By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Unlike Hays and Seeger, who formed the hugely successful Weavers in the late '40s, Lampell did not return to music after the war; he wanted to write. But the social concerns first evident in his songs with the Almanacs would become a thread throughout his later work. The Hero, his 1947 novel (adapted to film as Saturday's Hero in 1951) addressed the corruption of big-time college athletics. The Wall, a 1961 play, told of fear and loathing in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi invasion. Eagle in a Cage used Napoleon's exile as a modern parable, winning Lampell a 1966 Emmy in the process. He used the podium at the awards ceremony--and a subsequent New York Times article--to decry the injustices of the blacklist. (How ironic that his death came just weeks before the four major Hollywood entertainment guilds issued their historic apology for the practice.) And earlier this decade, he and wife Ramona (a coal miner's daughter from West Virginia) wrote O Appalachia, a lyrical tribute to the unsung folk artists of the region.
Lampell was no pedant, though. He understood well the difference between sympathy and pity, a trait no doubt bolstered by his quick sense of humor. The combination was disarming. Perhaps the most fitting testament to his attributes was heard at a memorial service held last week in Los Angeles, at which a still-vivacious Seeger led a cast of such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Carl Reiner, Ry Cooder, Norman Lear, and Lampell's widow--along with a small assemblage of other family and friends--in a sing-along rendition of "This Land Is Your Land." Few men could have gathered such a disparate crowd, and even fewer could have had them singing.
If Lampell ultimately never achieved greatness in his public life, it was because he was often bored by the chase; he preferred chopping wood, visiting coal mines in West Virginia, or living near his grandchildren in Texas. But while his career may have suffered from such choices, his personality never did. When I arrived at Lampell's office a few years ago to write an article about him, he silently scanned me up and down. "Well," he finally inquired with a smile, "are you the journalist or the pizza boy?" (I look about 12.) After the story was printed in The Met, Lampell phoned with his summary judgment: "So you were the pizza boy," he said, then extended an invitation for Sunday tea. One of us, at least, was the better for it.
An artist's fall from grace can loom larger than his good works. Local harmonica fan (he was the motivating force behind the harmonica jam this year at Blue Cat Blues) Tom Ellis didn't like the idea of that happening to Paul Butterfield--the Woodstock generation's primary acolyte of real blues harp--so he set the record straight in a five-part series of articles in Blues Access magazine.
Ellis is a player himself and a seller of vintage microphones whose customers include harp up-and-comers who--to Ellis' surprise--were prone to diss the once-revered Butterfield.
"What's happened in the harmonica world is," Ellis explains, "you've got a lot of guys who're Little Walter clones and think anyone who isn't is not an authentic blues player. But Butterfield always had his own sound, so now it's like he's not 'one of the guys.'"
Butter's legacy is clouded because of his final decade, when he made disappointing albums and was a noted (and noticeable) substance abuser. Pity, though, that the youngbloods that Ellis sells mikes to didn't know Butter in his better days, when he was the dude who opened the blues door to the rest of earth. Few blues people who came of age in the '60s would call his first two Elektra albums (1965's The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and 1966's East-West) anything less than essential.
Ellis' coverage is part critical analysis, part bio. Butter's trail was one some folks might not have wanted light shed on, but Ellis (with a background in journalism from his days in Atlanta and Houston) tackled the task.
He lucked into finding a Los Angeles PI who happened to be a Butter freak. The dick dug up numbers on ex-Butter bandmates Billy Davenport and Bugsy Maugh (but had no luck with big-faced drummer Jerome Arnold, who allegedly lays low to duck ex-wives). Ellis had to convince his quarries he wasn't going to dwell on the sordid, although given the nature of Butter's last decade or so he could hardly claim he'd write that everything had been peachy. When Butterfield's brother Pete got on board, supplying intimate info as well as imprimatur, informants started opening up.
"My greatest success in terms of people to talk to was Sally Grossman," says Ellis (Grossman is the sister of Albert Grossman, controversial manager of Butterfield, Dylan, Joplin, and more.) "As far as I know, I'm the only person she's let interview her. One person who wouldn't talk to me was Nick Gravenites. He said his memories were private and he didn't feel like sharing them."
But gradually an overview of the harpmaster emerged, and in Blues Access #23 (Fall '95) the first of the Ellis articles appeared. The final one is in the present BA (#30). Not all the info Ellis turned up could be squeezed into the series, but much of it is so compelling that a book deal is in the works. It won't just be a Butter bio, but rather will detail the whole milieu. It's a worthy cause, because that's the generation that gave a place to the present blues millennium.