(September 25, 1933 – August 3, 2008)
A Personal Appreciation
By Ross Altman
“Close enough for folk music,” was not close enough for Erik Darling. He was a perfectionist who “practiced the banjo the way Heifitz practiced the violin,” according to his one-time Weavers’ band mate Fred Hellerman. Darling passed away this past August 3 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of lymphoma. He was 74 years old, and had been a prime mover in the folk revival of the 1960’s, having replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers a few years earlier.
Darling was a virtuoso banjo player, whose sparkling accompaniments enlivened countless albums of traditional American music on such small but essential labels as Riverside, Tradition, Vanguard, Elektra and Folkways, often as the sole guest instrumentalist for better-known singers. He was also a virtuoso 12-string guitarist at a time when none of the major guitar makers included 12-string guitars in their catalogs. Darling was about to change all that and bring the 12-string into the forefront of the folk revival.
A brief history: Leadbelly, “The King of the 12-String Guitar” in the 1930’s and 40’s (he died on December 6, 1949) left his profound mark on American folk music, but it was a mark that few cared to emulate. Because he tuned the instrument a full two steps below concert pitch it had such a distinctive sound that the small handful of performers who began by modeling their own playing on his, such as Pete Seeger and Fred Gerlach, did it to help carry on Leadbelly’s own legacy.
Pete’s 12-string was handmade by an English luthier; Fred Gerlach made his own 12-string and his first one exploded in his hands because he had not yet figured out how to support the extraordinary tension in the strings on the bridge with the proper internal bracing. Even Leadbelly had his own 12-string custom made by Stella Guitars in the 40’s. It never became a mass-market instrument in the States, though it was commonly used in Mexico.
Then Erik Darling found a song by an obscure black jug band in the 1920’s, Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, that was about to change music history. Gus Cannon, who was born on a plantation in Marshall County, Mississippi and moved at the age of 12 to the heart of the blues in Clarksburg, Mississippi, played the jug and the banjo (which he made out of a guitar neck with a possum hide stretched over a bread pan) and put together a band to surround him with Ashley Thomson on guitar, and harmonica wizard Noah Lewis (who could play two harmonicas at once-one with his mouth and one through his nose). They recorded a song Cannon wrote in 1929, called Walk Right In. You can still hear Gus Cannon’s original recording on I-Tunes, and it is well worth the 99 cents to fully appreciate what happened next.
Erik Darling discovered the song, by then an all-but forgotten “classic” in 1962, and rearranged and revamped it with a 12-string guitar “walking bass” part in mind. He also got the brilliant idea that if one 12-string guitar was good, two would be even better. The problem-where to find the 12-strings: You couldn’t just walk into a music store and buy one. No one was making them except Gerlach, and his had a reputation of exploding.
So Darling designed his own and approached Gibson Guitars to custom-make them for him. While Gibson was building his 2 12-strings Erik went about the task of assembling a trio for the specific purpose of recording Walk Right In the way he had arranged it-for a walking bass line on both 12-strings tuned just a half-step below concert pitch and played in the jazz key of Ab.
In other words, for this one song, he not only rearranged and changed it into an up-tempo 12-string guitar masterpiece, he designed and had built the 12-strings to play it on and put together the trio with singer/guitarist Bill Svanoe and former jazz singer Lynne Taylor-who became The Rooftop Singers-to play it the way he heard it in his head.
It was an astonishing act of artistic concentration and dedication, and when Vanguard released Walk Right In as a single in January of 1963 it shot to the top of the Billboard charts and their album became Vanguard’s best-selling record of all time.
Why did Erik Darling leave the Weavers in the first place, and form another group to record Walk Right In? Ah, thereby hangs a tale. It turns out that Erik Darling did not quite fit the stereotype of The Marxist Minstrels, a published catalog of the Cold War era “Commie folk singers,” which included the blacklisted Weavers well-known left-wing politics, and it gradually began to annoy him. While they were reading Marx, he was reading Ayn Rand and drifting towards Libertarianism. He had no interest in being known as one more lefty folk singer, even by implication and association.
The Weavers had already split up over political differences, when their co-founder Pete Seeger quit because he refused to make a cigarette commercial the group had signed a contract to do. It wasn’t that Pete had anything against smoking-he opposed the commercialization of folk music.
Easy for Pete to say, since he was able to make a living as a solo artist, an option which none of the other Weavers was able to pursue. They needed the group and they needed the money and if a cigarette company was willing to pay them to promote their product they were more than willing to take the money and run.
In sum, Pete was too left wing even for the left-wing Weavers, and after a few years Erik Darling split with them because he wasn’t left wing enough. He loved folk music for its own sake-not as a vehicle for his political beliefs. First and foremost he was an artist who believed in the music-without it having to serve any ulterior purpose. He left behind a rich catalog of brilliantly performed traditional music and original songs as well.
In 2000 he recorded the last album I have by him, a CD called Child,Child. It’s a glorious capstone to his singular career, and demonstrates anew that he never stopped in his visionary quest for a new musical vocabulary to keep the old and traditional from becoming musty and stale. He rerecorded his biggest hit, Walk Right In, in a completely reconfigured arrangement-without the propulsive, driving 12-string guitars. This time around he plays and sings it as a reflective blues, on a nylon six-string guitar. You would hardly recognize it as the same song. That was at the heart of Erik Darling’s genius, and why I loved him.
As much as he is identified with Walk Right In, however, Darling was no one-hit wonder. He pioneered not one but two seminal streams of the folk revival. Before The Rooftop Singers he also founded The Tarriers (which he delighted in pointing out was sometimes misidentified as a trio of performing dogs, The Terriers. The Tarriers included actor Alan Arkin, the son of broadside balladeer David Arkin-who wrote the song Black and White about Brown v. Board of Education, which became a hit for Three Dog Night.
In the late 1950’s Darling found an obscure calypso song for The Tarriers called The Banana Boat Song. With Darling’s spicy arrangement the song with the catchy refrain “Day-O” became a minor hit, widely enough played that actor Harry Belafonte heard it and thought, “Why not me? Them white boys are making money off of black folks’ music-why not me?”
When Belafonte recorded “Day-O” it was Katy bar the door-his calypso career took off and eclipsed his minor movie stardom. Thank Erik Darling, Mr. Belafonte, that white kid from Croton-on-the Hudson who fell in love with the blues and calypso and the five-string banjo and 12-string guitar.
But not just Harry Belafonte. If you have been touched by folk music over the last half- century, you too owe a debt of thanks to Erik Darling, who kept the Weavers going when Pete got too high-handed for them, and put folk songs back on the charts so that any kid with a passion for them could walk into a music store in 1965 and find a brand new 12-string and a banjo waiting for him or her.
I should know. I was one of those kids. Thank you, Erik Darling.