Rod Cameron is a master flute maker and gifted raconteur. He divides his time between California and his native Scotland from where he reminisced for us.
I was born in Scotland just a few years before the start of World War Two. Food had not yet been rationed. Air raid shelter drill and gas masks were still some years off.
My father was a school teacher and my mother had stopped her teaching work to raise us five children in Glasgow. During his university years, my father supported himself during the vacation time by playing violin and sax in a small dance band. The music was influenced by the '20s American styles. My mother's tradition was closely tied to the West Highlands and Hebrides of Scotland. Her mother and father were native Gaelic speakers from the Catholic Island of South Uist. To support a large family and try to give seven children a head-start, they had come to Glasgow where many Highland people found work.
As a wee boy, I liked all kinds of musical sounds, but it was to my mother's Highland lilting that I was especially drawn. In the North, the singing in those days was mostly unaccompanied, and I grew up with the sound of it in my bones. With many relatives in the remote Highlands, we were able to arrange to spend some summer holidays running barefoot on the shores of Loch Morar, fishing for small trout in the streams, helping bring in the harvest with the old crofter, who lived down the dirt road, and marveling at his easy, graceful swing with the scythe in the warm, still, evening air with the midge flies tormenting us all the while. At the tender age of eight, my heart was completely thrown open to everything about the West Highlands... its wild rugged landscape and lonely isolation, the light upon the loch, bringing in the sheep from the open hill, running wild with the orphan children who lived with the farmer, and above all, the music that expressed that culture, whether it be lively reels and strathspeys on the pipes and fiddle, or the ever present Gaelic songs about everyday loves and labor.
A year later my father died and our life became very uncertain. My mother was left without any support to feed and clothe us five children. At age fifteen I left school and started an apprenticeship as a toolmaker with Rolls Royce. Every free moment from work was spent trying to get away from the city and back into the Highlands to climb mountains and fish the rivers. Singing a few songs around the camp-fires, revealed I was among others who enjoyed music. The guitar fascinated me, but at 5 pounds sterling, the price of a cheap guitar was more than three weeks wages for an apprentice, so that had to wait.
A few years passed, and the skiffle group craze came in just as I changed tracks and worked my way into college. Lonnie Donnigan's "Rock Island Line" hit like a ton of bricks and life was never the same again. That was before Bill Haley and the Comets. My first treasured 78 recording was of Big Bill Broonsey playing "Black, Brown or White" with "John Henry" on the flip side. I wore the grooves out trying to figure out what he was doing with that guitar. Shortly before he died of cancer, Big Bill came to Glasgow and I was close to the front row. Archie Fisher was nearby with a pair of binoculars focused on the big man's fingerboard. The Glasgow folk scene was underway with Ray and Archie Fisher, Bobby Campbell, Josh MacRae, and Hamish Imlach leading the field. It was at that club, on Argyle Street, that I had a chance to meet and hear Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath, and other singers from the rural East Coast, and Traveling Folk tradition.
While still in my student years in Glasgow I was lucky enough to join two expeditions to climb mountains and explore parts of Eastern Greenland. For the 1958 expedition, a small ukulele was wrapped inside my sleeping bag, and it survived the journey across the wild fiords and rugged glaciers. I was the only show in town, with two thousand miles to the nearest competition. Again in 1960 I managed to pack a guitar to Greenland and folk songs again cheered us in the land of the midnight sun.
From the Arctic the adventure continued all the way to Colorado where I got work as a school teacher. You can imagine my pleasure upon seeing the Rock Island Line railroad go past my classroom window. It called to me every day, and after a year, wanderlust took over. I was off to ski in the Rockies and try my hand at a new route up the east face of Mount Whitney in the Sierras. I worked as a ranch hand at Teton Dude Ranch in Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park. I worked as a dishwasher on the ranch to earn some extra money while waiting for a Scottish friend to join me to climb the Grand Teton. As luck would have it, the camp-fire cowboy singer decided to run off with one of the ranch waitresses. I was approached to stand in as the "cowboy" singer for the nightly moonlight ride. Looking down at my hands worn smooth with dishwater, I decided that a Scottish cowboy singer was a better road to hoe, and agreed to take on the job. But whoa! I had never been on board a horse in my life aside from taking the highland ponies up the hill to fetch peats on the Island of Barra when I was a child. I got to ride the pony up with the heather woven baskets empty, but walked the beast back down with a full load of peats for the fire. "How'd you git to be so old and never bin on a horse?" the old wrangler asked, as I eyed the huge animal he had saddled as my personal transportation.
"Your horse's name is Buck". He gave me a leg up into the saddle, and walked off. That was the start of a beautiful, if uncomfortable, relationship. Lucky for me, Buck knew the whole terrain for miles around. He would always go slowly when traveling away from the ranch, but boy, when we turned homeward he really picked up the pace. Once I rode out to the volcanically heated stream where we had a swimming hole. It was a favorite night-spot to flirt with the waitresses under the night sky. One afternoon, Buck and I had the swimming hole to ourselves, until a bull moose decided that my horse was muscling in on his turf. Why does a moose have somewhat ungainly looking legs? It's so they can move like lightening while charging at us through four feet of water! Only half dressed and quickly mounting the horse, I held on like glue to the saddle horn. Buck needed no instructions from the likes of me. Taking the initiative, he turned tail and fled, not stopping till we reached the ranch.
Buck and I had regained our composure by the time the dudes assembled on the hay wagon for the moonlit ride to the pre-arranged, pre-lit camp fire to roast marsh mallows. The ranch guests broke out into loud yawns when the singing started, but to my surprise the real Wyoming wranglers could not get enough of the Glasgow-style cowboy songs. They did not give a hoot that western songs sound quite unusual when delivered with a strong Scottish accent, and I had to give them the "Tennessee Stud" without fail every night. A dozen climbing adventures later found me moving down from the Canadian Rockies to the City of Vancouver. I may be the only person who slept out under a tree in the rain in Stanley Park, and then got up and went to an interview at the University of British Columbia (pausing to get my only pair of pants pressed). I wanted to enroll in a Master's degree but the head of department was pre-occupied by a sudden change of staff for the coming year. He suddenly had no one to teach the laboratory classes in engineering. "Take me on for the master's program, and I will teach the class?" I said and came away with a job and a research project! It felt quite good settling down under my tree that night, and besides, the rain had stopped.
That was in 1961, and the pre Bob Dylan, pre-Joan Baez folk scene was very exciting on the West Coast for a young Scot's immigrant. I got myself a $28/month small apartment in a swank university neighborhood, borrowed a Vespa scooter that the landlord had won in a poker game, and with my guitar between my knees on the Vespa, rode downtown to the Inquisition Coffee House, where I had scored a job as the 'cheap white trash warm up gig' for a number of legendary black artists who started their West Coast tour in Vancouver and moved on down to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Things were different in those days. Next to no one in the neighborhood played guitar. Apart from the soft, smooth, electric guitar heard in jazz bands, ears were unaccustomed to the ragged electric sounds that are almost impossible to get away from all around us today. Can you believe opening for John Lee Hooker for a week when we averaged about five people in the club audience? He appeared on stage with a very small amp. It had about one watt of power, but the audience could not stand the 'hard driving' sound, and made him turn it off. He was absolutely superb electric or acoustic, and I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. After the show we would go down to the tiny black area of Vancouver to dance at the 'Harlem Nocturne'. John Lee carried a lot of clout in the US, but when he said to the doorman, "Hi, I'm John Lee Hooker, we want to get in!", the door person had never heard of the guy. Eventually someone came from the back and we got the royal treatment. However, within minutes of getting up on the floor, John Lee moved in too rapidly and too close with a lovely woman who turned out to be the girlfriend of a very unsavory character with a lot of friends. Knives came out and John and I lit out of that club in record time. He had finely honed survival skills.
Years later, when John Lennon was being interviewed on radio, he was asked what remained for him to do after conquering the musical world. He replied, "One day, I would really like to sit down and play a song with John Lee Hooker." What a privilege I had back then! The Inquisition years treated me well, and I got about two or three nights a week at $25 a gig. Following after John Lee, I opened for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee several times, Wes Montgomery and the Montgomery brothers, Cannonball Adderly and Jusef Latif, Eric Darling, Guy Carawan, Jesse Fuller, the Rev. Garry Davis, and others. I even had an evening in the club with Johnny Cash. He came over from his gig at the Arctic Club a bit the worse for drink but held nicely upright by two beautiful blondes, one each arm. There were only about ten people there. Guy Carawan and I swapped songs with him for a few hours. Up close his voice was deep and resonant, and to my delight he really liked hearing "them ol' Scattish songs". It was not just a one shot deal, he came along with us to some local folk parties the following night. That weekend Guy and I joined a few others to go out to the prison and sing for the inmates. Of the five players, one was a woman. There was a near riot of thunderous applause when the woman appeared and us guys were totally ignored. It is a question of priorities...
At that time it was possible to fall into the heady mix of jazz, folk, blues, poetry, and other musical forms all in the one small club, and the great and famous were quite happy to come along with you to a basement party in some folkie's home. In Vancouver there was a core group of folk song enthusiasts and we all knew each other. Many of them gigged at the Inquisition. We still meet up on visits back to BC. The Alma Y Folk Song Circle was absolutely the place to be on a Wednesday night. It has changed location and was an institution in Vancouver for many, many years. Don't get me wrong in listing all the great names above. I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with them, but have never been more than a fireside singer and feel quite intimidated when facing any formal audience. So I am not deserving of association with these legendary figures based upon any kind of musical ability. I simply want to let younger people know that there was a time when such adventures could, with luck, befall a young folkie with a few songs to share and that was mostly because there were not many of us in the community. We were treated with good heart and generosity by the seasoned artists, who had been working the clubs for decades.
I rather enjoyed the taste for research that came with the University in BC job, and went back to Britain to do a doctorate at Cambridge in 1963. Things were changing fast. Talented singers and players were popping up on every corner on both sides of the Atlantic. I never quite got past being a three-chord weakling, but that did not stop me mixing in with the Cambridge folk scene as best I could. Doc Watson and Ralph Rinsler could be heard in a pub for three shillings one week, and Dave Swarbrick with Martin Carthy the next. I got to open for the Watersons, and work as an announcer at an early Cambridge Folk Festival where a young unknown by the name of Paul Simon showed up in a Landrover with his name plastered all over the windows. He sang for the big crowd and showed himself to be a major talent. I think it was there that Martin Carthy sang his lovely "Scarborough Fair" version, and not long afterwards that song hit the charts with Simon and Garfunkle's recording. When it was time for the Rev. Garry Davis to do his set, I found him smoking his ever-present cigar in the beer tent, and playing for the drinkers. I dusted the heap of cigar ash from his lap and led the blind singer, still playing, across the field and up onto the stage to the microphone. He did not miss a beat, and simply carried on with the song that he had started in the beer tent. The crowd could not get enough of the man! Many adventures awaited me both in Scotland and abroad, and as the years rolled on I settled back into swapping songs with familiar friends around the fire. Yet the memories of these early heady days linger almost like a boyhood dream, and I have to remind myself that they were real. Having had a taste of the academic life, I settled back to my first love of working with my hands and found a toehold as a maker of woodwind musical instruments, mostly flutes in the style of the 18th century. I had to become familiar with a different sensibility to satisfy the demands of concert performers who played chamber music, in the formal Continental art form style, the likes of Bach, Handel, Telemann, etc., on "old" instruments that were authentic to the lives and times of these great bygone composers. One especially fine flute player who is equally comfortable in the formal and the folk style is Chris Norman, a Nova Scotian. Since meeting him many years ago and making him some flutes, I have had the pleasure of spending time with Chris and his colleague, Alasdair Fraser, at my workshops in Scotland and in California before and during their association in the group, "Skyedance", and over the years I sometimes get to meet up with Chris' new Ensemble and share a song on stage with the group. A recent highlight for me was to join with the Chris Norman Ensemble last September on their concert tour of Scotland, I got to show them some of my favourite places in the Highlands and Lowlands and document their journey for a DVD video. Their grasp of the music of Scotland, as it relates to the wood flute, is breathtaking, and when I got to go up on stage and do a song or two with them, well... what more could an old folkie/flutemaker wish for...
(Rod can often be found participating in the Boxwood Festival and Workshops in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia .)