Born Robert Gibson, November 16, 1931, in New York, NY; died of supranuclear palsy, September 27, 1996, in Portland, OR; married twice; divorced twice; survived by four daughters: Susan Hartnett, Meridian Green, Pati Muench, Sarah Gibson; one son: Stephen Camp; four grandchildren.

Bob Gibson was one of the original troubadours of the American folk music revival of the 1950s. His creative, sensitive style was inspired by classic country folk music; Pete Seeger was one of his heroes. Gibson re-invented the old standard folk songs, revitalized them, and developed his own arrangements. He is credited with kindling a resurgence in that genre of music among his own generation, as well as for generations after. Gibson is especially remembered for his collections of folk songs from the Ohio Valley and from the North Atlantic. He also popularized the 12-string guitar among the new folk singers of the 1960s. Gibson successfully combined his warm and generous nature with a freewheeling image, endearing himself as one of America's best loved folk artists.

Robert "Bob" Gibson was born on November 16, 1931, in New York City. He always liked to sing and was inspired by his family, all of whom loved music; his father at one time sang professionally. Gibson grew up in New York and was drawn as an adolescent to the music at the small clubs and coffee houses. He collected records and memorized the words to his favorite songs. Eventually, he learned to play both guitar and banjo and went on to perform at local functions on an amateur basis. In time, Gibson realized that music was his calling. He traveled the northeast in search of both songs and an audience. He sang at concerts and in clubs, learning new songs and accumulating material for his performances. He developed his own trademark sound on the 12- string guitar, and he frailed and picked his banjo. Before long, Gibson, with crewcut hair and clean cut appearance, developed a following of fans. Initially, he made a name for himself in Cleveland and in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. From Ohio he traveled to Chicago.

Gate of Horn

Sometime in the mid-1950s Gibson arrived in Chicago. Eventually, he connected with Albert Grossman, owner of a brand new nightclub, the Gate of Horn, which was struggling to survive. Gibson brought his fresh new face and folk styles to the club. Soon, the Gate of Horn was a showcase for Gibson and his songs, and his reputation spread nationwide. Television appearances, a rarity for many stars in the 1950s, were bread and butter for Gibson. He was a regular guest on television's "Arthur Godfrey Time," and he appeared on the "Hootenanny" show among others over the years. So wide was his appeal that he performed even at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall. His performances were at times whimsical, and many of his songs were truly flippant. His Ski Songs album, released by Elektra Records in 1959, was a collection of novelty songs, typical of his wit.

Gibson's contemporaries admit to their admiration for him. Some confided that they emulated Gibson's style before they acquired one of their own. Folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and guitarist Tom Paxton were both influenced by the unique Gibson style. Tom Paxton marveled at Gibson's special style in Artists of American Folk Music when he commented "[Gibson] actually did his rhythm work with his fingers, something like a frailing banjo player." Roger McGuinn, founder of the 1960s folk-rock quartet the Byrds, revered Gibson as both a friend and mentor. Gibson indeed was a generous and patient advisor who thought nothing of sharing his own spotlight in order to help launch the career of a talented but unknown performer. Among others, he sang frequently with Bob Camp (later Hamilton Camp), and the two recorded an album together, all of which helped to promote Camp's career. Gibson is widely credited with introducing singer Judy Collins to the American public as well.

Of all of the young singers to whom Gibson gave a helping hand, he is widely remembered for launching the career of folk singer Joan Baez in 1959, at the first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Gibson first met Baez, a virtually unknown teen- ager, in the spring of 1959 when Grossman engaged her to perform at his club for two weeks. By the time Baez arrived on the scene, Gibson himself was well tenured at "the Horn." Baez at that time had recorded one album, albeit obscure, and was known chiefly to frequenters of the college coffee house crowds around Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friendship gelled between Gibson and Baez, who in her 1987 memoir And a Voice to Sing With reminisced fondly and described Gibson: "I got a crush on Bob, of course, and was terrified of him because he was at home in a den of sin called a nightclub, was marvelously sarcastic and funny, drank too much, sang both serious and silly songs, and cracked jokes in between them." After becoming acquainted with Baez, Gibson invited her to accompany him to Newport that summer for the first Newport Folk Festival. Gibson was already scheduled to appear, although Baez was not on the program. On July 11 at the festival, Gibson took the stage and sang a song. Then he introduced Baez and ushered her onto the platform to join him. The two sang a pair of gospel tunes together: "Virgin Mary Had One Son," and "We Are Crossing Jordan River." The Gibson and Baez duet left the audience elated; both artists received excellent reviews. Vanguard Records released a live recording of the event on the Newport Folk Festival Recording, 1959, Volume 2, and the landmark performance of "Virgin Mary Had One Son" was re-released in a subsequent Vanguard collection, Greatest Folksingers of the Sixties.

Curiously, the same historic performance at Newport that thrust Joan Baez into the public eye also marked the beginning of a slow denouement in the career of Bob Gibson. Gibson persistently suffered from health problems associated with exhaustion; he also experienced intermittent loss of his voice. Except for one album, Where I'm Bound, released in 1964, the mild natured Gibson faded from public view for a decade. It was rumored that Gibson suffered from drug addiction during those years.

Gibson reappeared later in the 1970s with a fresh new collection of songs and styles. During those later years, Gibson performed on tour with his friends Tom Paxton and Odetta. In 1984, he wrote and released a musical, The Courtship of Carl Sandburg. The play was produced in Evanston, Illinois.

A Fondness for Children

Gibson, with his smooth voice and kind heart, was especially fond of younger audiences. In 1988, he recorded and released A Child's Happy Birthday for pre-school children, described by All Music Guide as "A gentle record for younger kids." He later collaborated in writing songs with children's author Shel Silverstein. Gibson's final album, released two years before his death in 1995, was Makin' a Mess: Bob Gibson Sings Shel Siverstein.

Gibson was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 1994. After 35 years in the Chicago area, he lived out the final years of his life in Portland, Oregon, with one of his daughters. Late in 1996, Gibson returned briefly to Chicago, and on September 20, 1996, in his characteristic wry and friendly manner, he hosted a spirited party, a reunion for his many friends and associates. Gibson's friends affectionately remember the reunion as the "farewell party" that took place one week before his death. Most agree that the party was Gibson's clever means of attending his own wake. After the party, he returned to Portland where he died on September 27, 1996.

Throughout his life, Bob Gibson shunned the commercialism of show business; he was a "singer's singer," who counted other singers and performers among his most loyal fans. He loved his music, and he loved his songs. Gibson's unpretentious musical career pre-dated the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Gibson's musical arrangements were recorded by folk artists everywhere, from Odetta to John Denver to the Serendipity Singers. Upon his death, Gibson was remembered by his friend and admirer Roger McGuinn in the song, "Sweet Bobby from Chi."

by Gloria Cooksey

Bob Gibson's Career

Traveled the North Atlantic Seaboard and the Ohio Valley, collecting folk songs and developing his own arrangements; performed regularly at the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, IL, and on television shows, including the "Arthur Godfrey Show" and "Hootenanny," during the 1950s and early 1960s; appeared at First Newport Folk Festival, 1959, and began recording his music on various labels, such as Elektra (beginning in 1959), Riverside, Stinson, and Tradition; resurfaced briefly in 1969 as a performer on the club circuit; recorded The Courtship of Carl Sandburg (a musical play) 1984; released children's albums until 1995.

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 9 years ago

Bob Gibson was like a brother to my dad Bud Schmauss since before I was born in 1980. We lived in northern Illinois, so we frequently visited Bob & his family in Chicago or anytime he played in Rockford at Charlotte's Web. I remember fondly growing up & listening to dad & Bob play their 12-string guitars and banjos in ours or his basement into the wee hours of the night. My favorite lullabys were "Rock Me Sweet Jesus" and "Let the Band Play Dixie." I also got a chance to meet many famous musicians like Tom Paxton & Tom Chapin who each gave me an autographed tape of their children's music. I also recieved an autographed collection of (up to 1989) Shel Silverstien books. All these items are still my cherished possesions. I was also in the kid-cast of the Chicago public television show "Flying Whales & Peacock Tails" and "Uncle Bob's Place" for two seasons. I was the little girl usually in the front row with pigtails and no front teeth. :0) Dad & I still reminice about those "good old days" & he always gets a little teary-eyed when I tell him to get out his guitar and "Sing Us Some of the Old Songs," just like Bob used to play. We both miss him a whole lot.

over 9 years ago

I knew Bob and his family in 1950-53 and encountered him thru the years in NY, Miami and Chicago. He was a real friend and never pretentious. Everywhere we went he was greeted enthusiastically but I never knew him to be a STAR because he was always modest and unassuming. he is missed.