By sheer coincidence, the nine months I spent in New York taking lessons from Dave Van Ronk coincided with a unique opportunity to build up my blues library. I assume a collector had died, because a record store called Dayton’s, on Broadway just across 12th Street from the Strand bookstore, had mint copies of virtually every early blues reissue LP that had been issued from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s — from Folkways to Biograph, Blues Classics, Herwin, and all the early Yazoos, back to when that label was still called Belzona.
This presented me with a dilemma: my folks were giving me $25 a week for all expenses beyond my room and board at NYU, and Dave charged $15 for his lessons, which left me with $10 to spend on records. Dayton’s was charging $3 per LP, and had at least a couple of hundred I wanted, and every week I lived in fear that some better-heeled blues fan would sweep in and clean them out. So each week I would spend hours in Dayton’s, reading liner notes and trying to figure out which records I simply had to get, balanced against which ones seemed most likely to disappear if I left them till next week… like, I wanted the Belzona St. Louis Town compilation, but it seemed more likely to last a couple more weeks than the Yazoo Young Big Bill Broonzy…
The miracle was that, for nine months, no one came in and made a major buy. I’m sure a few records slipped from my grasp, but I don’t recall them, and week after week I went through agony and chose three albums, brought them back to my dorm room, and played them over and over again, driving my roommate out to the library. I wasn’t yet good enough to be able to figure out much of what I was hearing, but at least I got the sounds in my ears, and began to develop a sense of how various people sounded and who was imitating whom, and whom I liked more or less.
At that point, the artists that most caught my attention were what are now often called Piedmont players, though Van Ronk tended to call them Eastern Seaboard players, and one of my favorites then and ever since was Carl Martin. I think I first heard him on the Yazoo Guitar Wizards compilation, and then on East Coast Blues, but it could have been the other way round — in any case, I loved his singing and his guitar style, and eventually learned four of the five songs he did on those albums… and then, twenty years later, ended up playing guitar for several years with his old musical partner, Howard Armstrong. Howard was a magnificent polymath, a painter, linguist, raconteur, and multi-instrumentalist, who specialized in mandolin and fiddle, but would sometimes pick up a guitar and play roughly this version of “Crow Jane.” I’d already learned it off Martin’s record, but it was Howard who got me to move up the A-chord bass riff to the fifth fret, though I’m not sure he played it quite this way.