I had the great good fortune last week to visit with Ellen Harper at the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, to talk about her new book “Always A Song, Singers, Songwriters, Sinners & Saints.”
Susie: Ellen Harper, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about your wonderful new book “Always a Song.” It’s a terrific and unique memoir about your life, your career and incredible family, encompassing the history of the folk revival, black listing, and the development of folk music on the West coast in the founding of the Folk Music Center here in Claremont, California. Famous and not-so-famous characters flow in and out of this narrative, adding color and significance to your experiences in the eras from the 1960s folk revival to the present day and your collaboration with your son Ben Harper on recording and touring. I’d like to ask you some questions to facilitate the conversation and let’s get started.
Ellen: Well, thank you, thank you for coming out to see me here.
What was the impetus to write this book now, how did it come about and how did you choose the format of a memoir?
Well, I started writing stories quite a while back, because I realized that my kids didn’t know anything about the early days of the store. So, I started just writing stories, anecdotal stories, three pages, five pages and occasionally I sent these to my sons—they loved them, and encouraged me to write more and more. Then my son Joel, who is a children’s book author was talking to someone about publishing one of his books, and the publisher said “I love the idea, but I don’t publish children’s books. But if you have something about music, I’m interested in publishing books about music.” So, Joel said, “I don’t have anything, but my mom does.” “Then ask her to send me some stories.” I sent them to him and he got back to me, [he was] a publisher at Harper One I think it was. He said “I really like your stories. I’m going to talk to some people and I’ll get back to you.”
A year went by, but that’s what you expect. It was probably about a year and a half later, and I got an email here at the store from that publisher, and he said, “a while back when I was at Harper One you sent me some stories. Can you send them to me again, I’m now at Chronicle in San Francisco.” I said, sure. So, I sent them, it was probably about 60 pages worth of stories. He got back to me and said he really liked them and asked if I would be willing to work with Sam Barry, because [he wanted me] to turn it into a memoir. I talked to Sam, and said yes, sure, I think that’s a really good idea to have Sam. Mark, the publisher sent me a contract and an advance! I learned to get the hang of turning stories into memoir. It’s hard, because I think of past events in a discreet little package of the story, and yet it really is a continuum. And I have to say, working with Sam, I kept saying I don’t have a thread, it’s supposed to be the Folk Music Center, or folk music history, or the revival. He would listen and say “That’s you. You’re the thread. And you have to write about yourself.” And he also helped me be brave in writing about the communist [issues]. It was hard writing about the communist stuff because there was kind of a training that there’s a hush about the word itself. And he said, ok, just start writing about [the effects of the blacklist on you.] It doesn’t have to be in story form, it doesn’t need an introduction, just write. And I did, and I started writing and writing. I left out a whole book’s worth. Also to your question about memoir: According to the publisher, it had to be a memoir because books of short stories generally don’t sell, memoirs do.
Had you been published before writing this book? What was your writing like before this book came out?
I hadn’t really. I wrote a dissertation and I was published in a few small history journals, but that was all. More about Sam Barry: he acted as an editor. He’s a writer himself and he’s worked in the industry forever. His brother is Dave Barry. And Sam is equally funny, wise and skilled and is also a musician. There is a photo of the Barry’s father who marched with Martin Luther King. So, Sam was a perfect person to work with.
It was interesting that you chose to write about the past using the present tense. How did you decide to use that device?
Well, as I wrote stories, I’d write some of them in the past tense but when it was something that grabbed me, like the Hendrix story, I started writing as though it were happening right now. When I would send things to the editor, I’d say I know I can’t go back and forth, but I can’t decide. She said she liked it in the present tense.
Susie: I liked it, too, it put me in the moment emotionally.
Ellen: Me too.
Susie: It’s like we’re following you through the twists and turns in your life.
Ellen: That helped a lot, too, just carrying the story forward.
What convinced your father to move across the country, so far from the East coast? What convinced him that Southern California would be the place he and your family should go?
A few things: one, my mother had a cousin in LA who was also an artist, a very flamboyant cousin, very unlike my mother. Also, Bess Hawes was here in Topanga. And my father had some good friends who were moving for the same reason we were, just to get out of the East Coast and out from under the blacklist. It just felt like they would never work again, the smallness of it, no one forgot. And so, he took a ride West with them, leaving the family at home. He found a job, found an apartment, then sent for the rest of us. My mother sold the house.
Susie: Was your mom surprised you went so far?
Ellen: She was devastated. Her life was at Hecht House, with music. She was doing so much in Boston with the music. But in those days, you followed your man. She followed him out. She was very unhappy here for a long time. My father wanted to go back to teaching. The Claremont Graduate School accepted him, so that’s how we made the move to Claremont. I suppose also that California was the land of milk and honey in those days. LA had its share of problems with the blacklist, but by 1957 it wasn’t really rampant. The East coast never forgot. “Commie Jews. Where are your horns?” Which I don’t have, by the way.
Did you discover or uncover anything while writing the book that you didn’t realize before starting it?
I guess I realized that it was ok to talk about myself, that was kind of a surprise to me. What I worked hardest on was weaving history into my story, and I hope that worked.
Was it difficult to write about your family’s troubles regarding your first marriage?
It was difficult, but like I say, I think writing about communist happenings was harder. That was tough times, but a little therapy helped me.
Susie: Were the communist issues so hard to write about because you had been so fearful?
Ellen: We were fearful and I think because – my father was always a very competent person, very successful with whatever he took on. And here the carpet was pulled out from under him and I think losing the ability to look out for your family, yourself, to be competent, was so hard that we all felt that we had no foundation anymore. You didn’t know what was going to happen. I know my parents discussed it with us, about it not being our fault, people are ignorant in different ways, capitalism, ideology, etc. and it just went “zzhhhh” (over our heads). I was seven! “[Nobody likes me anymore, I thought.] It was fear, though. It’s a similar fear, I heard when I interviewed the schoolteachers for my dissertation. There was still fear when they talked about being attacked again because of communism. And I thought “really?” But it’s there, and you can feel it in the Trump era, coming back. It never leaves you, when you’ve been marginalized, and your life taken away from you. You know that people are capable of it.
It was so poignant to read about the concert at the White House – the “full circle” of the blacklisting your parents suffered in the 1950s leading you to the hallowed halls of the White House and your front row seating at the concert with the President. How did that feel?
Well, my main worry was when I was told that they had to have all my information ahead of time so I could be checked out [by security]. And I had this moment of, I don’t know, PTSD or something, like “oh no! The FBI, they’ll find out.” Then I thought, no, no, that’s not happening. And of course, everything was fine. But again, it goes back to what we were talking about, that sense that “they’ll find out and I won’t be able to go [to the White House.]”
It was really quite wonderful. There were all these stars there, too, of course, but everyone was happy, and I think it was because of the Obama White House, that we all felt welcome. I went to a talk that Michelle gave the day before the concert, to the young people who were in the Grammy School. She had a big group of kids there, as she gave her talk I thought “man, she’s brilliant!” She really moved those kids and us adults who were in the room. It was quite a couple of days, really amazing.
Susie: Do you think Ben realized the full circle element of this visit?
Ellen: He did when he read it in the book. He learned a lot about his family.
Susie: Ben’s introduction in your book was so lovely, as he wrote about getting to know you as a young person.
Ellen: It’s hard for children to know their parents can be self-realized human beings, fully developed. So that was a good moment, when he was reading.
I have to ask: what were the Obamas like?
It’s a meet and greet event, so you go through pretty quickly. [Ben knew Obama from campaigning in 2008.] President Obama’s comment about “how can such a big guy like Ben have such a tiny mom?” Michelle was rolling her eyes!
Another full circle moment struck me so powerfully: the photograph of you backstage with your banjo and Pete Seeger seemed like a transcendent, moment out of time. Knowing that he was such a presence for your Mom and Dad and here you were performing to honor his legacy, was that just an over-the-top moment for you?
It was. I felt kind of giddy and school girlish! I don’t think I acted on it, but it was that kind of moment. And I didn’t know there was a photograph. I didn’t even realize until I saw the picture, I hadn’t even gotten to the dressing room to put my banjo down.
What was it like going on tour with your son Ben?
Well, it was very fortunate to go on tour with Ben because it is a comfortable way to tour. It’s not a little tiny van with a pop up. It’s a very comfortable tour bus and we stay in hotels. It’s nothing short of exciting, just amazing. But it’s work. When Ben’s on tour, luxury or no luxury, fun or no fun, it’s work! And he works very, very hard. The second hardest working man in show business! But for me it was special, and just thinking of all the green rooms, getting ready to go on stage, why am I more nervous at one than the other, walking to the stage.
Susie: But you had experience performing.
Ellen: But I never thought I had had enough practice, though. And you know, I didn’t want to let Ben down, ever, of course.
Thinking about Ben: did you sense early on that he had extraordinary musical gifts?
You know, I can’t say that I did. I taught guitar, and I was always working on songs, and sometimes I would hear this little high harmony, floating in, and he wasn’t necessarily conscious that he was doing it. But I thought it was interesting what I heard. Then he was in some theatre when he was in school, performing, and I thought he was good, he was really good, but I tried, I wanted my kids to think that the world was open to them, they didn’t have to be musicians because their parents and grandparents were. But they all followed in an artistic track.
Susie: You provided a good example for such a rich life as it is.
Ellen: Well, that’s what I thought. My oldest sister is a wonderful musician, my next oldest sister wouldn’t have anything to do with it, but I thought “life is just better!” It’s just more fun being part of the music! Ben was in his late teens when he came to work at the music store. I left [to a teaching career] and he took over repairing instruments. I heard him playing and saw what a sponge he was, he learned from everyone who came in, and I thought, let’s see what this is going to be, because he’s definitely got some chops going. And sure enough.
Are you performing these days?
I am performing now, in fact, the first thing coming out of the shutdown was a show at Pilgrim Place [a progressive senior center]. They invited me to come and play and do a book signing. We were all vaccinated. I brought two friends and we did a concert, and they had 300 people, all masked and distanced, and closed-circuit for those who couldn’t leave their rooms. It was wonderful getting back together, to rehearse and play. I didn’t even realize how much I missed it. I have another gig coming up at the end of the month with Ellen Harper and the Mama’s Boys. Dave Millard will play this gig, he’s one of our repair people. He’s a very interesting person: when he was 16 my father hired him to come to work in the repair department. He worked here for 11 years, then left and came back after 40 years when he retired from teaching. I went to his retirement party, and said, “well you’ve had 3 days off, how about coming back to the repair shop, and he was like “are you kidding?” “No, I’m dead serious!” And he did. He came back, and he’s so good. We had a band in 1975-1976, Alfonso Houston and the Houstonettes. So now here we are playing again.
Susie: another full circle! And what kind of music do you play?
Ellen: I’m going to do 4-5 of my own songs, some John Prine, some of The Band, covers of people we like. I’m back at it, it’s fun. It gets to be part of you.
Regarding your album with Ben, “Childhood Home,” it is such a beautiful testimony to your family’s legacy, I believe, and you’re both such soulful singers. You write in your book about the magic you discovered when you sang together. Did that surprise either of you?
I think it did kind of take us by surprise. He knew, even though we had never sung a song together, he knew he could call me up and say mom get a song ready, we’re singing it, be there in 45 minutes, we’re on our way. He knew I could do it, and I knew I could do it, though I would have loved to have had more warning to think about it, but I didn’t. We knew enough ahead of time to know that we were both capable of it, I don’t know that we could anticipate that it would grip us so: tears. It brought us to tears.
What do you hope for the future of the Folk Music Center?
Well, it’s a good question. I don’t really know. I hope it has a future into perpetuity.
Ellen, thank you so much for sitting with me to talk about your book “Always a Song.” I wish you and Ben and the Folk Music Center much continued success and vigorous, soulful song making for many years to come!
Readers! I highly recommend this wonderful interview of Ellen and Ben Harper on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Have a listen! Ellen and Ben Harper Interview on Fresh Air
Award-winning recording artist, Broadway singer, journalist, educator and critically-acclaimed powerhouse vocalist, Susie Glaze has been called “one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass and folk music today” by Roz Larman of KPFK’s Folk Scene. LA Weekly voted her ensemble Best New Folk in their Best of LA Weekly for 2019, calling Susie “an incomparable vocalist.” “A flat out superb vocalist… Glaze delivers warm, amber-toned vocals that explore the psychic depth of a lyric with deft acuity and technical perfection.” As an educator, Susie has lectured at USC Thornton School of Music and Cal State Northridge on “Balladry to Bluegrass,” illuminating the historical path of ancient folk forms in the United Kingdom to the United States via immigration into the mountains of Appalachia. Susie has taught workshops since 2018 at California music camps RiverTunes and Vocáli Voice Camp. She is a current specialist in performance and historian on the work of American folk music icon, Jean Ritchie. Susie now offers private voice coaching online via the Zoom platform. www.susieglaze.com
Life Is Just Better! Ellen Harper on Her New Book “Always a Song”
Author Interview of Ellen Harper of the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California