“My mom’s life has been as deep and vast as the many names and roles she has carried.”

Foreword to Always a Song by Grammy Award-winning musician Ben Harper, Ellen’s son

My mom’s life has been as deep and vast as the many names and roles she has carried: daughter, sister, mother, friend, wife, mother-in-law, grandmother, Chase, Harper, Verdries, Ms., Mrs., Dr., teacher, musician, and my personal favorite, Ma.

Ma’s rules were tough and not always appreciated, but looking back, I recognize how difficult it must have been to be a single mother raising three Black, nappy-headed boys on a shoestring budget in a white town. Sometimes this meant pancakes for breakfast and for dinner. Our pants received knee patches, and our sneakers got Shoe Goo. Our family stood out in the neighborhood; even as children, my brothers, Joel and Peter, and I knew we were different. We felt it. Ma always found a way to protect us from semi-concealed vitriol, to lead the way for three half-Black, half-Jewish boys to take our unique heritage and transform it into uncompromising strength, clarity, and fortitude. In other words, my mom took no shit from anyone ever. Full stop.

My mother always spoke truth to power. In sixth grade, I was excited to embark on my graduation field trip. The whole class was in line, ready to get on the bus, when the school librarian and principal pulled me out of line and informed me that, because of an overdue book, I would not be allowed to go on the trip. 

I was crushed. However, being the product of political dissidents proved to have an upside. This injustice would not stand. I insisted that they call my mom immediately. Within what felt like one minute, my mother was in the face of the school librarian, the principal, and every teacher, staff member, parent, and janitor within earshot. Ma demanded to see the library’s checkout ledger, firmly stating that if she found one white kid in my class with an overdue book who wasn’t also getting pulled from the field trip, she would immediately call the ACLU. I went on the field trip.

Our home was on Eleventh Street, but I grew up in the Folk Music Center. I learned to crawl on the ugly yellow carpet my grandfather chose to brighten up what used to be a hardware store and learned to walk by tentatively holding on to the guitars on the guitar wall, inching my way one hesitant step at a time from guitar to guitar. Very soon, I walked, then ran, along the path of guitars, strumming each one as I zoomed past and backing up to catch the ones I missed. I was never told no, or stop, or don’t touch. The Folk Music Center was where my brothers and I went after school, where we played and squabbled, snacked, and grew up. The Folk Music Center was Mom. It was my grandfather Charles. It was my grandmother, Dot. It was family.

My grandmother taught guitar (and banjo, dulcimer, and autoharp) at the music center in the evenings, and when I was a young teen, I helped her set up chairs and a chalkboard and watched the front of the store while she taught. Rather than doing homework, I’d sneak a “thumb brush” or two in along with the group of guitar students. Not eagerly, though, because the music my mother and grandmother were playing wasn’t what my peers and I were listening to.

After I graduated high school, I went to work for my grandfather in the repair shop and studied guitar repair with Jack Willock in Glendale. My world was guitars and guitar players, and it was impossible for me not to pick up every guitar I encountered and test it out. The Folk Music Center was my real education. It was where I heard Clabe Hangan’s gospel-rich baritone, John Harrelson’s blues, David Lindley’s exquisite slide guitar, and Frizz Fuller’s eccentric lyrics. I was hooked. The first shows I played were at Cal Poly, Nicks Caffé Trevi, the Starvation Café, the Claremont Folk Festival, and the Grove House.

Even as the gigs rolled in, I tried to keep up with the ever-growing demands of instrument repair/restoration and helping my grandma Dot behind the register. To this day, I love repairing and restoring guitars, and there was a moment in my early twenties where it could have gone either way—luthier or musician. That was when my grandfather Charles, my central male role model, and father figure, walked into the workshop and said, “It looks to me like you’re spending more time playing the instruments than repairing them.”

My grandpa had an inherent distrust of big cities, big-city thinking, big egos, and big business, especially in the music business. His interactions with professional musicians were often cantankerous. As a lifelong advocate of working-class folks, Grandpa Charles grew impatient with entitled musicians haggling with him over the price of an instrument. My grandpa and grandma were not about fame. But if you were a musician who loved music and played for family, friends, and community, they supported you.

I had a gig booked with Pat Brayer’s Starvation Café concert series in San Bernardino, having just come off the road touring as a member of Taj Mahal’s “International Rhythm Band.” By this time, I had built a significant local following, and the place was packed. My grandmother Dot loved live music, and I often accompanied her to concerts featuring the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Pete and Peggy and Mike on their Seeger Family tour. And Grandma Dot never ever missed a show of mine. Even after I had “made it,” she would show up at my gigs with a quart of orange juice to be sure I was getting my vitamin C!

To my surprise, on this particular night, she arrived with my grandpa in tow, who never attended shows. The remarkable thing about my grandparents and the Folk Music Center they started is that every day, at any moment, someone might walk in, pull an instrument off the wall, and give them the best private show. My grandpa wasn’t interested in concert performances. Still, on this night, there, he was, hard of hearing and deeply concerned about losing his ace guitar repair grandson to the evil empire that was the music industry.

The next morning I arrived at my workbench, 7:30 a.m. sharp. My grandpa usually got to the shop before I did, but as a message to him that I had no intention of letting him down, I was crouched over an instrument when he came in, making my best impression of a musician who wasn’t in a post-gig haze. He walked to my workbench and pulled up a work stool. “How did you feel about the show last night?” he asked. “Do you think it’s something you would want to do more of?”

I didn’t want to let down the one man who had ever extended himself to help me, who had unconditionally loved me in spite of myself. “It was really hard on the nerves,” I mumbled, “and I’m not sure if I’ll do it again.”

This comment hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Grandpa Charles took a deep breath, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Well, that’s a shame because I think you have a calling.” That may have been the most important thing anyone ever said to me.

I was twenty-three when Jeff Ayeroff signed me to Virgin Records and twenty-four when my first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, was released, and I began crisscrossing the country on tour in a van with my band, gigging nine months out of the year. The impossible dream was close at hand. I was a young musician on the road. This was not a time in my life when I thought about singing with my mother. In fact, nothing could have been further from my mind. But deep inside, I knew the early influence of my family’s musical traditions was a major source of my creativity.

As long as the Folk Music Center exists, I will call it home. It has traveled with me across the world and back too many times to count. During my journey, I have learned that home is where you run from and then run to. The idea of recording an album with my mother began brewing in the back of my brain, and over time I wrote a few songs and tucked them away for this very purpose. In August 2013, we recorded the collaborative mother-son album Childhood Home. I’m as proud of this album as I am of any of my other studio albums.

The struggles my family endured, the brave and unwavering stances they took in the face of bigotry, injustice, and the blacklist, and the extraordinary life I had growing up in the Folk Music Center all shaped my life and infused my music, politics, values, and perspective. However, it is my mom’s music, the sound of her voice and guitar, along with her eclectic record collection (which she gave me immediate access to the day I was tall enough to reach the turntable), that played the pivotal role in shaping my musical path.

My mom has lived and is living an extraordinary life. In reading this memoir, I have come to understand and appreciate the many sides of Ma. It has given me the opportunity to bond with mom the child, and it is a special moment when the child and the parent are able to truly see one another as both. I am deeply touched by her story, and I can’t wait to see what she sets out to accomplish next.

Excerpted from Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints – My Story of the Folk Music Revival by Ellen Harper with Sam Barry, foreword by Ben Harper. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2021 by Ellen Harper.

Click here to buy the book!

Learn more about Ellen Harper: ellenharper.net