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Michael Robinson's musical autobiography

My idea in this section is to describe my musical career (if thatís the right word) in a more informal way, thatís less like a resume. I don't know if anyone will be interested, but here it is anyway.


My father My father and mother

My mother

View from my grandfather's cottageView from my grandfather's cottage on the New South Wales coast

Little meOne of my earliest memories was going to a band concert of Christmas music. It was in the evening and we all sat on the grass. (This was in Australia where itís warm at Christmas.) Apparently I entertained the crowd by marching up and down pretending to play the trombone. I suppose I must have three at the time.

My next musical memory was in second grade. The teacher had been playing piano, and at recess I went over to try playing myself. But instead of the tune I was expecting, only noise came out. Thatís when I suddenly realized that this music stuff was more complicated than it looked.

When I was 7 we moved to North Carolina, because my father got the opportunity to do a Ph.D. at Duke University. This was a great cultural shock for me. Those southern accents were almost like a a foreign language to a young Australian lad. It was during the big folk music boom, and I remember my parents took me to some concerts of some of the popular folk groups of the time. My father had a lot of folk music records, including lots of Australian folksongs that he had brought from Australia.

I remember a ukulele being around the house for some reason, and I tried to teach myself to play it, but since I didnít know anything about music I didnít make much progress. I did feature as a boy soprano in the school choir, however.

We arrived at the tail end of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. When we arrived the lunch counter sit-ins were going on, but they soon got sorted out. My mother got a job working in the Duke library, and played her small part by issuing the first Duke library card to a black patron. I used to spend a lot of time in the library—they had a wonderful childrenís room full of all the classics.

After my father got his degree we moved to Canada, and the reason why is an amusing story. During the university vacation, my parents decided to do a bit of a tour around the northeastern U.S. With only a few days left, we found ourselves in upper New York State. There was very little money left in our vacation fund. (On a graduate student's income, there was not much there to start with.) My parents were planning to head homewards the next day. While driving along in search of an inexpensive motel, we happened to pick up the Rawhide show on the car radio. This was the original CBC show featuring Max Ferguson. He played some recordings of one of my father's favourite artists, the great Australian singer Peter Dawson. On the spur of the moment, my parents then decided to risk the remainder of their travel budget to visit Canada. My mother was born in Canada, but her family had moved to Australia when she was small.

On crossing the border at Niagara Falls, my mother was embraced by the French-Canadian customs agent and emotionally welcomed back to the land of her birth. When my father completed his graduate studies, we ended up moving to Canada instead of returning to Australia. No doubt there were other factors involved than the prevalence of Peter Dawson recordings on the radio, but I have a feeling that it was that first impulsive trip that planted the whole idea.


One of the first things I remember when we arrived in Canada was going to a big Dominion Day picnic (which was what they called Canada Day in those days), and hearing a lot of Canadian fiddling. We also went to more concerts; I remember seeing the Clancy Brothers who were great favourites with my father. We also went to one of the early Mariposa Folk Festivals when it was still in Orillia, where I remember seeing Ian and Sylvia and Stompiní Tom Connors.

For a couple of years my father taught at Queenís University in Kingston, Ontario. My mother worked in the library there. I used to go down there and wander through the stacks or the rare book vault. I read a lot of Norse and Irish mythology. Also they had the library of Lord Tweedsmuir. This was the novelist John Buchan, who wrote The 39 Steps and other adventure stories. I think he had been involved in the British Secret Service. At any rate he had become Governor-General of Canada, and Queenís had ended up with his library, which had a lot of Scottish folklore material. I used to spend hours going through all his books.

TolkienAt the same time I discovered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and became a great fan. I ordered the hard-cover edition of Lord of the Rings through Queenís Library, and I wrote him a fan letter; I still have his reply. How nice of him to answer a young lad and recommend the best edition of Beowulf!

I wasnít really doing much musically myself, but that all changed when the Beatles came along. Like everyone else in my school, we all wanted to be the Beatles—now Iím not really sure why, but it was all the rage at the time. I dug out the ukulele again, and this time I think I found the instruction book as well. I soon graduated to baritone ukulele and finally to a cheap acoustic guitar.

I took some other lessons at this time. I did some violin lessons at school, but we never got past open strings. I took piano lessons for a year, but the teacher was not very sympathetic and he seemed to think that his main job was to discourage children from playing music. The most I got out of that was that I taught myself basic music theory by trying to play Beatles songs on the piano that I knew on guitar. But such activities were not approved of by my piano teacher.

On the Beatles music front, things were very competitive at my school. Whenever a new record came out, everyone always tried to be the first to learn all the songs. (I finally achieved the ultimate status when Free as a Bird came out—probably the last Beatles single there will ever be. I taped the show and learned the song before I went to bed. Success at last!)

There were a number of bands that generally broke up and reformed from week to week. I remember a couple of band names from this period: The Henchmen and The Null Set (it shows you we were learning "new math"!). There must have been a lot more names, but I don't remember them any more. Having a cool name was considered more important than playing ability at the time. I also appeared at a school talent show with a friend; we wore turtleneck sweaters, played guitars and sang Bob Dylan songs. We had some kind of clever group name, but I forget what it was.

Records were very expensive for me to buy, so it was a long time before I bought anything more than some 45s. But finally there was one song that I liked so much that I had to buy the whole album. This was House of the Rising Sun by the Animals, a bluesy outfit from Newcastle. Not only did I like the album, but on the back the band members listed their favourite performers, all of who were American blues performers like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. So I began to get albums by those artists too. At first it seemed very strange to me, compared to the pop music Iíd been hearing. But I soon caught on what was happening.

I guess it was a bit strange for me to be interested in blues, a music with which I had no cultural connection. I think that what attracted me was that it was very real music with a lot of deep emotion. There was a lot more to it than there was in Top Forty radio. At this time a lot of other white kids were discovering blues, so it must have been in the air. I used to get a magazine called Hit Parader (which is still around, but is now much different) that was put out by a bunch of New York hipsters, and I read about people like Otis Redding and Bobby ďBlueĒ Bland, and all the young white bands who were playing blues too.


We used to go to New York City because my father liked to go to the Metropolitan Opera. So in the afternoons I would go down to Greenwich Village and buy blues records. TorontoI also found that, thanks to the phenomenon of nighttime AM ionosphere bounce, I was able to pick up WLAC (ď50000 Watts of SoulĒ), a very hip black station in Nashville, even though we lived hundreds of miles away in Toronto.

I realized recently that this is an experience that is denied to todayís kids. First of all, thereís no music on AM anymore. And secondly, if you can listen to a station in a far-away city, it has the same syndicated shows as your local stations.

As time went on, I saved up enough money to buy a cheap electric bass. It was a Japanese bass called a Canora, and I got a little amplifier called a Loyola (I wonder was it made by Jesuits?). I think I got both for about $50. This was pretty hip because not too many bands had a real bass, even a cheap Japanese one. But the problem was still finding enough people who actually knew how to play.

Finally over one Christmas holiday everything moved up to a new level. All the other bands had more or less died, and finally one came together with all the best people in one band. We had a real drummer and an organist and everything! We were all blues snobs and had pretty much come to despise Top Forty radio. We liked the hipper young bands like the Doors, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project, the Yardbirds, Cream, etc., and of course all the old black blues guys. We called ourselves The Blue Nazz, after a Yardbirds song, The Nazz are Blue.

We started practising regularly after school and got to be pretty good (comparatively, anyway—luckily no recordings exist). But the problem was we didnít get many gigs, and we were renting the organ (an Acetone, the cheesy sound of which is a preset on every synth today), so every month we collectively had to cough up the massive sum of $25, which was always a cause of contention. So eventually that band died.

Iíd been taking lessons from a local bass player. He taught me to read music and had me work through Simandl, which is the standard exercise book for classical bass. I joined a band with his younger brother, which was called The Blues Express. That was kind of interesting, since all my friends were kind of intellectuals, and these guys came from more working-class families. But again we didnít get many gigs, and they lived in another part of town, and it was kind of a pain to go there on the bus, so it didnít last. Around that time I got a better bass, an Espana.

I still used to jam with the keyboard player from The Blue Nazz, a schoolmate named Jon Goldsmith. He was a good player whoíd been playing classical piano from an early age, and he had an amazing ear. We did some pseudo-jazz stuff. Also I joined the high-school orchestra, playing electric bass in a production of Brigadoon. (I talked my way in because they didnít have a string bass in the orchestra.) This was new to me because everything was written in flat keys, unlike rock music which is mostly in sharp keys.

Where we lived at that time was only a couple of blocks away from the Toronto Music Library. This was a branch of the public library that specialized in nothing but music. They had all kinds of recordings and books. I used to spend hours there listening to records and browsing through the collection. They also had a small theatre that showed classic films, which I also used to go to.

In my last year of high school, instead of a musical, they put on a revue. I wrote a couple of skits, and played music with some of my friends in it. Out of this a new band emerged, this time doing folk-rock. Our big heroes were The Band, and also a local band called Simon Caine who had a record contract and played real gigs. Our drummerís big brother played in that band. We called ourselves Fast Fingers Feldstein—the joke was that whenever anyone said "which of you is Fast Fingers?" weíd say "he couldnít come tonight". This was about the first band I played in where we did our own arrangements instead of copying records. We also did a lot of vocal harmonies. We even did a variety show that was emceed by Max Ferguson (see above); one of my schoolmates had somehow persuaded him to do the show.


Most of Fast Fingers Feldstein went to York University, except for our drummer, who went off to live on the beach in Spain. But eventually we found a new drummer, a young guy who liked to really rock. His hero was Skip Prokop, drummer/leader of the successful local band Lighthouse, which had horns. Around this time I bought a brand new Fender Precision Bass.

York University was an interesting place. Because it was a new university at the time, it tried to define itself against the old-established University of Toronto by having programs that were more hip and cutting-edge.

I still had an interest in blues, but the rest of the band was more into folk-rock, and itís hard to be a bass soloist. So I started learning solo blues guitar. My first hero was Mississippi John Hurt. I started taking lessons at the Toronto Folklore Centre. This was a funky old house down by the railroad tracks where they sold fiddles and banjos and gave lessons in different folk music styles. I think most of the people who worked there were draft-dodgers from the folk scene in Greenwich Village.

Out of this I started to become interested in ragtime, and I started doing things like transcribing Scott Joplin rags for guitar. I acquired my first good guitar, a Gibson B-25. Then my guitar teacher suggested that taking classical guitar lessons would help my chops. I registered for the classical guitar course at York for my second year, but I had to pass an audition to get in. So over the summer I studied at Eli Kassnerís Guitar Academy, which is where all the big classical guitarists studied. I also took some classical theory lessons, but I found it rough sledding.

In the fall I passed the audition by playing the prelude from Bachís D minor lute suite, and got into the guitar class. This was interesting, but the direction it was going didnít really appeal to me. It didnít seem that there was much space for creativity. Everything had to be done just the way somebody else told you to do. You never got to make any decisions on your own.

But the performance course had a requirement that everybody had to sing in the choir. So I went along to the choir, and I ran into another bass player that I had known a few years earlier. She used to be in an all-girl rock band that had played at a local church concert along with one of my early bands. Now she had graduated to jazz. She told me that the jazz ensembles were really short of bass players. (When you were in the performance course, you could actually go into any or all sections you wanted.)

So I talked to the instructor, and Jon Goldsmith was interested too, so we went down to audition. The audition was to play a blues in F, and we both passed and were in the program. This was where I met Jon Gittins, a great piano player in the style of Bill Evans, and a really incredible theorist. He had taken George Russellís Lydian chromatic concept, ironed out the inconsistencies, and developed it into an all-inclusive, consistent and rational system. I studied with him for three years, and worked for him as a research assistant, writing software to test his theories on methods for the generation of scale systems.

(Iíve come to realize that knowing a lot of music theory is not always an advantage, since there are plenty of people who think they know theory because theyíve taken the kind of classical theory course offered by many universities, which gives a very limited and inconsistent view of things. They tend to do things like chord naming and key signatures in illogical and unnecessarily difficult ways. And if you try to explain to them how much simpler it is to take a wider and more logical approach, you get into arguments that you canít win!)

Meanwhile, Fast Fingers Feldstein had acquired a horn section and, thanks to Jon Goldsmith, a noticeable influence from Leon Russell. We rehearsed regularly, but as usual, didnít perform in public too much. I started to get a bit tired of it after a while. We rehearsed and polished the same few tunes over and over, but we seemed to have stopped progressing; eventually things came to an end.

My guitar playing had been improving. I was still hanging around the Toronto Folklore Centre. So that summer I started playing at folk clubs. At the time you could go to a folk club every night of the week in Toronto. Most of them were run by Brits who had been involved with the folk scene back home, so I started to hear a lot of English and Irish folksongs. I was still into the ragtime thing myself. Probably the pinnacle of my career at this time was that I got to open for Leon Redbone at Fiddlerís Green, the top folk club in Toronto.

The Ragtime Society used to have its annual convention in Toronto, so I started going to that. There were a couple of other guitarists that I met there, but it was mostly piano players, of course. I got to meet Max Morath and Eubie Blake (he told me I should get an electric guitar!).

Another great thing was that I got a guitar lesson from David Wilcox. He had been one of the Folklore Centre crowd, but he had moved on to play lead with Ian and Sylvia. He was a really amazing guitarist—one lesson from him gave me enough stuff to work on for a year. He later started his own band and did some great recordings on his own. One of the things he was interested in was playing fiddle tunes on the guitar. So I got a copy of Coleís 1000 Fiddle Tunes and started working on that.

By this time I had worked at a few different jobs, such as library assistant, projectionist, and finally even a computer programmer. So I had a little bit of disposable income, which went mostly for records. I used to go downtown to Sam the Record Man, a huge record store, and go through the store looking for bargains. The entire third floor was nothing but cut-outs, and you could find some great rare albums if you didn't mind going through all the junk. I also spent a lot of time in the folk music section. The Jazz and Blues Centre was another record store I used to frequent. Often I ran into some of the other music students in these places, or if not there, than at Bourbon Street, which was the hip jazz club at the time.

The next year I was back in the jazz program, and now I had graduated to the advanced ensemble. (Jon Goldsmith had dropped out of school to become a real musician.) This band actually played a few gigs off-campus as the Rob Fisher Quintet (Rob Fisher was the piano player, who wrote some great tunes). York also had been developing a program in South Indian classical music; in fact Jon Higgins, who directed the choir section I was in the year before, was renowned as one of the few non-Indians to master Indian classical singing. So I studied mrdangam, South Indian classical drumming, with a real genius, Trichy Sankaran. I canít say that I mastered the art-form, but I did develop an appreciation for it and learned how to count unusual time signatures.

York also had a good early music program, which I wasnít involved in, except that they let me borrow a lute for one summer. But I used to go to all the concerts.

Another thing I started doing that came out of the jazz program was that I started playing for cabaret theatre on campus. This was really good ear-training, because the way it worked was that the piano player, who was also the music director, would rehearse with the actors. Then on the dress rehearsal the bass player (me) and the drummer would be brought in. He didnít usually bother to write out any music, so I had to play show tunes by ear, and some of them had pretty complex changes. It was definitely learning under fire, but I managed to keep up with it. Among other things we did an all-Gershwin show. We even did one legit drama, The Legend of Billy the Kid.

At this time I decided I wanted to play flute. Maybe I just wanted to have an instrument that was easy to carry around, Iím not sure. I took some lessons from a very attractive flutist who was in the music program. The next year we were both in the advanced jazz ensemble. But somehow I kept trying to play fiddle tunes on the flute. Iíd also been working on playing jazz on the guitar, but mostly solo along the lines of Charlie Byrd.

My last undergraduate year we had a fun advanced jazz ensemble that also played around the pubs on campus. We must have had a name of some kind, but I can't remember what it was. I also took a course in electronic music, so I got to go into the studio and play with the synthesizers (this was in the days when this meant you used a lot of patch cords). I also worked on a project to use computers for music education, and I did an independent study project to write software to generate music using FM synthesis (the same idea that Yamaha later used for the DX synthesizer family). It was a time when there seemed to be all kinds of creative possibilities opening up.

Graduate student

Then I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my graduate studies. At first this seemed really exciting, because I was offered a research assistantship to work with Salvatore Martirano, whom I had seen at a concert at York. He was a composer who had built the Sal-Mar Construction, a huge music generation system based on the principles of information theory. It was a really cool system, which not only generated multiple tracks of music in real time performance, but also moved them around the performance space. He wanted to do a new version using microprocessors, which could have been a big improvement since the Sal-Mar was about the same size as a full-size van. But unfortunately this was the era when public support of the arts was starting to decline, and he never got funding. So actually what I did was write software for a computer to control the electronic music studio.

It seemed that the really creative days at the U. of Illinois were coming to a close. Lejaren Hiller and John Cage had been and gone. The avant-garde music scene of the 60s was becoming more academic. All the campus coffee houses where anti-Vietnam war songs had been sung were going out of business. This was the start of a downward slide that ended up producing disco music! But on the computer scene everything was very exciting, since this was the beginning of the microprocessor era. So I moved out of the avant-garde computer music scene into more conventional computer engineering.

While I was at U. of Illinois I took a few music theory courses. With Jon Gittinsí theory under my belt, I now found the technical side easy going, although I had to learn to translate into "classical-speak". I enjoyed analyzing the works of Bach, Mozart, etc. (To be honest, I found analyzing Mozart more interesting than listening to him.) And I was quite interested in writing counterpoint. I also studied musical acoustics with James Beauchamp, one of the leading researchers on the subject, and did some more computer sound synthesis projects.

When I left Canada, I began to get more interested in Canadian fiddle music. When I lived there it was around all the time on TV and radio, and I didnít pay all that much attention to it. But when I noticed it was gone, I started to miss it. So I started buying records every time I was home, and I also bought a cheap mandolin, having decided it might be easier for tunes than guitar, since it had the same tuning as a fiddle. Many of the tunes were in my Coleís 1000 Fiddle Tunes which I had been playing through on flute and guitar.

I joined the U. of Illinois jazz band for one semester, but after York it was a bit of a come-down (although it had a great reputation). They had a lot of Count Basie arrangements written out note-for-note, and if you were really good you could play your own solo instead of reading it. There wasnít much for a guitar player to do except sit in the back and play chords. I had to write my own arrangement in order to get a solo. It was kind of interesting to write an arrangement for big band, though.

The alto domra playerI decided not to stay in the jazz band, but I liked the conductor, John Garvey. He was a really interesting fellow—la child violin prodigy, friend of Duke Ellington, etc. He also ran the U. of Illinois Russian Folk Orchestra, so I decided to join that, and found myself playing domra (a mandolin-like instrument).

When I was in the Jazz Band I had met another jazz guitarist, an Electrical Engineering graduate student named Dan Cobb. He was a really hot player in the style of George Benson. We started playing together and I brought him into the Russian orchestra too. We even worked out a hot double solo number from a recording of the Ossipov Orchestra, which we did in concert once.

BirdfingersDan and I started performing as a duo. We called ourselves Birdfingers; I think the name came from a Larry Coryell tune. Our idea was to play every kind of music that you could do on two guitars or mandolins. So we did jazz, ragtime, classical, Irish; we worked up some hot arrangements. Those counterpoint classes came in useful here! We played a few gigs, but the problem with our concept was that it was too eclectic—lthe only people who turned up to hear us were other musicians. But anyway we kept it up until we graduated.

Another interesting thing I did at U. of Illinois was to play the chimes. Chimes are like a carillon, but with fewer bells. One of the members of the Russian orchestra played them (she is now the Chimesmaster) and she brought me in on it. We got to play for 10 minute intervals between classes. An old alumnus had donated just exactly enough bells to play the Illinois State song and the university song, Hail to the Orange. So it took a bit of ingenuity to get some tunes to fit. As Time Goes By was a particularly difficult one, but we liked to play it whenever Casablanca was showing on campus. I even worked out a few Irish tunes.

One of the first people I met when I arrived in Illinois was an Irishman by the name of Tom Scanlan. Tom was a great sean-nós singer from Cork who had been very much involved with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the early 1960s. He also played bodhrán and Irish tunes on the chromatic harmonica. He had decided on a career change (heíd been a school teacher), and had turned up at the U. of Illinois studying entrepeneurship.

Some members of the Champaign-Urbana Celtic SocietyTom was involved in starting up an Irish music session in Urbana, and Dan Cobb and I became regulars. Since Iíd been playing Canadian and Cape Breton tunes, it was an easy step to get into Irish music. A very supportive group scene developed, known as the Celtic Society, and the session was a regular Friday night feature at varying locations. I had long since given up the idea that I could ever become much of a blues performer, but in Irish music I found the same kind of deep emotion that had attracted me to blues. And Irish music was much closer to the music that had been all around me as I was growing up. So, over time, I decided that I had found my true calling.


At length I finished school and decided to move to Silicon Valley. Besides the job prospects, I was not uninfluenced by the knowledge that San Francisco had a thriving Irish music scene. Unfortunately, I had run into a few snags on my dissertation research, so for a while I was working during the day and trying to finish my degree at night. Eventually I was done, though, and ready to hit the scene.

Iíd become a bit frustrated with the mandolin in a session, because itís a rather quiet instrument. It can be hard to hear what youíre playing. So when I got a little disposable income, I acquired a tenor banjo. After a few months of practice, I felt capable of attending the sessions at The Plough and Stars. A good local banjo player, Gerry McCann from Belfast, was nice enough to help me along and show me a few things.

An Irish cottageFor some years I was a regular at the sessions. Also, I took my first trip to Ireland. Tom Scanlan had moved back there, and showed me around. He and his wife Nancy had started up the first health food shop in Limerick, and Tom was teaching at Thomond College (now Limerick University). We went to the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Listowel, Co. Kerry, and I travelled all over the country. A couple of years later I went back for more. This time the All-Ireland was in Kilkenny, and I managed to spend quite a bit of time playing with All-Ireland banjo champion Tony Sullivan. I also trod on the feet of another famous banjo player, Joe Burke, while finding a seat at a concert. (I got to meet him again later.)

Tom Scanlan died in November 1985; he is still much missed by those of us who knew him. Ní bheidh a leitheid arís ann.

Kells beastsAnother thing that I was able to do once I had finished with university was to start studying the Irish language. I had been interested in it (or Scottish Gaelic, actually) since the days when I sat in John Buchanís library at Queenís. And Tom Scanlan and Jerome Colburn at the U. of Illinois, both fluent speakers who came to the Celtic Society session, had got me even more interested. But it wasnít until I had finished my dissertation that I had the time to look into it. I discovered Imelda Whiteís classes and signed up. Eventually I started going to the immersion courses that are put on by Oideas Gael in Donegal.

After a few years playing lots and lots of sessions, I began to get a bit frustrated. I had learned lots and lots of tunes. But the problem with sessions is that you have to play tunes that everyone knows, so you are kind of prevented from doing the tunes that particularly appeal to you. So eventually I got a bit tired of sessions.

Iíd become interested in piano accordion, because of a dream I had, and for some time I took lessons with a local accordion player, although he didnít know anything about Irish music. (Well, he was Portuguese!)

By a strange coincidence, I had taken a new job, and the person who hired me was a Scottish fiddler by the name of John Taylor. John started playing with an Irish pub band called Emerald, and eventually I joined the band as well. The material was "Dubliners" pub fare—lWhiskey in the Jar, The Wild Rover, and the like. This was about the first time I played in a band that had regular gigs and made decent money. I started off playing just banjo, but I added flute and accordion as time went on.

Some of the people connected with this band decided to open an Irish bar named Finn McCoolís. I invested some money in the project, and so I became a bar owner. (Something that always adds interest to your resume!) If there had been two St. Patrickís Days in the year, Finn McCoolís would probably still be with us. Unfortunately, after a few years it folded. (It really should have received a subsidy on the grounds of public safety, because it's well-known that if a day should go by without someone mentioning the name of Fionn Mac Cumhail, the world will come to an end.)

Fiddler with dogMy mother had played violin when I was little, but later on she stopped playing. When I was hanging around the Toronto Folklore Centre Iíd made an effort to learn fiddle, but when I practiced it sounded so bad, I couldnít bear to listen to myself. But now she told me, either you learn to play your grandmotherís fiddle, or I will sell it. So I agreed to learn to play, and, encouraged by John Taylor, I started to go to Alasdair Fraserís Valley of the Moon Fiddle School.

The Fiddle School had classes in Scottish Gaelic singing, which I learned a lot from. Also Jody Stecher, a walking encyclopedia of folk music, taught a class in mandolin. From this I learned to appreciate a bit more the subtle qualities of a mandolin outside the session environment. I took lessons from Jody on mandolin and fiddle on and off for quite a while. I also started taking Irish fiddle lessons from Laurie Rivin, a great fiddler in Santa Cruz. She taught me a lot about bowing.

Although I had probably made more money from Emerald than any other band Iíd ever played in, it was a bit frustrating from a creative point of view. John Taylor and I had the idea to start a traditional folk-rock band along the lines of Steeleye Span. I found a guitar player by the name of Gail McGuckin. She was very interesting because she played just about any genre of music that there was; she had a terrific ear and could play back anything she heard once. She used to play around in New York City, with Gravity, a jazz group consisting of five tubas and rhythm section, and with Paul Shaffer who later became famous on the David Letterman TV show. We found a bass player, but then people started slipping away. As soon as one person would join, another would leave. John was getting lots of gigs playing for Scottish country dances, and the bass player wanted to do country music.

Gail and I tried to find more musicians, but without success. We recorded a few demos using multi-tracking and a drum machine. Then I got the idea of using MIDI sequencing to fill out the rest of the band. So I got a computer, a drum machine and a few synths, and started doing my own tracks. This was a time-consuming process, so Gail went off to join another band that actually had gigs. I recorded a few more demos with just me and the computer, but wasnít able to get any gigs. I finally decided that MIDI was very restricting. The music I had been involved with on the old pre-MIDI analog synthesizers had been much more interesting.

Lady with a harp I was still playing with Emerald at this time, and we played the Campbell Highland Games in 1990. While there I started to chat with Vicki Parrish, who was taking care of the harp booth. She had been at VOM Fiddle Camp, which also had a harp class, so we knew each other slightly. I thought it might be interesting to play with a harper. We worked out a few things together for fun, but it wasnít until the next VOM that we finally played in public at the ceilidh.

At that VOM we met a fiddler who wanted to play with us, so we started working out some things and getting gigs. We worked out lots of vocal harmonies and instrumental arrangements. We decided to use the name The Standing Stones, which I had thought of when I was working with Gail (partially inspired by the local Cajun band "Wall of Gumbo"). Since we were a bit doubtful about audience reaction, we tried to make the most of adding variety by the use of different instruments. We thought it was like a three-ring circus—lif they donít like the bareback rider, they might still go for the trapeze artist or the clowns. Unfortunately, after about a year our fiddler suddenly decided she wanted to pursue other projects. As she decided this less than a week ahead of a gig, we had to hurriedly change all our three-part arrangements into two-part arrangements. Although it was a bit frantic, we decided that we liked the results much better. And the fewer people in the band, the easier it is to schedule rehearsals.

Although Iíd been playing guitar all this time, I was never very happy with what I could do with it. I just didnít seem to sound right in traditional music. But luckily for me, the English guitar genius Martin Simpson moved to Santa Cruz, and I started studying with him. I started to learn about alternative tunings, and suddenly the guitar started to sound right. I also travelled to Donegal several times, attending the Donegal Fiddlers' School, in addition to the Irish language immersion program offered by Oideas Gael (which also offered sean-nós singing courses taught by the great Lillis Ó Laoire).

I started teaching at San José State University, and I joined the Collegium Musicum (early music ensemble), playing mostly lute. So finally my interest in early music from the days at York has turned into performing it. Then Vicki started teaching at SJSU as well, and she joined the Collegium too. I think some lute influence has crept into my guitar playing because of this.

Vicki and I have kept on playing together, recorded a CD, and even become married. So I think itís going to be a bit more permanent than some of those other bands!

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