Mensch. That simple Yiddish word says volumes: “…a person of integrity and honor…a decent, upright person…a “stand-up guy,” a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague….” Allen Singer was all these things. Allen Singer was a mensch.
No one better embodies this fine old Yiddish word than Allen, dear friend and fellow musician, who passed away on September 17.
We first met Allen on a winter evening early in 2005. A bunch of us were sitting around a cluttered communal table at Crossroads Café in downtown El Cajon, a shotgun storefront transformed into a old-time ’60s-style coffee house, complete with tie-dye drapes, old rugs, and instruments hanging on the wall. It was Wooden Lips Open Mic night and, as recollection has it, Allen was holding forth with stories about being in Greenwich Village during the 1960s, during the Dylan years. Somehow, we got on the subject of New York neighborhoods, me (Patty) recalling past summers spent as program director of Hudson Guild Farm in New Jersey, which served the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Turns out, Allen had grown up in Chelsea and knew many of the same people that attended the Farm. More stories emerged, most of them funny, and by evening’s end, I thought to myself, geeze Louise, I feel like I’ve known this guy my entire life! And that was Allen.
After that, we saw him at almost every music gathering we attended. He seemed always to be at the center of everything, as a performer, a facilitator, a host, an all around friendly guy. His presence was warm and welcoming, and he was always full of news. We looked forward to seeing him at these events, knowing that in addition to his music, we’d usually get the most up to date “Allen scoop” on what was really up in the world of folk music.
Allen’s music repertoire was broad – folk, blues, country, traditional, old time, cowboy/western. And his musical style was all his own, with deep nods to the long-gone old bluesmen of the Deep South and Woody Guthrie, whose songs and style he unabashedly admired. Like Woody, Allen was a consummate soloist, his gravelly, no-frills voice best set off by his own guitar, and not hidden behind a band. His rendition of “Stealin’” will forever be imbedded in our memories, linking him to a storied chain of folk and blues musicians: Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band, Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, and David Grisman.
Through the years, Allen turned in some amazing and memorable performances, backed by harmonica whiz kid Dane Terry, and dueting with blues pro Robin Henkel. But he truly shined when delivering his music unadorned and rough-hewn, just him and his guitar, turning out tunes that he flatpicked and fingerpicked with great finesse.
And speaking of fingers, Allen managed to have all 10 of his in the multiple “folk pies” in and around San Diego. The local folk scene here is complex, comprising different kinds of gatherings, affinity groups, festivals, open mics, publications, concert series, and song circles, each with its own special identity, mission, and devotees. Through the years, Allen served as president, newsletter editor, and monthly song circle leader of the San Diego Folk Song Society. He worked as assistant booker and was on the Board of Directors (as co-vice chairfolk) of San Diego Folk Heritage. He was a regular contributor to the San Diego Troubadour, and frequently performed at the many music festivals around town. Most recently he was tapped to be the folk music leader on a Cruise Jam.
Allen’s biggest gift, it seemed, was communication. No doubt his skills as a trained counselor and therapist (he had worked for both Kaiser-Permanente and Father Joe’s Mission) attuned him to differing sensibilities and group dynamics, and Allen made it his business to learn what made each assemblage tick. Furthermore, he had an uncanny knack for getting along with and forming cooperative bridges between and among the various musical factions. In one of our last conversations Allen confided (without divulging exact details) about a possible future cooperative effort among several folk entities to produce a comprehensive annual San Diego Folk Festival. Our thought at the time was if anyone can help facilitate this and pull it off, it’s Allen. He’s the glue.
Allen Singer knew how to nurture and champion; to encourage and support. If you were lucky enough to be a friend of his, the friendship felt unconditional. And yet, he was no pushover, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and never minced words. He spoke his mind, was at times comically opinionated, and always held fast to his own beliefs, be they about politics, music, or the human condition. Sometimes we would joke together about aging, our various aches and pains, Medicare, and Social Security. Allen always seemed to have the last word on these fascinating senior citizen topics, and it was always hilarious.
As a writer, Allen was tireless. Besides being a regular contributor to this publication, he was a skilled poet (see sidebar). And, when he wrote, he did his homework. He was extremely proud of his piece on Klezmer musician, Elizabeth Schwartz (June 2011 issue), in which he not only captured Elizabeth’s luminous spirit and energy, but also presented extensively researched background information about eastern European music and culture, giving this special profile a fascinating historical context. (see Elizabeth Schwartz’s words about Allen at the end of this article.
Allen loved spinning yarns and he didn’t need a campfire or spurs, or even a guitar, to weave a good tale. In that regard, he was a true urban cowboy, a quintessential Baby Boomer, nostalgic for the salad days of the 1960s and Camelot, a time of carefree innocence and youthful idealism. Some of his best stories detailed his formative years in folkdom during the folk revival (which he referred to as the great “Folk Scare.”) The epicenter was New York’s Greenwich Village, and Allen was lucky enough to be there as a teenager, doing his share of hanging out in Washington Square Park, sharing runs and licks with the likes of John Herald, John Sebastian, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger. Whenever Allen would treat us to these tales, should digression threaten, he would invariably rein himself back in with a grin and his familiar aside, “…but that’s another whole story…”
Because writing was a part of Allen’s DNA, it seemed puzzling that until recently, he had, by his own admission, never written an original song. Then, one day Ken Graydon became the proverbial burr under his saddle, challenging him to sit down and put his pen to paper. The result was Allen’s first original song, “High and Dry,” a spare and evocative parable about the precious things we all hold dear.
HIGH AND DRY
by Allen Singer
My old boots got cracked heels, they’re keepin’ me company
Always movin’, ridin’ along, never askin’ much of me
Never gave it much thought, asked, or wondered why
My old boots kept me safe and warm, high and always dry
My old hat, brimmed and low, been sittin’ on my head
No matter which way the wind blows, it sits and points ahead
My old neck got burned some, the sun stayed out of my eyes
My old hat kept me safe and warm, high and always dry
My old well-worked saddle been holding up my hand
On and on, like my old friend, through dusty rain and wind
It’s been there, on my trail, it’s followed me many a mile
My old saddle kept me safe and warm, high and always dry
The last time we saw Allen was on Sunday, September 11, at the monthly meeting of the San Diego Folk Song Society. Gathered full circle in the upstairs room of New Expression Music in North Park, we were there to honor the life and music of Ken Graydon, who had passed away only several weeks prior. Before we began our round-robin musical tributes to Ken, Allen stood and talked for several minutes about Ken and Tanya Rose (who had also recently passed away) and about what a tough year it had been for our circle, having lost these dear friends, and encouraged us to reach out to one another, live in the present, and savor our friendships. He also spoke about the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and asked us to take a few moments to reflect silently. As he stood before us and talked, we couldn’t help but be touched by his wise, comforting, and almost rabbinical presence – his proverbial heart of gold shining out to all of us. In a word, a mensch.
When Liz Abbott phoned, inviting this article, she ended the conversation by saying, “What will we do without Allen?” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a world without Allen Singer – the livewire, curmudgeonly sparkplug whose large presence; warm bear hugs; and wry, dry commentary filled the room. His kind-yet-irreverent spirit, his upbeat attitude, and his forthright observations touched so many wherever he went. And we still keep thinking he’s going to be there at the next gathering, greeting, joking, playing. How could it possibly be otherwise?
Allen, you left us way too early and far too unexpectedly. We wanted to hear more of your stories, read more of your articles, hear more of your tunes, and witness the creation of your next great original song. We wanted to come see you at your upcoming concerts. Most of all, we wanted to know you better and to grow old along with you. Of course, we’ll do our best to carry on down here, picking up the slack, trying to hold the folk scene together, no doubt having to job-share the myriad projects and events you seemed able to handle effortlessly all by yourself. But do us a favor, will you old buddy? Save us a seat up there, wherever “up there” is, in that ever-growing folk circle where the angel band sings sweetly, everybody plays in time, and nobody’s ever out of tune. Shalom, Aleichem. Peace be with you, dear friend.
Elizabeth Schwartz Remembers Allen Singer
The San Diego Troubadour has always been an essential friend to the San Diego music community and its writers our tireless supporters. Is it odd to think of the Troubadour family as one big… ear? Maybe I should explain: Musicians contemplate ears all the time. Our own ears, our bandmates’ ears, and, obsessively, the ears of our audiences. Is our music penetrating past those ears – through the skull, to the mind and the heart? One hopes so. Our audiences are as diverse as the musicians in our roots music community. And just like musicians, there can be virtuoso listeners. I’m specifically referring to those individuals whose listening is so intense, so exultant, so utterly musical, that they grab our attention as deeply as we grab theirs. Allen Singer was this kind of listener – and I don’t think it was only because he was a musician himself. When I first met Allen at a typically raucous Troubadour holiday party, I was interested in getting to know him. Not because he’d given me a good review, but because of how deeply he listened. Here’s a quote: “The CD sings to the six million lost, bringing them back to the rest of us still here who are alive and dancing to Borsht with Bread, Brothers…This is truly world music, culturally created in Eastern Europe, but cross-fertilized with sounds from as far away as Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa, brought to life again in those long gone, ghost-inhabited Jewish communities that still exist in our DNA.” Allen deeply loved music, but intriguingly, he seemed to love the stories behind the music even more. A conversation with him about klezmer and Yiddish music invariably turned to the history of our people, to his New York boyhood and our favorite Jewish foods. His appreciation for what I did went beyond quality – he genuinely loved and understood why I would play this music and gave me the distinct respect of really listening. All musicians need that kind of intense listening – it sustains and encourages us as much as money or applause (in some ways more – we’re doing something intensely spiritual and personal, and we need that validation). In the Troubadour’s pages, Allen didn’t just write about music, he wrote stories – stories about ghosts and about DNA, about the musicians and their histories. In an age when too many people think the pinnacle of musicianship can be heard on “American Idol,” Allen wrote about soul. If we read his words as insightfully as he listened to our music, we’ll find Allen’s. I’ll miss his sense of humor, his stories and most certainly not least, his ears.
THE OLD TRAIL HEAD
A poem by Allen Singer, dedicated to Ken Graydon
Riding out one morning on an old trail head
Fresh dust in my teeth, smoky breath around my head
I saw rock angels falling, dancing a slow motion waltz,
On old trails in old canyons, sage brush crowded draws
Thinking time’s like a dried river, empty and lonesome
And canyon walls told many tales of tribes, long gone
Ghostly story tellers, kept alive by the morning’s sun
Chilled and kept peaceful under a new evening moon
While sly coyote thrown quartz stars lighted my way
Bedding down for the night, bed rolled on the ground,
Eating some pemmican pushed along by camp fire coffee
I remembered I’d ridden this dream trail so many times
Looking for something that was looking out for me
Remnants of stories, reminders of yesterday, old friends I rode with
Down old Indian trails taken to find my way
Ahead of our troubles like rusty memories now slowly etched in time
We go riding, recalling, searching memories on life’s old trail line
We go riding, recalling, searching memories on life’s old trail line