Topanga Before Today

Pablo CapraBy Pablo Capra      July 23, 2021

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Topanga Before Today
PHOTOS FROM THE TOPANGA MESSENGER ARCHIVES, CIRCA 1984 Pete Seeger was one of the regulars at Topanga musical venues
As Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society, Pablo Capra saw an opportunity to compile historical vignettes lifted from bygone newspapers that capture the times when they were written. Read more at topangahistoricalsociety.org, and support the Topanga Historical Society by becoming a member and checking out their catalog of books reflecting the history of Topanga, available for sale. ‘In the Fifties: The Folk Singers of Topanga’ by Mary “Mickey” Miller American folk music legend Peter Seeger is seen here in a rare photo taken during an early Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. The annual affair attracted musicians of many persuasions, and became so popular that by the 1970s it outgrew its Canyon location and moved to Northridge, where it is held to this day. Photo courtesy of McCabe’s Guitar Shop. January 12, 1984, Topanga MessengerIn 1949, after a year of collecting folk songs in North Carolina, I moved to Topanga. Folk music was beginning to come into its own again (after a long period of disdain as being “countrified”) largely due to the efforts of some folk singers who centered around New York’s Greenwich Village. Among these were Bess Lomax (daughter of John, the dean of American folk music collectors), her husband-to-be, Baldwin “Butch” Hawes, and friends, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Early in the 50s, the Hawes moved to Topanga, as did the Dehr family who were a part of the L.A. folk music crowd. Rich Dehr and I sang together for various benefits, and performed in some of the local “Canyon Capers.” The era of folk-pop was beginning, and Rich formed a group, the “Easy Riders.”
PHOTOS FROM THE TOPANGA MESSENGER ARCHIVES, CIRCA 1984 Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
They had several big hits—“Marianne,” “Memories Are Made of This” (which they wrote, and performed with Dean Martin), “Greenfields,” and “Kari Waits for Me,” after daughter Kari, who’s now grown up and is proprietress of their rebirthed “Discovery Inn.” Rich and I recorded on several “Hootenany” records at the time, but let’s get back to Topanga.

I met Bess and Butch through Bob Dewitt, an artist, real-estate salesman, former milker, first Canyon hippie, and collector of people. He and wife, Doreen turned their art shop/tea house into a “salon.” They began holding spontaneous showings and performances of all sorts. Lord Buckley showed up with entourage, and did orations. Jimmy Guifry (jazz clarinet and saxophone) jammed with one or two sidemen and a monkey. The shop provided a background of Bob’s drawings and pottery, and others’ paintings, sculpture, assemblages etc. Afterwards there was tea, honey and home-baked bread. The tradition has been carried on in the Canyon, elsewhere and by others—it drew people.

Because Bess and Butch lived in the Canyon, many folk musicians were drawn here. They passed the hat at Dewitt’s to help pay for their travels. Among those who performed here were Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, his sound-alike Jack Elliot who has done the memorial concerts at the Theatricum; Brownie McGee and blind Sonny Terry, side-kick of Leadbelly before he died, and one of the greats on the harmonica; old Mance Lipscomb, a country-blues singer who played slides on his guitar with a finger-ring made of a broken pop bottle.

There was Odetta with her rocking baritone, and later (those who cut their teeth performing at McCabe’s or the Ashgrove), Frank Hamilton and Bob Baxter who lived here for many years; Eric Darling who hung out at the Moonfire Inn; and Taj Mahal who caught on at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest (MC’d by Bess Hawes).

Even Linda Ronstadt, before she became a star, partied in Old Canyon. And then there were the bluegrass groups, Congo drummers (yes), and assorted guitar and banjo pickers. The ambiance was right, and Topanga became a sub-mecca for musicians of all persuasions.

Through the Hawes, I had the opportunity to swap songs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Woody decided to stay in the Canyon for a while, and someone arranged a live-radio performance with Rich and myself as backup.
PHOTOS FROM THE TOPANGA MESSENGER ARCHIVES, CIRCA 1984 Top left-right: Odetta, The Easy Riders, Woody Guthrie, Linda Ronstadt, Taj Mahal, Lord Buckley.
Woody had burned his arm throwing gas on a camp-fire, and he was also beginning to show symptoms of Huntington’s Chorea which killed him several years later. He medicated himself with a few too many and passed out. I don’t remember what happened to the broadcast, but Woody retired from performing, in a tent up on some rocks across Topanga Creek. As the disease worsened, he returned East to a hospital, and son, Arlo. After he died, his ex-wife and friends started a foundation for Huntington’s disease.

I had become close friends with the Hawes—getting together just for the fun of making music. We decided to practice up on square-dance tunes. We played informally at square dances which would usually end in a “hoot” when everyone got exhausted. Butch played fiddle, my ex-husband Matt was “caller,” or played banjo, Bess was on mandolin, and myself on guitar.

Bess urged me to record the songs I had collected in North Carolina, and by way of persuasion, offered to back me on an album. She set it up with Moe Asch, the recording guru of folk musicians, and our album was produced in 1959 or ‘60 on Folkways Records: “Mickey Miller Sings American Folk Songs,” accompanied by Bess Hawes.

Postscript: The Hawes’ daughter was badly burned and the family moved away. Butch died and Bess turned to teaching folk music at Northridge University, and later Berkeley. Pete Seeger still gives concerts, and sometimes performs with Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie. Mickey Miller returned to school to study psychology, and is now a counselor with the Topanga Community Counseling Service.

Special thanks are due to Richard Dehr, Donnie Curry, Robert Riskin, McCabe’s, Rare Records, and Ray Avery for their help in the production of this article.

Part II of “The Folk Singers of Topanga, In the Sixties,” will appear sometime this decade.
Pablo Capra

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