THE OLDEST LIVING EMERGING MUSICIAN TELLS ALL
I got an email from “Cynthia,” editor of a new music magazine called “Music Emerging” letting me know she had seen my recent concert for the Centennial of Joe Hill’s execution at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and wanted to interview me about musicians in the Santa Monica Mountains for an upcoming issue. She also wanted to know if I had any “pre-1980” photos of musicians in Topanga, or knew where she might get some. I wrote back and gave her a few leads, then I called her and left a message if she wanted to interview me. As I suspected, it was a temporary enthusiasm and I never heard from her again. But since the deadline for my column was fast approaching I thought why let a good opportunity go to waster? I’ll interview myself and see where it goes. So here is the imaginary conversation I almost had with Cynthia of Music Emerging.
The first thing I was planning to tell her is that I am 68 years old—a little long in the tooth—as Billy Joe Shaver put it—for an “emerging musician.” When did I start performing? Sixty-two years ago, when I was six years old, and my mother took me to an elementary school charity event, with booths all over the playground collecting money and selling various homemade goods. I walked around and button-holed everyone I could with the come-on: “If I sing Waltzing Matilda will you give me a quarter for the charity?” Who’s going to turn that down? Within a couple of hours I had raised more than my share for my mother’s charity, and donated it all. Thank A.B. “Banjo” Patterson of Australia who wrote the song, and Burl Ives, from whom I had learned it. I quickly came to realize that, though I already knew a hundred songs, this was my “money song.”
And so it remained, until Australian folk singer Eric Bogle ruined a perfectly good song by attaching it to his antiwar song of the Gallipoli invasion in World War I, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. I could never sing it again, because its effervescent rippling beat suddenly turned into a sodden lament for all the soldiers killed in that horrible war. Thanks, Eric. You couldn’t have found another song to ruin?
The subject just came up again with the visit of my newfound friend from England, folk and sea shanty singer Jim Radford, composer of the best D-Day song I now know, The Shores of Normandy. He is England’s youngest surviving D-Day veteran, and wrote the song from his personal experience as a fifteen-year-old galley boy and youngest surviving British volunteer for the invasion of the European continent on the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944. I found the song in an on-line search for songs about D-Day, when it so happened that the folk music club over which I preside, The Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, was about to hold its regular first Saturday of the month meeting on Saturday, June 6, the 71st anniversary of D-Day. I was searching for a song to sing in honor of the occasion and it didn’t take long before The Shores of Normandy turned up on my computer screen. I took one look at it and knew I had found my song. It told a great story, in simple but moving poetry, and the tune was a lyrical masterpiece, The Dawning of the Day, to which Jim had set his new song, around thirty years ago when he wrote it after revisiting the same shores he had seen on that fateful day in 1944.
What had moved him to write it, he said, was seeing young children playing on the same beach he remembered from the blood-soaked sand he had last seen during the landing. That one haunting image brought the whole experience back to mind: “As the years pass by I can still recall/The men I saw that day/Who died upon the blood-soaked sand/Where now sweet children play/And those of you who were unborn/Who’ve lived in liberty/Remember those who made it so/On the shores of Normandy.”
I wrote to him and told him I was planning to sing his song on D-Day at the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club. To my amazement he wrote back. The timing was perfect, he said, in that he was planning a trip to Los Angeles on his way to San Diego for the annual conference of Veterans for Peace, of which he was a member. He would like to come to our Folk Club—on August 1, and sing it there. Wow! Does it get any better? I thought. A real English folk singer—who performed the song I heard on-line, by the way, at the Royal Albert Hall for the Queen of England herself—the same hall that Dylan got booed at in 1966, after “going electric” at Newport. The same hall that John Lennon immortalized with the comment, “You can applaud up in the cheap seats; in the box seats you don’t need to—just rattle your jewelry.” Straight from Royal Albert Hall, Jim Radford would be coming to the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club. I was walking on cloud 9 for a week.
Then I decided to up the ante and try to get him a booking while he was in LA. His friend Robin would be putting him up in Laguna Hills for a few days before he came to the Folk Club; and he quickly started leaning on me to get him some jobs singing in British pubs in Santa Monica. They would jump at the chance, he said, to book England’s Jim Radford, sea shanty singer and—as the BBC just discovered—their youngest surviving D-Day veteran. That was the publicity hook I was looking for—to be 86 years old and the “youngest” anything was a publicist’s dream. So I put together a query letter and sent it out to a half dozen “British” pubs in downtown Santa Monica. All I asked for was $100 for Jim to entertain their clientele for the evening with sea shanties and drinking songs—the amount recommended by Robin with assurance that the pubs would seize upon it.
Surprise; not one picked up on it—they not only did not decline to accept the offer of his services, not one of them even replied. The entire plan went nowhere. As someone who has not had a drink in nearly three years I was not thrilled with the idea of traipsing after Jim through the dens of British iniquity whilst he regaled them with drunken choruses and sea-going forebitters, but I was willing to try anything once. So I was secretly relieved when no one replied and I could pursue my own ideas of how best to utilize his prodigious talents and knowledge of the shanty repertoire—having produced the last American concert of Welsh shanty man Stan Hugill—author of Shanties of the Seven Seas and the last authentic working shanty singer—in 1986 at the Church in Ocean Park. It was a magnificent affair and twenty-nine years later I was excited to produce a sequel, especially since our Folk Club had for many years produced an annual Sea Shanty Day as a gift to the community of Santa Monica. I decided to take the high road and see if I could find a legitimate folk venue to sponsor the concert.
Amazingly, the very first one I approached gave me a resounding “Yes!” to the proposal. That was Bob Stane’s The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. Bob was as excited as I was at the prospect of having Britain’s youngest surviving D-Day veteran at his club for an entire concert. It turned out that Bob Stane also had a passion for the history of D-Day, and had visited Normandy for the 50th anniversary and couldn’t wait to tell me about it, including having extracted an authentic archival bullet from the cliffs of Normandy—left there by one of the American veterans on Omaha Beach. He was thrilled to celebrate the fateful fight for freedom now 71 years in the past; that a genuine English folk singer was one of the soldiers who took part was almost too good to be true. He was completely on board with my first email.
You can see where this is heading: the youngest surviving D-Day veteran and the oldest living emerging musician turned out to be one and the same. For Jim Radford was just last year discovered by the BBC—at 85 years old—and launched into a kind of notoriety he had never known before, which led to his being booked in a command performance before the Queen of England at Royal Albert Hall on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra.
If it seemed like a slight comedown to be invited to perform at a 49-seat capacity folk club in Altadena Jim never let on. He seemed just as happy to be able to sing The Shores of Normandy before an American folk audience as before Her Majesty the Queen. That proved to me that Jim Radford is the real deal—a true folk singer for whom—as Jesus said—what is done to the least among you is done to me. He made no invidious class distinctions, setting no one up on a pedestal and looking down on no one. He did indeed sing in pubs as well as the Royal Albert Hall.
So it was an honor for me to open for him, as we quickly agreed upon. Bob Stane likes to book evenings with more than one performer, and it also gave me the opportunity to MC the evening, properly introduce him after my opening half hour set, and then field questions during his post-concert Q & A with the audience—something Bob Stane wanted to include in the concert from the beginning. It was also a turning point for me in being in a concert with real ticket prices ($18) and not just “Suggested Donation” and “No one turned away for lack of funds.” August 2, 2015; this was the night I turned pro.
It turned out to be a great evening; the Coffee Gallery Backstage was filled up with an appreciative audience who knew what Jim Radford (now 86 years old) represented and honored the extraordinary courage of the 15-year old English lad who volunteered to be the galley boy on his first trip to sea—in the Empire Larch—the British tugboat that towed the block ship into place to build the Mulberry Harbor for the invading ships to land “the largest force the world had seen” on the shores of Normandy. They were England’s Greatest Generation, who defeated Nazism and saved Western Civilization. And if that is not worth celebrating then nothing is.
Thank you, Jim Radford for carrying on this extraordinary legacy, and thank you, Bob Stane for recognizing a night worth remembering and helping me produce this concert. Three cheers for the Coffee Gallery Backstage! You made one 68-year old emerging folk singer very happy indeed.
And a big thank you to Cynthia Brando of Music Emerging who actually did call back and follow through on her interview request about music in the Santa Monica Mountains. I finally decided that I was not the right candidate for this interview, gave her a number of referrals and we agreed to stay in touch for some future issue of her new magazine. I wish her all the best and am grateful to her for inadvertently giving me the idea for this column.
And finally, thank you to the late great shantyman Stan Hugill, for inspiring me thirty years ago with the example of a true folk singer—one for whom music and life were inextricably intertwined—an example I have tried to follow and live by ever since.
Ross Altman performs his annual Labor Day Sunday concert at the Church in Ocean Park Sunday September 6 at 10:15 AM; this morning’s program commemorates the Centenary of the IWW member Joe Hill’s execution November 19, 1915 in Salt Lake City, Utah; 235 Hill St. Ocean Park, CA (at 2nd and Hill St); (310) 399-1631; Free.