Friday, December 16, 2011

May 1964, Noncommissioned Officers Club, Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Florida: Jerry Garcia, Sandy Rothman, Scott Hambly (Redwood Canyon Ramblers)

A poster for an August 27, 1960 show by The Redwood Canyon Ramblers. The poster was designed by Rambler bassist Tom Glass, aka Ned Lamont, who was later in The Jazz Mice
A foundational story in the Jerry Garcia saga is his cross-country trip in the Summer of 1964. Garcia and Sandy Rothman took Jerry's old Corvair and drove to Indiana, Florida, Alabama, Pennsylvania and points in between, meeting other bluegrass musicians and seeing America. In some ways, it prefigured Garcia's whole career, as he spent most of the rest of his life crisscrossing the United States playing music. While Dennis McNally and Blair Jackson describe the trip in some depth, a tiny detail has generally been overlooked. Given the lengthy history of Jerry Garcia’s performances throughout America, however, its interesting to contemplate that his first out-of-state performance was at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club of Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, FL, in May, 1964.

Dennis McNally described Jerry Garcia’s cross-country bluegrass odyssey with Sandy Rothman in great detail (pp.70-73). In the early Summer of 1964, Jerry and Sandy drove in Jerry’s Corvair, traveling with the White Brothers to St. Louis, and then onwards to visit Neal Rosenberg in Indiana. For a break, they drove to Florida to visit their Berkeley friend Scott Hambly, a former member of Berkeley’s first bluegrass band, The Redwood Canyon Ramblers. Hambly was in the Air Force, but Rothman and the short-haired Garcia spent a few days in Florida picking with their old friend.

The Redwood Canyon Ramblers had been Berkeley's first indigenous bluegrass band, forming in 1958. Mayne Smith (guitar), Hambly (mandolin) and Rosenberg (banjo) had met in High School in Berkeley in the 50s. They had learned bluegrass from records and the occasional California visit from a bluegrass legend. Rosenberg went on to graduate school in June 1962, and the Ramblers went mostly dormant. However, as Berkeley and the Bay Area's first bluegrass band, the Ramblers were an inspiration to younger bluegrass musicians like Herb Pedersen, Eric Thompson, Rick Shubb, Butch Waller and Jerry Garcia.

Rosenberg went on to become a famous scholar of bluegrass music and a professional academic, as well as the manager of the Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Bill Monroe's bluegrass festival in Indiana. As the manager of the festival, Rosenberg was "Mr. Tapes" in the bluegrass world, the bluegrass equivalent of Marty Weinstein, Bob Menke or Dick Latvala. Garcia and Rothman went to Bean Blossom not only to hear the music but to collect tapes as well.

While the trip to the Air Force base was just one stop on a lengthy trip—Garcia subsequently went back to Bean Blossom, and then Pennsylvania, where he met David Grisman—it is generally unremarked that McNally identified Jerry Garcia’s first out-of-California gig. McNally writes
The three of them [Garcia, Rothman and Hambly] even played a show at the Noncommissioned Officers Club at Tyndall, but a few days of the vicious insect life of Florida drove Jerry and Sandy to Dothan, Alabama to hear the well-known players Jim and Jesse McReynolds
Presumably, Garcia played banjo, Hambly mandolin and Rothman played guitar. There were many Southerners in the Armed Services, and Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs had been Grand Ole Opry stars in the 1950s, so plenty of Airmen would have been at least generally familiar with bluegrass music. The trio of young Californians would probably have been fairly well received by whatever modest crowd was there.

Tyndall Air Force Base is just Southeast of Panama City, FL, on the Gulf Coast in the Florida Panhandle. Western Florida is nearer to Alabama than Miami, both culturally and geographically. Garcia had been in the Army, so he would have known what to expect on a military installation. Nonetheless, Western Florida is really the South in a way that Miami is not. The troops would have been quite receptive to bluegrass music, but in many ways Florida must have been a foreign country to the California-born Garcia.

Panama City is about 750 miles south from Indiana, and its a remarkable testament to youth that Garcia and Rothman drove to Indiana, and for a "break" drove 750 more miles to the Gulf. They then apparently returned to Bean Blossom, and then went home by way of Pennsylvania, which itself was in the wrong direction. Of course, this strange trip is not unlike the Grateful Dead's touring schedule in the late 60s, and however strange it may have been, it seems to have fulfilled a need in Garcia to be a traveling man, so that when the dust hit his shoes he knew it was time to move. Even the ambitious Garcia could hardly have imagined that a show at an Air Force Base club in Florida was just the first of thousands of shows outside of California.

(an earlier version of this post appeared here)

2 comments:

  1. One striking thing about this cross-country bluegrass trip was that it was near the end of the bluegrass line for Jerry. After returning home, he played a few gigs that summer in the Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys, and a Dec '64 show at the Offstage with Rothman & Hambly again, but then gave it up for years. (So far as we know?)
    A few issues probably coincided here. Garcia had a hard time keeping stable bands together with good local bluegrass players that didn't wander off... Also, the jug band perhaps captured more of his attention as the year went on (and may have gotten more opportunities to play).
    As he put it, "In the area I was in there were virtually no bluegrass musicians, certainly nobody very good... I only got occasional chances to put a bluegrass band together that was by my standards even acceptable... None of them was serious or a very good attempt."

    McNally points out that due to the lack of players or the right audience in the area, in order to really get serious about playing bluegrass, Garcia would have to leave the Bay Area and start afresh somewhere else - and the trip may have partly been an attempt to see how, whether, or where he could do that. (The specific motive, of course, was to play with Bill Monroe & collect tapes.)

    But the trip may also have been disillusioning in a way, as he realized he wasn't going to fit in with the bluegrass crowd. For all the talented players he was meeting, he still hightailed it back to California after a month. He couldn't even bring himself to talk to Bill Monroe! And, aside from David Grisman, he doesn't seem to have met anyone who stayed in his life. (Many of the people he stayed with - Rosenberg, Hambly, the Whites - he was already familiar with from California.)

    Sara suggested, "I think he got disenchanted with bluegrass. It was clear he wasn't going to make it in that world. Socially, it was just too foreign... There was no way [these west coast kids] were going to be part of the bluegrass establishment."

    In Garcia's case, it wasn't just being from the west coast. Sara pointed out that before leaving, Jerry shaved off his goatee & cut his hair short because "he was afraid he'd get bothered by the rednecks with that beard... The South was like a foreign country, potentially dangerous. He and Sandy were worried about getting rousted by the rednecks, and rightly so. There was such a strong suspicion of Northerners and weird kids..."
    McNally drops hints that Garcia found his trip through the South "creepy," as some people were put off by his California license plate and "foreign-sounding" name. One Ozark player thought it was strange for "a Mexican" to play bluegrass... One wonders if it was just the "vicious insect life" that made Jerry want to get out of Florida & head back to Indiana.

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  2. Sandy Rothman wrote a little recollection of this show in his article on Garcia's "Banjo Years" -

    "Jerry and I also drove down to Florida to visit Berkeley mandolinist Scott Hambly (another highly original and accomplished instrumentalist like Jerry, and a one-gig replacement for David Nelson in the Black Mountain Boys) while he was stationed at Panama City's Tyndall Air Force Base. I listened to the two of them picking as we played an impromptu show that Scott had arranged at the NCO club and thought that it would be hard to find two city-based bluegrass musicians better matched for sheer profusion of notes and ornamentation. A flock of notes flew with the airplanes over the warm Florida sands that night."
    http://www.thebestofwebsite.com/Bands/Jerry_Garcia/Misc/Rothman/3_Jerrys_Banjo_Years.htm

    Thomas Adler's book on Bean Blossom briefly notes Garcia & Rothman's trip east, commenting that the eastern bluegrass players "admired their evident musicianship, but regarded them as outsiders... One of [Marvin] Hedrick's sons recalled Garcia's 1960s hippie look, which made him seem to them to be 'an unwashed crudhole.'" (Adler p.82)
    Considering that Garcia was still pretty cleancut (and shaven) in 1964, this is quite a statement. Another unwitting comment on the cultural gap came from one of Sandy Rothman's acquaintances in later years: "Say, whatever happened to that Mexican boy you brought over who played the banjo?"

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