Luminaries of the Haight-Ashbury: Rodney Albin

Part I: The Folk Years

I guess of all the friends I had back then, in the halcyon days of my hippie youth,  Rodney Albin is the guy I miss the most.  When he died of stomach cancer in 1984, still a young  man, I felt like I was losing my brother all over again.

He was a pal, you know? Guys like him are hard to come by.

Well, so tell us about him, Pig.

Like so many of my erstwhile folknik hippie commie friends of the early sixties, I met Rodney kind of like this…

Late one morning in, I suppose, the Fall of 1962, I exited San Francisco State’s HLL building, where the boring part of my initiation into high Western culture took place, and ambled across the lawn towards the  Commons to get coffee and see what was up.  Despite its medieval sounding name, four legged sheep were not pastured in the Commons, nor did peasants, other than us, trudge there every morning to work their land.  The Commons was a big cafeteria in the center of campus, and everything of consequence that happened to me in those years took place inside its doors at the second table on the left.  Or on the lawn directly in front.  That’s it in the center of the picture, as it looked in 1960.  Who could guess a square building like that would become a cauldron of sixties counterculture?

On this particular morning, I happened to notice a new folkie sitting cross-legged on the lawn, surrounded by the regulars and passing around a dulcimer he had just built.  He was a tall gangly kind of folknik, just transferred in from the College of San Mateo, a junior college on the Peninsula.  He was wearing bright red trousers, a stove-piped hat and tails, and he was playing The Battle of New Orleans on his fiddle.  No.  Wait a minute.  That’s got to be my imagination.  The top hat and tails didn’t come until later.  OK, he was dressed like a normal person.  It was his dulcimer that was extraordinary.

Interested in dulcimers myself, I forgot about the coffee (never easy to do)  and squeezed into the circle.  That dulcimer was pretty cool, all right.  Shaped like Jayne Mansfield with soft flowing curves and strummed with a sea gull feather, you could tune it to any interesting modal scale you might be in the mood for, brush its strings with that quill, and there you were,  mournful and lost in the holler, sounding like you’d been born in Viper, Kentucky instead of San Francisco.  I started in on an improvised, sea gull strummed Pretty Polly, and pretty soon I was hooked.  The Commons fled and there I was in some longago fog shrouded mountain glen, watching some no-goodnik do in Pretty Polly while the pretty little birdies mourned.  It sounded like magic, and Rodney had created the damn thing out of a piece of spruce.

I got to know Rodney after a while and discovered he was from the next holler over.  My holler was called San Mateo and his they called Belmont.  He and his younger brother Peter were still living with their parents in an upper middle class shack in the Belmont hills.  I also discovered that Rodney wasn’t the new guy – I was.  He was well-known in folk circles up and down the Peninsula and across the Bay in Berkeley.  He’d masterminded the folk music festival at the College of San Mateo where young Jerry Garcia made his debut to an unappreciative audience of frat rats.  Rodney and George ‘The Beast’ Howell had opened the Boar’s Head the preceding summer, a folk-oriented coffeehouse in the loft above the book store in San Carlos where George worked.  Garcia and the other Palo Alto folkniks regularly showed up there to jam into the weekend nights.

I started dropping in to see Rodney when I was down that way.  On my first visit, he showed me the six string balalaika he’d built out of orange crate wood.   It was his first sort of crude try at building an instrument.  He was way beyond now of course. He’d already finished a viol de gamba, and now he was building a harpsichord on his bedroom floor.  Its parts spread hither and thither across the  carpet; tools, a reel to reel tape recorder and an unmade bed filled the rest.  He used the tape machine to record performances at the Boar’s Head.  Apparently some of these tapes still exist and are passed from hand to hand in Deadhead circles.   They would include: Garcia, Ron McKernan, David Nelson, Rodneys’s brother Peter of course, and other less talented performers who went on to become teachers and bureaucrats and accountants – but still played pretty good.

Rodney opened a whole new world to me.  Before Rod, folk music meant Joan Baez manning the barricades while Pete Seeger fired his musket at the Pentagon.  It meant peace marches, sit-ins and and drinking cheap dago red at parties while somebody plunked out ‘Twelve Gates To the City, Hallelujah’ on a nylon string guitar.  But these friends of Rodney’s were…dedicated.  They played bluegrass and old-timey stuff, They listened to Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers on scratchy 78s.  Was Charlie from Greenwich Village or Boston?  I wasn’t sure.  They sang about chickens loose in the barnyard squawk squawk and subjects like that.  Who could figure?  But, hey – I liked Rodney so I listened and tried to understand.  I just didn’t see how “Boil That Cabbage Down” would save the world from nuclear destruction.

Peter Albin was already a more accomplished musician, although still in high school.  He could wail on Bile That Cabbage Down but he could also play Mississippi Delta slide guitar riffs, and,  what really impressed me — he knew some Chuck Berry stuff.  I know I was supposed to have outgrown this teenaged foolishness, but tell my ears that!

There was something about Rodney, his gentle spirit, his brilliant mind and his dry sense of humor, that drew me to him.  I liked hanging out with him, and so did most everyone else in our circle. Later I learned there were circles like that all up and down the Peninsula.

Rodney was kind of funny looking.  He had a classic beanpole shape, gawky you might say, you might even say gawky and sniffy.  He was born to play comedy roles, and he worked it.  The first time I saw him (as opposed to meeting him) was the preceding spring when he was still attending the College of San Mateo.  I knew some CSM kids in a school production of Twelfth Night, and I went see one of them, Dick Shapero,  play Malvolio.  Dick was an experienced actor and knew how to get laughs,  but when Rodney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek entered stage right, Dick had to give up.   Rodney didn’t say anything.  He just stood there in his Elizabethan get-up, awkward, gawky, rubbing his nose, looking around as if he couldn’t quite remember his lines. The audience slowly began to titter and he built the moment into a the play’s biggest laugh.  He worked that role successfully for the next twenty years.

(I KNOW this isn’t Twelfth night, ok?  I don’t have a photo of Twelfth Night and I need a photo here.  So here is the same company’s Pygmalion, produced a few months later)

A few days after Rodney passed his dulcimer around, I was sitting on the grass trying to impress some proto-hippie chicks by  playing “I’m a  whinin’ Boy, don’t deny my name” on my Mexican folk guitar.  I was using a two-fingered picking style I’d made up.  Like crab pincers, my thumb kept the rhythm while my index finger picked out the melody.  It was pretty primitive.  If I hadn’t been a soulful singer, the chicks would have walked.  As it was, they were listening all right, but they weren’t idolizing me like they should.  What could I do?

When it was Rodney’s turn to do a song, he launched into ‘Freight Train, Freight Train Going So Fast’, singing in a thin nasal voice like an elderly gent from Viper, Kentucky.  I thought his singing could use some help, but, man, he had that Elizabeth Cotton style finger-picking right down!  His thumb was rocking between the bass strings and he syncopated the melody just like the old girl herself!  Actually, I’d never heard of Elizabeth Cotton before, but whoever she was, I wanted to play like that too.  But three fingers!  How could anybody ever make so many fingers work together?  Maybe I should stick to my authentically primitive crabstyle.

But Rodney encouraged me.  He showed me the moves over and over till I started to get them.  I went back to my apartment and drove my wife mad singing the silly holy thing over and over with my thumb rocking and fingers trying to syncopate it right, “Please don’t tell them what train I’m on so they won’t know where I’ve gone.”

Linda was thinking, ‘When’s that train leaving?”

Come Christmas, Linda, in a moment of madness, gave me a mandolin.  She’d found it in a Third Street pawn shop and bought it for $20.  I was thrilled.  It’s just – how did you play one of these things?  I loved messing around with instruments and could sort of play a lot them, all by ear and without much skill.  I asked Rodney if he knew how to play one and it turned out he did.  He showed me how to hold a pick and how to play a simple tune called Liberty.  After I mastered that he taught me a more complicated minstrel song called “Colored Aristocracy.” After that, I didn’t need any more lessons.  I knew four chords and could pick two songs.  I was ready to roll!

I didn’t know it yet but I was about to take my place in the Albin Brothers’ amorphous shape-shifting band, The Liberty Hill Aristocrats.  One night, Rodney said they were going to play the Top of The Tangent in Palo Alto and they needed somebody on mandolin.  I was a mandolin player!  So next night, with some trepidation,  I got up on the little stage, playing with the likes of Jerry Garcia and Peter Albin and David Nelson – real masters of their instruments.  Rodney didn’t care if I only knew four chords.  He even let me sing one, I think it was Little Birdie.  – he liked to include people, and that included The Pondering Pig.  You had to love a guy like that.  I did.

That was Rodney, he got people going, he included them, even if it affected the professionalism of the music.   He had his priority list, and friends were higher up than professionalism.  Me too.

COMING SOON: THE  STORY OF 1090 PAGE STREET

Photo credits: Rodney, CSM Play: Pig’s files – photographer unknown, SF State campus: SF Pub Lib