King of the 12-String Guitar


(links revised 2005)

A tribute to Smithsonian/Folkways Records

and Mark Spoelstra

Dear Friends,

Many, & many a year ago, while attending rural Rhode Island secondary school, with a major in visual defenestration, when this whole brand new guitar / folk music craze was something we'd all learned about from recent TIME magazine articles and the sporadically available issue of SING OUT!,  I walked into a tiny music store just off Wickenden St, on a rare excursion to The Big City with my pals, Mike and Jim.

It was ‘first guitar’ time.

Behind the counter was one of those stereotypically lanky, wire-rimmed, smirking, "world’s foremost authorities" that we all love so very much in the arts community. He had a good chuckle when we declared that we were ‘shopping for guitars’ and when we inquired, innocently enough, if he had any twelve-strings, he positively glowed with self-satisfied glee. Asked what we knew about 12-strings, we spoke excitedly, but in reverent tones, of "LEADBELLY-KING OF THE 12-STRING GUITAR". 

We were proud to have answered promptly, and confident that our information, straight from a LIFE article about the blossoming folk music craze, was indisputable. "They couldn't print it if it wasn't true" (Ah, me........)

The WFA shook his head and, in a moment of genuine mercy, told an assistant to "Put on some Mark Spoelstra". His disciple smiled approval, reached into the bin, and came up with a mythic FOLKWAYS record! (We had heard about, but never actually seen, FOLKWAYS albums.) Hallelujah! I made a mental note that even insufferable smirking boors may harbor useful information and began a valuable lesson about books and covers.

Oh, what a sound erupted from those ancient speakers as Spoelstra played BUCKDANCERS CHOICE #2 on his mighty B-45-12 Gibson! Could this possibly be the work of one musician? It seemed an impossible feat. I was satisfied that we were listening to more than one guitar and, when assured to the contrary, was instantly immersed in a love affair that would continue for the rest of my ‘ramblin days’.

Years later, after I had ‘mastered’ the basics of popular ragtime, blues, and folk guitar, I would remember that day and wish that I could find a copy of THE SONGS OF MARK SPOELSTRA, but-----no such luck. The world had swung on board the British Invasion by that time and record stores that carried high quality, semi-obscure folk records were not to be found in our little corner of the provinces. I assumed that FOLKWAYS had gone out of business along with THE GASLIGHT in NYC, Boston’s SWORD IN THE STONE, THE MOUTHPIECE in Providence, Cincinnati’s FAMILY OWL and BLIND LEMON, THE Y-NOT in Worcester, Newport’s SALT, FOLK CITY in N.Y. again, and all those fondly remembered watering holes, temples, and sources of spiritual nourishment.  

Decades passed and the sound of BUCKDANCERS CHOICE #2 was relegated to the Unrelivable Fond Memories file along with the mental video of my trip to the 1962 Newport Folk Festival with the prettiest girl in Ponaganset High School.

Well, my old friends, I recently acquired the info that FOLKWAYS is still in existence, associated with the Smithsonian, and has NO out-of-print issues! That is to say, every FOLKWAYS album is, and will remain, IN STOCK AND AVAILABLE! Call 1-888-365-5929, fax 202-725-1165, or E-mail at mailorder@folkways.si.edu  for information. 

This is a rare bird indeed, and one that deserves our support in these "slash the Arts and give the money to Macdonald’s" times. Your reward for supporting this noble venture is a selection of hard-to-find treasures that will, in the words of our good and wise friend Roy Book Binder, ‘tickle your ear’.  I strongly encourage you to do so. You’ll be glad to thank me.

I have the Spoelstra album

I’m well into learning BUCKDANCERS CHOICE #2.

The catalogue is practically a festival in itself.

And this year I received holiday greetings from the long lost (but never forgotten) "prettiest girl in Ponaganset High."

Sometimes it's rewarding, this growing older.

Write if you get the chance.
  Y' look good today, You really do. 
    From The Ragwagon,
      Lonesome Red



UPDATE  August 2004:

 Y'all can imagine my surprise  when I opened my email recently to find a message from the man himself.!! It was in the form of a brief  "Thank You" for the story above, and an invite for all of you to visit his new website: