Remembering Derroll

Tucker Zimmerman*

We talked about the spirit. The invisible body inside of us, that moves us, that makes us see and hear, that reaches out and connects us with everyone, and - perhaps - survives the death of the physical body. That whole other world we seldom experience - premonitional dreams, telekinesis, ESP, re-incarnation, astrology, clairvoyance, tarot, kaballah, UFOs, Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, "Tuck, there's this book you just gotta read." Zen Buddhism, I Ching, peyote . . there was no order to his lessons, just wild leaps of the imagination that would swoop out of "Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain" and glide smoothly into Native American Shamanism. Derroll talked and I listened. I knew about most of the subjects he was teaching - a little bit at least, enough to keep up, tho I'd never experienced any of them from The Derroll Adam's Point of View.

And what a point of view it was. Each time we got together he transformed my perceptions, lifted me up until my feet were an inch off the ground. Each moment became magical, special, high-lighted, spot-lighted. I lived in a state of grace in those hours I spent with Derroll.

Derroll pulled this magic trick on a lot of people, and he did it for entire audiences too. On stage, Derroll was pure spirit. At times, the spirit of an old tree in the backwoods of Oregon, and at other times the spirit of Coyote, the young trickster, the joker, the fool. And that is what made him a great banjo player and singer.

I was never a folk artist, tho some gentle, generous folk tried to convince me that I was and gave me a chance to get up on their stages and sing my songs for their audiences. My background is classical music and what ever was on the running edge of the rock scene in the 50s and 60s. I'd never liked folk tunes. The folk music scene in San Francisco and Berkeley seemed too contrived and hypocritically commercial. I'd heard a few Dylan songs, but I didn't pay attention until he went electric. The first time I heard of Derroll was in “Don't Look Back”. 1967. "- Now, boys - "

But none of that ever got in our way. His traditional two-step, toe-tap Appalachian Mountain songs that he turned into fields and valleys filled with rivers of his own imagination and my backbeat, rhythm' n' blues what-ever-it-was kind of wild poems. Even better, over the years Derroll's music began to seep into mine. I learned his songs from his recordings, just like a fan.

But Derroll was never halted by other styles of music. He talked about the banjo coming from China and how the strings should be tuned to a pentatonic scale. After a gig in Antwerp we went into a bar for a beer and found ourselves in the middle of a disco scene. We stayed for an hour, listening, the drum beats pounding in our bones, and watching a dozen dancers go thru their routines. Derroll was delighted. He said someday he would record a disco album. Banjo and drum machine. Later, at the age of 63, he told me that he'd love to get involved with techno music. "Rap too," he said. And this too, this open mind, is what made Derroll a great banjo player and singer.

Many musicians of all kinds knew him. I met Loudon Wainwright at an outdoor concert in Brussels. The first thing he said to me was, "Do you know Derroll?" The second and last was, "Do you have his address?"

One 1998 summer afternoon I'm walking the streets of Salem, Oregon. I'm stopped by a poster in a shop window. "The Oregon Trail Band." I phone the office. "The band does two of Derroll's song every night," she tells me.

In 2001 I'm sorting thru my deceased mother's record collection - from the 40s, 50s and 60s, heavy vinyl dance bands right up to the latest from Nashville. And there - right in the middle - Joan Baez in Concert. "Portland Town" and in parentheses, part of his name : (D. Adams.)

He once told me the story of Portland Town. "It was during the Korean War. I was in California, on a beach at night, somewhere south of Monterey, down past Morro Bay. Pismo Beach I think it was. I came upon this campfire by the ocean, a man and his wife, middle-age. They said sit down stranger and join us. I sat down at their fire and they shared their food and drink with me. They were from Portland. My own town. We traded stories and we got to know each other better. Later, when we'd had a few more drinks, they broke down and told me the story they'd been wanting to tell from the start. They'd just lost all three of their boys in the war. Killed in action. Not one, not two, but all three. In the past six months. The woman - the mother, she said, 'I ain't gonna have no babies no more.' I'll tell you, man, it was the saddest of stories I'd ever heard. I had tears coming down my face. But they weren't crying. This man and this woman. They were just staring into the fire. They still couldn't believe it had happened."

I was born in Portland Town . . . yes I was, yes I was.

Derroll loved stories. He loved telling stories. He had hundreds of them, including a few he would never tell because they would make him look like a braggart. I never once heard Derroll brag about himself, and I am sure he never told anyone the story of how he saved my life. It was a hot summer day in Neuchatel, Switzerland and we went out on the lake in a small boat - his wife and his baby girl and me and my wife and Derroll at the controls of the outboard motor. Out in the middle I decided to take a swim. I stripped to my shorts and jumped in. I swam alongside the boat for about ten minutes, then I began to tire and force myself to keep up with the boat. Soon I was exhausted. Derroll cut the motor and waited for me to catch up. I dog-paddled up, reached and grabbed the gunwale with both hands, and tried to pull myself out of the water. Impossible. The bottom side of the boat sloped away and there was no way to press any part of my body against it to get leverage. I was all out of arm strength too. I said to Derroll, "Head back to shore and I'll just hang on." The nearest shore was a thousand yards away and !I wondered if I could really hang on. I was past exhaustion. I thought I was going to drown.

But Derroll didn't start the boat. Instead, he reached over the side, grabbed a fistful of elastic in the back of my shorts and lifted me out of the water. Like a drowned dog. His arm was a crane. It swung over and gently set me face down on the bottom of the boat. And tho I was no heavyweight at 160 pounds, I out-weighed Derroll by maybe twenty. One arm; one smooth motion. He never trembled; he didn't drop me. I could have been a ten-pound sack of potatoes he'd just picked up at the market. "Better put your clothes on. We're comin' up on some folks in a minute or two."

Derroll was strong. Very strong. He never worked out or tried to keep in shape. He'd earned those muscles as a kid in Oregon, working on the farms and in the woods. He'd built his muscles as a boy and had never lost them. Great physical strength is not a quality you'd expect from a 50-year old man who played banjo with the softest of touches.

It is more than likely that if Derroll had not left America, if he had been on stage with Jack Elliott in New York in the sixties, his style would have been adopted by many banjo players and that he would have inspired a younger generation of musicians as he did in Europe.

In a children's park one day he explained Aikido - the Japanese martial art in which the students are dressed like butterflies. He lifted his arms and performed a delicate dance of such precision that I could only stand breathless and amazed. I was even more amazed when I realized that his dance was improvised. Derroll was making it up, moment by moment, effortlessly.

And Derroll was generous too. He gave himself away at all times. He gave himself away to audiences and he gave himself away to strangers on the street. On a winter day in the mid-1980s, Derroll took me on a nostalgia walk thru the old streets of Brussels where he'd lived in the 1960s. He took me into the Welcome Cafe and we spent the next two hours talking to a crowd of people that had known Derroll in the past. It took us an hour to walk from the Welcome to the Grand Place, as many, many people stopped Derroll to say hello. It took us another hour to get out of the Grand Place and up to the train station. We were waylaid every ten steps. So many people knew him and he remembered most of their names. All of this 20 years later from a 50-year old man who had the firmest of handshakes.

The night we met was typical of all the other nights in our future - unpredictable and graced with spirit. Spring of 1971. I sang on a festival in Charleroi, Belgium. Both Derroll's name and mine were on the poster, tho I didn't know there was a poster until later. Earlier in the evening I'd played a festival near Brussels and had been traffic-jammed and rained upon for four hours straight by the time I got to Charleroi, already more than an hour late. Which is to say, I was very nervous and ready to go out of my mind. A thousand people in the pouring rain, the makeshift stage at one end of the parking lot, already drenched because of a leak in the canvas roof. I sit down next to the drip. I touch a microphone and it zaps a quick jolt of electricity up my arm to my shoulder. I tune my guitar. The lights go out. Everything goes out. The stage is dark, dead. The only thing visible is a thousand rain-streaked shadows out there in the parking lot, waiting, praying. I'm ready to scream. Maybe even smash my guitar.

I feel two hands - one on each of my shoulders. Not pushing down, or even just resting, but rather lifting me up. Then his bass voice, "Don't worry, Tuck, we'll soon have everything under control." Of course, it was Derroll. I'd heard about him; he'd about me. Another West Coast reverse-pioneer, living in Belgium and wandering around Europe on a few songs and shoestring. I'd play a club in Flanders. "Of course you know Derroll." A hundred clubs. The same assumption.

And now there he was, standing behind me, lifting me out of my chair with his hands on top of my shoulders. I followed him off the stand and into an equipment van that belonged to the Savoy Brown Band. Mats rolled up. Old rugs. Pillows. Derroll slid the door closed. Rain pounded on the roof. A street light just outside gave the place a dim kind of moonlight. Derroll, seated cross-legged in front of me, then proceeded to roll one of the largest hash bombs I'd ever seen. We didn't even come close to finishing it. Two puffs and we were out of the rain, out of the short-circuited festival, out of Charleroi, Belgium and we were dealing with a new kind of atmosphere. You could hear the spirit breathe. You could see it glowing from the corner of your eye.

Derroll said, "There's this book you should read," and from his jacket pocket he took out a paperback copy of The Greening of America by Charles Reich. He handed it to me, but I held it off and instead reached into my jacket pocket and took out another copy of The Greening of America.

"I'm about half way," I said.
"Well, how about that," he replied, " - that's where I am too, these days - about half way."

  1. TUCKER ZIMMERMAN was born February 14, 1941, San Francisco California, studied music there from the ages of 4 to 25, and completed his studies at San Francisco State College (now University) in theory and composition in 1966.
    In 1965 he began writing songs (words and music) for his own voice with harmonica and guitar and to date has written over 800 such songs.
    In 1966 he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study composition in Rome, Italy with Gofredo Petrassi. In 1967 the scholarship was renewed for a second year. During this time he began to perform his solo songs in various folkclubs in Rome.
    After a two-year stay in London where he recorded his first album of songs, he returned to the continent and began living in Belgium. From 1970 to 1984 he played hundreds of solo concerts all over Europe, especially in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany where he was regarded as a “song poet”. During this period he also continued to write songs and recorded 5 more LPs. From 1984 to 1998 he stopped touring as a solo performer. His creative output from then until present was divided into two media: musical composition and the writing of fiction. Since 1998 he has returned to performance with his Nightshift Trio and has resumed writing songs.

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