David Mansfield, no longer ‘the kid,’ reflects on a lifetime in music

by CINDY STAGOFF
david mansfield interview

CINDY STAGOFF

David Mansfield at Hobo Sound studios in Weehawken.

David Mansfield’s humble and gentle voice belies his extraordinary accomplishments. Recently, surrounded by his instruments in Hobo Sound studios in Weehawken, the multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer discussed his life and career.

Mansfield, who grew up in Leonia and now lives in West Orange, has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison, Sting, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, Iggy Pop, Jakob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright and The Roches.

“David Mansfield is a wonderful musician,” said Richard Thompson. “He can play just about any style on the fiddle really well, but is also an excellent guitarist, mandolinist and pedal steel-ist. An asset in any musical situation. His soundtrack work is also extensive, and he’s an in-demand studio musician. I just used him on my forthcoming album, Ship to Shore, and, it goes without saying, he played the right notes in the right order in the right places — with the right emotion!”

After moving to New York in the ’70s, at 16 or 17, Mansfield quickly found success as a session musician. This gave him “a good deal of practice keeping my cool,” he said, which came in handy because by age 18 he was recruited to perform alongside Bob Dylan on Dylan’s 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Other performers on the caravan included Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

David Mansfield, in rehearsals for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975.

In Dylan’s 1978 film “Renaldo and Clara,” he called Mansfield “the kid.” In Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” he was portrayed as the character “The Innocent.”

“Joan (Baez) told me that ‘Bobby used to be the kid,’ so calling me the kid had a tinge to it,” Mansfield said.

“When I came back to work with him in ’78, I was 21, but I still looked like I was 13. He joked about it onstage. He would introduce me as young and I’d get younger and younger at each show and by the end (of the tour) he’d say, ‘This is David Mansfield on violin. He’s sweet 16 and never been kissed.’ ”

After touring with Dylan in ’78, many creative doors opened for Mansfield, including an opportunity to score the 1980 movie “Heaven’s Gate.” The film’s producer noticed him playing an electric violin solo on “All Along the Watchtower” at one of Dylan’s Madison Square Garden concerts and asked him to compose music for the movie. (He also appeared in the film as a fiddler on roller skates).

He also has composed music for films including “Songcatcher” and “The Ballad of Little Jo” (both directed by his wife Maggie Greenwald), “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Miss Firecracker,” and “Year of the Dragon”; and the TV mini-series “George & Tammy” and “Broken Trail.”

Is it an exaggeration to say he was a prodigy?

“Strictly speaking, yes,” he said. “That’s what my father was.”

NEWTON MANSFIELD

Newton Mansfield, who was a first violinist in the New York Philharmonic, escaped from Poland with his parents when he was a youngster. “My father was a Jewish refugee who fled The Holocaust,” said David Mansfield. “He and my grandparents lived in France during the war years. They started in Paris and when Vichy came in and Paris (got) too hot for Jews without papers, they would go south where things were looser. Then they’d move again when the Germans ratcheted it up. They escaped like so many people did: by foot, over the Pyrenees.”

He is here today, he said, in part because of music. Many Jews were sent east to their death when they arrived in Paris. But not his father.

“My father was trotted down to the local conservatory. He auditioned and got a full scholarship,” Mansfield said. “The deal was that as long as he aced all of his exams and recitals, they wouldn’t deport him or the family. A couple years later, by the late ’30s/early ’40s, that protection no longer extended to my grandparents. They were in hiding.”

The police questioned his father at school about his grandparents and he would tell them he didn’t know where they were. “One day my father could not remember what he told them, so when he returned to the hiding place, his grandparents said, ‘That’s it, we’re leaving tonight.’ ”

Mansfield said that traditionally, in the United States, a classical prodigy performed a debut concert “when you were 13 or 14, and you were supposed to have all the technique you would need to have a career, and after that, it was a matter of maturing. So I know what the word meant before the advent of pop music, when we decided that The Beatles were geniuses. I had a decent degree of talent, but I was not a prodigy in the traditional sense.”

CINDY STAGOFF

DAVID MANSFIELD

By the time you were a teen, you mastered many instruments?

“Yeah, I could do that, but I certainly couldn’t have saved my family from being sent back to Eastern Europe,” he said. “I was called a prodigy in the press a lot and — having a father who actually had been one — that both titillated and rankled me. I sort of became a jack-of-all-trades over the years. He was content with his niche. He was never interested in being a solo concert violinist or being a conductor.”

Mansfield’s mother brought music into his home, too, playing flute and piano.

“I think it was just genetic … whatever made them obsessed about music when they were toddlers did the same thing for me,” he said. “I came out of the gate that way.”

Banging pots and pans to classical music on the radio as a toddler, he demonstrated his inclinations. He also excelled in early violin lessons. But then rock ‘n’ roll intervened. “I was only about 8 when The Beatles hit and that immediately made me want to learn the guitar,” he said.

Even though his father didn’t consider rock ‘n’ roll to be music, he said, “I wasn’t forbidden to listen to it. But there were limits.

“I got my first toy guitar when I was 7 or 8. The first thing I learned to play was ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ but The Beatles quickly obliterated everything else in my view, musically. It was the ’60s. I split my attention between being in youth orchestra and trying to avoid practicing and being in garage bands where I wanted to do nothing but practice.”

He played guitar in Washington Square Park, enthralled by the 1968 West Village scene.

“When I was 11 or 12, my aunt was at NYU,” he said. “I used her dorm as an excuse to get into the city. It was an exciting time. I was obsessed with blues guitar. I was good at it, so I quickly got attention.

“When I went through the torture of adolescence, listening to music saved my life, so of course I wanted to play it. As long as it was an adolescent lark, my parents didn’t mind.”

The cover of the self-titled 1974 album by the band Quacky Duck and his Barnyard Friends.

At 15, Mansfield co-founded the band Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends with Danny and Dae Bennett, sons of Tony Bennett.

“I played with my friends — nice guys,” he said. “My parents were happy that I was involved with them until things started to get serious. We played at Max’s Kansas City and were getting reviewed, and then it escalated to the point that we were offered a record deal from Warner Bros.

“I was underage and my father was against signing the contract. He was worried that it would derail any sensible plans for the future, including college. He finally did it with reservations, but that was a slippery slope.”

How so?

“By the time we had a record deal, I moved in (to New York). I finished high school a half a year early while I was recording with Quacky Duck. I was on the glide path out of there.”

Despite getting signed by and opening for luminaries including Gram Parsons, they couldn’t get booked for a tour.

“Ostensibly, the reason why I didn’t go to college is because I started playing with Dylan,” he said.

Is it true that Dylan joked about charging your dad for college tuition?

“There’s some truth to that,” he said. “Certainly, a lot of my education came from a handful of tours with him.”

A publicity photo for The Alpha Band (from left, Steven Soles, T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield).

During that time, Mansfield also performed with members of the Rolling Thunder band (T Bone Burnett, Steven Soles) and others as The Alpha Band. They released three albums between 1976 and 1978.

Mansfield is negotiating with a major label to get Alpha Band’s first album re-released. He and his bandmates also have discussed touring and recording new material. “Anything might happen,” he said.

He said he wasn’t intimidated by the opportunity to play with Dylan. “There was no one in New York who played country fiddle, pedal steel guitar or dobro at that time so if they needed those flavors (in a recording session), I’d get called and there’d be (top session musicians such as) David Spinozza or Hugh McCracken there.

“I was doing a lot of recording sessions, including with Eric Andersen and his bandmates Arlen Roth and the late Richard Bell. I was in the tall cotton with those guys already.”

He said getting the opportunity to play with Dylan began when his former girlfriend, who worked at the Bottom Line nightclub, heard about Bobby Neuwirth’s “ragtag, sprawling band,” performing at the Bitter End. “She heard that Dylan was back in the Village and hanging out there, too. She noticed that nobody was playing fiddle or violin. She waltzed me back to the dressing room and said to Bobby (Neuwirth), ‘My boyfriend plays the violin.’ Bobby said, ‘Well, let’s see what you got.’ ” He played and then ended up onstage.

Ronson and McGuinn were in this band?

“Yes, and T Bone and Steven (Soles) were in it. Rob (Stoner) and Howard (Wyeth) were the rhythm section. It was kind of the nucleus of what became the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Bobby Neuwirth with Mansfield in 2016.

“In those days, you played The Bitter End or Max’s for four or five days. That was a club date. We spent every waking moment hanging out and playing music. We would finish and then head over to Bobby Neuwirth’s friend, the painter Larry Poons, who had a big loft on lower Broadway, and we played music there till daybreak. Then we’d go down to Chinatown for breakfast.

“When it was all done Bobby said, ‘Hey, I can’t tell you what’s going on, but there’s something going on in the fall. Keep it free if you can.’ And that turned out to be the Rolling Thunder Revue.”

Did you get along with Dylan?

“He ignored me,” Mansfield said. “Joan was wonderful to me. She was sweet and warm and maternal. I was the baby. Roger and I hit it off. Before The Alpha Band, we talked about forming a band with Howie and Mick Ronson. It never really jelled so instead we went to L.A. and worked on a record for Roger called Cardiff Rose. I became very close with a lot of people. They were all welcoming to me. Bob was off by himself.”

When Mansfield worked with Dylan again in 1978, “he was in a completely different mood — friendly and chatty and hanging out with the band at the bar after the show,” Mansfield said. “It was a totally different experience … The word for Bob is mercurial.”

Mansfield recorded a couple of sessions with Dylan after that tour, but said he hasn’t spoken with him since, though Dylan’s tour manager got him tickets for his daughter Callie. After the show, she went backstage and Dylan welcomed her. “He’s a character, but also a mensch,” Mansfield said.

Why did Dylan change personnel after the ’78 tour?

“His life radically changed,” Mansfield said. “He went through a religious conversion. (Since then) he left behind his fundamentalist evangelicalism. Not that we talked about it. He went into seclusion for a little bit and when he came out, he wanted a clean slate.”

I asked about his experiences with Allen Ginsberg.

David Mansfield with Joan Baez and others in the movie, “Renaldo and Clara.”

“I became friendly with Allen Ginsberg,” he said. “I was supposedly his son (in ‘Renaldo and Clara’). They would just make up these scenes. Sam Shepard was on the tour as the screenwriter on the film, but nothing was ever written. Somebody would get an idea and they’d grab the camera crew and film it.

“After the first Rolling Thunder tour, (Ginsberg and I) played together at The Bitter End and made a record. He and Peter Orlovsky would do concerts. When it was all done, he was hoping to take it to Columbia. But there was obscenity on it so they wouldn’t touch it. John Hammond released it on his own label.

“Ginsberg was very familiar, like my uncle. I remember one time after not seeing him for years, he met me and my wife at Angelica Kitchen and asked, ‘What are you doing? Are you making a good living?’ ”

So, he was a nice Jewish uncle?

“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “I know that he had a crush on me when I joined the tour. He was always very solicitous and sweet and nothing nefarious about it. We lost touch for many years and, in fact, I was going to take him up on his invitation to write some music to one of his poems. We picked something out. Then his congestive heart failure took a turn for the worse. He called me from his hospital room and said, ‘I’m gonna die. I just want to tell you I’m really sorry we didn’t get to do that thing together. Don’t be upset.’

“He spent the last period of his life making sure that people he cared about were taken care of. I know he had a very serious Buddhist practice. Seeing how he ended his life, the proof was in the pudding.”

Is it true that Ginsberg and Orlovsky carried bags on the Rolling Thunder tour?

“Yeah, it is true. It sounds awful. But it was like summer camp. Everyone would pitch in.”

Are you still in touch with other Rolling Thunder people?

“I ran into Jakob (Dylan) as an adult,” Mansfield said. (He met him on the Rolling Thunder tour when Jakob was a youngster). “We had one recording session where we traded stories and started catching up. It was nice to connect the dots … He talked about Bob being a good soccer dad when he was a kid and the nice time they had at their grandma’s place in Minnesota. He had good memories.

“I’m still in touch with T Bone and I heard from Joan when Bobby Neuwirth passed. She wrote to me about living in Cambridge with her sisters. They were miserable and when they’d invite Bobby over, he would make them laugh.”

David Mansfield on tour with Bob Dylan in 1978.

The Rolling Thunder tour had a magical mix of musicians, including Scarlet Rivera. Dylan’s vocals were intense and fiery.

“It was quite free-form and exciting,” Mansfield said. “You had to be on your toes because you never knew when he (Dylan) was gonna zig instead of zag. You had to try and stay with him, and I found that fun because that’s when you’d get all the happy mistakes.

“You had to watch and listen and you learned to pick up cues that might indicate when a change was gonna come. It might be the lurch of his shoulder or the intake of breath before a lyric. Neuwirth was notorious for that kind of thing as well. I played with him for years.”

Jack Elliott gave him a workout, too.

“He changed the chord when he felt like it,” Mansfield said. “He was still playing old, squirrely, crazy American folk music in the Woody Guthrie style. Playing with him was a real education in how to loosen up and be responsive and never depend on cliché.”

We discussed the fictional scenes in Scorsese’s film about the tour.

“I went to a screening at Alice Tully (Hall) and a lot of the alumni were there. Dylan had me for the first part of the film. I was watching it thinking, ‘Wait, you said this guy is the director. I don’t remember seeing his face.’ Then as it got worse and worse with the ridiculous stuff, I realized he’s fooling around and making stuff up. There were people who took offense to that. I didn’t.

“I recall being impressed that the music was as exciting as I remembered it. It sounded great and I was proud to have been involved with it. I did wish it had been a tiny bit less Dylan-centric since it was about the Rolling Thunder Revue. I wish we had even half a song by Ramblin’ Jack. Joni at Gordon Lightfoot’s’ house was wonderful, but it would have been nice to have Rick Danko singing ‘It Makes No Difference.’ ”

Mansfield said another movie could be made from footage of the revue’s performers.

David Mansfield with Lucinda Williams and Bobby Neuwirth in 1998.

Mansfield also has worked with the inimitable Lucinda Williams, who gave him a loving shout-out at her Beacon Theatre show in New York on Oct. 27. She told the audience about playing with him in Los Angeles when she was first starting out.

“We go back a long way,” he said. “I met her when she came to New York to make some demos. I played on those demos, but I don’t think they went anywhere. When I was back in L.A., we had an acoustic trio and played at all the little honky-tonks. It was really fun. It was just before she hooked up with Gurf Morlix.” After she got her record deal on Rough Trade, Mansfield would sit in on her New York shows at The Bottom Line.

He played on her brilliant 2001 album Essence. “We recorded in Minneapolis,” he said. “I played violin and viola. I love her writing. I think she’s brilliant and really big-hearted.”

Mansfield has had positive experience with artists who have big personalities. When he played with Paul Muldoon and Rogue Oliphant in Belfast, Van Morrison was a surprise guest. “His reputation precedes him and the band was panicked about learning his songs. They were worried he’d rake us over the coals. We worked up his songs. We did the soundcheck and he was the best. He was so friendly. He gave 150 percent with his musical performance.”

He also had a great experience playing with Sting on a holiday-themed album titled If on a Winters Night …. “He was just the sweetest and most fun to work with,” Mansfield said. “We were shooting the music live … in Durham Cathedral in the north of England. It was a magical time in one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe.”

Have you thought about writing a memoir?

“I would need to take some memory-enhancing drugs to do that well,” he said. “I do have a lot of stories.”

And then he told me some more.

Mansfield met Jonathan Richman when The Modern Lovers performed on a co-bill with Quacky Duck. At a solo Richman show Mansfield attended with Ginsberg sometime in the ’70s, Richman “sat alone on the floor in a white loft with an acoustic guitar,” Mansfield said. At the end of the show, Ginsberg asked Richman if his show was “a put-on.” Richman was devasted that one of his idols didn’t get him, Mansfield said.

KATE ELLIOTT

Mansfield performs with Bobby McFerrin at The Blue Note in New York in 2018.

“I played with Bobby McFerrin for a number of years. It was one of the best experiences I ever had. We were promoting an album called spirityouall. I played with jazz heavyweights, a bunch of sweet guys. Everybody in the band was a better musician than I was, so that inspired me to learn new things. Bobby was the most gracious, warm, loving, funny person you’d ever want to meet.

“The level of improv was a logical conclusion of that path I was set on watching Bob Dylan and wondering what note he was gonna play next.”

He reminisced about New York in the ’60s and ’70s.

“I remember when the Wollman skating rink was the Schaefer concert series. I saw life-changing concerts there like The Who and Frank Zappa. I remember going with my dad to what was then called Philharmonic Hall (it later became Avery Fisher Hall and is now David Geffen Hall) for a double bill of The Doors and The Lovin’ Spoonful. I was floored by The Spoonful. They were right up my alley.”

Newton Mansfield eventually accepted his son’s work as a musician when he started to score films. “It’s something he could understand,” Mansfield said. “He saw that I had skills that he didn’t know I had … When I did film scores with an orchestra, he would play some of the stuff that I worked on. He got a kick out of Zubin Mehta telling him, ‘Oh, your son’s going to be very famous one day.’ ”

Friends of his — including Richard Thompson, Zara Phillips, Warren Zanes, Amy Helm, Laura Cantrell, Mary Lee Kortes, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and Marshall Crenshaw — performed in “The Fallout Shelter,” his live-streamed concert series filmed from his former home during the pandemic. The series’ title was inspired by his discovery of a fallout shelter in his front yard.

The series moved to Hobo Sound, where he has featured a show with Teddy Thomspon and Jenni Muldaur (watch video below), a live tracking session for an EP titled Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & Dolly: A Tribute to the Duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.

CINDY STAGOFF

DAVID MANSFIELD

What’s he up to now?

“A bunch of things,” he said. “I just finished producing a record for Kinky Friedman. I’m getting ready to start on a new record with Teddy (Thompson). It’s gonna be a pop record, not country. And I’m going to be working with the Chapin Sisters.”

He also is working on a dance project for Twyla Tharp with Burnett, as well as the annual Wainwright/McGarrigle Christmas show at Town Hall in New York on Dec. 22. He also plans to work, in December, in the studio with Muldoon, cutting some songs with producer Tony Visconti.

Though we evolve as we age, there is often a spark from our youth that stays with us until the end. For some, it is a personality tendency; for others, an unusual talent.

For Mansfield, his banging on pots led to making extraordinary music that still brings him and others pleasure, after all these years.

“For some people, music is one of those activities that at its best can be transcendent: take you out of yourself,” he said. “I think for most people who enjoy listening, they would say the same thing. In tough times, it’s a place of refuge. Other times, it’s a place of celebration. It’s always helpful.”

For more on Mansfield, visit david-mansfield.com.

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