Los Angeles gets a lot of grief for being home to an inordinate number of celebretards, pseudo-celebretards, star fuckers, and vain VIPs. Although the city is thusly stereotyped, it’s also home to a thriving population of unique and noteworthy people whose pursuits add diversity and depth to a seemingly shallow pool. Each week, LA’s Better Half will profile one distinctive Angeleno doing something remarkable and original. This week: Meet Charlie Cox, LA’s Premier Street Musician.
The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is famous for being home to a collection of Ice Age relics like saber-toothed cat skulls and bones from giant sloths, but another kind of historical artifact can be found there as well, a living relic of old-time mountain music. His name is Charlie Cox, and he calls what he does “busking.”
“In American English that translates to street singer, but I’m more actually of a park singer,” he tells me when I ask what a busker is.
Charlie has been performing in front of the Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries off and on since 1975. His specialty and favorite music to play is the old Appalachian fiddle tunes and songs. He tells me that most of this music was gathered by record companies and folk song collectors between the turn of the Twentieth century and 1930s.
“That was when folk music was still en vogue among people, and not the captive of the recording industry,” Charlie explains. “Although I do some modern songs that I really enjoy playing, like “Blowing in the Wind,” by Bob Dylan, and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” by Willie Nelson.”
An avid collector, Charlie currently has about 99 instruments in his private museum. He plays a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin, a penny whistle, and bones in the park.
“I have three different guitars that I play in the park, and I sort of alternate them as one takes favor. Right now I’m playing a Martin that is really nice. I’ve got two other guitars made by Samick.”
He just finished paying off a beautiful Dobro resonator slide guitar. “It just has this great sound. I took one strum–that’s how I buy an instrument, you know? I strum it and it rings and it’s there, I know it. This thing just grabbed me by the short hairs and said “Buy Me!”‘
Almost exclusively self taught, Charlie’s first guitar–a cheap Sears Stella–was given to him by his parents when he was 13. He played through high school, fooling around and trying things. It took him a year-and-a-half to learn how to finger pick; He couldn’t get it right and eventually gave up. Then, one day when he was sitting in a store, he picked up a guitar and something clicked. He had it.
He played his first banjo in the summer of 1963, right after he graduated from high school, the same summer that he ran away from home to attend the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, on the banks of the Suwannee River. He had started listening to and playing folk music in the late 1950s. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, were some of his early influences, but he says that he “Cut off the radio in 1964 because Peter, Paul and Mary were too goddamned slick. Folk music had gotten to the point where the albums were so slickly produced that they started to lose all spontaneity.”
Another influence of Charlie’s is The Incredible String Band, a Scottish group that got together in the 60s and made what he calls, “The absolutely most unique music I’ve ever heard.”
A font of knowledge and animated conversationalist, Charlie was born at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base in 1945. His family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father earned a BA at UNC. A year in Clemson, South Carolina followed, after which they moved to Iowa City, where his father enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing at the University. Charlie went through grade school in Iowa City, a random twist of fate for which he is grateful.
“Fortunately that was where I learned to speak,” he laughs. “So I have a straight American accent rather than a southern accent.”
He loved the university town, which was more liberal than the southern towns they’d lived in, but when his father received his degree they moved again–this time to Tallahassee, where his father had accepted a teaching position, and where Charlie would complete high school.
After graduation in 1964, he applied and was accepted to Indiana University.
He went to Indiana University for two years, where he was involved with the folk song club, which was extremely active at that time. He also spent two nights each week at the foreign film theater and was active in the Episcopal church, helping to run a coffeehouse at the rectory. Finally in the second half of his sophomore year, Charlie got a girlfriend.
“That just did in any pretense of studying,” he laughs. “So I just flunked out and went back to Chapel Hill, where my mom was living.”
Rather than going back to school, Charlie opted to join the Coast Guard, a life-changing experience through which he learned a lot about being with “just regular folks.” He’d grown up amongst college students and academia and says, “I had been in that milieu all my life, but here I found a bunch of really great guys on the ships I was on.”
His primary duty was search and rescue in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. After four years, he got out on July 11, 1969.
Charlie has had various jobs since then, jobs that have taken him all over the country. When he hasn’t been in the park playing music, he’s worked as a house painter, a Christmas Tree salesman in New York, a traveling art salesman with Costco, on staff with the Church of Scientology, and as a musician at the Calamigos Ranch.
These days you can find Charlie at the park pretty regularly, spontaneously teaching frenzied school groups how to square dance, and taking frequent requests for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and for the theme from Deliverance.
He’ll play just about anything and always encourages listeners to suggest songs, but when there’s no one around Charlie amuses himself by playing more obscure, traditional songs. A natural raconteur, he tells a story of having once been out there all alone.
“There wasn’t a soul in sight, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’ll play “Roddy McCorley,”‘ an old Irish song about a famous leader in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
He thought to himself, “Well geez, if somebody comes up they wouldn’t know what I was singing about,” but then decided, “Hell with it, there’s no one around.”
He was about halfway through the first verse when two women came walking down the steps of the museum, but he continued singing:
“O see the fleet-foot host of men, who march with faces drawn,
From farmstead and from fishers’ cot, along the banks of Ban;
They come with vengeance in their eyes. Too late! Too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.”
The women approached and listened to the entire song, and when Charlie had finished, one of them spoke in a strong Irish accent:
“Don’t you know Roddy McCorley was me great, great, great grandfather?”
She had just gotten off the plane from Ireland, and the Page Museum was her first stop in Los Angeles.
A resident of Koreatown, Charlie loves Los Angeles for it’s incredible diversity and says that he enjoys passing through its various neighborhoods, occasionally stopping into an ethnic restaurant to appreciate the unique music of the country. He loves that Los Angeles is laid back, and that it has positive energy. He’s worried by the incessant growth, though, and frustrated by an increasingly difficult parking situation.
Charlie continually adds to his immense record collection, enjoying visits to Brand Books in Glendale and Counterpoint Records and Books on Franklin. Most of the time he gets his instruments at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where he’s on reference as a Concertina teacher, one of the few around. One of his favorite contemporary bands is the Los Angeles-based Moira Smiley and VOCO, a roots group that blends Eastern European and Appalachian harmony and rhythms.
Go visit him, bring a picnic, request a song, and don’t forget to tip. Can’t get enough? His album, “Songs from the Tar Pits,” is on sale in the Page Museum Shop. Shucks, you can even buy it online. This is one busker who’s not messing around.
Know an interesting Angeleno who deserves to be profiled in LA’s Better Half? Let us know: LAsBetterHalf@yahoo.com