Avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp talks to the producer behind classic albums by Roy Buchanan, Joseph Spence, and Doc Watson about a lifetime of historic music-making.
An intriguing offer on Craigslist for a vintage Galiano Decalcomania parlor guitar brought me to the Manhattan home of Peter K. Siegel. The walls were decorated with an obviously well-loved Martin D-28, as well as a number of unique banjos and guitars, old and older. After examining the guitar in question, which I happily purchased, our conversation turned to instruments and, from there, to Siegel's work in music. Many of his projects had resonated deeply with me: from the cacophonous joy of the Even Dozen Jug Band to Joseph Spence's rich Bahamian sounds to the exotic beauty of Japanese and Carnatic music to the first recordings of the legendary guitarist Roy Buchanan. Siegel spoke with affection and humor about the various musicians he had recorded or worked with, and it was clear he had a thousand stories.
When Siegel began to play guitar and banjo in his teens, he was already deeply indoctrinated in folk music, thanks to his parents, who had an extensive collection of both albums and friends who were part of the then-burgeoning folk movement. He started his career as a musician and engineer with a deep involvement in New York City's Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM), an organization that presented 14 concerts that helped define the city's folk scene in the early '60s. Fifty-five songs from those performances—all recorded by Siegel on his first reel-to-reel, a Tandberg 3B, and an Electro-Voice microphone—were released as the three-CD box Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961–1965, produced by Siegel on Smithsonian Folkways in 2016. In 1963, he co-founded the influential Even Dozen Jug Band with Stefan Grossman. The band also included Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian, David Grisman, Steve Katz, and Josh Rifkin, who all went on to notable careers of their own.
Siegel became a staff producer and engineer for Elektra Records, where he founded and ran the hugely influential Nonesuch Explorer series. A track from his pioneering album of Japanese shakuhachi music, A Bell Ringing in Empty Sky, earned a place on the Voyager spacecraft along with Chuck Berry, Beethoven, and Blind Willie Johnson. Later, he was director of A&R for Polydor's American label, followed by a stint as president of ATV Records, and then, realizing that this work was taking him away from the music he loved, he left the corporate world to resume his life as an independent producer and musician in 1991.
Siegel remains a vital force in music as a performer and archivist-producer. His recent output continues to trumpet his passion not just for the old-time music of rural America of the 1920s and 1930s, but for all music created with soul and true feeling. His recent releases include a 2013 collection of union songs he performed and recorded with Eli Smith, The Union Makes Us Strong, which follows their collaboration Twelve Tunes for Two Banjos, and his latest release of never-before-heard recordings by the late Appalachian singer and banjoist Clarence Ashley, Live and in Person—Greenwich Village 1963, which arrived last May. He's currently preparing a Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton album he says is “really some of the best old-time music you'll ever want to hear."
Siegel's work as a producer and recording engineer brought him into contact with an amazing constellation of musicians that include Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam McGee, Fred McDowell, Hobart Smith, Frank Wakefield, Jesse Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. He brought to life recordings of musicians from Indonesia, India, China, and Sweden, and cut the psychedelic rockers Earth Opera, as well as songsmiths Paul Siebel, Tom Paxton, and Elliott Murphy, and the Grammy-nominated street singer Oliver Smith. Some of these encounters blossomed into friendships—especially with Doc Watson, Joseph Spence, and Roy Buchanan. In our conversation, he spoke of these famed guitarists at length, as well as many other topics.
Digging around, I came upon a note about a recording you did of one of Dylan's first “basement tapes."
That was in the basement of Gerde's Folk City, right after a Bill Monroe concert at the NYU School of Education presented by the FOTM. After the concert, there was some kind of jam session going on with … I don't remember. Gil Turner playing banjo, Bob Dylan singing ... anyway, Dylan says “Would you record me?" I said, “Sure." I was hoping he was going to say that! That was about the time of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album. He just had me record him for the fun of it.
TIDBIT: The recently released collection of Siegel's recordings from the influential Friends of Old Time Music concert series includes 55 song performances and a 60-page booklet.
Eventually I got hired by Elektra as an apprentice engineer/producer. Thing about Elektra at that time, all their producers were also engineers, worked hands-on. At Atlantic, the producer wouldn't. Tom Dowd would be the engineer. At Columbia, the producer—this was a union thing—was not allowed to touch the board. They also had a “machine man" in a little room behind a curtain. The engineer would be in charge of the mics and mixing. The engineer would say “roll," and the machine man would say “we're rolling." No one was allowed to touch anything! At Elektra, all the producers were trained to be recording engineers. They really taught it like, “You want to be a chef? You start by washing pots and pans." I had some great teachers: Jac Holzman, founder of Electra, plus Paul Rothchild and Mark Abramson—a fabulous producer who worked for a long time at Elektra and produced Judy Collins albums. My job at first was, every morning, align all the machines, clean all the heads with head cleaner and a Q-tip, then—when they could trust me a little bit—they had me do something which is a thing of the past: put leader in between tracks on an album—white paper leader. Eventually, I got to record stuff.
How did you come to record Roy Buchanan?
Around 1971, I got hired as the director of A&R at Polydor. They had signed Roy, and there were two albums produced. Neither was deemed worthy of coming out. The relationship with Roy had deteriorated to not actual litigation, but a number of lawyers' letters back and forth. He had a couple of guys representing him who were never going to get along with Polydor, and they wouldn't let Roy talk to me. I went to D.C. for a meeting with all of them, but Roy wasn't there. I found out that he was playing at the Crossroads club in Bladensburg, Maryland, caught his show, and went up to talk to him.
We went back into this room, covered with beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. He had some favorite musicians that I could really talk about. One of his big influences was Gatemouth Brown, and he loved Hank Williams. I could talk about any Hank Williams song. So we spent the evening talking about music. I went back to New York and I told the people dealing with this fiasco, “I think if you talk to him now and tell him I'll produce the record myself, he might agree to do it."