Leaving the Gate Open
Leaving the Gate Open
A Q&A with Caroline Doctorow
By Geoff Gehman
Caroline Doctorow was perusing a gift shop in Woodstock, N.Y., passing time before her concert, when she found the sort of gift that keeps on giving. There, on a piece of wood, was the inspirational saying “Live as if someone left the gate open.” Here, she sensed, was “a way to proceed” after the recent wrenching death of her father, E.L. Doctorow, the renowned author of “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair” and other inventive, realistically poetic novels of American eras. Here was a stepping stone to a more settled, stronger life, a compass for “charging ahead.”
Doctorow opened the gate by making the proverb a pivotal line in her song “To Be Here,” a lulling vow to be present wherever you are, inspired by a memorable cross-country family trip she took as a sixth grader dreaming of playing folk music for a living. It opens her 11th and latest solo album, “Dreaming in Vinyl” (Narrow Lane Records), a lovely tribute to lush early ‘70s LPs by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and other role models. She and co-producer Pete Kennedy, a multi-instrumentalist and her longtime musical partner, layer her gently nesting, lullaby voice with luminous settings of Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and Donovan’s “Turquoise,” one of her all-time touchstones.
“Dreaming in Vinyl” dovetails with Doctorow’s other album odes. In 2009 she released “Another Country,” a collection of songs minted by Richard and Mimi Farina, a married couple fabled for sophisticated words and complex rhythms. Three years later she issued “I Carry All I Own,” a collection of songs minted by Mary McCaslin, fabled for an authentic country voice and an authentic view of the rapidly changing American West.
The anthologies, in turn, anchor an anthology of a life and career. Doctorow juggles roles as a wife, mother, performer, band leader, radio host, producer, mentor and co-owner of a record label and recording studio in a cottage behind the house in Bridgehampton, N.Y., she shares with her husband, Grover Gatewood, owner of a graphic-design company and her graphic designer/photographer.
On Nov. 17 Doctorow will make her debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. She and her duo the Steamrollers will open for John McEuen, a longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a longtime leader of Americana movements. Doctorow and McEuen share many circles. Her college bluegrass band was influenced by “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the Dirt Band’s seminal 1972 three-LP collaboration with Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and other country titans. She’s crossed paths with multi-instrumentalist David Amram, McEuen’s occasional musical partner for 15-odd years, for two straight summers at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Okla. Her violinist Gary Oleyar has played with Karl Allweier, who has played bass with McEuen. And Mary McCaslin, one of her early heroes, was one of McEuen’s early singing companions.
Below, in a time-tripping, subject-hopping conversation from her home on Long Island’s South Fork, Doctorow discusses her passions for performing everlasting songs, taking her time recording vocals, practicing family proverbs (“Grab joy whenever you can”) and spreading the joy of a 20-foot-high, 30-foot-wide concrete duck that as a kid told her the gate to summer was wide open.
Q: Do you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul?
A: That’s easy. It was the first song I ever learned on guitar: “Turquoise” by Donovan. You can kind of make your way through it playing only two chords; at the time that was very helpful to me [laughs]. I was and remain a Donovan fan. He was a bit overshadowed by Dylan; they were sort of emerging at the same time. His songs have really stood the test of time and his recordings still sound fantastic. He and Dylan both had the skill of choosing language that never seems dated. If they were going to use a slang term of the day, somehow they chose words that didn’t date them. Richard Farina had the same skill as well.
Q: You expanded your longtime investment in “Turquoise” by putting it on “Dreaming in Vinyl.” Is there another track on the album with deep roots?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by Dylan’s “Time Passes Slowly.” I can’t put it in words how beautiful and quirky the writing is. It’s a mournful love song that almost doesn’t sound like a Dylan song. I first heard Judy Collins doing it and I sort of made my way to Dylan’s version. I’ve listened to a lot of high-profile female folk artists who interpreted songs by Dylan and Donovan; my version of “Turquoise” borrows heavily from Joan Baez’s.
Q: What did you do on “Dreaming in Vinyl” that you hadn’t done on any other record?
A: I made “Dreaming” the kind of lushly orchestrated album I loved to listen to when I was growing up in the ’70s. [Her list includes Joan Baez’s “Joan,” Judy Collins’ “In My Life” and Mary McCaslin’s “Way Out West”] Folk music is really a large umbrella. When Dylan and Baez and Judy Collins and Donovan were starting out, their recordings were very sparse; you could label them as folk quite easily. As they matured their songwriting, sound and sound production matured, too. I tried to do my own signature sound of that era, with a lot of string arrangements and complex vocal arrangements and very layered instruments.
Another difference is that I took more time this time. I took two years to make “Dreaming in Vinyl.” It was not a solid two years; I would do some work and a few weeks later I would process what I had done. I also decided I was not going to have a release-date deadline; that allowed me to really work on the vocals. That was something I did because I was reading one of Judy Collins’ autobiographies and she wrote that in the old days she would take two weeks on vocals and I thought: What a wonderful luxury. I decided I didn’t have to feel that I should have a new record every year, or a new one for a big gig. I tried not to listen to any of those inner voices giving me anxiety [laughs].
Q: “I Carry All I Own,” your 2012 solo album, contains songs by Mary McCaslin, one of your role models. Why does she remain a muse?
A: She was one of my first and main influences. I went to Hampshire College for two years and she would come through playing with her then-partner Jim Ringer. I literally followed them around constantly. What was so intriguing about Mary was the distinctive quality of her voice and her ability to write about the American West in a way I don’t think had been done before. She wrote songs about moving out to California as a little girl and her disillusionment with the built-up-ness of communities even back then. She had this innate sense of being an environmentalist long before we ever knew what that meant. She addresses her concern for the environment in “Santana Song,” which is on “I Carry All I Own.” The title for the album comes from a line in one of her best-known songs, “Prairie in the Sky.” Oh my god, what a beautiful song.
Over the course of time I got to be a familiar face to Mary. I used to hear her at the Town Crier when it was in Beekman, N.Y.; Pete Seeger used to go there often. When I was living in New York, she came to play a club in Greenwich Village called the Speakeasy; it doesn’t exist anymore. She decided to sleep on my couch that night instead of sleeping at a motel. You can imagine how thrilled I was. I got to know her better; I saw up close what the life of a singer really was, as opposed to the glorified image.
I decided I wanted to record an anthology of Mary’s songs after “Another Country,” my  tribute record to Richard and Mimi Farina, received a lot of positive attention. I sent Mary a copy of the album and she was so flattered. She was very emotional; she cried. She and I ended up playing a concert together at [the University of New York at] Stony Brook and she and her husband ended up staying with us for a week at our house. I also interviewed her on my show “Songtrails” on WPKN in Bridgeport, Conn. It was like a full circle to spend that time with her and dig deep into her catalog and life.
Q: For over 20 years you’ve been juggling roles as a singer, songwriter, band leader, producer, spouse and mother of two daughters while maintaining a very active presence on the road. How do you keep centered and sane?
A: I think it helps that I latched onto folk music when I was very young, between the ages of eight and nine. It also helps that being a musician became my identity other than being a mom and a wife. I can’t really stay away from music for very long. In terms of the driving, I tolerate long drives really well. I will say, in full disclosure, that I don’t drive alone; I always travel with my husband or one of my bandmates. That makes it okay for me to drive 21 hours to Okemah, Okla., to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I love everything about being on the road. I really like hotels and I like the camaraderie and the changes of scenery. In our world of phone devices that compress time, I like time that stretches out.
It’s also wonderful to stretch out in the studio during the week and work with Pete Kennedy, an amazing producer and musician. I love singing harmony on people’s records; I love helping the arrangements and the concepts of their albums. I enjoy mentoring people who are coming out as musicians or who are coming back after retiring.
Q: You write about the road stretching your horizons in the song “To Be Here,” the first track on “Dreaming in Vinyl.” You were partly inspired by a cross-country family trip in the late ’60s to California, where your father began teaching at the Irvine branch of the state university. What magic was made in that Ford Country Squire wagon?
A: I was entering the sixth grade when my parents packed everything up: three kids, a parakeet and a dog, although my sister insists there wasn’t a dog. We stopped at so many wonderful places. The first time you see the Grand Canyon it leaves you speechless. We went to Dinosaur National Monument because my brother was big into dinosaurs. As often happens with young people, he wasn’t into dinosaurs anymore when we got there; he was into fire engines or something [laughs].
I remember we were at a diner out West somewhere when my father opened the paper and became ashen. We ate our breakfast very fast and our parents hustled us into the car and we drove for many miles before stopping for the night. Our father told us later that he had read that a nuclear bomb was being tested in the area. That’s why our parents wanted to get our little bodies out of there as fast as they could.
“To Be Here” touches on some of the places we visited. The main thing that song is about is trying to live in the moment. Somehow it was easier to do that back in the late ’60s. There were not as many distractions in the car as there are now; all we could do back then was sing or play the license-plate game or just look out of the window. [Pauses] I think the Internet is a big distraction and not a very good development for human beings.
Q: What are the best lessons your parents taught you?
A: When I was a teenager we visited friends of my parents in the Adirondacks who were very, very wealthy. They had a mansion/log cabin in the area of Loon Lake; they were so wealthy, their maids would secretly clean our rooms. We had to dress up for dinner and I felt very much like rebelling. My father told me that famous saying: “Be the man upon whom nothing is lost.” That basically means: Make up something worthwhile, even if you don’t want to do something or you don’t want to be somewhere, even if it’s too painful. My father lived that message by writing a novel called “Loon Lake.”
My mother [Helen] used to say to me: “Grab joy whenever you can.” I thought about that while we were driving in a storm to Connecticut. On the way home there was a rainbow and not only was there a rainbow but one of my songs [her recording of “The Dangling Conversation”] was playing on WFUV, the radio station at Fordham University. And I could feel real joy at this fleeting rainbow and real joy at this fleeting three-minute song.
Q: You pack plenty of joy into your children’s song “Big Duck Ramble,” an ode to a giant concrete duck opened in 1931 as a poultry shop in Flanders, N.Y. Why are you so stuck on the duck?
A: When I was a little kid we’d come out here [to the South Fork] in the summer and the Big Duck was such a thrilling symbol of We’re Almost There–Summer Is Beginning! It’s one of my favorite songs because it’s so joyful, and that’s because the Big Duck is so joyful. Sometimes I even put a picture of it up on the screen to show its beautiful proportions.
“Big Duck Ramble” is a rare novelty song for me, a sort of talking blues with humor. Steve Martin says you should have five things when you’re performing: Humor. Rhythm. A costume. Sex appeal. [Pauses] And I forget the fifth thing.
Q: So, Caroline, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d like to record another retrospective of songs by an important American songwriter. I’d like to spend even more time on the road. The past four or five years I’ve stripped a lot from my life. I’ve discovered that the simpler I make my life, the deeper I can get into my music. I like what Pete Seeger said: You should just have one of everything—one car, one house, one banjo, one guitar. By simplifying my life I can bring more joy and comfort and a sense of community through song. That’s what people want when they come out to hear me: They want to be included. They want to sing along. They want a sense of nostalgia when they’re singing along with a song they first heard 50 years ago.
Since my daughters have grown I’ve developed a comfortable system of going on the road that seems to—knock wood—work for me. I once asked Pete [Seeger]: “How do you deal with the unpacking?” And he told me: “I never unpack.” So I think the trick is to never unpack [laughs].
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I don’t bother anymore with negative people. I have little or no place for that noise in my life. When I was younger I would try to sort things out with people; now I’m just … gone. I came to the conclusion that people are going to be who they are; I can’t rehabilitate them. You can’t rehabilitate the sound man; when you go to certain clubs and the sound man isn’t as cooperative as you’d like, there’s no rehabilitating him. You just have to live with him and do the best you can.
Caroline Doctorow: The Scoop
Joan Baez taught her early chords on the guitar while Caroline’s father, E.L. Doctorow, was editing “Daybreak,” Baez’s autobiography.
She sang on the soundtrack of the film “Daniel,” which was adapted from her father’s novel “The Book of Daniel.”
Her father read passages from classic American books during her library presentations of classic songs from the American folk revival.
She sings the title track of “Trouble in the Fields,” a Nanci Griffith tribute album produced by Pete Kennedy, Doctorow’s longtime producer.
The Long Island History Journal published the lyrics of her children’s song “Big Duck Ramble.”
On Oct. 8 the Long Island Arts Council at Freeport gave her the Alexander Award for “educating through art.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He and Caroline Doctorow graduated together from New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School. After his mother Pat died in June, he asked the Bethlehem Area Public Library to honor her by acquiring the audio-book version of “Ragtime,” which was written by E.L. Doctorow, Caroline’s late father. The novel is set partly in the Doctorows’ former house in New Rochelle, which is near the Thomas Paine Cottage, where Geoff’s mother served as curator for 24 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.