Grateful Web Interview with David Nelson

Article Contributed by Carmel O'Farrell | Published on Friday, October 31, 2014

It all started back in 1960 when the folk craze was happening. People didn't know the difference between real folk music and popular folk music. The whole thing was pushed by the commercial success of groups like The Kingston Trio. Those were folk songs, but they were commercialized and popularized so they sounded like pop music. Much more compared to the Appalachian versions of those same songs. Such as "Tom Dooley" by Kingston Trio, you know it was that, "Hang down your head Tom Dooley" Well that's all fine because it made a big hit out of it, everybody could find out about it, but the real Tom Dooley was a fiddle song, "...denkita dernkita dern old poor Laurie Foster, ya know you're bound to die..." Well we liked that. We as a group liked that stuff better and it was like, "Oh give me a break with this commercial on everything." So there got to be kind of a movement or feeling generally where you could spot it like, "Oh that's commercial." There would be folk festivals like the Monterey Folk Festival and Newport Folk Festival and it was like really traditional acts, Muddy Waters and everybody like that, but it identified with real folk music from commercial clap trap. 

So that's how it started. It meant that a lot of people wanted to delve into it deeper and get a guitar. That made me think, well actually Pete Albin, who was the bass player in Big Brother and the Holding Company. Well, he's a year younger than me but in high school he was in art class with me and he comes up and says, "My brother went to Mexico and got a guitar. Want to come play it?" So I said, "Yeah, I'll be right over." So his brother Rodney had gone to Mexico and got a guitar, a Mexican guitar. We were all just passing it around and strumming chords and we would practice on it. I mean I practiced until my fingers were bloody. I would go over there everyday and keep working on those chords. That was it, I was just so enthused about this that it went on for what seems like a year but actually back in those days a year happened in a month and a half. A year's worth of stuff happened in a month and a half back in 1960 and '61. Well summer comes and Rodney says, "I got an idea, we can have a cabaret, a coffee house kind of thing. It would be ours and we can ask people to play, folk singers and everything to come here and play." And we got Mr. Houchens from the Carlos Bookstore to give us the upstairs every Tuesday and Thursday night that summer. That was fantastic and this, to me, was how the whole thing started. Form my stand point at least. Rodney Albin said, "We're gunna call it The Boar's Head." Me and Pete are the two youngsters, Rodney is two years older than me. He's telling us and we are just all ears and he says, "It's going to be called The Boar's Head" and I said, "The Boar's Head?" and he says "Look it up, it's in Shakespeare." 

Ok so I was an artist at the time so I made a poster with a boar's head and I studied about it. I learned that lots of pubs in the olden days were called "The Boar's Head." It was a common name. So I made this drawing of the boar's head to put outside the store. Then one day he goes, "Bring your banjo Nelson, we're going down to Kepler's Bookstore." This was the place in Palo Alto where the hip crowd, the beatniks, we called them beatniks in those days but that's just a name. It was actually the hip community which goes back to Kerouac and Ginsberg and everybody. Anyways Kepler's Bookstore was a hub, it was a mainstay for that community and it's still going, it's right by Stanford University. You go there to get your books, and they also had tables, by the way, where you could get balaclava or a Turkish nut roll and a coffee or espresso or whatever and you could sit there at the table and read your book.

So we go down there, and I find myself with Pete Albin, looking through the books over at the table area and I see this guy who is like hairy. It's summer, he's got his shirt open, he's playing a twelve string guitar. And he is hairy, lots of hair, and he has this surly look on his face. And he's looking over at us and Pete Albin goes, "That's Jerry Garcia!" I had never heard of him before but I remember thinking, "That name rings a bell!" I don't know why. But anyways, I am going "Wow, that's a twelve string guitar." So Rodney comes and grabs us kids and sits us down in front of Jerry and says to me, "Get your banjo." And I'm going, "No, no no." but then "Ok" and Jerry was really interested in banjo. So I played "Coo Coo Bird" (sings) and I noticed Jerry went, "Hmmmm, that's very pretty." I'm just mortified, I am a kid here, ya know compared to that. Jerry was only a year older, but he looked older and he seemed older. He just seemed like he knew it all, you know? It just seemed that way.

So then Rodney pitched the idea, "Would you come up and bring some of these friends that you know and we can have a cabaret folk song place type coffee house?" And Jerry said, "Yeah, I think so, yeah yeah, thanks." So we waited a week, until the next Thursday night or something like that. We took a book shelf and turned it on its face and put a rug on top of it. That was our stage. Somebody had a microphone, one of those RCA hand grenade  microphones, the classic kind. Then somebody had a Bogen B-52 amplifier. That was a classic thing school teachers had in class in the 50's. So we were ready to go and we are waiting and waiting. Then all of a sudden we hear a motorcycle out front, and we go out there, "That must be them! That's the first guy!" Pretty soon it was car after car and here comes Jerry walking up the stairs with a borrowed Martin Low 18, you know the one with the mahogany top, it's not blonde, mahogany sides and everything. It's the cheapest Martin you can get. Anyway, he comes up and he sits down and plays a bunch of songs. If I remember correctly the songs were, "Whisky in a Jar," "Kilgary Mountain," "Fennario, Pretty Peggy-O" and a few more, about five or six songs total. And then Bob Hunter gets up with his hunting boots on because he was in the ROTC and he had just came up from Monterey and he sang a couple songs and that was the start of it, it truly was. There was this guy Troy Weidenheimer that was so far up above our heads with guitar playing. He could play all this stuff. He was a professional already, playing shows and everything. We were just in total awe of this guy, all of us were. Then Sherry Huddleston got up and sang some songs with Troy playing guitar. To me that was the beginning of the whole scene because it just took off.  "Now could we do it on Tuesdays and Thursdays?" Yes. Ok we are just doing this as much as we can and then Houchen says, "That's enough, we can't do it there anymore," so we had to find another place.

Right after that Boars Head run, I get a call. I am still living at home and my mom answers the phone, "David, it's for you." I get, "Hello, it's Jerry. I heard you got a new banjo." And I says "Oh yeah Paramount Style A." And he says, "Why don't you get it and bring bring your guitar, and come on down to St. Michael's Alley," that place in Palo Alto. So I did and he's taking up the banjo and just non stop. He really wants to learn scrugg style banjo now. I am playing my guitar but I see that he has this 1940 D18 Martin, and I says, "Can I play that one?" He says "Sure sure." So we're playing a 1935 Paramount Style A and a 1940 Martin and I am just listening to the sound... Anyways, he was like, "Hey can I borrow this?" and I was, "Hey can I borrow that?" He says, "Sure!" He wanted the banjo so bad!

Anyways so I took the guitars and headed to my house and I ended up living in Palo Alto at this place called The Chateau a few months later and we had this band called the Wild Wood West which was Hunter on bass, me on guitar and Jerry on banjo. We played the Monterrey Folk Festival and got a standing ovation from Mike Seeger who won the best amateur band contest... Anyways it went from the Boars Head directly to that phone call, "You got a banjo?!" I never knew what a smart move it was to buy that banjo.

We found the Jewish community center in San Carlos. Now it's really big, like that was a big room. Houchens book store was this little up stairs place with a wooden balcony where like one person could stand. We went from that to the Jewish community center, which was a huge building with really bad lighting. Either bright bright bright or dark dark dark were your choices. And we just kept on making up new bands and getting people together and everything. The big one was the Bluegrass Extravaganza. We were still not adept enough to play bluegrass but we knew about it. Rodney knew about it, in fact Rodney was the guy that said, "Nelson, you would like bluegrass music." Once again, it rang a bell even though I had never heard of bluegrass music. I went, "Wow, what's that?" So the first band was this big huge group with, I don't know 9, 10, 11 people. We actually had a fiddle, for a California band that was really saying something, to have a fiddle in 1961. Someone asked, "What's the name of the band?" and Marshall Leicester goes, "Well we were thinking of calling it the Smart Fellers and Pheasant Pluckers" but as you can see, you can get that wrong really easy. (laughs) So we decided to call it The Elves Gnomes Leprechauns and Little People's Chowder and Marching Society Volunteer Fire Brigade and Ladies Auxiliary String Band. And we are thinking of putting that up on the marque, although we would have to find some really small letters. Anyway, we did a whole show, I think I actually have tapes of it because Rodney was taping the deck. But back in those days, guess what taping meant?  Reel to reel tape recorder with a single microphone. Yeah, I still have some records of that.