I was born in Portland TownYes I was…Sent my children off to warYes I did…They killed my children one, two, threeYes they did…
— Derroll Adams, “Portland Town”
Songs travel. They come out of the whorehouses, bars, back room sessions, and churches and fly away on the tongues of the rakes and the rambling boys. They mutate, shift gears, add another chorus, and sail away across the seven seas. They range from the symbolic and mythological, down to pure hogwash. They come from the “folk,” but are never buried with the “folk.” The good songs endure. They “gather ye round” an audience and spin the lyrical news of the day. They expose matters of love and longing we’re embarrassed to reveal in plain speak. They amuse or hurt; divert and stop time for a holy moment. They pretend to be art, and sometimes succeed. With a snicker. They are the weapons of the fortune teller, the rogue, the Don Juan, the cowboy, and the troubadour . . . the songstress, minstrel, Bard, and shoeshine boy. They beguile us with their sing-song rhyme and tinkle-down melodies, yet they are imbued with truer feel for personal emotion and human history then a thousand dusty tomes from psychologists, philosophers, social scientists or academic historians. Songs travel.
Ah, yes, and songs are carried on the tongues of the roving minstrel. Mortal tongues. Let’s consider the life of one ex-patriot troubadour who transported folksong back to the streets of the Olde World, back into the ether where the original melodies were borne. The renegade son of a tombstone polisher. The Holy Banjo Man of Antwerp: Derroll Adams.
Windfall Bucker in Piccadilly Circus
A cowboy in a beat silver-belly hat disembarks from a tramp freighter ship in Southampton England, 1957. He’s all stove-up from the long sea journey; riding in the belly of the ship—steerage. He slides down the gangplank and slips through the crowds on the docks. The wharf-rats stare at the cowboy hat. Ain’t many cowboys in England, boys.
The man in the hat is Derroll Adams: a banjo-playing cowboy, painter, poet, and roustabout from Portland, Oregon. He carries about him the look of a back-country West Coast lumberjack. Cigarette planted in whiskers. Hawk eyes always staring at a distant point on the horizon, where the beer is cheap and folks don’t go around killing each other. He’s planning on meeting up with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to perform on the streets of London, Paris, Brussels, and Rome. Street singing. On the avenues of Europe they call it “busking,” from the Spanish buscar (“to seek”). (Ramblin’ Jack told me that.) It’s an honest trade that goes back to Homer and The Odyssey. The whang-tang trade of voices and, perhaps, lutes, mandolins, banjos, and guitar. The spinning of musical tales. For a begging basket there’s a cowboy hat turned upside down on the sidewalk. Derroll and Jack play for food and wine—and maybe a pallet on the floor. The Bohemian Boulevardiers! Wandering bards, versifiers, and minstrels. Folk blood brothers.
“We’d put out our hat on the streets of Paris,” said Jack, “and play ’til we made enough for a hotel room and a meal. Other people might play all day, but Derroll and I were not all that greedy. Maybe we shoulda’ been. Ha!”
Derroll and Jack transported altered old-world folk melodies back to the Europeans in the loose form of cowboy-folk music. They recorded an album called The Rambling Boys. Another called The Cowboys. They yodeled and drank up their busking money. They rode motor scooters across the continent like outlaws on Shetland ponies. In a short time they were European legends. When Jack had his fill of busking through the old world, he caught a freighter back to America. He was welcomed as a hero in Greenwich Village, and went on to influence Bob Dylan and a horde of Village songwriters and guitar pickers. (Ian Tyson later told me that Ramblin’ Jack was by then a master of a folk-jazz-syncopated guitar style that left a long shadow across folk guitar playing in the early sixties.)
Derroll Adams never came back.
He established himself as a folk presence in Europe and married a pretty Belgian woman, Danny. (“The most decent human being I’ve ever met.”) He settled in and created a banjo style he called “up-picking” and “back-picking.” In the next three decades he would read thousands of books, paint a thousand pictures, and occasionally appear in the smoky Belgian folk clubs or festivals in Germany or Denmark. Not so much a renaissance man as Zen-Buddhist cowboy throwback.
Indeed, the more you look into Derroll’s life, he seems to have stepped out of an old folk song. Ascended from the very ballads themselves, so to speak. He was Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, John Hardy, Tom Dooley, Pecos Bill, and the saddle tramp who couldn’t ride “The Strawberry Roan.” He spoke and sang the folk lingo, then he became the lingo.
Circus Jugglers and Tombstone Polishers
“All the ways to laugh,
But the last laugh is at yourself…
With compassion and love.”
— Japanese script written on Derroll’s banjo head
Derroll Adams was born November 27, 1925. His father was a “circus juggler and a polisher of tombstones.” His mother was descendant of Scottish pioneers who came up the Oregon Trail in covered wagons. Derroll grew up playing harmonica to the harmony of steam train whistles. He was brought up by an old gent named George Adams, and Derroll took up hanging out with George’s father, “Grandpa” Adams.
“Grandpa Adams was raised as an old Western gentleman,” said Derroll. “He’d been a scout in the army. He told me that when he was a little boy in a cabin in North Dakota the Indians burst in their door and took all their food. He also told me about this old fellow that came to see them with 11 arrows in him. They saved his life. He lived.”
Young Derroll loved Buck Jones and cowboy singers. He grew up rugged and tall and later joined the Navy as a “combat diver,” survived and bought a five-string banjo; he met Pete Seeger, who taught him how to tune it. Derroll carried on and developed a mellow, melodious claw-hammer style: that “up-picking” thing with a “back flick.” He drifted and painted and married and divorced and worked as a taxi driver, window dresser, radio announcer, ranch hand, and logger.
“In logging I was what they call a windfall bucker. When you have these big storms and the trees are all falling down, it’s extremely dangerous. You work alone, but you work within calling distance of each other. The insurance for windfall buckers is higher than for the guys that handle explosives. If you make the slightest mistake, you’re dead or crippled for life. I liked being a windfall bucker—you’re tough and hard as a rock. You can walk with the greatest and walk straight.”
Walking straight and walking crooked. A collage of intriguing episodes. Derroll was part of the Beat scene in Topanga Canyon in 1954. He met the actor-botanist Will Geer and also had his first encounter with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Jack does a fine imitation of Derroll at that historic meeting.
“I hear you play the banjo.” says Jack.
“Yup,” says Derroll.
“You wannna play a song?” says Jack.
“Guess so,” says Derroll.
“You got a banjo?” says Jack.
“Nope,” says Derroll.
“Maybe we could borrow one from Bess Hawes,” says Jack.
“Yup,” says Derroll.
The first song they learned together was “Muleskinner Blues.”
Jack said, “Derroll Adams was the closest thing to a muleskinner I had ever met at that time… he had been a choker-setter and a windfall bucker. But Derroll had something extra. He had a Chinese kinda’ beard, and he had sorta’ Japanese calligraphy written on his banjo. It was some kind of hip statement that Jack Kerouac wished he’d have wrote.”
Derroll contributed music for the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack for Durango, starring Jeff Chandler, then fled Hollywood. He studied painting; married a painter, and disappeared into Mexico . . . divorced, and finally caught that steamer ship to Europe in ’57. In 1958 Derroll and Ramblin’ Jack performed at the Brussels World Fair billed as “The Cowboys.” Then Jack split and there was Derroll, happy to scratch out a living as the only banjo-playing cowboy on the European continent. On and on.
“I was a lucky guy,” Derroll said. “I was able to keep Danny and us alive and pay the bills and keep coats on us in winter. It’s kind of like being a comedian, too, in a way. You’re like a Charlie Chaplin, you make them laugh, you make them cry—leave them in a stunned silence. You’re like a conductor. I always thought of being like a conductor and the audience is the orchestra. Anyway, I was able to keep us alive.
“You do the best you can and hope they hire you back. I want to do as good as I can: drunk, sober, upside down or backwards—I’m there. That’s the way the ball rolls.”
That’s a brief, edited glimpse into the man’s life. He’s remembered fondly by 10,000 folksingers across Europe. Derroll Adams died in Antwerp, Belgium, on February 6, 2000. There’s probably a kid today scratching out “Muleskinner Blues” or “Portland Town” on a banjo or guitar in a quiet bistro in Brussels—or perhaps Copenhagen or Paris or Amsterdam or New York. A folk descendant of the Antwerp banjo man. Songs and spirits transported on the tongues of runaway kids and windfall buckers.
The Things Derroll Left Us
“My banjo and me are really close. On a good
evening there will be a lot of laughter in that
banjo—not a cynical laugh, it’s more like a chuckle.
I don’t like to play loud. That way you can hear all
— Derroll Adams
I’m sitting in a kitchen in Antwerp, Belgium, with Danny Adams, Derroll’s wife. I don’t like the word “widow.” It connotes death and loss, and Derroll is still hovering around us. The old Antwerp apartment is crowded with “the things Derroll left us,” as Danny whispers. The things Derroll left us. A grand bohemian disarray of an underground life lived well. Tea kettles, coffee cups, and jelly glasses with Burgundy stains. The evidence. His original paintings. The aroma of red wine, candle smoke, oil paint, and kerosene. Derroll’s banjos are sitting on the couch. Propped up. They look like they’re talking to each other; waiting for Derroll to back-pick a melody. The apartment has the feel of an old movie set from a Steinbeck story. Derroll, the leading man, just stepped out into the garden for a cigarette.
Books are piled high to the ceiling in the hallway; thousands of paperbacks. Arches and cascades of well-thumbed pages. Derroll read everything from novels to poetry, biography, history, science, medicine, and spirituality. At least 50 of his paintings are on the walls and upstairs in his atelier, or stacked under the alcoves and beneath the stairwell. Haunted, dark paintings that remind me of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Faces stare out; hands are extended from figures walking toward the viewer. They are pleading for something. Derroll said he didn’t know what the hell they wanted, but he kept painting them.
He never sold paintings. His mind was not on commerce. He was an odd and big-hearted cowboy-socialist who prayed for world peace in almost every song. He wrote a few. His most famous song, “Portland Town,” one of the finest anti-war ballads ever written, was recorded by Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, and dozens of others. A member of the Kingston Trio put his name on the song because Derroll didn’t know much about copyrights. He seemed to be a man out on the extreme margins of the music culture—happy to be there, thank you. Derroll would rather ride a bicycle down to the river’s edge in Antwerp and set up an easel and paint all day. Matisse in a cowboy hat. The world rattled on “some where’s else.” Out of control.
He influenced a generation of European folksingers—most notably Donovan, who attributes his Zen performance style to Derroll Adams. Derroll appears briefly in the Dylan movie Don’t Look Back. The scene: A hotel room party in London in 1964. It’s late night. Everyone is drunk; Dylan is the drunkest. Bob is yelling at an intoxicated man who, Dylan claims, threw a glass out the window. Derroll, the peacemaker, is trying to calm it all down. He says to Dylan: “Why don’t we get together, and I’ll turn you on to some things.” (Poetry, presumably.) Dylan sits down and listens. Then he finally sobers up and notch and recognizes Derroll.
“Heh!” Dylan says. “You played with Jack! I got records of you and Jack! The Cowboys and the The Rambling Boys!”
Bob Dylan’s wide array of influences must certainly include Derroll Adams and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Quite a blend. Beat poetics meet traditional folk and cowboy music . . . colliding with French symbolism. Modern lyricism is borne. But there’s something even deeper that continues to haunt me about Derroll Adams. Not only did he step out of an old folk ballad, as his biographical details prove; he seems to have been able to step back into another time—when a man could pick a mandolin or guitar and also live on red wine and cheese and baguettes and spend afternoons painting by the side of ancient rivers. He enjoyed a certain bohemian existence that seems now to be beyond our reach. Derroll lived it. And he sang it.
Pour me a jelly glass of cheap Burgundy. I wish to dream. I’ll never forget that apartment in Antwerp and the aroma of red wine, cigarette smoke, and oil paint. The echoes of the troubadour life. The high cascade of well-thumbed books. The paintings stacked under the stairwell. The banjos sitting on the brocade couch. The fire in the hearth and the ghosts of Homer’s ancestors swirling around the atelier.
All those things Derroll left us.
— Tom Russell (El Paso, TX & Bern, Switzerland, 2009)
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