My father didnt believe in ghosts. He didnt have any time for God, either, when it came down to it. Maybe hed had this attitude since childhood and it drew him to the study of physics and to becoming an astronomy professor. Or maybe hard science trumped the spiritual in him later on. I never knew which. But by the time I came along he was pretty sure of himself and did his best to raise me to agree with him.
As kids do, I would occasionally express interest in something spiritual or religious as the world tumbled by, chaotic and frightening. Whenever I did, though, Dad the astronomer, Dad the physicist, Dad the realist would somehow succeed in explaining everything empirically until he was satisfied that I agreed with him. I thought he was the smartest man in the world. And with typical adolescent conviction and hauteur, I came to regard anything unmeasureable or unprovable the way he didas no more than swamp gas or the madness of crowds.
And so it was that I, a cocky, seventeen-year-old self-styled realist, arrived alone in Britain during the last chill of winter in early 1970. I had cut myself loose from my California high school through early graduation, armed with a guitar in a yellow vinyl bag made out of our kitchen tablecloth and the two pieces of advice my father felt were sufficient to prepare me for the vagaries of the world: "Never set foot in a government building." And: "Always drink gin, not vodka, so people will know youre drunk, not stupid."
Determined to follow this advice if the opportunities ever presented themselves, I rambled around England for a while before heading north to visit Dads oldest friend and former teacher, Bert Mackenzie, in Aberdeen. Dad was particularly insistent that I visit Bert. Theyd corresponded for 35 years after Dad left the little English boarding school where Bert got his first job. I figured it couldnt hurt. Free room and board would at least extend my travel budget. And Id never been to Scotland.
I stayed in hostels as I hitched north. Each evening I partied in the common rooms, playing my guitar and singing earnest versions of Beatles and Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle songssongs which served as the cultural glue binding me to my free-floating international peers.
But after one particularly unsatisfying night of music at the Stratford hostel, I found myself in a bookstore poring over a fat paperback copy of A.L. Lloyds Folk Song in England, in search of new musical realms. I bought it and headed north. Within a couple of days I was lost in this book, hearing little besides the voices of long-dead balladeers, singing their circular pentatonic melodies and seeming to speak directly to me.
I couldnt seem to get the old ballads out of my head. How had anybody actually written such songs? Walking along with my thumb out, Id cycle the chorus to "Prince Heathen" around and around endlessly, pulsing the internal syllables in time with my footsteps, sometimes actually disappointed when a car pulled over to pick me up and interrupt the music.
Eager spring blossoms were bursting from every hedgerow when I arrived in Aberdeen. Bert Mackenzie and his wife Di lived on a farm outside the village of Cults, a few miles up the River Dee from Aberdeen. Bert was practically a Central Casting version of a retired public school teacher. His hair had gone white and he smelled of chalk dust. Di smelled of her garden, which she seemed only to leave at mealtimes. They greeted me like the son of the prodigal son and set me up in the guest room.
The farm, separated from the river by corn fields and bracketed by low, wooded hills on either side, was the furthest of perhaps half a dozen houses scattered along a rutted unpaved drive which snaked its way down from the main road.
Old Bert did his best to entertain me. But after a jaunt to Braemar and a guided tour of the ancient university buildings in Aberdeen, he sensed that this American teenager was considerably less interested in Scottish politics and education than he was. As I seemed more inclined to plunk on my guitar while reading my now-stained and dog-eared book of English folk songs, he walked me up the hill a few turns in the late afternoon and introduced me to Sandy and Lindy Cheyne.
Sandy and Lindy ran the local folk club. Both in their twenties, Sandy was bearded with a shock of prematurely grey hair and Lindy struck me as a Highland version of Cher, bangs, eye shadow, and all. Sandy was an aspiring artist who played the banjo with singular vehemence. Delighted to meet a visiting musician of any kind, the two invited me to bring my guitar over that evening for a sing-around session with the local regulars.