Local musician's journey brings him from Woodstock to Wahkiakum
December 31, 2013
The road from Woodstock to Wahkiakum might have traveled faster as the crow flies, but Jerry Ledtke’s journey was grounded by wrong turns and right places. He was called first to the sea, and then to the woods, but always to the music.
This year, with the encouragement of friends and fellow musicians, Ledtke recorded his first album, Woodstock to Wahkiakum. It’s all original music in Ledtke’s unique style, which he describes as Americana, a catchall for folk, rock, country and blues.
“I’ve played music and written songs for 50 years,” said Ledtke. “It’s easier for me to write a song than to try and copy other people. I still can’t get up there and perform a bunch of cover songs.”
He cites Bob Dylan, John Prine and Neil Young as influences.
“I’ve always liked fingerpicking and flat picking,” Ledtke said. “I never could master either one of those, so I developed my own style of playing to get a similar sound.”
He’s been busy the last few years, organizing meetings for Vibes, a local club for people who are interested in sharing music and learning and improving their guitar playing.
Vibes has been a boon for Ledtke. He has learned a lot while collaborating with other musicians. It has challenged and refined his music and style, which he is now excited to share with his friends and neighbors.
Ledtke grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, an industrial city north of Detroit in the midst of Motown’s heyday.
“Saginaw was part of a big music pipeline and everyone played there,” Ledtke said.
His introduction to rock n’ roll was the sight of Elvis on TV. He was so smitten he got a plastic guitar and a blue velvet teddy bear named Elvis for Christmas when he was seven. He wore that guitar everywhere, even though it didn’t play a note.
He loved the water. When he was 13, he took the money he had saved shoveling sidewalks and driveways and bought an aqualung. Without training or any understanding of safety regulations, he strapped it on and went for a swim. In high school, he was a champion swimmer.
After attending a college in Michigan, Ledtke spent the summer of 1969 painting houses to save money, hoping to attend the University of Miami to study marine geology. A couple teenagers who lived on his block helped him paint the first house.
He told them if they helped him finish the job, he would take them on a road trip in his ‘68 Chevelle Super Sport. He figured they would want to go to Florida. They wanted to see New York City.
Ledtke didn’t understand it, but he honored his promise.
It was in New York that they first heard word about some event happening in a town called Woodstock. A wealthy young man they met offered them a place to stay in his father’s 17-room home and a few hours of work for pay. His dad was a doctor and his brother wrote songs for Frank Sinatra, but Ledtke can’t remember his name.
He asked Ledtke if he would drive them all to Woodstock.
Ledtke said yes. Later when they were caught in the massive traffic jam to the event, his new found friend was so overwhelmed, he left an expensive guitar in the trunk of the ’68 Chevelle Super Sport and hitch-hiked home. And just like that, Ledtke went to Woodstock, sent on a strange journey by a retreating messenger.
He and his Chevelle and the mysterious friend can be found, pictured on an official Woodstock movie poster.
Back home, he raised the money he needed to study marine geology at the University of Miami.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “I found the surfboard down there. And being a surfer you had to go to southern California. That was one of the freest times of my life. That’s all I did for over a year, before I had to get a job. It was my everyday thing.”
A kind of psychic impulse moved him north to Oregon. Some of his friends knew what he was feeling. Even his girlfriend at the time was struck by the urge to leave and she had a great job with the post office.
“She walked away from that job,” Ledtke said. “We got up north and soon got word that there had been a big earthquake.”
He settled in Oregon for a time, planting trees for the state and for logging companies.
“That was my first exposure to the Northwest,” he said, “I’d never seen a log truck before. That got me out in the woods every day.”
“All those years of logging,” he joked, “I made up for all those trees I planted.”
He bought a cattle ranch, got married, and raised a family. The way Ledtke tells it, the first sight of his wife Becky was way better than Elvis.
“I was working at a ranch. I was young then, I had some cattle but not all the equipment. I worked at all these ranches cutting hay for people, and I was on the hay bucking, stacking crew while she was driving the pickup truck and that was the first time I saw her.”
His eyes light up with the memory as if it were yesterday, as if it were right now.
“That’s a pretty girl!”
“Then I saw her another time working in a dairy. There she was, pants rolled up, standing in manure up to her knees, milking the cows. She worked at the bank at that time, and I saw her dressed up like the bank. It was the same girl!”
One of the songs on the album is for her.
“It was hard to put those feelings into words. Where to start? Words are too small to express these feelings.”
Becky is ten years younger than Ledtke. He has a daughter, Valle, 23 and a son, Bryan, 25, who helped him with the album. Both were born at home.
“I watched them take their first breath,” Ledtke said. “It was precious.”
One of his songs is called “Logging in the Northwest.” He played it to his fellow loggers at a reunion a year or two ago. A couple of songs have been played over the airwaves at KMUN Radio out of Astoria.
“I’m an old time logger now!” he laughed.
He is grateful to his wife Becky and his son Bryan for their help with the album, and to Bruce Satterlund, who recorded it.
Local musicians featured on the album are Satterlund, Grayson Moody, Andrew Emlen, Kyleen Austin, and Pat Conrad.