Songwriter Frank Lindamood keeps moving forward by traveling along the roots of old time American music
(Frank Lindamood performing at the Florida Folk Festival. All photos by Erica La Spada.)
Located roughly 50 miles south of Tallahassee, Florida sits the town of Sopchoppy. Embedded in the ancient expanse of the Apalachicola National Forest, cursory research on Sopchoppy reveals that the population tops out at around 400. The place is also known for something called the Worm Grunting Festival, a kind of celebration based on divining worms from the ground. Between the surrounding forest and seclusion, lack of other humans, and an ongoing vestigial, possibly pagan rite exulting annelids, Sopchoppy sounds like my kind of place. The fact that it’s also the longtime home of one of the surely best regional folk-songwriters in the Southeast only sweetens the deal. It’s also the current home of Frank Lindamood.
For most people, Lindamood’s name won’t appear in the pop cultural canon or the blinding, distracted social media feed.Hell, he’s probably not a celebrity in Sopchoppy. But Lindamood is undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic, and original, songwriters working in what could be described as the contemporary folk scene.
My girlfriend, Erica, first introduced me to Lindamood’s music three or four years ago. She gave me little if any preamble before hitting play on her iPod, other than that the guy’s music was pretty damn intense and was somehow tied in to “Florida Folk.” Admittedly, my genetic level of knee-jerk cynicism was steeled for the sound of some wavering voice commemorating an unforgettable mid-‘70s coastal sunset or a baleful threnody about our lack of recycling. Instead, I was met by the sound of a rolling steel guitar, all esoteric chords rippling across minor keys, and a deep, almost-baritone voice recounting stories of murder, loss, and spiritual themes that were more dark night of the soul than days of holy glory.
If Lindamood has a musical lineage, it is surely in the moody ancestry of Skip James or Robert Pete Williams, mysterious bluesmen who might sing to you about the crossroads but sure as hell weren’t going to show you the way. Equally adept on banjo as he is guitar, Lindamood’s three-finger style maintains the same kind of hypnotic menace as Dock Boggs, devoted to a roiling propulsion of the lyrics and in service to the song, with no side tours into showboat, bluegrass virtuosity.
In 2013, Erica took me to the Florida Folk Festival out in White Springs for the first time. She had been a longtime repeat customer but I can’t say if I’d ever really heard of the thing. Since 1953, this annual event has turned Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park into a kind of Memorial Day Weekend shrine for lovers of regional folk music, Florida folklore, crafts, soul food, and things all in between. Spontaneous jams prevail. There have been times where I would stop to catch some shade under a tree or simply light a cigarette and suddenly a guitar and banjo would fire up beside me, as two possible-strangers would break out into song. It is an environment where the type of DIY punk ethos promoting performer/audience blurs supreme. The demographic runs from old timers and families to hippie survivors and crafts-vendor types. There’s a high propensity for wearing bib overalls, always a plus for my Kentucky heritage. And this is the place where I first saw Frank Lindamood play.
Dressed in a work shirt and pants, hat brim pulled down over his eyes, Lindamood stood at the side of the stage, watching the current group play. When they were done, he set up his instruments quickly, and laid into it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say as being mesmerized – but I was convinced. In the past two years since, Lindamood remains our priority to see first once we walk through the gates of the park and into the festival grounds. And my conversion has definitely, at times, been moved to mesmerization.
While the now 67-year-old Lindamood began playing music early in his life, he didn’t release his first album, Hewed from the Rock, (30.26) until 2010. Two years later, he released To Be as Gods. Both albums are on the Gatorbone Records label and both are fairly brief affairs. Each record contains eight tracks, and each album just barely cracks the half hour mark. Well into the 21st century, where multimedia, promotional bombardment for most artists is generally the rule, not the exception, at the surface Lindamood’s “model for end goals” can seem as inscrutable as his mystical, ruminative dirges.
Four years after To Be as Gods, comes Songs from the OTHER Great American Songbook. A collaboration between Lindamood, Mike Koppy, and Dan Simberloff, along with illustrations by Robert Crumb, Songs is a 17-track CD-and-book release of some of Lindamood’s favorite earliest American songs, with accompanying essays where he delves into the songs’ histories and explains his attendant fascination with what he calls, “old time music.”
While Erica and I had made small talk with Lindamood in the previous years, at last year’s festival I approached him and wondered if he’d be interested in doing an interview for my blog. He agreed and handed me his card with all of his contact info. A year goes by, and within less than a week before the 2016 Florida Folk Fest is about to start, I frantically – and manically – stagger into action. Thankfully, with the direct (and quick!) help of Grant Peeples and Donna Mavity, I tracked Lindamood down and he had a nice, rambling 90-minute talk. What follows is a transcription of most of our conversation.
Starehouse: You know, last year at the festival I spoke to you I had kind of said, “Hey man, I want to interview for my arts blog.” And so, typically, a year goes by and I wait like five days before this year’s festival. But thanks for agreeing to this. And I’m glad I found you. Your website and liner notes for Hewed from the Rock, explain that you can be reached by telegraph to the Western Union office nearest Sopchoppy, Florida. You had given me your phone number but it was disconnected. So I was literally going do that [laughs] – and then I discovered that Western Union ended their telegraph service more than 10 years ago.
Frank Lindamood: Yeah, that’s one of the great tragedies of my life: that you can’t get a telegraph [laughs]. I long for the days of the little guy riding up on a bicycle with the message in his hand.
That’s a bygone era; like “email 1961.” I’m curious. You know, I’ve lived here in Florida for the better part of 36 of my 44 years, but I’ve never heard of your current home of Sopchoppy. Did you kind of “move there” or “wind up” there? You know what I mean?
I made an effort to move here at one point. I’m a native of Jacksonville.
Are you really?
Yes. I graduated from Forrest High School [originally named Nathan B. Forrest High School, in 2014 the school’s name was changed to Westside High School]. I was in the original class at Forrest High School. There were originally grades 7-12 and I went to school there in the seventh grade. Then by the next year they had a junior high they’d just opened up, and of course they named that after yet another Confederate officer named Jeb Stuart [laughs]. He had the distinction of, unlike Forrest, not being a wizard of the Klan [laughs]. Sometime when you have the time though, read about Forrest. He’s an amazing character. At the very end of his life, he became one of the most progressive people of the South. It’s very bizarre.
Maybe he had that “Amazing Grace” moment, you know?
Yeah, he did. I think the “moment” was four years in the saddle, fighting the Union army. That was the beginning of it, anyway. But anyhow, I left there in ’66 and went to Tallahassee to go to school. I was at the ripe old age of 17 and then I never left this area, because I saw so many bad changes in Jacksonville.
What kind of changes? Like resistance to integration and Civil Rights?
No, not really that. I lived in an area originally called Wesconnett and then we moved to Jacksonville Heights, which is over near Cecil Field. I mean, there were people bustin’ up stills almost in our backyard, after we moved over there, abandoning cars…I never had a problem with none of those guys, I went to school with a lot of them.
So what year did you graduate again, ’66?
So were you around playing music at this point?
I’d just started a year or so before that. My father played and from the time I was a little kid I’d heard him play and I was very impressed by what he could do with a guitar. And he sang and played a lot of those old Carter Family tunes. He’s from West Virginia, you see. And that’s what got me really interested, and at a certain point in my life I said, “I can do this.” And I tried it when I was about 16. It took me a while but I got to where I could play harmonica and guitar a bit, and the banjo.
Yeah. So were seeing bands in Jacksonville back then? I know like Duane and Gregg Allman were playing around here as the Allman Joys. There was a pretty decent scene of young bands playing around here. Were you checking out any rock stuff back then?
I wasn’t interested in rock and roll and I didn’t do anything during my high school years but go hunt and fish around my Daddy’s place. I’d come home and get off the bus, put on my hunting and fishing clothes, and I’d do that until it got dark.
Well, that’s probably a healthy extracurricular activity for a teenager.
Well, we went out and raised a little hell on the weekends, but you know, out of my crowd there were only one or two guys that ever drank. The rest of us were drinking soda pop and doing crazy shit. But we were really kind of innocent, in a sense. We didn’t get into any kind of trouble like kids do now [laughs]. There were no drugs to speak of. Every once and awhile some young girl would get knocked up and have to get married. Because that’s what happened in those days; if a girl got knocked up she pretty much had to get married. But that was a freakish thing. That was almost unheard of.
So why did you head out to FSU? What were you looking to do?
I was going to go into chemistry and they had a very good chemistry program and also I’d been to Gainesville in ’65 at the National Science Fair Summer Camp. There were like 30 of us, and each one of us worked with a professor; I worked with a guy who was an air pollution guy. But at any rate, I really loved Gainesville. But most of my friends were going to FSU, and there were a lot more girls there. Gainesville was 3-to-1 male then; and whereas FSU was actually more women than men at that time.
Easy math for a young dude — you were somewhat guided by a different kind of science: biology.
Yes [laughs]. But chemistry was very strong there.
So did you complete the degree?
No, I went undecided. But I went into chemistry lab and that pretty much turned me off from me. I went into physics. So yeah, I got my actual degree in physics. And then I went from there right into construction work [laughs]. You know, I was married and had a kid on the way. I needed to work and make some money. So grad school was not an option.
I guess it was hard to find a physicist gig in Tallahassee, Florida in 1970.
No, I got an offer to go up to Pennsylvania and do one [graduate studies] but I just didn’t really want to do it. I probably should have.
I gotcha. And that was the end of your science career, once you started a family?
Pretty much. The only time I ever used that degree in the forty-some-odd years I was working, was at the health department for a year in Wakulla County. They required a degree in some science. It didn’t have to be physics; they preferred biology or environmental studies. But that was it. The rest of the time it was construction work and I worked in the theatre for many years.
I know you were bustin’ you ass in school, but were you playing in Tallahassee as well? Were you already performing live at that point?
Yeah. I found people to play music with while I was an undergraduate. We went to the Florida Folk Festival, or White Springs. We called it White Springs in those days and we really had a good time.
So what was the first year you went to the fest?
I think it was ’67. It might’ve been ’68. And I had a very wonderful experience. I think it was sort of a prophetic thing in a sense. Gamble Rogers and Paul Champion were playing on stage. They were both pretty young then, too. And they were just tearin’ it up. They were two of the best I’d ever heard. And I wanted to play with them but I knew I couldn’t go up on stage, so I kind of sat off by the side and I had a harmonica I played this kind of pseudo-Charlie-McCoy harmonica. And they heard me and called me up on the stage. I mean, I was a good ways off. I didn’t really want them to hear me [laughs]; I was just trying to play along. They called me up and I played three songs with them onstage. I couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t really know anything.
How did that feel? Did you just try to stay in the moment and not freak out?
No, you know I really connected with those guys. I knew that I was in over my head. And they were very kind and they wanted somebody to play harmonica. And I also knew when it was time to get off the stage. Somehow I knew. They didn’t say, “Okay boy, that’s enough out of you.” It wasn’t like that at all. And I remember thinking, “These must be two of the nicest guys in the world.” Because here they were two of the most terrific musicians I’d ever heard and they were kind to me. And I knew I didn’t belong on the stage with them. That was sort of the standard to me, of what this music is all about: people like them that are so great, and so down to earth. It’s just like Ella Fitzgerald. I worked at the Ruby Diamond [concert hall at FSU] for 12 years as a lighting and soundman. I worked with all kinds of people in there. And the people like Ella Fitzgerald and Hal Holbrook were like the kindest people in the world. No ego at all, because they didn’t have to prove anything. They were the best there was.
Yeah, it’s surely a lack of insecurity towards your art. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone because you can back it up. I think a lot of phonies rise out of that kind greasy ego at play.
I want to talk some more about Gamble, too, and I think he was indicative of this. Folk music is truly a “strong” genre music, in the same way as delta blues or traditional jazz, but the folk scene seems like it’s surely based on two things: its inclusive…you know, the jam session. Like what happened with you and Gamble and Champion. And secondly, it’s always acknowledging the past. Today, not too many people would have the balls to walk onstage and play a Skip James song and claim it as their own. It seems like folk music is perpetually reinforcing the lineage, and that very same, ongoing reverence protects its survival. You know what I mean? And pop music has never done this, and never will, because they don’t give a shit. And the music remains shit.
Absolutely. Folk music is almost by definition “non-exploitive.”
But people do get their careers of out folk, especially with this stupid Americana tag; a term that just infuriates me. Among other songwriters and roots-conscious players, I’ve interviewed Dan Hicks and Jorma Kaukonen and asked about their feelings about this, and now you. Those two seemed indifferent or bemused by the tag, although Hicks conceded that maybe he had finally found a category [laughs]. But I need to let this Americana anger go [laughs]. But it just grates on my nerves with. Americana could be everything from Bo Carter to the Holy Modal Rounders to Fred Neil to Karen Dalton…I mean, it’s ultimately insulting to the artists; I think it compartmentalizes as much as it’s dismissive. It’s a marketing thing: “They’ve got a mandolin? It’s Americana.” Folk music is traditional, not sequestered. Americana is killing folk music more than it’s curating.
[Laughs]. No argument here. I hate the Americana label, too, because it sounds like a style of furniture. [Laughs]. It sounds like something a sophisticated yuppie might buy to put some downhome quality in their house. “We’re going Americana this year.”
All right – rant over [laughs]. Sorry. But I’m kind of relieved we’re on the same page [laughs]. But you you’ve been doing this for decades, so my overly rambling question [laughs] is – do you still get the sense of that egalitarian, “bring your guitar with you” vibe with folk music?
I still very much do. I’ll give you an example of that. The thing about the old music is that it’s timeless. We call it “old time” but it’s really timeless music. This new release I worked on with Mike Koppy, and Dan Simberloff who wrote the foreword, is called Songs from the OTHER Great American Songbook. The book deals with this and the three of us touch upon this idea that we have to go back. Koppy makes some very distinct and almost-abrasive statements about Tin Pan Alley and how they exploited old folk music and rip it off. A lot of guys have stolen those songs, done pretty bad versions of them, made a lot of money off them, and won’t even acknowledge that it was somebody like Robert Wilkins and Skip James that wrote the damn song. And among what I call the songwriters; and I don’t like the term singer-songwriters. That’s another label I can’t stand – it’s cumbersome. I’ll tell you another funny story about that from a guy named Jack Williams, you may have heard of, here’s a terrific player and performer out of South Carolina. But in 2011, I was playing for this 30A thing [30A Songwriters Festival in South Walton, Florida], in all of those ritzy, hotsy-totsy, so-called beach communities from Panama City and all the way over to Destin and that area. And I was asked to play with three other guys, and we’re all about the same age, and one of them, Effron White, had won the 2011 Billboard contest for best song. So we did our round, we did about four songs each. And when I got done, I went to meet my son who’d come to visit me, and we’re having supper. And Effron came up to me and started talking to me. He said, “Man, I’m really glad that I got to hear you and play up there with you, you’ve got some great songs.” And I said, “So do you, man. That one that won the contest? That’s a terrific song.” He said, “Listen if you’d been in that contest you would’ve won that contest.” And that’s how these songwriters generally are. I don’t know if he has any insecurity, I sure didn’t sense it about him, but he’s not a big star, he’s not a big name. But I think that’s how great songwriters generally are. They’re not defensive; they’re not guarded about their work. There’s no jealousy of other people’s success. I don’t see much of that in this scene. That’s one of things I really like about it.
Yeah, I think that’s somehow a common quality of, for lack of a better word, legitimate artists. Like we touched on earlier. Any doubts, and we all have them, are kind of dissolved in the process of making the work.
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Tell me some more about this Songs from the OTHER Great American Songbook.
Well, Michael wanted to originally call it The Real American Songbook. I thought that was a pretty good title but then Lis Williamson pointed out to me that it was sort of an affront to the Great American Songbook. And jazz players always go to that book.
Yeah, kind of like The Fake Book – with all those standards and chord changes.
Yeah. And I have a tremendous respect for those guys: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, etc. Some of those guys wrote Tin Pan Alley stuff but they also wrote some really great music. And I didn’t want to begin with the first thing you see is the title that could be almost an insult. So we changed it to Songs from the OTHER Great American Songbook. And that title really explains it since we’re talking about stuff that, for the most part, is not written down and often doesn’t have a pedigree; or something like “Goodnight, Irene,” whose background is pretty murky, and the guy who made it famous was a three-time convicted felon [laughs].
Yeah, Leadbelly was probably considered one of the original outlaw artists.
Yeah [laughs], but also a true American musical genius. Dan Simberloff sent me this thing just a few months ago. The Wall Street Journal did a tribute to Leadbelly. And there was a statement from, I believe it was John Lennon, which essentially said: “No Leadbelly, no Beatles.” And I do think the Beatles, out of many of the rock bands, did pay homage to people. I really respect those guys. Chuck Berry, Elvis…and they credited Leadbelly. I think he was one of the first great rock and rollers.
So along with Leadbelly, how many artists or songs in total are on this new release?
There are 17 songs.
And is that 17 artists as well, one artist per song?
Yes. Now there are songs that have been done by the same artists. In other words, Doc Watson’s probably done four or five songs out of that group. And Doc’s a real authentic folk guy, probably one of the best. But all in all, the versions that I drew from, or that I referred to, are generally one particular artist. Now some songs, like “Old Paint,” I didn’t pick an artist at all. I just love the song; it’s an old cowboy song. Well, “Goodnight, Irene,” apparently there’s a song written very much like it around the turn of the century by Gussie Davis. But Leadbelly put his indelible stamp on his songs. And I have to say he wrote them. I can’t say it any other way.
So who are some of the other artists on this that you think are notable?
Well, for instance with “Lonesome Road Blues,” my father was the guy I first heard play it. The definitive version is probably Woody Guthrie. The song called “The Year of Jubilo,” which is about emancipation, the only person I’ve ever actually heard play it has been at sessions; I’ve never heard a recording of it, except I paid tribute to the guy who wrote it: Henry Clay Work. “Old Abe,” which is another song, that is based on the tune, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but the words are totally different. It apparently came from soldiers from east Tennessee who, more or less defected from Tennessee, and joined the Union army, and it was passed down through a great folk artist named Frank Proffitt.
And you somehow got R. Crumb illustrations for this thing. That’s pretty damn impressive. How did that all come about?
Very interesting story. The illustrations are from his deck of cards [Heroes of the Blues Trading Cards]. And he did, I believe 52. But here’s how we got permission to use them. I’ve played music with Dan Simberloff since I was a sophomore in college. He is, I believe, the foremost ecologist in the world. But Dan is a serious student of old time music. He was there in Greenwich Village when all hell broke loose and they had the “great folk scare” and all that. And he played with Doc Watson from time to time and with Bill Monroe here and there. Anyway, he was in France on sabbatical, in Montpellier, I believe. And he was trying to find someone to play old time music with. Well, someone connected him with Crumb, who plays old time music just as good as anybody could.
Yeah, man. R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders.
[Laughs]. Yeah, that’s the guys, man. So R. Crumb was near enough, where Dan called him and said, “Hey man, I wanna play some music with you…I play old time music, I play some guitar, mandolin.” And Crumb said, “Well man, come on up.” And Dan said they really had a lot of fun. And he knows about a million songs, and every song he played, Crumb could play really strong accompaniment. So when we started doing this album thing, I’d told Michael this Crumb story and he said, “You know, why don’t you get Dan to contact Crumb and see if we can use some of his pictures?” And a really funny thing happened. Dan finally got through to him. He had to go through his wife, and apparently that’s not so easy.
Yeah, Aline Kominsky. She seems like a real character in her own right.
She’s the manager from hell I guess [laughs]. So Dan finally got through to Crumb and he said, “Hell use anything you want, man. I don’t care.” So Crumb gave us the go ahead to use his illustrations, Michael said “We need to rewrite these essays so we can use more of these Crumb drawings” [Laughs].
Hell yeah. Crumb’s a true blue.
Oh man, he’s great.
In a way, this reminds me of a kind of variation on Harry Smith’s The Anthology of American Folk Music. And Smith is my kind of Americana [laughs]. You know Smith was a follower of Aleister Crowley and the artwork in the Anthology is mired in this esoteric occult and alchemy imagery.
Oh really? Well, I didn’t know all of that [laughs]. That’s kind of wild, man.
Was this release in anyway inspired by Smith’s anthology? Because for many, that Anthology is considered like the main codex for much of this stuff.
No. I would say that the way this thing came about is kind of typical in our, quote “folk process.” Michael Koppy and I toured the West Coast in 2013. We started out in Bellingham, Washington and then wound up in San Diego, and then flew over to Hawaii, where he was living at the time. And when Michael puts a tour together, you play every night. At the end of the tour, one of these young girls he calls his stepdaughters…they’re really daughters of women that he’d dated for a long time. Both of the girls are of African origin. One of them came to visit us for a few days when we were in Hawaii. And then I met his other daughter Keisha, who is living in Dar es Salaam. And Keisha is fluent in English and African dialects. And I had nothing to really do, so I just began playing these old songs for Keisha, as much to maybe let her hear some of these African cultural and musical influences in some of the very oldest American songs. And while I was playing and we were talking, I was saying, “This what the African people created when they had nothing. Nothing.” Africans were denied their own music, denied their own language. We took them from their homes and stripped them of everything. And yet they came here and brought us the banjo and all of this incredible music, and they took our music and made into something else that was, in some ways, greater. And after we finished the tour, Michael said, “We’ve gotta make a record of those songs, man. I didn’t know you knew all of that stuff.” I must’ve played for two hours, none of it originals. He had already made a record called Ashmore’s Store, which centers around a store in Frenchtown, the old black business district in Tallahassee, run by a white guy, from Sopchoppy: Rob Roy Ashmore. And Michael kind of grew up there and Ashmore took him under his wing. It’s case of when you’re a young kid and somebody takes you under their wing and teaches you about life. It’s usually not your mom and dad; it’s really usually somebody else. So Michael released this album, which is just a great collection of really great songs, and he released it with a book, about Ashmore’s Store. So he said, “Let’s do what I did with Ashmore’s Store. Let’s do a book about the music. You record the music and we’ll issue a companion book.”
Yeah, let me touch on that. With these essays, are they as much a historical overview or based more on your own relationship with the tunes?
You know, it’s funny. I started out with the idea that I was just going to write a very brief statement of how I learned the song, what it meant to me, and some of the people, in many cases personal friends of mine, who’d taught me about the song. But it got to a point where I realized that these songs are emblematic of our culture. When I wrote the essay for “Old Paint,” I wrote several pages about the cowboy life. I have a friend named Joe Hutto who’s a working cowboy in Wyoming. And he’s also written three incredible books. And to me, there’s something emblematic about cowboy music. I studied martial arts in Japan for a year, and for me there’s a sense that the cowboy and the samurai are very similar. Except that American heroes are very individualistic, whereas Japanese heroes are generally part of a group. But otherwise, in every other regard, the virtues and the strengths of a cowboy are very much like the virtues and the strengths of a samurai. And I thought that this was a case of how we see how mythology function in a nation. And it works the same way for the Japanese as it does for us. In a slightly different way, but it does the same type of thing. It requires the same sort of cultural structure. And so I often wrote stuff like that. I wrote about the life of Skip James and how was a very complex character, and just a remarkable, pioneering musician.
Yeah, that Stephen Calt book about James [I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues] is one of my favorite books about any musician. Skip James is my guy. He’s my favorite blues musician.
Yeah, he was a fascinating person. James was a pimp. But he was also a preacher. You know it’s funny, there’s a guy named Vgo – I don’t know if you’ve met him, he plays at White Springs every year – and he knows so much about this old stuff. He’s a little older than I am, and he was a kid up in New York when all of this stuff was breaking loose. And he played music onstage with Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt when they were touring together. He says all of the rumors about those two and of Skip James are not true. Skip James was a very decent and engaging man and he just loved John Hurt. And it’s known that John Hurt was just in awe of Skip James.
Even though in the forty or so decades there’s been a really deep study and appreciation of country blues, I still wonder how much of the actual true history was so “racialized” to the point that now we’ll never really know the true stories of some of these musicians. And nearly all of the histories invariably describe them as being constantly ripped off and brutalized, sometimes even after they were successful.
I touched on this a bit with my essay on Leadbelly. When he was just becoming known to the wider world, there was an article in LIFE magazine, with a color photograph at the time, which was very unusual. I want to say it was 1937 or ’36, I could be wrong. And the title of the article was “Bad N****r Makes Good Minstrel.” I’m not lying – LIFE magazine. And what I wrote was, “then as now, let’s scare people a little bit.” And I pointed out that Leadbelly had gotten himself into some scrapes, and he was not a man to tangle with. But he also knew more children’s songs than he knew jailhouse songs. He was a musical genius. And fortunately, he didn’t get famous from that [LIFE feature] – the whole thing got obscured by WWII and the Depression. But when he came into his own, after the war, there in the folk scene in New York, he was a much more respected man. So his career was not that of some “boogie man.” His legacy has lived way beyond those hateful words of LIFE magazine.
He still is known as much for being this criminal, but hell, I don’t think any of the greatest musicians are always early for choir practice.
[Laughs]. That’s right.
You know, all of these songs on your new album obviously have had a major impact on your life. But I’m curious about this, because I think everyone has some kind of resonant, if not defining, moments in his or her life, at times based on music. But when you were a kid, and it maybe it was something your dad sang, was there a particular song that you heard, and that moment…you know, where it borders on the mystical.
Absolutely. Yeah, there were several things that happened in that early period from the time I started playing when I was 16 or 17. Hell, I started playing a ukulele but at night I would get up when everybody was asleep in the house, and I’ve always been the kind of person who stays up late, and I’d sneak in the den where daddy kept this old Gibson and I would try to play “John Henry” on it. That was a huge thing for me. That was the first song I ever tried to play in a guitar. And I would also take his harmonica and go out in the woods and play it, where nobody could hear me. I’m sure he knew I was doing it. And my father…he was a dark soul, man. Tough guy. If you want to know how I saw him, and the way I see myself, and also my kids to some extent, my song “Stearman” is about him. But he was great as a mentor in music. He never tried to force anything one me. He knew that I loved the old stuff the best, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers tunes, the early Hank Williams…that’s what I really liked. And he played a lot of that but also might play some pop tune from that time like, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” He told me the story about my great-uncle Chase murdering that man in West Virginia and I thought, “Is this one of this apocryphal family stories, like an urban myth?” And I looked it up on the Internet; yes he did.
Is this “Mr. Graves”?
Yeah, “Mr. Graves.”
I love that tune. That’s one of the ones that hooked me when I first saw you play. That one’s coming straight up from that Dock Boggs lineage, just a stone Murder Ballad.
I got that one line written down, because I wanted to touch on this: “I don’t remember drawing that little .32/but I emptied that revolver and every shot went through/You cried “Lord, have mercy, it ain’t my time to go/well, you should’ve called on someone that you know.” Man, that’s a fierce lyric.
That’s something people would say up there, and something I’d heard. But I saw it actually in a Cormac McCarthy book: The Orchard Keeper. Where the guy tries to hit him with his tire jack. And he gets the better of him, got him on the ground and starts to choke him to death, and the guy cries “Lord have mercy,” and he says, “You better call on somebody you know.” [Laughs]. I need to acknowledge that.
So you have two previous albums, and the first, Hewed from the Rock, just came out in 2010. You’ve been playing music for so long that I’d say you’ve been calculated [laughs] in releasing your work. Most musicians these days are trying to shit out a new boxed set every other week. Why did you wait so long to release any albums?
Well, I never wrote anything until about 2009. You now, everybody writes a song sooner or later and I wrote a couple in the early days of college. And I didn’t really know whether they were any good or not and I just lost them; they weren’t much to speak of. I did write a song for a dance production because I couldn’t find anything that worked in the old time repertoire that worked for the particular dance. And I was sort of proud of it at the time, but looking back on it, it was a good song while they were dancing. [Laughs]. But outside of that…[laughs]. The piece featured two very beautiful young dancers, a young black man and an Irish girl and they were just great dancers and it was just a beautiful scene. More of a romantic couples dance, not very suggestive, and it was easy to write it for them. But when I was back home, playing it without the dance, I realized it kind of lost its magic. So starting in 2009 I really began; and I write them very slowly. If I write a song fast, it’s unusual that I want to keep it. I’ve got notebooks full of songs that I haven’t recorded. I might have one song with ten pages of lyrics.
So since you work that methodically have you ever tried shifting the writing towards something like short stories or long form poems?
What I’ve really found out is that I kind of write two kinds of songs. One is a song, which you hear it, like “Mr. Graves” or “Going to Florida” – you may not know that I wrote it. You may not know it’s not a hundred years old.
Which is an art.
It is. And I’m not trying to steal from the old style, but that’s what’s in my head. I didn’t listen to much rock and roll when I was growing up. I listened to the Beatles when I got into college. We’d get stoned and listen to Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s. I loved the Beatles. But I gotta tell you, when times got really tough, and I was really having a hard time…and we all go through these times…it was the old time music, blues and hillbilly music, and also Beethoven. His “heroic” period and the German Romantics, people like Puccini…and Champion Jack Dupree, the great blues pianist. He was terrific. Man. He got me through a lot of bad times.
Lemme ask you a bit more about some of the specific songs. That “Sailor’s Farewell,” melody has that nice major and minor chord shifting with that sweet dominant 7th chord dropped in there…it all just really rolls along really well. Who was Van Lewis, who inspired this great tune?
What inspired the tune was more his wife and his daughters. Van was a person who was a descendant of the Lewises of Tallahassee that established the first bank in Florida. He was “the third generation.” You know the thing about the third generation. The first generation was sort of like the Rockefellers; they made a bunch of money and made investments. And then the second generation sustains it. And then by the third generation, things have to change and the wealth becomes sort of dissipated. And in a lot of cases in the South they end up being land poor, because they have land but not any liquid cash. Van lived in a beach house. He was a very eccentric guy who was a Scientologist for a while, but we forgave him for that [laughs]. And he had one kick he would never let go of, and that was, he was anti-circumcision. He was just a fanatic about not circumcising children.
That’s not a bad campaign, considering it’s an Abrahamic holdover from thousands of years ago [laughs.]
I know, but we don’t sacrifice animals on the stone anymore, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, I certainly got circumcised at birth.
Oh sure. Me too. I’m in the “welcome to life” club [laughs]. I’m waiting for that class action suit, brother.
[Laughs]. Yeah, let’s get ‘em. But Van wasn’t interested in money. He had a place in St. Teresa Beach, very nice place. His wife Mary Balthrop was an amazing woman, who managed the FSU London program. Which you can imagine, riding herd on a bunch of college kids in London, England…what kind of a person she is. She was the manager at the marine lab where I worked, the last job that I had before I retired. And his daughters are two incredible young women. The love he had for them and vice versa was just such a beautiful thing to see. When he got pancreatic cancer, he only lasted about four months. But at the times that I saw him, and it wasn’t that many, he always carried himself with the most magnificent grace. He actually seemed concerned more for other people than he was for himself. I was just so moved by the way he handled himself and the way he passed away. And that love for his daughters and his wife. And I wrote that song as much for Mary, because she grieved terribly; 30 years they were married. When she met him [laughs], he was playing the conch shell in a band at Harvard University, when he was going to law school. By the way, the man was brilliant. His IQ was probably immeasurable. But what he did for a living was raising clams out in the gulf [laughs]. You know?
Let me talk about this, and if you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll move on, but in the liner notes of Hewed from the Rock, you describe yourself as a “recovering Catholic.” But for me, some of my favorite songs of yours are the ones that allude to God and faith; like “Gethsemane” and “Towers of Babel”… “Mother of Eve.” And in the liner notes, they all feature scriptural quotes next to their titles in the track listing. All of this – God, faith, and spirituality – fascinates me, personally. I have my own set of benign, non-artillery based, spiritual beliefs. But your songs never come across pious, like you’re proselytizing. But do you feel like your music and life are kind of guided by spiritual beliefs, or a higher power?
Well, yes…and I think [pauses] I suppose that’s probably a fair thing to say. I don’t believe the way that Christians do, for the most part. I’ve studied Islam to an extent, I’ve read The Life of Muhammad, and I’ve read some readings of Islam, and I think that also is a truly amazing religion, particularly when you get away from some of the fanatics that are running around loose now.
Like much of current Christianity [laughs].
Yeah, like Christianity [laughs]. Judaism is an extremely interesting and powerful faith except that among the Jews the diversity of opinion of people who call themselves Jews is outrageous; for a relatively small religion, compared to the other ones. But I’d like to explain that the titles of those [first two] albums which weren’t necessarily a plan, but what came across after I’d assembled with eight songs for each one of them. The titles come from the scriptures and they are indicative of the songs themselves for the most part. Hewed from the Rock was a description of Jesus’s tomb. It’s also a perfectly good description of a railroad tunnel, which really did become John Henry’s grave as well. Here’s the thing about Hewed from the Rock. When you read it in the bible, it’s only mentioned in one of the gospels, but what happened was, either after the crucifixion or right before, a good friend of Jesus’s…and I’d have to go back and read it, I don’t remember his name…he said, “I have a place to bury him. I know of a place to bury him.” And there was a place in the mountainside, which was hewed from the rock, which means to me, it wasn’t natural; it was man made. Somebody came along, at some point in the past, and made this tomb. As if they knew, as if they were privy to some prophecy, that there would be somebody who would need to be buried there. And so the meaning of that, to me, was fate. And all of those songs, except “Going to Florida,” are obviously about faith, and about destiny.
I’ve seen you perform more than once, and so I know from firsthand experience that you’re not flinging bibles into the crowd [laughs]…just for the sake of our readers here.
[Laughs] no, no.
But I think that in these particular songs, there’s an anger and confusion in the spirituality, as much as any comfort or reassurance. I don’t know. I think once the Christians killed off the Gnostics – they blew it [laughs].
Yeah, exactly. That was not a good move.
Let’s talk about your actual playing and instruments. When I’ve seen you perform, you’ve played mainly Dobro and banjo.
Yeah. The guitar is actually a Tricone Resonator. The strings are lower on this; the Dobros are usually jacked up high enough that you have to play them like a steel guitar.
So why do you prefer those two instruments?
Well, it’s a funny thing. Most of the songs I’ve written have been with the Resonator, and it’s a strange process. You know, I think if I had never got that guitar I wouldn’t have written hardly anything. It’s strange. I bought it from Morty Beckman, a good friend of mine, when he had a guitar store up in Tallahassee and he sold blemished guitars. He sold them for a fraction of their original cost. And he also sold some imports, some from French Canadians, and some from China. And this is a Chinese-built guitar. So I started playing it and I wanted to get the other style, which has a single resonator in the front. But this one sounded so good, I decided to buy it. When I took it home and began playing it, I was disappointed. Not in the guitar, but the fact that I couldn’t seem to get the potential sound out of it I wanted. And the reason was that I was playing in the standard guitar tuning. And drawing from my knowledge of the banjo, I began to play open tunings. Then, when you play in an open tuning, all of the old ruts that you fall into fall away. Because your left hand has to find its way. So I would use the left hand in ways that I was accustom to, but in doing so I would find totally different sounds.
Sure. Many of those country blues artists played solely in those alternate tunings, like “open D.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with the rock band Sonic Youth but their entire sound was based on alternate tunings. You can really get some impossible sonorities out of a guitar with those tunings you’d never get from standard tuning. Even these like trippy, Gamelan-type sounds.
Yeah, you can’t reach those sounds. That’s what I did. Some tunings were adaptations from banjo tunings that I already knew that were pretty weird; I mean, those mountain people, they know hundreds of tunings. The others, I actually sat down and figured out how to make a tuning do what I wanted to do. The best example on my records is probably “Eden.” Which is the same tuning I use for “Towers of Babel.” But I could never have dreamed up those chord changes on standard tuning. I never would’ve been able to do it; I don’t know any music theory. I kind of blundered into it. But those things also guide your song. I don’t care what anybody says, no matter how important lyrics are – and they are very important – but really, you get started, with sound. So without that guitar, and the open tunings, I probably wouldn’t have written a whole lot of songs.
Kind of shifting gears here, you know when artists have liner notes on their albums its another way for connecting to their audience. And for someone who has written predominately dark songs, your liner notes almost read like a John Fahey record or like they were penned by Tom Robbins; like, “he allegedly began arcane studies with a shadowy figure known only as Turpentine Willie.” A lot of musicians will use the liner notes on their albums to really plume out their feathers or issue the group’s manifesto. Why do you take such a playful approach with the liner notes?
I do it because the music’s so dark; I have to have a counterpoint. And I don’t write funny songs.
[Laughs] I’ve noticed.
Yeah [laughs] so if I can tease them a little bit, the liner notes help. A lot of times I’ll play an old time song to break up the set, because they’re not so heavy. I’ve been writing in a lighter vein in recent times, but I’m certainly not as prolific that way. I can make people laugh when I talk to them. But I can’t make people laugh when I sing to them. I’d like for them to laugh and then I’ll do a murder song [laughs]. Then I’ll make a joke about murder songs, and then make a banjo player joke, then I’ll play them a song about the Civil War, and you know… that’s a fun topic [laughs].
So man, it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on. The folk fest is coming up, this new release…what else is happening? Any touring?
Well, now I’ve got three records out and I’m working on a fourth one. And I don’t know where it’s going to go. My theory is that’s going to be called Kingdom Spread Across the Earth. That’s the statement of Jesus to the Apostle Thomas; an apocryphal book. It’s a very interesting statement. I discovered it from reading Joseph Campbell. Anyway, Jesus is telling them, “People think that the Father’s kingdom is a place you can go to. And they think it’s apart from us, somewhere far away. But it’s not: the kingdom of the Father is spread across the earth. And men do not see it.” And I think that’s something that every Christian in the world ought to read.
Absolutely. That’s a very Gnostic vision and image. That sounds like it could be from the Gospel of Thomas.
It’s an apocryphal book, I do know that. Maybe it’s just called the Book of Thomas. But it could be. But with this I don’t know how much more obvious Jesus could get. Even in the gospel, he said, “The kingdom of Heaven is in the hearts of men.” It’s not a place you go. It’s a place you find.
Yeah. You wake up to the experience. It’s what in Vedanta they call the Atman. We have this ember of God within us.
Absolutely. And this whole thing is kind of an organizing principle. I don’t just write an album without some sense that there’s something going on there. That people can unify with. Like in To Be as Gods, everybody is making a decision between right and wrong in that album. The most poignant is Robert E. Lee trying to figure out what the hell he should do after the battle of Gettysburg. It’s really a vision. It’s the same sort of thing that we all have to find at some point in our lives. Even if it’s at the very end – maybe he discovers what the war was all about.
Frank, man, I have truly enjoyed talking to you.
Yeah, same here. It’s been a real pleasure.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot from you here. I’m pretty much out of the loop on present day folk music. I mean, I obviously like your stuff [laughs], but I mainly listen to the really old stuff, what you all “old time music.” And for me, folk music is as much like The Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs [laughs].
[Laughs]. Man, I saw the Fugs perform live in Greenwich Village.
Oh, man! […with embarrassing excitement] When?!
I only went to New York twice in my life. And the first time was us four hicks from Florida that hitchhiked up there [laughs]. And we’re wandering around Greenwich Village and we had all memorized the Fugs songs when we were in high school. And so there they were. We all go inside this club and sit down. There’s a sign that says you have to be 21. Well, none of us are 21; we were 18, 19 years old. The Fugs are playing, all of this crazy stuff is going onstage and around us, we’re laughing our asses off, and there are these two cops standing behind us. So now we’re getting a little nervous, because we’re worried if they’re going to start checking IDs. So these cops walk up to about three rows in front of us and they grab these two kids and just pitch ‘em out the door. And I turned over to this New York hippie dude sitting next to me and I said, “Hey, what was that all about? Are they ID’ing people in here?” And he said, “Nah. They threw them out ‘cause they couldn’t hear the band. They were making too much noise.” [Laughs].
Daniel A. Brown
The Florida Folk Festival takes place May 27-29 at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, 11016 Lillian Sanders Dr. in White Springs. $25 per day; $50 for weekend pass, (877) 635-3655, floridastateparks.org/folkfest
Frank Lindamood performs at 4:30 p.m. on May 28 at the Under the Oaks stage.
Lindamood also performs at 11 a.m. at the Old Marble stage and presents a Three Finger Old Time Style Banjo workshop at 4 p.m. at the Workshop II stage on May 29.