Let me tell you about my friend, Derroll Adams. This is his first solo LP and you'll never hear anything like it anywhere else. He picks the banjo like nobody either side of the Atlantic and it would be impossible to imitate the rough and ragged quality of his voice. But it's not just Derroll's music you'll take away after listening to this LP. It'll be something else, something indefinable, something to do with Derroll's gentle, philosophical personality, something that affects nearly everyone who meets him. If this were the normal LP with only successive song tracks on each side, you would miss it. As it is, Derroll talks from beginning to end around each song and what he says is important to him because it springs from the life he's led, and from his heart. That's why he asks us to "Listen, Cats."
Derroll has come a long way from his original home in Portland, Oregon. He returned there after service in the Second World War, after seven months in hospital because constant battle drills without battles shattered his spirit. His mother welcomed him home with the gift of a five-string banjo and learning to play it helped his sanity soon to return. Derroll entered art school in Portland, worked at mastering the banjo, and sampled life, "making the Yoga scene" as well as various other scenes. One day he met Pete Seeger. Pete was doing a benefit concert for a political group. lt was the first time Derroll had heard anybody in the flesh who could really play the five-string. He'd grown up listening to country music on the radio, but nobody around Portland was playing the banjo. Derroll and Pete met at a party after the concert and Pete tried to play Derroll's banjo, a difficult feat as its tuning was strange because Derroll taught himself and he didn't know any better. So Pete retuned it and when the party was over Derroll ran home and memorized the tuning and the way Pete played chords. Derroll left not long after that and headed south towards Mexico, but he never got quite that far. He worked at hundreds of jobs, washing dishes, sanding furniture, driving taxis, as a ranch hand, radio announcer, road engineer's assistant, fish canner, and even as a preacher, and he ended up in Los Angeles driving a lorry.
One day he was singing Pretty Polly to himself and his helper was impressed. He introduced Derroll to a group of singers in Topanga Canyon, a wild, mountain area north of the city, that included Woody Guthrie, Odette, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, Bess Lomax, Cisco Houston, actor James Dean and Jack Elliott. Jack and Derroll lived and travelled together for a while and then Jack left for Europe. Pretty soon he was writing Derroll to come und join him in England. So Derroll did, and it turned out to be the right time and the right place for their music. They played at all the skiffle clubs and worked for three and a half months at the Blue Angel, made a record and left for the Continent. They went everywhere, sang at the World's Fair in Brussels, spent one whole summer at a club in Portofino, made records in Milan, and bought scooters with the profits. Derroll was in Paris when he met this beautiful girl and before you knew it they were married.' Her name is Isabelle but everyone calls her Izzy. She was working for Christian Dior and they decided to go to Brussels to set up their own window decorating business. In a few years they were the best in Europe with a reputation everywhere Then Derroll got the itch to play the banjo again and off to England he went. Izzy and the kids, Kakie, 2, and Vincent, 4, went down to their form near Alba in southern France where they have a whole mountain all to themselves. lt was good to see Derroll back again, but don't get the idea that he'll stay for long. He would much rather sit on that mountain in a rocking chair and think, than run all over Europe singing.
Derroll is quite a guy. The first thing that impresses you is his appearance. In a society that is usually upset by deviation from the norm in dress, his old-timey cowboy clothes look distinctly out of place, more so in Europe than in America where cowboy boots and hat are still regulation gear for farmers and ranchers in the West. Derroll just gets a chuckle out of eyebrows raised not only for his clothes but for his earring and the tattoo of a banjo on his hand. "Hell, I have the hat because I'm bald," he says, "and I've been wearing cowboy clothes and chewing tobacco all my life. As for the rest, that's just my childhood side coming out." Some people take him for the simple type, but they're in for a surprise. Try discussing the complexities of hexagrams in the ancient Chinese I Ching with Derroll.
He's always been interested in things oriental. It all started with oriental music because he believes some Japanese and Chinese instruments sound just like the banjo. He reads Haiku poetry, has studied Zen Buddhist philosophy for years, and was once involved with Ju-Jitsu, but he limps now because his knee was hurt in a leg-lock and it makes him roll when he walks like an ex-cowpuncher or an ex-seaman, both of which he is. He has lately been studying Aikado, the "art of gentleness" he calls it, but it's one step beyond Karate and I wouldn't want him getting too gentle with me. Derroll is also deeply interested in the occult, probably because his mother was somewhat of a mystic and he inherited her feelings for religion. When he was young he kept pin-up pictures of Jesus in his bedroom (which was a car seat because his parents moved so often), and once he prayed with a sick old neighbour woman who was miraculously healed. Now Derroll asks everybody he meets about haunted houses and wants to find one where the owner will challenge him to spend the night.
As you can see, the banjo isn't the only thing in Derroll's life, but it certainly is the central and most important part of his music. He can't sing without it, and treats it as a dear friend, talking to it and listening to its music as if it was made by itself. He says his only influences were the first banjo players he heard on the radio: Rachel and Oswald, Lulu Belle and Scotty, and Stringean. His technical yet lyrical style and flawless phrasing evolved creatively, not in imitation through the years. Derroll only vaguely remembers where he learned most of his songs and thinks he probably picked up half of them before he could talk, songs like Pretty Polly, Willie Moore, 900 Miles and Pretty Little Miss. Many of the others are bits and pieces of other peoples' poems and his melodies put together over the years, like Roll on Babe, Curtains of Night, Ship on the Ocean, 900 Miles, and I Wish I was a Rock. Of course there's Portland Town, his prize creation. lt was written for a couple whose only son was killed in Korea and who were too old to have another. Mule Skinner Blues is from Jimmie Rodgers, he learned Plain Common Bill from a fellow in Brussels, and Anne Briggs taught him Little Birdie.
Alex Campbell and Jack Elliott joined Derroll at the recording session for this LP. Jack is heard playing guitar on Portland Town and Alex backs Derroll up on Pretty Little Miss and Plain Common Bill. Alex, Jack and Derroll met during their early singing days in London and for a time all lived together in a ramshackle house called the "Yellow Door" in Lambeth. Another tenant was composer Lionel Bart. Alex calls Derroll his teacher and dedicated his song book to him. He and Shirley and Colin were frequent visitors at the Café Welkom in Brussels, in the old quarter of the city where Derroll had lived in semi-retirement for the past eight years, and they spread his stories around England second-hand until he returned. Another close friend of Derroll's is Donovan, the young singer and poet. No matter who and what a person may be, he is greeted by Derroll with "Hiya, how's she goin'?" He would rather be known as a friend than as a show business personality and prefers to call himself an entertainer rather than a folk-singer. "My songs sure as hell aren't traditional and I like to listen to the Beatles as well as the Carter Family. That doesn't make me very ethnic." Right now Derroll says he's feeling good. He says he's always been like someone on the outside looking in but now he's accepted, "one of the cats." After so many years away from America it looks like he's over here for good and he says America would be a strange land now because his family, friends und his form are all an this side of the Atlantic. He says the banjo he plays now is the best he's ever had and when asked how many he's owned, says that "figuring that out is as difficult as figuring out how many women l've had in my life." He's a grandfather now and proud of it. "But watch out, birds, there's life in me yet."
I guess I've been going on long enough now about my friend, Derroll. But he's the type of person that inspires talk and that's something you'll learn by listening to this LP.
© 1967, The Decca Record Company Limited, London.