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Monday, Sept. 15, 2008

A Life in Folk Music

Weaving American songs

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  Erik Darling, who is best known for replacing Pete Seeger in the Weavers, died only a month ago. A virtuoso banjo and guitar player, Darling also founded and performed with two other leading folk groups, the Tarriers (with Alan Arkin, then just a little-known singer) and the Rooftop Singers. In 1956, the Tarriers had a hit with "Cindy, Oh Cindy." Keep in mind that all this was going on when rockabilly was evolving into rock 'n' roll.

  Even before founding these famous folk groups at the dawn of the 1950s, he formed the Folksay Trio. They recorded only four songs, but one was "Tom Dooley," which the Kingston Trio later nabbed for a hit during the Mighty Wind commercialization of the folk/blues revival. The Tarriers' "The Banana Boat Song" was another charting release, leading to Harry Belafonte's reworked version, titled "Day-O."

  So, in essence, Erik Darling made it possible for the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte to become pop stars in folk and calypso music. When Seeger stalked out of the Weavers, Darling took his spot for nearly five years as the group evolved into a powerful quartet that impacted folk music in American popular culture forever more.

  It was with the Rooftop Singers' "Walk Right In" (originally recorded by Cannon's Jug Stompers in the 1920s) that the 12-string guitar became notable, specifically one made by Gibson Guitars; this song was a No. 1 hit and established the fad for 12-strings (in folk and soon in rock music), causing Gibson Guitars to rush the famous B-45-12 guitar into production barely out of prototype to meet demand. Leo Kottke was among its early fans.

  Darling took folk music to countless people who had never really listened to it before. He was a seminal influence on Ramblin' Jack Elliott and played backup for his recording sessions, as he did for Jean Ritchie, Oscar Brand and Judy Collins. Darling's solo album, True Religion, is a cult recording from the folk/blues revival and put Darling into the annals of music history as the first true guitar (and banjo) slinger. He maintained a level of authenticity even though his commercial works made him famous.

  In his autobiography I'd Give My Life (SBB), Darling reports on early meetings with Lead Belly, on what it was like to be playing in Washington Square, where folk music was being re-established by such devotees as an unknown Joan Baez and a still largely unknown but essential Bob Gibson. The book tells just about everything essential regarding the period when authentic versus commercial folk music was the debate, and is written by a brilliant man who understood how his own success functioned: "Although folk soon became a household word, the actual process that created the original music-one person hearing a song directly from another and passing it on by word of mouth…the oral process-was now dead. This was the end of folk music."

  Darling, though, always had true religion, even when his music built commercial churches of sound that ritualized American folk music for young people who heard it and made it, and then lost their way in the search for authenticity.

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