I started taking guitar lessons when I was seven years old, from an old-style, all-around music teacher named Mr. Zimmerman who simultaneously started my sister on flute. His own main instrument was trumpet, and he kept urging me to switch to horn — which probably made sense, since his guitar lessons consisted of showing me how to pick out “Camptown Races,” one note at a time, from a particularly lame beginner’s book.
Fortunately, within a year my parents found another teacher for me: Lee Riethmiller was a divinity student at Harvard and lived in the Div School building adjacent to the Bio Labs, where my parents worked. By that time I was sufficiently ambivalent about guitar lessons that I recall telling him at my first lesson that I was thinking of switching to drums. (It may have been this idea that convinced my parents to look for a better guitar teacher.) Fortunately for everyone concerned, Lee was the perfect teacher. He taught me to play chords and simple strumming and picking, and helped me work out accompaniments to my favorite Woody and Cisco songs.
He also liked to play blues, and got me started on fingerpicking with “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” a song recorded in 1927 by a singer and guitarist from the Carolinas named Julius Daniels. My father always recalled how funny it was to hear a nine-year-old singing lyrics like this, but the guitar part was a perfect way to start, since it uses the basic alternating bass and some syncopation, but stays on one chord throughout. (Dave Van Ronk started his students on a similar arrangement, John Hurt’s “Spike Driver.”)
I’d been with Lee for a few years before we reached this stage — one of the great things about starting as a seven-year-old is that I was thoroughly satisfied with simple picking patterns and singing cowboy songs for a long time before I got into blues — but it came at just the right time. That summer, my father had a conference of some kind in Barcelona and took my sister and me with him, and then we drove around the south of France, and at some point my father met a couple of hippies who told him about a tiny town in the mountains called Bardou, where a guy had bought the whole town and was letting hippies live there for free in return for fixing up the ruined houses. That was my father’s kind of place, so we drove up to Bardou and spent several days there, and one of the hippies was a Canadian guy named Guy LaFlamme, who played blues guitar, and he was amazed to hear this little kid who could fingerpick, so he taught me some other pieces, including the version of “John Henry” that I now play as a break in this song.