21 YEARS A-GROWING
I was born into a reasonably musical family. My mother had been a musical comedy actress and my father a closet saxophone player. I never heard my father play—he was reticent about his musical abilities, as he was about everything else in his life and background. Although she had given up the stage when I was born, my mother never really gave up acting. She would launch into one of her hit numbers—she had been quite successful—at the drop of a hat or the twiddle of a radio dial. Everybody loved and admired her for her extrovert personality and her fund of stories about the musical stars of yesteryear. Everybody, that is, except her embarrassed son.
circa 1959, playing a guitar given to me by Peter Sellers during a west end theater production in 1958.
My mother was from Lisburn in County Antrim and my father had been born in Glasgow. He was a man who very rarely offered praise and when he did, there was usually a reservation or two at the end of it. I was born in London in 1942 -- a sensitive boy --the only child of my father and the only son of my mother who had been married before. I spent my early years in boarding schools, being sent to my first at the age of three and a half. Nobody has ever explained this to me.
I loved music from the earliest time I can remember and my mother had a stack of old, cracked 78s that I used to play on a wind-up gramophone. They were mainly songs from long forgotten musical comedies but I wish I had them now.
Boarding school was pretty much hell for a sensitive child and I was always very tearful at the end of summer holidays, but the trauma of my early years in boarding school has left me a very self sufficient person and I’m grateful for that at least. I was a good pupil and enjoyed the sports that we played, another thing that I have maintained in my adult life.
In the summer holidays of 1950, when I was eight, I landed a small but very important part in a film called A Tale of Five Cities. I’m not sure how this happened but my sister, ten years older than I, who was also on the stage may have played a part. I fell in love with acting there and then. I mean it was so easy! As a child actor, director and stars, alike, treated me like the bee’s knees and my self-confidence was probably never higher!
The film starred Bonar Colleano and Barbara Kelly, two Canadian actors of a bygone era but probably the most lastingly famous person who was in it was Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian actress of great beauty, who was, unfortunately, filmed in Italy. Alas we never met! I last saw this film in 1956 on TV and have been trying to get a video of it ever since. I was a bit of a hit when I got back to school and my life took a turn for the better.
A crossroads was reached in 1955. The newly-formed ITV TV station wanted me to play Nokie in a children’s weekly series called Round at the Redways. Nokie was short for Pinocchio—I had Dumbo the Elephant-like ears until an operation a couple of years later. There was much consternation and soul searching between my parents, my sister and myself at this point. I was academically on track for a pretty top quality education, which would have to give way if I undertook this new career. I forget now who was on which side but my side won. The upshot was that I left my boarding school and entered the glitzy world of Stage, Screen, TV and Radio.
Well, I was good. Acting comes easily to children. I made my Stage debut in the theatre where my mother had made her farewell appearance. I ran on to the stage at the start of the play and received a volley of applause before I had opened my mouth!
I was in a number of TV plays, including one called The Magpies -- an adaptation of a Henry James story. The newspapers went into raptures about my performance in this and I landed a part, with a dramatic scene, in Room at the Top, playing opposite Laurence Harvey. He was a bit scary and we had to retake the scene two or three times. It went well eventually and he stumped off the set giving me a "Well done, Andrew". I was in a stage play at the same time, with Peter Sellers, and kept hearing how everybody had been very impressed with my performance in the film.
My mother insisted that we should go to the première in a limousine and we got out, in front of adoring crowds, at the Leicester Square Odeon. Two thirds of the way through the film, my mother leaned over and whispered "When’s your scene?". "Shhh!" I said.
My mind was in turmoil: they had cut my scene. We went out the back way and went home on the bus!
I’ve never really forgiven the production company for not telling us in advance.
I think that was the beginning of my demise as a good actor. Shortly after that some hormonal change came over me and I became more self-conscious. The transition from Child actor to Juvenile has defeated many a career, and though I felt duty bound to continue something for which I had sacrificed my top class education, acting would never be the same again.
I had been studying classical guitar since leaving boarding school, first with Julian Bream who was a friend of my sister’s husband and then with one of his ex-pupils. Julian was the first person I ever heard playing a musical instrument close up, other than the piano. I was reduced to tears.
After a couple of years wrestling with Minuets and Bourées, I realised that this was not quite the music I wanted to play, beautiful as it was, and I waited with impatience for the inspiration I knew would come.
It came when I was about 15 in the shape of Lonnie Donegan and the Skiffle boom. I was enraptured by Lonnie’s first two EP’s, Backstairs Session and Skiffle Session.
When I heard Skiffle, I gave up classical guitar, much to my father’s horror, and found that I had a formidable grounding in three chord playing! Two of my acting friends and I formed the A1 Skiffle Group. It wasn’t till the name had been beautifully painted on the front of the Tea Chest Bass that someone read it as AI Skiffle Group --Andy Irvine Skiffle Group!
It wasn’t a great success.
On the back of one of Lonnie’s EPs, I found the name Woody Guthrie. Even as I type it now, I feel the same thrill at this name. I had never imagined that anyone could be called Woody. I determined to find out more about this mysterious man. I started by sending a letter to: --
Mr. Woody Guthrie, USA.
After six weeks, it came back …
Some weeks later, I was passing by a small record company when I saw a yellow album sleeve in the window. I did a series of double takes but sure enough, it was called More Songs by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. I bought it.
I can remember now the first bar of Columbus Stockade and the tingle that went down my spine as the instrumental intro was followed by this Oklahoma voice, singing,
"Way down in Columbus Stockade
Want to be back in Tennessee".
I had finally found my inspiration and mentor.
I can’t quite remember how I finally located Woody. It must have been around 1958 and he was lodged in a hospital in New Jersey with a genetic wasting disease called Huntingdon’s Chorea, which he had inherited from his mother. I sent off another letter. This time I was very excited to get an answer from a woman called Sid Gleason. She and her husband Bob had taken it upon themselves to entertain Woody at weekends. I wrote sometimes twice a week, asking questions about various aspects of Woody’s life. Woody was mentally alert and meticulous in making sure that I was given the right answers. I made plans to go over and live with the Gleasons.
The Woody Guthrie Newsletter was a mimeographed couple of sheets sent out to those interested in knowing how Woody was and what was happening with his records and songs.
I received a copy that listed a whole page full of famous names that Woody wanted to thank. I waded through Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Ralph Rinzler, Oscar Brand, Lionel Kilberg, Ernie Marrs, Harold Leventhal, Bill Doerflinger, Jack and June Elliott……
I think I was hoping against hope that I might see my name in there and I read through all these famous names and came to the end of it and right at the bottom it said, ‘’...And to Andy Irvine from Woody personally’’.
I was always very proud of the fact that I knew Woody…personally… if only by letter…
Around this time, I went to see Jack Elliott play a hootenanny at The Ballads and Blues Club.
Jack had traveled with Woody in the early fifties and sang Woody’s songs and told stories about Woody that thrilled me. At the end of the evening, he was surrounded by hardier souls than I and I waited until he left the club and followed himself and his wife, June, home on the train. I stalked them from train station to lodgings, made a note of the number of the house and sent a letter. Good at sending letters I was in those days!
Jack rang me a day or two later and said : "Come on over!" Little did he know what he was letting himself in for … I used to ride my bicycle over there every morning after that. I’d arrive at about 10am, bang on the door and sit on the end of the bed till they got up! Davy Graham was another frequent visitor. Jack, June and I would go out, leaving Davy to play Jack’s guitar. When we got home, Davy would be gone and Jack would be lamenting that his "goddam strings" had been new that morning!
Derroll Adams and his Belgian wife, Isabelle came over from Brussels where they were living and Jack and Derroll, who were old friends and playing partners, did some great gigs together. Derroll was much taken with my mother and he and Jack listened with interest to her stories of "treading the boards" in the Thirties.
Derroll and Isabelle went back to Belgium and Jack went off to Israel where he parted with June. She wrote me a letter, telling me this and asking me to look after Jack when he came back that spring. Jack was pretty cut up about the split when he got back to London. I went down to Waterloo station to meet him with his agent, Malcolm Nixon.
Jack seemed a bit lost without June but he wasn’t alone for too long. He used to come round to my flat with various girlfriends and we’d sit and record tapes for Woody. One evening we recorded a Woody song and Jack turned to me in amazement and said, "Andy, you sound more like Woody than I do!" As Woody had once said to Jack, "Jack you sound more like me than I do!" I felt pretty proud.
Jack showed me how to play the harmonica in Woody’s style, holding the low notes on the right hand side and ‘’sucking when the instructions tell you to blow and blowing when they tell you to suck’’. He also introduced me to many of the people involved in folk music at that time. We’d often go to parties given by Cy Grant, Noel Harrison or Shirley Collins’ ex husband, Mike Marshall. It was a whole new world for me and I took it all in without saying very much. I still felt like a child among all these grown-ups. I was a bashful 17-year old.
I also met Cisco Houston that summer. I had written to him in California and he had sent me a couple of signed photos. He came over to play a few gigs after touring India with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. At the beginning of his tour I missed my great opportunity. He invited me over for tea and I was about to cycle over when I suddenly thought, "I’ll take a mandolin and I can be Woody and he can be Cisco". Remembering that I had not practised the mandolin for a while, I sat down and played it for what I thought was about five minutes. It wasn’t, it was 40 and when I got over there, there was a message saying he’d had to go out! I’ve agonised over that missed moment ever since. I went to both his London concerts and was just a little disappointed. He never sounded like he had with Woody when he was singing alone. I met him a few times subsequently but never again had the chance to get him on his own. He seemed like a really nice person. I told him I was going to live in New Jersey near Woody and he said that I should come out to California.
One year later, Cisco died of cancer. Same day as my mother died of the same disease.
Well, I grew up pretty fast after that. I got a job on the BBC Repertory company that lasted for two years and gave up all thoughts of going to New Jersey. Uneasily, my dad and I shared the flat, the rent and the cleaning duties.
I had a great time on the Rep. It was a full time job. You might be playing the lead in some abysmal Afternoon Theatre or playing two or three small parts in a Third Programme feature. Whatever came along you were expected to do it.
I used to hang out in The George, round the corner from Broadcasting House, drinking with the likes of Louis MacNeice, the famous Irish Poet who was working for the BBC at the time. I was in love with his secretary …
I decided that when my two-year contract was up, I would head for Dublin…