Erik Darling: Key figure in the US folk revival

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The Independent Online

For such an influential figure during the American folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties, Erik Darling was a remarkably unassuming man. His arrangement of the ballad "Tom Dooley" was adopted by the Kingston Trio to become the hit single which helped kick-start the folk boom; his adaptation of "Banana Boat Song" triggered a brief calypso craze; and his visionary arrangement of "Walk Right In" – a chart-topper for the Rooftop Singers in 1963 – inspired mass sales of 12-string guitars. He was also one of the best guitar and banjo players of his generation, recording with many leading folk artists in addition to making a series of solo albums. Then, while others exploited his groundwork, Darling quietly drifted away from the spotlight.

The son of a paint-shop owner from Canandaigua in upstate New York, Darling was in his teens when he learned the guitar and gravitated to the regular Sunday afternoon folk jam sessions at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In the early Fifties he formed a group with Roger Sprung and Bob Carey, recording four songs with them for a 10-inch compilation LP (also including Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly masters) under the name the Folksay Trio. One of those tracks was a syncopated version of the traditional murder song "Tom Dooley"; the Kingston Trio's later version used the same arrangement.

When the Weavers started getting hits with commercial covers of songs by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and others, Darling set about trying to form a group to emulate them. His first attempt was the Tunetellers and when they swiftly imploded, he and Carey recruited Carey's friend Alan Arkin to form the jazz-folk group the Tarriers, naming themselves after an Irish folk song, "Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill".

They got a gig backing the Brooklyn singer Vince Martin to record a new song "Cindy, Oh Cindy" based on an old Jamaican tune, which became a Top 10 hit in 1956. On the back of this success, Martin's label, Glory Records, offered the Tarriers their own recording session. They came up with "Banana Boat Song", a mix of two Jamaican songs Darling had first heard sung in Washington Square by Bob Gibson. It made the US Top 10, although the Tarriers' version was to be overshadowed by Harry Belafonte's later cover, an international best-seller as a calypso craze briefly swept the music industry. Darling and the Tarriers even got to sing "Banana Boat Song" in a low-budget 1958 movie, Calypso Heatwave.

With the Afro-American Bob Carey in the line-up, the Tarriers broke some significant cultural barriers, becoming the first multi-racial group to appear on US network television. They had two more minor hits, "Those Brown Eyes" and "Pretty Boy", but after Arkin left to launch his glittering acting career, Darling was handpicked by Pete Seeger to be his replacement in the Weavers.

For a spell Darling juggled working with both the Tarriers and Weavers, while added his unusual swing banjo style to recording sessions by some of the other leading folk artists emerging on the thriving Greenwich Village scene, among them Judy Collins, Ed McCurdy, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Oscar Brand and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

He was to tour and record with the Weavers for four years but, during the era of the McCarthy cultural blacklist, their star was fading and Darling's greatest success came in 1963. A huge fan of Leadbelly's guitar style, he had the idea of recording "Walk Right In" – a song originally written by the old-time banjo player Gus Cannon and recorded with the Jug Stompers in 1929 – in a ragtime style using a revolutionary rhythmic technique with two 12-string guitars.

Updating Cannon's lyrics ("two way woman" became "new way of walking"), he recruited the East Coast night club jazz singer Lynne Taylor and guitarist-singer Bill Svanoe to form the Rooftop Singers specifically to record it. The infectious and innovative rhythmic style was an instant success and "Walk Right In" became a smash hit all over the world. Music shops could scarcely keep up with the demand for sales of 12-string guitars. "Walk Right In" also revived Cannon's career, while Darling's penchant for the kazoo inspired another unlikely, short-lived, fad for the instrument. The follow-up singles "Tom Cat" and "Mama Don't Allow" flopped, however, and as Bob Dylan's acidic social commentaries ushered in a new protest-song era, the Rooftop Singers suddenly seemed old-fashioned. They eventually split in 1967.

Teaming up as a songwriter with Pat Street, Darling recorded several solo albums, including True Religion (1961), Train Time (1962) and The Possible Dream (1975), but he moved to Santa Fe and effectively turned his back on the music industry, concentrating on art and spiritual issues. He championed the theory of therapy through music, and wrote an autobiography, I'd Give My Life: a journey by folk music, published in June. He was also a music teacher – one of his students was the great banjo player Bela Fleck – and wrote a number of guitar and banjo tutorials.

He still continued to perform sporadically, however, returning to the studio to record fresh albums, Child Child (2000) and a collection of alternative arrangements of seasonal songs, Revenge of the Christmas Tree (2006).

Colin Irwin

Erik Darling, singer, songwriter, guitarist and banjo player: born Baltimore, Maryland 25 September 1933; married Joan Kugell (marriage dissolved); died Chapel Hill, North Carolina 3 August 2008.