An invitation to American song

Taos County transplant Dean Gitter reaches into Carl Sandburg’s ‘Songbag’


Charm is one of those mysterious ingredients that a person either has or hasn’t. You can’t buy charm and you can’t fake it and you can’t produce it on cue. It is just an integral part of some people, and it’s charm and sparkle that get them over no matter what they’re selling.

So when self-proclaimed “old folkie” Dean Gitter showed up for an interview with an unassuming gig bag, we didn’t know how high the charm was going to go, but we were soon under his spell.

Now 82 years old, Gitter was part of the folk music revival, a phenomenon in the United States that began during the 1940s and peaked in the mid-1960s. After the folk heyday passed, he became real estate developer in upstate New York.

We asked him why he decided to revive his own musical career at this point in his life. “In 2012, I attended the 100th-anniversary celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth at the Lincoln Center. It was a great evening and thoroughly enjoyed by an audience largely made up of septuagenarian lefties. The last fellow on the bill was Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. He sang strongly and well. Now, I knew for a fact that Ramblin’ Jack was at least five years older than me. If he could still find an audience, why couldn’t I?”

With the help of Erik Buddenhagen, a friend who helped Gitter make his 1956 LP “Ghost Ballads,” Gitter released his first CD. It’s called “Old Folkies Never Die.” Miraculously, it was almost entirely captured in single takes at a Woodstock studio. All 19 songs were recorded in just about two hours of studio time.

Despite the effort, Gitter said, “It did not go viral.”

A few years later, he moved to New Mexico. The story about how he got here is noteworthy, especially for a “septuagenarian lefty” like Gitter.

Gitter and his wife saw an article in the New York Times about what so much money could buy you, as far as real estate is concerned, and there was this photo of a gorgeous house in Santa Fe. On their way to Santa Fe to look at property, they struck up a conversation with someone on the plane, who, after finding out the Gitters were on their way to Santa Fe, said, “Santa Fe? You don’t want to go to Santa Fe. You want to live in Taos. Taos is the most beautiful little town in the USA.”

That person was Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense serving under former President George W. Bush and a person of considerable controversy, especially for Taoseños and especially those “lefties.”

Long story short, the Gitters bought a house in El Rito, north of Questa. Soon, he discovered that “within a mile or so of my house, I had guys who could play up a storm on guitar, banjo, mandolin, keyboard, saxophone, oboe, cello, fiddle, flute, harmonica and drums.”

That’s how the idea germinated for his new CD, “Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag 2.0,” which is set for release on May 19. The CD cover art, “Incoming Clouds,” is by Peñasco artist Leigh Gusterson.

Gitter added that he owes a special debt to Jonathan Hutchison. “He’s a brilliant musician with an incredible ear, who took many hundreds of hours away from his own playing and singing – some of them as keyboard artist with the group he’d been playing with for decades – the El Rito Rhythm Kings. He and Tim Long shepherded this idea into reality,” Gitter said.

We spoke with Long about his work on the project. “Yes, the ‘Songbag 2.0’ was an interesting project. First off, Bear Rock studio is a small project studio. I don’t do audio engineering, producing and arranging for a living. I love it, but that’s about it. I’m a park ranger with the [Bureau of Land Management] at Wild Rivers in the summer and a toy maker in the winter. I also still play around town when the stars are right,” Long explained.

“Studying as a music educator, I was, of course, very familiar with the ‘American Songbag’ and learned many of the wonderful folk songs in the ‘Songbag’ as a means of educating children and American history through music. And when I heard that Dean was looking to record some of the obscure songs in the volume in an ensemble fashion, I was interested in working on the project,” Long said.

“I think this collection of songs by Mr. Sandberg was the premiere definition of the term ‘Americana,’” Long continued. “Now a genre of music, this compilation of songs was one of the first written versions of so many wonderful true American folk songs. This set the standard for musicians [to] learn and play these great songs.”

“The ‘Songbag’ was the ‘real book’ in the late ‘40s and ‘50s for folk singers. Each had their own phrasing and arrangement for the songs, which is what made the songs their own,” he explained. “I was very touched by Dean’s stories of his presence during that time in the Village, in Boston, managing, producing and discovering Odetta, playing in a club when Joan Baez’s mother asked him if her 16-year-old daughter could play a couple of tunes during his break and upon hearing her promptly put his guitar away for the evening. And on and on …” He underlined what a privilege it was to work with Gitter and Hutchison on the project.

Gitter describes the unincorporated hamlet of El Rito as “almost in the shadow of an extinct volcano, Ute Mountain, which rises dramatically from the San Luis desert to our west.”

Hence the name for this new collective, “The Ute Mountain Gang,” Gitter said.

He said this collection of musicians has pushed him to a different approach to songs he’s been singing all his life. “We call it ‘renegade folk,’” Gitter said.

The Ute Mountain Gang is made up of several accomplished players, including singer-songwriter Hutchison, who plays guitar, keyboard, harmonica, bass and, “when pressed,” Gitter said, “on kazoo.”

Another member is Aaron Lewis, who, Gitter said, “is a master of anything using wind: oboe, clarinet, soprano sax, flute recorder and pennywhistle.”

Mark Dudrow is the only member of the gang living on the Colorado side of Ute Mountain, and he plays cello and mandolin.

“Dudrow’s longtime sidekick, Justin Dean, plays guitar and fiddle. Mark Boor adds a number of harmonica licks and banjo riffs and Mike Stauffer’s squeeze-box are a unique voice in the mix,” Gitter said.

Jan McDonald, a classically trained brass player, contributed trumpet and flügelhorn. His friend, Larry Bronisz, added trombone and French horn. “Francis Donald, himself around 6 foot tall, was almost dwarfed by his bass sax,” Gitter said. “Charles Dillon played electric bass and allowed us unlimited access to his Bear Rock studio. “Last, but hardly least, Tim Long played all kinds of percussion instruments from drums to slide whistle, dictated wild and creative tempi to old tried-and-true folk songs and plied his computer in a way which convincingly melded all these musicians together,” Gitter said.

Gitter plays a 1910 Galiano six-string he picked up “for peanuts” in a shop in Annapolis, Maryland. He says he is unable to keep his hands off of it. That’s the guitar he brought to serenade his interviewer on a sunny morning just as trees were beginning to leaf again.

And like his recording efforts, his songs unreeled perfectly with no stumbles or hesitations. We asked him how many songs he has at his command, and he said he has a list of 350 songs. He admitted he’d have to do quite a bit of research to get back up on 100 of them, but it’s amazing what will come to him.

“I might be taking a shower or something and, boom, I’ll get back just a phrase, and if I pick at it, it all comes back.”

Taos can rejoice that Gitter has chosen Taos over Santa Fe, decided to “pick at it” and bring his bag of songs to us because we are thirsty for a good story and a good song – so thirsty, in fact, we were sorry when the elegant Galiano guitar got zipped back up in its bag. We hope he gets an invitation to bring it out again.