This article originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 23rd April 2016
I like these American Primitive guitarists who have been around the block a few times. They plough their own furrow, and long may they continue to do so. Case in point: I sent Don Bikoff a bunch of interview questions. He decided to ignore them completely and instead sent me back an essay - a mini-biography, as it were. I mulled it over for a while, wondering whether to edit the hell out of it and squeeze it kicking and screaming into some sort of Q&A format. No, I concluded. This is how it should be read and it’s far more entertaining a prospect for it.You may know Don for his Celestial Explosion, that great lost fingerstyle album from 1968, reissued a couple of years back by the ever-dependable Tompkins Square Records. That’s far from the whole story, though - he has been a busy man these last few years. There’s the session he did for WFMU Radio back 2012, now available via the Free Music Archive. There’s a further session for Folkadelphia that you can download via their Bandcamp page. Then, in 2014, he released his first new album in over 45 years, Hallowed Ground. It’s an album you should hear. Even after this, Don isn’t standing still - he’s currently recording duo material with Mark Fosson, and rumour has it that these two venerable elder statesmen of fingerstyle are sparking off each other in a most edifying manner. The working title of the forthcoming album is Old Man Noises, and on the basis of the yet-to-be-mixed bits and pieces I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, it’s one to look out for.
Over to you, Don...
I began playing guitar around 1959 or 1960, motivated by listening to Allen Freed under the bed covers ever since I was six years old. I had a great collection of various pomades that froze my hair better than Gorilla Glue to simulate that Elvis look. Early AM radio rock came in, with a good smattering of southern blues - on a good night the stations be heard from quite a long way away. Nonetheless, I coerced my father into buying me a guitar at age twelve: I still remember that Harmony F-hole red and black sunburst six-string. He insisted, however, that I take lessons. Let’s just say that Mel Bay and I did not see eye-to-eye and the lessons were short-lived, to say the least. To backtrack a bit, my first public performance consisted of an accordion tune for my second grade class, followed by some trumpeting through to the sixth grade. Grade eight led to the formation of Donny and the Tornadoes, my early cover band, playing Beach Boys and other top of the pops tunes. At around fifteen years of age, I came to the conclusion that some guitarists were actually using their fingers rather than a plectrum. Perhaps it was Pete Seeger and my Weavers albums that led to this revelation.
Now it gets a bit more interesting, as I was old enough to pick myself up and travel the Long Island Railroad to NYC and Greenwich Village. This was truly the very beginning of the folk scene and I was privy to performances by such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Buffy St. Marie and Jose Feliciano - the list goes on and on. One evening, Dave Van Ronk spotted a kid at the front table in the Gaslight Café and castigated him for writing furiously throughout his performance every night. After much embarrassment, he took me aside and allowed me to sit in at the backroom area, where I was treated to all the artists, whom I pestered unmercifully. The die had been cast. As I grew as a young guitarist, I sought out who I considered to be the true masters. I found the recordings of Alan Lomax to be a great help. The folk boom was coming of age and the Newport Folk Festival was in its infancy. I spent afternoons there, often under a tree with Mississippi John Hurt and maybe five or ten people looking on. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House… guitarists playing slide with tableware and steak bones. I was in blues heaven.
My own style was beginning to coalesce as a result of my encounters with these great artists. I never heard of John Fahey until a friend from California introduced me to his music and commented that we were somewhat alike. Truly a case of independent discovery on my part… I thought there must be a parallel universe somewhere out there for fingerstyle pickers. As the sixties came and went, I did get to meet Fahey; I still have one of the letters he wrote me. I found Robbie Basho intriguing, along with Peter Walker, Sandy Bull and a host of others. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery on the lower east side of Manhattan had both Peter Walker and I playing for the faithful.
So along came an introduction to a record company owner who was looking for new artists for his label, Keyboard Records. I recall going to his office for an unofficial audition of sorts. He chronicled his own success at producing the Firestone Tyre Xmas Album and the Dorman’s Endico Cheese jingle (The first cheese individually wrapped in plastic!). Ed was very enthusiastic about my unique approach to the guitar and said he had an opening for a single album. The previous artist he interviewed simply didn’t excite him. His name was Neil Diamond.
Within the next few months in 1968, Celestial Explosion was released and, much to my surprise, garnered great reviews from Record World and other critics. An underground favorite was the phrase often used to describe my music. My brief encounter with a press agent led me to a nationwide TV live performance on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, where I lost to a Russian gymnastic team and a singing shoemaker. Just search for me on Youtube and you can see it for yourself. Ted said, ‘That’s unusual, to say the least.’ Subsequent years led to performances in Europe and small clubs throughout the U.S. and then reality hit. Family and day jobs happened. But then, 40 years later, Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square fame heard me on a local radio show and contacted me. One thing led to another and before I knew it Celestial Explosion was re-released to a new wave of listeners. I released another album just last year, Hallowed Ground, my second in 40 years.
I actually have been quite active again by my modest standards. I’m doing a number of folk festivals this Spring: The Montauk Music Festival, Music on the Great South Bay, Hopscotch in Raleigh, NC, The Bing Arts Center in Springfield, Ma, the Glen Cove Folk Festival and who knows what else. I also continue to play at small venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan and on Long Island… Union Pool, Elvis Guesthouse and the Living Room, to name but a few. One of the best things to happen has been my association with Mark Fosson. Mark is both a remarkable player, musician and composer and he and I share a vision of sorts, that enables us to play so well together. We are hoping to release a joint project in the near future.
2021 Addendum: Mark Fossum's passing in 2018 sadly curtailed the work Don was doing with him on Old Man Noises. Nonetheless, they recorded eight or nine tracks together. Here's a video by Jesse Sheppard of the two of them playing together.