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Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Playlist Plus: Folk-Rock
Freeway Jam's new Monday night feature (appearing tonight a day late) is called Playlist Plus, in tandem with FIQL.com, where an additional 10 artists/songs are profiled, for a complete playlist of 20 songs.
Folk-rock, on the surface, seems straightforward enough; the simple, direct, lyrically relevant tradition of folk music, with electric guitars and a rock backbeat. Its hallmarks are its frequent uses of close harmonies, chiming, melodic electric guitar arpeggios for hooks, the occasional use of a 12-string electric, and topical lyrics. The most-cited fathers of the genre were the Byrds, who scored their first hit in 1965 with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". For a brief period of time, from late '65 to early '67, folk-rock was the biggest movement in rock 'n' roll; among its other major performers were Dylan himself, the Turtles, Donovan, The Lovin' Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield, Richard and Mimi Farina, early Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others.
As successful and influential as the movement was, it perhaps is even more important in terms of rock history than it was as a sonic phenomena, though the importance of the latter cannot be overestimated. Prior to the emergence of the Byrds, the pop charts in America were dominated by British acts; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and all the other acts of the British Invasion had stormed the country only a year prior, completely re-vitalizing a moribund American rock 'n' roll scene. The only American acts that managed to break through the enormous British stranglehold on the charts were soul and Motown acts; James Brown, the Supremes and the like. With the notable exception of The Beach Boys, American rock music was virtually absent.
In the early 60's, before the British Invasion, acoustic folk music was a hot item, even among young people. Dylan was a classic example, beginning his career as a traditionalist acoustic folk singer at the age of 20 in the mold of Woodie Guthrie. Hitmakers of the day included the folk trios Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Kingston Trio.
Peter, Paul, and Mary had a big hand in promoting Dylan's work, scoring hits with "Blowing In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". Dylan himself stuck to strictly acoustic folk music until he heard the Beatles; "I Want To Hold Your Hand" changed his life and his mission. In 1965, he plugged in his guitar, hired a band, and entered the most fruitful period of his career, creating an American rock 'n' roll that stayed true to its organic roots. This was a controversial move in the then-large folk world; looked upon as a traitor, he was booed at his first electric live performances.
The folkies, in retrospect, were right to fret about Dylan's conversion. By 1966 folk-rock was the biggest thing going; it had reclaimed the charts from all but the most enduring British Invasion bands, and even they began dabbling in folk-rock once they heard the Byrds. However, traditional folk music was obliterated; the most youthful listeners followed Dylan and the Byrds, and the traditional folkies saw their hitmaking abilities vanish within the space of a couple for years. Peter, paul, and Mary noted this themselves in their 1967 hit, "I Dig Rock 'n' Roll Music", a fearful lampoon of rock that was more prophetic than it may have seemed at the time.
By the late 60's, folk-rock itself had changed. The Byrds became more progressive, experimenting with psychedelic and country. Dylan crashed his motorcycle, and returned a changed man. Music became heavier, more aggressive. Folk-rock retreated from its early sonic experimentation, and returned to its acoustic roots; the earliest members of the singer/songwriter movement, including Leonard Cohen, Arlo Guthrie (son of Woodie), Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, all had more in common with the pre-Byrds folk music and the acoustic Dylan than they did with the guitar based folk-rock of the mid-60's. This more acoustic-based folk remained a viable mainstream form into the early 70's, when it faded from the mainstream altogether. Its legacy continues to inform new bands to this day; there'd be no R.E.M. without the Byrds, and the alternative rock landscape would be a very different place.
Some important artists and songs of the folk-rock era:
1. The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)
A Pete Seeger original from 1962, this reached #1 for the Byrds in 1966, becoming their second chart-topper. Featuring the instantly recognizable 12-string of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, and the close harmonies of McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, this is a classic example of the genre. Seeger, originally in the essential folk group The Weavers, seldom wrote songs; the lyric for this one is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1 to 3:22.
2. Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone
Dylan's first electric single (a non-album one), it was also his first to chart, going all the way to #2 in 1966. Almost as well known for Al Kooper's organ as it is for Dylan's lyric, this is among Dylan's very best songs, a long shaggy-dog taunt, full of withering sarcasm, and a glimpse into the early Greenwich Village scene. The Jimi hendrix Experience also covered this song to great effect at their breakthough performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. A favorite of garage bands, Mouse And The Traps' "A Public Execution" from 1966 is essentially a re-write.
3. Simon and Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair/Canticle
From the duo's third album, and their first fully realized one, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, this reached #11 two years later, in 1968, when it was released as a single to coincide with the film The Graduate. A combination of a centuries old English folk song, juxtaposed against a Simon original anti-war song called "The Side Of A Hill", and featuring ambitious arrangement, this is one of their most enduring songs. Parsely, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme marked a serious maturation for the duo; Simon's songwriting in particular, but in Garfunkel's vocal arrangements, too. Their next album, Bookends, would be their best.
4. The Leaves: Hey Joe
The Leaves were from L.A., which was also the Byrds' home base, and played many of the same venues; their brand of folk rock was similar, but leaned towards a more aggressive, garagey form. "Hey Joe" was their only hit, peaking at #31 in 1966. It was later covered by the Byrds themselves, on their 1966 Fifth Dimension LP, as well as the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their 1967 debut. The Hey Joe album is a good one, a mix of well chosen covers of contemporary artists (Dylan, Byrds, others) and originals, done in an aggressive folk style somewhere between the Byrds and fellow Angelenos, Love.
5. The Mamas and Papas: Creeque Alley
The members of the Mamas and Papas, in various configurations, had played in a number of folk acts before coming together in 1965. Among them were the Mugwumps, which included Mama Cass Elliott and Papa Denny Doherty, plus future Lovin' Spoonful members John Sebastian and Zal Yanovski. Papa John philips and Mama Michelle Philips met in a group called the New Journeymen. "Creeque Alley" is a funny, self-effacing song about their formative years; it peaked at #5 in 1967. The group managed ten top-40 singles in just over two years, before disbanding in 1968; they reunited for one album in 1971.
6. The Turtles: It Ain't Me Babe
Best known for their pop hit, "Happy Together", the Turtles were actually an accomplished folk-rock band, featuring good musicianship and harmonic vocals that made them on of best folk-rock bands during folk-rock's big 1965-1966 peak. "It Ain't Me Babe" one of literally hundreds of Dylan cover versions to be released during that span, is one of the best ones. It peaked at #8 in 1965. The Turtles had nine top-30 hits through 1969; after their run, leaders Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Inventions.
7. The Lovin' Spoonful: Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?
Another excellent band of the era was The Lovin' Spoonful, who scored six top-10 singles from 1965-1967. Singer/guitarist John Sebastian and colorful guitarist Zal Yanovski had been in the folk outfit Mugwumps with half of the Mamas and Papas. Their sound also borrowed heavily from jug-band blues. This non-album single is a brilliant cross between bubblegum pop and jug-band convention, a #2 hit in 1966, and was featured in the au currant Antonioni film classic Blow Up. The band had ten top-30 hits, but broke up with acrimony. Leader John Sebastian's solo career never took off, though he had a 1977 hit with the theme to Welcome Back Kotter.
8. Tim Hardin: If I Was A Carpenter
Tim Hardin was a bluesy folk performer with an expressive, soulful voice who wrote two often-covered classics, "Reason To Believe" (later done by Rod Stewart) and this one (done by Bobby Darin, The Temptations, Johnny Cash, many others). His own versions didn't chart, but he remained a respected songwriter through the 60's. Among his other covered songs were "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce", covered by Nico on her first album, and "Lady Came From Baltimore", done by Scott Walker. A heroin habit curtailed his recording career, which ended in 1973; he died in 1980.
9. Leonard Cohen: Suzanne
Canadian Leonard Cohen, long a critics' favorite, was already in his mid-30's when he recorded his debut album in 1968. He had already published two novels as an author, as well as poetry, and led an quasi-beatnik life of travel, LSD, and women before he debuted at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. The sublime "Suzanne" is from his 1968 cult-item debut; while it peaked at only #83, it is routinely mentioned as one of the finest singer/songwriter albums ever. "Suzanne" is a gorgeous song, covered by many notable artists. AT 71, he is still active; his most recent album, Dear Heather, appeared in 2004.
10. Donovan: Catch The Wind
Donovan Leitch was from Scotland, but rode the wind of the British Invasion to American shores, where he quickly was tagged with the unrealistic and unfair tag, "the British Dylan". Indeed, "Catch the Wind" which was his first single to chart in America (#23 in 1965) is a Dylanesque piece of acoustic folk. He'd eventually specialize in psychedelic pop tunes, scoring several major late 60's hits, including "Sunshine Superman" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man", before fading from view. He remains active to this day; his most recent release was Beat Cafe, in 2004.
Listen to Donovan: Codine (1965)