By John Knutson – When I was a young man, about the age of twenty, in the early 1970s, I was living in the Haight Ashbury, about a block from Faith Petric and her much loved folk jams. I was also a street artist producing sterling silver/gemstone jewelry for a living. One day when I was plying my wares down at the Embarcadero Plaza, I met a character by the name of Gil Turner. He’d wander out in his long johns, with a quart of orange juice and vodka, a twelve string guitar he said Taj Mahal gave him, and a long neck banjo that he claimed he and Pete Seeger built at night in high school shop they somehow had access to.
Since selling crafts involved a lot of slow time, we’d play some music, and he’d spin these outrageous tales about how he used to ride around with Woody Guthrie, helped young Bob Dylan when he arrived in New York, harrowing tales of his experience in the south during the civil rights movement, how he wrote songs (Carry It On), how he could drink any Federale under the table, and how much he yearned for just one more go-round on the road.
I listened with great fascination accompanied by a strong dose of skepticism. He’d invite me up to his room at the low end Harbor Hotel for tacos, but I never took him up on that. I wish I had. Through SF Folk Society friends I did see him at a house concert in Marin and to my delight I realized everything he had told me was true. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had lung cancer, and passed away maybe a year after that. Knowing him left a lasting impression on me, and I wrote a song about him called Gil’s Boogie, some fifty years ago. He was a great man, a brave man, who lived life on his terms, and who used music in his fight for social justice and civil rights, and he was real man, no pretension.