A Living Legend

In the summer of 1978 I went to  a restaurant and bar called The Sanctuary in Iowa City to hear the folk singer Bob Gibson who was billed as "the living legend".  I knew nothing about Gibson except that there was a small photo of him in the newspaper and he was shown with a 12 string guitar.

I was 23 years old and fresh out of college and I’d come to Iowa to study poetry writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop.  I was immoderately in love with the collected Folkways recordings of Leadbelly and I owned a third rate 12 string guitar that wouldn’t stay tuned and I spent far too much of my time trying to play "The  Bourgeois Blues" and "The Midnight Special" without having any concept that Leadbelly used a different tuning.

I was lonely that summer.  I’d rented a student apartment that came without furniture.  The landlord loaned me a sofa with no legs and a bed.  I sat in the empty living room and tuned my bad guitar and wondered how I would make it in the world with my evolving blindness and my obvious incapacity to do the customary jobs reserved for America’s misfits.  Blind people don’t drive taxis or wait tables or serve as short order cooks.  Anyway, I was too much in love with poetry to picture myself doing much of anything.  I didn’t feel sorry for myself: I kept as much as possible inside poems and songs.  I sang Elizabeth Cotton’s "Freight Train" in my barren apartment as the prairie dusk came with its graduated softness.

The Sanctuary was a skinny room with a bar on one wall and a small stage on the other side.  The tables in the center had real church pews for seats.  Although my vision was unreliable I estimated there were about 70 customers sitting in those pews and perhaps a dozen people at the bar.  A good turn out in a small town.   

I asked the waitress if I could have a table by the stage since I was "legally blind" and she said this would be okay.  I ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon and waited for the show.

I suppose I should remember who warmed up for Gibson but I don’t.  I’m sure it was someone with plenty of talent.  Iowa City has a good folk music scene.  What I do remember is that when Bob Gibson came out The Sanctuary was suddenly packed and the warmth of the crowd was spontaneous and communal.  These were Gibson groupies and I could sense that lots of them had driven from outlying Iowa farm towns to be there.

I didn’t know that Bob Gibson had been the headline performer at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival and that he was the person who introduced Joan Baez to the music world when he invited her on stage to sing with him.  I didn’t know that Bob Gibson had co-written songs with Phil Ochs or that he had sung with Pete Seeger or that he had been a noted performer in the glory days of New York City’s folk scene in "the village".  I had no idea that he was a pal of Shel Silverstein’s and that they had begun writing songs together.

But man, I knew instant warmth when I felt it.

Gibson arranged the shoulder strap of his Martin 12 string while the applause rolled over the room. 

Then he sang Phil Och’s anthem "There But For Fortune" and I was utterly floored.

I’ve had the good fortune to hear some amazing musical performances over the years, from The Beatles to La Scala, from Domingo to Duke Ellington, but I’ve never heard anything quite as wonderful as Bob Gibson’s beautiful 12 string  and sweet light baritone in that little room in Iowa City.

Bob Gibson died too young and toward the end of his life he suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

I can’t tell you why I’m thinking of him today.  I feel a sweet ache and a taste perhaps of water taken from a tin cup and I want to pass it along.  If you don’t know Bob Gibson’s amazing music  I urge you to get your hands on his cd’s at Amazon.  Or better yet, go to a vintage record store in Chicago and talk to someone who may once have heard him play at the Gates of Horn.