Interview with Christine Lavin (1997)

Debi Smith, Sally Fingerett, Megon McDonough, Christine Lavin. Apart: Four of the most well-respected, well-travelled singer-songwriters currently working the American folk circuit. Together: Four Bitchin’ Babes. No no no . . . that’s not me making a sexist comment, that’s what they call themselves when they record and perform together. The group has put out three albums since their inception in 1990 (with Patti Larkin as an original member in lieu of Smith), and also make intermittent concert appearances when their hectic solo schedules allow.

“We usually only work once every five or six weeks together”, Lavin notes when I call her at her hotel room in scenic suburban Timonium, Maryland (outside of Baltimore) to discuss tomorrow night’s Babes show at the Egg. “And, in fact, this is the last year that I’m going to be doing the Babes; after September 1997 I won’t be doing it anymore. We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen so this is like our farewell year.”

I make disappointment noises, and Lavin elaborates on her other projects by way of explanation for her decision: “Well, I have another group project that’s coming out in October called Laugh Tracks–it’s 2 disks with 21 funny songwriters. I’m also writing for the Washington Post’s Style section now; I’ve got my first piece coming out in October. The guy who did the show Forever Plaid has been trying to develop a show of my songs, and we’ve had one four-day workshop on it, but I haven’t been able to devote any more time to it because of my other obligations. So I’m just going to cut back on my group things after eight years or so and work more on these solo things. I don’t know what’ll happen with the Babes after that–they may actually replace me!”

Hmmm . . . the Babes without Lavin. That’s a hard concept to fathom, as the group was originally assembled to satisfy industry and audience interest in a live concert series to support the Lavin-produced 1989 compilation disk, On A Winter’s Night–and Lavin herself selected the original line-up. Will audiences be able to cope with a Lavin-less Babes’ show?

“I really don’t know!” Lavin confesses. “I mean, we’ve had a lot of people in the Babes at different times [Larkin, Janis Ian, Mary Travers, Cheryl Wheeler, Julie Gold and Kristina Olson are the alumnae] and everyone who’s come in has brought something new and interesting to the party. So maybe they can get someone who can fill my shoes, or maybe they can just go as a trio, or maybe we could have a hiatus for a couple of years, then have reunions. Who knows? We’ve even had some guest Man Babes–maybe they could use them. Dave Van Ronk was a Man Babe, and Cliff Eberhardt and Tom Rush and Livingston Taylor. Dave was really funny . . . he went thru the crowd saying ‘Make way for the Babe with the beard!'”

Honoring Van Ronk with Man Babe status seems fitting, as that grizzled legend had a direct role in Lavin’s becoming a folk singer in the first place. Like so many other folk (music) stories, this one began at Caffe Lena: “Lena had an old man named Tom who was living at her apartment”, Lavin recollects, “and she needed help taking care of him. I was visiting a friend who lived in Johnstown, and she thought that I should go and play for Lena. So she took me over there and had me play, and Lena said ‘Well . . . I’m looking for someone to come help take care of this old man. Do you want to come live here and do that for room and board, and hang out at the Caffe and waitress and stuff.’ So I said ‘Okay’, since I really wanted to pursue music and I had no other direction in my life.”

“I went back to Geneva where my family lived to get my stuff,” Lavin continues, “and then I moved to Lena’s place–but in the mean time the old man had a stroke and was moved to the hospital so there wasn’t any need for me to be there! So I just worked at the Caffe every weekend and picked up odd jobs around Saratoga for about six months. Part of that time Lena went on tour with the Rolling Thunder Review–Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, all those people–and I got to drive the car because Lena didn’t drive. I ended up writing a song about it all, and Lena had me play that song for Dave Van Ronk one night. He immediately suggested that I move to New York City to play–and I told him that I had just met Don McLean’s manager, who also said I should move to New York, but only after I learned to play the guitar better. Van Ronk said ‘I’m a teacher’ and my fate was sealed: Two weeks later, I moved to New York and I haven’t left since.”

It was another eight years before Lavin was able to quit her day job and devote herself full-time to her beloved folk music. “I had a long string of clerical jobs, but I always knew that folk music was what I wanted to be doing. Pop music goes thru all these styles–the disco and the hip-hop and the rock and whatever–but what I just love about folk is that the style doesn’t change. It’s all about a voice and an instrument and a story. And that, to me, is all that you need.”

And where does Lavin get her stories? “Well”, she laughs, “I have this face that people like to talk to for some reason–so people just tell me stuff, and I turn it into songs. On my album covers I’ve always had pictures that don’t look like me, because a lot of my songs couldn’t have been written if people knew I was a songwriter. That’s actually the thrust of my first Washington Post article: The importance, for a songwriter, of staying anonymous so you can spy on people and observe situations and be able to write songs from a real honest point of view without affecting what’s going on. But here’s the funny thing: The Post is going to be taking my picture for the article tomorrow! I think I’m gonna have to disguise myself for the photo, by taking a scarf and wrapping it around my face like a bandit!”

So as Christine Lavin, singer-songwriter-producer-journalist, wraps up her final year of Babe-dom, has she begun mulling retrospectively over what the whole Four Bitchin’ Babes thing has really been all about? “I’ve always looked at the Babes records and the Babes shows as chances to experiment and do things that I can’t do as a solo, kind of like the Weavers’ example. We’re certainly not the Weavers, of course, but I love that whole idea of having solo artists who band together to do something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve always felt that way about the Babes, that we just have something special that clicks when we’re onstage together.”

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