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Derroll Adams

Born Derroll Lewis Thompson, November 27, 1925, Portland, Oregon (the son of a vaudeville juggler), his impact on folk music of the time was never fully realised in his homeland; UK/European-only albums were sporadic and scarce. With each subsequent decade after the folk-revival of the 60s (when the name of DERROLL ADAMS was bandied about in pop circles by DONOVAN, BAEZ, et al), the “Banjoman” would garner fresh evaluation and appraisal.
With America finally joining the Second World War in 1941, so did chancer Derroll, although when Uncle Sam found out he was underage, he was discharged having only served out a few months; ADAMS was to join the US Coast Guard, and, in turn, he soon enrolled as an art student. Discovering folk music through PETE SEEGER, WOODY GUTHRIE, CISCO HOUSTON and JOSH WHITE, Derroll and his banjo – and on occasion, acoustic guitar – performed at rallies in and meetings on Vice President Henry Wallace’s 1948 political campaign.
With the 50s in full swing, the busking banjo-virtuoso ADAMS took on numerous jobs (truck driver, etc.) to support a succession of wives; his only musical outlet it seemed was when he teamed up with trad folk-blues singer, ODETTA, in the “World Folk Artists” foundation. It was at actor Will Geer’s farm in Topanga Canyon that Derroll would also meet JACK ELLIOTT, with whom he recorded `Mule Skinner Blues’, while his banjo work was utilised in the 1957 Western movie, Drango (starring Jeff Chandler).
A staunch left-wing sympathizer, it was also 1957 when Derroll’s anti-war song `Portland Town’ was penned, although the track itself saw little action until JOAN BAEZ sang it on part two of a 1963 concert set; in the studio, JACK ELLIOTT, MARIANNE FAITHFULL and finally, ADAMS, would follow suit.
Back to 1957, ADAMS himself combined forces with his aforementioned buddy, ELLIOTT, for an English-only 10-inch album for independent Topic Records: THE RAMBLING BOYS {*6}. When the “Ramblin’” one subsequently returned with his wife to US shores in 1961, Derroll decided he would make England his home, although there were a plethora of recordings left in the proverbial can.
In the mid-60s and always on the fringe of folk rather than at its heart (at least in recording terms), ADAMS continued to travel throughout Europe and in Britain, where he’d established a rapport with the likes of DYLAN and DONOVAN; he introduced the pair in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back. The latter Brit became his protégé of sorts; the pop-folk singer even managing to pay homage to his idol through `Epistle To Derroll’ (a track on the `A Gift From A Flower…’ LP). 1967 would also see the long-awaited release of ADAMS’ debut solo set, PORTLAND TOWN {*6}, a record stuck on a small imprint and not really getting the exposure it deserved.
In 1970, divorced and free of alcohol for a while, Derroll married his fifth wife and subsequently settled with their young child in Antwerp, Belgium. He continued to work sporadically throughout the 70s and 80s, his star rising on occasion by way of a spot at the 1972 Cambridge Folk Festival (promoting a Village Thing LP, FEELING FINE {*6}) and a DONOVAN support tour of America in ’76. ADAMS would pay the odd visit to his old chums through benefit concerts for the likes of WOODY GUTHRIE (1981 and 1984), while he himself received his own accolade in 1990 when ELLIOTT “made it his duty” to compere his old buddy on his 65th birthday bash in Kortrijk, Belgium; the pair would tour for the last time together the following summer.
Ailing health led to Derroll’s inevitable retirement, although he was coaxed by ARLO GUTHRIE to perform as a guest at the nearby Tonder Festival in August 1999; ADAMS passed away in Antwerp, Belgium on February 6, 2000.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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