|Artist of the Month|
Baby Gramps - Seattle, WA
A Ghost From The Past
By Patrick Ferris
The caption "A Ghost From The Past" is listed on the back of Baby Gramps first CD, Same Ol' Timeously, and nothing could be closer.
Baby Gramps is a true American musical treasure that represents an art form that nearly became extinct in the early 20th century. A mainstay in the Northwestern United States music scene and a well known artifact throughout the world of folk festivals, Gramps goes beyond being a beloved entertainer and an amazing 'stunt guitarist'; he's an artist and a philanthropist, doing many charities for the homeless, always stopping to say hello to anybody that greets him, and putting a smile on the faces of thousands of people.
I've worked toward this interview for the past few months and it has been very difficult getting this together; Gramps is an artist to the core, and pinning him down to a certain time is nearly impossible. Fortunately, the day before the end of the month, he agreed to meet me at a local Seattle pub called the Blue Moon, a long time artsy haunt where musicians, poets and the other dregs of society would gather to tip a brew. This is also where I saw Gramps the first time nearly 18 years ago.
Aside from a touch more gray, his appearance has changed very little in the last 18 years. Long bony fingers protrude from gloves with the tips cut off. His hands are soft as a chamois, his twinkling blue eyes as soft as his hands, and the lack of wrinkles behind a mountain of a beard indicates a long life of clean living.
Although Baby Gramps doesn't have a mass appeal that would earn him a headlining slot at a Lollapalooza festival, he has a mass appeal in the sense that any audience between the age of 2 and 102 are captivated by his vaudeville antics, hilarious lyrics and animated guitar playing. An entertainer through and through, Baby Gramps is like a Saturday morning cartoon character that touches the inner child in all of us. His voice is a cross between Popeye the sailor and a Didgeridoo and the plinkity plink of his VERY worn National steel guitar, sounds like a wind up jack in the box. If you listen closely and know anything about music, you'll realize Gramps is an absolutely incredible guitar player. Being a professional musician for over 40 years can't help but give you some sort of chops, but Gramps is a modern day Robert Johnson; a revolutionary guitarist that, like Theloneous Monk on piano, can play the notes 'between the cracks'.
In conversation, he can't go for more than a few sentences without sneaking in a pun or a palindrome (a sentence that is the same forward as backward), and was witty, funny and respectful of every drunk in the pub that stopped by to slobber out a greeting.
<HotBands> Hi Gramps. Thanks for taking the time out to talk with me. I spoke with your manager last evening and she said to keep the questions related to music, but your music and your life are so intertwined. How long have you been playing music?
<Baby Gramps> Next year will be my 40-year ornery-versary.
<HotBands> Is that 40 years you've been playing professionally, or 40 years since you started playing?
<Baby Gramps> Boy...I don't like that word...one of those $3 words. Let's say 40 years that I've been performing.
<HotBands> The liner notes of your CD mentioned a very decrepit teenage Baby Gramps on the streets of Seattle in 1964. Did you come to Seattle in 1964, or are you from here?
<Baby Gramps> No, I wasn't here before that but everybody comes from somewhere and I was on 'The Ave' in 1964 (University Way in Seattle's University of Washington district)
<HotBands> Where did you come from?
<Baby Gramps> Well, before that I was in Texas by way of Arkansas by way of Alabama.
<HotBands> I met you for the first time in this very pub about 18 years ago, and I have to say that you've changed very little in the past 18 years. I'm looking at your skin and notice almost no wrinkles. You obviously have lived a very clean and healthy life.
<Baby Gramps> Well, I'm a lot grayer than I used to be, and am very into health especially these days. I wrote a song about Beelzebubs Bean (coffee), which is a vice I'll still occasionally enjoy. I do take care of myself. It's all about being healthy, you know? I mean, I want to be doing this (performing) the rest of my life.
<HotBands> You've been an Icon in the Seattle music scene forever and your music is loved by 4 generations of fans. You're very animated, almost like a cartoon character. You make people laugh, and your voice sounds like...well, I hope you don't mind, but I described you as a cross between Popeye the sailor and a Didgeridoo.
<Baby Gramps> That's flattering! I was written up on the front page of the Seattle Times after Bumbershoot one year, and they described me as sounding like "Kermit the Frog on acid" which is a definition they got from a grade-school boy at one of my shows.
<HotBands> How did you get involved with music?
<Baby Gramps> My old man had an old National steel guitar that's on my CD cover. I retired that guitar after the CD was recorded. I have quite a collection of these types of guitars. I was really the only one around these parts that was playing on one back in the old days and I collected them. They're virtually indestructible but I've worn out a few. The one on the CD was held together by vice-grips...the strings wore big rivers in the fret board and wore the frets all the way down to the wood.
<HotBands> You're probably the only person I've ever known that has worn out a steel guitar.
<Baby Gramps> Well, I play it pretty hard and wouldn't try what I do on something like a Martin. I used to have a Martin, but these guitars I play, the National steel guitars and the brass one's I have are indestructible except for the wear I do put on them. I actually have a collection of over 200 instruments of all types, and I'm writing a book about odd instruments that I've been working on for 40 years. I have shoebox ukuleles and cigar box fiddles, musical saws. I'll be playing a bizarre musical instrument festival later this year down the coast. It used to be called the jaw-harp festival for years but now they include all kinds of strange and unique instruments.
<HotBands> How old were you when you started playing?
<Baby Gramps> I'm not into numbers, but I was just a kid. My first influence was my old man...he'd bring that National out at parties and play when I was wee little, and my mother used to play piano, so they both had an influence on me. My old man kept that guitar in the attic and one day I brought it down and laid it at the side of my bed. I used to daydream and strum my hand across the strings before I could ever play it. It was the first instrument I ever heard in my life. I used to buy old 78s because they were a nickel where 45s were 50 cents; so some of the first music I identified with had the National steel guitar in some old time blues songs.
<HotBands> By the time you were say 10-14 years old, were you involved with music in school? Did you have any type of formal training?
<Baby Gramps> I never went to school much. I was never much interested in school or school activities, and am pretty much self-taught. I have my own library with thousands of books and records. I do remember one instance in a history class my teacher saw my interest in music and my attempts at creating my own sheet music by drawing it out with a ruler. He didn't care what I was doing, just that I was doing something creative so he got me some real music paper to save me some time. That was a big influence and I'd like to thank him someday but I'm going to have to wait till I get to that hobo convention in the sky.
<HotBands> Did you have any type of formal training in music? Do you read music?
<Baby Gramps> No, I can't read a note and dont' even know the names of my strings except one...Henrietta, so I don't play with anybody else unless THEY really want to play with me. All these other acts that I play with; Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident...I've toured with all of these bands but it's because they've asked me. I'm a jammin' kind of guy, but I'm like jammin' in my head all the time. I'm really more of a juggler...I juggle all the notes, take them apart and let them fall where they may.
<HotBands> When you were starting off in music, did you always play this style?
<Baby Gramps> No, I metamorphosized into that as I've grown. I feel like I'm growing faster every day and the more I feed my head with all the oddiocities in life the more I realize my path. You know the first song ever recorded on wax was 'Mary had a little lamb' by Edison himself. A lot of that was lost throughout history. Blues wasn't allowed to be recorded until 1923 and nothing ever got on Edison records...none of the one-man bands, and that type of stuff was all over the place during that period of history.
<HotBands> As far as your act goes, were you always a solo act or were you ever in a band?
<Baby Gramps> I've had a lot of bands off and on; recently I have a trio I play with...washtub bass, jug, and washboard.
<HotBands> Did you ever play rock or was that never a draw to you?
<Baby Gramps> Well, I did when I was real young. In fact Sub Pop recently recorded me for a Kinks compilation album.
<HotBands> Regarding your singing voice, Popeye was obviously an influence on you.
<Baby Gramps> Oh yes! There were several Popeyes, but that voice goes back even before my time. Back in the 1920s there was some recordings of throat singing, and it was usually associated with salty old sailors, which is what Popeye portrayed.
<HotBands> You're obviously a big hit with children because you really are a lot like a live version of a Saturday morning cartoon, and you do a lot of shows for children these days. Is this something you grew into?
<Baby Gramps> Yeah it is, but I don't remember how I got into it but a lot of my props on stage kids love...I have a robot, a two headed teddy bear called Yogi Beara double header, and a six legged pink elephant named Packy-Derm. Kids relate, but I'm looking for that child in the adult as well, to get them to think about stuff a little more and about this whole world.
<HotBands> I think people are drawn to you because you bring out the inner child in everybody. I see everybody at your shows smiling, laughing and having a good time. We all seek reflections of our own image, and you are a great mirror for the child in all of us.
<Baby Gramps> Well, thanks. I'm just a kid at heart and the old world is pretty tough, you know? We each have to do what we can to get by.
<HotBands> On your guitar I noticed the knob at the top. Is that so you can spin your guitar without hurting it?
<Baby Gramps> That's a facet I added. It's a brass knob I drilled on and it has a seventh string going down the hollow of the neck to make it resonate. Ooops I shouldn't have told you that! That's a secret so mum's the word! Mum spelled backwards is mum! But yeah, it's also so I can spin the guitar without hurting it, and these are valuable instruments.
<HotBands> You do a lot of stage antics...playing with your elbow and the back of your hand.
<Baby Gramps> I learned the elbow thing from hanging out with an old blues guy from Memphis named Furry Lewis and he used to play down on the houseboats here. He'd roll his sleeve up and actually play with his elbow, which got a different sound. I'm not sure where he got it from, but I'll give that credit to him. That type of clowning around on stage goes way back to vaudeville and the old delta bluesmen. My mentor Charley Patton, used to entertain 500 people in a barn with no electricity...playing the guitar behind his head and behind his back...that type of stuff.
<HotBands> You said Charley Patton was your mentor? Is that who you learned from?
<HotBands> Robert Johnson is one of the best-known early bluesmen and it seems you have a lot of his influence in your playing.
<Baby Gramps> I don't play like that much anymore. I did all that stuff in the early days...you know if you want to be the drunk on the tightrope, you gotta learn how to do it the right way. I was able to see a lot of these guys before they died. That was my foundation of my music. They're all gone now except for a couple of them.
<HotBands> A lot of your songs sound like nursery rhymes. The worm song is an example of a kids rhyme that you turned into a song.
<Baby Gramps> There are lots of things out there like that. Snippets of kids rhymes from different parts of the country that were never really recorded, so I put them together as I remember them...which is why the songs sound different every time.
<HotBands> What brought you to Seattle?
<Baby Gramps> Boy, I don't even know. I was born in Miami, so probably being baptized in swamp water and the thought of being able to wash it off in the Northwest rain, was a big factor. I wrote a song about the Northwest rain...charge it to the dust and let the rain settle it. Something to do with cleansing...the Northwest is a beautiful place and I prefer the cool weather to the heat. I'm spending more time in Oregon these days...it's more like how it was in Seattle 30 years ago. Seattle now is more like a little L.A. I have to fight the traffic all the way to Oregon...it's a constant traffic jam. I came back from Oregon the other day at 4:30 in the morning and it was stop and go all the way from Tacoma to Seattle.
<HotBands> You've played in folk festivals all over the United States. Do you play outside of the US much?
<Baby Gramps> Well, I don't fly too much any more. One time they took my guitar apart, x-rayed it...I got x-rays out of it and was thinking of putting out a skeletal version of Gramps with the x-rays or maybe use it on a Halloween album...I have over 400 Halloween songs. There are so many things I want to do.
<HotBands> Do you like to travel?
<Baby Gramps> No, I don't like to travel but am flying around more than I like to. I'll be in Edmonton with Artis the Spoonman next month. It's a gas traveling across the border with Artis because they look at me like a kaopectate model and then they see Artis and start blowing the whistles, and when he pulls his string on his pouch and all his knives, forks and spoons fall all over the floor...and the cops all gather 'round and start blowing whistles and once all the security starts running and gets to us, he starts playing. The cops give him a standing ovation and don't pay any mind to me...little do they know what I'm hiding in my beard!
<HotBands> What is your favorite festival and what do you look forward to the most each year.
<Baby Gramps> Probably the Oregon Country Fair. The overall feel of the fair is really nice. Last year they had a scavenger hunt, and one of the things was to find Baby Gramps and do a sing-along with him, so all these people are fighting over me, saying "I found him first"... It was beautiful! I'll be there again...2nd weekend in July.
<HotBands> Is there a time of year that you set up for touring?
<Baby Gramps> I used to work on my poems and songs in the winter and tour in the summer, but anymore, I don't have the time at any time of year and have to write my songs on the road. I'm working on a hillbilly opera and am currently in a play, which is where I just came from and why I still have white clown makeup under my eyes.
<HotBands> What do you look forward to in life these days?
<Baby Gramps> That's a good question! I guess having some of my dreams materialize what I'd like the most. Things I've worked on for years. I have thousands of songs and I'm also a visual artist and paint every day...heck, I was born with a paintbrush (he fondles a braid in his long white beard). The 'Possum Opera' came out of this miniature world I created, and the songs are about what life would be like in this town. My dream is to come out with my books...I've written hundreds of books and would like to see some of my stories come to life by working with The Quay Brothers who are world-renowned for their still motion animation. My dream is to have my world come to life in animation. I love working and writing songs on the road...any of those songs where you see me stomping my foot were songs I wrote on the road
<HotBands> You're obviously very well read and well educated...what was the highest grade in school you achieved?
<Baby Gramps> As I said, I'm not into numbers but after I got to Seattle, I would spend time on (UW) campus attending lectures and had access to the libraries, so I fed my head with everything that I was interested in.
<HotBands> Over the last 40 years, you've reached tens of thousands of people with your music. What type of insight can you offer someone that is getting started as a professional musician?
<Baby Gramps> In order to be a millionaire folk singer, you need to start off with two million, so my advice is that if you're doing it for the money, I got no advice...if you're doing it to get women...well...I wouldn't advise that either. Follow your path no matter what it is...if you like doing something that is what you should be doing for your living. Everything falls into place after that. I'm into this because I love it...I love what I'm doing. My best advice is not to do it for all the reasons I just stated, and to follow your path because of the path...not the view from the path.
<HotBands> Where from here?
<Baby Gramps> I have one CD, 2 videos and 1 DVD released to date. Beyond that, I don't really think about it...things always seem to just fall in place.
<HotBands> What's important to you today as opposed to what was important to you 20 years ago?
<Baby Gramps> Well, I have one foot on the path, one in the grave and one on a banana peel...a three-legged man in a two-legged race. Seriously, the most important thing to me is my health. I went to the Fremont Fair this year...hadn't been there in years, and someone came up to me and said "You're alive!". There have been rumors I was dead and/or sick, but I want to thank my lucky stars that I've been in perfect health. I've been pacing myself I guess.
<HotBands> What words can you offer the readers about life?
<Baby Gramps> It all comes down to having a good time with it. That's why I use palindromes, anagrams, oxy-morons, spoonerisms and the like in my songs. It's about having fun with words and meaning. Don't get me wrong...life is serious, but I don't take myself too seriously.
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