Take a Trip Back in Time Sat 7/30 @ Cain Park
Instead of writing a paper for a history class, I sat down and read the latest issue of Hootenanny magazine. Most of the famous early mid-’60s folk music artists were in there. But the article I was most interested in was the one about Carolyn Hester, who was folk music’s first big female star of the ’60s. She was the female face of folk before Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
The Hootenanny feature on Hester was a Q&A interview. One of the questions concerned how she felt about Bob Dylan’s new (longer and curlier) hair style. Bob Dylan’s hair? Really? But most of the rest was fairly substantial. (For the record, she said she thought Dylan’s hair style was fine; whatever he wanted to do was okay, and that it didn’t really matter. That’s what I would have said, too, even back then in ’64.)
I was a kid, but I was already a semi-professional folksinger, and I thought I might become a writer someday. I pictured myself writing about all the artists in that magazine. I never did write that paper for history class, or many others, for any of my classes. I quit high school and became a full-time musician, which is what I did for many years. Then I became a journalist and author.
And now, ironically (or maybe not really ironically), I write history papers – well, magazine articles and books – about music history; about all the artists in that Hootenanny magazine.
And this past January, I found myself sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant, across the table from Carolyn Hester. Life can be funny that way. My life can, anyway. I’m writing two books, both on aspects of the ’60s folk music scene, and I was interviewing her.
I told her about that 1964 Hootenanny article and the question they’d asked her about Dylan’s hair. She found a kind and gentle way to not pass judgment on the folks at the folk music magazine, and to not exactly address my comment. But she did talk about Dylan.
Bob Dylan was arguably the most important figure in the original singer-songwriter movement, for several reasons. One of them was his commercial success, which opened the doors for every other singer-songwriter, mainly by making all the record labels want to sign artists like him; and also by making musicians want to write their own songs (and to believe, usually incorrectly, that they could).
But before anyone was interested in Dylan, he was hanging out in Greenwich Village, begging just about every working folk musician in New York to let him play harmonica with them, either live or in the studio. Carolyn Hester finally said yes. So on her first album for Columbia Records, in 1961, Dylan accompanied her on three of the songs, most notably the country-gospel tune “I’ll Fly Away.”
When they were rehearsing for the album at Hester’s apartment, Columbia’s legendary producer and A&R man John Hammond stopped by to listen. Hammond asked Dylan if he could also sing. Dylan said, “Yeah, a little,” which was pretty accurate. Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia. And that – to greatly oversimplify things – effectively began the singer-songwriter era.
Carolyn Hester is still singing. Which is more than anyone can say for Dylan, despite the fact that he still performs quite a bit and still puts out albums. But with Dylan, it was never about the singing; it was always about the songs. And if he had possessed a beautiful voice, his songs would not have been nearly as effective. Hester does have a beautiful voice, which works for the kinds of songs she sings.
So why am I telling you all of this? Is it because I think you need to know this stuff? Well, sure – but there’s more; there’s a direct connection to an event that’s taking place this coming Sat 7/30. It’s a concert titled “I’ll Fly Away: A 1961 Coffeehouse Concert,” in Cain Park’s Alma Theater.
I happen to be performing in this concert, with my group, Long Road http://www.longroadmusic.net. This will be our fifth-annual appearance at Cain Park (actually sixth, though the first year, we weren’t exactly Long Road yet). Long Road’s Cain Park concerts are always themed. So since this is 2011, this concert celebrates the music of 50 years ago, 1961. And the significance of 1961 is that it was the year before 1962, which is, essentially, when the singer-songwriter era began (at least publicly, with albums by Dylan and Tom Paxton).
So this concert features songs that the first budding crop of singer-songwriters was listening to, and inspired by, and probably performing, at the dawning of the new era. We’re doing songs that were popularized by artists like the Weavers, Kingston Trio, Limeliters, Bob Gibson and many others. And we’re doing “I’ll Fly Away,” because when Carolyn Hester recorded that song with Bob Dylan, it — in retrospect — represented the transition from the Folk Revival to the singer-songwriter era. And the singer-songwriter era never ended.
Long Road’s six members play intricate arrangements involving various combinations of 18 instruments and several voices. The show also includes lots of humor and history between the songs. Long Road’s members have been playing professionally for a combined total of about 200 years, though no individual member is that old.
I should also tell you that this concert is a fundraiser for the education organization Roots of American Music – just in case you were not planning to attend because you were thinking that, as folk musicians, we were already making too much money.
The Long Road concert takes place Sat 7/30, at 7PM, in Cain Park’s Alma Theater. For tickets – $20 & $22 in advance, $23 & $25 day of show – contact Cain Park at 216-371-3000 or http://www.CainPark.com.
David Budin is a freelance writer and a folk and rock musician. He is a former editor of Northern Ohio Live and Cleveland Magazine.
His writing focuses on the arts, and especially on pop culture and pop music history, and food. He is currently working on two folk/pop-music-related books.