Sad, sweet music

Three local musicians look back at lives touched by song

Harold Gilbert first picked up a harmonica at the age of 12.

Harold Gilbert first picked up a harmonica at the age of 12.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

I first saw Harold Gilbert perform at a now-defunct old-time-music showcase in the basement of a Chico retirement community two years ago. Of the many exceptional acts I saw that night, none moved me quite like he did.

When his name was called Harold stood up, fetched his banjo and shuffled to a chair centered on the room’s makeshift stage. As he picked the first few notes, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got chills when he belted out, in a beautifully aged tenor, the opening lines to an old gospel song: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” When he reached the final verse, I’ll admit I was a bit misty.

I’d wanted to interview Harold since that night, and to share his story, as well as the stories of others like him; local musicians who’ve played music throughout their long lives not for ego or money, but for personal enrichment, and a sense of joy and camaraderie that comes only from sharing it. This led to me also meeting with Victor Mlotok, a retired psychiatrist, and Andrew Walters, a honky-tonk man who’s rambled his way around the world.

Though Harold, Victor and Andrew are cut from very different cloths, similar themes resonate through each man’s story. They’ve all turned to song for celebration and solace, and all three prefer—and are compelled to share—traditional styles that remind them of who they are and where they’ve been. Harold loves the sound born, like he was, in the Blue Ridge Mountains; for Victor it’s klezmer, the Jewish folk music of his ancestors; and for Andy, it’s good old-fashioned country-western.

To me, the love of music is an indication of a person’s character, and the songs he sings snapshots of his life’s journey. Music is art, science, spirituality and, perhaps most important, folk history. These are the stories and songs of everyday people.

The family man

Harold Gilbert hails from War, W. Va., and the Southern lilt in his voice was still strong as we spoke in his living room, his fingers instinctively rolling across the strings of the banjo in his lap, a harmonica tucked in the side of his easy chair.

“My parents were born in Virginia; they came up because there’s money in the mountains, in the coal fields.” Harold explained, laughing as he continued, “Well, there was supposed to be money to be made.”

He described his childhood as financially poor, but rich in music. His sisters sang and his brother played fiddle and guitar. He remembered watching a neighbor whittle a banjo on his porch, and several times during our conversation he recalled songs he learned from his mother.

“We liked the country music,” Harold said. “My mother would sing old ballads and I liked them, and I liked the country, mountain sound … I’ve always liked sweet music, that’s the way I put it. Sad, sad, sweet music.”

Before she passed away, Harold’s mother wrote some of the old songs down in a notebook he still keeps. He said he doesn’t play them publicly much, because some the lyrics are so dark. As an example he shared a snippet of “Poor Ellen Smith”: Shot through the heart lyin’ cold on the ground/ her clothes were scattered all around/ blood marks the spot where her body was found.

Harold got his first instrument, a harmonica, around age 12.

“I used to sit on the street and shine shoes in War. I had a shoebox and I could buy a harmonica for a dollar back then. They cost $35 today.

“There was a black man who’d come down the street every so often and he’d say, ‘Give me that harmonica, boy,’ and I would, because he was a big guy and I was afraid not to. He would play a lot of different things. Then I’d go home and try to mimic what he’d play.”

With that, Harold pulled out his harp, cupped it completely in his hands and began to play in a breathy, percussive style markedly different than most modern harmonica players.

Harold joined the Navy as a teenager, and near the end of his tour attended a USO church dance in Washington, D.C. He recalled going for a free meal and finding the love of his life, his late wife, Polly. They were married from 1954 until last October, when she passed away after a long illness.

A music lover herself, Polly sang in church choirs and played ukulele with the Chico Ukulele Group. When asked to play a song she enjoyed, Harold sang an old Irish ballad called “Red is the Rose” (You choose the road love and I’ll make a vow/ That I’ll be your true love forever).

Harold and Polly had six children who now live in Chico, San Diego, Colorado, Virginia, Philadelphia and Maryland. They had 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with twin great-grandchildren expected any day (“I’m waiting for a phone call,” Harold beamed). The couple spent most of their life together in Maryland and Virginia, where Harold worked as an electrical engineer for Westinghouse, and moved to Chico in 2003 after retiring.

Harold bought his first banjo in his late 20s, and taught himself with Pete Seeger’s seminal instruction book, How to Play the 5-string Banjo. He played off and on for years, but didn’t start playing out until a decade ago.

Since moving to Chico, he’s been a regular at song circles and folk jams, but said he backed away after Polly’s passing, and is now trying to get back into it. He’s also recently begun—at 79 years old—to learn guitar, something he wishes he’d done earlier.

“I regret a lot about not spending more time with music than I did,” he reflected. “I was too busy raising a family and working, and didn’t have time for music, accept occasionally. I think a lot of people make that mistake. But better late than never.”

Harold said another advantage of playing is meeting people, and that Californians are the nicest people he’s met anywhere. But he still misses the mountains of his youth.

“It’s where you grow up,” he said. “There’s nothing as pretty as the mountains in Virginia, and the valleys.”

As Harold kept speaking of home, one could easily imagine his mother and sisters singing a sweet, sad, old ballad. “If you get up on the Blue Ridge Mountains, and look down into the valleys and see the farms and the green grass growing everywhere, no sand, you’ll see what I mean. It’s beautiful.”

The modest doctor

I’d briefly met Victor Mlotok a few times at the Rise Up Singing Circle, where people meet monthly to play and sing at the Chico Friends Meeting House. He’d impressed me as a quiet and contemplative man, often passing when it was his turn to pick a song, but happily pumping and keying his accordion to carry the melodies chosen by others. He plays beautifully, albeit on the quiet side, and speaks even more softly.

Victor Mlotok grew up playing piano, but switched to accordion when he started playing Jewish folk music.

Photo By Ken Smith

A picture of modesty, Victor insisted several times before we met at the Chico News & Review office that there were better musicians with more interesting stories than his to interview. But as we talked about music, particularly his passion for klezmer, the shy retired psychiatrist grew more comfortable, ultimately sharing half a dozen beautiful tunes.

Victor was born in the Bronx, in N.Y., but spent most of his childhood in City Terrace, just east of downtown Los Angeles. “At the time I was growing up it was mostly populated by Jewish people, a lot of immigrants,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t speak English. It gradually became Latino.”

His parents were immigrants who came to America after World War I. Though from different parts of Eastern Europe, they shared Yiddish as a native tongue; Victor grew up with Yiddish, Russian and English spoken in his home.

Victor began learning piano at age 5, and musical training was considered a luxury in his family. This remained a driving force for him to keep playing.

“I had trouble sticking to it,” he recalled. “I loved music and I liked playing, but I hated performing.

“But I stuck to it because my mom said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to practice then you won’t continue your lessons.’ It cost money and my parents were poor, so that’s why I stuck with it.”

He played through high school, flirting with other instruments—cello, piccolo—but mainly stuck to piano. One instrument he never considered was the accordion, largely due to the The Lawrence Welk Show (“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the way he plays music, but the music turned me off.”)

Victor said he stopped playing after high school: “I went to college, and dropped out of college, then went back to college,” he explained. “I went through medical training, which was very time consuming, so I didn’t have the time or energy. I was focusing on my studies all the time.”

Though not playing, he developed a love of Israeli folk dancing. During the time he took off school, Victor did some soul-searching that led to a reappraisal of the accordion.

“I lived in Israel for almost a year when I dropped out of college,” he said. “I lived on a kibbutz, a collective farm. Almost every Saturday night the tables and chairs in the communal dining room would be cleared away, pushed to the side, and they’d put on records and we’d dance for hours.”

On special occasions, an accordionist from a nearby village visited the farm: “He’d sit, just one musician and, instead of the records, he’d play the music and we’d dance. It just sounded wonderful.”

Victor returned to the States and to his studies, eventually becoming a medical doctor. During his short-lived first marriage he bought an accordion, learned the basics, and let it sit in a closet for 35 years. Then came a more successful marriage to Anne Warner (“We’ve been together almost 40 years now, so that one’s went pretty well,” he said) and a significant career change.

“I was working at the Student Health Center at Chico State for about 10 years as a general practitioner, and I was doing a lot of psychiatry. People came in with all kinds of problems, but a lot of their problems turned out to be psychiatric in nature, so I decided to get training.”

Victor became a psychiatrist for the second half of his 40-year medical career, retiring in 2010. Music re-entered his life and he began playing jazz with friends when he and Anne moved to Chico in 1978. Having grown up playing mostly classical music, he said he found new, creative pleasures as he learned the more improvisational style. Throughout the 1980s, he played regular local gigs with a band called Footprints.

Eight years ago, he and a friend from the local synagogue started exploring their love of klezmer. He didn’t feel piano fit the music (“The original klezmer musicians were itinerant musicians; They went from town to town in Eastern Europe, nobody carried a piano around with them”), so he pulled out the old accordion, and eventually upgraded.

This project evolved into a quartet, the Hemlock Street Klezmer Band, which last December played their first show outside of a synagogue at a packed Café Flo. He also plays with a revolving group of musicians from temple for weddings, mitzvahs and High Holy Days. Then there’s the Trinity Accordion Gathering, a group that meets Thursdays at Trinity United Methodist Church, and sometimes plays retirement homes.

Victor said playing with people is his favorite thing about music: “It’s harmonizing with other people,” he said. “It’s not just playing the notes, but [also] trying to make sure what I play fits in with what they play and enhances what we’re all playing.”

Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because of his innate modesty, Victor initially balked at playing during the interview. Thankfully he conceded, explaining the significance of each song as he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and lost himself in songs his people have carried for thousands of miles and hundreds of years.

The rambling man

In October, I stopped by the Towne Lounge for a drink. As the late-afternoon sunlight lit the dust hanging in the air of my favorite (and soon-to-be-gone) local dive bar, an old man wearing an orange shirt with the hand-drawn phrase “User Friendly” sat on the stage next to an electric guitar, a feather tucked jauntily into his baseball cap. After fiddling with a homemade plywood and metal contraption, he set the device on the floor, stomped it a few times to test that the pedal properly triggered a screwdriver against a block of wood, and picked up his guitar.

He was joined onstage by local musician Aaron Rich (of The Blue Merles fame) and, with little fanfare, began stomping, strumming and, in a just-slightly and perfectly off-key voice, tore through a set of honky-tonk standards by Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and other artists more obscured by passing time.

Through casual conversations over several weeks, I discovered he’d recently landed in Chico after a lifetime of travelling the world, playing music in dives not unlike the Towne Lounge, from Portland to Prague.

Walters spent 20 years living in an old German mail truck while gigging throughout Europe.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

When I told him I’d like to interview him, he gave me a business card with his stage name—Rancho Mars—penned in above his real name and chosen title: “Andrew Walters, Specializing in Esoteric Plumbing and Intergalactic Scatology, Past President and Now Acting Secretary North American Association of Ex-Jockeys.”

Walters—who goes by Andy—is quick to recall his childhood outside of Portland, Ore., and his early musical memories.

“We were out in the sticks and didn’t have electricity or a radio,” he explained, sitting in a corner of his Chico apartment. “So the only music I heard was in church. A lot of these songs are kinda the same themes. My dad could sing, and once in a while, when he wasn’t dog tired from working the farm, he’d sing songs.

“We were pretty poor, so I never even thought of being able to afford an instrument,” Andy recalled. “I was about 20 and I went to a party and there was a guy playing a guitar and I thought, ‘Woo-hoo, I gotta do that.’ So I got this horrible old Stella guitar with the strings about an inch off the keyboard and I started cracking on that, and I got some bad habits because of it. I had one lesson, and played so much I hurt my fingers and didn’t show up to the second one.”

Andy worked through the pain and kept at it, joking he lost some friends while navigating the learning curve. He remembered the first time someone paid him $20 to play a party, which led to playing with more people in gin joints and dives around his home state.

As Andy told his tales, it was hard to pin down a timeline, partly because he’s got an endless stream of fascinating stories and partly because, though always affable, he is sometimes deliberately obtuse. “I don’t like to look back,” he repeated more than once as I dug for more details.

He hinted at a stab at the square scene before his life took a drastic, and deliberate, turn. “I had responsibilities,” he said, mentioning jobs as a firefighter and desk jockey before a particularly successful extended gig gave him the means to live how he wanted.

“That’s when I started traveling,” he recalled. “I bought this van. And this isn’t motor-homing, it’s vanning; it’s a totally different thing.”

Andrew Walters (aka Rancho Mars) and Aaron Rich play happy hour most Fridays at the Towne Lounge.

Photo By Melanie MacTavish

Andy vanned around the United States and Europe for decades, also spending time in Uruguay, Puerto Rico and Mexico. He spent his longest overseas stint—20 years—living in a rattletrap old German mail truck he fixed up and drove “from Turkey to Ireland, from Portugal to Poland, and back and forth several times.”

In all his travels, he continued to play music for anyone willing to listen: “People go over to Europe and they see the Louvre, they see the chain bridge in Budapest … but there’s nothing like playing music,” he said. “I had experiences people will never have, and God bless them.”

His course has always been plotted by opportunity, intuition and a commitment to break free from the mundane. Once, while staying in Sacramento and wondering where to go next, he dreamt of a “pair of dice”; the next day he drove to Paradise for the first time. Since then he’s stayed in the Chico area a few times, most recently returning a year ago.

He also spent some time in Nashville in the early 1980s, plugging his van into the back of a Music Row flophouse filled with aspiring songwriters. There, he got a role as an extra in a made-for-TV Hank Williams Jr. biopic called Living Proof (“It’s the worst movie ever made,” he said). Though unimpressed with the film, through it he met a woman who introduced him to a personal hero, Marty Robbins. Andy said Robbins liked his originals and made plans to record a few. Two weeks later, Robbins died of complications from heart surgery.

Though he’d love to have worked with Robbins, Andy said he never aspired to fame, and readily expresses disdain for “jippo music publishers,” “hacks” and other music-industry phonies. He’s even self-conscious about playing his own compositions, saying “people come out to have a good time, not to get an education.”

He shared a few of his favorite standards—“Honky Tonk Girl,” “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On,” before playing one of his own, A Robbins-esque gunfighter ballad about the bulls and the blood and the sand.

“As good as it gets is playing a sleazy old honky tonk with two or three guys,” he said between songs. “It can’t get any better than that.”