Banjo player, songwriter and teacher Dick Weissman is perhaps best known as being a member of The Journeymen, a folk band he started with John Phillips and Scott McKenzie in New York City in 1961.
The band released several albums for Capitol Records and garnered comparisons to The Kingston Trio. Of the band, AllMusic wrote “Of all the groups from the early 1960s that could have made it and didn’t, the Journeymen are the one that elicits the greatest passion among scholars and listeners.”
Following the band’s break up, Dick continued to write songs and record, perform live, and teach. These days, the Philadelphia-born musician is synonymous with Colorado, where he has spent many years as a performer and teacher.
See Dick Weissman: A performance weaving music and stories from his new memoir “The Music Never Stopped” on June 25 in Tuft Theatre.
In this excerpt from his memoir, Dick recounts life as a songwriter and working musician in 1964, shortly after The Journeymen broke up, just as the British Invasion was taking off.
Shortly after the demise of The Journeymen, I was signed to a staff songwriting deal by Al Brackman at TRO (The Richmond Organization.) This was primarily because of the success of my song “Someone To Talk My Troubles To,” which found its way into three albums that were in the top ten of the Billboard charts. These recordings were by the Kingston Trio, Glenn Yarbrough, and the Smothers Brothers. Eventually there were a dozen recordings of the song, but the only one that came through the efforts of the publisher was a French language recording. All of the other recordings came from artists or producers hearing the Journeymen’s recording from our live performances, or from my own personal contacts.
When the deal was signed, I got really excited about songwriting, and wrote somewhere around a hundred songs in that year. I have to admit that most of these songs are ones that I would just as soon forget. A half dozen or so eventually got recorded, either by me or by people that heard me sing them. The bulk of the songs disappeared into the mist. TRO generously allowed me to recapture the rights to all of the songs that hadn’t been recorded. The original deal paid me $6,000 as an advance against future royalties, and a $1000 signing bonus. Basically I was on a weekly “draw” of $100 a week. Looking back on it, from a vantage point of forty years, TRO and I became frustrated with one another. They tried to get the songs recorded, and I tried to write “commercial” songs, but neither of us got very far. I wrote both the words and music to most of the songs, and also co-wrote a few songs with my friend Dan Fox. After about 39 years, the few songs that remained at TRO actually paid back the advance, and I started to receive small royalty checks. This income mostly came from Judy Collins’ recording of the song about Medgar Evers, and Gram Parsons’ recording of “They Still Go Down.” Over time I stopped trying to write songs for the pop market, and in my opinion, I became a better songwriter. I also focused more on composing instrumental music, and cut down on the number of songs that I was writing.
THE FOLK FREEZE
When I first left The Journeymen, the British rock explosion was just beginning. Consequently I was able to play on a number of recordings, including albums by The Brothers Four, the New Christy Minstrels, Connie Francis and string of albums for Cameo Parkway Records.
Although folk-pop music as a style faded into near oblivion, I also broke into the more commercial aspect of studio recording. These were mostly sessions for jingles where I played bluegrass banjo. Unlike many of the folk sessions, jingles always involved playing from written music. Many of the arrangers didn’t write out banjo parts, but simply would designate the appropriate chords. Although I had a basic knowledge of bluegrass, you could say that I am the only banjo player who learned how to play bluegrass in order to play on jingles. The written parts had their share of musical challenges. It was quite common to change keys, even in a thirty second jingle. Because I was playing bluegrass patterns, I would have to retune the fifth string so I could continue to play the patterns in a new key. Sometimes I would have to retune the fifth string in the middle of the jingle. The engineer would turn my microphone off for about four bars of music, maybe five seconds, and then turn the microphone back on. Since the orchestra might include anything from three to twenty other musicians, it was difficult to hear when I was in tune again. Later the fifth string capo came into general use, and the re-tuning became unnecessary. I would simply slide the capo on the fifth string up one fret, and the G would automatically become an A flat.
Another musical challenge was that music arrangers, the people who actually wrote out the instrumental parts, didn’t understand the nature of the five string banjo. At first I tried to explain to them that if I kept a bluegrass pattern going, that the fifth string needed to be part of that pattern in order to maintain the flavor of the instrument. Many arrangers would hear this note as a mistake, not something inherent in the instrument itself. When I would try to explain to them that if I kept the pattern going I had to play that note, they tended not to believe me.