Thursday, February 04, 2016
*****In The Time Of The 1960s Folk Minute- With Tom Rush’s No Regrets In Mind
*****In The Time Of The 1960s Folk Minute- With Tom Rush’s No Regrets In Mind
From The Pen Of Zack James
A few years ago, maybe more like a decade or so, in an earlier 1960s folk minute nostalgia incantation fit Sam Eaton, who will be described further below, had thought he had finally worked out in his head what that folk moment had meant in the great musical arc of his life. Had counted up, had taken up and put value on its graces, did the great subtractions on its disappointments, that lack of beat that he had been spoon fed on in his head having heard maybe in the womb the sweats of some backbeat that sounded an awful lot like a band of the devil’s angels giving battle to the heavens, and got his head around, his expression, its clasps with certain young women, some absolute folkie women met in the Harvard Squares of the heated horny sex night and loves too not always with folkie women but just the muck of growing up and taking what came his way. So he had taken a back-flip, his expression, when he was required not out of his own volition like that great prairie fire burning before about why he felt after all these years that he needed to go back to what after all was a very small part of his life now that he was reaching four score and seventy, going back over the terrain of a small part of the musics that he had cultivated since early childhood.
Some of those musics from his parents’ slogging through the Great Depression and World War II be-bop swing big band Saturday night get your dancing slippers imposed on his tender back of brain not to be revived and revisited until many years later when he had heard some ancient Benny Goodman be-bop clarinet backing up a sultry-voiced Peggy Lee getting all in a silky sweat rage because her man like a million others was not a do right man but had been chasing her best friend the next best thing when he got his wanting habit on and Peggy turned ice queen when he ran out of dough after shooting craps against the dealer and decided he had been wrong to dismiss such music out of hand. Some of the music along the edges of his coming from that edgy feeling he got when he heard the classic rock that just creeped into his pre-teen brain and lingered there unrequited until he found out what in that beat spoke to his primordial instincts, what caused his feverish nights of wonder, of what made him tick, of what he had missed.
Folk, the folk minute he deeply imbibed for that minute, at least the exciting part of the minute when he heard, finally heard, something that did not make him want to puke every time he turned on the radio, put his ill-gotten coins, grabbed from mother’s pocketbook laying there in wait for his greedy hands or through some con, some cheapjack con he pulled on some younger kids in Jimmy Jakes’ Diner jukebox to impress a few of the girls in town who were not hung up on Fabian or Bobby, heard something very new in his life and so different from the other musics that he had grown up with that he grabbed the sound with both hands. He thought that sweating a decade ago where he done a few small pieces to satisfy his literary sense of things and put them in a desk drawer yellow, fray and gather dust until he passed on and somebody put the paper in a wastebasket for the rubbish men, thought he had ended those thoughts, closed out the chapter. Recently though he did another series of short citizen-journalist sketches of scenes from that period for various folk music related blogs and social media outlets. Sam had done that series at the request of his old time friend, Bart Webber, who will also be described in more detail below, from Carver, an old working-class town about thirty miles south of Boston which at the time was the cranberry capital of the world or close to it, and close enough to have been washed by the folk minute that sprouted forth in Harvard Square and Beacon Hill in Boston.
Sam and Bart who in their respective youths had been very close, had been corner boys together when that social category meant something, meant something about extreme teen alienation and angst combined with serious poverty, dirt poor poverty as in hand-me-down older brother clothes, as in no family car for long periods between old wreak of cars, of many surly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, many Spam suppers, all fashioned to make these young men forever talking about big break-outs, about getting something for them and theirs but also for big candy-ased dreams too all put paid to, as one would expect of sons of “boggers,” those who cared for and harvested those world famous cranberries, but also close because that was the way that corner boys were then, “having each other’s backs” was the term they used which confused even the best of the social scientists who investigated the phenomenon when that corner boy life meant juvenile delinquency, meant some unfathomed anger, some lack of socialization, some throwback to primeval muds, to some rising of the unkempt heathens they were payed to watch out for. Meant as well worry to those in power who were trying to weld society as one piece of steel to fight the internal and external red scare Cold War fight.
Like a lot of high school friends the cement that bound them in high school, that alienation, that comradery, those best left unsaid larcenous moments, the “midnight creeps” in Bart’s words when somebody asked him later what had made him and the corner boys put their reputations at risk for such small gain, a fact which also played a part in that “having each other’s back” broke apart once they graduated, or rather in their case once they had sowed their wild oats in the 1960s, those wild oats at the time meaning “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” combined with drifting the hitchhike road west in what one of their number, the late Pete Markin, called the search for the great blue-pink American West night.
Sam had stayed out in the West longer before he drifted back East to go to law school and pursue a professional career. Bart had returned earlier, had gotten married to his high school sweetheart and had started up and run a small successful specialty print shop based on the silk-screening tee-shirt and poster craze in Carver. They would run into each other occasionally when Sam came to town but for about twenty years they had not seen each other as both were busy raising families, working and travelling in different circles. One night though when Sam had been sitting in Jimmy Jakes’ Diner over on Spring Street in Carver having a late dinner by himself after having come to town to attend the funeral of a family member Bart had walked in and they then renewed their old relationship, decided that some spark from high school still held them together if nothing else that they both had been deeply formed, still held to those old corner boy habits toward life whatever successes they had subsequently enjoyed.
Along the way to solidifying there new relationship they would alternate meetings, some in Carver, some in Boston or Cambridge where Sam lived. On a recent trip to Boston to meet Sam at the Red Hat at the bottom of Beacon Hill Bart had walked pass Joy Street which triggered memories of the time in high school when he and his date who name he could not remember but she was a cousin of Sam’s “hot” date, Melinda Loring, who they went to school with and whom Sam was crazy to impress even though Melinda was not the daughter of a “bogger” but of school teachers and so from among the town’s better element and he was constantly on eggshells that she would toss him aside once she had figured out he was just another Fast Eddie corner boy trying to get into her pants, had taken them on a cheap date to the Oar and Anchor coffeehouse which stood at the corner of Joy and Cambridge Street to hear Lenny Lane who was an up and coming folk singer whom Sam had met on one of his clandestine midnight trips to Harvard Square on the Redline subway to hang out at the Hayes-Bickford.
That cheap part of the cheap date thing was important since Bart and Sam were as usual from hunger on money in the days when around Carver, probably around the world, guys paid expenses on dates, girls just looked beautiful or if not beautiful glad to not be forever hanging around the midnight telephone waiting for some two-timing guy to call them up for a date, and so short of just hanging at the Hayes for free watching weirdoes, con men, whores plying their trade, drunks, winos and occasional put upon artists, poets, writes and folk-singers perfecting their acts on the cheap, for the price of a couple of cups of coffee, a shared pastry and a couple of bucks in the “basket” for the performer you could get away with a lot especially when Bart was doing Sam a favor with that cousin (and worse could have gotten in trouble if Besty Binstock, his high school sweetheart. found out he was two-timing her although the two-timing involved the possibility of some off-hand sex with that cousin who was supposed to be “easy” but that in another story although come to think of it the situation could serve as another prime example of “having each other’s back” when one of them was up against it).
Bart remembered that he had been very uncomfortable that night since he had had some feelings of guilt about two-timing (and lying to) Betsy starting out, had had trouble talking about anything in common, school, sports, the weather, with that cousin since she said she was doing Melinda a favor in order that she could go to Boston with Sam which Melinda’s mother would have balked at if she had told her they were going into Boston alone, going into Boston with a “bogger” alone. Moreover she knew nothing, cared nothing for folk music, didn’t even know what it was, said she had never heard of the thing, was fixated on Bobby Vee, dreamy guys, or something like that. What made that date worse was that Bart too then could hardly bear the sound of folk music, said repeatedly that the stuff was all dreary and involved weird stuff like murder and mayhem done on the banks of rivers, in back alleys, on darkened highways just because some woman would not come across, Jesus, strangely thwarted love reminding him of Sam’s forlorn quest for Melinda which seemed like some princess and pauper never the twain shall meet outcome, or hick stuff about home sweet home down in some shanty town in some desolate cabin without lights or water which sounded worse than Boggertown, singing high holy Jehovah stuff that made him wince, and of the hills and hollows in some misbegotten mountains made his teeth grind. So not a good mix, although it did turn out that the cousin was “easy,” did think he was dreamy enough to have sex with (with their clothes mostly on which was how more than one quicky one night stand wound up down by the boathouse near the Charles River after they had split from Sam and Melinda after the coffeehouse closed and that helped but had been the result of no help from the folk music they half-listened but more some dope that she had in her pocketbook after she passed had a joint around to get things going.
After telling Sam about his recollections of Joy Street and that cousin, whose name was Judy Dennison Sam told him and who Sam had gone out with and agreed was a little sex kitten once she was stoned Bart started asking some questions about folk music. Sam said he was not finished with that Judy story, told Bart that fling was after the thing with Melinda had passed due not to class distinctions but to that hard fact that she was saving “it” for marriage, and had been very glad that he had that run and was not sorry he did. Bart started in again and asked Sam a million questions about various folk-singers and what had happened to them, were they still playing, still alive since Sam although he did not have the same keen interest of his youthful folk minute still kept small tabs on the scene, the now small scene through his long-time companion, Laura Perkins whom he met one night at the Café Nana several years before when Tom Tremble was playing there after Sam had not heard him in about forty years. The reason for Bart’s interest given that above he had said that the genre made his teeth grind was that after that night with Judy Bart did go on other double dates with Sam and Melinda, and later Suzanne when she was Sam’s next flame and a real folkie, to folk places and while he still would grind his teeth at some of the stuff did develop more tolerance for the genre, especially if the date Sam set up was a real foxy folkie girl (thinking on it now he couldn’t believe how unfaithful he had been to Betsy in those days but she too was saving “it” for marriage and some of those young women were very willing and had apartment or dorm rooms too).
The upshot of all of Bart’s questions was that Sam found that he was not really except for Tom Tremble who had lost his sweet baby James voice, forgot lyrics and had “mailed it in” that night he had met Laura and was cold “stonewalled” by the audience but possibly motivated by that old folkie feeling, or maybe just feeling sorry for a guy who had a big local following back in the day when the “basket” went around everybody put some dough in, Sam and Laura included, and a couple of other guys up on what had happened to the old-time folkies since for years he had merely listened on radio station WCAS and when that station went under WUMB out of U/Mass-Boston or listened to records, tapes or CDs. (Sam got big points from Laura that first night when he panned Tom, who Laura had never heard before being enough younger not to have been bitten by the folk minute craze and she agreed that Tom had “mailed it in”.) Since he was not all that familiar with what had happened to most of them he thereafter did some research, asked Laura some questions to lead the way and wound up writings that series of sketches. One series entitled Not Bob Dylan about the fate of prominent male folk-singers was a direct result of the Sam and Bart conversation. Here’s what he had to say about Tom Rush who back in the day he knew best from hanging around the old Club 47 on Mount Auburn Street:
“…Other than enigmatic Bob Dylan who is the iconic never-ending tour male performer most people would still associate with that folk minute period they would draw a blank on a list of others who also were aspiring to make names for themselves in the folk milieu. I am not talking about guys like Lenny Lane who had one hit and then went back to graduate school in biology when he couldn’t get another contract, when his well ran dry, or like Tom Tremble who had a big local following around the old Club Nana when it was on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge not where it is now on Brattle Street but who did mainly covers and just never broke out or Mike Weddle who had good looks, a good stage presence, had the young women going crazy but who just walked away one day when some good looking woman from Radcliffe came hither and he “sold out” to her father’s stockbroking business.
I’m talking about people like Tom Rush from New Hampshire who lit up the firmament around Cambridge via the Harvard campus folk music station, Dave Von Ronk the cantankerous folk historian and musician who knew more about what happened in the early, early days in the Village at the point where “beat” poetry was becoming passe and folk was moving in to fill in the gap, Phil Ochs who had probably the deepest political sensibilities of the lot and wrote some of the stronger narrative folk protest songs, Richard Farina who represented that “live fast” edge that we were bequeathed by the “beats” and who tumbled down the hill on a motorcycle, and Jesse Collin Young who probably wrote along with Eric Andersen and Jesse Winchester the most pre-flower child lyrics mid-1960s hippie explosion before folk got amplified of the bunch.
My friend Bart had just seen a fragile seeming, froggy-voiced Bob Dylan in one of stages of his apparently never-ending concerts tours up in Maine and had been shaken by the sight and had wondered about the fate of other such folk performers. That request turned into a series of reviews of male folk-singers entitled Not Bob Dylan (and after that, also at Bart’s request, a series entitled Not Joan Baez based on some of the same premises except on the distaff side (nice word, right, you know golden-voiced Judy Collins and her sweet songs of lost, Carolyn Hester and her elegant rendition of Walt Whitman’s Oh Captain, My Captain, Joan’s sister Mimi Farina forever linked with Richard and sorrows, and Malvina Reynolds who could write a song on the wing, fast okay, and based as well on the mass media having back then declared that pair the “king and queen” of the burgeoning folk music minute scene).
That first series (as had the second) had asked two central questions-why did those male folk singers not challenge Dylan who as I noted the media of the day had crowned king of the folk minute for supremacy in the smoky coffeehouse night (then, now the few remaining are mercifully smoke-free although then I smoked as heavily as any guy who though such behavior was, ah, manly and a way to seen “cool” to the young women, why else would we have done such a crazy to the health thing if not to impress some certain she) and, if they had not passed on and unfortunately a number have a few more since that series as well most notably Phil Ochs of suicide early, Dave Von Ronk of hubris and Jesse Winchester of his battle lost over time had come, were they still working the smoke-free church basement, homemade cookies and coffee circuit that constitutes the remnant of that folk minute even in the old hotbeds like Cambridge and Boston. (What I call the U/U circuit since while other church venues are part of the mix you can usually bet safely that if an event is scheduled it will be at a U/U church which is worthy of a little sketch of its own sometime in order to trace the folk minute after the fanfare had died down and as a tribute to those big-hearted souls at radio stations like WCAS and WUMB and in places like Club Passim whose efforts have kept the thing going in order to try to pass it on to the younger generations now that demographics are catching up with the folkies from the 1960s heyday). Moreover, were they still singing and song-writing, that pairing of singer and writer having been becoming more prevalent, especially in the folk milieu in the wake of Bob Dylan’s word explosions back then. The days when the ground was shifting under the Tin Pan Alley Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/ Jerome Kern kingdom.
Here is the general format I used in that series for asking and answering those two questions which still apply today if one is hell-bent on figuring out the characters who rose and fell during that time:
“If I were to ask someone, in the year 2005 as I have done periodically both before and after, to name a male folk singer from the 1960s I would assume that if I were to get any answer to that question that the name would be Bob Dylan. That “getting any answer” prompted by the increasing non-recognition of the folk genre by anybody under say forty, except those few kids who somehow “found” their parents’ stash of Vanguard records (for example, there were other folk labels including, importantly, Columbia Records which pushed the likes of Dylan and John Hammond forward) just as some in an earlier Pete Seeger/Weavers/Leadbelly/ Josh White/Woody Guthrie records in our parents’ stashes. Today’s kids mainly influenced by hip-hop, techno-music and just straight popular music.
And that Dylan pick would be a good and appropriate choice. One can endlessly dispute whether or not Dylan was (or wanted to be since he clearly had tired of the role, or seemed to by about 1966 when he for all intents and purposes “retired” for a while prompted by a serious motorcycle accident and other incidents) the voice of the Generation of ’68 (so named for the fateful events of that watershed year, especially the Democratic Convention in America in the summer of that year when the old-guard pulled the hammer down and in Paris where the smell of revolution was palpably in the air for the first time since about World War II, when those, including me, who tried to “turn the world upside down” to make it more livable began to feel that the movement was reaching some ebb tide) but in terms of longevity and productivity, the never-ending touring until this day and releasing of X amount of bootleg recordings, the copyrighting of every variation of every song, including traditional songs, he ever covered and the squelching of the part of the work that he has control over on YouTube he fits the bill as a known quality. However, there were a slew of other male folk singers who tried to find their niche in the folk milieu and who, like Dylan, today continue to produce work and to perform. The artist under review, Tom Rush, is one such singer/songwriter.”
“The following is a question that I have been posing in reviewing the work of a number of male folk singers from the 1960s and it is certainly an appropriate question to ask of Tom Rush as well. Did they aspire to be the “king” of the genre? I do not know if Tom Rush, like his contemporary Bob Dylan, started out wanting to be the king of the hill among male folk singers but he certainly had some things going for him. A decent acoustic guitar but a very interesting (and strong baritone) voice to fit the lyrics of love, hope, and longing that he was singing about at the time, particularly the No Regrets/Rockport Sunday combination which along with Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm and Joshua Gone Barbados were staples early on. During much of this period along with his own songs he was covering other artists, particularly Joni Mitchell and her Urge For Going and The Circle Game, so it is not clear to me that he had that same Dylan drive by let’s say 1968.
I just mentioned that he covered Joni Mitchell in this period. A very nice version of Urge For Going that captures the wintry, got to get out of here, imaginary that Joni was trying to evoke about things back in her Canadian homeland. And the timelessness and great lyrical sense of his No Regrets, as the Generation of ’68 sees another generational cycle starting, as is apparent now if it was not then. The covers of fellow Cambridge folk scene fixture Eric Von Schmidt on Joshua Gone Barbados and Galveston Flood are well done. As is the cover of Bukka White’s Panama Limited (although you really have to see or hear old Bukka flailing away on his old beat up National guitar to get the real thing on YouTube).”
Whether Tom Rush had the fire back then is a mute question now although in watching the documentary, No Regrets, in which he tells us about his life from childhood to the very recent past (2014) at some point he did lose the flaming “burn down the building fire,” just got tired of the road like many, many other performers and became a top-notch record producer, a “gentleman farmer,” and returned to the stage occasionally, most dramatically with his annual show Tom Rush-The Club 47 Tradition Continues held at Symphony Hall in Boston each winter. And in this documentary appropriately done under the sign of “no regrets” which tells Tom’s take on much that happened then he takes a turn, an important oral tradition turn, as folk historian.
He takes us, even those of us who were in the whirl of some of it back then to those key moments when we were looking for something rooted, something that would make us pop in the red scare Cold War night of the early 1960s. Needless to say the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge gets plenty of attention as does his own fitful start in getting his material recorded, or rather fitful starts, mainly walking around to every possible venue in town to get backing for record production the key to getting heard by a wider audience via the radio and to become part of the increasing number of folk music-oriented programs, the continuing struggle to this day from what he had to say once you are not a gold-studded fixture.
“Other coffeehouses and other performers of the time, especially Eric Von Schmidt, another performer with a ton of talent and song-writing ability who had been on the scene very, very early on who eventually decided that his artistic career took first place, get a nod of recognition. As does the role of key radio folk DJ Dick Summer in show-casing new work (and the folk show, picked up accidently one Sunday night when I was frustrated with the so-called rock and roll on the local AM rock station and flipped the dial of my transistor radio and heard a different sound, the sound of Dave Von Ronk, where I started to pick up my life-long folk “habit”).
So if you want to remember those days when you sought refuse in the coffeehouses and church basements, sought a “cheap” date night (for the price of a couple of cups of coffee sipped slowly in front of you and your date, a shared pastry and maybe a few bucks admission or tossed into the passed-around “basket” you got away easy and if she liked the sound too, who knows what else) or, ouch, want to know why your parents are still playing Joshua’s Gone Barbados on the record player as you go out the door Saturday night to your own adventures watch this documentary and find out what happened to one Not Bob Dylan when the folk world went under.