A tribute to a handsome, humble man, Edward “Doc” Pollak.
Every musician will tell you that their career floats upon the waters of goodness shown to them by a revered mentor, helpmeet, confidant and friend. Doc Pollack was a font of such goodness, gently ushering many into the tightly knit tribe called bluegrassers.
Doc’s sterling qualities were legion, so I will simply list a few of the more notable ones. Firstly, he was above all a humble man who so valued other’s opinions and feelings that it was sometimes difficult to get him to take a firm position on the relative goodness of a song, a break or a performer.
“Come on, Ed, what do you think about fiddle tunes in general?” I would ask him, or, “If you had to choose, which one is better, being out of tune or out of time?” How many times did he just give a mischievous grin and a diffident shrug, as if to say, “Live and let live! Who am I to judge?” He was just that kind of guy.
He was also a kind man who suffered fools gladly. I don’t know how many times I witnessed someone being a complete jack-wagon at a jam session and watching Ed gently guide them towards the light by delivering one of his favorite screeds, the topic of jam etiquette. This was such a passion of his that he gave workshops about it, and they were always well attended.
Why, I remember one hot day at the OATS festival I had attended a workshop given by Coleman and Austin Smith, two of the most wonderful young fiddlers going. As the sun ascended to its zenith, we moved deeper and deeper into the shade of a large pavilion on the Benton Rodeo grounds, learning the intricacies of bowing, trills, arpeggios and other food-related fiddle terms. The end of the workshop found the Smiths and myself sitting, cool in the deep shadow upon a picnic bench.
Before us, in the sunlight, we watched as Ed walked up to a small crowd of people, some with instruments, greeting them to his workshop.His message is seared into my usually leaky brain-pan. “Folks,” he said, “Nothing is worse in this world than a person at a jam session that is not keenly aware of his surroundings and the people in it. Especially if you are a beginner at your instrument, something I have heard about but never actually experienced myself, it behooves you to understand how to be polite, to play tastefully when it is your turn, and to always treat those around you with the deference they deserve.”
The Smiths and I were transfixed by his presentation, which he delivered to his acolytes like Jesus handing out fishes. As he did so, he was backing up into the shade and towards the very picnic table upon which we sat! I could not believe my good fortune as I slide off my perch to receive more pearls of wisdom from Doc’s capacious store of knowledge. It was then that he took one final, back-peddling step and bumped into a warm and moist fellow holding a fiddle, your faithful chronicler, moi.
Ed whirled around in surprise, saw me with a fiddle in my hand (never a good sign, my friends!) and blurted out, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Gee, Doc, I’m sorry! I thought this was the jam etiquette workshop! Tell me I am not mistaken, sensei!”
Oh, we laughed and laughed at that one!
Over the years, I have learned that the operative definition of a great festival is the people with whom you get to jam. In all seriousness, one of the very best “jams” I ever was blessed to be a part of was when I met a dashing fellow named George playing a beautiful old hollow-body guitar in the hallway of the Framinghom Sheriton. The song was “Sin to tell a lie.” I love bluegrass, but my roots as just as much in the texas swing/delta blues realm, so eagerly got out my mandolin and joined in. In a trice, there was Ed, putting some tasty licks in with his fiddle.
One second later, a bass player named Jon joined up, and then a perky woman in a purple sweater with an A style mando started laying down Monroe licks to my best attempt at dawg music. I learned a bit later that it was George’s girlfriend Tara Lindheart. The song had not even ended when someone sat at the piano I had not noticed (I know, I know…Ed would have been disappointed in my lack of awareness!) and started playing stride piano.
It was the hottest swing band in the planet! Headliner musicians paused to listen as we played some of Ed’s favorites, Lady of Spain and so forth. It was sooooo good that a well-coiffed gentleman by the name of Jeffery identified himself as head of security and told us we were creating a traffic “situation”, what with all those famous people whose names I will not drop but which might rhyme with “Bell” hanging around with their respective instruments, grooving on tasty, soulful licks, and all before Lunch!!!!!
Eventually we did two more and were kicked out of the hallway because our beautiful virtuosity had created a hazard. The fact that we had carried people away to that point was largely because of the awesomosity of Doc Pollack laying down the swingy bluegrass law.
Oh, and all those other rock stars of bluegrass did not hurt in the least. Doc drew the best, and he even drew me in, too!
Ed, my old Mill Creek Friend, it is in your honor that my new band, Doc Pappalardo and the Renegade Ramblers, carry forth your banner into the bluegrass landscape with your angelic presence looming over us, suddenly looking a lot like Moses.
“Danger-Grass “ will forever be our watchword. Mozle tof!