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Folklorist Marc Silber

Michael Erlewine

I got a chance to spend about five days with my old friend Marc Silber. I had not seen him in fifty years, but I had heard about him here and there over that time. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marc and I were a part of the folk revival, a group of us that included folks like Marc and I, but also a young Bob Dylan and my friend Jim Greenberg. What drew us together was the University of Michigan Folklore Society, founded by Al Young and Bill McAdoo. Al Young today is a Poet Laureate of California.

Marc Silber
Photo of Marc Silber by Zachary Ray

Back then, there was a stream of young folk players that circulated (mostly hitchhiking or in old jalopies) through a circuit that included not only Ann Arbor, but The University of Chicago, Cambridge, New York City, Madison, and Berkeley. It was like a bloodstream for the folk music of that time.

I had hitchhiked to New York City at least ten times, and in 1960 all the way to Venice Beach (Santa Monica) and North Beach (San Francisco) twice, and so forth. In the spring of 1961 I was traveling with guitar virtuoso-instrumentalist Perry Lederman and Bob Dylan. I can remember standing by the road with my thumb out, trying to get a ride, while next to me Bob Dylan (with a Martin Dreadnought guitar) was playing and singing “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” a song by folksinger Eric Von Schmidt -- things like that.

Mark Silber left Ann Arbor and went out to California in 1960. He later had an important store in Greenwich Village called “Fretted Instruments,” where he repaired, sold, bought, and built guitars. Today he has a shop in Berkeley and an incredible collection of hundreds of rare instruments that amount to a museum.

I reconnected with Marc earlier this year and was astonished to find that not only had he preserved the way songs and folk music were sung and played back in the early 1960s, but he had gently improved everything I remember from that time, and without inserting anything that was not authentic, a rare feat.

I was eager to bring Marc to the Harvest Gathering, so these fine young musicians could at least hear how it was when we were their age, or younger. I can’t say what their impression was, but at least they had a chance to see where their beloved music came from, i.e. exactly what it sounded like back then. I know some of the older folks who were at the Gathering remembered or recognized this, because they told Marc and me so.

Anyway, I drove Marc into Grand Rapids today, where he is now on his way to Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit for concerts. I thanked him for coming all this way and I also thank the Earthwork Music Collective for making him feel so welcome.

Here are some samples of how his guitar playing sounds:

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Michael Erlewine