Eccentrics and Instrumentalists
Most early-60s folksingers were also, of course, instrumental players, and almost all were notably independent-minded. The music attracted countercultural types if not indeed stubborn individualists. Still, some were more, shall we say, unusual than others.
One such is Buffy St. Marie, a Canadian-born Cree Indian, who made her recorded debut in 1964 on It’s My Way (Vanguard), with performances as much dramatic enactments as they were singing. In “The Old Man’s Lament” she impersonates an elderly husband whining about his marriage to a young beauty who “favors the neighbors” while he’s left “rockin’ the cradle and it’s none of my own.” Her vocal inflection as she switches from the storyteller’s pellucid tone to the old man’s descending wheeze is comically pitiful. More subtle but equally effective tonal shifts imply the tangled but mostly unspoken web of tenderness and menace in the exchanges between brother and sister in “The Incest Song,” a medieval tale (based on an old ballad called “The King’s Daughter”) of forbidden love, betrayal, and doom. So flawless its poetry, so rich in implication, so shimmering in mystery—and so magnificently realized in her performance—this song by itself ranks St. Marie as one of the great 60s folksingers.
For the early-60s folk revival Wizards of Odd Award I nominate the Holy Modal Rounders—Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber—whose first two self-titled records (on Prestige) pretty much reincarnated “the old weird America” all by themselves. Pairing Weber’s squeaky, tottering fiddle, bumpy banjo playing, and squawky warble of a voice with Stampfel’s off-kilter guitar and vocal lunacy, they appropriated funny strange old songs and made them funnier and stranger still, taking “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” “Same Old Man,” “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the bumptiously enthusiastic “Chevrolet Six,” even the gospel number “Better Things For You,” and refracting these and many another traditional country song and dances through a subversively cracked prism. The subtexts of “Hesitation Blues” and “Black Eyed Suzie” devolve into explicit lust, and “Born to Lose,” a cautionary portrait of the boozy world of riverboat gamblers and their whores, veers off into an existential recognition of a dazed, meaningless irreality. There are no duds on those first two albums: every number is endearingly and roundly Holymodalized.
Though of course many if not most good folksingers were quite expert on their instruments, from Robert Johnson and Blind Blake to Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk, and Mark Spoelstra (among dozens more), only occasionally did folk musicians specialize as instrumentalists, especially considering that they usually performed and recorded as soloists. Early-60s exceptions already mentioned are the instrumental-only albums by Pete Seeger; Gary Davis also made at least one nifty instrumental-only record.
A conspectus of notable early-60s folk instrumental specialists might begin with Stefan Grossman (whose Folkways album of piano rags adapted for two guitars is amazing though not entirely convincing) and Englishman Davy Graham. More of an oddity was John Fahey, who began his own label, Takoma Records, to release his recordings, and quickly acquired a cult following. There’s something runic in his evocative finger-style wanderings, curiously enhanced by the dim sonics of his early recordings that made them sound like missives from the distant past. Fahey’s best pieces are seldom catchy or ragtimey or showy, but instead tend to be serious and unhurried, whether impressionist like “Some Summer Day” or dark, as is “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,” a spooky danse macabre with Fahey’s slashing guitar under a soaring flute. Both these and more of Fahey’s best work appear on his early-60s album entitled, with Fahey’s characteristically morbid flippancy, Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes.
As multi-cultural and cosmopolitan as Fahey was American and insular, Sandy Bull’s wide-ranging explorations on guitar (electric as well as acoustic), banjo, oud, and pretty much anything else he could fret, often lengthy improvisations with over-dubbed tracks on several instruments, pushed his first two Vanguard albums to the edge if not beyond what might be termed “folk music.” But there wasn’t any other available category so that’s what it was filed under. His rendering of the “Triple Ballade” of 14th-Century master Guillaume de Machaut is a stunner, for many listeners (as for me) a revelation of an utterly new (though actually ancient) kind of music that bypassed tonality and cadential structures entirely, instead spinning out rhythmically complex polyphony with harmonic clashes so unexpected and alien they seemed hieroglyphs from another world. From Medieval France Bull zoomed to Brazil, with a gorgeous version of Luiz Bonfa’s sensuous and luxuriously atmospheric “Manha de Carnival,” thence to a trippy improv on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” and on to one of his half-hour Asian-inspired raga-like “blends” as he called them. Bull not only anticipated much of the next half-century’s “world music,” he invented some of the best of it ever recorded.