Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 19 Sep 03 15:46
Whether Dylan wanted to be a rock star as badly as a poet or spokesman I can't say for sure, but I think he definitely wanted to be a rock star, or perhaps more precisely a pop superstar. The same for a lot of others, perhaps most, who were in folk-rock at the time: the Byrds, the Lovin' Spoonful, Paul Simon, the list goes on. Even Phil Ochs, who some might view as the folk musician (and eventually folk-rock musician) with the greatest social conscience and integrity of all, craved stardom; at least, that's the impression given by reading his biographies. Steve Boone of the Lovin' Spoonful put a frank light on his aspirations when he talked with me about why the group decided to go with Kama Sutra records rather than Elektra, a small label with much greater credibility among folkies: "[Elektra founder/president] Jac Holzman, obviously, was a friend of John's [John Sebastian's] and Zally's [Zal Yanovsky's] and Erik's [Spoonful producer Erik Jacobsen], and they were all known to each other as folkies. I had a lot of respect for the Elektra label, just because of the artists that I knew to be on it at the time. But we as a group, and our management and production, all agreed that going with Jac Holzman and Elektra was risky in that we wanted to be clearly identified as a rock band. We wanted the benefits of being on Dick Clark, we wanted to be in Teen Beat magazine, we wanted to ride around in limousines and act like rock stars. We really felt that Elektra would be a label that would deliver the quality that we were looking for, [but] couldn't deliver the oomph in the rock and roll department." What's remarkable to me is that so much folk-rock music -- not all of it by any means, but a lot of it -- was so commercial, yet of such high quality, without much in the way of obvious commercial compromise of what the musicians wanted to do artistically. It would have been easy for a lot of them to sell out or milk formula until they faded away, but they often took chances, sometimes paying off in sales too, sometimes not. With the Byrds, for instance, it might have been an easy way out to just keep recording Dylan and Seeger covers until the public tired of it. Instead, they came up with "Eight Miles High," which besides being self-penned instead of a cover, was radically different from anything they or anyone else had done. As Mamas & the Papas producer Lou Adler pointed out to me when I spoke to him, we should be wary of using the term "commercial" as a synonym for a certain style of music, or to connote whether something's good or not. "I don't think I thought commercial or non-commercial," he told me. "I was just making records. They either were commercial if they sold, and they were non-commercial if they didn't...I don't know the difference in commercial folk and non-commercial folk. Once again, it sold or it didn't sell. "
John Ross (johnross) Fri 19 Sep 03 22:18
Richie, I'm not sure your description of the roots of is entirely on target. While it's true that much of the English tradition is unaccompanied, there was plenty of instrumental music in the folk clubs. The scots and the Irish were big on jigs and reels, and there's a lively English insitrumental tradition that goes along with Morris dancers. And there's certainly a lot of that kind of dance music in the sound of Fairport after they shifted away from American material. And as you say, there's also a much bigger jazz influence on the likes of Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. Their American parallels, such as Sandy Bull and John Fahey were far less significant in the evolution of folk rrock. And how about the skiffle fad of the fifties? Seems like it was an important precursor. And it was one of the reasons that Lomax and MacColl went looking for truly English repertoire. They even made a strange skiffle record (Alan Lomax and the Ramblers) with English songs rather than the usual American stuff. I haven't found a copy, but there's a track on the great Electric Muse set of LPs. I've never figured out how much of a purist Ewan MacColl really was. Certainly the whole "policy club" controversy that said singers had to do songs from their own country was a political effort to create awareness of English and Scots songs, but I don't think he objected to instrumental music, even when electrified, in other context. And the one time I talk to him about his daughter Kirsty's singing as a solo act and with the Pogues, he was quite approving. He and Peggy were very supportive of political singer-songwriters, and distributed many good songs through their New City Songsters.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Fri 19 Sep 03 23:05
I found some conflicting assessments of British folk "purism," both in print and in talking to performers and journalists. But, for what it's worth, I did get these comments from prominent figures in British folk-rock, Joe Boyd (who though American as noted produced Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, and Nick Drake), and Robin Williamson: Boyd: "The British folk tradition is not an instrumental tradition. It?s primarily an unaccompanied tradition. The folk scene that I found in Britain when I arrived in 1964, if you went into a pub on a folk night, I would say that 90% percent of the music that you heard was unaccompanied. It was either solo unaccompanied, or harmony unaccompanied. The stars of that scene were Louis Killen, Anne Briggs, the Watersons, that kind of thing. The Ian Campbell Folk Group, with [future Fairport Convention member Dave] Swarbrick on violin, was considered a sellout. "This tradition never really existed in America, of unaccompanied singing. It just wasn?t something that people really did much. If you had a field holler on an old Lomax recording, that was only because they were in prison and couldn?t get out their guitars. [In Britain], the idea of singing with accompaniment was already, in and of itself, untraditional. People who were interested in tradition accepted the likes of Dylan and Phil Ochs because there was a political edge that they responded to, and because it was America, therefore it was natural. The authentic American performance was Woody Guthrie: a guy with a guitar, or a guy with a banjo. But in Britain, [unaccompanied singers] Jeannie Robertson, the Young Tradition, the Copper Family, Shirley Collins: that was authenticity, this was all the real stuff. So therefore, the presence of instruments just in and of themselves takes it away from authenticity. In America, everybody was used to seeing Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, and instrumental virtuosity. It was recognized and very authentic. From there, there wasn?t such a big leap to electric guitar." Robin Williamson, in a much briefer comment on Ewan MacColl: "[MacColl] didn't approve of using instruments." It's difficult to compare the influence of Davy Graham and Bert Jansch with Sandy Bull and John Fahey. I think it's definitely true that Graham and Jansch influenced *British* folk-rock far more than Bull and Fahey influenced *American* folk-rock, though Bull and Fahey were cited to me as influences by a couple of the American figures who moved into folk-rock-psychedelia. Graham-Jansch's influence on American folk-rock, however, was small. Graham was virtually unknown in North America, though he was certainly known to Paul Simon, and Jansch was much less known in North America than the UK, though he did have some big fans in North America, such as Neil Young. John Renbourn (who played with Jansch in Pentangle) did express his admiration of Sandy Bull to me, as "about the only American player I can think of who was doing comparable stuff" to Graham and Jansch. While the skiffle music of the 1950s was an interesting precursor of sorts to the blending of folk and rock, I don't hear it as a huge influence on folk-rock in the form it actually took in the 1960s. Many teenagers who played skiffle in the 1950s went on to form rock groups (like the Beatles), but they didn't retain too many folk roots after they went electric, being far more influenced by American electric rock'n'roll, R&B, and blues. As for people who'd been in skiffle that went into less commercial music than the British Invasion bands, I'd agree with the estimation of British critic Pete Frame (most noted for his Rock Family Trees series of books), who told me that it "went two ways. Some went into rhythm and blues, like Alexis Korner, who'd been in skiffle, and some went into traditional English folk music." It took a quite a while between the demise of skiffle and the rise of the first British folk-rock performers, and the form that British folk-rock took wasn't very similar to skiffle. So I don't see skiffle as that direct an ancestor of '60s folk-rock, also considering that the songs in the skiffle repertoire were less diverse and original to my ears, and made far less use of electric instruments and full, varied band arrangements and studio production. That's my take, but I did try to represent some different shades of opinion. John Renbourn's view of skiffle sees it as more similar to what became called folk-rock: "[folk-rock] appeared old hat when it did arrive. The folk scene in England had been preceded by skiffle and also R&B, so when electrified folk appeared it wasn?t anything amazing. In fact it was a step back. Even in skiffle the bands were playing with a straight beat, and later on Lonnie Donegan had Les Bennetts on electric guitar."
Berliner (captward) Sat 20 Sep 03 02:13
There is, however, an instrumental tradition in English folk, which Liza Carthy and all are doing their best to remind people of. Possibly one reason those folkies rejected instrumental music was that it was in part tied to morris dancing, which was considered embarrassingly old-fashioned and retrograde, and in any event, as in America, a large part of the British folk revival was tied up in the anti-nuclear campaign after the first Aldermaston march, and thus lyrics were paramount in the esthetic. One thing I was wondering about was the folkies who *didn't* make such an easy transition to folk-rock, or didn't make one at all. I'm thinking of people like Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, and even to some extent Phil Ochs, whose folk-rockish attempts always seemed fairly forced to me. Why do you suppose it was so hard for these people?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 07:59
It's hard to pinpoint common factors among artists such as the ones you mention that didn't make such an easy transition to folk-rock; I'd add Joan Baez to the list. Part of it seems to be less comfort in working with other musicians, or just not being so much in their nature to rock out (at least some of the time) as it might have come to other solo artists like Dylan and Donovan. Also, even when these musicians were moving into folk-rock on their records, often they were still playing solo acoustic sets live, whether because they were more comfortable continuing to play live that way or they couldn't afford to take a band on the road. As you can hear on the posthumous Phil Ochs "Live in Vancouver 1968" release, he was still performing solo acoustic much as he had on 1966's "In Concert" album, even though many of the songs he was presenting had been or would be released in folk-rock arrangements on studio albums. I think Ochs undoubtedly *wanted* to adapt to folk-rock and orchestral arrangements well, but that doesn't mean he and his material were always well-suited to do so. I like Ochs's folk-rockish records more than Ed, but definitely find them uneven. While Dylan is legendary for his strange, oblique way of communicating to his backup musicians both live and in the studio, he just seemed to have the temperament, more extroverted and daring perhaps, to make it work when he did rock. His greater facility can't be attributed to his touring with electric bands, really; he'd recorded the electric side of "Bringing It All Back Home" and the "Like a Rolling Stone" single in the studio before he went electric onstage at Newport. Some different factors affect every case, and to briefly go through the names you mention, Paxton seems to me just to be way more comfortable as a storytelling solo singer than a frontman for rock arrangements. He admitted to me, "I never really got very interested in electric guitars or anything like that. It just wasn't what my sensibility was, that's all." I think Andersen's transition to folk-rock was impeded a little by Vanguard Records' decision to make his third album an electric version of his second album, using exactly the same songs. "The original album hadn't been released in Europe, so they were gonna release this one instead," Andersen told me. "Then it got released everywhere, and it got totally confusing. They just got greedy. They thought they could make money." While I'm not a huge Tom Rush fan, I think he was better at the transition than the other figures you mentioned, though to some degree his way was to do some white R&B (on one side of "Take a Little Walk With Me") and then orchestrated folk (on "Circle Game") rather than take the more usual route to blending folk and electric rock. With Phil Ochs, with the exception of an obscure 1966 single with an electric version of "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" (with backing by the Blues Project), he made a delayed entry into folk-rock, in part because he didn't record for much of 1966 and 1967 as he left Elektra Records and settled a new contract with A&M. According to his brother/manager Michael Ochs, Phil Ochs wasn't just thinking of mixing folk and rock: "When I took over managing him in ?67, he wanted to make his Sgt. Pepper album. Having grown up in the movie theaters, he wanted to make Pleasures of the Harbor the John Wayne movie Long Voyage Home. He wanted to do it full orchestral. When he wrote songs like Pleasures of the Harbor and Crucifixion, he wanted to do more with the songs. He wasn?t, like, thinking about going into folk-rock. He wanted to be the Beatles. He wanted to be mixing every form of music, from classical to Hollywood-type to rock to you-name-it." I think his ambitions might have been a little too grandoise, particularly for someone who until that point had only recorded with acoustic guitar. When the orchestral arrangements worked for Ochs, I actually quite liked them. But there were other instances where they were too busy or ornate, and even on some of his conventional folk-rock, it sometimes had a flat L.A. session musician feel. His studio version of "Crucifixion," with musique concrete-like backing, is the song usually held up by fans and critics as the composition that was most inappropriately smothered by an unsympathetic arrangement. As a side issue, I've found out a bit puzzling that some figures who made a very good transition to electric folk-rock on record continued to emphasize folk acoustic arrangements live. Donovan never had nearly as full a sound live as he did on his records, and on some live sets of his in the late '60s that I've heard, the whole thing's solo acoustic, even rocking hits like "Sunshine Superman" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Simon & Garfunkel usually (though not always) played acoustically live, though their records had very ambitious (and in my view successful) folk-rock and orchestral arrangements. Yes, it would have been much more expensive for Donovan and S&G to re-create their studio arrangements in concert than it was for them to just bring an acoustic guitar. But in both of their cases, they were so successful in the late 1960s that it seems like they could have afforded a good backup band if they wanted one.
John Ross (johnross) Sat 20 Sep 03 08:59
The Boyd line that the British tradition is not an instrumental one inspired my earlier post. I don't agree. It's accurate to say that there's a tradition of unaccompnaied singing that essentially didn't exist (outside of some of the southern mountain singers) in North America, but that's not the same as saying that there wasn't also an instrumental tradition. In the notes to the Electric Muse collection, Karl Dallas says that the Young Tradition were unaccompanied folk rockers (I'm quoting from memory, so I may not have that verbatim). I don't think they ever got out of the folk club ghetto in the UK or the festivals-and-coffee houses circuit in the US, but that may have been a matter of timing. Certainly Royston Wood was involved in a bunch of later folk rock things, while Peter Bellamy moved back to traditional material and presentation. Do you have any thoughts about YT?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 09:37
I don't hear the Young Tradition as folk rockers; more as an influence on British folk-rock, perhaps. Particularly on their early records (which were solely vocal, without any instrumental accompaniment at all), I don't hear any rock influence at all. But you can hear their influence -- which to me sounded rather gothic-medieval in feel -- on some British folk-rock harmonies, especially Pentangle's "Lyke-Wake Dirge" (which had been recorded a little earlier by the Young Tradition). To bring up one of Ed's favorite UK music critics again, Ian Anderson had a different take on the Young Tradition than Karl Dallas; when I talked with him, he didn't see the Young Tradition as part of the folk-rock scene, calling them a "hard-line traditional harmony singing group." Arlo Guthrie told me he loved the Young Tradition dearly, though I don't hear their influence in his music. Another surprising mention of the Young Tradition came in my interview with Dave Cousins of the Strawbs, who said that the Strawbs' late-'60s song "Where Is This Dream of Your Youth," which has Young Tradition-like harmonies, written as a possible single for the Young Tradition, as "I was trying to write them a pop song." That would have been interesting to hear.
Berliner (captward) Sat 20 Sep 03 09:58
One of the very few times I'd agree with the vile Mr. Anderson. Speaking of sung works, you talk some about the way folk-rock inspired a higher quality of lyrics in pop music, mentioning people like Ed Sanders (who was a published poet and a scholar of no mean ambition) and Pete Brown in England (lyricist for Cream). But wasn't this merely an outgrowth of Dylan's abstract lyrics, which showed you could do it and people would accept it? Certainly (although I can't think of any examples off the top of my head) there were plenty of second-raters out there stringing words together in the hopes that someone else would get it. In the end, most of these "literary" lyricists didn't get very far: Sanders is far more effective as a poet and prose stylist, and Brown's Piblokto! band fell straight on its face (as well it should have, as I remember from listening to the album). Weren't people who were writing good *song* lyrics ultimately more successful, commercially and esthetically, than the "poets?"
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 10:59
When folk-rock inspired a higher quality of lyrics in pop music, I don't think by any means that it was solely because it inspired people who were also poets to move into rock songwriting. Actually, the great majority of good folk-rock (and overall rock) lyricists were figures who did no or very little published prose poetry, before or after the start of their recording careers. I think the increased sophistication of rock lyrics, instigated to a large degree by folk-rock, did allow the entry of some of those poets, but that's more an interesting side branch than the main part of the scene. There are many more instances of non-poetic/literary musicians following Dylan and others into a more ambitious, abstract songwriting than there are of actual poets doing it. As just one example, Arthur Lee of Love published no poetry that I know of during the 1960s, but certainly went into abstract lyric writing that was distinctly different than Dylan's (particularly on Love's classic "Forever Changes" album). Also, though Dylan's influence was immense, I think folk-rock lyricists didn't necessarily have to be abstract to raise the level of words to a higher level. Stephen Stills, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Sandy Denny, Tim Hardin, Paul Simon, and many others all wrote songs that for the most part I would say weren't nearly as abstract as many of Dylan's mid-'60s compositions were, and in some cases were far more direct and literal than abstract. The more common trait as I see it was that they were trying to do something new and more sophisticated with lyrics than had usually been done in pre-folk-rock rock, whether using an abstract flavor or not. Though generally I'd agree with Ed that the people writing good song lyrics were more successful commercial and aesthetically than the "poets" who went into songwriting, there was some very good music written (or co-written) by people with poetic/literary backgrounds. Leonard Cohen's a good example, and I do like much of Ed Sanders's songwriting for the Fugs, though he might be ultimately more remembered for his work as a poet/author. I also like Pete Brown's lyrics for Cream, though his non-Cream stuff wasn't nearly as successful, due in large part to not having nearly as talented musicians as collaborators. I should also mention Richard Farina, who did some very good early folk-rock as part of a duo with his wife Mimi, though he's more known now for his novel "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me." As a side note, often it's turned out that folk-rock songwriters' published poetry and literature isn't nearly as good as their music; I never enjoyed Dylan's prose or poetry, for example. It's pretty rare that someone's comparably talented as a poet/literary figure as they are as a musician/songwriter; perhaps Leonard Cohen comes close. Also, we should remember that Dylan didn't solely do abstract lyrics; there was the more topical songwriting of his early folk days, but also his move to simplicity in the late 1960s and the "Nashville Skyline" days, which in its own way was influential on getting other people in rock to move to a "back-to-basics" or country-rock sound.
Berliner (captward) Sat 20 Sep 03 11:14
Cohen, I think, will likely be remembered as much for his prose and published poetry as for his songwriting. I'm certainly not a fan of it: the only person I want groaning at me in that register is Mathlatini, and he's dead. And nearly every time the rock guys went "literary," they fell flat on their faces. Dylan's one good example (ever read Tarantula?), Jimbo Morrison (speaking of groaning) is another.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 11:47
Speaking of Dylan going literary, I wonder how his upcoming autobiography is going to read. I've heard that it's supposed to be five parts (!). The first installment was supposed to come out a year ago, but nothing appeared. Someone in the business told me that it's done, though I don't know if that means just the first volume is done, or the whole thing is done. And as well as putting Dylan on the list of rock guys who didn't go literary with good results, we might also put him on the list of rock guys who couldn't make good films when they tried to expand in that direction.
Dan Levy (danlevy) Sat 20 Sep 03 12:00
Is there a list of rock guys who *did* make good films?
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 12:53
I guess not. The lists of rock guys who made good or bad films period -- as film writer-directors-conceptualists, rather than as actors, performers, or soundtrack composers -- isn't too long. There have, however, been a few major rock artists other than Dylan who've been involved in disappointing films in which they've taken a strong role on the nonmusical/acting side -- Paul McCartney's "Give My Regards to Broad Street," the Doors' seldom-seen "Feast of Friends," Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon," Neil Young's "Human Highway" and "Journey Through the Past," Paul Simon's "One Trick Pony." In the realm of folk-rock, "Alice's Restaurant" might count as a folk-rock guy (Arlo Guthrie) who did a good film. He didn't direct it or write the screenplay, but it was based, albeit loosely, on his song.
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Sat 20 Sep 03 14:39
Trying to catch up on this topic... As for folk-rockers making movies - the Monkees did very well at it with Head. Easy Rider as well was a folk-rock work... both classics of the era. I think Dylan made the transistion to rock because as a rock music/R&B fan - he got it. Others perhaps made the transistion less gracefully because they just did not have an eclectic twist in their heads, or the tones and moves of R&R rolling through thier impressive years. Isn't another factor the *folk music community* which seems a warmer cozier place than the world of rock somehow. McGuinn seems to have made a transistion from the folk world to the center of eclectic rock cyclone back to the folk world, I admire something about that. Donovan did sort of the same thing. Albeit the tranjectory of their less than perfectly managed careers were also a factor in this. In the end though weren't these people beatniks with a considerably different agenda from the likes of Jagger or Bowie? I suppose their is some element in the background of the poets who made some impression in rock, as in the case of Pete Brown, it was a direct inheritance from jazz poetry jams. Robert Hunter, Pete Sinfield... their have been some talented lyricists with undeniable literary talent in the game. Although why would somebody with a royalty stream from records be motivated to hustle chapbooks, sit through boring poetry readings, and do the petty scramble of trying to compete with the beats who so solidly dominated the spotlight of poetics in the last part of the 20th century. Painting might be a more welcome creative outlet for the diversifying folk-rocker. Unless they were bibliophiles from the beginning it is a bit pretentious. In the end though the most effective poetics of rock seem to me to be more about voodoo and its variants than anything we relate to in the west as being canonically literary. Joyce gets closer to it than Cohen. Folk gets there sometimes. Singers like Baez though I somehow don't exactly relate to epiphany. Fred Niel, yes, Dylan yes, Buffy Saint Marie yeah, Farina, David Crosby and so on. Somehow these folk musicians were likely about something else from the start in their artistic approach, and motivation.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sat 20 Sep 03 15:50
Thanks for your comments Darrell, and a few notes: When I was talking about some rock stars who've made movies, I was limiting myself to ones where the artists actually took a strong role as movie*makers*, and not just actors/performers/soundtrack composers. "Head" was directed by Bob Rafelson and its screenplay written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, though its surreal structure does leave the impression there was room for ad-libbed/improvised contributions from the Monkees themselves. For those wondering, were the Monkees folk-rock? Well, the ties were stronger than might be assumed from their big hits. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork were both ex-folkies, and some of Nesmith's songs for the Monkees strongly anticipate the country-folk-rock of the late '60s. Nesmith went on to become a country-rock musician of some note on his early post-Monkees solo records, and long before that had written "Different Drum," a big 1967 folk-rock hit for Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys. (Few know that the first version of that song was recorded by a bluegrass group, the Greenbriar Boys.) As for Tork, there's a 1968 Monkees outtake (since issued on CD) called "Lady's Baby" with Stephen Stills on guitar and Buddy Miles (!) on drums that sounds like the Buffalo Springfield's folk-rock. Tork and Stills had known each other as folkies, and played together briefly in a trio before the formation of the Springfield and the Monkees. While folk-rock artists were not involved in the writing, direction, and performing of "Easy Rider," that movie did use folk-rock by the Byrds and the Holy Modal Rounders prominently on its soundtrack. Peter Fonda, a friend of the Byrds, even told Roger McGuinn that the role models for Fonda and Dennis Hopper's parts in "Easy Rider" were based on McGuinn and David Crosby respectively. Expanding folk-rock movies to include documentaries, anyone interested in the subject should see "Don't Look Back," the documentary of Bob Dylan's spring 1965 (still acoustic) UK tour, and the much harder-to-watch "Eat the Document," which focuses on his 1966 European tour. Also the folk-rock seen in the festival documentaries "Monterey Pop," "Woodstock," and "Message to Love" (the last of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival). As to Dylan's transition to rock being easier because he was a rock fan, actually Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, and Eric Andersen have all gone on record as being big fans of rock when they were growing up in the 1950s, as have many (perhaps most) folk-rock musicians. [I don't think Tom Paxton, however, had been a rock fan.] For whatever reason, going rock did seem to come easier to Dylan as a performer. I don't know if the likes of McGuinn-Donovan were *that* much more beatniks with a different agenda than Jagger and Bowie. McGuinn and Donovan wanted rock stardom very badly too. (And going the other direction, for a brief phase around 1969, Bowie played acoustic music influenced by Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, as heard on a bootleg of 1969 demos.) But I don't think McGuinn and Donovan were nearly as set on, or adept at, manipulating the media and celebrity spotlight as the likes of Jagger and Bowie. I don't know whether Darrell was suggesting this, but the far greater ecomomic rewards of songwriting in popular music was a definitive incentive for some poets to enter rock. Ed Sanders told me, "I needed a way of earning a living. I had just graduated from college. We had just had a baby. My bookstore [the Peace Eye in New York] made some profit, but not a lot at the time. It was more of a postmodern hangout center than an actual bookstore." Leonard Cohen's shift of concentration on music was also at least partially financially motivated; he was already well-known as a writer, but he wasn't making a lot of money at it. He told Rolling Stone a few years after starting his recording career, "A lot had to do with poverty. I was writing books (two novels and four volumes of poetry) and they were being very well received...and that sort of thing, but I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill. So then I started bringing some songs together." But even after "making it," numerous songwriters have wanted to publish poetry (Jim Morrison, John Lennon) or write novels (Bob Dylan) or make movies (Neil Young, Dylan again) or paint (Joni Mitchell), even though it seems apparent there's not nearly as much money in that as music. The urge to succeed in more than one type of media seems very strong, although it's rarely pulled off.
the invetned stiff is dumb (bbraasch) Sat 20 Sep 03 16:04
I've got a print of a drawing by John Lennon when he was living in Japan. It's called 'The Poet', but the poet has a guitar in his hands. I've also got a copy of _In His Own Write_, poetry by John Lennon. Putting your poetry to music, I suppose, makes it more accessible.
Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Sun 21 Sep 03 01:45
How much of making the transition folk>rock (and keeping the transition) had to do with psychological makeup of the person/s involved being inherent 'bandleader' or 'bandmember' material. I often wonder about the bandleader thing with people like Fripp, Zappa, and especially John Mayhall. These people seem/ed to somehow revel & bloom in the role of being bandleader. Not everybody has the people skills to pull that off, even though they may be talented musically. At least by all public appearances the Beatles were completely thrilled and comfortable with being bandmembers. These may not be roles that many ex-folkies would take to as easily, although I do remember quite a few folk groups. What was the difference if any in how these different genres organized themselves? As to clever word usage, one of the most interesting from the 60's for me was early T.Rex. I don't know if you consider that folk rock, but Bolan sure was having fun spinning the language. I get the impression though they were a bit like the San Francisco bands you mentioned, working acoustic until they could get their hands on some amps. Back to the film thread artists like Bowie, Jagger, Alice Cooper, Zappa... had/have naturally (or developed) their theatrics, that may make them better suited for film. Somehow Folk and Folk-Rock are not genre's we associate with the theatrics of rock. Some would say that much of rock by it's very roots in minstrelsy is an act to begin with.
Dennis Wilen (the-voidmstr) Sun 21 Sep 03 02:01
Bob Dylan was in a rock bands in the midwest, ISTR, long before he became a folk-rocker,
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Sun 21 Sep 03 06:40
Yep, I was just going to post that. And he had been a huge fan of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis, etc. before he discovered Woody.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 21 Sep 03 07:27
Yes, Dylan had played rock before he was a teenager. Though his 1965 Newport Folk Festival gig is known as where he "went electric," actually it was only his first electric rock performance since he'd become a recording artist, not his first electric rock show ever. (Plus he'd already been recording electric in the studio for six months by then.) There are numerous other examples of notable folk-rock figures having played or even recorded rock'n'roll prior to going folk, before going back to rock with folk-rock. Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel actually made the middle of the Billboard Top 100 in 1957 with their Everly Brothers-styled "Hey, Schoolgirl," under the name Tom & Jerry, and recorded (together and separately) a bunch of tame rockabilly and teen idol-type material in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Fred Neil did some rare rock singles and played guitar on the demo of Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover." Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane did teen idol-type rock singles in the early '60s. Neil Young did instrumental rock as part of the Squires. Ian Tyson played rockabilly, Richie Havens sang doo wop, Gram Parsons did rock'n'roll with the Legends, a group that also included Jim Stafford and Lobo (!).
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 21 Sep 03 07:45
On Darrell's bandleading question, I think that did have something to do with how well some made the transition to folk-rock. A lot of the musicians had been used to playing solo acoustic for years, and I think that in some cases it made it hard for them to adjust to either leading/working with bands onstage and in the studio as a frontman/woman, or to being in electric groups. Sometimes the transition never took too well, but sometimes it took well despite a halting start. In spring 1965 during his trip to England, Dylan actually tried to record "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers as his band. There's just one verse from this session on bootleg, which is pretty untogether and comes to a stop with one of the Bluesbreakers saying, "You haven't worked much with bands, have you?" But then Dylan went on to do some of the most acclaimed music of the mid-1960s in front of bands, studio and live. In fact, he already had recorded the electric side of "Bringing It All Back Home" in early 1965 in the US. In some cases even when ex-folkies gelled into great folk-rock bands, the groups were instable, with short lives and many personnel changes; much less stable than major British Invasion bands like the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones, and Kinks. (I know the Who, Rolling Stones, and Kinks all had vicious in-fighting going on, but they did last very long, without too many regular personnel changes.) Contrast that with the Byrds, who had changed lineups so many times that by late 1968 McGuinn was the only member left from the original quintet, and Buffalo Springfield, where Neil Young and Bruce Palmer left and came back several times, and the band only lasted two years and three albums. I suggested to Roger McGuinn that maybe the band members' background in solo folk might have made it more difficult to share the spotlight in a group situation. He said, "That's a good thought, that the folk solo background was to blame for that to some extent. It never occurred to me. I know the Beatles had a very stick-together kind of brotherhood. It was kind of amazing. I mean, if you'd ask one of them a question, they'd go, 'Oh, we don't know about that yet.' It was a gestalt. They were four people with a common mind, and they would stick up for each other, in ways that I was envious of. Like, if somebody would insult me in front of David Crosby, he'd agree with them. Every time [laughs]. And if you insulted George [Harrison] in front of John [Lennon], he would punch 'em in the nose. It was like a different mentality. Crosby could go off on his own any second and do a solo gig." In the Mamas & Papas' case, the group's prior experience within singing folk groups was, I think, at the outset very beneficial. John Phillips had already recorded with several vocal groups (most notably the Journeymen), as had Denny Doherty (with the Halifax Three and then the Mugwumps, which also included Cass Elliot and Zal Yanovsky) and Cass Elliot (with the Mugwumps and before that the Big Three, which also included Tim Rose). In their case, though, they might have gotten too close. In part due to John Phillips's stormy relationship with Michelle Phillips, and inter-band affairs and jealousy, it was only two-three years before they broke up.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 21 Sep 03 07:53
About T. Rex: I'm not a big fan in either that artist's acoustic or electric phases, but on the early T. Rex records, there definitely was a folk-rock air. To me it always did sound rather like an electric band who'd lost both their rhythm section and their electric equipment. Andy Ellison of Marc Bolan's previous band, John's Children, said that all of John's Children's equipment had been confiscated during a controversial German tour (opening for the Who), and that Bolan didn't have money or electric equipment when he got back from England. So "the easiest way to start making was to sit there, grab his old acoustic guitar again, and things went on from there. He started having success that way, but I feel that he really still wanted to do the electronic thing again." Ellison also remembers Bolan seeing a Ravi Shankar concert on the way back from Germany and being very impressed by the sitar-bongos setup. On T. Rex's early albums there was definitely a very Tolkienesque and mystical feel to the lyrics, something also heard in some of the British folk-rock of the time, most notably in Donovan and the Incredible String Band.
Berliner (captward) Sun 21 Sep 03 09:00
Interestingly, in light of the soloists-make-bad-bandmembers discussion, I just read an article on Mike Seeger in the current issue of No Depression, where he says that he broke up the New Lost City Ramblers for just that reason: "I knew that if I were playing on my own I wouldn't have any arguments about what we're going to do next...I could never do enough of what I wanted to do within the Ramblers..." As for Marc Bolan, I think he was an opportunist in many ways. Sure, he wound up without his electric gear, but he could have done a Donovan ripoff instead of the hippie drivel he did. (I think his pop period, at least for a while, had some amazing stuff in it -- not the most intellectually satisfying stuf around, but great pop). One thing I've been meaning to bring into the discussion is blues. A lot of folkies mixed blues into their repertoires without becoming specialists. With the coming of folk-rock, a lot of the impulse to plug in, as you've noted, was courtesy of the Beatles, who did a lot of black American numbers on their early records, but also of the Rolling Stones, who were much more oriented towards Chicago-style blues. You hardly mention a band that did one of my favorite folk-rock numbers (or it was back then: I haven't heard it in years), the Blues Project, whose reading of Eric Andersen's "Violets of Dawn" was anything but a blues number. Blues being folk music, I was wondering if there were other bands besides the Blues Project who you might have considered, but decided didn't fit under the folk-rock umbrella.
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 21 Sep 03 09:44
Actually there's a little about the Blues Project in "Turn! Turn! Turn!," but you're right, I didn't cover them much. They seem to me more a band that went to folk-rock occasionally (in addition to covering "Violets of Dawn," they also covered Donovan's "Catch the Wind," Bob Lind's "Cheryl's Going Home," and Patrick Sky's "Love Will Endure") than a group that made it their main staple. That's not to their detriment at all, but to keep the books more focused I usually only mentioned in passing the artists who delved into folk-rock as more of a sideline. In addition to the Blues Project's own occasional folk-rock tracks, some of their members made noteworthy folk and folk-rock contributions. Al Kooper, of course, played with Dylan in the mid-1960s in the studio and (less extensively) onstage, and also played keyboards on many early folk-rock records as a session musician. Danny Kalb had played acoustic folk-blues, and was a second guitarist on Phil Ochs's second album. Steve Katz had been in the Even Dozen Jug Band, who also included John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur, Stefan Grossman, David Grisman, and Joshua Rifkin (later to arrange for Judy Collins). And as noted earlier, the Blues Project backed Phil Ochs on the rare 45-only electric version of "I Ain't Marching Anymore." The Paul Butterfield Blues Band really didn't record folk-rock, though they did somehow cover an early Mike Nesmith song, "Mary, Mary," on their "East West" album. But they were cited as a key inspiration toward going electric by a few of the musicians I interviewed, including some you might not automatically expect, like Barry Melton of Country Joe & the Fish. They also were the first Elektra Records act to do a really all-out electric band album for the label, which generally encouraged the label (at that time primarily a folk label) to move into rock and folk-rock. They were also important in opening up clubs on the folk circuit to electric music. As session musicians, they also played on some early folk-rock recordings. The most notable of these endeavors, of course, was Mike Bloomfield's guitar work on Highway 61 Revisited, but also they played on one of Peter, Paul & Mary's first (and not very good) folk-rock recordings, "The King of Names," and also played on the rare, obscure album by the most ludicrous mid-1960s Bob Dylan imitator, Dick Campbell. John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, as mentioned a little earlier, made an abortive attempt to record with Dylan in 1965. Mayall's own late-1960s records went into a somewhat folky acoustic direction, particularly on "The Turning Point," and I did consider covering that, but ultimately felt that the folk-rock influence on Mayall wasn't too strong. The Siegel-Schwall Band, who were kind of a minor Paul Butterfield-type group, had a peripheral role in folk-rock when they were the backing group for electric folk-rock Joni Mitchell demos, about two years or a little less before her first album came out. Those are very strange tracks, with violin, trumpet, drums, bass, and cello in addition to electric rock instruments. Al Wilson and Bob Hite of Canned Heat were very much part of the folk-blues community before Canned Heat formed. In a well-known story, when country bluesman Son House was "rediscovered" in the 1960s and prepared to go back to live performing, Wilson actually taught House how to play his old songs, as House hadn't played for about 20 years. Wilson and Hite had been in a jug band, and Hite especially was a big part of the collector community that rediscovered pre-1940 acoustic blues in the 1960s. Canned Heat differed from many other blues-rock bands in taking much of their repertoire from pre-World War II acoustic rural blues. Ultimately I did feel that Canned Heat were much more of an electric blues-rock band than a folk-rock band. Blues is indeed a part of folk, but what was classified as folk-rock in the 1960s and since then has usually been artists that drew from other parts of folk, or as Ed says, incorporating blues (as Dylan certainly did) but not becoming specialists. Keeping the focus more manageable was part of my decision not to expand into more blues-rock bands too; then we'd also be drawing in numerous British Invasion bands that made blues-rock much of their repertoire (the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds), and also later bands from the British blues boom (much of Cream, the early Fleetwood Mac, Mayall, Ten Years After).
Richie Unterberger (folkrocks) Sun 21 Sep 03 09:54
In another note about the blues, it seems to me that the blues and R&B was the weakest facet of many of the best folk-rock artists' repertoires. Not Dylan's, but examples would include the Jefferson Airplane, who did a lame version of "Kansas City" live in their early days; Ian & Sylvia, whose sporadic attempts to do down'n'dirty blues make me cringe; the Byrds, whose instrumental "Captain Soul" is a low point of their incredibly uneven "Fifth Dimension" album; the Lovin' Spoonful; and Fairport Convention, whose "Mr. Lacey" (on their second and best album) I always disliked.
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