More New Voices
The influence of these newly appreciated old-timers on up-and-coming folk and blues musicians was immense, and showed up on a whole new crop of young “country blues” musicians who began recording in the early 60s: John Hammond, Jr. (son of the renown producer for Columbia Records), “Spider” John Koerner and Dave “Snaker” Ray, Geoff Muldaur, Eric Von Schmidt, and others. Listeners to Hammond’s debut recording (Vanguard) who hadn’t looked at the cover were startled to discover he was white, so completely had he absorbed the braggadocio and complaint of the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen. Koerner and Ray, with Tony Glover on harmonica on a couple of stellar Elektra releases entitled Blues, Rags, and Hollers, were more jumpy and revved-up. Their rendition of “Black Dog,” a gambler’s boast to his doubting paramour, fueled by Ray’s plangent 12-string and Koerner’s spiky 7-string, is irresistible.
Koerner and Ray also appear on Elektra’s 1964 anthology of young bluesmen entitled The Blues Project along with Geoff Muldaur (singing “Ginger Man” and Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” in his uniquely silken, insinuating voice), Mark Spoelstra, Von Schmidt, and the ever-present Van Ronk, among others—including Bob Dylan playing guitar under the transparent pseudonym “Bob Landy.” All the participants on this anthology were white, a reminder, if any is needed, that, as deeply dependent as they were on the pioneering music of rural black (and rural white) musicians, the younger generation of bluesmen and folksingers were mostly white and mostly lived in cities. Elektra followed up shortly after with The String Band Project featuring contemporary string bands playing old favorites, notable for The Dry City Scat Band’s twangy take on “Jealous” and suitably scrappy “Bald-Headed End of a Broom” cautioning would-be suitors about the tribulations of hen-pecked husbands. (Both Elektra “Projects,” I should add, are among the very few records in my discography still not yet reissued in any format.)
Of the other new jug bands formed early in the 60s who took inspiration not only from their predecessors on old 78s but also from the many and more recent New Lost City Ramblers’ Folkways LPs, the best, along with Van Ronk’s Jug Stompers noted earlier (which made only one record), was the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, whose Jug Band Music (Vanguard) demonstrated its huge advantage over all competitors: on-stage erotic appeal. Earthy sex-goddess Maria Muldaur vamping up “I’m A Woman” added a new dimension to the term “jug” band (watching her perform it in concert during my first year in college is a fond memory), and the group’s moony vocal harmonies on “Ukelele Lady” were at once campy and suggestive. Aptly so, I might add, as the jug band genre has strong origins in rowdy and racy minstrel show traditions.
Another newcomer to the folk scene was a soulful-voiced young man named Perry Miller who made his first recording, Soul of a City Boy, released in 1964 on Capitol, under his nom de plume Jesse Colin Young. This auspicious debut was graced by swell renditions of several old-timey mountain standards like “Rye Whiskey,” “Black-Eyed Susan,” and “Same Old Man,” along with some dandy original songs including “Four In the Morning.” Though City Boy is just a young man and his acoustic guitar, it’s stood up pretty well against JC’s later recordings with the Youngbloods and remains a favorite of mine and many other fans.
Like Dave Ray, Mark Spoelstra (1940-2007) is strongly identified with his virtuoso 12-string guitar playing. He was more of an in-the-tradition (albeit quite versatile) folksinger than a bluesman, however, as his first two Folkways records, The Songs of Mark Spoelstra and At the Club 47 (both from 1963) reveal. Old tunes like “Sugar Babe” and “Drowsy Sleeper” and Spoelstra originals like “The Times I’ve Had” and “Willow Tree” and “Deep Blue Sea Blues” burble along nicely if fast, or glower quietly, whether menacing or tender or forlorn, if slow. For even more variety Spoelstra threw in virtuoso fingerpicking showpieces like “Buckdancer’s Choice” and “Deadthumb Roll #1.”
Gifted with an angelic voice and a relaxed, natural dignity, Joan Baez was almost instantly recognized (indeed, beloved) as a star, one of the first and brightest to shine in the folk revival, quickly gaining national fame with her (sonically as well as musically superlative) 1960 debut on Vanguard. (An even earlier appearance on ’Round Harvard Square issued in 1959 on Veritas, a local Boston LP that she shared with several other singers, had already displayed that unforgettable voice, notably on “What You Gonna Call That Pretty Little Baby.”) No one, before or since, could sing ballads with Baez’ perfect marriage of breathtaking purity and aching sadness, yet she could slip easily into a humorous ditty or peal out a defiant protest-song just as convincingly. (She did a hilariously wicked “Little Town Flirt” when I heard her in concert.) “Silver Dagger,” “East Virginia,” “Fennario,” “Once I Knew A Pretty Girl,” “Jackaroe”—the list of immortal performances from her early-60s recordings goes on and on.
Joan’s younger sister Mimi found her voice as a folksinger by teaming up with her husband, writer/singer Richard Farina, on a pair of early-60s Vanguards. The couple married in 1963, when Mimi—a striking beauty—was 17. A pal and fellow writer of Richard’s that he’d known from Cornell was best man: Thomas Pynchon. (David Hadju’s excellent Positively 4th Street details the rise to prominence of both Baez sisters along with Dylan and Farina, and offers an acute analysis of why folk music became so attractive to artistic kids turned off by Eisenhower-era conformity and commercialism.)
The Farinas will forever be known for one supreme masterpiece: On the pair’s second Vanguard album, from 1965, they sang Richard’s haunting, wistful lyrics (in beautiful harmony) to an equally haunting 14th Century Sephardic melody. They called this mating of ancient tune and new words “A Swallow Song,” and it will last as long as men and woman share their wondering sorrow at this mortal life. It became Farina’s epitaph, for he died in a motorcycle accident a year after the recording was made.
Another man-and-wife duo who also recorded on Vanguard (again captured in exceptional sonics) is Canadian-born Ian and Sylvia Tyson. The rugged but plaintive austerity of their blended voices (and the hardscrabble tales their songs tell) give a special truthfulness to their recordings, and the love expressed by a girl waiting for her rodeo-riding lover to marry her in “Someday Soon” (on 1964’s Northern Journey) is both so real and so fetching that the ever-shrewd judge of musical potential Judy Collins quickly smoothed off the rough edges and turned it into another hit. She did a good job with it, too, but Ian and Sylvia’s original is the genuine article.