Rolf Cahn - Memories

Feel free to send me a mail with your memories of Rolf.


On August 1st, the time came for Rolf to "close up shop." The next morning we put him in his red Dodge Leon Truckski and caravaned to El Valle, NM. The ceremony was unplanned and perfect - dancing to Rolf's recordings, shoveling to Dave Briggs' flamenco guitar. As we waited for the final friends and relations to come, Eve Muir leaned towards me and said, "Rolf would have gone home by now." No doubt. We joined hands around the pine box that one old friend had made and talked. Fred said, "Rolf woke up each morning surprised that he was allowed another day." I remembered our many mornings. "Good morning, Rolf," I would say. "The vultures haven't gotten me yet," he would answer. Then he would giggle and look mischievous.

Rolf was an outlaw, or rather, he was a lawmaker. It was six months before I was able to understand his lingo and another year before I could follow his craft of coffee making. He was a master of both creation and destruction. Rolf's thumbnails, his only manicured part, were kept long for two reasons - boogie bass lines and blinding opponents. Within Rolf's words, guitar lines, left hooks, and coffee-making rig lived a mastery of the essential.

Although anti-technological by nature, Rolf accepted the use of "low brow" video and audio production to spread his teachings. Luckily for us, grocery bags of audio and videotapes remain for us to play with. Two weeks before we took his body to El Valle, Rolf asked me, "Do you think anyone will sing my songs?" I told him that I would sing them - off key and out of tempo. He thought it was still a good idea.

Michael Sheppard


Rolf had this intense nervous energy about him like an Al Pacino character. That was a quality which attracted a lot of people to him. I first met him about 1957 at the studios of KPFA, a listener supported radio station where he was producing programs on folk music. I was working in there as a volunteer in the control room. That day the station was playing "Il Trovatore" and the sound of the anvil chorus was booming over the speakers, when I noticed that someone was singing along with the recording in a rich tenor voice as he marched along the corridor. He was wearing a red turtleneck sweater and seemed to know the words in Italian. It was Rolf. He introduced himself right away. He produced several programs for KPFA on the Blues, Gospel and Flamenco. These were multi-episode programs and I remember the series on Flamenco was especially good, maybe 8 or 10 episodes exploring all aspects of the music including a detailed exposition on the forms, the cultural and psychological dynamics, and the poetry of the lyrics. He played samples of the great guitarists, singers and dancers. He quoted the poetry of Garcia Lorca. I don't know if anybody has ever done anything that exhaustive and interesting on Flamenco in the radio medium before or since. Rolf may have thought of himself primarily as a musician and maybe wanted to be remembered that way, but in my opinion those programs he produced for KPFA were something unique that nobody else could have done. I assume that those programs are lost forever, having probably survived in the KPFA archives for some years and then the tapes recycled. KPFA was always a pretty chaotic place.

I took guitar lessons from Rolf and in my opinion he was a great teacher. His guitar lessons were highly entertaining affairs. He was exciting and funny and was very patient with my musical ineptitude. The music he could play was very eclectic, from blues to Carter Family, to Flamenco, with a few German folk songs thrown into the mix. He always found really good musicians to play with like Carl Grannich, Doug Brown, Eric von Schmidt just to name a few. The folk music coffee house scene was going strong and Rolf was an important figure in it all. He started the Blind Lemon, a beer and wine bar in Berkeley where folkies would hang out and play music informally and later co-founded the Cabale, a coffee house with a nightly program of local and imported talent. He inspired a lot of people to take up the guitar and taught them their first licks.

Rolf's family had to escape Nazi Germany. He told me that an SS officer once spat on his mother in the stairwell of their apartment building. He told me once that his father was friends with a Gestapo agent. The Gestapo agent told Rolf's father that someday he'd call him up and invite him for a last cigarette. A while later he did get a call from his Gestapo friend and all he said was, "It's time for that last cigarette." Rolf's family left Germany the next day. He landed in tough neighborhood in Detroit and young Rolf had to learn how to fight. I would think that a more detailed account of his early years would be a terrific story, but I know little about it. He did a lot of boxing. At that time there were a number of ranked Jewish boxers. So Rolf's childhood youth was in itself much more intense and scary than most of us on the Berkeley folk scene could have imagined in our wildest dreams.

What Rolf did for the OSS I was never sure. "Behind enemy lines" was a phrase he used. I'm not sure I believed all of what he told us, maybe because it was so dramatic and foreign to our own experience. He never gave details, at least not to me, but it's the sort of thing if you had done you wouldn't want to talk about. Later he'd been in the Communist party and managed to get himself kicked out and after that he had no use for organized political movements. Whenever he talked about the Communist Party he referred to it as the Church. Like, "When I was in the Church..." He was probably a great organizer, but nobody as independent as Rolf could submit to party discipline. He had a strong intellectual intensity and loved to debate ideas, a freewheeling street-level sort of debate which once in a while, but very seldom, strayed into paranoia. He had a great sense of Jewish humor and and loved to tell jokes, "There was this guy traveling on a train from Minsk to Pinsk..."

During the 60s there was a lot of political romanticism going around: we hated the cops ("Pigs off Campus!") and there was loose talk about "revolution" or "armed struggle," and a similar kind of anti-Americanism you notice alot of these days on the left. Rolf had seen too much political violence to be tolerant of that stuff. I remember a late night discussion where we were going on about the police and Rolf made it clear that thought that by and large cops in America tended to be professional, and at least a lot better than in some places he'd experienced. "The thing about America," he said, "is decency. People don't just go out and start killing each other every time there's a political dispute."

Of course there's always exceptions. I remember another time some of us were having coffee in a coffee shop in Oakland, we're talking about Malcom X who was making provocative speeches excoriating the white man. Somebody said that Malcom was very likely to be assassinated by some white racist before too long. Rolf said, no, most likely if he was assassinated it would be by a black man. Then he told us about the Stern Gang and how they viciously attacked Jewish factions they didn't like. Sure enough, not long after that Malcom was black guys.

Another time I recall that two of Rolf's friends approached him with a new song they'd just learned and wanted him to sing it with them. Nowadays the rich veins of traditional American and British folk song have been pretty well mined, but then there was a feeling of discovery when we came on a new song. This one was "Roddy McCorley," the old Irish saw about the young Irish rebel boy going to the gallows with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. It has a lively upbeat tempo they thought Rolf would like. But when they sang it to him he was not impressed. He refused to play it with them and got very irritated. "I've seen people going to die, and it's not like that!" We thought his reaction was a little bit much, considering that we often regarded the lyrics of folk songs with a sort of ironic detachment. But we hadn't seen what he'd seen. I think in a way he was right; there's a lot of thoughtless destruction of lives that results from a romanticism of violence.

I don't mean to imply that Rolf was conservative; his very life style contradicted that. He was always committed to the gains of the labor movement. But he also showed by everything he did or said that the main focus of his being was his friends and family and music.

We had great parties, picking and singing sessions, often at Phil Huffman's house. Lots of musicians would show up, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, Lightnin' Hopkins and guys from the Boston area like Jim Kweskin and Buzzy Martin and many others too numerous to mention. Phil and Rolf would recount their WWII experiences, their war stories. We had intense musical sessions and intense discussions. I remember Rolf once saying, "Did you ever notice that in those murdered girl ballads she always winds up in the river, like 'Banks of the Ohio' and 'Omie Wise?' There must be some Jungian symbolism about water and the unconscious going on there." In those days playing folk music at parties was the thing to do, and bullshitting was a great art. Rolf hated political correctness in any form. For him, ideas were a creative art form, like abstract expressionism.

Rolf lived life on his own terms. He had many adventures, like traveling across the country in a converted school bus in the middle of winter with John Muir, the author of the very popular How to Fix Your Volkswagen, a Guide for the Compleat Idiot. And getting in a train wreck in Mexico. Not to mention the shootout in Santa Fe. These and many others are tales that may never be told, but are part of the Rolf Cahn legend that must live somewhere in hyperspace. He loved to recount his adventures with dramatic effect and I wish he'd written them down somewhere. He was exciting to be around and good to his friends. Aside from a sort of macho exterior, mandatory for guys of his generation, he was very sweet and caring on the inside. He inspired in me a lifelong interest in martial arts. His hyperactivity was sometimes a bit off-putting and once I suggested that he practice sitting meditation, but this old standby of the Samurai warriors was not for him. I don't think he could sit still for more than three minutes at at time, ever. He smoked too much weed; he could be deeply insecure, especially about women, and was very sensitive to criticism. Like a good fighter he might be knocked down, but he was always right back up. Reminds me of a song by Weird Al Yankovic: "I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead."

Ken Spiker


more to come ...