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Feature Articles

Apr 06

Part 1 - Roy Book Binder: Not Ready To Be Fenced In From Blues Beat Magazine By Rich Schneider

"The irony of the situation was apparent to him immediately. There he stood, in front of his St. Pete bungalo, suitcase in hand, returning home after many long months on the road. In his absence, his wife had thoughtfully added a homey touch to their front yard, a simple white picket fence. The quintessential traveling man, after a lifetime savoring the freedom and uncertainty of the road, found himself face to face with the traditional Americana symbol of stability and permanence. He hesitated for a moment, but since retreat was not a practical option, he unfastened the gate and entered, carefully leaving it unlatched behind him. Was he ready to be fenced in, are the days of "living the life" coming to an end, he pondered? No, not yet. Perhaps never.

Musically, Roy Book Binder is equally difficult to fence in or categorize. His eclectic repertoire includes blues, country tunes, bluegrass, folk, and popular songs that originated on Tin Pan Alley. He fantasizes that if he had been born 50 years earlier, he would have become a minstrel man. One of his musical heros, Dave Van Ronk, once described himself to me as a songster. That title might suit Roy as well, his music, a reflection of his long musical journey through the rich American cultural landscape of the last half of the 20th Century.

That journey began appropriately enough in New York City, a great place to grow up in the late fifties. A ten cent subway token was a magic carpet that could whisk you to see West Side Story on Broadway, to root for Jackie Robinson in Ebbet's Field, or to nosh a Nathan's hot dog out on Coney Island. Down in Greenwich Village, a brash new generation of writers, artists, and musicians were gathering, bent on challenging the social order. Like Paris in the 20's, they would make the big city the cultural capital of the post-war world.

Roy was brought up in a big old house in Queens, along with his parents, two brothers, and both grandparents. Like many a middle class adolescent, he yearned to break free and discover his own identity. A rock and roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount would provide the initial whiff of rebellion. "Thurston Harris came out and sang Do What You Did When You Did What You Done When the Lights Went Low, and we were never the same." Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry followed, and young Roy was hooked. He recalls going backstage and getting autographs from the stars, who hung around in those days, showing off their cool Eldorado coupes, with venetian blinds in the back. A bespectacled Buddy Holly soon appeared and inspired the purchase of an impossible to play chipboard guitar. "He had weird lookin' glasses like me, so I could identify with him. But it was always the jungle rhythms that really caught me. I realized years later that it was the blues."

After high school, he joined the Navy and served on an aircraft carrier. Hours of chipping paint soon ended any romantic visions he might have hadabout life at sea. He bought his first real guitar at an Air Force base in Italy and filled some of the tedious hours on board ship learning guitar chords from a shipmate. Another sailor's inspired record collection, which included John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Bobby Bland, provided him with additional inspiration. The raw musical edge of these artists appealed to Roy, as by now rock and roll had been sanitized and stripped of its roots by a record industry hungry to promote the next Fabian.

He left the Navy just months before his ship was sent to Viet Nam and decided to return to school. "After I got out of the service, I went to a little community college around Newport, Rhode Island. I got $100 a month to go on the G.I. Bill, so I took a few literature classes and played guitar twenty hours a day. As fate would have it, I was at Newport in 1965 for the Newport Blues Festival with Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace, Son House, and Big Mama Thornton."

In 1967, he returned to New York and got an apartment in the East Village. "I was reading the beat poets, Jack Kerouac, and I was ready to ramble. New York was a cool place to be because the culture was there. Everything was happening. My first two mentors and heroes were Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. When I first heard Dave Von Ronk, I 'flipped out'. He introduced me to Gary Davis' guitar style, it was harder music, not like Peter, Paul and Mary, which was pretty tame."

If Van Ronk was his musical inspiration, it was Elliot's lifestyle that captivated Roy. "What a life he's had. His father was a surgeon in Brooklyn, and when he was 14, he ran away and joined the rodeo. Jack Elliott became Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He lived his life outside the boundaries of his birth, and to me, that was something to aspire to. I had no respect or desire to lead the life of my forebearers. When I was 17, I ran away to sea. I was Jack London, I said, 'I'm outta' here.' I didn't fit; I knew I didn't fit. High school was a horrible thing; I didn't fit there. The first time I thought I fit in was at that rock and roll show, and that was outside of the boundaries of what we were supposed to be."

He attended the New School for Social Research, mainly to keep the government checks flowing, but by now, was totally preoccupied with music. In particular, Roy had became intrigued by the style of Reverend Gary Davis. Davis was considered to be the greatest living blues and ragtime guitar picker. Blind since childhood, the self-taught Davis was a Carolina legend by the time he was in his twenties, on a level with Blind Blake and the great Willie Walker. He had always included gospel numbers along with his blues and rags, but in the late 30's, he became an ordained minister and performed only religious music from that point on. He moved to Harlem in the early 40's, where he played and preached in the streets in relative obscurity, until he was rediscovered during the folk revival of the 50's and 60's. He became one of the most popular artists of this period, recording and performing at festivals and coffee houses. He also became a teacher and inspiration to a whole generation of young folk, blues, and rock artists.

By chance, Roy heard a fellow Village performer playing guitar in the Davis' style and inquired if he would teach him how to do that. He handed Roy a phone number instead. He said, "That's Reverend Davis' phone number." After some trepidation, he made the most important phone call of his life. "I started trembling, because I knew about him, you know. I called him up and asked if he would take me as a student. He said, 'When are you comin' over?' I said maybe next Thursday. He said, 'I'm an old man. You better come today.'" After only a few sessions, Roy had quit school and was headed on the road with his new mentor. "I met Gary Davis, and I went out on the road--I was a rebel--a rebel with a cause." He finally had fit in.

For the next year and a half, he toured and studied extensively with Davis. "By the time I met him, he was a folk music hero. He didn't have much regard for other guitar players, he grudgingly referred to Blind Blake as being 'sporty'. One time I told him I was going downtown to see Son House and Bukka White, who were playing at the Electric Circus. I said, 'You wanna' come?' He said, 'God almighty, it would take two of them to pick a guitar! But you can pick me up in twenty minutes. I'll keep you company.' He never listened to them perform. He sat in the dressing room before the show, and they talked and smoked cigars. But then when they went on stage, he fell asleep. He knew that as far as playing the guitar was concerned, he was it. He also realized and appreciated that his genius was a gift from God."