Peanut butter sandwich made with jam
One for me, one for David Amram


The opening couplet from one of Raffi’s most popular kids’ anthems contains a couple of neat little nuggets.

One is the reference to jam rather than jelly, a Canadianism that made its way around the world with the song. The other is the mention of David Amram, a living treasure of musical history.

I’m lunching with David Amram at NERFA, the North East Regional Folk Alliance conference, at a faded resort in the former Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskills mountains. We’re having sole, rather than sandwiches. Or should that read “soul?”

Amram at 81 practically personifies the soul of twentieth century American creativity: brother to the Beats, collaborator with jazz giants, world music pioneer, groundbreaking classical composer, and a respected elder here at this gathering of folkies.

Bright eyed, handsome, and spirited, with an attractive and engaging female companion (the prodigiously talented Audrey Sprenger) on his arm, Amram graciously receives admirers, but he’s not here to bask. He’s here to listen, to make music, to lead workshops and tell stories. And he is in fine form.

In the course of an hour’s conversation, we discuss a series of topics that would make anyone’s head spin: Estelle Klein‘s brilliant workshops at the early Mariposa festivals; performance tips learned from Tony Bennett who learned them from Louis Armstrong; his buddy Jack Kerouac‘s favourite Canadian folk songs; a recent protest march through Manhattan with Pete Seeger. I’m rapt with attention at Amram’s adventures – who wouldn’t be? – but it’s not just about him. It’s about everything under the sun.

We discuss William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, The Clash, and the CBC Radio archives. Amram wants to know about my ukulele; we talk about tree planting in Northern Ontario; he tells me to say hello to David Woodhead, whom he remembers both from early days on the folk circuit and a recent appearance together at Toronto’s Diaspora Film Festival.

He remembers everything and everyone (“I don’t drink or take drugs, that’s how I stay sharp,” he says), and scribbles anything he wants to be sure he doesn’t forget on his “briefcase.” It’s a cardboard box with a plastic handle that once held a Mac Lapbook.

His notes soon include the location of a showcase room called “The Canadian Conclave,” where David Amram duly arrives later in the evening carrying a canvas shopping bag full of flutes and percussion instruments (having left his French horn in his room). Amid a song circle of contributors representing virtually every level of musical ability, Amram waits his turn, sitting in with enthusiasm when asked.

When his turn does come up, Amram borrows a guitar, lays down a cool jazz progression, and launches into a Beat-style lyrical improvisation over the chords. He raps in English and en français, passably pulling off both French and Québécois accents. The tune turns into a true tall tale about his first trips to Canada, how he played Mariposa, filled in for Peter Gzowksi on the radio, and tried to emigrate, among other wild moments worth mentioning. He’s making it up as he goes along, and the little crowd in the room has never seen anything like it. He even throws in a ukulele reference to feed me me a solo. I hack it. He tells me he dug it.

Like everyone in that room that night, I have now jammed with a guy who’s jammed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Willie Nelson; from Leonard Bernstein to Odetta. The spirit of all those collaborations lives on in David Amram and we’re all hoping it sticks to us too.

When he’s finished, with a flourish of lyrics praising Canada and practically everyone he ever met there, David Amram hands over the guitar to the next person. Now he sits silent and still, meditative, as she launches into her song, a heartfelt home-made ballad about Alabama flood victims. Then he enthusiastically compliments her on the tune.

All attention, all ears, all heart; all music, all the time. With classical, jazz, avant-garde and world music chops to die for, here’s David Amram sitting in on a jam in a hotel room, personifying what makes folk music special.

That’s the way it works in a song circle: one for you, one for me, one for David Amram…

Photos by James Dean.

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  1. avatar
    James Dean 14 November, 2011 at 21:36

    Hey David nice work! I had a few opportunities to talk with David Amram also, he is a very special man. His workshop was unbelievable playing all different instruments and doing percussion and crazy drum beats even rapping and singing a song while playing the piano. Unbelievably humble. I won’t forget this weekend very soon. Always nice to see you there also!

  2. avatar
    Mike Regenstreif 14 November, 2011 at 22:53

    I’ve known David since 1974 and he’s been a major influence on my approach to listening to music since then. He always a delight and inspiration to be around.
    Over the years, I’ve seen him in jazz clubs, at folk festivals and conducting symphony orchestras. An amazing musician and composer.
    David is also the only guy who manages to get me up onstage as other than an MC or host (to read from Kerouac as he plays the kind of stuff he played when it was Kerouac reading the passages).

  3. avatar
    Suzie Vinnick 14 November, 2011 at 23:22

    Thanks for writing the piece on David, David! 🙂
    And thanks for your pics, James!

    Loved loved loved David Amram’s workshop at NERFA – I was so moved by his wisdom and his spirited, magical performance, how he played so many different instruments and covered such diverse musical genres; his spontaneous rapping was so fun! He is very charming and so humble and such an inspiration. Would be cool to get him to do a show/masterclass of some sort in Toronto next time he’s through…(at Hugh’s Room, perhaps? 🙂

  4. avatar
    prashant 14 November, 2011 at 23:53

    I remember seeing David Amram in Toronto when i first came to Canada as a teenager and hit the streets to busk in 1973/74. He’s definitely a world music pioneer and National treasure and among the early jazz musicians who embraced musics and instruments of different cultures along with Colin Walcott and Oregon, Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos et all. It was even more memorable because I met 2 young teenagers who had come from NY and were close friends and fans of his. The girls picked me up and took me to one of their friends’ and treated me with the sweetest lovingness that I would never have imagined possible from strangers. I never spoke with him or followed up with them because of a feeling of inadequecy but will never forget his bamboo flute playing in a world-jazz style all his own. To hear about him being so vital and full of life at his age is heartwarming.

  5. avatar
    Joanna Mills 15 November, 2011 at 08:40

    Thanks for this fascinating glimpse into your weekend, David. It was almost like being there…almost. 🙂 The magic you describe seems to be tangible anywhere folkies gather: my living room, clubs, parks, festivals and conferences. Just one big song circle.

  6. avatar
    Marshal Rosenberg 22 November, 2011 at 16:40

    I met David in Greenwich Village in 1974 when first starting on my Music Path..Remember sitting in with him and guitarist Charlie Chin among others on Bongos – the only drums I owned at the time. His enthusiasm and support helped encourage me to continue to play professionaly..Hadn’t seen him for many years until last year’s incredible NERFA “Wisdom of the Elders” workshop (along with Oscar Brand (91) & Theodore Bickel (87))…We ended up playing together with Buskin & Batteau and at Gene Shay’s legendary Saturday night party until 6 in the was amazing..his energy and chops are the same as those days back in the Village..Went to see his Integrating World Music Workshop this year at NERFA and was honored to be invited to join him on stage (see picture above). We (The Buskin and Batteau Trio) were also honored to have him as part of the house band at our Showcase Room this year at NERFA. David’s boundless Energy and Generosity of Spirit personifies what’s best in the Music Community and continue to inspire and delight all who are lucky enough to come into contact with him.

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