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Dave Moore: Evolution of a Folksinger

It all began with a tin sandwich in a Christmas stocking in Iowa. At the age of 20, Dave Moore pulled his first harmonica out of a festive sock, and life was never quite the same. Shortly after the holidays, he took a road trip with a friend. They didn’t have a radio in the car, so Moore provided the music round-trip with his new Christmas toy.

He didn’t grow up listening to the blues and the great harp players, but a rather typical mix of ambient music. “It would be two things,” he said. “The stuff that was just on the radio in the late 60s, the hits and the music our family listened to around the house. The records I remember are Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, and some rock ‘n’ roll records. I was pretty much a regular kid as far as what I listened to.
“When I started to play harmonica, I played tunes that were easy to learn. I had no inkling that there was any kind of history of American music, or that the stuff I heard at home came from anywhere else. I played ‘Oh Susannah’ and ‘Swanee River.’ But then as I got deeper into it, and got completely ensnared by the instrument, I started to explore and see who else was playing it, to ask for advice.”

Moore worked many jobs and traveled extensively before coming to music. He spent a couple of years at a couple of different colleges and traveled widely throughout the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of Latin America, including Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. As he traveled, he found work as a fruit-picker, a plumber’s assistant, a shop clerk, a lumberyard worker – whatever jobs were available in the places he wanted to be.

The traveling and assorted jobs didn’t stop when he started to play the harmonica, but the instrument had cast its spell. “I really think that from the first few days or weeks after I began to play the harmonica, I knew that it was definitely the largest interest in my life,” Moore explained. “I was fascinated by Latin America and the third world in general, and I think a lot of these jobs I was doing were a way to get by as I learned the music. I still entertained some idea that maybe somehow I would get involved in – I didn’t know, the Peace Corps or something out of the country – I was drawn to out of the country. But when I came back to the States from Colombia and formed a blues duo, that’s when I knew that this was going to be the main thing. I didn’t have any idea what it was going to lead to, or what it was going to be like, or how hard it was going to be, or how fun it was going to be. I didn’t have any idea that I would play guitar or write songs; it was just, for me, it became pretty much everything.”

For a number of years, he continued working a wide variety of non-music jobs, and sitting in on musical sessions where he could. His researching and listening to harp players led to his picking up the guitar as well. Part of the time, when Moore was first learning the guitar, he was living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, and he took occasional lessons from a Chiapas guitarist with an American ragtime repertoire. At another time, he headed to Louisiana, working for a while on an off-shore oil rig and scouring the Mississippi Delta for bluesmen to listen to, play with, and learn from.

Moore’s first recording, Juke Joints and Cantinas, came out of a prize he received at a small folk festival in Avoca, Iowa. “It was a folk-singing contest,” he remembered, “and the prize was 12 hours of studio time in Chicago.”

Musically, things were moving pretty fast for Moore around this time. On his frequent returns to Iowa, he discovered a thriving folk music scene. One of the musicians Moore kept crossing paths with was Greg Brown. “Sometime in the late 70s, I finally came back to Iowa City, and I began playing with Greg with some regularity. I was playing with some other duos and trios around the area, and that would be the time when I really began as a full-time professional.”

Without too much nudging, Moore can wax philosophically on the subject of Iowa as a modern mecca for folk music. “I tend to be a real patriot about East Iowa musicians; and I don’t know if that’s because it’s a uniquely cool music scene or if it’s because it’s such a surprise to people, that I wind up defending it. All I know is that, apart from blues influences, the second main influence for me is these people in this area. I’m not clear why there is stuff going on, but I could speculate. Maybe part of it is that Iowa City is a college town, and some people from the small towns were drawn here; but it’s far enough away from any big city that it didn’t end up being a stepping stone to another place. So people just put down roots here and played within the community. That dynamic can be good for music. Other than that, it’s been a place that, especially in the early years, the business end of it took second place to the music end, and that can be good for music, too,” he laughed.

“The bottom line is that I really don’t know, but I’m associated with some people that I’m really proud to be associated with. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that we all live in this little area here.”

Dave Moore is listed on both the IAC’s Teaching Artist Roster and Performing Artists Roster. Find information about him in the Iowa Artist Directory. He has been a frequent guest of A Prairie Home Companion and appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, World Café and Live from the Mountain Stage. In 2002, Moore was presented the annual Literacy Award from the Iowa Council of Teachers of English, in recognition of his contributions to literacy with the children of Iowa. His recordings include Juke Joints and Cantinas, Over My Shoulder and Breaking Down to Three.

© 2000 Dirty Linen, Ltd.
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from Dirty Linen #86 Feb/Mar 2000
Edited for length.
Used with permission.

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