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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,"
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
Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12
at the door. Friday, May 21, 8:15 p.m.
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