Perry’s March (Perry Lederman)

I met Perry Lederman for the first time at my brother Dave’s house in Oakland. He showed up with two bags of groceries, mentioned that he’d just talked a storekeeper out of them, and hung out for a while talking about this and that. He was a guitarist, seemed to know every musician I’d ever heard of, and had studied sarod for eight years with Ali Akbar Khan. So I was interested, and when I got back from India, flying via Bangkok to San Francisco, I asked if Perry was around… only to learn that in the interim he’d sold four hundred tabs of acid to a cop and left the state. Dave thought he was in upstate New York someplace, but wasn’t sure.

That was the spring of 1981, and I spent the first part of the summer hitchhiking across country and hopping freight trains back, then wound up spending a few days on  Dave Van Ronk’s couch in Greenwich Village. Walking down MacDougal Street one warm evening, I saw a guy playing guitar in a doorway. “Wouldn’t it be weird if that was Perry Lederman,” I thought to myself. Of course, it wasn’t — but I still had the thought in my mind when I turned onto Bleecker and passed a couple of guys sharing a joint in a doorway, and one of them was Perry.

He didn’t recognize me at first and was paranoid about being spotted, but I explained that I was Dave’s brother, and he told me he was crashing in SoHo, in a loft with eleven junkies, and wanted to get out of town. His total worldly possessions at that point were the clothes he was wearing — a pair of blue jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt — and a Gibson J-185 (vintage guitar folk will note the craziness of that). I was thrilled to have found him, and said if he could get to Cambridge he was welcome to come stay at my folks’ place.

Then I went back to Dave’s and told him who I’d met. “Oh, man! I remember Perry,” Dave said.” He came to me for a guitar lesson around 1958. He was a little skinny teenager, and said he’d been walking through Washington Square Park and saw Tom Paley playing, and wanted to learn to play like that, and Tom had suggested coming to me. So I asked what he wanted to learn, and he said, ‘Well, Paley was playing something like this…’ and played me a very fair version of ‘Buck Dancer’s Choice.’ I told him, ‘You don’t need lessons from me.'” Then Dave added, very seriously: “Don’t bring him here.”

A couple of weeks later, Perry turned up in Cambridge. He stayed with us for about a month, and the thing I remember best is that my grandmother liked him. My grandmother was suspicious of anyone outside the family, and especially anyone she thought might be taking advantage of me, and there was Perry, this little wizened character in a dirty sweatshirt and jeans who looked like a junkie… but she was a serious musician, and somehow — although she was deaf by then and our music was a long way from Chopin — concluded that he was also a very serious musician. She would watch us playing together, and she could see he was giving me something special and important, and she liked him.

After a month or so, Perry went up to visit friends in Vermont, then down to Woods Hole to stay with my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel (discussed in a previous post). He got a job with a local carpenter/contractor, Tom Renshaw, who was also a serious music fan. Hazel’s current boyfriend worked for Tom as well, and described the scene when a new guy would come on the crew: they’d be working on a roof in the hot sun, and Perry would be sitting under a tree in the shade playing guitar, and the new guy would ask, “Why is he getting paid to do this work, when he’s spending half his time playing guitar?” To which a more experienced crew member would reply: “He’s Perry Lederman.”

None of that gives a sense of what a great player Perry was, or how many people admired and learned from him over the years. The list would include John Fahey, Michael Bloomfield, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia, to start with, and could go on and on — he was one of the great offstage guitarists of the 1960s, hanging out and playing at parties with friends who were more career-oriented. He was a particularly subtle virtuoso, going deeper and deeper into pieces he lived with throughout his life, largely drawn from Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Sam McGee, and other early rural fingerstylists. Everyone remembers his tone and vibrato — he had unbelievably strong hands and could hold a bar chord and get shimmering vibrato on one string with his little finger. I don’t know how much of that came from his Indian classical music studies and how much he had from the beginning, but I’ve never heard anyone play like him.

Perry never made a formal album — he was a perfectionist and never felt quite ready — but in his final months we compiled a CD of his informal recordings, which has been issued by his wife Joan, with notes by the poet Al Young (and my song notes). I highly recommend that everybody pick up a copy — hearing me play Perry Lederman ain’t nothing to hearing Perry play Perry Lederman.

As for “Perry’s March,” it was one of his more approachable pieces, from my point of view, because it didn’t demand his incredible vibrato. The first part is adapted from Sam McGee’s “Franklin Blues,” and the main section was inspired by the Reverend Gary Davis’s take on a Sousa march. Perry didn’t have a name for it, so when I recorded it on my LP in 1984, I called and asked him how I should title it. He said he didn’t have a name for it, so I said I’d call it “Perry’s March,” and he said, “Yeah, that’s what Bloomfield called it.”