Bruce Langhorne, RIP

A stranger sent me a link to his obituary in Britain’s Guardian. I would otherwise have missed it. He was 78.

Langhorne was a studio musician. He was in the background even then when his guitar was musically in the foreground. The studio musician is not a star. His peers know who he is. The public doesn’t. He rarely gets rich. He makes union scale. But without him, the world is a little poorer. The studio musician sticks to his knitting. The result is a tapestry.

In the 1960’s, the folk music revival peaked. It had begun in the 1950’s when the Weavers had several major hit songs, most notably Leadbelly’s song, recorded a year after his death, Goodnight, Irene. Then came the huge and unexpected success of the Kingston Trio’s version of the traditional folk song, Tom Dooley, in 1958. For the next decade, folk music was a significant subset of American popular music.

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In that era, Bruce Langhorne, was in the background playing guitar, and making performers sound better than they would have sounded all alone. The Wikipedia entry on him reports:

Langhorne worked with many of the major performers in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, including The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Carolyn Hester, Peter LaFarge, Gordon Lightfoot, Hugh Masekela, Odetta, Babatunde Olatunji, Peter, Paul and Mary, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Tom Rush, Steve Gillette, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. He first recorded in 1961, with Carolyn Hester, which is when he met Bob Dylan. He later said of Dylan: “I thought he was a terrible singer and a complete fake, and I thought he didn’t play harmonica that well….I didn’t really start to appreciate Bobby as something unique until he started writing.” In 1963 he accompanied Dylan on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and in 1965 was one of several guitarists on the album Bringing It All Back Home.

His playing was precise, but with a light touch — “pure,” I always thought. My collection of LP’s has several albums with his name on the list of musicians. I always think of him in relation to the other studio guitarist of the era, Dick Rosmini, master of the 12-string.

He did Mr. Tambourine Man with Dylan, Langhorne’s most famous session. He literally was the tambourine man. He had inspired the song. He played a large Turkish frame drum, but not on the session. The song was on Bringing It All Back Home (1965), which was a major event in the transition of Dylan from an acoustic guitar folk artist to electric guitar rocker. The song begins with acoustic guitar; halfway through, it switches to electric. While I was a Dylan fan in 1962 and 1963, in his acoustic days, I must admit that Tambourine Man was a gorgeous transition. Langhorne was aesthetically at the center of it. Here is what the song sounded like without Langhorne — not spellbinding. It was strumming with harmonica. It was not going to change the world, and didn’t. The Byrds’ cover of it did, three months after the release of Bringing It All Back Home.

What I did not know until I read the obituary was that he was like Django Reinhart. He was missing picking fingers. The Guardian obituary reports:

Langhorne’s unusual style, without fingerpicking, was dictated by an accident with a firecracker when he was a 12-year-old violin prodigy, blowing off most of his thumb and two fingers of his right hand. “At least I won’t have to play the violin any more,” he told his distraught mother, Dorothy, on the way to the hospital.

Little did he know!

This also impressed me. “After being diagnosed with diabetes and having to change his diet, he created a low-sodium African hot sauce, Brother Bru-Bru’s, which became hugely successful.” That was in 1992.

Setbacks did not set him back. Losing his fingers led to his success as a studio guitarist. Getting diabetes led to his financial success in the world of hot sauces, another subset of American culture. It took two strokes to slow him down — one in 2006 and another in 2015.

We should all do as well as he did with our own setbacks.