A Travelin’ Man

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Roy Bookbinder is that figure of contemporary American legend, the traveling blues man.  For the past three decades, he has been on the road, playing his mixture of blues, country, bluegrass and folk music.  This Thursday, his travels take him to Henflings Firehouse Tavern in Ben Lomond.

Bookbinder’s lifelong journey began when he was born, in New York City in 1943.  He grew up in a large house in Queens with his parents, two brothers and two sets of grandparents.  Surrounded by his family, the young Bookbinder longed to find something that would give him his own identity.  He found it in 1957, when Alan Freed’s “Carnival of Stars” rock and roll show came to the Brooklyn Paramount Theater.  He recalled, “Thurston Harris came out and sang ‘Do What You Did When You Did What You Done When The Lights Went Low,’ and we were never the same.”  Bookbinder saw all of the rock and roll greats including Fats Domino, Little Richard and Buddy Holly.  The latter inspired him to take up guitar.  “He had weird lookin’ glasses like me, so I could identify with him.  But it was always the jungle rhythms that really caught me.  I realized years later that it was the blues.”

Bookbinder had his first real meeting with the blues in 1963, while serving in the US Navy.  A shipmate played him some records of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.  On hearing these artists, he became much more serious about playing guitar and took lessons from another shipmate.

When Bookbinder left the Navy, he went back to school at a community college in Newport, RI.  There he encountered Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.  In these two men, Bookbinder had discovered his musical and lifestyle role models. Van Ronk played guitar in the style of Reverend Gary Davis, and Bookbinder was intrigued by it.  Later in New York, when he heard another guitarist playing in the same style, Bookbinder asked him who his teacher was, and was handed a piece of paper with Davis’ number written on it.  After a couple of lessons with Davis, Bookbinder quite school and went out on the road with his new teacher, as driver and traveling companion.  For the next eighteen months, Bookbinder learned about the blues and folk music scene from the inside.

In 1969, Bookbinder went over to tour the UK with a group of artists he had met through Davis.  When he returned to the States, the reviews of his UK tour landed him a deal with Adelphi Records.  He recorded his first solo blues album, “Travelin’ Man,” and began to tour nationwide in the US, both solo and with other musicians. 

In the spring of 1976, Roy Bookbinder bought a motor home and began the tour that, so far, has not ended.  He has recorded for several record labels including Rounder, who put out his CD “Polk City Ramble.”  He has also released guitar instruction books and DVDs, and was recently invited to be a featured storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, June 24, 2004

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