Today, August 31st, would have been my friend and guitar teacher D.C. Fitzgerald’s 75th birthday. Our Lord took him home on November 13th, 2006.
In my opinion, he is one of the all-time greats in American Music. A singer, songwriter, guitarist, and performer of the highest order. Richard Thompson and Rev. Gary Davis are the only other musicians that come to mind when it comes to excelling in all four areas. Not a lot of his material that I know best is available on line. His cover of "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Oak Tree" will give you the idea.
The fact that he isn’t more well-known or didn’t sell more records is a mystery. He knew that God wasn’t judging him on record sales anyway.
He was also a teacher of the highest He could break everything down for you and watch patiently as you slowly absorbed it until the magic moment when “the penny drops,” and you get it.
I met D.C. Fitzgerald for the first time early in August 1999. I walked into his living room, which was crowded with people fawning over his baby granddaughter, Che. “Isn’t she the cutest thing that you’ve ever seen? All of a sudden there is another person in the room,” he said with total excitement as we headed into the kitchen for our lesson.
The excitement in the Fitzgerald household was good for me. I was at a low point. A relationship that I thought was very promising had ended suddenly, and I had that conversation with myself that if I was going to be a bachelor for the rest of my life, what was I going to do with it. It seemed that my days of playing in bands were over, but I always wanted to learn to play acoustic blues, kind of like Robert Johnson. So I called up Calliope, the local folk music society, and asked if they could put me in touch with a good blues teacher. The response was, “Delta Blues or ragtime blues?”
“Uh, what is ragtime blues?”
“Like what Ernie Hawkins plays”
“Who is Ernie Hawkins?”
“What! You’ve never heard of Ernie Hawkins! He’s the best ragtime blues player in the world and he lives right here in Pittsburgh. But he isn’t taking new students right now. I’ll give you the number of D.C. Fitzgerald.”
Fitz told me later that earlier that day he had called Calliope and asked if they could hook him up with some students. He had had major surgery and was now recovered enough to start teaching again.
At that first lesson, I remember that Fitz asked me to introduce himself and then he started to preach. Zig-zagging from St. Paul to Mick Jagger and back. Then he played some of his “dead thumb” blues and some ragtime and said, “I don’t know much, but I can teach you what I know. Are you interested in any of this?” I don’t think I said it this clearly, but my reply was, “I want to learn everything that you know.” I took lessons from him for almost four years – three or four lessons a month. A lesson was always at least two hours. The guitars wouldn’t come out of the cases until the second hour, if at all. We talked music, of course, religion, we were both Catholic, politics, we challenged each other, and life in general.
Over those four years, I think he let me borrow almost all of his CDs at least once. I loaned him most of mine as well. There was also a regular exchange of books. I’d like to say that I got a four-year degree from Fitzgerald Academy. A degree that I’m still trying to put into practice. Not to sound weird, but he’s still teaching me. Out of nowhere I’ll hear, “My man, my man, check this out!” I’ll hear his giggle and thank him for looking out for me.
In honor of his birthday, I recorded, in my kitchen, two of the first songs he taught me, “Victory Rag” and “Windy and Warm.” I also recorded a medley of children’s songs that I arranged myself in the tradition of Fitz. (Fitz would have had a lot more running bass, but I did manage to get a few cool chords in there.)