One for David Amram
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.