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Gus Cannon Rocks The Sixties In His Seventies


Folk music enjoyed a revival of sorts in the mid 20th century.  Springing from the Greenwich Village epicenter of the movement in the late 40‘s, The Weavers were among the first to gain acclaim by making socially conscious statements with their original compositions, and breathing new life into older songs from diverse sources.  In turn, they would inspire other groups such as The Kingston Trio and Peter Paul And Mary.  Erik Darling formed The Tarriers with Bob Carey and Alan Arkin.  They had a couple of top 10’s with “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and “The Banana Boat Song.”  For a while, Erik would actually take Pete Seeger’s place in the Weavers, but then left that group to form a trio specifically to record a song Memphis knew well in the late 1920‘s.

Gus Cannon was 79 years old when that cover version of a song he wrote as a young man hit the number one spot in the country.  Cannon was born in Red Banks, Mississippi in 1883.  He crafted his first banjo from a discarded guitar neck joined to bread pan.  His brother made the point moot by bringing home a real banjo, obtained by his prowess with the dice.

Gus struck out on his own, working on the railroad, picking cotton, and shucking suckers as a medicine show entertainer.  He moved to Memphis in 1916, and made inroads into the music scene as the “jug band” genre was coming to the fore.

Paramount Records came to town in 1927 to record the Memphis Jug Band.  While they were in town, Gus put down a few sides under the name of “Banjo Joe.”  When Victor Records came to town a couple of years later, it was Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers who recorded songs which would not only make them famous back in the day, but would also renew interest in the old master in the early 60‘s.  It was this recording of “Walk Right In” that got the attention of Erik Darling, who just happened to be looking for old tunes he could record in a new style.

Erik teamed up with Bill Svanoe and singer Lynne Taylor, to form The Rooftop Singers and they drove the new recording with twin 12-string guitars.  Their recording of “Walk Right In” hit number one on the Billboard charts at the end of January, 1963.  It was a million-seller, and the biggest record in the history of the folk label, Vanguard records.  The Walk Right In album would win a Grammy for Best Folk Recording.

Gus Cannon actually got credit for the song, and received royalties for his contribution.  Cannon’s recording career was even revived as Stax brought him in to cut an album consisting of stories about his life and times, and performances of some his favorite tunes.

The Rooftop Singers played the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and shortly after went their separate ways.

Erik Darling’s former band mate from the Tarriers, Alan Arkin, left folk singing behind for a career in acting.  Arkin’s father, David, was a teacher and writer.  As with some members of the Weavers folk group, the elder Arkin’s was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  But David Arkin continued to express himself, co-writing a song in 1954 commemorating the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board Of Education decision.  The song “Black And White” was recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1957, Pete Seeger did a version of it, and a streamlined pop version by Three Dog Night would make it to number one in 1972.

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.