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I started a quest to find terrific blues music and incredible musicianship when I was just a little kid. I also have a tremendous appreciation of fine musical instruments and equipment. One of my greatest joys all of my life was sharing my finds with my friends. I'm now publishing my journey. I hope that you come along!

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Rev. Gary Davis, Bozo Padunavac and American Primitivism - An Exclusive Interview with Peter Lang

I caught up the other day with legendary American Primitive guitar player Peter Lang. American Primitivism, also known as American Primitive Guitar, is the music genre started by John Fahey in the late 1950s. Fahey composed and recorded avant-garde/neo-classical compositions using traditional country blues fingerpicking techniques, which had previously been used primarily to accompany vocals. Other famous early proponents were Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho who all played at one time or another on Fahey's Takoma Records label. The style is derived from the country blues and string band music of the '20s and '30s.
Fahey referred to it as 'American Primitive' after the 'French Primitive' painters, meaning untutored.

Bman: Hi Peter. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me. First I want to mention that I have posted a number of your performances with your biography which have been some of my most read articles. You definitely have a lot of fans.

I remember first hearing you when I was in college. Your finger playing technique is incredible. How did you get started playing guitar?

Peter: As a child I came from a dysfunctional family. My father was a WWII/Korea veteran. Music was an important escape from my world. I started playing trumpet in grade school and I loved to practice. My father had boilermakers ears (essentially everything bothered his hearing and it sounded to him like noise in a can). He suggested that I stop playing trumpet and possibly play a guitar instead. It ended up being a Ukulele but ultimately I got a Kay student model and by 14 had worked my way up to a good Gibson J45 at 14. I was actually starting to progress and get rid of some of my bad habits and a friend of my brothers smashed it for fun. Fortunately dad was an insurance man and with the proceeds I got a ’63 Gibson Hummingbird. Most of my early recordings were made on this guitar. Guitar builder Ren Fergusen who was building banjo’s and doing guitar repairs (later in charge of Gibson’s custom shop) did some great custom inlays on that guitar. 

Bman: So how did you get hooked up with John Fahey and Leo Kottke?

Peter: I moved to LA in 1967 to get work. A number of players would work at the Troubadour and the Ash Grove. I ended up playing with Dave Van Ronk, Elizabeth Cotten and Brownie McGhee. The Ash Grove was only open about 15 years but the owner was involved in “radical politics’ and it was burned down a number of times. It was there and Mc Cabe’s that I met John Fahey as well as Bukka White and Robert Wilkins among others and as a result ended up atTakoma Records.

Bman: So it was a chance meeting?

Peter: I was playing a party and basically playing in the American Primitive style (self taught) and writing my own materials. I had trouble learning others music by ear so I developed my own style. I tried to learn “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. I could never really get it. It took my son to tell me “Dad. It’s 2 people playing guitar!”
I started recording in 1966 and someone dropped a tape to Takoma at Santa Monica College. I hear Leo’s (Kottke) first album and said, “Hey, That’s what I’m doing”. John’s (Fahey) wife was at UCLA staying with one of my roommates. She was always talking about her husband the nutcase guitar player. John and his wife owned Takoma Records. I signed in 1972. All of the Takoma guys had a spiritual leader. Robbie Basho had Majher Baba, Fahey had Satchadinanda, "The Woodstock Guru" ........ I mean Timothy Leary and Christopher Isherwood were there. I had Reverend Ike “The Cynic” Ikenhorder wearing a crown . They all had their little shrines and I would eat the candy left in the shrines. 

Bman: Quite the joker Peter!

Peter: I had never really heard Fahey before meeting him and then signing. Growing up in Minnesota I listened to what they had at Midwest Records. There was only one store where you could listen before you bought. They were the only store to carry any outsider music. Takoma was the first. I got compared to Leo a lot when I first recorded because he and I and Fahey came from the collective pool. Fahey and I both self taught and Leo learned through Fahey and Dick Rosenwiner, Davey Graham (Father of Modern Fingerstyle), Bert Jansch, John Reborn and Rev. Gary Davis. 

Bman: You, Leo and Rev. Gary Davis have more than just music style in common. Did you meet Davis.

Peter: Yes. I was at Ash Grove and Rev. Gary Davis walked in. 

Bman: I’ll bet that was cool. What was he like?

Peter: Very approachable. At the time I was playing a Guild F212 and I started to talk to him and then ended up playing for him. He then pulled out this outrageous 12 string made by Bozo Podunavac (pronounced: bo-zho pod oo nav ack). I had never heard anything like it. We chatted for a few hours. We had a few meetings after that. He was very gracious and funny. He inspired a lot of great players. He was one of the very best with that Piedmont Style in the company of Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Billy Broonzy. He only used his thumb and one finger, (Leo and John Reborn use two fingers and a thumb). 

Bman: Most people don’t likely know it but Jeff Beck is a finger player too.

Peter: Yeah. Jeff uses mostly the thumb and index occasionally. He’s incredible!

Bman: Sorry, back to Gary Davis. So I know you ended up with a few Bozo’s. Did Gary have a part in that? 

Peter: Gary Davis died shortly after I met him in late 71-72. I found out that Bozo was in Chicago. I was in town and Leo wanted me to come by and say hi. Leo had a Bozo!
As life improved (business got better) I knew I was going to have one. Fahey had a ton of great guitars and he had one. Bozo was at Wooden Music in Chicago. I bought 2 there, a 6 string and a 12 string. The 6 string was really decked out and was used in a lot of advertisements. It was stolen in Duluth, Minnesota in 1979. I thought that I had forgotten it at home but then realized that my briefcase with a bunch of mic’s was gone as well. That guitar never turned back up. I used the 12 string a lot on the Lycurgus recording. Times were tough and I needed to sell that 12 string to a serviceman who was in the army. He was stationed in the Philippines and it was stolen while he was overseas. 

Bman: What do you think makes these guitars so special? I have a special love for them but I want an expert’s opinion.

Peter: Bozo has a really unique bracing pattern and as he trained building Cello’s and Contrabasses. They have a pretty thick top that is made of German Spruce with heavy bear claw from the lower part of the tree. It forces the sound to the corners of the face making the sound even richer. He used wood purfling and binding and preferred Indian Rosewood because it was more stable. His wood selections are great. His inlay work can be over the top beautiful. 

Bman: So was that it for your Bozo’s?

Peter: Oh no! I had one of the first Western Bell design (dreadnaught) 6 strings as well as a Western Bell 12. The 6 was stolen and I had to sell the 12 but I purchased a 2nd less ornate 12 in 1986 or 87 custom built for a friend. He bought matching 6 and 12 stringers and then sold me the 12 after a while. And then there was the “Owl Face” in ‘79! Bozo was always experimenting with new ideas and he came up with this concept for a double cut acoustic with two sound holes. He made 2 prototypes and Leo got one and I got one. He wanted our feedback. That was an incredible instrument.

It was stolen once and I got it back but I sold that one to a friend a few years back. 

Bman: Lucky Guy!!

Peter: Bozo also tried a plastic back on a guitar but it wasn’t my bag. Fahey and Denny Bruce each had them.
Twelve strings in general have a very unique sound. A 6 string has a purr. A 12 string can growl. A Bozo 12 string roars!! Not the deep thumping sound of a typical 12 string. And with slide they scream! The sixes have a lot more finesse. 
The Bozo 6 string is like a Lotus… his 12 string is a Mack Truck… but power in your face!! 

Bman: How’s Bozo to work with?

Peter: He’s a very nice guy really and gracious. He looks at building guitars very much as a craft and doesn’t much look for input from the buyer/artist. 

Bman: Well, he seems to know what he’s doing! So what’s going on with you now? 

Peter: Well, in 2008, 2 weeks after I released Testament, I had an auto accident. Injuries to my neck, back and right hand had made it difficult to perform for a year. I was playing about once a month. I still don’t have an insurance settlement.

Bman: That has to be tough. I know you were working in broadcast animation for a while.

Peter: Yes. I quit to work on my music again. I am fortunate to have a pretty good computer background and now do quite a bit of computer implementation and support. I keep up concerts regionally to enjoy the business but choose my gigs to suit my schedule. Right now I’m looking forward to playing “Camino Santiago”, a pilgrimage in Spain , playing religious blues and then off to Petaluma for the running of the bulls. A nice 2-3 weeks in Spain.

Bman: I have a few friends that have done that numerous times. They have had a blast.
I really appreciate you taking the time out from your schedule to bring us up to date with you and to share your stories about Bozo and Rev. Gary Davis. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with your fans?

Peter: On my first pass through, my perceptions were all wrong. I think that I was using music as an escape.It’s a way to deal with things that are different. It provides a start point and an end point. In music you can process your issues. There is something magical in music. I went to see Shakti with John McLaughlin and the experience made my hair stand up. 

Bman: John is an incredible player! 

Peter: Dogs howl and people play music or do art. They are the people who start the howl. When the artist and the others participate, that’s nerve central. As a younger artist I never really understood that. It’s a blessing to connect with some people and it makes you feel you’re contributing something important. There is a big difference between artists and performers. There’s a small difference between performers and the WWF. Too many people only enjoy the performance.

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