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Cynthia Gooding Remembered

by Barry Peterson

From 1975 to 1978 I had the great privilege to be a guitar accompanist for Cynthia Gooding, who briefly came out of retirement in part because she enjoyed setting the best of her multilingual folk repertoire with an extra guitar.

As her guitarist I was in good company, because the great Josh White had once worked with her and had taught her some accompaniment techniques of which she made good use. Her approach to the guitar was to keep it simple so she could concentrate on delivering the lyrics, but her style, thanks to White’s timely influence, was strong and rhythmic. (I added fingerstyle to her distinctive “slapping” strum patterns.)

During this period we played only about thirty dates, but for the most part they were high-prestige ones: opening for Pete Seeger at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, the American Museum of Folk Art, and various folk club dates. Every time we performed, people who knew her work well from the 50’s and early 60’s came out of the woodwork to catch her show.

I began my relationship with Cynthia as a fan years before meeting her. Not long after getting my first guitar (in 1963 as a high school graduation present) and setting about deconstructing the parts on Joan Baez’s first albums, I found her wonderful duet recording with Theo Bikel called A Man and a Maid, an album which I all but wore out during my first year with the instrument.

Of course I progressed to other song stylists and guitar players throughout the sixties and thought very little about Cynthia until the spring of 1973, when we were commonly booked for a benefit show at Princeton University (we both lived a short walk from the campus in those days.) When introduced to her backstage I gushed over her perhaps a bit too strenuously, but she took it with good humor and pretty soon I was invited over for lunch.

At the time she was trying her hand at fiction, and her interest in music was almost completely that of a listener (what a record collection!), but I prevailed on her to dust off her old Goya and her newer Martin and we spent many pleasant afternoons re- prising her old Theo Bikel duets like “Sur La Route.” I came up with a part she really liked for her lively “Guantanamera,” which she had restored to its original drinking- song lustiness by favoring several of the original sing-along verses over the somber Jose Marti lyrics that Pete Seeger had made famous.

All this was mere jamming for pleasure until one day when I was at her house for lunch and the telephone rang. It was Izzy Young, of New York’s Folklore Center and Sing Out! Magazine, offering her a date in the city and a chance to see many of her old comrades in arms. Wherever it was, it was a thrill for me to meet many people like Dave Van Ronk, from whose recordings I’d learned my craft, and enough of a treat for Cynthia that she was now available for more. Thus began my great and fondly re- membered musical association with Cynthia Gooding which I brag about to this day.

I was there for her “swan song” performance (“Okay! that’s it! I’m done.”) in the spring of ’78 at the open-air Jewish Street Festival, which was held on a couple of closed-to-traffic blocks in the east eighties of Manhattan. We were scheduled to fol- low another estimable fifties-era folkie and friendly rival from back in the day named Martha Schlamme, who had graduated from folk to cabaret 15 years earlier, and who at the age of 55 was the very essence of middle-aged glamour. Accompanied by a first-rate pianist, she delivered a knockout set of Brecht-Weill numbers that had the crowd clamoring for more. We had to follow this?

It was the only time I ever saw Cynthia Gooding rattled and abashed in a perform- ance situation, but rattled and abashed she was, and she lost her desire to play music professionally that very day. Looking back, I think she realized right then that, com- pared to Ms. Schlamme and to her own glory days, she was really no longer quite so passionate about musical performance to really be devoting the (full) time and energy that the craft deserves, and it was time for her three-year lark to come to an end. Soon after, though, she regained her desire to live in Manhattan, and it was a pleasure to travel up and take her to lunch every six months or so while she was there.

Working with Cynthia Gooding for that three-year period endures as the great thrill of my musical life, which I still pursue more or less full-time.

May 21, 2009