibber Zee which they told me was one of his nicknames for Arlo, who was about seven or eight at the time. It had obviously been lost or stolen somewhere along the way. Of course, I had just paid a bunch for it but I wanted to do the right thing. They both suggested I hang on to it for a while, as Arlo had just gone out on tour, and that I’d know what to do with it when the time came. Sure enough, about five years ago, Arlo was playing up in Lyons at the Folks Fest and I called his office about getting together with him. My daughter and I went up for the day. We sat down with him and I showed him the book. He just about lost it when he read the inscription. I told him it was his and we hung out for a while, hugged him and went out to watch his set. As he started his encore, right in the middle of “This Land is Your Land,” he told the story of how he’d just been given the book his dad had first given him 50 years earlier. It was a sweet moment and I’m so glad my daughter, Alissa, was there with me.

9) I’ve found with collecting that there is the item you seek, and then there is the social/emotional context attached to that item, the “human context” of the item, if you will. Woody had a lot of “human context” associated with his life and work. Has that made for a rich pool of people to collect from?
If I understand your question, I do feel that I couldn’t have picked a more interesting or rewarding subject to study and collect. First of all, when I got started a lot of Woody’s old friends were still around which, unfortunately, is less true today. There are quite a few of them still with us but a number of the people I met along the way have passed on. I had a lot of amazing visits with these people and they all had a certain twinkle in their eye and great stories to tell. I feel very fortunate to have met each of them. Harold Leventhal, Woody and Cisco’s pal in the Merchant Marines, Jimmie Longhi, blues radio pioneer, author and ethnomusicologist Henrietta Yurchenko, (Martha Graham) dancer and choreographer Sophie Maslow, Woody’s brother in law, Matt Jennings. They all had this tough, recognizable sort of spirit and sense of purpose. I’m glad to say that Woody’s little sister Mary Jo is very much alive, as is his sister in law Anne, his first wife Mary and his original singing partner Lefty Lou. They are tremendous people and they’ve all led incredible lives. I think it’s hard to appreciate the times these folks lived through, but it made them some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the chance to meet.

10) How has Woody’s legacy changed since you started collecting him? Has public perception of him broadened or flattened? What do you see as the most important parts of his legacy?
I’d say that 20 years ago Woody was much more a symbol of the world of folk music and that over the years his persona has evolved into that of a far more complex individual. I attribute that largely to the vision of his daughter Nora, along with Harold Leventhal and Archivist extraordinaire Jorge Arevalo and their enormous efforts to create a world-class center for Guthrie scholarship and study. As a result of what they’ve accomplished, Woody’s music, artwork and message have reached a much larger audience, worldwide. A lot of people became familiar with Woody through the Mermaid Avenue project with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco and the great Billy Bragg. But Nora has gone on to work with a lot of excellent musicians like Jonatha Brooke, Ellis Paul, Joel Rafael, Tim O’Brien, The Dropkick Murphys, Anti-Flag, The Klezmatics, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Jimmy LaFave, Steve Earle and many others, allowing them, in effect, to collaborate with Woody by putting their own music to his unrecorded lyrics. The project continues to this day and I feel it’s been a true gift to the world of music. The Guthrie Archives has created a bunch of other award winning projects as well, such as the Grammy winning The Live Wire recordings which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure. The My Dusty Road project on Rounder Records is also terrific. Check these out at or should I say! It’s very high quality work. There’s another project coming out very soon that people are going to love called My Name Is New York. Watch for it!
By the way, shortly after I met Nora and Harold in 1996, they asked me to join a new advisory board they were forming for the Guthrie Foundation and I said I would be honored to sign on. I should add, just for the record, that I first met Harold back around 1988. I felt bold one day, knocked on his office door and introduced myself. We spoke for a while and he showed me around the Archives, which at that time was undeveloped and pretty disorganized. Basically, it was three or four rooms and lots of filing cabinets filled with amazing stuff. I think I bought five first edition copies of Joe Klein’s book from him, three of which I gave away as gifts to various friends. Anyway, a few years later when they got around to publishing the list of everyone who had agreed to join that board, I was blown away to see legends like Harry Belafonte, the late Ahmet Ertegun and Studs Terkel, Theo Bikel, Dylan, Springsteen, Milt Okun, Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Stetson Kennedy and other heavy weights. Nora and Harold were operating on a pretty high level! I mean, what was I doing there? So I just try to be available as a worker bee to justify my place in that group… Back to Woody’s legacy; I think he stands as a symbol to artists and musicians everywhere that we can and ought to cut to the chase and not be afraid or ashamed to say that we’d like to make this a better, more just, world and that that’s something worth singing about. I think that’s a pretty good legacy, right there.

11) I know you’ve recently started taking your own music very seriously. Talk about your development as a musician, the influence Woody has played on your development and maybe some of your thoughts on the place of art in this modern digital world, and the ability of the simple written word to impact modern people.
Well, I’ve been playing guitar since I was seven or eight, so that’s fifty years now. From my point of view, once you’ve gotten the chords down it really starts to be about what you’ve got to say. In fact I just finished recording a new song about that very subject called “Something to Say.” By the time I was about 16 or so I was writing quite a bit and performing as a folkie/singer songwriter in my hometown of Milwaukee. I remember one night in ‘69 or ‘70 when I played in a concert series at a place called Marietta House on the UWM campus. My brother Rick had been the headliner the week before, playing his unique blend of classical guitar and jazz. After my sets, the fellow who put the shows together said I should be sure to be there next week to hear a friend of his, a songwriting mailman who was coming up from Chicago for the gig. Of course that was John Prine and he was as great as you’d imagine. A few of us went back to somebody’s house afterward and played for hours into the night. A year later when his record came out I recognized a bunch of those great tunes like “Sam Stone” and “Donald and Lydia.” I bumped into him some years ago at a Dylan concert in Chicago and mentioned that night to him. He said he remembered it well because it was the first gig he ever played outside Chicago! I’m just guessing but I bet I remember it better than he does. Around that time I hitched a ride to L.A. to try my luck with my music. I actually cold called Peter Asher and he invited me to his house to play some music for him which in retrospect is kind of amazing. He was producing James Taylor at the time so while he was really nice to me, the message was pretty much of the old “don’t call us, we’ll call you” variety. The short version of all this is that I wound up pursuing a decidedly non musical career and raising a family, playing guitar pretty much every day, but happy to not have to make a living from music, which was clearly a tough gig. I mostly played with friends and had a band here in Denver for ten years called The Thrills, sort of a Soul/R&B/Big Chill/Men’s Group mix but at some point it occurred to me that I really wasn’t writing my own stuff anymore and I wasn’t happy about that. I look back now and think I was just too inhibited and self-conscious being at the intersection of all the different worlds I was living in.
I should add that somewhere around 1990 my brother Arthur, who is well known in the photography world, offered to introduce me to a new acquaintance of his, and one of my lifelong musical heroes, Graham Nash. Only now can it be told that I used to stand in front of my dresser in 1964, with a drumstick lodged into the third drawer as my “microphone,” and me holding a tennis racket doubling as some sort of fantasy electric guitar, singing along to my Hollies 45’s of “I’m Alive” and “I Can’t Let Go” with all my heart and soul, pretending that all the cute girls in my class were out there screaming in my imaginary audience. Thank God that wasn’t captured on some prehistoric webcam! Five years later, I got into a car with some friends and drove to Chicago for the first concert EVER by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Joni opening. Graham has also told me that that was the concert where a kid named Dan Fogelberg sat in the audience and decided to be a musician. Well, two nights later CSNY played Woodstock. What I’m trying to say is that my answer was “Hell yes, I’d like to meet Graham Nash!” I called Graham that same day and in shades of things to come, he couldn’t have been nicer. He invited me to visit with him at their next Red Rocks show, which was coming up. As it turned out, we not only really liked each other but we had a bunch of friends and interests in common. Over the years my friendship with Graham has been very meaningful and inspiring to me. There’s a reason he’s widely considered to be one of the truly great guys in the music world.
Once during the CSNY tour of 2002 I went to Milwaukee to visit my mom and to see their show. I was backstage with Graham after their sound check and we wandered into the dinner area. Before I knew it, I was sitting at a dinner table with Graham, David, Stephen, Neil and Gerry Tolman, their late manager who had become a pretty close friend of mine. The rest of the room completely disappeared and for about a half an hour it was Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Tolman and Ollman! Anyway, I mention this because at one point Graham told the guys that I had been at their first performance in Chicago. I told them one of my main memories of that night was when the curtains opened and there were about forty or fifty beautiful guitars on stands all across the stage. Gretsch White Falcons, Martin D-45’s, Gibson Firebirds all gleaming in the spotlights. Neil got this dreamy look on his face and said “yeah, man…. that was a thing of beauty….” Needless to say, that was a really memorable experience for me…
In 2005 I was fortunate enough to be able to leave my day job, after 25 years, and focus on my other interests. One day, a couple of years later, I was sitting with Graham at his house and I was playing a lovely pre-war Martin and for no particular reason I started playing Paul Simon’s “Bookends”… “time it was, and what a time it was”… and Graham started singing the Garfunkel part so I took the lower melody and for about 30 seconds we were singing this little two part harmony and something in me just woke up, musically that is. I’m pretty sure Graham doesn’t remember it at all but for me it was one of those great moments. It’s almost like I gave myself permission to go back to that creative place inside. It was a small thing but it really opened something up for me. Of course, I still wasn’t writing. Again, Graham played a role there… During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Nick and Helen Forster were asked to do a major Etown show at The Temple Buell Theater in downtown Denver and Nick asked if I could persuade Graham to get some version of CSN to perform. Nick had already gotten James Taylor and Ani DiFranco to agree to play and I knew Graham would be into it if the guys could work out the scheduling. In the end, Crosby and Nash, JT, Ani, Irma Thomas and Tom Morello played and Nick interviewed Robert Kennedy Jr. For me, it was one of the all time great Etown shows. Graham even wound up playing the old Guild D-41 guitar my dad bought me on my 13th birthday. Two nights later, Graham and his son Will sat with me and my family at Invesco Field for Barack’s acceptance speech and the whole week turned out to be total magic. So, in November when the votes were counted and it was clear that there was not going to be a President McPalin, I sent Graham an email with the heading “Greetings From Blue Colorado.” I mentioned that I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months. Much to my delight, within an hour I had written the first song I’d written in about 30 years, “Blue Colorado”! A couple weeks later I mentioned it to Nick and he said “come over and we’ll record it.” I said, “seriously?” He said “absolutely. How about Saturday?” Well, it happened and Nick played some of his typically soulful guitar parts and Helen sang her perfect harmonies and Todd Ayers mixed it and I was hooked. Back in the game! Graham liked the song and so did a lot of other people and it was extremely encouraging for me. Since then, so far at least, the writing has kept coming and I’ve been recording a bunch of these new songs with Dave Beegle at his studio in Loveland. Dave’s one of my all-time favorite musicians and a great person too. The great Christian Teele of the Etones has played drums on all of my songs and other fine players have chipped in as well.
I wrote a tune called “See Ya’ in Okemahas sort of a theme song for the annual Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma (July 14-18 this year) and my friend David Amram, the incredibly versatile and inspiring composer, author and Kerouac collaborator offered to record some penny whistle parts, which you’ve got to hear, if you haven’t had a chance yet. A few years ago, David was commissioned by the Guthrie Archives to compose a symphonic work based on “This Land is Your Land” and it is beautiful. The actual title is “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie” if you want to Google it. It’s been performed by a number of orchestras already. I know there’s a performance of it on the web somewhere and it’s well worth tracking down and listening to.
I guess my overall sense of things is that I now have a chance to transform some of that music, which has been so important to me my entire life, into a form that I can share. Digital recording technology has made it so much easier for me to capture the ideas I hear in my head and I’m having a blast with it. And I could be wrong but I think Woody would have been all over this home recording stuff.
As for where this is all headed, I think that’s less important than the ride itself. In today’s music environment it’s gotten really hard for most musicians to make a lot of money. For me, these days, I feel success is just getting to play a lot of music with great musicians and to keep on following that muse… I feel very fortunate and grateful for the whole experience. Back to Mr. Guthrie: I find Woody’s musical spirit to be a huge inspiration to me, personally, as he didn’t really run by any particular rules when it came to his writing. If he felt something ought to be said, he just said it, and in such an artful, yet simple way. That direct approach really speaks to me these days and I hope it always will.

12) What should folks look forward to in your presentation?
Well, I’ve developed this talk and “slide show” that I call “Collecting Woody” that I’ve given for the past four years at The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. I do my presentation in the Okemah Historical Society and I love the whole scene. This was the 13th annual festival and a pretty good number of the musical acts have played at all thirteen events. I think the list consists of Jimmy LaFave, Joel Rafael, Ellis Paul, Terry “Buffalo” Ware, The Red Dirt Rangers, and Don Conoscenti from Taos… Bob Childers was also on the list and has been sort of the patron saint of the festival since he passed in 2008. And Woody’s wonderful “baby sister” Mary Jo holds a pancake breakfast every year as a benefit for the battle against Huntington’s Disease. It’s so great having her around. Think about it: all the musicians play for free and people come from everywhere just to hang out in “Woody Land” for a few days. A lot of musicians say it’s the best-kept secret on the music festival circuit. I wouldn’t know ‘cause it’s the only one I go to!
Arlo headlined this year, on Woody’s 98th Birthday, in the old Crystal Theater where Woody used to go to the movies when he was a kid. In past years they’ve had Pete Seeger, Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Judy Collins, Tim O’Brien, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Steve Earle and lots of other great acts all playing for expenses and to honor Woody. By the way, there’s a movement afoot called Save the Crystal and I’d like everyone to stop reading this right now, log on to Facebook, track down Save the Crystal [link above - ed.] and send them a few bucks. This is important! We need The Crystal…
Anyway, in my presentation, I show images of some of my favorite and most interesting finds and kind of weave together my story of rediscovering Woody, combined with my passion for rescuing our past. I’ve been really moved by my interaction with the audiences and people tell me they get a lot out of it so I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor… I’ve been working with the good folks at Swallow Hill for about two years to put this program together and it’s going to be great. We’ve got Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, who are terrific singer/songwriters, Tao Seeger of The Mammals who’s been touring with his Grandpa Pete for the last fifteen years or so, Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt fame along with a lot of other national and local performers. I’m also glad to say that my friends Anna Canoni (Nora’s daughter) and Jorge Arevalo will be coming out from New York to give presentations about their work at the Guthrie Foundation and Archives. Not to sound too promotional, but they’ve got a lot to say, and if you come, you’ll wish we had more time.

Thanks, Barry.

Thank you, Paul. It was my pleasure!

visit Barry's website at:

No comments: