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Senior Correspondent

Lost in the Fifties Tonight

Lost in the Fifties Tonight


About, oh, 50 years ago, when Wood Allen and Fred Birdsong and Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison and I were figuring on a big show biz career displacing the Kingston Trio and other giants of the 1950s and early 1960s entertainment business, we didn't know much about how to do it. I had a an old sawed-off Roy Rogers (or was it a Sears Roebuck?) 6-string guitar that Wood gave me, and that I had tried to turn into a 4-string tenor guitar like Nick Reynolds played. When  we needed some serious gravitas and percussive thump, I used to borrow an old Alcoa aluminum guitar from the next-door neighbor of a friend on West Market Street in Greensboro.

We didn't know squat, but we didn't know we didn't know squat, so we were deliriously happy in our ignorance, bound as we were for the top, like a rocket ship about to be fire off of Cape Canaveral. We were saved from a degrading life of too much money, too much fame and too much substance abuse when we didn't go straight to the top, or the middle, or anywhere close to it. But we had a lot of fun, over the years playing in sometimes odd, out-of-the-way places. That live on-air performance at a little AM radio station in Danville was a thrill. Helen, GA., was fun. And we set the place on fire a couple times at weddings of daughters in Iredell and Buncombe counties. 

By then I had bought an old 1946 Kay doghouse bass with a partly broken neck, dings all over the body and some ancient strings.  Scrangs, Fred called 'em. But it sure did sound good when we got together. We lost Fred one night in Alabama when he was returning from a prison ministry session where he counseled inmates, and was killed by a drunken driver. The bass burned up in a 2010 house fire. Squirrel died after a noble five-year fight against three or four kinds of cancer.

Wood and I still play, mostly a lot of folk music from the 1950s, but some newer stuff as well.  A few years ago I discovered a nice 1959 Kay bass up at Jerry Fretwell's bass shop in downtown Staunton, VA, and bought it up with a nice soft set of Silver Slap scrangs. Easy on the hands, and sounds good. Enjoyed playing it, and was taking up the tenor guitar again with a Martin knock-off made in China. Cheap, and a thing of beauty, though what I really wanted was a Martin.  Just too costly.

Then just the other week, after a household emergency forced me to cancel a long-planned trip to hang around the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ, a fellow there let me know someone was selling a 1957 Martin tenor guitar, with a hard case, for a very good price. Wood was flying out there to perform, and he and several friends took a look and bought it on the spot, found a shipping box and dropped it off at UPS.  It arrived here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club Thursday afternoon, where it took up residence in the conservatory right next to my '59 doghouse bass. When I took it out of the box, the Martin was still in tune — though an incoming storm front here soon took care of that. But it plays as sweet today as it must have for its other owners over time.
I am mindful that since becoming an age-eligible geezer, there's some danger in acting as though everything was wonderful in the 1950s, when it wasn't at all. But some things were right. We passed a '55 Chevy on U.S. 58 the other day, and I got the sort of twinge I usually get when I think about that old '56 Chevy Bel Air two-toned sedan with the small-block V8 that I sold for $65 right before going off to the Army in 1969. Some days I wish I had that old boy back. Not that I could put it in the conservatory, of course, but the back seat was big enough to carry a doghouse bass AND a tenor guitar, at least with the seat yanked out. If you see a '56 in good shape for a good price, do me a favor and don't give me a call. I got more old stuff than I need, including some really old knees. But thanks just the same.

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