Roy Book Binder

Roy+Book+BinderThe town I grew up in had a pretty hip library; I heard Mississippi John Hurt, Ry Cooder, Duke Ellington, Guy Van Duser and Highway 61  Revisted all for the first time on library LPs. On weekday afternoons, after high school let out, I would drift up the few blocks from school to the center of town, head to the lower level of the building, pull out a handful of heavy mylar gatefolded albums and check out a set of headphones. Then, piling into an oversized chair next to an available turntable, the investigation would begin, with the world blocked out for twenty-three or so minutes at a stretch. Over the years, caught pontificating about the connection between this musician and that one, one genre and another, more than one student has asked, in effect, “Why do you know about this?” To which I always have replied, “I read a lot of liner notes as a kid. Over and over.”

I discovered Roy Book Binder at the library, hearing him play “Travelin’ Man” on his Goin’ Back to Tampa LP. A decade or more later, when I was spending my summers teaching at the National Guitar Workshop, Roy began showing up for a week a time to teach as well. It became something of a ritual for him to turn up with his guitar in the evenings, find a spot to park himself on the stone patio outside the concert hall, and play a few tunes before the evening’s show began. Inevitably, Roy’s casual practice session would turn into an ad hoc pre-show performance as students of all styles slowly gathered to check Roy out. He was as quotable offstage as on, and throughout the week and over the years he was at the workshop we would gather up his various one-liners and pass them around like a secret handshake, a typical example being the time Roy spent a good twenty minutes or so listening to a Ronnie Earl show before drawling, “I never did play a Stratocaster. (Pause.) I believe if I did play a Stratocaster I’d want to play it like that.”

A few years later, I interviewed Roy, Steve James and Paul Geremia for an article on what it was like learning to play blues from the surviving masters of the genre, for a magazine that featured its fair share of contemporary singer-songwriters. Usually, for an article like that, you make a bunch of phone calls, tape the proceedings and then try to shape the thing so it sounds like you were all in the same room at one time. For this piece, though, everyone was down in North Carolina for Merle Fest, and we actually did the interview with Roy, Steve, Paul and myself all packed into Roy’s RV on a lovely spring evening. They held forth on their experiences hanging out with, working with and learning from their mentors, musicians like Reverend Gary Davis, Pink Anderson  and Furry Lewis, but the highlight came when I asked if they considered themselves bluesmen, folk musicians, or what? Paul Geremia’s reaction, concerning what passes for “folk music” these days, was pointed, acidic and hilarious. Also unprintable. When he took a moment post-tirade to catch his breath, there was a pregnant pause, broken suddenly by Roy hooting, “Well, ya done it now, Paul. We ain’t gonna make the cover of the magazine!”

I didn’t just read a lot of liner notes as a kid, I read any books and articles I could get my hands on about blues and folk music as well. So I knew who to look for, but couldn’t always find their music. Reverend Gary Davis was a prime example – they didn’t have him at the library, and either I didn’t think to look for him on my record-hunting trips to Harvard Square, or maybe other things were taking priority at the time. So I learned to play from the records I did have – things by Roy, Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk and Jorma Kaukonen. It took me years to make the connection that all four of them had, to various degrees, studied with and hung out with Davis themselves. So in a way, I did learn from the Rev – just at a one-generation remove.

I haven’t seen Roy for at least fifteen years, but he’ll be in Austin this Friday to play at Strange Brew, and I’ll be opening the show for him. I’m looking forward to playing in such august company; I’m especially looking forward to hearing his music again, but most of all, I’m looking forward to hearing what Roy’s got on his mind after all this time.

Roy Book Binder plays at Strange Brew Friday May 16 at 8pm; my opening set starts at 7. For tickets and further info visit 


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