Music Player
Click the play button to hear the song, or right-click the MP3 button to download the file to your computer.

The House Carpenter
This recording is unique in a number of ways. It was made by the Redwood Canyon Ramblers at the same time as the four songs (my compositions) that are included on my 2008 CD, Places I’ve Been, but it has never before been available to the public. The arrangement was one that popped into my head in the early sixties when the RCR consisted of Scott Hambly, Pete Berg, and myself, and I believe it is the only existing bluegrass treatment of the song.

Furthermore, the song itself is special. It is the oldest in our repertoire, going back at least into the 1600s. Francis James Child’s famous ballad collection gave it the number 243 and the title “James Harris (The Daemon Lover),” and the song was known in England, Ireland, and Scotland and before it traveled to America. The original story concerned the return of a ghostly sailor, missing for three years, to his ex-lover who had married a carpenter and borne his children. In American versions, the supernatural elements tend to be downplayed and many verses are dropped.

The musicians are Mayne Smith, vocal and guitar; Scott Hambly, mandolin; Neil Rosenberg, banjo; Ed Neff, fiddle; and Tom Glass, bass

 
This poster, designed and produced by our bass player, Tom Glass, was used chiefly to advertise the Washington School concert discussed in Neil's "Brief History." It was photocopied onto yellow 8.5" x 14" paper, but the part not included in this scan was left blank. A technical note for bluegrass musicians: a separate photo of Tom was physically cobbled onto the illustration, and the pegheads of Mayne's and Neil's instruments were trimmed down to make the result look better. Mayne was playing a D-28 borrowed from Scott. Neil's banjo was a "bow-tie" Gibson Mastertone with a flathead tone ring. More specifically, it's a 1954 RB-250 with a 1933 RB-4 flathead pot installed by Campbell Coe in June of 1960. You can't see it in the photo, but Scott was playing a Gibson F4 (no serial number!) on loan from Campbell Coe.(See Scott Hambly's obituary for Campbell in the PIECES OF OUR MINDS section.)

 

 

The Redwood Canyon Ramblers:
A Brief History

By Neil Rosenberg, March 2009
www.mun.ca/folklore/people/Rosenberg.php

Neil has been my friend and musical colleague since 1953, when my family moved to Berkeley. Of course, Neil is now a distinguished teacher and scholar, as well as an accomplished bluegrass-style banjo player. His books Bluegrass: A History (1985), and Bluegrass Odyssey (with Carl Fleischhauer, 2001), and The Music of Bill Monroe (with Charles K. Wolfe, 2007) were published as part of the influential University of Illinois Press series, Music in American Life: <www.press.uillinois.edu/books/series/MAL.html>
— Mayne            

The Redwood Canyon Ramblers formed in Berkeley, California, in June 1959. They were the Bay Area's first bluegrass band, a source of musical influence and inspiration to younger musicians in the region like Jerry Garcia, Herb Pedersen, Eric Thompson, Sandy Rothman, Rick Shubb, and Butch Waller.

Prehistory

Scott Hambly, Mayne Smith, and Neil Rosenberg came out of the Berkeley folk music scene that Rita Weill Byxbe describes in her notes for Mike Seeger’s documentary album, Berkeley Farms (Smithsonian-Folkways FW 02436, 1972). Mayne and Neil had started playing guitars together in 1953 while at Garfield Junior High School (now Martin Luther King). They met Scott after all three entered the tenth grade at Berkeley High School in the fall of 1954.

By 1956 they were part of a group of teenage folk music enthusiasts who held weekend musical parties at a cabin in Redwood Canyon (in the hills east of Oakland, near Moraga) that belonged to the grandfather of a friend of Scott's. Mayne had begun playing the five-string banjo, initially inspired by Pete Seeger. In 1956 Mayne and Neil were the first of this group to perform on "The Midnight Special," a live radio program broadcast every Saturday night from the studios of KPFA-FM in Berkeley.

Mayne and Neil heard bluegrass for the first time when they started at Oberlin College in Ohio in the fall of 1957. That Christmas in Berkeley, Scott got his first mandolin. In the summer of 1958 the trio's concerts in the Bay Area included a couple of bluegrass pieces with Scott on mandolin, Mayne on banjo, and Neil on guitar. During 1958-1959 Mayne and Neil played bluegrass and old-time music at Oberlin with a group called the Lorain County String Band. Scott, studying at the University of California, began playing with Pete Berg, a musically like-minded fellow student from the LA area.

1959-1963

When Mayne and Neil returned to Berkeley from Oberlin in June 1959, they joined with Scott and Pete to form the Redwood Canyon Ramblers. At the outset Scott played mandolin; Mayne, banjo; Neil, guitar; and Pete, washtub bass. Everyone in the band contributed to the vocals. Scott had arranged a gig at a little restaurant on Telegraph (across from Cody's Books) called The Peppermint Stick, and proposed putting a band together. Scott suggested the name, which recalled their high school musical blasts at Redwood Canyon as well as the New Lost City Ramblers, another inspirational influence.

In July, illness forced Mayne to stop playing with the band. In order to keep the band going, Pete moved to guitar, Neil switched to banjo, and Betty Acyrigg (AKA Betty Mann) was hired to play bass. They performed frequently until the end of the summer of 1959, becoming weekly regulars at the Northgate club on Euclid Avenue just north of the UC campus.

The Ramblers were then inactive until June 1960, when Neil returned from Oberlin along with fiddler Franklin Miller, who'd been with him in a new Oberlin band, the Plum Creek Boys. With Mayne on rhythm guitar they immediately assembled the best-known version of the Redwood Canyon Ramblers: Scott, mandolin; Mayne, guitar; Neil, banjo; and Franklin, fiddle. They soon added jazz bass player Tom Glass, whom Mayne had met at work the previous year.

They played frequently that summer at places like Barry Olivier's Continental Restaurant in Berkeley, the Arena club in North Beach, and the El Cerrito Plaza mall, as well as regular appearances on KPFA. At the end of the summer they rented the Washington School auditorium in central Berkeley and promoted their own concert on August 27, 1960, with posters advertising them as "The Bay Area's First and Only Genuine Bluegrass Band." (The poster was designed and produced by Tom Glass.)

After September 1960, when Neil and Frank returned to Oberlin, Scott and Mayne kept the band going with Pete Berg on banjo. In the band's second Washington School appearance on December 2, 1961 they shared the stage with Starday artists the Carroll County Country Boys (Vern Williams and Ray Parks). The Ramblers band continued into early 1962, with a concert at San Jose State College on April 6.

In June 1962 Mayne moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and the band was inactive until Scott reconstituted it with Pete Berg on banjo and Al Ross on guitar for a regular weekly engagement at the Cabale, a Berkeley coffeehouse, from January through March of 1963. That ended when Scott left to join the Air Force.

In August 1963 Scott, Mayne, and Neil, all home on vacation in Berkeley, brought the band together for three nights at the Cabale folk club with Scott on mandolin, Neil on banjo, Mayne on Dobro, Sandy Rothman on guitar, and Tom Glass on bass.

Reunion Appearances

The Redwood Canyon Ramblers didn't play again in public until the spring of 1991, when Mayne and Neil did a two-week Japanese concert tour with Ed Neff substituting for Scott on the mandolin. Days after returning from Japan they played a reunion concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. On that show Ed played fiddle; Scott, mandolin; and Steve Pottier played bass. Another reunion concert was held at the Freight in 1993, when Mayne, Scott, and Neil were joined by Julie Smolin on fiddle, Leroy MacNees on Dobro, and Larry Cohea on bass.

For a detailed history of the band and its founding members, see Sandy Rothman's four-part series, "Rambling in the Redwood Canyon: The Routes of Bay Area Bluegrass" in the magazine Bluegrass Unlimited (May 1991, 50-60; June 1991, 58-66; July 1991, 55-64; August 1991, 60-68).

The little village of Canyon is marked on the famous 1968 poster, "Humbead's Map of the World with a List of the Population" (http://www.humbead.com/humbead.html).

THIS ESSAY WAS LAST REVISED 2/14/11