Out of Oblivion
by Bruce Muckala

A s p i r i n g   f o l k   a n d   b l u e s  a r t i s t s  in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the 1960's had two main venues - The Scholar and The Gopher Hole. The Hole (now called The Whole) was a room "deep in the bowels of the East Bank's Coffman Memorial Union" and was part of a Midwestern network of coffeehouses created for nationally touring musical artists. Performers such as Leo Kottke, Sun Ra, Jim Croce, John Denver (wearing a ski mask and using a pseudonym), Robin and Linda Williams, and Bonnie Raitt, to name just a few appeared there. The Scholar, now defunct, was owned by Mike Justin and it survived in a number of locations and incarnations.
    Leo Kottke's debut record 12 String Blues (Live at the Scholar) was recorded live in 1969 at the Scholar in it's then-location on the west bank of the Mississippi River. 12 String Blues was the first of four releases - on four different labels - in three years for Kottke. Leo was a regular at The Scholar as was "Spider" John Koerner, and, earlier in his career, Bob Zimmerman (now known as Bob Dylan). Simon and Garfunkel also played there. Kottke had been playing guitar for about nine years when this recording took place. The somewhat sparse crowds that attended the performances at The Scholar considered themselves folk music enthusiasts foremost and considered Leo a "guitarist and itinerant storyteller."
    In an interview with Anil Prasad in 1999, Kottke reminisced a bit about The Scholar: (the complete interview by Prasad can be found at Innerviews.)

"There was a kissing law that went into effect during the time I was playing at the Scholar during the time that record was made. You could not kiss in public. Mike Justin, the owner of the place, was having to go around to tell people in this little bitty coffeehouse that they couldn’t kiss each other because the police were coming in and busting him and fining him on this. This was in Minneapolis in the ‘60s. It was horrible. I’m embarrassed to talk about it. I don’t know what happened to that ordinance. But I think it was observed in the breach, rather than the application."

One thousand copies were pressed and since Kottke has achieved a measure of fame and success, the record is now considered a rarity and is sought after by fans and collectors alike. The tongue-in-cheek label - Oblivion - was apt. The Scholar’s own short-lived label released one other LP by The Langston Hughes Memorial Eclectic Jazz Band. Also of interest is that the Kottke originals are copyrighted by Symposium Music on both this release and the Symposium title Circle 'Round the Sun. The songs are also assigned to BMI which means Kottke was presumably signed up with the royalties collection organization. This notation is missing from the Symposium release.
    The liner notes state that three instrumentals were not recorded live with the other cuts. Annie Elliot, an artist and Scholar habitue, who drew the now-famous "armadillo" cover for 6 & 12 String Guitar, did the art for the record. Comments and notes are included for most of the individual songs.

"Sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom -- it may have been." stated John Murtha about Circle 'Round the Sun in his Rolling Stone article, Machine Gun Kottke: Into the Myth Gap. (1972) Murtha belonged to the Minneapolis music-scene inner circle in those early days. He wrote for various music publications, scouted the coffeehouses and took photos. Somewhat of a re-recording of 12 String Blues, Circle 'Round the Sun was recorded and released in 1970 after the release of Kottke's soon to be well-received Takoma release 6 & 12 String Guitar . Takoma was also the distributor of Circle 'Round the Sun which suggests it was part of a deal with John Fahey, the owner of Takoma. George Hanson, Leo's landlord at the time, who also got a production credit, released the record on his Symposium label.
    Circle 'Round the Sun includes "Tell Me Mama", "Long Way Up The River", and "Tell Me This Ain't the Blues" which are not included on 12 String Blues whereas 12 String Blues includes "Sunrise", "Sail Away Ladies", "Last Steam Engine Train", "You Left Me Standing" and "Mary Mary" - none of which made the cut for Circle (although "Last Steam Engine Train" did get a new treatment on Greenhouse in 1972, which, along with "Sail Away Ladies", was a Fahey rendition of an old country-blues tune). All songs on Circle were Kottke compositions except "Living in the Country" by Pete Seeger and a rendition of the traditional "Tell Me Mama".
    Of "Tell Me This Ain't The Blues", Kottke relates in Tom Murtha's interview for the Minneapolis music scene tabloid Connie's Insider;

"I wrote that when I first arrived in St. Cloud. I was staying in a hotel [above] a Country Western joint. I was living a real Hollywood cliche, complete with plastic curtains on the window and a neon sign flashing out front. Everything was so predictable it was terrifying. Noisy band on the floor beneath me, old man crying in the hallway. In the end it got so boring that I put a glass on the floor so I could hear everything that band was doing downstairs in the Blue Blazer.
  There was one song they used to play, whoever they were, that was just great. They only did it once, and I tried to remember it, but I never could figure it out. That was how I wrote "Tell Me This Ain't The Blues." I was trying to remember the other one."

It is ironic the first album was titled 12-String Blues when in the same article Leo is quoted as saying:

"I'm not a blues singer. I'm getting to like blues a lot better than I used to. I didn't used to like it at all, but when I met Fahey, he pointed out to me that I was missing a lot by not listening to any of the old blues players or singers. So we went rummaging [through] his huge library and finally he played me a record by Blind Blake. He's the first blues player I ever heard and enjoyed. When I listened to the others, I had to be very detached and esoteric about it, because otherwise I'd get bored."

Why Kottke chose to record again so quickly after 6 & 12 String Guitar probably had something to do with the absence of vocals on the Takoma release. Fahey was the one who insisted there be no vocals on the Takoma debut. Of course, one can assume that was okay with Kottke - he just wanted to succeed. Leo was hardly a money-maker at that time. He was indigent in Pasadena when his new manager Denny Bruce, located him. "Denny and I were made for each other. Without him, I could have ended up stranded in a blizzard somewhere in South Dakota with my starving children, Billboard in my pocket. Denny is a human being." The Rolling Stone Magazine record review that helped push Kottke into the guitar "limelight" didn't appear until 1970. It was hard enough getting cash from 6 & 12 String Guitar and no one but people in Minneapolis/St. Paul and a few in St. Cloud had 12 String Blues at the time. Kottke was probably more interested in having a vocalist/guitarist career at that time than as an instrumentalist anyway.
    Bruce, who didn't become Leo's manager until after 6 & 12 String Guitar had already been released, has written that Kottke's demo sat at Fahey's house for over 6 months from the time Leo sent it to him until Fahey let him know he was interested. This in itself sheds light on the idea that Kottke wasn't putting all his eggs in the Takoma basket let alone putting all his faith in Fahey's sense of timing. Leo's vocals weren't what initially attracted listeners to him at that time. Indeed, once under the production values of Bruce and with the Capitol contract secured, the differences are obvious and it wasn't until after a couple years of production under Bruce that Leo first cracked the Top Ten in Denver with his cover of Tom T. Hall's "Pamela Brown." As an aside, years later Bruce met David Bowie in LA who mentioned he owned the Oblivion record. When Bruce asked how Bowie obtained it, he said at an Army PX in England. He claimed to want to know everything about playing the 12-string guitar, and heard Leo was "cool."
    As of late, Leo has been quoted as thinking more highly of 12 String Blues than the attempt resulting in Circle 'Round the Sun. Any feelings toward it on his part now are probably as a "historical" document of where he came from rather than any real endearing qualities of the music. Indeed, it is reported by a number of fans that when asked to sign their copy of Circle, Kottke often inscribed "Burn this record" on it. Interestingly enough, he wasn't happy with Circle back in 1971 either, as quoted in the same Connie's Insider article;

Murtha: I understand you weren't too happy with your Symposium album.

"That was just my paranoia about my vocals. That was in the middle of all kinds of frightening things. We got caught in Pasadena with an infestation of worms in the water system, I was broke and generally ornery. I was not in the mood for music or music lovers.
  I did the Symposium record quite a while ago, [actually, a little over a year] only three months after the Takoma, which came out in December 1969. It is mainly a remake of that first Oblivion record.
  It's silly for me to be dissatisfied with it. Actually, "Prodigal Grave" is some of the best singing I've ever done! "

Capitol had nothing to do with anything released before Mudlark and had no rights to control any of Kottke's back catalog anyway. Denny Bruce himself wasn't even aware the two records existed until well into managing Kottke. Who actually owns the rights and has the master tapes stashed away in a closet remains to be seen. There exist a few sites on the Internet where you can download the music in it's entirety anyway so that may be a moot point. An interesting note is that Takoma was sold a number of times and so was Leo's other label (Chrysalis) which eventually ended up being absorbed into Capitol. There are sources that have 6 & 12 released by Takoma twice on LP, issued in Spain by Discophon, issued in the United Kingdom on Sonet, by Allegiance in 1986, and by Rhino Records in 1994. Fantasy, which bought the Takoma catalog, has reissued it on CD also. The Official site has it released by Takoma, Rhino and Fantasy only. 12 String Blues and Circle 'Round the Sun have never been re-issued and probably never will be in Kottke's lifetime. Anil Prasad brought the subject up to Kottke in the 1999 interview noted above:

"If there’s still a master tape [of 12 String Blues ] somewhere, I wouldn’t object to [the album] being on CD because it was the very first thing and what’s wrong with it is what’s genuinely wrong with it. Whereas with Circle ‘Round The Sun, the mistakes were made in pursuit of something. [Circle] was supposed to be the professional version of [12 String Blues]. That’s why [Circle] sucks and why [12 String Blues] is whatever it is. The vocals on [Circle] were [makes yodeling sound]. On [12 String Blues], you can hear a door opening on it. It was recorded with two old EV dynamic mics on goosenecks and a Viking quarter-inch tape recorder. Man, I’ll never forget it."


Copyright © 2000 by Bruce W. Muckala. All Rights Reserved.

References:
"Machine Gun Kottke: Into the Myth Gap", Tom Murtha, Rolling Stone, August 1974
"Leo Kottke", an interview with Tom Murtha, Connie's Insider, June 26-July 11, 1971
"Leo Kottke", Mark Humphrey, Frets Magazine, April 1982
"
Getting to Mouth Off", Anil Prasad, Innerviews, July 1999

Related Links:
6 & 12 String Guitar - the "Armadillo" album
Capitol Years

 




12-String Blues (Live At The Scholar)
Obl-S1
Released 1969

 

Side One

If Momma Knew
One of the first songs I wrote. The second actually, around 1962. At the time I considered evil the only virtue worth cultivating.

So Cold In China 
The title lyric and, consequently, the idea for the song, were stolen from somebody who sang at the Ontario Place in Washington when John Hurt worked there.

Furry Jane
There's not much to say about this one. Its origin was in a couple of nightmares, one of which nearly got me.

Circle 'Round The Sun 
The majority of the lyrics are traditional. Another early song.

Sweet Louise

The Prodigal Grave 
This was written in a fit of terror while trying to calm down. It originally contained many more verses which later served only to confuse, so they were discarded. 

 

Side Two

Easter And The Sargasso Sea
Columbus got stuck in this sea of weeds. There was no wind. Johnny Quest often goes there on business. Consequently resurrection here is not only promising but necessary.

Sunrise

Living In The Country
Seeger's great contribution to the 12-string. Originally recorded as a guitar duet with Frank Hamilton. Later recorded at high speed with accompanying whistle.

Sail Away Ladies
This is John Fahey's arrangement done on Vol. 4 Takoma, with Al Wilson and his Veena.

The Last Steam Engine Train 
Fahey's contribution to steam engines. (Vol. 3 Takoma), somewhat augmented and re-arranged.

You Left Me Standing
in A.

Mary Mary
I sometimes think people like to hear this song for the same reason they like to watch accidents.

 

Credits:

Cover design: Annie Elliott
Recorded live at The Scholar Coffeehouse, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
All songs excepting numbers 3, 4, and 5, side two, © Symposium Music, BMI 1969
Mastering by Sweet Jane Ltd. Dave and Sylvia Ray
Oblivion Recording Company, 247 Cedar Ave. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Liner notes:

Excluding three instrumentals, this performance was taped live at the Scholar Coffeehouse in Minneapolis, one of the oldest coffeehouses in the country and one of the very few to survive electricity and liquor licenses while maintaining a respectably burdensome debt. Many of the sounds that sometimes characterize performances in the place though are absent from the record-random hummings from the piano when it feels like it, the sound of one or two people who eschewed the door for the plate glass window, and in Kottke's case, bizarre speech noises from the stage between songs. (These may be released later in Paoli, Penn.) Despite these "artifacts", coffeehouses and auditoriums are the only places where a guitar player can expect a quiet audience. Still, as in its now distant past for a younger Robert Zimmerman or John Koerner, the Scholar audience is appreciative and quiet.



Circle 'Round The Sun
SYS 2001
Released 1970

Side One

If Momma Knew
Furry Jane
Sweet Louise
Tell Me Mama
Long Way Up The River

Side Two 

Circle 'Round The Sun
So Cold In China
Easter And The Sargasso Sea
Prodigal Grave
Living In The Country
Tell Me This Ain't The Blues

Credits:

Engineering: Bob Schultz, Roger Wilhelmi, Skip Hotchkiss, George Hanson
Production and A&R: Skip Hotchkiss, George Hanson
Photography: Soren Svedvik
Graphics: Lance Raichert 

Distributed by Tokoma [sic] Records Inc., P.O. Box 5369, Santa Monica, Calif. 90405
Copyright 1970 by Symposium Music, 315 E. Franklin, Minneapolis, Minn. 55404

 




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