FRED GERLACH – Songs My Mother Never Sang – (Takoma) – 1967

Fred Gerlach - Songs My Mother Never Sang 01

I’m not a guitarist.

Sure, I learnt how to play basic guitar with the Sisters of Mercy nuns on Given Terrace in Paddington as a kid.

Sure, I fooled around with the guitar.

I’m not a guitarist.

I never played in a band.

But then again a lot of people who play guitars aren’t necessarily guitarists.

Are they?

I suppose I’m trying to distinguish those who play guitar from those who take it to the next level.

That level being the stretching the instrument and the ability of the player.

Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge in the instrument doesn’t allow me to accurately explain the guitar qualities of a virtuoso like Fred Gerlach.

But one listening confirms that this person is a guitarist extraordinaire and I can say that even if I am not.

You can do the searching yourself.

Good luck though.

There is precious little out there on Fred Gerlach.

I bought this album on a $3.99 whim but I was surprised to see "Yugoslav" references on the album which led me in search of (given my Croatian ancestry) his historical ancestors.

I had suspected that there may be a Slav connection as Gerlach is name quite common in Croatia but I just didn't know.

The search was time consuming but I have determination …especially when I'm restless or bored.

Perhaps, not unsurprisingly, despite my best efforts, very little information was found on the "information superhighway"…

Fred Grelach:

Born: August 26, 1925 (Detroit, Michigan)

Died: December 31, 2009 (San Diego, California)

Gerlach was born of the son of Yugoslavian parents and they seem to be of Croatian extraction.

There is no indication as to his origins when you search him but a search of his brother Joseph (born Ivan)  who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain in the 1930s reveals Croatian origins … "Born Ivan Rujevcic in Vurota, Croatia, where he lived until the age of 13—John R. Gerlach came to the U.S. in 1928 aboard the Leviathan, the largest cruise liner of its time. In Detroit, he reunited with his mother Maritza Rujevcic and step-Father, Anthony Gerlach, then a labor union organizer and national Croatian political leader as well Secretary of the I.W.O" The entry goes on to confirm that Fred was his younger brother.

At some stage he moved to New York City.

He served in World War II in the Infantry as a point man for a tank battalion (advance scouts searching for anti-tank bombs) and BAR man in Germany and then in the Philippines. He was profoundly shaped by those experiences.

He returned to New York City after the war and became involved in the New York folk scene centred on Washington Square.  He knew Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and they would stay with him from time to time. He hung out with Cisco Houston, Guy Carawan and Tiny Ledbetter (Leadbelly's niece) also.

He was deeply influenced by Leadbelly, who he also played with and he was one of the very earliest 12-string players, after Leadbelly.

He may have had some kind of falling out with the People's Song folks way back when and it made him kind of bitter.  (People's Songs was an organization founded by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, and others in 1945, in New York City, to "create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people." The organization published a quarterly Bulletin from 1946 through 1950, featuring stories, songs and writings of People's singer members).

In the early 1950s he sang in the Jewish Young Folksingers chorus conducted by Bob Decormier, Peter Paul and Mary's musical arranger and director. Mary Travers sang in the chorus too, and so did all the members of the folk group The Harvesters.

The Reverend Gary Davis was an authentic street musician and his third album was recorded in New York in 1957 by Fred Gerlach and Tiny Robinson and sometime later issued as “Pure Religion and Bad Company”.

Gerlach drifted out to California in the late 50's, played San Diego coffee houses in those early days and eventually settled there.

His first album, "Twelve String Guitar", was released in 1962 on Folkways records.  There are some notes to say it was recorded in 1958. Gerlach says on the back of this album (Songs My Mother never Sang) from 1968,  "Seventeen years ago I recorded an album called Gallows Pole. This is my first album since that time". That would make his first album 1951. Who the fuck knows?  I've not heard the first album but it is much applauded. It is also one of the first "commercial" twelve string guitar albums (even if recorded in 1958) from around the same time John Fahey started his recording career.

Subsequently Gerlach entertained himself by building an airplane in his attic and sailing on an old German sailboat..

He came over to Europe, in the late 1950s early 1960s, and appeared at the Ballads and Blues Club in London (with Pete Seeger) a couple or more times.

He lived in Santa Monica near the airport with his wife Barbara

He would play Laundromats and once at the old Los Angeles airport.

He played at the Showboat Lounge, Washington DC in 1962 or 63.

He taught guitar classes in 1963

He was a regular at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California where musicians stopped to practice including Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.

His nephew (Joseph's son) Stephen Nicholas (aka Jesse Lee Kincaid) ended up playing guitar and forming a band with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder called "The Rising Sons"

By around the mid 1960s Gerlach was actively making 12 string guitars. He would fly down to Central America to search for and buy the wood he used for his guitars. He was also known as "the" source for Brazilian rosewood for many years.

He recorded this album in the late 1960s.

He appeared on Bob Baxter’s television show, “Guitar Workshop” in 1975.

He was in high demand as an (legal) ivory gun grip maker.

He was a semi regular at the Adams Avenue Roots and Folk Festival in San Diego in the 80s.

That's it.

Good luck if you can find anything else on the man.

It doesn't sound like much but the guy was a key person in the 12 string guitar folk movement even if he was rather on the fringes of the general folk movement.

He was a product of his time … a white kid from the industrial north east in the early 1950s obsessed with the rural blues, just like Dave Van Ronk was later.

It was people like Gerlach who paved the way for the rootsier side of the folk boom in the early 60s.

His music though would never find mainstream acceptance and his name would not be a common one but there is no doubting the influence he has had…. see "trivia" at the bottom of this comment.

This album was recorded 1967, 1968 or 1970.  The 12 string boom was over (it lasted a few years between about 1963 and 1967) but Fahey's Takoma label was dedicated to releasing albums by 12 string guitarists like Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho.

Perhaps that was gave Gerlach the impetus to record again. He was known to Fahey and idolised by Kottke and others.

I suppose he would fit into the American Primitive Guitar school, the music genre started by John Fahey in the late 1950s where avant-garde and neo-classical compositions are played using traditional country blues fingerpicking techniques.

This album is not good time guitar music or the tuneful toe tapping songs of Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco or others (no offence to them though).

This is music from the folk fringe.

That's not to say you can't have a good time listening to it.

And, more importantly, you don't need to be a guitarist to appreciate it.

A guitarist may appreciate the virtuosity but a punter like me just gets off on the sounds and the emotions those sounds are meant to elicit.

Gerlach had complete control over this album as he says on the liner notes: "This batch of songs was brewed in mine own living room. Two Magnecord #728's were used with two Electrovoice mikes #666 and two Electrovoice mikes #655C. About 400 hours of playing and editing over a 3 month period resulted in the chosen 9. Thumps, squeaks and crashing pitfals were left in when I felt it was valid to the effort. And here I thank John Fahey for giving me full control of my output."

I wonder if the other 399 hours are around?

I have no detail in relation to the writing credit of the songs though I suspect they are originals or traditionals arranged and adapted by Gerlach.

And, he is quite right, his mother (being of Croatian extraction) probably never sang these songs…I'm assuming that;s his parents on the sleeve also.

This is music to be taken as a whole across a whole album – put this on , get a drink and let your brain be sent on a holiday….an adventure holiday.

Tracks (best in italics)

  • Get It, Got It, Had It – wow, this sounds like there is a whole band going at it.
  • Mutatis, Mutandis – from the Latin meaning "with the necessary changes". The picking is great
  • Mod Squat –  very tasty  
  • The Cheese Grater  – beautiful, powerful and surprisingly not covered by any rock guitarists that I know of.
  • Eyrie    – the only overdub on the record he does the guitar first and then lays down the vibes over it (according to liner notes). Excellent.
  • Memories – wow, sublime.
  • Cigani   – an ode to the Yugoslav gypsy known as Cigani
  • Banat   – snatches of lyrics – one word! A song about the middle European province of of Banat (which is inhabited by Croats and others) and the southern Slav Kolo dance.
  • Slide – just what the title says

And …

Excellent…. I'm keeping it.

Chart Action

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mp3 attched





comments and interviews–M8

a good history of the 12 string

The early folk scene in san diego


Trivia (or rather observations and tributes)

  • Via email (January 28 2014) I spoke to Fred's nephew, author Quentin Guerlain and he said to me "in realtion to Fred It’s only logical that you came through the back door, my uncle, Fred Gerlach, to happen upon my father and myself—in that you’re a music blogger, of Croatian heritage, and Fred Gerlach was the son of Croatian immigrants who became a kind of well-kept secret in Americana music:  an exponent of the 12-string guitar both as a solo instrument and as accompaniment to folk songs.  I refer you to Fred Gerlach’s more important first album:  Gallows Pole And Other Folk Songs –  Fred Gerlach and 12-String Guitar.  This is a classic of his finger picking  style.  Fred went on to become a guitar maker as a side interest." Quentin went on to some other detail which isn't included here as he wanted to substantiate the same though he does say "By the way, my family roots come from  a hamlet called Vurota on the banks of the Kupa River, about 10 miles from Sisak".
  • Fred’s nephew, Jeese lee Kincaid, says: “Taj Mahal connected with me in Cambridge. We were both aspiring folksingers in the thriving acoustic music scene. We played hootenanny nights at the Club 47. My repertoire was exclusively the replication of my uncle Fred Gerlach’s songs on his “Gallows Pole” album. His music, nurtured in me, was a powerful and engaging musical force that brought me notice. The music certainly was unique compared to what other musicians around me were performing. Up until the Beatles, a lot of them were trying to recreate authentic American folk music. Once the Beatles hit, forget it. They plugged in, combed their hair forward, and forgot about the roots in a rush to cash in”.
  • Leo Kottke being interviewed with the question: "Was it banjo that got you into the guitar?". Answer, "Peter Seeger and Fred Gerlach [did], I guess.  Fred Gerlach, the wood cutter down in Los Angeles, put out a record about 17 years ago on Folkways that's really a fine album.  And I used to listen to Seeger's Goofing-Off Suite and Gazette; and I listened to an awful lot of people".
  • Reflections by Dave Van Ronk. "Of course I was aware of the folk music thing in Washington Square.  I had been hanging around the village for a few years by this time, and the sight and sound of happily howling Stalinists offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster, not to mention my political sensibilities, which were at the time vehemently I.W.W. anarchist. (To this day, I cherish a deep-seated loathing for anything that smacks of good clean fun.)  In due course I came to realize that there were some very good musicians operating on the fringes of the radical Rotarian sing-alongs: pickers and singers like Tom Paley, Dick Rosmini, and Fred Gerlach, who were playing music, cognate with early jazz, with a subtlety and directness that simply blew me away.  The technique they employed was called 'fingerpicking, wherein the right thumb keeps time–not unlike the left hand in the stride piano playing I was already familiar with–while the index and middle fingers pick out melodies and harmonies.  What struck me most forcefully was that if you can do this you don't need a band. I immediately cast off my carefully cultivated snobbery and set out to learn.  Like the man said: 'Sometimes you have to forget your principles and do what's right."
  • In an interview with Guitar World Jimmy Page describes how they came up with "Gallows Poll" on "Led Zeppelin III" (1970): "A traditional song which stems from Lead Belly. I first found it by Fred Gerlach. He was one of the first white people on Folkways records to get involved in Lead Belly. We have completely rearranged it and changed the verse. Robert wrote a set of new lyrics. That's John Paul on mandolin and bass and I'm playing the banjo, six-string acoustic, 12-string and electric guitar. The bloke swinging on the gallows pole is saying wait for his relatives to arrive. The drumming builds nicely."!/2012/08/gallows-pole.html
  • Bob Baxter, "Fred was a craftsman and a player. He built huge 12 strings that matched his powerful strength. He said that, (quote) "anyone can put 12 strings on a guitar, but that isn't a real 12. A 12 has to be big. It has to be big bodied to carry the sound. Big to carry heavy bronze strings, like Leadbelly used to play. It's special. Nothing like it. A lot of people just play a 12 because it sounds pretty. The extra strings give you 'instant arrangement'. You know, it makes all the chords sound new and different without any effort. It just isn't like that. The 12 should be played because it's demanded. Because no other instrument will do. Leadbelly couldn't play on a 6 and be Leadbelly. A 12 is for 12 music, a 6 is for 6. Nobody today wants to make the effort." (quoted from Baxter's Guitar Workshop)
  • Bob Baxter himself, tried to play one of Gerlach's 12 string creations and had this to say about it in the same book: " I discovered one key that gives a hint of his special ability. His 12 string is almost too big to play. The large body cut off the blood under my forearm when I tried it, and my hand started to fall asleep halfway through the tune. The fingerboard was so wide I had to execute the chords in segments. And as for fretting the extra heavy bronze strings, I wished I had a pair of vise-grips. The neck was like a telephone pole and my fingernails were immediately chisled away to nothing by the double strings. All in all, Fred's talent is directly related to Fred's physical ability. No little girl is going to play 12 string according to the gospel of Gerlach. No 6 string picker is either, unless he's as powerful and dedicated as Fred. "
  • In The Folk Music Source Book (Larry Sandberg & Dick Weissman (eds), 1976) ioIn a section named "blues revival" Gerlach's Folkways LP from 1962 is credited as "being a major influence in the revival of interest in virtuoso twelve-string guitar styles in the late 50s urban movement." what ever that might have been.

Fred Gerlach - Songs My Mother Never Sang - Back Sleeve               Fred Gerlach - circa 1969               Fred Gerlach - in the 1950s

About Franko

Hi, I'm just a person with a love of music, a lot of records and some spare time. My opinions are comments not reviews and are mine so don't be offended if I have slighted your favourite artist. I have listened to a lot of music and I don't pretend to be impartial. You can contact me on though I would rather you left a comment. I also sell music at Cheers
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