Zero to 180 has been a direct benefactor of Tom Avazian’s unending quest for musical inspiration, a journey that has informed this website in countless ways. When Tom recently handed over a selected set of second-hand musical acquisitions, he knew darn well that I’d be powerless to resist this color-your-own cover for a 1977 album by Michele Valeri and Bob Devlin whose title track derives inspiration from P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s tale, Are You My Mother?
original LP cover
There seems to be an obvious story, however, behind the flaming red copyright sticker that interferes with the album cover’s imperative to “color me please.” Thanks to a phone conversation with Bob Devlin’s collaborator, Michele Valeri — graciously facilitated by Grammy Award-winning folk musician Cathy Fink — I now understand the situation with the discontented copyright-holder-in-question to be even more convoluted than I had initially imagined.
However, I am still experiencing cognitive dissonance over the fact that Devlin performed at some of the DC area’s most prestigious venues in the 1970s and 80s, including Wolf Trap, The National Theatre, The Kennedy Center, and even the White House, and yet this album – originally issued on West Springfield, VA-based indie label, Pot Luck Records – remains uncataloged on Discogs. Where do I file a grievance?
Odder still, around the time of this album’s “release,” Are You My Mother? was voted by the American Library Association as one of the top “children’s records” — even though the primary “distribution point” for obtaining the LP was Devlin, a master street performer, and Bread & Roses, a cooperative (i.e., “worker-run”) record shop located in Dupont Circle.
Helping to unpack this story is Jeff Krulik, DC-based documentary filmmaker (best known for Heavy Metal Parking Lot), who righteously endowed Zero to 180 with choice ads, articles, and artifacts from his vast archives of Unicorn Times back issues, thus almost single-handedly serving up the images used in this piece. Thanks to Krulik’s copy of Richard Harrington‘s Unicorn Times review, for instance, we now know that Are You My Mother? had been released just before year’s end in 1977.
Unicorn Times — December 1977 — “Aerial” view
This sophomore release on the fledgling Pot Luck label had been preceded in September of the previous year by the debut album Live at 18th & M from “The Bob Devlin Street Band” — in actuality, a one-person operation, who had been recorded documentary-style with nary a post-production enhancement.
Unicorn Times — December 1977
Alternate ad for Devlin’s live debut LP
Devlin, by this point, had also begun placing ads in the Unicorn Times that announced his weekly performance schedule at two downtown DC locations — 21st & L and 18th & M:
Connie McKenna‘s feature article “Sunshine Street Singer” in the March 1977 edition of Unicorn Times revealed that Devlin, who once managed DC’s esteemed Iguana Coffeehouse, “sang with Pete Seeger and others at the recent opening of the Woody Guthrie movie, Bound For Glory.”
Devlin’s musical career, we learn from McKenna, began after a two-year stint as an Army draftee, having spent two years in Germany. Observing all the greenbacks earned in just a couple hours by a DC street musician playing the hammered dulcimer, noted McKenna, Devlin saw a potentially viable escape hatch from the soul-crushing drudgery of office work. Initially shy, Devlin hid behind his harmonica at first. Once he plucked up the courage to sing, however, there was no denying that “singing and eye contact were the ultimate street skills.”
Devlin, meanwhile, continued to employ a folksy charm in his marketing outreach efforts:
Within six months of pressing his first album, Devlin announced in the June 1977 issue of Unicorn Times that all 500 copies of the first pressing had been purchased, primarily on the strength of street sales:
In October, Unicorn Times readers were informed that a new album by Michele Valeri, in collaboration with “The Bob Devlin Street Band,” was now in the works:
Michele Valeri relayed the details behind the making and marketing of this album by phone to Zero to 180. Valeri says that she and Bob initially got together to trade songs, with Michele sharing songs written as a children’s entertainer. “You have some kids’ songs, I have some kids’ songs,” enthused Devlin, “Let’s make a record!”
Meanwhile, Joan Cushing – “Mrs. Foggy Bottom” – who played piano in cocktail lounges and dished about DC politics (not unlike Mark Russell, whose place at the Shoreham she would one day take) and Michele developed a budding friendship. While Valeri was doing an engagement at DC’s Mayflower Hotel and Cushing had a string of dates in Alexandria, Virginia, the two would see each other’s show on days off.
Cushing would be recruited for the new record, along with Steve Gray (bass, banjo & guitar), Marc Spiegel (vocals), Connie McKenna (autoharp & vocals), Barbara McKenna (vocals), Linda Devlin (siren whistle & vocals), Rob Bayne (drums), Michael Cotter (flute & vocals) & Hank Tenenbaum (bones). The album was recorded in Marc Spiegel’s apartment at Calvert and Connecticut in the Woodley Park neighborhood above a bakery (hence the song title, “Strawberry Pastry”).
Mobile Master’s Ed Kelly, who engineered Devlin’s Live at 18th & M album, was on hand (somewhere between the hallway and bathroom, where the vocals were primarily recorded) to capture the performances, including a “disgruntled” neighbor, whose sounds were incorporated into “The Dinosaur Song.” The album was recorded in two afternoons, according to Valeri, with Joan Cushing providing her services at no charge.
With regard to the featured song “When the Rain Comes Down,” Valeri reveals that Devlin one day was waiting for the bus, along with a cross-section of America [i.e., a well-appointed gentlemen with lawyer’s satchel, wildly-attired “hippie” types, day workers], when an unsuspected rain event caught the entire assemblage by surprise — and sparked a classic folk song in the process:
“When the Rain Comes Down” Bob Devlin & Michele Valeri 1977
Bob Devlin: Guitar, Cymbal & Vocals
Joan Cushing: Piano
Michael Cotter: Flute
Steve Gray: Bass
Michele Valeri: Vocals
Connie McKenna: Vocals
Barbara McKenna: Vocals
Album mixed at Paragon Studio* — Silver Spring, MD
CD remastering at Tonal Park — Takoma Park, MD
Michele & Bob’s bios — from the LP’s inner sleeve
Richard Harrington’s album review from the December 1977 issue of Unicorn Times:
Woody Guthrie had a rare talent for creating children’s records that made children out of all listeners, regardless of age. It came from various qualities in the music, not the least of which was his refusal to pander to pre- or mis-conceptions of what children’s music should be about.
Bob Devlin and Michele Valeri have rekindled those attitudes in this delightful album. The most obvious qualities are a gentle insistence and honesty towards the music itself, supported by unpretentious and amenable lyrics. This is a friendly record, folks, and when you’re not considering the innocence of many of its themes, you’ll be laughing at most of its characters.
The title song is a variation on the Old McDonald theme, here taking a Roots-like approach, but all in fun. It’s the story of a little chick who gets hatched alone and has to try and locate the warmth that once surrounded it. Animals figure a lot on this album, from the “Dinosaur Song”‘s classic 50’s rock and roll parade of species to Devlin’s sly “Little Black Bug” ballad.
There are people too: the little girl who really does want chocolate, the shared learning partners in “The Letter Song.” There are even vegetables on parade in “Fruit Salad Scenario.” It’ll be a challenge after hearing that one to blot out the theme centering around the line, “Oh you can’t elope with a cantaloupe…”
In other words, this is fun. Valeri has a classic cabaret voice by way of the Grand Guignol and Devlin, of course, has been entertaining all sorts of children on street corners for years. They are joined by good friends like Steve Gray and Connie McKenna and Joan Cushing and poet Marc Speigel. The songs come mostly from Devlin and Valeri, but there are literally as many flavors as there are tunes. Somehow it flows together beautifully, anchored by a spiritual undertow from Devlin. This record will last because, like Guthrie’s best “children’s records,” its values are timeless and equally fun for young and old.
November 1977 — Unicorn Times
P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?,” as the title track’s reference point and backdrop for the color-your-own cover (drawn by Michael Cotter, founder of Blue Sky Puppet Theatre), was discussed at one point by the two artists after the album’s recording had concluded. Valeri suggested that perhaps they should seek permission from the powers-that-be; however, Devlin indicated that was not necessary, saying in essence, “I researched the matter and have found that you can’t copyright a title.”
Meanwhile, the album that (like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) had been recorded in two days had somehow, as previously noted, made the American Library Association’s list of top children’s albums. Richard Harrington’s thumbs-up review added to the positive momentum.
Unicorn Times — December 1977
At this early point in their careers, there was so much uncertainty around the two musicians’ occupational trajectory, that Valeri’s parents’ West Springfield, VA address was listed as the base of operations for the wee Pot Luck label...This is an important detail, since by this time, Valeri had proactively and forthrightly mailed a copy of the new album to P.D. Eastman himself — in hindsight, almost certainly accelerating the chain of events that would inevitably follow...For, one day soon after, Valeri received a call from her mother, who told her, “I just signed a registered letter from Random House...I’m not sure, but I think you’re being sued!”
Many of her friends were delighted by the news, but Valeri, who was understandably horrified, immediately contacted an infuriated Eastman, who threatened to litigate. Valeri, whose teaching gig at David Perry’s Guitar and Lute Shop in DC’s Dupont Circle was her primary source of income, happened to have, by curious coincidence, Worth Rowley as a student.
Rowley — the guitar pupil who specifically sought out Valeri, as a result of his children’s enthusiasm for Are You My Mother? — was a prominent lawyer from a well-connected “Old Boston” family who had served the Justice Department for many years as an antitrust specialist. Rowley had turned up for his lesson one day to find Valeri especially down in the dumps and promptly agreed to intercede on her behalf. Before you know it, Rowley was in a three-piece suit and on an Amtrak train bound for New York City. Rowley clarified the optics of the lawsuit for Eastman and his legal reprentatives: “You’re suing a street musician and a special needs educator who serves severely handicapped children through music,” Rowley informed them. “Are you sure you want the bad publicity?”
Alexandria Gazette – June 28, 1979
Devlin’s “Folksongs Americana” children’s program at Fort Ward Park
[courtesy Jessie Devlin]
Both sides, thankfully, worked out an agreement, whereby the first 2,000 copies of the original Are You My Mother? album would be allowed to remain as is, provided that copyright stickers be affixed to the front cover of each copy, as well as inner sleeve adjacent to the title track. Additionally, all future releases of this album must be done under a new title and without the inclusion of “Are You My Mother?” [The CD reissue would be retitled When the Rain Comes Down and include ten songs from the original album, plus “The Tomato Song”; “You Best Take a Bath” & “Tiny Little Gear”].
Fortunately, this legal episode in no way deterred Devlin from becoming the cover story (penned by Matt Holsen) for Unicorn Times‘ October 1980 issue:
Holsen gleans a bit of wisdom from Devlin, who observes — counterintuitively perhaps — that “the street audience is more attentive, more involved in the music than the club audience.” Devlin explains: “You look up and there’s a hundred people standing there. They’re not there to drink or socialize. They’re just listening It can really scare you.”
Devlin acknowledges the challenge of creating a body of work that is consistent with his strong Christian faith while being able to stand solely on its musical merits. Devlin points out that “the Gallop Poll indicates that there are 80 million Americans who say they are born-again Christians. To the record companies, that’s 80 million customers.”
As Holsen observes —
Commercial music may be dominated by simple-minded hedonism, equally simple-minded cynicism or, at best, the dark melancholy of a Jackson Browne, and Christian music may be just another marketing strategy, but Devlin knows that he has an audience. He sees it every day on the street. He also knows that the very qualities that hinder his commercial success — his optimistic outlook and his unassuming, folksy style — are what endear him to that audience.
An unabashed proponent of folk music, Devlin believed its verse/chorus, verse/chorus structure to be a fundamental device for engaging others, providing opportunities for the audience to “join in.” Since people in other parts of the globe abide by the verse/chorus format, Devlin reasoned earlier to Unicorn Times in 1977, “it must be a part of the human psyche, it’s what works for people.” Furthermore, “the secret is to watch people walking by, to sing to each person as he comes by. Give ’em a wink. Be there for people.”
Matt Holsen noted in his October 1980 Unicorn Times cover story that the US Dept. of Labor once devoted four pages of a Bureau of Labor Statistics bulletin to Devlin, who was presented as a “model for youngsters considering careers in the performing arts.” This surprisingly informative bulletin from 1979 (#2001-14) speaks in practical terms to those considering Performing Arts, Design, and Communications Occupations:
Bob looks the crowd over with a practiced eye as he strides up to the busy corner in the heart of the business district. “Mostly office workers out for lunch, as usual, but there seem to be some tourists today too...Quite a mixture, in fact...They have the makings of a good audience,” he thinks to himself as he begins to set up his gear.
He removes the backpack that holds his guitar and a folding stool, then sets up his speaker system and hooks the microphone into it. After removing his guitar and leaning it upright against the stool, he unpacks a large cymbal and places it on the ground. He takes several record albums out of the pack and props them up against the speaker. Next he pulls his harmonica out of a side pocket of the pack and attaches it to a brace around his neck. Finally he places a very small cardboard box a few feet in front of the stool. “Hello, folks. How are you today?” he says into the mike as he sits down and begins tuning his guitar. A few people stop to watch, but most just continue on their way. Bob blows into the harmonica a few times, strums a chord, and then, assured that his guitar is in tune, begins to play.
“Bob Devlin’s my name, and I’m going to start off today with an old ballad that you may know.” With that, Bob starts to sing. More people stop to watch. As he begins the second verse, he can feel himself warming up to the song. About a dozen people have gathered around him, although most of the sidewalk traffic is still moving. As he finishes his song, a distinguished-looking man in a pin-striped suit walks over and drops some coins into the box. Bob acknowledges the contribution with a nod and a smile, then moves right into another tune. A faster one, this time. His right foot moves in time to the music, tapping the brass cymbal.
He’s feeling fine. .It is a beautiful summer day, sunny and warm, and Bob knows from experience what a difference the weather makes to a street musician. A balmy day like this is perfect. Bob moves quickly from one song into another, pausing between songs only now and then to talk to the people gathered around him. A number of people know him, or at least recognize him, and call to him by name. Bob has played on this corner before, and many of the people who work in nearby office buildings are familiar with his music. They make a point of coming when they find out that he’s giving a lunchtime concert here.
Bob is pleased with the audience he’s developing in this part of the city. And that audience, after all, is one of the main reasons he plays on the street. The money’s good—for only a few hours’ work he can make $40 on a good day. But the main advantage of playing on the street is the exposure he gets. More people hear him play on this corner sidewalk than would hear him play at a coffeehouse or club. In fact, most of the club dates he’s gotten lately have come about because someone from a nightclub heard him on the sidewalk, liked his music, and offered him the job. Playing on the street has actually saved him the trouble of having to go and audition.
Career World — 1980
[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]
Right now, Bob’s musical goal is to make a name for himself in Washington, D.C. He wants as many people as possible to recognize his name, his face, his musical style. He hopes that as he becomes better known, more and more people will make an effort to catch his performances—on street corners, in the parks, at craft fairs, wherever he happens to be playing. Then, as his reputation grows, there will be more demand for him to perform. Later on, Bob hopes to go on tour with an established singer or group...And he expects to make more records.
Bob already has made one album [Live at 18th & M]...He cut the album last fall, knowing how hard it would be to make a living by playing on the street once winter came and the weather turned cold. Bob hoped that his record sales would bring in enough income to tide him over the winter. He sold them throughout the year wherever he played, in nightclubs, coffeehouses, and private parties.
Like all musicians who are just starting out, Bob had to cover the cost of cutting the record himself. He used his savings, around $700, and borrowed the rest from friends. He made the recording, or master tape, during a session when he was playing on the street. That saved him the expense, which can be quite substantial, of having to rent a recording studio. .Later he took the master tape to a record pressing plant that transferred the taped recording onto a master disc. The master disc was then used to create the molds, called stampers, that were used in pressing the records. Having the album covers made was expensive, but Bob was able to afford both the album and the covers at the same time. In the end Bob found that the $ 1,100 he had was enough money to cut about 500 records.
Selling his records at $5 each, Bob was able to regain his initial investment after selling less than half of the first printing. From then on, everything he sold was pure profit. He sold all 500 records within 7 months, and, when people continued to ask to buy copies, he decided to print 1,000 more! With the master disc already made, the second printing was much less expensive. He paid for those records with money he had saved from earlier record sales.
[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]
A few college and underground FM radio stations have given his music air time, but he’s found it difficult to get his music played on most of the commercial AM stations. “I’m lucky to have opportunities like this to advertise my record,” he thinks as a teenager in faded jeans picks up one of the albums and then pulls a wallet from her pocket. Most of Bob’s income still comes from performing, however.
As Bob finishes another song, a few people begin to clap. Soon the entire crowd is applauding. He pauses for a moment, then starts into a well-known folk tune. “You probably all know this one,” he says, “so sing along if you like.” The music Bob plays is easy to listen to and appeals to a large audience. That’s part of the reason for his success. It would be harder to be a successful street musician with a classical repertoire.
His rapport with his audience is another reason for Bob’s popularity. He talks and jokes with the people gathered around him in a relaxed, easygoing way. At the same time, Bob attributes some of his success to downright practical considerations—picking the right time of day and the right places to play. The crowd around Bob grows larger, and people start walking up and dropping money into his box. He continues playing, responding to the encouragement and appreciation of his audience.
[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]
Bob has been a professional musician for only a few years. He never thought seriously about being a musician when he was growing up, even though he’s played the guitar since 8th grade. He never even took guitar lessons—just learned to play by ear, picking up what he could from friends. He played occasionally in coffeehouses while he was in high school and college, but at that time he thought of music as a hobby rather than as a possible career. Shortly after college, however, he decided that he was bored with his job as a shipping clerk in a warehouse. Playing on the street might be an interesting way to earn some money, he decided. So he gave it a try.
Once he started playing on the street he realized how important music was to him. All of a sudden he knew that, if he could manage it, he wanted to devote himself to music for the rest of his life. Bob feels lucky to be able to support himself by making music. For only the $15 annual cost of a vendor’s license, he’s able to play on the street whenever he wants, and make enough to live. Bob knows that performing is a very competitive field, and he doesn’t expect to become famous overnight. Until he does, he’s content with days like today, when he’s able to share his music with people on a street corner. For Bob, a life that revolves around music is reward enough.
Montgomery County MD’s Journal — Sept. 23, 1988
The Montgomery County native “does not simply start a song, he launches it”
[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]
Original track listing for the 1977 Are You My Mother? LP
[ARTWORK BY JENNY, CHRIS & VALERI GILMAN]
Cover for the 1984 CD reissue
[artwork by Rae Owings]
CD track listing
By the 1990s, Devlin would halt his street performing work in order to make recordings that “reflected his strong Christian commitment,” as Richard Harrington noted in his tribute for The Washington Post in 1995. Nevertheless, Devlin possessed a special ability — as many have borne witness – to connect with people of all ages. “What Bob did was to transcend all the divisions that are there for entertainers, when it comes to what age you can appeal to,” Cathy Fink told Harrington, who joined WOWD host DJ Mackie in 2019 for a celebration of legendary DC street performers Bob Devlin and Flora Molton, among others. “Little kids, old folks and everybody in between liked him. Bob could get a 60-year-old to sing along as fast as he could get a 4-year-old to sing along,” recalled Fink, “He had a keen sense of the fact he was able to entertain every audience he got in front of.”
Harrington tells Zero to 180 that Bob was “a public showman” who “reveled in that role, leading people into song and choruses.” Devlin was “in a field of one” in his capacity to evoke an uninhibited response from young people, whether inside a school building or out on the streets, says Harrington. Christine McKenna, in her 1977 Unicorn Times profile, stated that “one of Bob’s best nights was when he had 150 people jammed into Canal Square, ‘singing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one song after another, it was like magic, like something from another time.'”
Michele Valeri minces no words today —
[Bob] was definitely one of my mentors. He pushed me into recording that LP. I don’t know where I would be in the world of music without him.
- Bob Devlin’s music can be found at Bandcamp = click on WEB LINK
- Michele Valeri’s music is available through her website = click on WEB LINK
Special Bonus: Color-Your-Own Bob Devlin!
[performing at Silver Spring, MD’s Armory (demolished in 1998)]
According to Jessie Devlin —
Silver Spring put out a mini 8-page coloring book about their wonderful city. It was published by the SS Urban District. There is no date on it….some time in the 90s?? Some of the topics are penguins [unofficial mascot] waiting for the metro, the bronze statue of a juggling unicyclist, and the SS 10K Challenge Run, and there on pg 6 is a nicely done drawing of the One-Man-Band [whom Devlin hoped “would never break up,” remembers Ken Giles of Bright Morning Star].
Jessie Devlin Responds to An Early Draft of This Zero to 180 Piece
- As soon as I began reading this, a name came to mind – Chris Core – he was an announcer for WMAL radio. He often played Bob’s music on the “talk” radio which I thought was really dear of him. He loved Bob and his music and paid Bob a wonderful tribute on radio when he died. Last time I was in contact with him, I think he lived in Bethesda/Chevy Chase area, but he’s easy to find thru radio if you want to include him.
- As to the P.D. Eastman story, our first notice that we were in big trouble was the fact that Michele, Bob, and Potluck Records each received a registered/sign-for letter from Random House. This letter alone was enough to freak us out and luckily, as you write, Worth Rowley who just happened to be going to NY City for some kind of meeting told Michele he would check out the situation. Michele told me later that Worth’s biggest convincing argument – besides his legal stature – was that he asked the Random House rep somewhat along the lines: Do you really want your very big corporation to be seen as going after a young lady who makes her living off of teaching guitar lessons, and, a young married street musician with a newborn child who lives in a one-bedroom rental? That did it. And Worth returned with a decent agreement that allowed us to sell the remaining albums with the promise not to print more. As to Bob, he was very concerned; he realized the seriousness of it all. But he always had this attitude of: Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll fix it; and that’s it.
- In his early gigs, when he was the Bob Devlin Street Band, his performances were mostly outside so there was never a problem having all the instruments played. However, as the number of indoor gigs picked up, he realized that the under-foot cymbal – bent to give it a pop-back-up motion for the next beat – was not going to work. It was deafened on rugs and scratched wood floors. So “Rock” was added to the group. Rock was a piece of slate Bob found on one of his endless shopping trips – he was amazing at always finding exactly what he needed. Rock was chipped to the appropriate size and at the next gig, Cymbal and Rock had their own duo going. But rugs came in handy outside also. Bob was wearing so much electrical wiring in addition to having a ton of equipment around him that anyone who was partying a little too hard and got too close, well, it could be dangerous. So, to have a more “official” placement, he would put a rug under his setup and let people know that it was his “staging area, (as well as adding a little bit of hominess!).
- I believe it was the Washington Post writer Eve Zibart, who added the suffix to what became “Bob Devlin One-Man-Band Extraordinaire.” Bob often introduced himself: “I’d like to introduce the members of my band! Fingers! on guitar” – with a ripping guitar solo; “Feet! on drum and cymbal” – solo added to by Fingers; “Mouth! on the harmonica” – blasting a full-speed every note solo; and finally ~ “my name is Bob Devlin and I am the lead singer! of the group” at which moment he would launch into a most glorious ripping rendition of “The Wabash Cannonball.” People went wild with delight, only to laugh even more when Bob added after the musical intro: I’d be in big trouble if the band ever decided to break up!”
- In 1979, Bob launched into a business deal with real estate businessman, Harvey Fernebok, whom he had met through Marc Spiegel (think Strawberry Pastry!). Harvey would make it financially possible for Bob to record his next album, String Rambler. It was a street singer made classy! Bob’s writing skills were finally in the forefront of what they were thinking as a next big national hit. But although the album received acclaim, by others it was judged harshly because of the multi songwriter genres that were presented. Some said it was fantastic and original; others who couldn’t understand his talent said he needed one concentration of type.
- In 1980 Bob was featured in Career World as a successful Offbeat Job in which one could make a reasonable living.
- In Richard [Harrington]’s tribute to Bob, he mentioned: By the 1990s, Devlin would halt his street performing work in order to make a recording that “reflected his strong Christian commitment.” This is a little off on timing and reasoning. And it’s not something he went after. It came after him! His Christian songwriting had already begun taking form but it was something very personal for him – more like worship – and he postponed doing much publicly until he strongly felt the time was right. Once in a while he would share a song at church, mostly for the children. Then one time, LillAnne Pitts, head of the Children’s Dept of the church, approached Bob and asked if he could possibly write “two or three” songs to use with the Bible School curriculum that year, 1983. After looking over the curriculum and meeting with LillAnne, he came home and in less than three days composed nine of the twelve songs that would become the tape: For the Shepherd’s Children. I think it took him by surprise as much as any of us.
- Also, by 1983, Bob was experiencing a huge influx of indoor gigs. Having started out singing year-round including in cold weather, these were a welcome treat. Not only for the warmth but also the guaranteed income. Wanting his wife to be an at-home mom for their two girls, these gigs multiplied income into a dependable support. Indoor gigs also included an upgrade in costume. Although the street bandanna and red carnation remained, the jeans were replaced by black suit pants, and the once brown leather cap was replaced with the same style of Greek fisherman’s cap but in black. And the brown shoes were traded in for black. This was difficult because his shoes/boots weren’t just any kind. The heel of the boot had to be made of a hard substance, more like wood that when striking the bass would create a sharp, clear, cracking sound rather than a muddled sponge-rubber of comfort heels. More indoor gigs included numerous museum and zoological performances, local craft and music festivals, and countless school performances that had first begun in 1977. He was considered entertainment and when pressured to be just as entertaining but to somehow make it educational, he designed his infamous and educational “Folksongs Americana” presentation.
- In 1985, Bob was once again asked to write songs for the Bible School curriculum. However, now having both a 7 and 4 year old at home, he knew he wouldn’t get the silence he needed so the church offered to allow him to use one of the empty Sunday School rooms during the week and he was able to leave most of his equipment there overnight. Another unexplainable happening – much like any great writer, designer, performer, artist – achieves in those special once-in-a-lifetime moments, Bob – in a span of less than two weeks – composed twelve songs that combined to become Circle of Love. Another Devlin classic but short-lived, as we didn’t have the advertising help of big backers. Ultimately, after Bob’s death in 1995, the non-profit designed to field these two tapes was dissolved by meeting IRS requirements of paying past taxes due on all monies received. In the meantime, it was one more amazing creation to be boxed away and set aside to make room for further dreams.
- Also, the reason we don’t have a whole lot in pics of the private gigs is because most would have had to be taken before or after the guests appeared. Not that they were nervous about anything, Bob understood as when you are in the upper echelons and you are invited to a home for the evening, you want to enjoy the food and people and the music without having a camera in your face. But one fantastic thing that these gigs did was to let people see Bob out of his street gear and into his very classy presentation dress wear. So more people felt relaxed and wanted to hire him. And the residence part of his career took off.
10 Questions with Jessie Devlin
Q01: What memories stand out from the recording sessions for Are You My Mother?
A01: Memories…..Anytime I think of those recording sessions, the most memorable thing was the light – we were in Marc’s empty rental apt and there was so much light coming thru the windows. And everyone was happy! There was a lot of laughter and also a lot of ideas created in the moment as to how a line should be played or where an instrumental flourish could be added. I was there to watch. I took a ton of pictures and I enjoyed every part.
Q02: At the time, did “When the Rain Comes Down” hold any special place in Bob’s repertoire? I know Bob was not commercially driven or oriented, but was there any thought given to making “Rain” the A-side of a single release? [Cathy Fink estimates that 30 other artists include the song in their repertoire as a result of her championing the song].
A02: “Rain” always held a special place in his repertoire. It was the song that people sang along to. And it would meld audiences together into one. As to an A-side single, no, we were doing everything we could money-wise for his music on our own and we never discussed …..no, I can’t say that – we did discuss it. But it just wasn’t possible.
Q03: Was Bob particularly concerned during the legal tussle over the copyright issue, or was he able to hold the matter at bay and trust that everything would work out in the end? Or neither?
A03: Random House – that’s elaborated [in the preceding paragraphs] above
Q04: Did Bob originally contact Bread & Roses about distributing Pot Luck releases? Was this a “special” arrangement, or did Bread & Roses support other local musicians in this regard?
A04: Bread & Roses – this is one aspect I knew nothing about because I didn’t handle any of this. But knowing Bob, it was probably something he presented to them. As to other artists, you’d have to ask someone who knew B&R. I was mainly the mom, cook, cleaner, bookkeeper, drop and pick up Bob at gigs or on the corners. It wasn’t until the girls got a little older and lot of indoor gigs began to happen that I began to be the gig scheduler.
Q05: How would you describe the energy that Bob conveyed as a street performer, and what were some of his favorite techniques or characteristic ways of engaging rapport with an audience?
A05: Engaging the audience: Not much of a need there. He was a HUGE happening and people wanted to be part of it, so they would come pouring out of their offices for lunch and join in with clapping and singing – Bob was a respite for their brains and a stress reliever for their bodies! Once in a while he would add little stories to introduce a song and if the story worked he would keep it with the song but he never overused a story – just once in a while; a rarity. Because his music was so welcoming and friendly, he didn’t have to draw people in – they couldn’t wait to jump in.
Q06: Given that DC is the Federal City, I’m just curious to know if there any other notables – besides Jimmy Carter, Cesar Chavez, Pete Seeger, and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum – who have been entertained by Bob?
A06: Oh sure, tons, but I can’t even begin to get into that right now. It would take a ton of time and research. I will say, he played for George and Barbara Bush ….I can’t remember if it was the Easter Egg Roll or one of the Congressional Picnics.
Q07: Did Bob and Flora Molton ever play any sets together while street performing?
A07: Flora Molton. I slightly remember Bob taking his guitar and harmonica down to Flora’s corner [7th & G] one time but it was a very limited thing. I think it was just something he wanted to do, to be with her. And it wouldn’t be on the books because it wasn’t a paying gig.
Q08: Who were Bob’s favorite musical artists (or “heroes,” if any)? Was Bob a music collector or “consumer” in any serious regard?
A08: Fav music artists ….oh my ….this is one of those questions that could be answered with a much shorter list by saying who he didn’t like. In fact, I can’t remember him ever dissing another artist – famous or local. That wasn’t the type of person he was. Some of his favs included Bob Dylan – of course, and any song sung by someone with soul or party attitude or whatever. He knew hundreds of songs besides the ones he had written and it’s what made it possible for him to play absolutely any type of gig that came along.
Q09: I suspect Bob had little to no tolerance for any commercial radio stations (even WHFS) – were there any DC stations that Bob actually enjoyed?
A09: Actually there were several stations he enjoyed. I’d have to get a list and tell you because I can’t remember the call letters off the top of my head. Why are you dissing WHFS? Bob loved rock music …..haha…..that’s what he’d say to people when he put Rock on a rug in a home and he’d say: Okay, we’re going to be hearing a little rock music tonite. People would good-naturedly boo and then laugh. He loved ALL music in the sixties ….well, except maybe the acid rock. That was a bit much. But all the songs written with good lyrics, whether supporting a march or walk-out or just a good time with a girlfriend, he appreciated the writer’s creativity. But on top of it all – he rarely listened to radio – he was SO busy writing music and recording it over and over to see if he should change or add something. Radio was not a high demand in his week or even a month.
Q10: What were the circumstances that led to Bob’s decision to retire from street performing?
A10: Like I said – there was no retirement. It was more of a thing where, although he was making a ton of bucks at the time, the indoor gigs were even more financially beneficial and as people got to know him as an indoor performer, the gigs multiplied.
Northern VA’s Gazette — Oct. 25, 1984
[“whose one-man band is one of few besides Devlin’s on the East Coast“]
Quote: “Bob Devlin is certainly the best no-hands harmonica player I’ve ever seen”
Bread & Roses: A Community Record Store
The cooperative record store that once stood in Washington, DC at 1724 20th St. (between R & S) — and served as a distribution point for Pot Luck Records — no doubt took its name (Bread & Roses) from a slogan (“Bread for all, and roses, too”) coined by Helen Todd that captured the essential spirit driving the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century:
Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.— Helen Todd, 1910
Ralph Nader reported on Bread & Roses and other cooperative enterprises for In the Public Interest‘s March 4, 1974 edition in a piece entitled “Coping With Consumer Shortage“:
One development in various parts of the country that bears watching is the spread of “community stores,” particularly in Seattle, Washington, Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Washington, D.C. ..In the nation’s capital, drab with bureaucracy and impersonal architecture, a colorful, almost oldfashioned group of these community store coops are busily serving people who want to change their habits and find less expensive alternatives. “Stone Soup” and “Glut” sell food and another store, “Rainbow Bridge,” is about to open...There is a community warehouse and trucking coop to serve this network that hopes soon to connect up directly with farmers...“Bread and Roses” is a community record shop not far from a community bookshop. .“Romah” is a home repair service while the Quaker House Print Shop helps the communications process...A community pharmacy and food store called “Fields of Plenty” is now underway to practice the preachments of consumer protection.
Thank you, once again, to Jeff Krulik for all the images in the Bread & Roses gallery below (save the last one):
THE MUFFINS – CHRONOMETERS (Cuneiform 55007) CD 73m
The Muffins were one of the most innovative fusion bands to emerge from the USA during the late-70’s, and whilst resembling Henry Cow in many ways, and also with notable Zappa/Mothers Of Invention influence, their complex style also drew them close to the Canterbury sound.
The recordings on this disc date from the very early days of The Muffins, circa 1975-76 and offer insight into the origins of a most talented and inventive band. The 23 minute suite, Chronometers itself, was only previously available in a very edited form on the Recommended Records Sampler, and it’s now really quite a revelation to hear it complete, notably the bizarre “Wizard Of Oz” collage and a music that nimbly cuts and jumps around, sounding like a mixture of Soft Machine (circa Volume 2 and Third), Matching Mole and Hatfield & The North. The other twenty, considerably shorter, tracks date from 1975, and would seem to be early demo recordings exploring a wide range of structures and styles. Mostly, these tracks present some of The Muffins’ most accessible music, rarely breaking out into the more crazed experimental realms of later works. Many of these tracks are arranged to flow in such a way as to seem like much longer suites, and thus (even though there are some very short pauses) tracks two to eight actually flow as if one 20 minute complex and cleverly conceived suite. Some of the tracks do stand on their own, like Peacocks, Leopards & Glass, a track previously heard many years ago on the Random Radar Records Sampler.
As an LP release, this would have been a double album, and thus Chronometers is an all round winner in terms of value for money, excellent music and as a curious insight into the origins of a most inventive band. A Recommended album indeed!
review by Alan Freeman in Audion magazine #25 (June 1993)
[COURTESY JESSIE DEVLIN]