Five Firsts: Christine Lavin

Christine Lavin
Christine Lavin

NAME: Christine Lavin
INSTRUMENT: Guitar, Boomerang Digital Phrase Sampler, Batons

1. THE FIRST ALBUM I EVER BOUGHT WAS … I don’t remember the first album, but I vividly remember the first 45 rpm (for you younger readers, a 45 is a grooved black vinyl disk with a large hole in the center – and it has music *on both sides*). It was Glen Campbell singing “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” written by Jimmy Webb on the A side, and “Gentle On My Mind” written by John Hartford on the B side. I snuck out of my grandmother’s wake in NYC to buy it.

This was in the mid 1960s. I heard “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” on FM radio and couldn’t get it out of my head, but we lived in a small town north of New York that only had one record store that didn’t stock that record. When we got to the funeral parlor and I saw a record store across the street, I knew what I had to do. I hid the record in my coat so my family wouldn’t know where I’d been (they thought I’d gone to the Ladies’ Room).

I must have worn that 45 out. I became a big fan of both songwriters, Jimmy Webb and John Hartford. Both songs are still two of my favorites.

Many years go by. Pages of the calendar flip. I did a concert with John Hartford, told him all about how his song was on the first record I ever bought. John was the ultimate multi-tasker who not only played guitar and banjo, he could also sing, play violin and clogg dance all at the same time. He saw me twirl batons and asked if I would teach him how to twirl his violin bow.

I said “What? Singing, dancing AND playing an instrument all at the same time isn’t enough for you?” Of course I taught him how to twirl. What a quick study. If he had started earlier he could have become a world champion.

Many years after that, I did a show with Jimmy Webb at the ASCAP Building in New York. I couldn’t believe that I got to meet the brilliant writer of the first record I ever bought. He mentioned during his performance that he is still trying to write an ending to another of his classic songs, “The Wichita Lineman.” Who knew that it could take years to completely finish a song?

But there’s more.

This past October I was performing in Tucson and was there for a week. I met a lot of the local musicians, and someone told me that I had to meet a singer named Susie, who was famous for being the inspiration for the song “MacArthur Park” by Jimmy Webb.

I met her, she’s lovely, and she told me about the yellow cotton dress she used to wear to work at the Aetna Insurance office across the street from MacArthur Park, and sometimes she’d have picnic lunches with Jimmy there. (“I recall the yellow cotton dress/foaming like a wave on the ground around your knees/the birds like tender babies in your hands/and the old men playing checkers by the trees”). Unfortunately she had no answers to the burning question: What’s up with the cake out in the rain? What recipe? Sweet green icing? Wha??

I asked if he wrote any other songs about her, and she said there were many, beginning with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”

I’m sorry her relationship with Jimmy didn’t work out, but songwriters always love finding out the truth behind the song, and it felt like a moment of pure magic to meet the inspiration for that song.

Susie is still a beauty, and it’s easy to see how Jimmy Webb fell so hard for her all those years ago.

2. THE FIRST CONCERT THAT I EVER SAW WAS … It was in Peekskill, New York, a family of touring classical guitarists named “The Romeros” (father and sons). I was 12, had just started to learn how to play the guitar. I went backstage to meet them – they were all very handsome and friendly, and when I told them I was learning guitar, they encouraged me to practice as much as I could.

3. THE FIRST MUSICAL INSTRUMENT I EVER PLAYED WAS … A piano. I was 8 years old. My teacher’s method was to hover over the piano keys holding a long pencil. If I played the wrong note she whacked my knuckles with the pencil. That’s why I play guitar today.

4. THE FIRST SONG THAT I EVER PERFORMED IN PUBLIC WAS … “Listen People” by Herman’s Hermits. It was at a hootenanny at an all-boys military school. I was 14.

5. THE FIRST BAND I WAS EVER IN WAS … Brute Force & the Pushovers. Bruce Forster was the lead singer, and I was the captain of the Pushovers, which meant I choreographed all our moves as background singers, and chose our matching outfits.

To this day, if I am ever onstage with a bunch of other singers (like a finale at a folk festival) – by the time the song is over I have everybody swaying and clapping together, with little dance moves thrown in. Once a Pushover choreographer, always a Pushover choreographer.

Here’s a video of my newest song:

I’m hoping to stamp out the horror of prolonged chair sitting, the latest scourge to affect this country.

Christine Lavin is headed into town for a pair of concerts at the 1848 Shaker Meeting House in Colonie on Saturday. The award-winning singer-songwriter-humorist-author-baton twirler presents “My 25th Anniversary Concert: What Was I (Ever) Thinking?,” reprising some of her early hits while introducing her latest. The vintage folkzinger concert combines signature songs with hilarious stories as she recounts the people, events, near disasters and minor miracles that have defined her life in music. Showtimes are 6:30 & 9pm. Ticket prices are $25 (cash/check) & $30 (credit card). (Lavin will also host a knitting circle at 4:30pm.)

  1. David A. Brose says

    I’m a Folklorist. 1982-1987 State Folklorist Colorado. 1987-1992 Iowa State Folklorist. 1992-present Folklorist John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. Also have worked for the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. In 1970’s musicians started going into the south from the west and the north to get tunes from elder fiddlers and banjo players. I said “don’t just get tunes—-ask for ballads and folksongs.” And on top of that, get as much information from each person from whom you collect as you can about “Where” they got the songs. Who inspired them. How did they learn them. On what situations and in what context did they perform their music. Christine warmed my heart. She asked all the right questions and got all the right answers about the inspirations behind the songs and singers she has loved. She may well be a folklorist at heart because she cares as much about whats behind the songs as the songs themselves. My buddy Joe Hickerson is like that. He’s both a grand folklorist and a grand performer because he loves the songs as well as the people behind them. Same with fiddler Alan Jabbour. Never met CHristine. Hope I do before this ride is over.

  2. Joe Parsons says

    I remember getting to spend a little time with John Hartford at the Strawberry Music Festival (it may have been the first time I saw you and your baton finale, as well). John got to talking about how wanted to move around while he was playing the fiddle, but real clogging, where the heel drops, would cause the bow to jump on the strings. So he evolved into what is, it turns out, Irish step dancing–no heel drop, no bow bounce. (sounds like an ad slogan…) He’d specify what kind of plywood he needed for his gigs, and he’d stick Barcus-Berry Hot Dots on each side of the board, for full stereo effect.

    What a lovely man he was!

  3. Christine Lavin says

    I just read both comments — wow — thanks, guys! One thing that John Hartford said to me that I was blown away by — he said he liked my songwriting because many of my songs were written at a conversational pace, like his song “Gentle On My Mind.” It’s knowin’ that your door is always open and your path is free to walk/that makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch . . . — you speak it and sing it at just about the same pace. I had no idea John Hartford knew me at all — just the fact that he knew me was flattering, but his comment was something.

    And for Bruce, the folklorist — when I was performing in Australia many years ago I had a recent album that contained “Downtown” as a duet with Livingston Taylor. A DJ in Sydney casually mentioned, “You know, Tony Hatch, the songwriter, lives here in Sydney.”

    That’s all I had to hear — after the interview I went back to my hotel, pulled out the phonebook and started dialing. There’s 4,000,000 people in Sydney. Each phone call cost 75 cents. I dialed every “T. Hatch” in the book and started each conversation with, “Hi, I’m a songwriter from America on tour — are you the Tony Hatch who wrote ‘Downtown’?”

    Each T. Hatch said, “No.”

    So I started calling all the “A. Hatch” numbers in the phone book, and asked the same question. I FOUND HIM! He said, “Why, yes, I am.” So I asked if I could take him out to lunch and he declined. So I asked if I could ask him a few questions about the song “Downtown” and he said that would be OK.

    I asked what inspired it? It was his first trip to America — he’s British, flew into Idewild Airport (now JFK), took the bus to Times Square –it was late at night, he was sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, yet astounded by the life and color and energy of Times Square.

    Think how many American songwriters walked through Times Square over and over and over — but it was a visiting songwriter who wrote the song.

    I asked if he wrote it for Petula Clark, and he said no, he was assigned to write songs for her as she was making the transition from child star to adult performer (I didn’t know she was a child star in England). He said he wrote it with THE DRIFTERS in mind. THAT’s who he heard doing it in his head.

    I asked if The Drifters ever recorded it — he said he didn’t think so, but there were at least 300 recordings in many different languages.

    I asked if The Drifters are aware it was written with them in mind, and he said he didn’t think so.

    So if you are reading this and have a connection to The Drifters — can you let them know? It would be great if they eventually recorded it (though I don’t know if all the original members are still alive or not).

    I spent more money on phonecalls that day than I would have spent if I got to take Tony Hatch out to lunch, but I still wish I could have met him. I love “Downtown” and always will.

    Christine Lavin

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