Danish illustrator/cartoonist and musician Jesper Deleuran talks about underground comix and old time music

"The Beatnik scene in the late 50s, early 60s with jazz and poetry in the coffee houses had with the Folk Revival changed to "Folkniks" listening to folk singers in the coffee houses."

Jesper Deleuran: The Old Good Times

Jesper Deleuran, illustrator, cartoonist and musician was born in Odense, Denmark in 1951. His father was a painter and his mother was a commercial artist. His older brother, Claus became one of the best known comic book artists and illustrators of his time in Denmark. He died much too young at age 49 in 1996. Jesper Deleuran played in his first band at age 13 in 1964. The band played mostly Early Beatles and Rolling Stones songs and a little rockabilly. A few Carl Perkins songs. Blue Suede Shoes and the like. After school he moved to Copenhagen and worked some odd jobs and joined the university. First studying Nordic Archeology for a short while. Then stepped out and joined Literary Science instead. Still working odd jobs on the side.Had all along been painting and drawing in his spare time and had dreams of making a living out of either that or by playing music. Met a likeminded long haired hippie in 1973 or 4, John Petersen. He played guitar and made cartoons too, and they started jamming, both on their instruments and in cartoons.

They were both interested in the underground scene in San Francisco and followed it as closely as it was possible from Copenhagen. Luckily all the comic books from over there were available in Denmark. ZAP comix etc. They were both fans of Robert Crumb. They read a book called, “Dirty Laundry Comix” made by Crumb and his wife Aline, where they each drew their own main character and let them “talk” on the paper. It was a great inspiration to see that two people who didn’t draw in the same style, could collaborate in that way. So they ended up making four comic books with improvised stories and publish them on their own “Underground” publishing house. Or rather publishing basement. It was called “Æsels Forlag,” og in english, “Donkey’s Publisher.” Around that time Jesper’s older brother already had a career going as a professional cartoonist and illustrator, and he thought it looked like good fun to collaborate the way they did, so he suggested that Jesper and he tried to do something like it. A newspaper, Information, had expressed interest in publishing what they did. So they ended up making three books first published in the newspaper, and later as books. During that time Jesper also began to get professional jobs as illustrator, and it started what turned out to be his career and livelihood. Since then he has made numerous cartoons and illustrations for comic books, childrens books, adult books, educational books, papers, magazines, posters, folders etc. During all those years he didn’t do much musically apart from making occasional four track recordings, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin and a few other stringed instruments, and singing all tracks himself, and of course listening to a lot of music. In 2005 he met a young guy at a comic book fair where they both sat next to each other signing books. He asked Jesper if he would be interested in joining his band. He played clawhammer banjo in a little band he had formed to play Old time music. The band was called Big Hungry Joe. And so he joined and they played together for a few years until Jesper stopped in 2012. He has since then played a little on his own and putting some videos on YouTube.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that you started the old time music researches? How do you describe your sound/songs?

It goes back to when I was a kid. I started playing guitar when I was 13. In the early 60s. Around the time when the first Beatles records hit Denmark. It was very inspiring and soon after it was Rolling Stones. We were four boys who formed a band and started practicing as soon as we had learned enough chords to play the songs we liked. Around the same time I heard my first Bob Dylan record, and because my parents had bought a few records with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez I started listening to them too. My involvement with the band came to an end when my parents thought it was too much that a boy my age were out late every night. So I got more time to just sit down on my own with the guitar and learn some american folk songs. I bought the big Joan Baez Songbook, and a couple of Pete Seeger’s books with old folk songs. The Folk Revival in USA, mainly with the center in Greenwich Village in New York had been in full swing for some years at the time, and following in the trace of Dylan, Baez and Seeger lead to a lot other folk singers who were known at the time.
Woody Guthrie, Leadbetter, Cisco Houston, Phil Ochs and many more. Mike Seeger, and The New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Paxton etc. I noticed that a lot of the songs these people were playing could be traced back into the history of traditional folk Culture. Especially the rural music from the Appalachian mountains. I also started subscribing to the folk song magazine Sing Out! Another fine source for songs and the story behind them. And now we came to the Old Time music. My research, or whatever we should call it, started there, but it is a much longer story, because it continued many years later, almost 40 years, when I started playing in a Danish Old Time string band called Big Hungry Joe. At a time when it had become so much easier to find recordings of the old stuff on the Internet. How do I describe my sound/songs? Well, I don’t know. I sing with the voice I am born with and my style of playing has been influenced by many sources. To name a few, Doc Watson and Norman Blake. Two of my main favourites when it comes to guitar picking. They are both masters on their instrument and I cannot compare with any of them, but some of it have rubbed off I believe. And they are both musicians with their roots deep planted in the mountains and rural life there, and at the same time they are both innovators on their instruments. They have kept the music alive and evolving. It’s not a copy taken out of a museum. I also ought to mention one of the Old time guitarists from the 20s and 30s, Riley Puckett, who sang and played with the band Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. He was a good example of the guitar style in that kind of music, in that he didn’t just play rhythm, he spiced it up with bass runs between the strumming, so he was sort of both rhythm and bass in the band.                                                     Artwork/Selfportrait © by Jesper Deleuran

"I have a special love for music and cartoons from the first half of the 20s century to put it roughly. But I don’t think I really miss anything. We live in a wonderful time in many ways. The digital age have made it possible to preserve a lot of the old music, and a lot of the old cartoons as well."

What has been the relationship between music & literature in your life and art? How does it affect your inspiration?

Well, yes. One thing I could mention is, that many years later a collection of those underground cartoons was re-issued, and I sat at a booth for a cartoon exhibition, and signed books. Next to me sat a young guy who had just debuted with a cartoon, signing his book. He had read my old books, an noticed that my main character played the 5 string banjo in one of the pictures. So he asked if I actually played 5 string banjo in the real world as well. I could confirm this, and it turned out that he and a couple of other guys had started a little band, playing some old time fiddle tunes. So he asked if I was interested in joining them. And I was. I hadn’t been playing much for years, so we got together and had a great time for a few years. Well, that was more like cartoons and music. Music and literature? I have been inspired to listen to music by reading books. For instance the Beat Generation books very much inspired me to listen to Be Bop jazz. I started reading Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs when I was still in my teens, and I started listening to Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and a lot others. Later also Slim and Slam. Slim Gaillard who I love very much. And also Babs Gonzales. Both of them involve the language in a very unique way, and are both musically and humorously very great to listen to. Chet Baker, Ben Webster and a number of the great jazz guitarists, like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass have been added to my group of favourites. Some years ago I had a habit of sitting up late at night, making drawings and listening to music that fit nicely into the atmosphere at that time of night. It was nice and relaxed. Nobody came calling at the door, and the phone didn’t ring. I listened a lot to Tom Waits during that time. Especially the jazzy feel on his earlier records. I wouldn’t say the music directly inspired me, but no doubt it put me in a good mood and helped me concentrate. Chet Baker was another one who fit nicely into the late night mood. One thing I made that was directly inspired were a comic page I made upon a verse from a Hank Williams song, “Low Down Blues”, which was later printed in a book about Cannabis. A sort of home growers guide. It seemed to fit in nicely there.

"When we come to the Old time music, I usually say that it was a happy marriage between black and white. The banjo, originally an african instrument that came to America with the slaves, and the most common instrument among the white immigrants in the mountains, the fiddle."

What are your hopes and fears for the future of comic/music? What do you miss most nowadays from the past?

I can’t really think of anything I fear or hope for?? I have a special love for music and cartoons from the first half of the 20s century to put it roughly. But I don’t think I really miss anything. We live in a wonderful time in many ways. The digital age have made it possible to preserve a lot of the old music, and a lot of the old cartoons as well. And luckily there are people out there who share the love and put a lot of effort into making the stuff available for the rest of us. So in that respect I must say I miss very little. And though our times are tough in many ways, terrorism, wars, global warming, famine and poverty, I don’t believe I would have been better off if I had been a poor peasant in rural America in the 1930s, or anywhere else for that matter. And I think there will always be people who make music or paint pictures and write stories.

What do you learn about yourself from the Old Time/Roots music and culture? What does ROOTS mean to you?

Well, I don’t know if I have learned anything about myself exactly, apart from learning what kinds of music I like, and what I DISlike. You should think that a person’s cultural, musical roots are those that come from the cultural heritage in general or the local folk music, but it isn’t so in my case. We’re living in a globalised world, and our sources for for instance music can come from anywhere. I was born in 1951, and the music I have grown up with was first classical music, like J. S. Bach, Mozart Vivaldi, Haydn etc. All of whom I still like to listen to. But apart from that, the music we heard on the radio was almost all of it influenced by American music. And musical genres like Rock and Roll and Pop music and country music, in short all popular music today are all build on what I consider to be the ROOTS. Blues, Jazz, Old time, Zydeco, Cajun, Jug band music and on and on the list goes. A lot of that music was born in New Orleans and surrounding areas. A mix of African influence, French folk music, Folk music from the British Isles, a dash of influence from the Caribbean and middle and South America, influenced by Spanish and Portuguese music. It is all roots music in my mind. And to dig into that and investigate how this and that genre has developed out of the different kinds of music is extremely interesting I think. I never get tired of that.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of old time music/Roots with the Blues, Skiffle, Jug, Folk and Bluegrass?                                       Artwork © by Jesper Deleuran

I think I have just partly answered that to the question above. When we come to the Old time music, I usually say that it was a happy marriage between black and white. The banjo, originally an african instrument that came to America with the slaves, and the most common instrument among the white immigrants in the mountains, the fiddle. Slaves that were set free after the American Civil War went north and brought the banjo along, and it seemed to fit in nicely with the fiddle music in the early stringbands. The repertoire were mainly folk music from the British Isles and also some other parts of Europe, and the banjo and the black musicians put a little blues flavour to it I think. What we now know as Bluegrass and Country music have their roots in the Old time music. Bluegrass especially have a lot of tunes and songs in common with Old time music. And a peculiar thing is that today the banjo has more or less been taken over by the white people. Maybe it has something to do with the way the gramophone industry divided the races, so that records with black musicians were labelled “Race records”. I don’t really know. But it’s a shame because back in the 20s and 30s there were actually a lot of black string bands and jug bands, that were very closely related to Old time music in general. The music might have developed very differently, if there had not been that seperation of the races. Before the gramophone industry stepped in and took over, a lot of white musicians from the mountain states were very influenced by what they heard played by the black blues musicians.

What is the impact of old time/Roots music and underground comix to the political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, it is hard to say. I have noticed a thing though, regarding Old time musicians. After I got on facebook 7 or 8 years ago, at the time I played in the band, I started looking up musicians in USA, and became friends with a lot of them. Little by little it became obvious that they almost all, were liberals. They voted for Obama as president and were active in ecology, climate issues and stuff like that, and for stricter gun laws. Many were not religious and many of those who were old enough in the 60s seemed to have been hippies or had at least perifer relations to the counter culture. The same things can be said about those who made the underground comix. The Beatnik scene in the late 50s, early 60s with jazz and poetry in the coffee houses had with the Folk Revival changed to "Folkniks" listening to folk singers in the coffee houses. The Harry Smith Anthology had created a huge interest among young Americans for the traditional folk music which was at that time for the most parts unknown to most Americans. The collection of old recordings from the 20s and 30s had made a lot of this music available and it became very popular in the folk circles. Young people from New York started going south to the Appalachians to seek out the genuine folk musicians still living there, to sort of preserve the folk culture. A lot of this formed the basis of what is now the Old time circles. And the counter culture grew out of this. If the folk culture and the life style formed in these years were what influenced people’s political beliefs and social life or it was the other way around is hard to say.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the underground commix of the 60s?                                       Artwork © by Jesper Deleuran

To put it short. Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.

Where would you really want to go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I’d like to quote the Scottish stand up comedian Billy Connoly, “The only time I would like to see was the 20s and 30s in America because I love the music and the style and the optimism, I wanted to see New York being built. I wanted to see all that, you know.”
I share those thoughts very much. But if I could only go once, I guess it would be Greenwich Village, New York in the early 60s. With occasional field trips with a tape recorder to the Appalachians. I don’t think there would be room in a time machine to bring all the books and records I would like to bring. Not to speak of all my musical instruments. Guitars, banjos, mandolins etc. I would miss them if I left them at home.

How would you characterize the philosophy of comic/cartoon? What experiences have triggered your ideas most?

Philosophy? That’s a tough one to answer. I don’t think I have one. I believe ideas are mostly triggered out of everyday life. A caricature of the stuff that surrounds us, sort of. I cannot talk about this without talking about influences, and apart from Carl Barks, Hergé, Billy deBeck, A.C. Segar, and people like that, Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton have been major influences. They were both out of the Underground scene in San Francisco, and had a style that were very much inspired by the old american cartoons from the 20s and 30s. They came at a time when the small offset office printers revolutionised things by making it possible and affordable for everybody to print their own cartoons or collections of poems and posters and stuff like that. A friend of mine, John Petersen, and I had met in the early 70s, and sort of jammed both in music and in cartooning. We were very inspired by especially a comic book that was a collaboration between Robert Crumb and his wife Aline, called Dirty Laundry Comics, where the two of them sort of communicated back and forth by each drawing their own character and let them speak to each other on every page like they would in their daily life. They didn’t draw in the same style. He was very good as usual. She was a bit more primitive/naive in her style of drawing, so it was sort of a break with the usual aesthetics in comic books. But we thought it was a great idea and part of the fun. So we started “jamming” like that on the pages, each drawing our own main character (ourselves. Our alter egos sort of). Not having a ready storyline, we improvised the story from frame to frame. And realising that we would have very limited chances of getting a publisher to print it, we got our hands on a used offset printer and started publishing the books ourselves. In a basement. So it was truly Underground in more than one way. Just Danish style.

If you could change one thing in the music world and it would become a reality, what would that be?                                                             Artwork © by Jesper Deleuran

I cannot say. It would be kind of pretentious to think I could change anything. I don’t think it works that way. But once in a while somebody picks up an instrument and does wonderful thing with it nobody have heard quite like it before. That’s where the changes occur I think. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. It’s like evolution.

How you would spend a day with Cousin Gus? What would you say to Woody Guthrie? What would you like to ask Bukowski?

I’d like to spend the day picking the banjo with Cousin Gus.
To Woody I would say, “So long, it’s been good to know you.”
And Bukowski, “Would you care to share a six-pack or two?”

Jesper Deleuran - Official website

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