(Special to FolkWorks)

The $500 Guitar with the $24,500 Story:

You Won’t Find It at Norm’s

By Ross Altman, PhD

folk city museum guitarMy favorite lefty political story goes like this: A fellow walks into an antique store and finally is attracted to a brass rat, which he takes up to the counter and asks, “How much?” The dealer says, “Well the rat costs 10 bucks, but if you want the story that goes with it it’s a thousand extra.” “Thanks,” says the guy, “But I’ll just take the rat.” The dealer wraps it up and the guy walks out of the store with his new purchase. On the way down the street he notices a couple of ordinary rats climb out of the sewer on the curbside and start to follow him. Then before he decides what to do a couple more rats jump out of a passing tree and start to follow more closely. He picks up his pace a little and before he knows what’s happening a half dozen more rats leap off of the passing roof top and join the small herd of rats now loping closely behind him. He starts to run at a brisker pace and out of nowhere a dozen more rats start chasing the ones who have been thundering behind—and then he starts to race as fast as he can down towards the only refuge he can think of—the promenade above the pier facing the swelling ocean tide below. He finally makes it with hundreds of rats now in tow.

As he gets to the pier he suddenly pulls the brass rat from his coat pocket and with every ounce of energy he can muster flings the brass rat over the chain link fence lining the pier and watches the brass rat hurtling down into the water below. Suddenly, to his amazement one rat after another, like a herd of lemmings, throws himself over the fence in desperation and joins the brass rat falling into the sea—hundreds of rats all at once in one mighty storm of unruly Norwegian wild rats pummeling the ocean waves before disappearing noiselessly into the swollen ocean swells. He himself is so terrified and yet relieved at the same time he watches with his last pounding heartbeat as he gradually returns to something approaching normalcy and is finally at long last able to catch his breath and gratefully starts on the long and mysterious walk back to his safe apartment.

The next morning he finally pulls himself together and before he realizes it starts to amble on back to the very antique store where the long nightmare ago he found the brass rat. As he approaches the counter for the second time he catches the dealer’s glance and notices a slight but ever-growing smile of awareness on his face. “Ah ha!,” the dealer looks up, “so you’ve come back for the story!” “No,” says the customer, “You can keep your story; I just wondered if you might have a Republican rat to sell me.”

Well, I can’t help but think of my friend Jerry Manpearl’s wonderful tail—you’ll pardon the expression—whenever I run across something like the guitar I just found out is for sale in an auction being held in NYC to raise money for the completion of the soundtrack to Bob Porco’s long-awaited documentary about the folk music club that started it all—I mean the 1960s Folk Revival that attached itself to Gerde’s Folk City—owned and operated by his father Mike Porco—the legendary folk club that introduced Bob Dylan to the world of American folk music—and eventually the whole wide world around—including Stockholm, Sweden which just honored Dylan with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gerde’s Folk City’s basement is where Bob first sang Blowing In the Wind. Call it ground zero of the greatest American artistic renaissance of the 20th Century.

The minimum bid that Mike Porco’s son Bob will accept is—hold onto your capos--$25,000. And the value added to the guitar is in the dozen or so autographs Porco has accumulated in the three years since he bought it—autographs which include a number of folk luminaries like David Bromberg, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, Oscar Brand and the Folklore Center’s nonagenarian former owner Israel G. (or Izzy) Young. You can’t tell by the photograph of the guitar provided on his web site—which looks close to indistinguishable from a Martin double or triple “O”—because Mr. Porco knowingly left off the headstock which would actually identify it beyond guesswork.

Curiosity killed the cat, but when I received his email I couldn’t resist inquiring what kind of guitar it was he hoped would attract such a hefty purchase price. I was somewhat surprised when I got a reply back from Mr. Porco—and he forthrightly identified it, but not as a Martin, made in Nazareth, PA (as in The Band’s great early masterpiece The Weight, “Pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling ‘bout half past dead…” a hymn to the legendary guitar maker, not the birthplace of Jesus. The Gerde’s Folk City Museum and its owner—in whose home the guitar has been decorously hanging for three years—is auctioning off a “one-of-a-kind” Martin lookalike Canadian-made Seagull Entourage Rustic guitar from 2013—not even a vintage model—just three years old. A quick check of the Guitar Center web site, or the manufacturer, or Google, will provide one a price range of anywhere from $400 to $528 and change—w/o case, perhaps a $100 more with a TRIC Montreal-made case—which the Guitar Center on Westwood and Pico however did not have. (I’m a reporter, folks; I do some shoe leather work around here.) So one is being asked to bid on a guitar which without the signatures would fetch roughly $500, but for which he will only accept as a minimum bid 50 times that, or $25,000. So clearly what Mr. Porco is selling is not the guitar, but the autographs.

So my question is, are any of those signatures—or all of them together—likely to add that kind of extra value. With profound apologies to the folk community—of whom I pride myself on being a part—the inescapable answer is alas “No.” I happen to know a member of our own local Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club whose Martin “OO” 21 guitar is signed by only one artist whose autograph is worth more than all the others put together; that would be Ms. Joan Baez. It is idiomatically more meaningful as well, in that Joan Baez actually played a Martin “OO” 28 early in her career, though she now plays a Joan Baez signature model “OO” 45. Her own vintage “OO” 28—made with Brazilian rosewood and with evidence of its provenance—may well be worth $25,000—or even more—I would leave it to The Antiques Roadshow to determine its market value.

That signed guitar is therefore a great example of a brass rat sold for $10 with a $1000 story left unsold at the counter. The autographs make for a wonderful story, but I am quite sure that at the end of the auction Mr. Porco will be able to enjoy his family heirloom in his own home for many years to come. Of course, if he could acquire the signature of the artist who made his father’s folk club famous that would change the calculus altogether. If you recall the Coen Brothers’ recent folk movie hit Inside Llewan Davis, that’s where the movie ends—after a fictional homage to The Mayor of MacDougall Street, Dave Van Ronk—it finally reaches the chilling final scene where a young Bob Dylan sings Fare Thee Well from a vintage recording. Get his autograph!

With Dylan’s Nobel-Prize winning autograph added, it would embolden and enhance the value of all the other folk signatures on the guitar—except for one (about which more later). Tom Paxton, for example, the author of The Last Thing On My Mind told Bob that he couldn’t leave Like a Rolling Stone as a long rambling Ginsberg type poem, which was how Dylan had at first envisioned it. Paxton insisted that if it were set to music it would reach millions, not the few dozen who would find it in a poetry magazine. Dylan did the rest, and was eternally grateful to Tom for intervening when he did. Inside Llewan Davis shows a young Paxton in his army uniform talking to “Llewan Davis aka Van Ronk” as he is lets him know that he will be one of folk music’s success stories, while Davis (aka Van Ronk) is barely hanging on by a thread.

Then there is Israel G. Young, on whose couch at the Folklore Center Dylan slept in 1961during that first “coldest winter in 17 years” when Dylan hit Greenwich Village and sought refuge in the first place that would have him. Later on, as has been speculated on with a delicious sense of schadenfraude ever since, he would portray Young as the hapless villain in Positively 4th Street:

You’ve got a lot of nerve

To say you are my friend

When I was down

You just stood there grinning

You’ve got a lot of nerve

To say you’ve got a helping hand to lend

You just want to be on the side that’s winning,

referring to the Troika of Folk Music—Sing Out’s Irwin Silber, Pete Seeger and Izzy Young—all of whom turned on Bob as a sellout when he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, prompting Seeger to say he “would have cut the mic cables” if he could have. And it was Izzy Young, who in the beginning produced Dylan’s first New York concert at Town Hall—with the famous concert poster that says “The Folklore Center Presents Bob Dylan.”

You also have Oscar Brand, another early hero in Bob’s Annus mirabilis of 1962, when Dylan appeared on Brand’s radio show Voices In the Wind (with Odetta and Izzy Young in the background) to sing the show’s namesake song Blowing In the Wind for the first time beyond the confines of a small New York city coffeehouse like Gerde’s Folk City. Oscar just passed on. Oscar Brand was 92 and had done more than 5,000 shows, but that is the one that will be remembered.

Then you have David Bromberg—who was playing in Bob’s band during his Isle of Wight comeback appearance that prompted a Columbia Records executive to gush: “Bromberg’s as good as anyone else on that stage; let’s sign him!” And they did!

And beautifully illustrated—representing Peter, Paul and the late Mary—Noel Paul Stookey, who made a hit out of Blowing In the Wind, and put Dylan on the map as a great songwriter.

Peter, Paul and Mary used Dylan’s song for the title of their early album In the Wind. With Dylan’s autograph on the guitar all of those stories would become clear, and part of the larger story of the folk revival surrounding Mike Porco’s club.

Fred Hellerman also passed away this past year—the last of The Weavers—whose example gave Peter, Paul and Mary some mighty big shoes to try and fill. He alone seems unrelated to Bob’s early story and success. By 1963—when Dylan broke into a kind of pop recognition that was unprecedented in the folk era of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger—The Weavers were only performing in a truncated multiple-personnel version of their original quartet, with a Carnegie Hall Reunion concert that now included Erik Darling, Frank Hamilton and Bernie Leadon. Fred Hellerman, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert were never fully able to recover from the blacklist that knocked them off the charts in 1950, when they had the number 1 song on the Hit Parade—Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene—for 13 straight weeks, a record that stood for twenty-five years until the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever and the disco craze surpassed them. And that is why to me Freddie Hellerman is the star of that guitar’s cluster of wonderful autographs, whatever they might be worth on the auction block be damned. Without The Weavers there would have been no folk revival—not in Gerde’s or the Ash Grove or anywhere else.

I hope that the guitar remains unsold and that somehow Bob Porco is able to fund the completion of his movie in some less traumatic way, for it is clear he treasures the museum-quality guitar he has now turned to to bring his long-dreamed of story of his father Mike Porco’s astonishing visionary folk music club to fruition. And I couldn’t tell this brief preview of an epic story so well worth preserving without tying together two last loose ends. For it was Izzy Young—who now resides in Stockholm, Sweden, and still preserves that long-ago prescient concert poster with his greatest discovery in a photo of himself and his own glory days in the background, who suggested to Mike Porco—whose Gerde’s was next door—that he start booking some folk music in his club to help cross-pollinate the music that was traipsing through the Folklore Center every day. Perhaps they could help each other by reinforcing the image of the Village as a haven for folk music.

Did Fidel and Che do more? Perhaps they could start a revolution. Put that on a guitar.

Oh, I almost forgot, Bob Porco already has. The bidding starts at $25,000. Whoever puts in the winning bid—one person, not a consortium—will be listed on the movie credits as a co-producer. In the spirit of Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, is there an angel like Clarence out there within reading distance of FolkWorks? Bring this guitar to Los Angeles, I say; why not display it at the Grammy Museum? That’s where it truly belongs.

This could be the title of the exhibit: To California From the New York Island.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Peace on Earth and Good Will to All.

By the way, if you are interested in making a bid, click here.

Folk singer Ross Altman hosts “Viva Fidel! A Memorial for Fidel Castro” at the Los Angeles Workers Educational Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, CA 90019 on the 58th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Sunday January 1, 2017, 2:00 to 5:00pm; $5; SoCal LosAngeles Cpusa | Facebook with Open Sharing, Songs, Poetry, Spoken Word, and refreshments; bring your memories and mementos of all things Cuban; street parking.

Los Angeles folk singer and Local 47 member Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.