This is the image of Maya Deren that everyone remembers -- beautiful, ethereal. All the images I've been able find of her on the internet are from this time in her life -- the brilliant, beautiful avant-garde filmmaker.
There are no images of the Maya Deren I remember, but she's indelible in my memory. In this memory, she's 39 years old. and I am 16. It's 1956. It's the summer that I started to find my own Woodstock, not the Woodstock of my parents and their friends.
I met Jimmy Gavin, a Greenwich Village folksinger, who wore jeans, an open collar Oxford shirt with black T shirt under it, and a fraying tweed sport jacket, which became my model for how I wanted to look for a long time, maybe still. I started to write a short story about Jimmy once, never finished it. Here's all there is of it, at least so far:
Driving to work today, I surprised myself by remembering all the words to “Johnny Rollin’Stone” by Jimmy Gavin – at least, I remembered all the words if “Johnny Rollin’Stone” only has three stanzas. If it has a fourth, I’ve forgotten it, and if I’ve forgotten it, the chances are no one remembers it. Jimmy Gavin, a Google search confirms, has been completely forgotten. Maybe not so surprising; the first verse of “Johnny Rollin’Stone” was:Epic Records changed. It had British Invasion stars like Donovan and the Dave Clark Five and Jimmy Page. Later, the Clash. Culture Club, Sade, Luther Vandross, George Michael. Later still, Jessica Simpson, Good Charlotte. My good friend and former student, Scott Graves, works there now.
Well, I’ve worked in the town
And I’ve worked on the farm
But all the work that I ever done
Was by my strong right arm
They call me rambler
Roller through this land
It’s Johnny Rollin’Stone
I’m a roller through the land
Well, it’s no worse than the sort of song the Limelighters recorded, or the Kingston Trio, or the Brothers Four, back in the days of the folk boom, when all those groups did what Jimmy did, which was lift verses more or less whole from songs collected by the Lomaxes or Moe Asch or Izzy Young, printed in Sing Out!, sung in the dry fountain at the center of Washington Square on Sunday morning. “Johnny Rollin’Stone” lifted the ramblin’ and gamblin’ from more or less everywhere, and the guy who works on the farm by his strong right arm from Carl Sandburg, who in turn…
It was released on Epic, and Epic was an odd label with no clear style back then, not like Chess or Atlantic or Gee. I didn’t have too many Epic records in my collection. I had “Don’t Let Go” by Roy Hamilton, which began
Hear that whistle it’s ten o’clock
Don’t let go – don’t let go
Come on baby it’s time to rock
Don’t let go – don’t let go
But it was never really time to rock for Roy Hamilton, whose throbbing tenor was more suited for songs like “Ebb Tide” and “Unchained Melody.” And I had “Bacon Fat,” by Andre Williams “Mr. Rhythm” and his New Group, which began
When I was down in, ah, Tennessee
All my friends was, ah, glad to see me
Seen some down by the railroad track
Seen some cotton pickers with their sacks on their backs
They said, hey man, we’re glad to see you back
We got a new dance called the Bacon Fat
It goes, diddly diddly dit…
It would be inaccurate to say that I’ve never thought of Jimmy from that day to this, though for someone who was, for a short time, such a powerful influence, I’ve thought of him remarkably little. After all, I was to find out from Washington Square regulars like Ben Rifkin and Happy Traum and others whom I scarcely dared approach because they wouldn’t talk to anyone who didn’t have a prewar Martin, and wasn’t adept at at least ten styles of finger picking, that one was supposed to have no respect for guys like Erik Darling who’d sold out and made hit records. Sort of like having the de rigueur no respect for Billy Collins today. And that was, of course, a few years before having no respect for a Village folksinger like Peter Tork who had sold out and Hey, hey, he was a Monkee. So what respect could one have, I guess, for a guy like Jimmy who’d sold out and hadn’t made hit records.
There was the time, 25 years ago, in the mid-70s, when worked for a furniture moving company in
Greenwich Village, and went on a job on a job for a guy who turned out to be Jimmy’s manager. He had pictures on the wall of his office of a 40ish Jimmy, still trim and good-looking, a bland Johnny Cash – blander than I remembered him – still carrying a guitar, but now dressed in the black tie and dinner jacket of a Vegas supper club entertainer.
The manager was not impressed with the information that I knew Jimmy, or had once known him. He should have been. I would guess that by the mid-Seventies, Jimmy was close to being as forgotten as he is now.
The manager said something about Jimmy being big in
Europe. Basically, no one wants any kind of bonding experience with his moving man, so it didn’t go farther than that.
Jimmy changed. Jimmy in a tux, on an 8x10 glossy...that's as far I got with the story.
That same summer I met Lenny Horowitz, a painter, who I think did have something of a career in the New York art world, but I can't find him on Google now, either. He introduced me to the records of Lord Buckley.
I met Rommel Stubbs, a jazz musician, also disappeared from the kind of recognition that gets you a Google hit. Rommel took me to a party that was being given by the guy whose group he played in, Teiji Ito, and his wife, Maya Deren.
The Maya Deren I remember.
Teiji and Maya had rented a house on
When I walked into that room in 1956, Maya Deren was holding court. And she could. She was that powerful a person. Broad, handsome, an earth mother, dressed like a gypsy. I had never heard of her, in 1956. But I didn't need to have heard of her to be impressed.
As I walked in, she was saying -- about somebody, I have no idea who -- "He's the three middles I can't stand -- middle age, middle class and middle brow!"