One of the things that I had to get used to dealing with early on in my decades of involvement with musicians (often older) was death. Beginning with Baby Tate (see O&S 11), most of the people I have dealt with since 1970 have since died. I could rationalize this by telling myself that they were all notably older than I, and so death was not too unusual; expected even. They were poor and Black, and usually resided in the American South (or once did so) in a context of poor diet, minimal civil rights, and poor social services. (see: “Stroke Belt” on Wikipedia) Now that I am almost seventy, that concern no longer holds up as well as it once did, for my peers and I are now entering age levels where we could easily cark it at any moment. And then there are those who are younger than I… such as Dan Del Santo, neither old nor Black.
Dan was a most unique personal “hook” for many of my years living in the Hudson River Valley, a musician who enthusiastically encouraged me in my decade or so of field-work. Since I felt that I operated in a near-vacuum, this kind of reinforcement was a godsend: a reification, to use one of the buzz-words from the academic world of the (US) social sciences. Our first meeting was accidental – he was performing with a stripped-down version of his band, The Arm Brothers, at a bar(US)/pub(UK) in New Paltz, NY. His new bass player, Billy Troiani, had briefly been a student of mine in one of my college/university(UK) General Biology classes and may have effected some sort of introduction. This would have been in late 1970 or early 1971. I thought that his music was good and he thought that my efforts at documentation were valid: a mutual appreciation society, or, if you will, soul brothers (in the non-racial sense)! The note in B&R No. 164 (p.21) from Eric LeBlanc concerning his death in Mexico shook me once again in a way that hadn’t occurred to me in quite some years.
I don’t know all that much about Dan’s background, although I believe that he was born in Poughkeepsie, NY. His father, Domenic, was a mandolin player (I bought an inexpensive vintage one in a pawn shop for Dan to give his father on one of my southern journeys) who drove a school bus. Dan’s musical interests began with The Beatles, et al, and had made it to Bill Monroe and Waylon Jennings by the time we met! I am certainly responsible for his initial forays into blues and other forms of African American music, to the point that he took some time “scouting” the Dutchess County, NY area for me. He was responsible for locating Little Sam Davis in late 1971 and putting us together (O&S 2)… Dan played guitar on some of the six sides that Sam did for me, two of which were issued on a 45 (“Someday Blues”/Sam’s Swing”; Trix 4505). He never could locate 12-string guitarist “Shakespeare”, though.
While he remained in the Hudson Valley, Dan DelSanto gigged and recorded (Trix 3308) with Eddie Kirkland using some of his current and past band members. He also recorded with Tarheel Slim on a session in Brooklyn early in 1972 (“Superstitious”, one side of 4503, also used as a track on Slim’s LP, “No Time At All” [Trix 3310] at the family home of a young woman I was then dating. Dan, his [first] wife (Christine Roberta), and I all stayed over a week-end, while Slim drove over from the Bronx to record that Saturday afternoon. In September of 1974 we began work on his solo album, “White Feathers In The Coop” (Trix 3314), an attempt at a “Fahey’ or “Kottke” for the label… my token honky!! Dan had worked on his material for a long time, so the three sessions were just “getting it right” on the tape. He was his own hard task-master, and would not let it go until it was right. It is, in my estimation, a fine album that falls into no obvious pigeonhole, then or now.
Thanks to the efforts of their fiddle player, Evan Stover, The Arm Brothers obtained a bus and began to travel further afield than the Hudson Valley for gigs. One time, I met up with them once in Rochester, NY where we interviewed Lesley Riddle (one of the most important outcomes of that meeting was the correct spelling of his name!) and tried to get him to record to no avail. There was also a convergence at one of Bill Monroe’s annual bluegrass festivals at Bean Blossom, IN, where I heard all the living greats of up-to-early seventies bluegrass and one of my few big festival attendances (I’m not big on crowds, or dust/mud), and the only one for me outside of blues or jazz! Terry Lickona was the producer and a DJ at a C&W radio station in Poughkeepsie, and was a great supporter of Dan’s band. In 1971 he began “The Arm Brothers Dance Party” that featured “live” performances by the band. After Terry and Dan went to one of Willie Nelson’s first 4th of July festivals in 1974, they decided that Austin, TX was the place to be. Terry soon relocated to Austin where he took up with a local public radio station. Lickona has since become the producer of “Austin City Limits”, shown on “public” TV in the USA and by discerning stations around the world. (My partner, our son, and I visited him in 2001 [we got to see The Buena Vista Social Club aggregation at their taping!] and he seems comfortably ensconced there in his niche, and doing it well.) By then, Dan had rightly decided that Poughkeepsie was a limiting context for him and his music, and that Austin made more sense. He and his wife moved, although at first he could initially only get some cash by busking, but eventually he networked enough with local musicians, finally having his own band.
Besides playing both kinds of music (country and western), Dan got a job DJ-ing on one of the local National Public Radio stations in town. His programming became more all-encompassing and was most popular with its educated audience (Austin being a university town). As a result of the eclecticism of his radio play-list, DelSanto’s musical tastes and expressions expanded as well, growing way beyond C&W or bluegrass and incorporating things from many musical genres, not all from the USA(1). There was an article sometime in the early eighties in Rolling Stone about this new thing called “World Beat” that was happening out in San Francisco. Now more broadly known as “World Music” or some such title (see Songlines! In the UK, or Rhythms in the USA for recent publications), this has become a big factor in the minority-genre music scene in the US as can be seen by the rise of the popularity of such as The Buena Vista Social Club, or Gabriela y Rodrigo. The thing is, Dan DelSanto his Professors of Pleasure(2) had been doing this sort of musical creolization in Austin for a number of years prior to that piece’s publication. Dan was extremely proud of being one of only two US musicians to play with Fela Kuti during his first tour of America (the other was jazz vibist Roy Ayres). The story that Dan told me after-the-fact was that he went to a rehearsal with Fela and the band before the shows in Austin and, of course, when it came to the actual performances, they played totally different tunes. But he stuck in there just the same and rode it out… and loved it! Dan DelSanto was a firm believer in the Ellingtonian dictum that there are two kinds of music; good music, and the other kind. To hell with pigeonholes!!
When Dan headed for Texas (with my Gibson L-5 on loan for western swing tunes), I lost our day-to-day involvement. We met only one more time after that in the 80s when he came to NYC to mix the most recent Professors of Pleasure LP master tapes. Her called after that from time to time, and I called him more frequently (I could more easily afford the long distance charges)… the last one was to by my National Triolian Hawai’ian guitar, but he couldn’t offer anywhere near its value. And that is the difficulty of being an artist in the good old US of A… money, or more to the point, lack of same. I know that there was a second marriage (to Anne Sherwood), a relationship (Rochelle Bonazzi) and two children (Dominique and Alexis or Rosa) in Austin. There was also an involvement of some fashion in the marijuana(3) trade (see pieces on Little Mac Simmons in various publications for a possibly analogous Black story) as a way to get money to support his family and his art. Things got out-of-control and Dan, given the choice of “rolling over” on friends or serious Federal prison time; instead, he left Austin for Mexico and became a Federal fugitive. He always felt that he was a “righteous dude”. I know nothing beyond that (Evan Stover [Kingston, NY] kept in touch, but I hardly saw Evan as we moved in vastly different circles – the little that I do know about Dan’s fugitive life comes from my one chance meeting with Evan around 1990), and so it was with great sorrow that I read Eric’s obit notification in this publication. He was a good friend and is missed. Being true to your art is always a bitch, nowhere more so than in “America” which honors popularity over art at all times. An artist?… You’re on your own. It is sad, maybe criminal that my friend Dan DelSanto was on his own like that, dying of kidney disease that could have been taken care of had he been back in The States. It even happens to White folks, you know.
- (1) “The ‘World Beat’ label… introduced by Austin, TX musician and radio personality DanDelSanto in the 1980s and picked up rapidly by the radio and music industry, refers to all ethnic-pop mixings, fusion dance musics, and emerging syncretic populist musical hybrids from around the world, particularly from urban centers.”
Music Grooves, Charles Keil & Steven Feld.University of Chicago Press (1994): Chicago/London – p. 266.
- (2) “Andrew Goodwin and Joe Gore provide an excellent discussion of this term (World Beat) in ‘World Beat and the Cultural Imperialism Debate’, in which they identify a 1983 album of that title by an Austin, Texa musician Dan DelSanto as the origin of the term. DelSanto’ music on this album is a kind of funk/rock/jazz; the eponymous track is an instrumental in the same vein. His 1990 album ‘Off Your Nyash’ features a photo of him on the cover over the caption ‘The Undisputed Originator of World Beat’. And World Beat is the name of his band; World Beat the name of his publishing company.”
Global Pop: World Music, World Markets, Timothy D. TaylorRoutledge (1997): New York/London – p.3.
- (3) I recollect a Professors of Pleasure LP album cover that had a photo of Dan in a serious field of marijuana!
Peter B. Lowry