Folk Duo!

an unpublished excerpt

Copyright 2006 by Alfred Dana Arioli


I, Dana, had agreed with my Mother and Father that I would become a doctor, and enrolled in a pre-medical program at Tufts University in 1960. In keeping with this plan, about a year later I was driving around the Eastern United States as half of a folksinging duo. This was Tufts' special curriculum for prospective doctors: first they flunked them out, then they made them become folksinging duos, a new initiative to integrate medical care with the arts.

Not that I was that devoted to the arts, either. I had taken classical piano lessons from age six to thirteen. I could play "Hungarian Rhapsody" with the appropriate drama, and evidently was able to play "Solfegietto" at quite a remarkable speed for a nine-year old. My heart wasn't in it, though. I stopped practicing,quit taking piano lessons and broke my Mother's heart. My tastes shifted to popular music, especially Country and Western. I could play the guitar and imitate Ferlin Husky singing "A Falling Star." I could sound like Conway Twitty for three-and-a-half words. This could have been a natural resumption of an earlier development, because I liked Country-Western and Pop music before I took piano lessons. In the basement, though we had thick 78 rpm records of Lili Pons and Enrico Caruso which I listened to over and over, we also had Hank Williams singing "Cold, Cold Heart" and I learned it. I sang popular songs like Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." My mother thought I sounded just like Nat King Cole and insisted I sing "Mona Lisa" or "They Tried To Tell Us We're Too Young" to company. Deep down I knew I didn't sound like Nat King Cole, though if there had been a contest for 4-year-old white Nat King Cole sound-alikes in the greater Boston area, I might have done pretty well.

I was sixteen now, old enough to drive, at a party where the Mother was a Beatnik and served third-pressing-of-the-grapes red wine that turned your teeth black and there were a lot of different kinds of people and the sweet young vibrato of Joan Baez sank into my soul. I became imprinted on folk music. I learned minor chords and special folk strums, sang of East Virginia and prison walls around me. The lyrics really didn't matter; after all, if I could get through Ferlin Husky's "A Falling Star," I could get through anything. What was important was the time and the setting. I was biochemically primed to be thrilled. If things had been a little different, perhaps I'd have become immersed in Polka, as so many others have done.

I, Brown, have tightened the last knurled knob on the last of the improvised universal joints that will enable my variation of the model crane not only to lift designated objects, but also to invert them so they may be placed on a simulated assembly line.  For this I will be awarded an achievement medal from the Gilbert Erector Set Company, and from there I can easily imagine the short step to fabrication of my interplanetary atomic glider, astride which I shall ward off the insectoid invaders that dare to threaten humanity. I also learn to play the banjo.

I agree with my Mother and Father, in their wisdom approaching that of Dana's, that I will help to defray the cost of my Tufts University education by accepting an ROTC scholarship.  The combination of studies and marching in uniform weighs heavily on my impatient and expansive imagination and ambitions.  While preparing for final exams by perfecting a triple pass combination on a tabletop hockey game, I find out that the Kingston Trio is making $20,000 a week in Vegas. Quickly I assemble friends into a folk group which I name the Nomads Five.  At our first performance, the Master of Ceremonies introduces us as "The Nimrods, five young men who imitate the Kingston Trio." Then, before we start to sing, he interviews us one-by-one and asks us how tall we are and how much we weigh. But I am not discouraged.

I disband the group and raise my standards. My friend Dana can really sing.  I can really play guitar and banjo. There are plenty of folk trios, quartets, quintets and larger, but, my friend, how many folk DUOS are there?  Eh?  Bingo!.  I opted for that same Tufts arts initiative and left college to go on the road with Dana.  The details of our plan were that we would work out great songs, perform them all over the country and become rich and famous.  And we would never, until now, disclose our heights.

It is a frigid winter morning there at the trailer park in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey in 1962. The Folk Duo is sleeping in the underscale twin beds at the back of their 24 foot house trailer. Brown, the tall one at 6 feet 6 inches, must cantilever his legs over the bottom corner of the bed and into the narrow passage, flanked by bathroom and closet, that leads to the kitchen/dining/living/entry area at the front. He tosses and turns. Dana, the short one at 6 feet 1 inch, has managed to find a comfortable position and sleeps soundly. He always sleeps soundly, and for extremely long periods of time, but now he stirs. The folk duo rises, their breath sharply visible in the air. They each have slept in two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, sweaters, jackets. This is also their dress for the coming day. Events press upon them. Their 3 dollar per day hook-up fee is overdue. The owner/manager of the facility is threatening to turn off their electricity. For three days they have been out of bottled gas. They can't use the special gas lights or the gas stove. They can't take showers, because the water is heated by a special gas furnace which also now does not supply heat for their living quarters. During the night the toilet and septic lines have frozen. Snow tracked in the night before is still on the floor. They have appointments today with two record executives and a booking agency in the city, and they have between them exactly fifty cents, just enough to get over the George Washington Bridge. Their car, a 1955 Packard, has a dead battery, but they have parked facing down a mild incline, and if they can push it over a particularly high speed bump, they can jump in, pop the clutch, and get the engine going. They feel confident about this maneuver, having completed it several times.

Emerging stiffly, expletives muffled by raised collars, they slide sideways through the passage and into the kitchen/dining/living/entry area. Brown occupies the center of the area so his head can protrude into the raised roof vent, enabling him to stand up almost straight. He carefully adjusts the position of his head to prevent upright tufts of hair from being caught in the screen. His eyes are just below the level of the ceiling. Dana slumps onto the underscale couch, avoiding the sharp edges. They consider their options. First, breakfast. The only item in the cupboard is a box of Uncle Sam's Laxative Cereal bought as a joke for unremembered reasons when the trailer was new, six months ago. There is very cold milk in the dead refrigerator. Brown reads the information from the box of cereal aloud while Dana listens, trying to determine the strength of the laxative effect. The toilet doesn't work but they're hungry. Hunger wins, and they crunch through modest portions together at the desk/counter/dining table...

The car-pushing works perfectly. The interviews with record executives and booking agency land them a recording contract and the promise of a string of jobs across the country. The head of the booking agency, a distinguished character who is greeted at the private club where he takes the folk duo to lunch with the phrase "the usual, sir?" puts in their hands as they part literally dozens of dollars.  Sated, rich, confident, they return across the George Washington Bridge toward the trailer park, eager to get the gas heater and electricity going again so they can plan their tour.  The best is yet to come.