The Dark World of Kim Friedman:
L.A.’s Blind Ballad Singer RIP
(April 5, 1954—June 22, 2015)
Kim Friedman did not have the luxury of John Milton to consider how her light was spent ere half her days were done in this dark world and wide. She was blind before birth.
Kim’s eyes couldn’t see the fret board her fingers never missed a note on, no matter how high up the neck they traveled; they couldn’t see the strings her right hand never missed a finger-style pattern on, no matter how intricate the back beat she was playing; and they couldn’t see the audience her singing had such an indelible impact on, no matter how deep the tears she inspired, or unaffected the laughter with which she caught them by surprise. And yet it was not Kim who was blind, but we—to how precious those moments were, how much we would miss her when she was gone, and how irreplaceable she was.
L.A.’s blind ballad singer and exquisite folk guitarist Kim Friedman passed away last June 22 at her home in Mission Hills, according to her sister Jody Friedman. She died from complications of Edema and more recently a mass in her lungs. She had not picked up her beloved Martin M-36 in several years, due to living with severe pain over a long time, and it had become in disrepair and the strings worn out from constant playing, requiring some expert attention—which fortunately her former guitar teacher Tom Faigin was able to provide—to bring it back to its former glory and careful polish—reminiscent of the days Kim would bring it to the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club every first Saturday of the month for many years and light up the room with her stellar interpretations of traditional British and American folk songs and ballads learned from masters like Jean Ritchie, Sara Grey, Jeannie Robertson and Dick Gaughan.
She also had the gift of discovering lesser known artists who were not on anyone’s radar screen, such as Marie Hare of Strathadam, New Brunswick and Max Hunter, who sang Ozark folk songs and ballads, both of whom recorded tape cassettes for Folk-Legacy Records, the amazing label in Sharon, Connecticut founded by Sandy and Caroline Paton, who was herself blind—the blind leading the blind you might say, though with a very different meaning. Kim’s folk music library would be the envy of any major university folklore department, and she used it all.
She would wake her brother Jeffrey and sisters Midge and Jody up at 3:00 in the morning, at first practicing quietly to herself, trying not to disturb them, but then inevitably she couldn’t keep from singing, and they would be forced awake and, according to Jody, would want to kill her. It may not have helped that Jody thought folk music sounded like “dead cats howling” or that they taunted her playfully with the nickname “Bat.” Kim was not blind at birth but was born prematurely and put in an incubator to save her life; it was the incubator that blinded her. Unlike Milton, that was how all her days were spent—not just the half when his light failed him
Guitar was not her first instrument; she started playing piano at 5 or 6, and then at 15 played pipe organ in church, having been born Jewish and becoming a born-again Christian at 13, which made her family “roll over in their graves,” according to Jody. She was a multi-instrumentalist who was naturally skilled on everything she touched. Her first folk instrument was the banjo, and at the age of 18 in May of 1972, in her first appearance, she took the second place prize in old-time banjo playing at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest. When she discovered the guitar she never looked back, so to speak. Again, unlike Milton, who became blind at 42, she never regarded her “one talent which is death to hide” to be “Lodged with me useless.” Blind or not, she continued “To serve my maker, and present my true account.”
Kim joined the Folk Club in 1990, a graduate of the Frances Blend School for the Blind—where she acquired the habit of reading books in Braille and listening to books on tape. Eventually that shifted into listening to and learning songs on record and creating a vast library of tapes she catalogued in Braille—of traditional music recorded on LP that went all the way back to the early 20th Century, including Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, the New Lost City Ramblers, Alameda Riddle, Mike and Peggy Seeger, Joan Baez and Odetta, and modern lute-style classically trained guitarists like Richard Dyer-Bennett. Kim also graduated from Monroe High School and from UCLA with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Women’s Studies. Not surprisingly, she graduated Cum Laude. She completed all her coursework, but not the thesis, for an MA in Folklore.
Kim Friedman was a masterful finger-style guitarist, whose arrangements invariably stretched the boundaries of a multitude of traditional styles. In a roomful of slammers, strummers and bangers she stood out for her delicacy of phrasing and pattern-style picking. And in a roomful of anxious heads buried in tattered copies of Rise Up Singing Kim stood out for having had to memorize every song in her vast repertoire—hearkening back to the earliest days of folk song collecting when “Songcatchers in the Southern Mountains” made their reputations by combing the hills of Appalachia in search of sources, those few precious singers who knew hundreds of songs by heart and wound up singing their hearts out into massive old recording machines—or even before that being transcribed live by pioneering folklorists like Cecil Sharpe and Maud Karpeles—one of whom would write down the words, and the other the music—for later printing.
That’s the tradition Kim Friedman came out of, and even into the end of the 20th Century and beyond into the 21st she was the lone tradition-bearer in a folk music club that named itself after that oral tradition by which this music was passed on generation to generation. With the exception of a few elegant songs by Gordon Lightfoot, whom she admired for having composed some ballads that sounded two hundred years old the day they were written, and a weakness for the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer, which she sang with roaring abandon, for the most part she didn’t bother with any songs from popular folk music—the staples of most all such clubs—preferring the anonymous ballads and blues that had come out of the real folk singers like Doc Watson and the most important folklorists like Francis J. Child from England and Vance Randolph from the Ozarks. They were among her amazing sources, and she was both conscientious and creative in molding these archival sources to her lilting soprano voice and acoustic guitar that was always in perfect tune and true to tone. Her performances were the hallmark of folk music perfection—as good as the best recorded sounds from which she learned and was inspired by. She put her graduate work in Folklore from UCLA to amazingly productive use, and had an unerring ear for authenticity, to compensate for her visual impairment.
To hear Kim play an old song like Lakes of Ponchartrain was to be thrown back into a century old-reverie of riveting storytelling through music and song. She carried forth the original passion of folk music that had not been smoothed out by commercial considerations or turned into something it was never meant to be—a pop radio hit with overdubs and string sections (which in the case of the Weavers with arrangements by Gordon Jenkins augmented an already great folk quartet to make them commercially palatable) but in too many cases was used simply to conceal the singer’s lack of feeling.
Kim Friedman was the absolute real deal—a traditional ballad singer of the kind one might have heard on the riverboats of old Mississippi, the lumber camps of Sioux St. Marie, Michigan, the cattle camps of the Chisholm Trail, the whaling ships of New Bedford, Massachusetts, from the fish peddlers of Molly Malone’s Dublin to the back porches of Deep Gap, North Carolina. She also carried forth the best of the traditional blues of the great black blind singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Reverend Gary Davis. She had an uncanny ability to reproduce any musical sound she heard, and eventually make it her own.
Kim also had to endure and overcome the obstacles any blind person faced before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991—when Access Van service developed to provide transportation to and from the social milieus that provided her with an audience. Dependent like Blanche Dubois on the kindness of strangers, Kim eventually made devoted friends of those who became her eyes and wheels, in particular Lou Richter of the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, who with his wife Mina invariably took her on the long ride from Mission Hills to Santa Monica and back—and even down to Costa Mesa in Orange County where Kim would be the highlight of a hootenanny hosted by Terry and Debbie Aber-Koken.
Unfortunately for those who recognized her brilliance and thrived on the beauty and purity of her performances those visits became few and far between, as illness became her constant companion. The welcome sight of her other constant companion—her1978 Martin M-36 (made the same year the Folk Club was born, and the first year Martin made them) unveiling itself from her well-worn hard-shell case began to live on in memory only—though in memory yet green, as Isaac Asimov so eloquently described it.
That is the way I shall always remember Kim—her exuberant laughter and wicked wit greeting us as she would sit down at the Friends Meeting House in Santa Monica, and then the Santa Monica Synagogue where the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club still resides, before she would open up that guitar case and the delight of her life and ours slowly made its way into her lap—like a forest full of birds about to break out in song.
Her ashes, like Woody Guthrie’s, were scattered on the sea—hers in the Pacific Ocean—his in the Atlantic off of Coney Island—from California to the New York Island, as wide-reaching as her own oral songbook, and beyond. No one knew more songs, or sang them with more feeling. Utah Phillips’ song Ashes On the Sea, written for Woody, may now be sung for Kim as well:
What is this song I hear repeating?
Sprung from the careless seeds you’ve sown
Our songs will come and go like seasons
To bloom and fade all on their own.
And now I know I cannot find you
You’re gone from all but memories
And I am told that one who loves you
Has strewed your ashes on the sea.
But Lulubelle, her Martin M-36 is going nowhere; I bought it from her guitar teacher Tom Faigin and will continue to bring it to the Folk Club for as long as I can, and to sing Kim’s traditional songs in her memory. Like Bob Dylan said, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere!
Rest in peace, Kim; sing and play for the Angels now—we always thought you were one of them anyway. Heaven was never so lucky. They’re already asking, “Kim, would you sing Star of the County Down?”
From Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay
And from Galway to Dublin Town
No maid I’ve seen like the brown colleen
That I met in the County Down.
Like Milton’s day-laborer, in the sonnet On His Blindness, it may also be said of Kim, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Like Orpheus, while she waited she sang and played guitar—and like Tiresias Kim brought unending light to this dark world of ours.