Friday, July 16, 2010

Paul Interviews Barry Ollman, speaker at Weaving the Threads, Part 1

In honor of the upcoming Woody Guthrie Festival (Weaving The Threads) at Swallow Hill and The L2 Events Center on July 30th and 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. I met Barry at Twist and Shout when he walked up to me and, out-of-the-blue, said “I understand you collect Dylan.” I did and I do, and I answered in the affirmative. We started talking about Dylan and I quickly realized that this guy knew a lot and, from what he described, he had some really cool collectibles. Over the next few months we had a number of casual conversations about Dylan and all kinds of music. Barry is a humble, unassuming guy, so our friendship grew in a relaxed fashion. I came to understand that Barry was a VERY serious collector, and that his real specialty was Woody Guthrie. He tantalized me several times with a casual offer to check out his collection, which he keeps at a site away from his house. I finally got serious and made an appointment to go look at it with him. We set a time and I met him at the appointed place.

The next couple of hours were an amazing blur as we sat there and he opened one museum preservation box after another that were filled with the most mind-boggling cornucopia of amazing historical artifacts this side of the Smithsonian Institution. Knowing my predilection, he started with Dylan. “Here’s Highway 61 with Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” on the cover.” “Here’s the original hand painted poster that sat in the glass case outside Town Hall for Dylan’s first actual concert.” And it just kept going. Unbelievable, hall of fame level items, each more historic than the last and it is starting to make me go cross-eyed. Then he gets to Woody. I have seen a lot of collections in my life, in fact I have made a career out of looking at collections, but this was the most serious, historically minded group of items I’ve ever seen. Woody wrote and drew on everything within his reach, and somehow it seems a fair wind has blown much of this stuff into Barry’s loving hands. It seems to me that this is THE Woody Guthrie collection. I feel comfortable saying it is the world’s greatest Woody collection, at least in private hands. But that’s all I’m going to say about it, because you should go to Weaving The Threads and hear his talk on “Collecting Woody.”

The tour continued. Barry doesn’t just collect musicians. There was Steinbeck, Lincoln, Thoreau - the depth and breadth of his collecting is humbling indeed. Here’s the thing about Barry Ollman though; it’s not about him at all. He is one of the most generous and sharing collectors I’ve met. He loves showing the stuff he has and talking about it and letting as many people enjoy it as possible. He has a museum-like institutional attitude about his stuff and that is a rare quality indeed. As I left, my head was spinning. It was like that feeling you have when you leave a great museum show - full of inspiration and the desire to explore further.

Throughout the years I have stayed friendly with Barry, and I have gained a greater appreciation of Barry’s place in the world. When I went to see the traveling Dylan exhibit, Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, I was surprised to notice that many of the best items were “from the collection of Barry Ollman.” I have seen his name attached to almost everything associated with Woody - CDs, movies, books, and he seems to pop up in all the right places.… And then there was Graham Nash. One day I was in the store working and Barry walked up and said “Hey Paul, I want to introduce you to someone.” I turned and looked at a friendly, smiling, middle-aged man. “This is Graham.” He was in town for the three CSNY shows at Red Rocks and he was looking for a certain hard-to-find Dylan single. Thankfully we had it, and I had a great talk with a true musical hero. And that is the way Barry is - he knows everybody and is unbelievably well connected, and happy to share it all with everybody. What is surprising is that he is such a mensch. So without further ado, here is our interview.

1) Why Woody? Is it his music or his socio-political impact that draws you? Or is it the unique nature of Woody as an outsider?
That’s not fair. Your first question is 3 questions! It’s like a White House press conference…
I think I’d like to start with a little deep background.
I actually remember hearing “This Land is Your Land” somewhere around early 1964 and feeling excited by the whole feel of the song. I was 11 and the Beatles were already gods to me, so a simple little folk song like “This Land” had to fight pretty hard for my attention. Somehow it got lodged in there. By then I was already playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on my $19.95 Marco Polo guitar, which didn’t sound much better than the cardboard box it came in. I immediately loved everything I’d heard by Dylan but had no idea of the Guthrie/Dylan connection. As I continued to get swept away by all things Rock and Roll, somewhere in my heart and mind I kept a place for those simple folk songs and I guess “This Land” was one of the first and best.
My dad was a Midwest Correspondent for Billboard Magazine during the glory years, 1949 to 1975, so I grew up racing home from school every Monday to read the charts while my mom and her friends played Mahjong, which they still do to this day. Believe it or not, pretty much the same group of women has been playing for 50 years! They all outlived their husbands so maybe they’re on to something. Recently my oldest daughter, Angie, who by the way is the hippest DJ in San Diego, has discovered Mahjong and she loves the game. Will the circle be unbroken? Back to my dad… As a result of his incredibly cool occupation (not particularly lucrative at .02 a word but what dad had a cooler job in 1964 Milwaukee?) I wound up with a tasty little autograph collection including The Stones, Zappa, The Smothers Brothers, Carlos Montoya, The Blues Magoos and many others, so the seeds of my collection had definitely been planted. In 1980 my folks sold the house we grew up in and moved to a condo and in the move, my collection mysteriously disappeared. I suspect it was stolen by someone who went into the house during their yard sale but I’ll never know. It still haunts me a little but I’ve got to say, it really haunted me back then… I felt violated on a sort of sacred level. I mean how could somebody take my Stones autographs and live? Not to mention a lock of Ringo’s hair from my neighbor friend who actually watched him get a haircut at the Milwaukee Holiday Inn in September of ’64!
Much to my astonishment, life went on. Then one day in about 1982 somebody offered to sell me an old British autograph book with signatures of The Beatles, The Stones, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Kinks, The Hollies and more, all for $400! I was broke but I didn’t blink. Obviously, that put me on a slippery slope… One thing led to another and suddenly I started finding all sorts of amazing things. I felt like a treasure hunter. Back then the market was blissfully disorganized and inefficient. Remember, there was nothing like an internet to screw things up! I just went from bookstore to antique store and asked everyone I met if they happened to have any autographs of famous people. They mostly laughed at me, which was how I knew I was on to something! I always thought if I had a dollar for every time someone said “I’ll give you MY autograph, ha, ha, ha…” I’d at least have felt rich.
During those early hunting days, I met an autograph dealer on the east coast who put out regular catalogs, black and white, with newspaper quality illustrations of his offerings. One day I came home from work and tore into his latest mailing and there between autographs of Knute Rockne and Teddy Roosevelt was something that blew my mind: a pen and ink letter with a self portrait by Woody Guthrie, for only $495! It was almost like something was awakened inside me. This distant memory of loving the simple power of “This Land Is Your Land” combined with the realization that Woody had been an actual guy, who wrote letters and had a life. Somewhere along the way I guess he had become this sort of mythical figure, and all of a sudden he was no longer in the same category with Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan! I immediately called the dealer to buy the letter and was crushed to hear him say he had just sold it! All I could say was that I really needed to buy it and I asked if there was any way he would consider introducing me to the guy who had gotten there first. He said something about privacy and etiquette but I kept working on him. A few weeks later he agreed to at least give my name to the guy. It turned out the buyer was an entertainment lawyer in Chicago and when he heard I was willing to pay a premium, he called me. I made up an excuse to take a business trip to Chicago and visited the guy’s office which had wall to wall signed photographs of various B-grade show biz types. Think Broadway Danny Rose. I knew I wasn’t going to leave without that letter, so after a bit of expert negotiation on both of our parts, only $2,000 poorer, I walked back to my hotel, ecstatic.
Back to your questions…
The next thing I did was to buy Joe Klein’s book, Woody Guthrie, A Life. I bought a nice first edition in that great dust jacket and a paperback to make notes in. I basically approached Woody’s story like a detective. I wanted to meet people who had known him, and Klein’s book turned out to be quite a road map.
In the course of following my collector’s instinct, I learned the basic story of Woody’s life. If you haven’t read one of the primary bios, you really should. First of all, for most people who came in contact with Woody, he was not exactly an easy hang! He wasn’t particularly reliable, to say the least, and he poured out his writing like his life depended on it. He never seemed to go anywhere without his guitar. How many of us do that today? We’re all so mannerly! Woody was a total force of nature. The more I learned about his story, the more excited I got. His almost totally non-commercial attitude towards his music and his life was, and still is, so refreshing. He had this natural instinct to stand up for the “little guy” and in my bones I knew that this was what I ought to be looking for. Woody wrote about everything that mattered to him: politics, love, homeless people, war, greed, gambling, immigrants, floods, outlaws, and anything else he thought about. Not to mention a huge body of kid’s songs, many of which are still sung in kindergartens everywhere.
Slowly it dawned on me that the entire “folk scare” of the sixties was spawned by Woody and his circle, and Woody had been at the heart of the whole thing. I knew that I had to very quickly get out there and find everything I could dig up related to Woody, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Dylan before all this great stuff got thrown out or disappeared. I was suddenly a man with a mission.
How’m I doing? I can talk for hours about what happened next but let’s just go to the next question.

2) How did you narrow your focus? Was it a natural process or did one item/event start you on this road?
My collection is pretty broad so I’m not sure that I have narrowed it all that much. My main interest has always been in collecting hand written or typed and signed letters, preferably on really cool old letterhead, with interesting and relevant content, ideally related to what the person is famous for. Simple signatures don’t do that much for me unless they’re really rare. I once found a real Charlie Christian signature but I let a dealer talk me out of it. Sigh… Personally, I was never very comfortable going up to some famous guy and asking for an autograph. In fact, I’ve very rarely done that myself. As far as areas of interest, my main rule is “no Nazis, and no baseball players.” This isn’t to say I won’t buy an occasional Babe Ruth item just to break my own rule. Even then, I’d prefer a Jackie Robinson. I just don’t like areas that are collected in a self conscious, deliberately profit seeking kind of way. In my mind, most areas of collecting after about 1970 have been tainted in one way or another with financial expectations. Before 1970 there were all sorts of famous and intriguing individuals who wrote hand written letters with no thought of being exploited and thus were not particularly self-conscious in their communications.
I can say that within my overall collection that I’ve developed a number of sub-collections that mean various things to me. When I think about it in this context I guess I can say that focusing on Woody has led me to an overall theme of people who fought for the “little guy,” not “small people” in the British Petroleum sense, but underdogs and less privileged people. So I’ve sought out and found a lot of great women’s material and Civil Rights related material. One way I’ve described this area is 20th Century American Social Movements, 1920 to 1970, with an emphasis on music and literature. For me, Woody, Lead Belly, Seeger and Dylan put a pretty strong spotlight on that subject.

3) Do you think there’s a difference between acquiring and collecting? What is it? Do you do both?
When I started collecting, I think I wanted to have a big, all encompassing sort of collection that would take me in a variety of interesting directions. Back then there weren’t a lot of people competing with me so I was able to buy some pretty big collections, intact, for not very much money. That was good, because I didn’t have much! Of course, there was no Antiques Roadshow telling us that everything old was worth a fortune and no eBay to “help” us price stuff so it really was an amazing time to get started with this. Paul, how about you and I go back in time, just for a week or two! Could be fun… In the early days I guess I was more of an acquirer and as I became more successful at finding great things, I started getting choosier and became more of a collector. Now I want what I add to the collection to relate to some of these basic ideas. I’ll still buy a good deal, of course, but I find I’m less inclined to buy something just because it was signed by some famous dead guy.

4) Do you need to use/display an item to consider it officially “collected”? I sometimes feel that way.
What I collect isn’t always as visually exciting as what you collect, for example. Poster art pretty much asks to be displayed. Autograph items are maybe a little more subtle and need to be sat with and read to be appreciated and understood. A good poster was meant to grab you by the throat from twenty feet away. I think letters tend to serve a different function… I do have some things displayed but my serious stuff is in your basic “secure, offsite location.”

5) Did your interest in other collectibles (American History etc…) grow from Woody or vice versa?
I’ve always been interested in history but I’ve definitely gotten an education from building this archive. Some of these historical characters really come alive through their letters. As I said before, I didn’t really appreciate Woody’s place in history until I met a lot of his old friends and read a couple hundred of his letters. Then it started to come together for me.

6) Because the second half of the 20th century was more well-documented than any other era in history, do you feel it is somehow less collectible or more?
There are people out there who collect everything you can imagine. If you’re into the War of 1812 there are collections that illuminate every aspect of that event. Of course, much of the great material is in institutional collections and I’ve been fortunate to have had a chance to go “back stage” and see some important ones up close. Places like the Morgan Library and The Ransom Center have tremendous depth and breadth. I love the collection at the Rock Hall in Cleveland as well. One thing that seems obvious now but didn’t necessarily scream out at me as I got started was the way that more current items tend to hold more value for new collectors. A lot of younger collectors very likely have no clue who Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony were but they know who was on the second season of Lost. So again, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s worth a lot of money to today’s up and coming collectors. There will always be serious money chasing after the “blue chip” names like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, Einstein, Elvis, Marilyn, The Beatles, Dylan… But for every one of them, many other once famous people do that slow fade towards obscurity, at least in autograph land… From where I sit now, Woody Guthrie is a bedrock, wholly American, inspirational figure. It may seem a bit cliché, but I believe this: no Woody… no Dylan, no Springsteen, Clash, U2, Wilco and on and on. Maybe it’s just another dumb metaphor but I think of him as the root of this particular tree, and I feel fortunate and honored to have figured this out when I did. I’m constantly blown away by Woody’s wit, and creative drive, his generous spirit and humanity. The fact that he was also incredibly musical, and inspired almost every musician I love, is a total bonus! To me his influence is, shall we say, incalculable. And did I even mention his artwork? Pick up a copy of Nora Guthrie and Steven Brower’s beautiful book Woody Guthrie Artworks (Rizzoli, 2005) and spend a couple of hours with it. It’ll blow your mind.
I think I’ve gone off topic.


Unknown said...

Wow...what a fascinating person! I was thrilled to see his mention of Joe Klein's bio of Woody because that is the book I'd have to say is my all-time favorite. It changed my life for the better and even though Woody was not the most reliable sort of guy, even with his own family, his influence on an entire generation of artists is undeniable. I too was a fan of Dylan before I knew of his connection to Woody. I have the highest regard and respect for both of these individuals. Thanks for sharing Mr. Ollman's knowledge. I look forward to learning more about his collections.

Henry Gross said...

Brother Barry, I assume that when you mention Susan B. Anthony you are referring to a transexual friend. Yes?

But seriously folks... As one who has long experienced the generosity, love, friendship and encouragement of Mr. Ollman firsthand, I must add that his passion for collecting things soulful is better understood through a cursory view of who, in fact, the friends that gather around him, are. Barry is loved and respected as a friend, benefactor and a darn good guitarist by some of the most gifted artists of our time. Some of whom are not even world renown!

As one of my dearest friends it would be easy to fill several chapters on the ways his friendship continually enriches my life.

However, It's Barry's humility and sense of humor that I treasure most. Like the night my wife and I stayed at his house. After sharing a huge meal earlier that evening at about two AM we decided to see what snacks the Ollman refrigerator boasted of. Sneaking into the kitchen we came upon the aforementioned Mr. Ollman making a rather less than humble sized sandwich. I'll never forget him turning to us and pleading..."Don't judge me!"

A lot of people collect a lot of things. Barry is not a hoarder of art for profit or a person seeking to draw attention to himself by possessing the rare and valuable. I believe his passion for things created by the larger than life people who shaped the world we live in is solidly based in a desire to share and preserve these priceless pictures, worth thousands of words, with and for generations to come.

I have been witness many times to his generosity and willingness to share the beauty of his vision and artifacts with those who have the knowledge and or curiosity to appreciate them.

As an artist I can best sum up my feelings on Barry and his passion for collecting by saying there could be no higher honor than to someday produce something worthy of finding it's way into his collection.

Always hopeful, Henry Gross