Interview with Lawrence B. Mohr of “Odetta and Larry”

This is the real thing. Enjoy, folks!

Interview with Larry Mohr — Conducted September, 2012

How did you and Odetta meet?

There was a bar on Kearney Street in the North Beach area of San Francisco – the area that the Beatniks were soon to inspire – called The Lamp. People used to spend evenings there with their guitars, banjos, etc. Odetta and I were both new to San Francisco at the time and we had both heard about The Lamp from folk-music friends. We met there in 1953. Odetta was in town in the chorus of Finian’s Rainbow, which was playing SF at the time. I had just finished college at the U of Chicago and came out with a friend of mine who was shipping overseas in the navy. We heard each other sing and play. One evening, one of us started singing a Leadbelly song and the other joined in with harmony. We grooved on each other. That was the beginning.

How did you land the gig at the Tin Angel? Why the Tin Angel?

Meanwhile, Odetta was becoming known around North Beach and stayed in town after the show left. I believe she was hired to sing at a club called The Purple Onion, which was very popular at the time. The very colorful owner of the Tin Angel was named Peggy Tolk-Watkins. She then signed Odetta up to sing most evenings at the club. But before that went very far, The Blue Angel in NY got hold of her for a stint of several months. When she got back, we continued to sing and play together and Peggy hired me, too. Most evenings, we would each do a solo set and then a set together, perhaps two or three series per evening. I cannot now remember when and why this ended, but in the summer of 1954 I went into the army and was soon shipped overseas.

What made you choose to sing the 14 songs you sang at the Tin Angel?

We each sang a great many more than those 14 songs in our sets but not very many more together than those on the record (it was originally a 10” LP and then expanded to a 12” LP, then expanded a bit more for the CD, the expansions being from stuff that we originally recorded for Fantasy when they first launched our project). In each case, we or Fantasy picked what we thought was best. Actually, some were dropped as well as added. We selected the ones we especially liked and that the audiences liked. Not all of the recordings were made at the Tin Angel. Some were in Fantasy’s makeshift studio. One song, Run, Come See Jerusalem, was on there because we learned it to sing for the movie Cinerama Holiday. That’s a story in itself.

How many people were in the audience?

There was usually a pretty good crowd at the Tin Angel – maybe 30 or 40 people.

Did you know at the time of your performance that it would be recorded and made into an album?

We knew that Max and Sol Weiss, the owners of Fantasy, were recording over several evenings because we had agreed to make the record and there they were with their equipment. As indicated, it wasn’t just the recording of one evening’s performance and we played at the Tin Angel for maybe 6 or 8 months.

Why did you two cease playing together?

By the time I got out of the army in 1956 the Tin Angel had folded. Odetta and I played several concerts together in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, usually with another friend, Rolf Kahn. For me, it was decision time. I felt that Odetta was superbly good and I was moderately good. I decided not to go on professionally. I went to work for the US Public Health Service in DC for several years, then went to grad school and became a professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the U of Michigan. Odetta, of course, went on to an illustrious career. We remained friends and saw each other from time to time – not often.

Do you still sing and play banjo?

I stopped practicing for many years when teaching, research, and raising children took up the bulk of my time. I’m retired now and will take it up again.

What branch of the service were you in?

I was in the army. Basic training at Ford Ord, CA, then to an army ordinance depot in southwestern France, near Bordeaux. I was a company clerk.
Did your students know that you played with Odetta?

Very few of them ever did, I think. However, one time, perhaps 1998 or so, I played and “sang” a talking blues (that I had written about my time in the Federal government) at the graduation of the Ford School of Public Policy, where I taught half time (the other half being in the Political Science Department).

Tell me more about “Run, Come See Jerusalem.”

One evening I was asked to join some people at their table after my set. They were the producer and director of Cinerama Holiday and some other people. That movie filmed an American couple from Kansas on a European vacation and a Swiss couple on an American vacation. The Swiss couple was Beatrice and Freddy. They were gorgeous — two of the most beautiful people I have ever had the pleasure of seeing — and  getting to know. The directors wanted to film us singing a California song for the movie. We didn’t know any, so we researched a bit and came up with Run Come See. The Tin Angel was (it’s not there anymore) on the Embarcadero, across from Pier 23. For the filming, they redecorated the place to look more like a waterfront dive and had a lot of sailor-looking people in the audience. Meanwhile, the directors and Beatrice and Freddy came down every night for most of a week and we talked and drank and laughed together. It was lovely. Somehow, the singing didn’t go all that well. We’re in the movie, but it goes by quite fast. Great experience, though.

Where have you retired?

I retired in 2001 but my wife is 12 years younger and was still active — mostly as a Dean of Schools of Education. In 2001, she was at Penn State and I was in Ann Arbor. A commuting marriage, but we traveled to be together quite often and I spent the summers with her. About the time I retired, she was offered a job in the private sector in Singapore, so we spent two years there. It was really wonderful. We’ve been back to visit friends and eat the food 4 times since we left. After Singapore, she was Deaning in Chicago for ten years. Then, she was offered the same sort of job in Guam, so we spent two years there. Then she retired, too, and we moved to Portland, OR because we liked the physical beauty of the city and found its values very congenial. Lastly, after a year in Portland, she was coaxed out of retirement to be interim Dean of Education for one year at Nevada State College in Henderson, outside of Las Vegas. I’m writing from there now. We still own a home in Portland and intend to return there next summer, when her year is up.

Did you ever have interactions with Pete Seeger in your years of folk-music-playing?

Yes, Pete Seeger and I spent time together on several occasions. We were not close friends — he knew Odetta much better — but I’m sure he would smile and remember me if anyone mentioned my name. I admire him tremendously.

Story: One evening quite late, he dropped into the Tin Angel alone. I remember that there were not many other people in the club. Odetta and I did a set together, ending with that song on the record that blends I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago with Woody Guthrie’s That’s About the Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done. As you know, we take turns with outlandish brags. At the end, when we sing together, each with his/her own song, Odetta and I used to turn to face each other and look fierce and snarl while singing. The audiences always reacted positively to that. Well, when we were into that part, Pete started laughing uproariously and pounding the table. The three of us then talked for several hours. He liked the way I had changed the tune to the Woody Guthrie song to fit with Ten Thousand Years. Fast forward, I don’t exactly remember, maybe about ten or eleven years, about 1966 or even later. I had gone into the army, spent several years in the Public Health Service, gone to grad school for my Phd, and was an Assistant Professor at Michigan. One day I received a post card addressed to Larry Mohr, Ann Arbor MI. It seemed a miracle that it got to me. It was from Pete, asking if I would write down the words and music to that song to be published in the Magazine “Sing Out”, which I did, sending it to him to arrange the details. I’m pretty sure that’s the last contact we had. He’s a great artist, a great humanist, and a rare man of intelligent principle.

Questions conducted by: Emily Duffield


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