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This story by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.

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From Bookbinder to Book Binder

Roy Book Binder is one part educator, one part musician,

and one part entertainer. The guitarist, singer, songwriter and storyteller

can’t help it, it’s the way he was taught. Book Binder’s teachers

included the Reverend Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, two South Carolina

acoustic bluesmen who died in the 1970s.

Considering the kind of acoustic rural blues he specializes in, it

may come as a surprise to discover Book Binder was born and raised

in Queens, New York. He "escaped from Queens" in 1962, says

Book Binder (who early in his career split his last name into two

parts to make it more memorable). "I joined the Navy and never

looked back. I came back to New York for college, but then I met the

Reverend Gary Davis. I later quit school and went on the road with

Rev. Davis. That was about 1967."

College for Book Binder was Manhattan’s New School for Social Research,

but it was the mid-’60s, and the folk music renaissance was in full

bloom. Having taken up guitar while in the Navy, there were plenty

of places to play around Greenwich Village, so he got serious about

his art. He began filling his nights with guitar study and hanging

around the coffee houses. For two years, he also held down a day job,

working at an orphanage in the South Bronx.

"In the 1950s, I had also gotten caught up in rock ‘n roll. I

found at the shows I was most into the blues-oriented acts, people

like Ray Charles, who was my big hero, but also people like Bo Didley,

Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino," he says.

"In 1965, I went to the Newport Folk Festival, and I met people

like Paul Geremiah and Dave Van Ronk. It wasn’t until 1968 or so that

I began to play the hootenannies in the Village, while I was on the

road with Reverend Gary Davis. While I was working at the orphanage,

I took a two-week vacation and went down south looking for Pink Anderson,

and found him in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is near where

Gary grew up in Greenville," he says.

Pink Anderson was an obscure bluesman who had only made a few recordings,

but Book Binder got to him in his autumn years, and learned all he

could from the self-taught bluesman. The British rock group Pink Floyd,

which started out as a psychedelic blues rock act, took part of their

name from the late Anderson.

Anderson and Davis became Book Binder’s two biggest mentors, and the

ones who encouraged him to play music for a living. No Book Binder

show is complete without a few stories about one or both musicians.

"Pink Anderson told me before he died, `You can have all of my

old songs, just tell `em I used to do them. You’ll probably make it

as far as Atlanta some day!’ That’s 130 miles from Spartanburg. The

Lord works in mysterious ways. I told that story in Athens, Greece,

recently, and nobody understood what I was talking about, but a deal’s

a deal," he says, laughing.

Although there is no typical Book Binder show —

he draws from a deep well of songs — much of the music he plays

is traditional rural blues, including songs by Anderson and Davis.

"I think part of the responsibility of keeping the flame alive

is to write your own tunes. But it’s also important to do traditional

material, and I think it’s important to mention where songs came from:

Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson. Sometimes the audience

will think `Oh this guy writes great songs,’ especially if they don’t

know anything about blues. I always try to give credit where credit

is due. It’s part of my responsibility."

Book Binder said his education with Davis involved being a driver

and road manager for the guitarist and singer, who was blind. "Later,

though, he began showing me things on guitar. We’d travel by train

quite a bit, and I did that for about two years and then Reverend

Gary Davis sent me on my way. I went to England in the winter of 1969

and stayed for six months, established myself, got a press kit, and

came home and got a deal with Adelphi Records."

"I’d already recorded a little bit, with Nick Pearls and Stefan

Grossman, and my roommate in the Village was a great guitar player

and still is, Woody Mann," he recalls.

"I went back to England in 1972 and by 1973 I picked up Fats Kaplan

on fiddle," he explains. Working with Kaplan, Book Binder recorded

two albums for Blue Goose Records. The pair split up in 1976. At that

point, Book Binder purchased a mobile home and began to literally

live on the road.

"I’ve been on the road mostly full-time since 1976. That’s 23

years and I have no regrets. I’ve traveled the world since then,"

he explains.

Book Binder says the chance to record his first full-length album

in the early 1970s for Adelphi Records was an important break.

"I guess that was a big deal," he says, "and now they’re

reissuing my album on compact disc as part of their `historic series,’"

he adds with a laugh.

His career got a boost in the 1980s when Bonnie Raitt asked him to

tour with her. Book Binder’s four easily available recordings for

Rounder include "Bookeroo," "The Hillbilly Blues Cats,"

"Don’t Start Me Talkin’," with ex-Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma

Kaukonen, and his latest, "Polk City Ramble," named after

his adopted hometown in Florida.

"Believe it or not, I was working steadily through the 1970s,

despite the disco boom and all of that. It was pretty slim pickings

at points, but we had our own scene as folkies," Book Binder says.

In recent years, Book Binder, while fully steeped in the blues tradition,

finds himself getting more gigs at folk and bluegrass festivals than

blues festivals. "The blues world pretty much ignores white guys

playing acoustic blues. I’ve played more bluegrass festivals playing

blues than I have blues festivals. Now, in Europe, I play jazz festivals.

It’s a universal music, really. I play the roots of American music."

But Book Binder is more than just an interpreter in concert. He tells

funny stories, and he educates his audiences. "Pink Anderson was

really cool because — as an old medicine show entertainer —

there was a lot of humor in his presentation. I learned from Pink

that you can be a virtuoso, but you’ve gotta also be an entertainer.

I never considered myself the greatest guitar player or the greatest

singer, but I could entertain the Pope, I’m sure."

Songwriting is a slow process for Book Binder. He says he has written

no more than a dozen songs over the last 20 years that he uses in

his live shows. "It’s hard to write a good song. It’s easy to

write crap," he says. "I write in the traditional style, but

the best songs come from your personal experiences," he said,

"I’m working on it all the time."

Over the years, Book Binder has been able to find his niche audience

by playing the classic acoustic blues he specializes in to country

and bluegrass audiences. He appeared frequently on TNN’s cable TV

show "Nashville Now" and has been a performer at the Grand

Ol’ Opry which, he says, has helped broaden his audience.

"A lot of people don’t realize that black musicians influenced

country music from the beginning," he continues. "And the

whites also influenced the blacks. One of the most important names

in country music was Emmett Miller, a black-face minstrel man who

recorded `Love Sick Blues’ in 1923, long before Hank Williams made

it into a hit in 1951. People don’t realize that tune was written

by a couple of Russian immigrants for a Broadway minstrel show. Without

Emmett Miller there wouldn’t have been Bob Wills, Jimmy Rogers, or

Hank Williams. He played the minstrel show circuit down South and

influenced both blacks and whites."

Asked how he developed the storytelling that is such an engaging part

of his concert shows, Book Binder just shrugs. "Most of them are

true-to-life experiences, and humor is always a great tool," he

says. "Everybody leaves my show knowing more about the music world

than they did before."

Book Binder has been no stranger to the Princeton Folk Music Society,

and he recalls playing for the group several times since the 1970s.

"I’ve done more than 20,000 shows in my life, so I don’t recall

every one. But in Princeton I remember it was intellectually stimulating

and a very refined, nice place. And I remember there was no chicken

wire in the front of the stage."

— Richard J. Skelly

Roy Book Binder, Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ

Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12

at the door. Friday, May 21, 8:15 p.m.


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