Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 24 Sep 02 18:56
Richie Unterberger is the author of "Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution," published by Backbeat Books in summer 2002. It documents the birth and heyday of folk-rock from 1964 to mid-1966, from its roots in the folk revival through the birth of electric folk-rock in the hands of the Byrds and Bob Dylan and the rise to stardom of the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas & the Papas, Donovan, and Simon & Garfunkel. Its sequel, "Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock," covers folk-rock from mid-1966 to 1970, and will be published by Backbeat in 2003. Both volumes draw on well over 100 first-hand interviews with the era's performers, producers, session musicians, record executives, and journalists. Richie's other books include "Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' roll" (Backbeat, 1998), which profiles 60 underappreciated cult rock artists of all styles and eras. His "Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock" (Backbeat, 2000) contains more in-depth surveys of 20 underrated greats of the era, again drawing on dozens of first-hand interviews. Unterberger is also author of "The Rough Guide to Music USA," a guidebook to the evolution of regional popular music styles throughout America in the twentieth century, and the travel guidebook "The Rough Guide to Seattle." A senior editor for the All Music Guide, he lives in San Francisco. More information about Richie Unterberger and his books can be found on his Web site at www.richieunterberger.com. Our moderator for this conversation is Dave Zimmer. Dave is a native Californian who now lives in New Jersey and works in New York City, is a music journalist and corporate communications writer/editor, with a particular passion for folk-rock. In fact, he's often said his musical heart resides in Laurel Canyon, where some pretty fair California folk-rock groups found their wings. Dave's book, "Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography" (Da Capo Press), was an Inkwell topic this past July. And while this is Dave's first experience as an Inkwell topic moderator, he's used to this kind of Q&A forum, having interviewed more than 500 artists - from Aerosmith to Joni Mitchell to Neil Young. A music book junkie, Dave thought he knew pretty much everything there was to know about folk-rock ... until he read Richie's tome, "Turn! Turn! Turn!", whereupon he discovered new information nuggets on virtually every page. Please welcome Richie and Dave!
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Wed 25 Sep 02 07:47
OK, Richie. Here we go ... first question ... As a term and musical genre, "folk-rock" has often been misunderstood by the public and, frankly, even music critics. In your book, how did you address these misconceptions and provide readers with a clear view of all that folk-rock represents and encompasses?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 25 Sep 02 10:02
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" focuses on folk-rock as it first sounded when it emerged in the mid-1960s. As with most musical styles, the exact perception or definition will vary according to the listener. It's also often been forgotten that "folk-rock" was not a label that arose among musicians or grassroots fans, but almost certainly from the media. Specfically, it was Billboard magazine that popularized the term, with a June 12, 1965 cover story that focused on the Byrds (whose "Mr. Tambourine Man" had just gone into the Top Ten of their charts) and used the term "folk-rock" a half dozen times. As musicians hadn't come up with the term themselves, *they* even had trouble defining it, and were sometimes even displeased about the label. ("I don't play folk-rock" was Bob Dylan's comment at a December 1965 press conference in San Francisco.) This is even true to some extent more than 35 years later, among the more than 100 musicians, producers, managers, etc. I interviewed. So I don't try to define folk-rock too rigorously in the book. But generally, I took the view of folk-rock as music that, in varying admixtures, took the best elements of both folk and rock music and combined them into a new style that neither folk nor rock could have reached on their own. That can be the case whether it's an original song, a cover of a Bob Dylan song, or a cover of a traditional folk song. The Byrds sometimes did all of those things within the same album. In my introduction, I note that I'd rather be more inclusive than less inclusive, covering all important music that could fall under a folk-rock umbrella rather than defining it too strictly. Musical "purism," which was prevalent in many factions of the early-'60s folk community, was what many folk-rockers were reacting to in the first place, and one of folk-rock's strengths was its flexibility and eclecticism. This was one of the chief differences between "folk" and "folk-rock." Folk-rock was changing constantly, incredibly rapidly; as Donovan told me, "Folk-rock is not only a sound. It is a manifesto of change." Thus the book takes in all music of the mid-1960s that borrowed from both folk and rock, with the Mamas and the Papas probably representing the most pop-influenced edge of the spectrum; the Fugs at the most radical, political, and subversive edge; emerging singer-songwriters like Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins, and Richard & Mimi Farina, who were barely using electric instruments on their first folk-rock recordings, at the folkiest corner; and even some garage bands (like the Leaves, of "Hey Joe" fame) and the Turtles (whose first hit, "It Ain't Me Babe," was a Bob Dylan cover) that at times plugged into folk-rock. If there were two artists that mixed the sounds of folk and rock more effectively than any other, they were the Byrds and Bob Dylan. I view the Byrds specifically as the Beatles of folk-rock, in that they were the music's center, much as the Beatles were the center of the British Invasion. As to how I addressed folk-rock's definitions and misconceptions in the main body of the book, I tended to group certain sub-genres of folk-rock into their own sections, while maintaining a general chronological flow and progression moving from early 1964 to mid-1966 (with one chapter on the music's roots in the early-'60s folk revival). I.e. there were the California bands emerging on Sunset Strip in the wake of the Byrds, like Buffalo Springfield, Love, and the Leaves; the very few British folk-rockers of note at the time (only Donovan really made a major contribution in the mid-1960s); the teen garage bands that borrowed liberally from folk-rock; and the singer-songwriters emerging from the topical folk song movement who started to gingerly electrify. I took particular pleasure in drawing connections and illustrating influences between these somewhat different schools, setting in relief both their differences and their common ground. I also took care to note how folk-rock influenced rock musicians not commonly classified as folk-rockers, particularly the Beatles in their "Rubber Soul" period, but also British Invaders like Them (who covered Paul Simon and Bob Dylan songs) and Manfred Mann (who Dylan anointed as his favorite interpreters). I also wove in many quotes from both my first-hand interviews and articles from the mainstream news press, the music trade press, and the more underground folk press, to reflect the many (and sometimes contradictory) ways folk-rock was viewed and defined when it was actually happening. The media was about as variable in its definition of folk-rock then as listeners and critics are today. Sometimes it was even hostile, whether in its negative aesthetic critiques of the music, or in fanning accusations of drug and sex allusions that today seem mild and silly, but helped at the time to curtail the airplay of classics like "Eight Miles High." It should be noted that the book only goes up to mid-1966, so it doesn't cover everything that folk-rock encompasses, even if we limit that to what it encompassed in the 1960s. Other important branches of 1960s folk-rock -- country-rock, the birth of the singer-songwriting movement, the British folk-rock of artists like Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and the psychedelic folk-rock of California bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe & the Fish -- are covered in the book's sequel, "Eight Miles High," which comes out in 2003.
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Wed 25 Sep 02 11:36
Great answer, Richie. Can't wait to read "Eight Miles High" next year. Meanwhile, in "Turn! Turn! Turn!," I was fascinated by your coverage of many of the behind-the-scenes people. Among them, how important was Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman to the evolution of folk-rock?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Wed 25 Sep 02 14:11
As brief background, Jac Holzman was president and founder of Elektra Records. By 1964 or so, Elektra was the best and most innovative independent folk music record company in America, along with its rival Vanguard Records. Holzman was not a simple office executive (Elektra was in any case still pretty small). He was directly involved in the production of many Elektra Records, and in signing and working with many of its artists. Jac Holzman was important to folk-rock in that he was among the earliest record industry figures to see the potential of expanding recorded folk music from simple acoustic arrangements and traditional material to fuller, and eventually electric, arrangements and songs by young, contemporary singer-songwriters. This was evident in some Elektra releases even before folk-rock really took off in 1965. Judy Henske's "High Flying Bird" (later covered by numerous rock artists, including the Jefferson Airplane), recorded circa late 1963, is about as close to folk-rock as anything recorded before 1964. Also around late 1963, Judy Collins recorded her third Elektra album, "#3," which included covers of songs by writers like Bob Dylan and Hamilton Camp (most famous for "Pride of Man," later covered by Quicksilver Messenger Service). More importantly, it also included a cover of Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" that was much more musically attractive than the plaintive Seeger original. Playing guitar and arranging that song, in addition to playing guitar and arranging on much of the rest of the album, was a young pre-Byrds Roger McGuinn. It wasn't a folk-rock song (or album), but it was a crucial transition in the song's process from folk ballad to the full electric folk-rock version the Byrds, with Roger McGuinn on lead guitar, took to #1 in late 1965. The album, incidentally, also featured a version of Seeger's "The Bells of Rhymney," which McGuinn and the Byrds would again record in a full electric folk-rock version for their first album. In 1964, there was an obscure Elektra single by Dino Valenti, author of "Get Together" (a hit for the Youngbloods in the late 1960s), that matches folky songs to weird pop-rock production and pop-soul backup vocals, complete with harpsichord by then-session man Leon Russell. An outtake Valenti did at the time, "Black Betty," sounds pretty close to the blues-folk-rock of early-1965 Bob Dylan. And lastly, Elektra issued a single by the Beefeaters around the end of 1964, "Please Let Me Love You"/"Don't Be Long." The Beefeaters were actually an early version of the Byrds, with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, with L.A. session men comprising the rhythm section. It's pretty close to the sound of the Byrds in 1965, if more Beatlesque and primitive. In 1965 and 1966, Elektra made important, if sometimes tentative, early folk-rock recordings by Fred Neil, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Love, and Tim Buckley. The significance of this is not solely in the quality of those albums, though they were pretty high. It also conferred considerable respectability on folk-rock to have an established folk label move into folk-rock (and an established folk star like Judy Collins move into folk-rock), at a time when that was considered a sellout by many folk purists. If Elektra was doing it, the reasoning could go, folk-rock couldn't be that bad. As Crawdaddy editor Paul Williams is quoted in my book, "It was interesting and very cool that Love was on Elektra. That would cause folk music fans at college radio, which I was, actually, to start listening to 'Message to Pretty' and the first Love album, and discover they liked it. But they would listen to it *because* it was on Elektra. 'Message to Pretty,' you couldn't resist that if you were a folk fan. And it wasn't just like, 'Well, I like Love, but I only like these songs.' Pretty soon you liked the whole thing. It was like you were discovering that the new rock and roll was *your* music." In more specific contributions, Holzman was courageous enough to open a west coast office and start signing west coast-based acts like Love and Tim Buckley, when few indie labels that started in the east coast were doing things like that. He was also promoting acts like Love and Tim Buckley to the LP market, which automatically gave them more respectability than folk-rockers whose output was based around attempts at hit singles. Holzman was also recognized as a record label president actually in touch with the grass roots of its fan base. Holzman advertised in piddly-dink folkzines that could have had no chance of affording his product great exposure, apparently more as a gesture of support than profit-driven marketing; wrote personal missives to the letters section of tiny-circulation periodicals like the Little Sandy Review; and personally befriended young folk-turned-rock journalists like Paul Nelson and Paul Williams. Holzman and Elektra were not perfect; no record label and its president could be. Elektra let Phil Ochs and Tom Rush go at the point when both of those artists were reaching their peaks. Phil Ochs's one electric folk-rock recording for Elektra, an excellent electric arrangement of his "I Ain't Marching Anymore" (with the Blues Project as backup band), was inexplicably only released in the UK. Holzman didn't sign the Beefeaters to a long-term contract, and they became the Byrds and went to Columbia. Elektra missed opportunities to sign Janis Ian, the Lovin' Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, in some cases because they couldn't compete with better financial offers from bigger labels, and in some cases because of errors of judgement. Some of the artists Elektra did sign weren't that good; David Blue's sole album, a 1966 Elektra release, is about as gauche a mid-1960s Bob Dylan imitation as was ever released. Later in the 1960s, naturally, Elektra moved further away from a folk-rock base, particularly with the success of the Doors, though they continued to sign interesting folk-rock acts like the Incredible String Band and the much more obscure British folk-rock group Eclection. But generally, Elektra's folk-rock releases, though small in number, kept to a very high standard, in content and in its legendary artwork. Holzman also seems to have been one of the fairer record executives of his time in paying and respecting his artists, though standards of financial renumeration throughout the industry were pretty low. He was generally willing to be far more open-minded about moving from acoustic to electric music, and taking some bold artistic chances in his signings and studio production (whether he was directly involved or delegated this to others), than most record executives of the era, whether from a major label or an independent one.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 25 Sep 02 18:34
Welcome, Richie, and welcome back, Dave! I really love this book! It made me want to listen to hours and hours of music -- the stuff in my collection and lots of records I never heard but now feel are essential. And like Dave, I can't wait for the next volume!
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Thu 26 Sep 02 06:52
With a combination of intensive research and many personal, first-hand interviews, you obviously had a wealth of material to work with. What were some of the keys to threading it all together into a fluid narrative? And at what point in the process did you (or your publisher) decide that your folk-rock study was going to be presented in two volumes?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 26 Sep 02 09:25
One of the keys was striking a balance between first-hand interview material, research from archival material such as press clippings and quotes from the time, and detailed yet critical description of the music. I didn't want those without enormous expertise in the subject to feel lost. At the same time I wanted to supply enough layers of detail to interest and educate readers who brought a good deal of knowledge to the topic already. It was also important to maintain something of a chronological progression so that readers could see how musicians influenced each other, and the music itself changed, over time. It's impossible to do a month-by-month sort of progression, as you might be able to do with a biography of one artist or one band, because so much was happening at once all over the place (though, as it happens, it seemed like most of the crucial innovations came from New York City and Los Angeles). But at the same time, it's vital not to assume readers are overly familiar with the story, or get ahead of yourself by not grouping events in at least the general vicinity of each other. Most crucially, I think, there had to be some flow and connectivity when I went from performer to performer, movement to movement, and reaction to counterreaction. This could be something as simple as, when transiting from discussing the Byrds' recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man" to Dylan's recording of "Bringing It All Back Home," noting that Dylan was working on that within days of the Byrds recording the single, and that both were recording for Columbia Records, though on different coasts. Or it could be a little more complex, as in grouping the solo folk-rock New York singer-songwriters that emerged around early 1966 according to the labels they recorded, so that it wasn't just a few paragraphs on a dozen different artists with no links between them. You can have fun with this too, as in noting the odd circumstance in which the ultimate angst protest rock singer (Barry McGuire) gave the ultimate sunshine pop folk-rock group (the Mamas & the Papas) their biggest break, as a way of guiding the text from Barry McGuire to the Mamas & the Papas, who both emerged at roughly the same time (the Mamas just a bit later than McGuire) and shared the same producer. In crude terms, the text's something of a huge shaggy dog story. But putting in a constant transitional links, I hope, made the mass of information interrelate and also made for a more pleasing reading experience. There are some other books that cover a musical genre by leaping from performer to performer, era to era, and so forth. While I do read some of those as I admire them for their information and research, I wish in general they were more conscious of being reader-friendly, as they're jumpy and hard to read in many cases. You can have both the information and an intelligent book that's pleasant and fun to read. Also, although I wove in a fair amount of background commentary on the sociopolitical climate of the era and how it shaped some of the music (and how some of the music shaped it), I determined early on that it would be secondary to the story of the music. This was the source of some conflict when I was first shaping my proposal in 1998; there was some sentiment among people working with me (not my publisher) that it should be something like half a history of 1960s folk-rock, and half a history of 1960s social change and popular culture. I thought this would have been a big mistake, and would have caused the book to read poorly and not really satisfy either music fans or social historians. There are uncounted books about 1960s history, politics, and culture. There was not a single book, however, that went into the whole history of 1960s folk-rock in great depth. I believed it made far more sense to focus mostly on the 1960s folk-rock, and on the sociopolitical factors as they related to folk-rock. Originally I planned this as a 400-page single-volume work, covering folk-rock through the entire 1960s. When I finished the manuscript, it was evident that it wasn't going to fit into 400 pages. The publisher and I then determined that we should do two 300-page volumes, as I had so much material and it would have really taken some of the guts out of the story to cut it down. This in turn allowed me to do quite a bit of additional interviews and research for the second volume (covering mid-1966 to 1970) over the first half of 2002, and I think the coverage of those years has improved substantially as a result.
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Thu 26 Sep 02 11:20
As you were putting together "Turn! Turn! Turn!", what were some of your favorite "surprise discoveries" and who, in your view, are a couple of the most important unsung folk-rock artists that you unearthed and subsequently shed light on in your book?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 26 Sep 02 12:27
Much of what I found in my research confirmed things I knew or suspected, rather than being that surprising. I'm not sure what *the* most surprising thing was that I found out, but here are a few of them. Some of them aren't central issues in the folk-rock story, just aspects that definitely did surprise me and which I'd not read about before in other sources. Several artists on the Vanguard Records label made the point that they felt Vanguard put much more promotion behind their classical catalog than their folk and rock roster. This surprised me, since Joan Baez was bringing in so much money for them, and to a lesser degree they were selling a great deal of records with their folk and folk-rock roster: Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richard & Mimi Farina, their Newport Folk Festival compilations, and much more. *Many* more American folk artists cited the Beatles as their reason for going electric, rather than Bob Dylan. I would have guessed this, but the ratio was extreme; I think only three or four artists cited Dylan as a motivation for going electric, whereas tons of people cited the Beatles. The folk magazine Sing Out is often cited as among the forefront of the leaders of purists resistant to folk-rock. Going through the magazines and talking to some contributors (including editor Irwin Silber), it was quite apparent that the magazine actually did present a wide spectrum of opinions, some against electric folk-rock, some for it. Although unfortunately I was unable to locate the author of the Billboard page one article on June 12, 1965 about folk-rock (Elliot Tiegel), it does seem that this story was responsible for actually coining the term "folk-rock," something I'd never seen specifically cited before (though I did read speculation once that Tiegel originated the term). Happy Traum's story about Ahmet Ertegun wanting his folk group, the New World Singers, to go electric in the early 1960s (pre-British Invasion) was something I'd never heard about before, though he actually assumed I must have heard about it and I had to prompt him to relate the whole story. I never knew about those very early folkies in Los Angeles circa 1964-early 1965 trying to go electric by putting DeArmond pickups in their acoustics and trying to (unsuccessfully) simulate an electric guitar, which I found amusing. They even stuffed towels inside the guitars to keep them from feeding back before they realized they really had to get real electric guitars instead of trying to get around the expense and effort of learning to play amplified instruments. Chris Hillman's story about Randy Sparks, who had a stable of wholesome young variety folk revival groups, trying to get the Byrds off Columbia because of jealousy was something I'd never heard before. I was surprised how many people cited the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as influential in opening the folk circuit to electric rock, as I'd never really thought of them as a folk-rock band. I was surprised how many future L.A. folk-rockers played at Disneyland in wholesome folk combos before going electric. After I was done, I was surprised to realize how there were virtually no women involved in the business/promotion/industry side of folk-rock (management, record label executives, club owners, journalists, session musicians), though there were quite a few women involved as performers. I was very surprised by how differently some of the British people I interviewed define "folk-rock" than Americans do. (That comes more into play in my upcoming sequel, "Eight Miles High.") Some of them take a much more rigorous view, thinking of it quite literally as a band playing a traditional folk song with electric instruments, a la Fairport Convention, and thinking of someone like Neil Young (whom I view as one of the *definitive* folk-rockers) as just a rock star. But on the other hand, many British listeners and musicians have a very similar take on what folk-rock is as Americans do, and revere Neil Young as a definitive folk-rocker, so it's an odd discrepancy. Although there was supposedly a raging debate of purists vs. electric folk-rockers in 1965-66, I really couldn't find any purist who still felt strongly that folk-rock was bad and a sellout 35 years later. Maybe a bunch of them changed their opinions, maybe some of them are embarrassed to admit it. There are quite a few unsung folk-rock artists I cover in the book: Richard & Mimi Farina, the Daily Flash, Jim & Jean, the Leaves, P.F. Sloan, Tim Hardin, and others. I'll just comment here on a few. Fred Neil was the singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, not too popular among the public, but influential on a posse of other, usually slightly younger musicians: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, John Sebastian (who recorded with Neil as a sideman), Barry McGuire, Denny Doherty of the Mamas & the Papas, Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane. He's most known as the author of "Everybody's Talkin'" (a hit for Nilsson), but did a few fine albums mixing light folk-rock with blues, pop, country, and a magnificent super-low voice. The Rising Sons were a very interesting Los Angeles group that featured Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder in the same band, blending blues, rock, folk, and British Invasion, but only recorded one single (though a good CD with about twenty additional tracks came out in the 1990s). The Blue Things were in my opinion the finest obscure folk-rock band of the mid-1960s, sounding like a cross between the Byrds and the Beau Brummels. They were pretty popular in the Midwest (they were from Kansas), but never broke nationally.
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Thu 26 Sep 02 14:55
Though hardly unsung, Donovan is rightfully positioned toward the head of the folk-rock class in your book. Many rock critics, however, have tended to under-value if not outright dismiss Donovan as a major artist. Why do you think he has often not received proper recognition?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Thu 26 Sep 02 17:37
In rock criticism, there's often a bias toward the realistic and the hard-nosed, rather than the idealistic and the tender-hearted. The Velvet Underground are always going to get championed by critics because they delved into decadence, sex, and drugs with abrasive volume on much (though by no means all) of their material. Musicians like Donovan, who have a kind of glass-half-full approach and frequently delve into mythology, fairy tales, children's songs, nursery rhymes, and such are often put down as pie-eyed hippies, or sappy old farts who are irrelevant at best and need to be assassinated at worst. As for myself, I think there's room for both the Velvet Underground and Donovan. And furthermore, when you bother to investigate the discography of Donovan (and for that matter the Velvet Underground) in depth, you find that the music is much more diverse than is usually acknowledged by black-and-white categorization. Donovan went into some pretty ferociously hard-rocking songs like "Season of the Witch" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man." "Hurdy Gurdy Man" used three future members of Led Zeppelin, and "Sunshine Superman" had lead guitar by Jimmy Page -- hardly the mark of a softie. He also had some rather cynical and cutting lyrics from time to time, as in "Season of the Witch." It's true that he often went into gentle and florid moods that could get twee, and that his albums (with the notable exception of "Sunshine Superman") usually were more uneven than those of the major artists of the era, folk-rock or otherwise. But it's also true that few if any rock musicians were as good at gentle and florid music as Donovan was. "The Fat Angel," "Celeste," "Guinevere," "Three King Fishers," all from "Sunshine Superman" alone, are good examples of this, as are more well-known subsequent hits like "Mellow Yellow," "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," and "Jennifer Juniper." His voice and phrasing sound like no one else's, and he's an excellent guitar player. (In the 1965 British Dylan tour documentary "Don't Look Back," Alan Price of the Animals tells Dylan that Donovan's guitar playing is better than Dylan's, on-screen.) In Britain especially, Donovan's reputation has suffered because he's still, unbelievably, often dismissed as a Dylan imitator. Donovan was only similar to Dylan, however, for about one year (1965), or about two albums, before moving fully into electric music and establishing his own vision. Even his 1965 recordings ("Catch the Wind" is the most famous one) are not Dylan clones -- in my opinion Donovan's early work was already more melodic than Dylan's, and espousing his own somewhat more humanistic vision. As Donovan put it to me, Dylan sounded like Woody Guthrie for five minutes, and Donovan sounded like Dylan for five minutes. But the image of Donovan playing an early pleasant lightweight song in a hotel room scene "Don't Look Back," followed by Dylan playing "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," is often seized upon by sweeping historians as a capsule illustration of a pretender to the throne being shut down by the king. It should also be borne in mind that when this semi-duel occurred before the cameras, Donovan was just 18, and Dylan five years older. When Dylan was 18, he wasn't even a recording artist. He was still struggling to put over traditional folk songs in coffeehouses. It's not fair to compare them on the basis of this scene, and it could actually be argued that Donovan was considerably ahead of where Dylan had been at the age of 18. As Donovan also emphasizes in the book, he was almost alone among UK folkies in his eagerness to embrace electric instruments and expand his arrangements in the mid-1960s. This was an openness not just to the basic combination of folk and rock, but also an openness in general to all kinds of influences from jazz, classical, Indian music, beatnik poetry, and spiritual pursuits. He was seen as something of a pop sellout by folk purists, and because he was so anamolous, he was perhaps at the time and subsequently not given enough credit by either the folk or the pop world, neither of which could fully claim him as their own. Incidentally, one of the most frequent comments I've gotten since the book has come out is readers thanking me for giving Donovan so much positive coverage in the book. Numerous musicians I interviewed praised him as well. There are a lot of closet Donovan fans out there, and they're not all old wide-eyed hippies, far from it.
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Fri 27 Sep 02 06:32
What an excellent discourse on Donovan, Richie. Your book does, indeed, give him his well-earned due. His music has been in rotation on my turntable (then CD changer) since the '60s. I can hear "Celeste" in my mental jukebox right now. In advance of the parting of the curtain on this topic (cut to David and Jon backstage yanking on a knotted and gnarled rope)... a two-part question ... what inspired you to become a music journalist/book author? And what led you to folk-rock as a musical point of focus?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 27 Sep 02 10:35
My road to music journalism started, I suppose, like many writers, way back when I was a childhood fan. In college I started to move from being just a fan to getting closer to the music in media as a college radio programmer/announcer. Then I began reviewing records, which led to a position as an editor of Option magazine from 1985 to 1991, which covered independent/alternative music of all kinds. I've been reviewing many records and writing bios for the All Music Guide for almost ten years, but there was coming a time when reviewing endless numbers of records wasn't enough. I wanted to get closer to the stories behind the music and the musicians, and to be able to tell stories that were more complex and multilayered than a record review or essay or short article could allow. That led me to begin writing books in the mid-1990s, which allowed me to interview several hundred musicians. That to me has always been the most enjoyable part of the process. For my first few books, I concentrated on chapters on overlooked or "cult" rock musicians, which gave me the chance to talk to people whose stories had either rarely been told or hadn't often been told properly. That was in itself very exciting, but as often happens the further along a writer's career process gets, the self-actualization process began to kick in. Around late 1998 I began thinking of doing a book that told a whole story, rather than collecting pieces I'd written on individual artists and bands. Also I wanted to weave in some social, political, and popular culture history into whatever story I told as well. The history of 1960s folk-rock seemed an ideal combination for that purpose: a style in which two streams came together to form something new, shaped by social forces of which the musicians were sometimes barely conscious, and also resulting in a music that in turn helped shape the times (and helped shape music and culture over the next few decades). But to be honest, that wasn't even the #1 reason for selecting the topic. What motivated me more than anything was that I love the music, was intrigued by how it developed so suddenly and so explosively, and wanted to find out myself exactly how it happened, as no other book to my knowledge had done that. Another consideration was that folk-rock, unlike many styles of music, is one that never goes stale for me. There are so many different tributaries to follow, so many rich divergences, that it's hard to exhaust. And I knew I'd be working on the book for a few years, so it was important to me that I'd be able to maintain my enthusiasm the whole way through and not get tired of it. And I didn't, even though the book ended up being two 300-page books. And finally, I was eager to broaden my writing and hopefully my audience to include music and musicians that had an impact on the mainstream, rather than just the cult fringes. It's been important for me to expose underrated and neglected artists, but it doesn't mean I don't revere some major stars as being the most important innovators of all. In "Turn! Turn! Turn!," I was able to, I hope, shed some new light on the evolution of Dylan, the Byrds, Donovan, the Mamas & the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, and such well-known groups, at the same time illustrating how other semi-forgotten artists like Fred Neil and Richard & Mimi Farina were innovative and influential as well. It's been the ideal mating of investigating some little-known history of major figures, and bringing some history of little-known figures to a more mainstream treatment. Being able to interview nearly 150 people of the course of the book, some of them of far greater renown than I'd ever interviewed before (Roger McGuinn, Donovan, John Sebastian, Judy Collins), was quite a kick as well.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 27 Sep 02 13:12
I can't wait to get my hands on this book, Richie. Thanks for taking the time and great effort to put it together. Was it Donovan himself in "Don't Look Back" who calls Dylan, to Dylan's face, "just a big noise"? (Dylan's reply was something like: "Yeah, but I'm a bigger noise than you.") And... Fascinating info about "Hurdy Gurdy Man." I've never understand why that remarkable record isn't more highly regarded. It kills.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 27 Sep 02 13:24
Agree absolutely, and looking forward to this whole discussion! Funny, though, I can think of overtly folksy Donovan tunes, but I never thought of him in that camp at the time. Unlike those who I'd thought of as Brit folk rockers, such as Fairport Convention. Donovan was a sort of magical soft rock to me more than a body of work I associated with "folk." I wonder, do you think the music endures better than the label has?
like trying to breathe cream of wheat directly from the blurping vat (sd) Fri 27 Sep 02 16:22
Hi Richie, good to see you here! I was going to remind you of the old Lost Music Network/OP days pre Option. I've enjoyed your writing since then and try to keep an eye out for other writers from the period (Calvin Johnson, Steve Fisk, etc. etc.) Speaking of Electra, where do you place Koerner, Ray and Glover in all of this? I'm still amazed by them all these years later. best, alanpthornton
John Ross (johnross) Fri 27 Sep 02 17:15
Brian Pearson (English folksinger associated with MacColl's Critics Group) once told me that he was a regular at the same folk club (in St. Albans?) as Donovan. "When Donovan got up to sing, that was usually a signal for a lot of people to leave the room and get another pint from the bar". Which suggests that he was not particularly respected by the hardcore folkies. I have had the sense that the presence of the record companies with serious distribution, like Vanguard and Elektra somehow made the New York folk scene (and to a lesser degree, Cambridge) much more visible than similar scenes in other places. There was lots happening in places like Chicago, Montreal and the Bay Area, but it took a lot longer for those folks to become widely known. A couple of questions for Richie: I've always thought Judy Collins' recording of "I'll Keep it With Mine" was an important transition between the more folk-style sound of her "#3", "In Concert" and "Fifth Album", and the art-song shtick that she moved into with "In My Life". Why hasn't that track ever been released, except as a DJ-only 45? You talk about the Elektra "What's Shakin" album in the book. Because it was on Elektra, I remember playing in on the radio a lot more than we would have if it had been on, say, RCA or Epic. Did Holzman et al expect it to be a turning point toward making Elektra a serious Rock label, or was it just an effort to cash in on a bunch of old tracks by people who became important on other labels (like the Lovin Spoonful and eric Clapton)? You might go into this more in the second book, but I think you understate the importance of the separate-but-parallel folk revival that was happening in Britain at the same time--the earlier skiffle fad was hugely important, as was the impact of peple like Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. Didn't they have an impact on the first wave of American folk-rock?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 28 Sep 02 00:32
Here are answers for the above questions, a paragraph at a time. It was *not* Donovan who calls Dylan "a big noise" in "Don't Look Back." That was an unidentified (to my knowledge, anyway) drunken-looking guy at a party in Dylan's hotel. It follows a dispute about who threw a glass out a window, which prompted complaints from the hotel. I don't have a copy of "Don't Look Back" handy (I rented it several times when doing the book), but according to one of my books Dylan's reply was "I know it, man -- I *know* I'm a big noise." This *is* the party where Donovan sings "To Sing For You" followed by Dylan singing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," but Donovan doesn't argue with Dylan in the film, and it's pretty hard to imagine Donovan being that obnoxious, then or now. Gail, if your question is whether actual folk-rock music has endured better than the label "folk-rock," I'd say yes. Many people don't think of Dylan, Donovan, etc. as "folk-rock" anymore, and just think of them as singer-songwriters or as musicians. The term folk-rock isn't applied nearly as much in the mainstream media now as it was in the 1960s, though people still listen to and appreciate its originators. But back then it *was* frequently applied, particularly in 1965 and 1966, and the general liberal application of the term "folk-rock" to music that prominently mixes elements of folk and rock still has some meaning, more so to such music of the 1960s than such music of subsequent decades. Koerner, Ray and Glover were notable 1960s folk performers in their execution of energetic White folk-blues. But I just don't hear "rock" in their recordings, and don't see them as too influential on folk-rock musicians. I drew a definite line in the book at not including in-depth coverage of notable '60s folk musicians who didn't do or barely did any folk-rock, except sometimes to note particularly important direct influences they had on folk-rock (as Pete Seeger did by writing "Turn! Turn! Turn!" itself). Except for one chapter on the roots of folk-rock in the early-'60s folk revival, it's a book about electric folk-rock music, not about '60s folk music or equally about '60s folk music and '60s folk-rock. Judy Collins had this to say to me about "I'll Keep It With Mine" (only a small part of the quote is used in the book): "I'll tell you that I seriously, I listened to everything when I put together the *Forever* compilation for Elektra. I really listened to everything, and I listened to that. And you know, it's just not very good, honestly. It's just not very good. We never put it on an album because we didn't think it was very good. I put up with a lot, you know, you put up with a lot when you go back and listen to things. And the truth of the matter is that I don't think there's anything in my archives at Elektra that was unplaced, that was an orphan, so to speak. Because we picked -- I picked all the songs, and I recorded them, and we put them on the albums. We didn't do things we didn't like, and we didn't do things we weren't sure of. And that's the one exception to the rule. I just don't like it. I mean, I like the idea. I love the idea that he said, at least said to me, that he wrote the song for me. Then he told Joanie Baez that he wrote it for her. And then there was some talk about that, as to who did what. Of course, he says, in his bootleg tape album, and also his retrospective album, that he wrote the song for me. "It's not a very good song, particularly. Certainly not a Dylan song that lives up to its name. It doesn't really go anywhere, the lyric's kind of (laughs) flat, and the singing is very flat. So I don't like it. I know that it's around, people tell me about it. But there's a very good reason that it never made it onto an album. And believe me, if I had thought it had any legs whatsoever, or that I could live with it, I would've put it on that compilation. Because, you know, it's a good talking point, and people get excited. A new album, a new song by Bobby that nobody's ever heard, or nobody's heard in a long time. But it's not very good." So basically, it hasn't been reissued because she doesn't like the track. I didn't ask Jac Holzman about "What's Shakin'," which was released right around the time Elektra put out its first real wall-to-wall electric rock album (Love's first album) in 1966; "What's Shakin'"'s catalog # is the one right after "Love." You could email Jac directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, an address that he gives on the website of his autobiography, "Follow the Music" (www.followthemusic.com). I do get into the British '60s folk revival more in my second volume, because it flowed better to group a bigger discussion of it in the chapter where I start to discuss the wave of post-Donovan British folk-rock musicians who started to emerge and record around 1966-67: the Incredible String Band, the Pentangle, Fairport Convention. But, I *don't* think it was all that influential on the first wave of American folk-rock in the mid-1960s. The influence of skiffle was felt mostly in how skiffle helped lead to British Invasion groups like the Beatles, but the Beatles sounded far different from skiffle music by the time they became popular in America and influenced young acoustic folk musicians like the future members of the Byrds. Martin Carthy's influence on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon is noted in the book. But to go back to my earlier point when talking about Koerner, Ray and Glover, he did *not* play folk-rock (until the early 1970s with Steeleye Span, at least), and he wasn't too well known in the States or influential upon first-generation American folk-rockers. His influence on later British folk-rockers like Fairport Convention was substantial and is noted in the second volume, though again Carthy himself didn't do folk-rock in the 1960s, so the coverage of his own work is not in- depth. Bert Jansch really wasn't too well known in the States prior to the late 1960s, though Neil Young has cited him as a big influence, as did Donovan (who covered some of his material and was inspired to write original songs with Jansch references with "Bert's Blues" and "House of Jansch"). Jansch is covered far more in the second volume, mostly in relation to the group Pentangle, of which of course he was a key member.
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Sat 28 Sep 02 04:56
The regional aspects of folk-rock are covered extensively in your book, with New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco emerging as the primary U.S. centers of growth. In your view, what where some of the particular characteristics that differentiated the folk-rock scenes? And what did they share?
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Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 28 Sep 02 09:58
Many musicians traveled back and forth between New York and California as they were getting established, so it's harder to separate the two scenes than it might appear. The Mamas & the Papas tell that story in "Creeque Alley," where they sing about coming back to New York after forming in the Virgin Islands, to find that friends like Roger McGuinn and Barry McGuire who used to spend time in Greenwich Village have made it in L.A. (and of course the Mamas themselves soon followed them to L.A.). Generally, though, New York folk-rock emphasized solo singer-songwriters considerably more than Los Angeles folk-rock, which emphasized groups. There really weren't that many notable New York folk-rock groups, the most important exception naturally being the Lovin' Spoonful. There were also the Fugs, whose folk roots weren't quite as extensive as the Lovin' Spoonful; the Blues Project, who only went into folk-rock rather than blues-rock once in a while; and the Youngbloods, who emerged a little after the Lovin' Spoonful, who also spent a lot of time on the Cambridge scene, and who moved to San Francisco not far into their recording career. Session musicians were important to both New York and Los Angeles folk-rock. But generally the approach and attitude of session musicians and production was a little staider in New York, and looser and more comfortable with rock in Los Angeles. New York session musicians were more old-school, and that's one of the reasons you find so many of the same people -- Al Kooper, Bruce Langhorne, Harvey Brooks -- showing up on so many of the early New York folk-rock recordings, by Dylan and others. It wasn't easy to find relatively young (very young, as in the case of Al Kooper and some others) and sympathetic musicians who could support this new music. As producer/manager Arthur Gorson (who worked with Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, Jim & Jean, David Blue, and others) says in the book, "We knew the people who played with Dylan, because they were around the same scene. We didn't know anyone else. *We* were the only people we knew!" In L.A., by contrast, there were A-team session musicians like Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborne, and Earl Palmer who had the same level of professionalism as their New York counterparts, but were looser and more adaptable to any style, including folk-rock. Earl Palmer might be most known for playing New Orleans R&B and rock, as he did with Little Richard, but he's actually the drummer on the very first single by the Byrds -- not "Mr. Tambourine Man," but the one that McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark did for Elektra before that as the Beefeaters. Palmer also plays drums on Judy Henske's 1963 recording "High Flying Bird," which as noted in an earlier question was about as close as anyone came to folk-rock prior to 1964. The Byrds, incidentally, did use top L.A. session men including Leon Russell and Hal Blaine on "Mr. Tambourine Man," though McGuinn played the 12-string guitar (could it have been anyone else?). There's no evidence, however, that session men comprised the group on anything but the Byrds' first single, and the group has to continue to fend off accusations that they didn't play on their subsequent records to this day. Getting more into some stylistic differences between New York and L.A. folk-rock, generally New York folk-rock had a lot more introspection, topicality, and angst, while Los Angeles folk-rock was kind of sunnier, more into expressions of personal joy and liberation, a little more melodic, and more tied into instrumental virtuosity and interplay (which in turn ties into the different session players some artists used). Those are over-generalizations with many exceptions, of course, but generally you see those tendencies often. There were a couple of quotes about this from industry figures in the book that comment on the East-West Coast differences. Jac Holzman, president of Elektra Records, said, "California in that period was a hangin'-out place. People would just get together, coagulate into a group. The social scene was extremely flexible and flowing. People were in and out of bands day by day. Everybody was up at everybody's house. It was a very special dynamic that was going on, that New York was conducitve to. You don't sort of lie out under the stars in New York, get loaded, pass the guitar around, smoke a joint, do harmonies. That doesn't happen in New York that easily. But it sure happened in L.A." Michael Ochs, manager of his brother Phil Ochs and now a major archivist of rock photos and recordings, said this: "Most of the record companies were based in the east, so I think the West Coast was more experimental. I think the Byrds wouldn't have been able to record as well as they did as soon if they were on the east. There were no traditions, there were no limitations as far as, 'Well, this is not done.' It was a much more open scene, and definitely slicker, because the West Coast is much more teen-oriented. The East Coast is a little more staid." I'm not commenting so much on the differences in the San Francisco folk-rock scene because that emerged as a folk-rock center a little later, and a more briefly, than NYC or LA did. Also it emerged just a little too late to be covered in "Turn! Turn! Turn!," although the contributions of SF acts the Beau Brummels and the We Five are noted; it'll be covered much more thoroughly in the sequel "Eight Miles High," in the first chapter in fact. But generally, San Francisco folk-rock had a yet looser and more freewheeling vibe, I think in part because unlike NYC or LA it wasn't a major recording center. It might be hard to conceive of today, when the San Francisco area's best recording studios are as state-of-the-art as any, but back in 1965 it was still the provinces as far as the industry went. Even after San Francisco folk-rock and folk-rock-influenced groups like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, and Big Brother emerged, they actually often did little or no recording in San Francisco; the Airplane recorded in LA and didn't record in SF until "Volunteers" in 1969. So musicians were, at least at the very beginning of the summer of Love, out of the major media eye and recording center, and developed their music in a manner less concerned with making it and following trends. Stylistically, over-generalizing again, San Francisco folk-rock had a more bittersweet melodic flavor, alternating major and minor modes very skillfully, and also conjuring some very pleasing dissonances in the harmonies, as oxymoronic as "pleasing dissonances" might sound. You hear this in the male-female harmonic blends of Jefferson Airplane (particularly between Marty Balin and Grace Slick), certainly, and also in such relatively unknown acts like Blackburn & Snow, who only did a couple of singles, but were in my opinion, along with the Blue Things, the best obscure folk-rock act of the 1960s. (A 20-track Blackburn & Snow CD, filled out with a lot of unreleased material, is now available.) In addition, and again I get into this a lot in "Eight Miles High," the transition from folk to folk-rock to folk-rock-influenced psychedelia was more rapid in San Francisco than anywhere else. Drugs had a lot to do with that, of course, but so did the city's unique social climate at the time and the musicians' countercultural open-mindedness to new ideas. They rapidly assimilated ideas from jazz improvisation and Indian-influenced music to create something different from folk-rock, even if it was psychedelic music that often had a folk-rock base. It's not often mentioned, but most of the major San Francisco psychedelic rock bands -- the Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, the Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service -- were in part or largely comprised of ex-folkies, who went into psychedelic music very quickly after going through brief folk-rock phases, sometimes making folk-rock a big part of their music initially (Jefferson Airplane), sometimes just showing some hints of it in their early repertoire (Big Brother, Quicksilver). There were also minor San Francisco Bay Area bands that made similar transitions, like the Charlatans and Mad River.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sat 28 Sep 02 13:17
Richie, thanks for clearing up the Donovan question in the "Don't Look Back" documentary. The "big noise" guy had the same dark curly hair as Donovan. This has all been terribly fascinating. We're all interested here, of course, in the subject you address in "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Eight Miles High," but I'm wondering how you pitched the books for prospective publishers. Did the success of "Positively 4th Street" by David Hajdu help your cause? (Well, I don't know if the Hajdu book is considered a success by a publishers' standard.) Are the books you delivered the ones you pitched? If not, what were the changes in approach, and how were they decided?
tambourine verde (barb-albq) Sat 28 Sep 02 13:23
Excellent discussion. It made me remember a picture of Donovan I used to have on my bedroom wall as a teen. It was from some Brit music magazine and featured Donovan, looking about 10 years old, wearing his all-denim outfit, including working man cap, and holding a beat up acoustic with a sticker on it saying "This machine kills." As discussed, he rather quickly morphed into the psychedelic dream guy as he left behind the folky facade in favor of much more adventurous music. I'm among that bunch who think his music and contributions are very underrated. I was unaware of Zep member particpation on the Hurdy Gurdy era recordings. Thanks for that. And I must read the book...
Dave Zimmer (zimmerdave) Sat 28 Sep 02 13:27
>Blackburn & Snow, who only did a couple of singles, but were in my opinion, along with the Blue Things, the best obscure folk-rock act of the 1960s. >A 20-track Blackburn & Snow CD, filled out with a lot of unreleased material, is now available. A Blackburn & Snow CD exists? I'll definitely have to check that out. I had a chance to get to know Jeff Blackburn in the summer of 1977 when he was playing with Neil Young in a Santa Cruz bar band called The Ducks. Blackburn's music, at that time, was funky "country roll." I must admit I've never heard a track by Blackburn & Snow. What was their sound like?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sat 28 Sep 02 13:30
>>>Stylistically, over-generalizing again, San Francisco folk-rock had a more bittersweet melodic flavor, alternating major and minor modes very skillfully, and also conjuring some very pleasing dissonances in the harmonies, as oxymoronic as "pleasing dissonances" might sound. You hear this in the male-female harmonic blends of Jefferson Airplane (particularly between Marty Balin and Grace Slick)...<<< I remember reading, years ago, comments by Marty Balin about why he and the Airplane's original singer, Signe Anderson, chose to harmonize in fifths rather than in the more traditional (and certainly more traditional folk) thirds, but I cannot remember now the reason, alas. In any event the singing-in-fifths continued with Slick, though I think across rock history it's a pretty unusual male-female harmony choice. (I might've read his comments in "The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound," the book by the late Ralph J. Gleason, long out of print, though I've got a copy upstairs and I guess I could look this up.)
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