By Lyle Lofgren,
as told to Liz Lofgren
May, 2002

Note: This article (copyright 2002, The Old Time Music Group, Inc.) was originally published in The Old Time Herald, Vol. 8, No. 6 (Winter 2002-2003), and is reprinted by permission. We recommend that you subscribe to the Old Time Herald. It's finger-lickin' good.

Uncle Willie & The Brandy Snifters: a legendary band? If you've heard that we're legendary and hope to find out why, here's how I think the rumor got started. Unlike our urban cohorts, we never scoured the South looking for "lost" musicians. Like many of those seminal musicians, the place you'd be likely to find us would be at home. If scarcity increases desirability, we must be very valuable.

Buying Session
Minneapolis, Minnesota, early 1960s.
Saturday morning, Jon Pankake's living room.
Jon, Bud Claeson and I are present. Marcia Pankake otherwise occupied. Willie Johnson can't bear to come.

Two tape recorders cued up. One holds a 7-inch reel from Willie's collection with a tape list coded with colored ink according to his taste. The best -- Grayson & Whitter or Earl Johnson & his Dixie Clodhoppers, for example -- is a Red A, and costs a dollar. Blue As, marred by hiss and scratch, are fifty cents. Green Bs -- anything with yodeling or by performers such as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies -- go for thirty cents. Brown Ss are free. A blank reel on the second recorder is ready to be filled with dubs we choose to buy. To ease decision tension, a quart jar of Georgia Moon, clear corn whiskey guaranteed to be aged less than 30 days, sits on the coffee table etching a permanent ring. Jon flips the switch and we sample a song of questionable merit, Reno Blues by the Three Tobacco Tags.

"Time to vote, thumbs up or down."
One thumb up, one down, one sideways.
"Two hand vote."
Three thumbs up, two down, one sideways.

We buy the song. Later, we'll grow fond of many such marginal choices and learn them as band pieces.

The more Georgia Moon we imbibe the better we like the music -- even green Bs and, God forbid, brown Ss. After several rounds of voting, we pass up home cooked Minnesota victuals for Southern sustenance. I'm sent out for an order of Colonel Harlan Sanders's fried chicken with biscuits and extra gravy, which I drink straight from the container while the others look on in awe.

Guam, 1944: Willard Johnson, star athlete of Sisseton (South Dakota) High School, is serving our country in the SeaBees. This is as far from home as Willie ever gets. Some Navy buddies from the South sing strange songs that home straight in on Willie's heart. Back from the war, in his garret, he becomes our midwest Harry Smith. He collects 1920s hillbilly recordings at junk shops, bids on records in auction catalogs, sends for selections from the Library of Congress, and trades with other collectors as far afield as John Edwards in Australia. Meanwhile he's teaching himself to pluck a banjo and he begins transcribing tunes and words from scratchy 78s into spiral notebooks. Words he's sure of are in ink, while the questionable ones are in pencil. By the time he runs out of steam, he's filled 26 notebooks with the words to over 2200 songs.

Minneapolis, late '50s: From sea to shining sea you can hear Pete Seeger's banjo ring and it's hip to learn How To Play The 5-String Banjo. Our midwestern hearts swell to the passion of The Weavers, which whets our appetite for something more. Convinced by Pete that anyone can learn to play and sing, even though I couldn't master the Swedish-American tunes my father played on the fiddle, I buy a Stella 6-string guitar. A youth spent hand-milking Holsteins gives me the strength to squeeze the chords. Later, he gives me one of his fiddles, but I abandon his tradition to see-saw Appalachian style.

Meanwhile, Bud is spending winter nights listening to Grand Ol' Opry on the ionospheric skip from Nashville, following along on a Silvertone archtop guitar. We meet and pool our musical tastes. Then we discover the Minneapolis Public Library has a remarkable old-time music collection. Its quality is a side effect of Willie's influence on the music librarian, his long-time friend Mary Alice Walker. If you were to look in on a library sound booth in 1960 you would see Bud and me sharing earphone halves listening to Pete Steele on Library of Congress recordings. We take out New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR) records and try out their songs together.

Fall 1959: Liz and David Williams, whose tastes are honed on The 1952 Folkways Anthology, arrive from Oregon, toting 2 Stewart banjos. They want to gather everyone together who loves this kind of music, and within a week lure Willie from his garret, starting a tradition of Friday night parties for locals and performers passing through town. Liam Clancy, for example, is impressed that Willie can match him song for song until dawn, singing an American version for every Irish song Liam sings.

About this time, Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson put out the first issue of an acerbic arbiter of taste, their Little Sandy Review. In addition to encouraging real traditional music, they write devastating reviews making sport of urbanites who make fast bucks off the folk music craze. They manage to infuriate professional musicians to a level disproportionate to the magazine's miniscule circulation. Paul also works for the local music distributor, so the city's largest record store has a bin containing the Folkways Anthology, as well as NLCR and Bascom Lunsford LPs. At one Friday night party, Bud and I meet Willie and start to play along with him. Because he is our mentor, has words to songs the NLCR haven't heard yet, and also because he's older, we give him the honorary title Uncle Willie.

Folksong Society of Minnesota.
1961: Liz Williams suggests we form a group to promote interest in the music. Bud, a lawyer, incorporates us as a non-profit organization, and I'm elected president. We sponsor a folk music Open Mike at the University of Minnesota Student Union. It runs late into the night, but a student, Marcia Larsen, sitting in the front row becomes our first fan and unwittingly casts her destiny. Bob Dylan is on last. He tells me he's been to New York to see Woody and he has a record deal with Columbia. I don't believe anything he says. His guitar is out of tune, but as he tells us, Woody's guitar used to get out of tune too. We know he's going nowhere.

We sponsor break-even NLCR concerts so we can hold parties afterwards. We press an LP of Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers reissues (FSSM 15001-D), using material from Willie's tape collection. We find a musician who started to make his own album but ended up only with blank white cardboard sleeves. We buy them and paste on a crudely-printed label, originating the tradition of white sleeves to signify bootleg albums. We press 250 copies, and sell almost all of them at the Chicago Folk Festival. The remainder go by mail order, mostly to Australia and New Zealand. Liz sends a copy to Nat Hentoff, who reviews it in The New Republic along with the first Bob Dylan album—an unfortunate juxtaposition. Anxious to read favorable reviews of their fledgling star, Columbia stumbles on the review of our pirated re-issue of their long forgotten former recording star, Gid. We receive a cease-and-desist letter from their legal staff. Plans for a second album are scrapped when we decide to comply. Out of the bootleg publishing business, the Society lasts for a few more years and NLCR concerts before folding. As of 2002, Columbia still hasn't reissued Gid's recordings.

Naming Ceremony
1961: There's a folk music contest at the Padded Cell, a local tavern. Winner gets to play for pay for two nights. We decide to enter it, but have no name. Willie's signature song is Here's a Pint of Apple Brandy, a reworking of half of Gid Tanner's Goodbye Booze. There's a brandy bottle and some snifters on the coffee table. Someone (we don't remember who) spies the glasses and says "How about 'Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters'?" Unanimous approval. When you're a member of a stay-at-home band, who cares who thought up the name? On contest day, Willie is sick, so Bud and I appear as Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters. The winners are bluesmen Noel Johnson and Tony Glover (later of another legendary group: Koerner, Ray and Glover). Around this time, Bud accidentally drops his 1955 Gibson J-45, fracturing the lower bout. When it comes out of repair, it has miraculously become the best-sounding stringband guitar we have ever heard.

Mattie's Barbecue.
1962: The Padded Cell scene leads nowhere, but Noel knows Mattie Johnson, a black woman who runs a barbecue restaurant and tavern. She likes blues and also wouldn't mind if Noel's friends showed up on Friday nights to play on the small stage. She even supplies a free pitcher of beer now and then. Friday night becomes Open Mike night. The Brandy Snifters are regular performers, as are Dave Ray, Tony Glover, Judy Larson, Mary DuShane, and others. Jon Pankake has taken up the fiddle, and joins us as we begin to work up twin-fiddle band numbers. Marcia, our fan, is in the audience, and wants to become a player. She starts banjo and guitar lessons from Jon. Some fans get rowdy and Mattie decides OT music attracts an unwholesome crowd. Friday nights are given to Mojo Buford, a blues harmonica player from Chicago. Liz and Dave have parted and Liz, amused by my rendition of Bascom Lunsford's Mr. Garfield, marries me. Marcia finds Jon's lessons captivating and they wed. When she adds her second guitar to the band, Uncle Willie & the Brandy Snifters becomes a quintet.

Quotidian Lives
All of us stay in Minneapolis and get day jobs: Willie at the post office, Jon and Marcia in academia, Bud as a lobbyist / administrator, I become an engineer. We play at local coffeehouses such as the Cafe Extempore or New Riverside Cafe. Audiences are small but appreciative. No one takes the responsibility of arranging gigs. Customers have to find us, but the Brandy Snifters are not listed in the phone book. As the first coffeehouse boom dries up, so do our public appearances. Still, Bud's mother worries that he'll throw it all away to become an itinerant musician.

We don't stop playing. We regularly assemble in a living room, tune up, and Willie sets up some words on a music stand. We argue over HWCATDI (How Would Cranford And Thompson Do It) arrangements and words ("Get 'em right," says Willie). We try to imitate our heroes, but things go awry. I can't bow or finger as well as Arthur Smith, so I substitute something easier. Willie clawhammers the banjo instead of fingerpicking, or vice-versa. Jon plays mandolin like Ted Hawkins rather than like Bill Monroe. Bud throws in syncopated Riley Puckett runs, leaving Marcia to steady the rhythm and supply the chords with her second guitar. Even when we try our best to imitate, the result is different from the original.

Guthrie American Folk Music Series
1963: Walker Art Center, a modern art museum, has use of the newly-built Guthrie Theater during the off season, and is looking for ideas. Someone suggests folk music. The Brandy Snifters give a demonstration concert, complete with scholarly discourse, for the Walker Center Arts Council members. A program committee is formed, packed with us and our friends. The result is an astounding series of 9 concerts over 3 years. J.E. Mainer, new to the North, wants burnt cork for a blackface skit. We convince him all the theater supply shops are run by Seventh-Day-Adventists and are closed on Saturdays. Mance Lipscomb needs a jackknife for slide guitar, so I buy him an impressive one with a yellow handle. Years later, I'm thrilled to see a picture of him still using it. The supposedly naive artists perform like old troupers before the city folk. Mississippi John Hurt and Mabel Hillary of the Sea Island Singers bring down the house with an impromptu "Salty Dog." Even more memorable are the small parties where we can play and talk with people we never imagined we'd meet. We pick Kirk McGee's brains about mysterious words in Uncle Dave Macon records and he teaches us fiddle tunes. We sing Frankie Silvers for Clarence Ashley, who tells us we're bumping the time, then directs us at the proper tempo. Reverend Gary Davis, who is sitting next to Elizabeth Cotten on our living room couch, leans towards her and offers to teach her how to play guitar, saying "I can be of great benefit to you in all your undertakings." Mance Lipscomb and Bill Monroe, at a party, play masterful guitar-and-mandolin blues duets that live only in our memories, because Mr. Bill says we can't record them. We stay home and let the music come to us.

Then it's over. Walker needs more money to support its modern dance presentations, and so produces rock concerts instead.

1964 Party
Apres-concert party, 1964. Standing (L-R): Tracy Schwarz, Roscoe Holcomb,
Mike Seeger, Willie Johnson. Seated: Liz Lofgren, Lyle Lofgren, Jon Pankake,
John Cohen, Dock Boggs
(photo: Mary Alice Walker).

Bluegrass Festival
Mid-1980s: We appear as an old-time music exhibit, a quaint ancestor of Bluegrass . The management hires us rather than importing a band because they blew their budget on big-name Bluegrass. We're on at 6:00, right after a popular act. As we arrive, the audience leaves for dinner. There are 5 microphones lined up across a 30 foot stage in front of a sea of empty lawn chairs.

Accustomed to clustering around a Tandberg mike taped to a broomstick, we're not used to being spread out across the stage like this. "Can't we put all the microphones together in the middle so we can hear each other?"

"You can hear through the monitors. If we did it your way, you'd poke each other's eyes out with your fiddle bows," says the sound man.

We can't hear anything from the monitors. Kirk McGee once told us that he and Sam practiced keeping in time by starting a tune, then each walking opposite directions around the house to see if they were still together when they met again. I can't even start in time with the others, trying to watch their hand movements. By the time we figure out how to keep together, our 30 minutes are up. The audience still hasn't returned from dinner.

A friend in the audience tells us that the sound man was trying to give each of us instrumental solos by adjusting volume on different mikes, but was confused because we were all playing the tune at the same time.

Bill Monroe, Bud
Despite Mr. Bill's blessing in 1966, Bud never learned to play the mandolin.

Landreneau Bros.
Adam (L) and Cyp Landreneau (R) take a cigar break with Willie, 1966.

People at the party are playing in a number of rooms. The one I'm in has 2 fiddlers, 3 resonator banjoists with finger picks and 5 guitarists. I try to join in on fiddle.
"Let's play Bearcrap in the Buckwheat," says the expert fiddler.
"I don't know that one," I say.
"It's in F, then goes to A minor, and the bridge is in B-flat."
I pretend to fiddle along for 20 minutes. Then I say, "Let's play Diamond Joe."
Nobody else has heard it before, but it's in the key of G so they catch on immediately. I try to sing
Gonna buy me a sack of meal,
Take my hoecakes to the field,
Diamond Joe, better come get me, Diamond Joe
But I can't hear what I'm singing. No one else can either, because they're all playing as loud as they can. I give up, and after a minute, we stop playing because the tune in this crowd is too boring. We start another, more complicated one.

Big-Time Recording Session
Mid-1960s: John Cohen convinced Elektra they should produce String Band Project as a follow-on to the successful Blues Project album. Paul Rothchild, later to produce The Doors, arrives from San Diego and we meet in a studio rented for only a few hours. We're surrounded -- a microphone at every mouth and instrument -- and told to keep our feet on the marks as we play. At least we're close enough together to keep in time. All our enforced muscular rigidity goes into the music, which erupts at breakneck speed. Paul gets a few cuts and returns to New York, where there's trouble when he receives a shipment of herbs imported from pre-NAFTA Mexico. He tells the authorities it must be meant for someone else with the same name who previously lived at the same address. It takes years to straighten that out and by the time the record is released, the folk boom is over and it's on publisher's overstock. But hey, some of you out there bought it. Where else did you get that Brandy Snifter rendition of Hallelujah to The Lamb?

1976: When the Prairie Home Companion begins, it is only a local radio show. We once played for Garrison Keillor's morning disc jockey show, so he tries us out on a program featuring mouth music. We sing Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers' Jawbone, to which we add eephing from Jimmie Riddle and dolting from Spike Jones, and follow with Grandpa Jones's Tritzem Yodel. Even though the radio audience only numbers in the thousands, we suffer acute stage fright. PHC needs performers who can come on stage cold, perform 2 pieces competently, and get off again. We can't manage to do that.

Small-Time Recording Sessions
Mid-1980s: We agree to supply Larry MacBride of Marimac with tapes to make a cassette called Going Nowhere Fast. For 2 years, we record in our living rooms under relaxed emotional and acoustic conditions, resulting in 6 hours of tape. We pick out some of the best and mail it to Larry. He edits a 60 minute cassette. This is the first time Larry has tried to produce a recording using only phone and mail. We like the cassette, and sell some at infrequent appearances. Larry dies, way too young, and a basement flood at Marimac destroys the master tapes.

Silver Jubilee
1986: We realize we've been playing as a band for 25 years. To mark the occasion, Marcia and I go on an expedition to buy athletic warm-up jackets for the band members. We order shiny silver ones with individual names on the front and
Brandy Snifters Silver Jubilee -- 25 years

on the back. We put so much energy into the jackets that we forget to line up a celebration concert.
Willie's rotator cuff bothers him, so Liz Lofgren now plays the banjo. Ginny Hawker convinces three of us to play on a side street at the West Virginia Folk Festival in Glenville in June 2000. Bud's tenor voice attracts a small but attentive audience. We think it's like carrying coals to Newcastle, but apparently some West Virginia people have forgotten that these tunes have words. One man tells us he's never been able to sit still for more than 15 minutes in his whole life but he likes the music so much he stays for a 45 minute set. In 2001, we reissue Going Nowhere Fast as a CD under the Lak-O-Tone imprimatur and make our triumphant return to the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old Time Music summer festival as a sideline act.

We once tried to expose people to music they wouldn't otherwise hear. Our performances were not as good as on the original recordings, but we used a similar approach. The originals, after all, were so bad acoustically that few would listen to them. With companies such as Shanachie/Yazoo, Rounder and County re-releasing acoustically improved recordings that were previously only in private tape collections, we're no longer needed as musical missionaries. But we're the band that proves Pete Seeger right. Anybody can play this music. As Jon says, it's the second most fun you can have without laughing out loud. If you're inspired to teach yourself to play, you don't want to start by emulating Doc Watson on guitar or Eck Robertson on fiddle. You should aspire to an achievable goal -- to play like a Brandy Snifter. Just be careful not to let your ability outrun your talent.

Over 40 years have passed and we still meet in the living room. The Georgia Moon has disappeared along with our youthfulness. The two guitars and banjo drive the music so it flows without effort, very different from the exertion of practicing alone. It bounces off the ceiling into my ears. My arms, fingers and throat respond by themselves. Bud's high tenor sends shivers through me. No matter how bad or good I feel, playing in the band makes me feel better. Tax returns, investment decisions, engineering calculations are all light years away as I ride the sounds back through the uncountable generations that produced and preserved them. And we're still part of that process, even if hardly anyone else gets to hear us.

As Jon wrote in the notes to String Band Project:
"We don't play the music so much as play with it, and we could no more go without it than we could our trousers."

Jan. 28: New Lost City Ramblers; Dock Boggs; Roscoe Holcomb
Feb. 8: Bessie Jones & Georgia Sea Island Singers; Mississippi John Hurt; Sleepy John Estes w/ Hammie Nixon & Yank Rachel
Feb. 22: Jean Ritchie; Doc Watson w/ Fred Price & Clint Howard

Mar. 6: Almeda Riddle; J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers; Kirk McGee
Mar. 20: Lilly Brothers w/ Don Stover; Clarence Ashley w/ Tex Isley
Apr. 3: Rev. Gary Davis; Elizabeth Cotten; Jesse Fuller

Mar. 5: Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys; Mance Lipscomb
Mar. 19: Doc & Merle Watson; Ed & Lonnie Young Southern Fife & Drum Corps
Apr. 2: Adam & Cyp Landreneau; Norman Kennedy; Grant Rogers.

  On STRING BAND PROJECT, Elektra LP EKS-7292 (an anthology with other performers; out of print):
Hallelujah To the Lamb
The Burial of Wild Bill
What Will I Do, For My Money's All Gone?
I Got A Gal in Baltimore

Walk Right in Belmont

GOING NOWHERE FAST, Lak-O-Tone CD Minus 001, reissue of Marimac cassette 9005 (1986)

NOT OUT OF THE WOODS--YET(2003), Lak-O-Tone CD Minus 002.

VOICE OF THE PORKCHOP (2007), Lak-O-Tone CD Minus 003.

2-CD set, Lak-O-Tone Minus 004.