Recordings:  6 And 12 String Guitar (1969)

Page 3

Re-release Liner Notes

by Mark Humphrey

      Remember 1969?  Hair, Woodstock, Abbey Road.  A man on the mood and Nixon (the "peace President") in the White House.   Great hams -- Judy Garland, Senator Everett Dirkson, Jack Kerouac -- exited our earthly stage.  A naughty French postcard of a record, "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus," by Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, suddenly made French class cool.

      It was a year crammed with major league hubbub, so you could easily have missed an independent-label album with a plain-wrap title, 6 & 12 String Guitar, by a guy from the Midwest you'd never heard of, Leo Kottke.  But the record probably insinuated itself into your consciousness sometime in the early '70s and changed your ideas about acoustic "folk" guitar in the bargain.

      6 & 12 String Guitar was a creeper.  It has a s-l-o-w fuse, but a long burn.  It would eventually sell around 500,000 copies and make a guitar hero out of Kottke without his executing a single right-arm pinwheel.  Readers of Guitar Player magazine voted Kottke "Best Folk Guitarist" for five consecutive years from 1974 through 1978.  During those years he would make may more albums for far bigger labels than the shoestring indie Takoma, but all of Kottke's subsequent success was deeply grounded in 6 & 12 String Guitar.  Without the media splash of Woodstock or Hair, the album became a quietly pervasive countercultural emblem, its way-cool armadillo cover was a howling folky acid vision, atop which tons of dormitory joints were rolled and crimped by aspiring pickers seeking the source of Kottke's balance of drive and delicacy.

      Kottke made it sound so easy, turning the happy-face 12-string of button-down folkers into a demon machine, sputtering like a demented Model T chugging driverless down a lost highway.  As we toked deep and listened long, we wondered:  Who is this Kottke?  What is his source?  Well, it all had to do with trombone lessons...

      "I had been playing the trombone for nine years," Kottke recalled in a 1982 Frets interview, "and you only have one note at a time, and I knew there were more possible there."  He found notes he was looking for on a guitar his mother gave him -- "the kind of guitar you would order from the Sears catalog" -- when he was 11.  The Kottke family was then living in Oklahoma, and a finger-picking "Okie from Muskogee" showed Leo the excitement of an instrument that "blew" more than a single note at a time.

      "My right-hand pattern started out with a guy in Muskogee, Oklahoma, who I only saw once," Leo recalled.  "I was staying with some people, and this guy came down the hall playing a finger-picking pattern...I had never heard anything like that, and I went right through the roof.  He showed me how to do it, and it's the foundation for everything I've done since."

      Later, Leo would try his hand at the "Earl Scruggs style" 5-string banjo, which accounts for the bluegrass bounce in his playing.  "Most of the technical inroads that I made came from trying to learn how to play the banjo," Kottke told Gil Podolinksy in a Guitar Player interview (August 1977) [Webmaster's Note:  this quote is from the the 1982 Frets interview, not the Guitar Player one -- BH].  "I couldn't play it, but in trying I realized there were some things that I overlooked in the guitar."

      The bright "roll" of the bluegrass banjo would meld with the chunky ring of the 12-string guitar when teenaged Leo heard Pete Seeger's "Bells of Rhymney" and took off in search of yet another instrument.  "I was mesmerized by the 12-string," Leo told Podolinksy, "for the 6-string has not been a very satisfying instrument for terms of solo guitar, there's more sound to play with, it's more exciting.  To me it's like the difference between a piano and an organ."

      Leo locked onto a brassy and user-friendly Gibson B-45 12-string, which he would recall as a happy fluke:  "Most of them are not playable."  He vigorously commenced pulling out the stops on his "12-string organ," drawing on a mixed bag of influences:  Travis and Scruggs-style finger-pickers surely, but also classical guitarists, and even lutenists like Germany's Walter Gerwig.

      Kottke was discovering his own musical vision in a tapestry of influences filtered through his responses to a peripatetic childhood:  His father he remembers as "a wandering golf pro, a coach, a teacher, a civil servant, and a gifted sleeper."  The Kottke family had migrated across several states between Leo's birth in Athens, Georgia (September 11, 1945), and his 1968 stint at the Scholar Coffeehouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  He had seen much of America in his first 20-some years, and his restless distillation of what he had seen, heard, and felt bore fruit in a remarkable album, 6 & 12 String Guitar.

      It was not, however, an album apt to prick the interest of the average record label A&R guy in 1969.  Leo knew this and sent a tape of his work to the only one likely to get what he was up to, the man who ran Takoma records.  John Fahey was the dean of "American primitive" guitar, a description Fahey conjured for steel-string guitar soloists who fit no stylistic corral (folk, blues, jazz, classical) and who borrowed freely from all of them.

      Fahey had started his Takoma label in 1959 to issue his own blues-based ramblings as "Blind Joe Death."  By the late 1960s, the Takoma label was home base to a small but exciting school of folk-inspired eccentrics:  Fahey, Robbie Basho, Peter Lang.  Each in his quirky way was reinventing American roots music and extending the known  boundaries of "folk" guitar.  If Charles Iveshad been around then and played acoustic steel-string guitar, he, too, would have been on Takoma.

      Years later, John Fahey recalled:  "This cheap cassette by Leo Kottke, with a lot of distortion, came in to us, and I listened to it and said, 'Wow, that's great!  It's beautiful music, and I bet it would sell.'  Everyone else in the Takoma Records office said, 'Oh no, he just plays like you, it'll never sell.'  But I was running things, so we put it out."  Wise move, John.

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