Nowt so weird as Folk – From the Dust bowl to the Thames Delta
1965 was a hell of a year. Ready Stead Go ruled the TV and a non-ending stream of Beat bands took over the charts and the world.
It was the year I turned 16 and got a motorbike which meant I could finally get around and get to gigs.
Donovan appeared as a resident on Ready Steady go complete with his cap and sign on his guitar that said – THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS – both of which he nicked from Woody Guthrie. I liked Donovan and I had this girlfriend Viv who had his album which she later gave to me. I used to go round her place and play the Donovan album.
Viv had an older brother who was in to Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie. I’d never heard of Woody Guthrie but I was soon getting in to him more than the Donovan. The albums that Viv’s brother liked were Folkways things where Woody is playing fairly safe songs like ‘Springfield Mountain’ with Sonny Terry Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly. There was something about them I liked and I started seeking out other Guthrie stuff and soon found some Guthrie songs that were meatier – ‘The Dustbowl Ballads’
I loved the lyrics they weren’t love songs. Woody Guthrie was writing songs that meant something, that were poetic with an intellectual and political importance. They told stories. They were about people and disasters, organising and putting things right. I loved it. My mind buzzed with them. I soaked them up.
I had discovered someone who I felt sang real songs about real injustice. He was immediately one of my heroes and has never ceased to be.
I bought all his Folkways albums – his ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ and ‘Columbia River Collection’.
Guthrie was the poet that put balls into the Folk movement. He not only inspired people like Seeger in the 1950s but was the whole basis behind the emergence of Dylan and later influenced Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and a host of others.
Billy Bragg was straight out of the Guthrie mould and burst upon the scene with his rousing political anthems such as Leon Rosselson’s (another singer-songwriter I love) ‘World turned upside down’ and Seeger’s ‘Which side are you on?’ lapsed into more Poppy stuff but re-emerged when he’d been asked to put some Woody Guthrie lyrics to music and record them. He and Wilco recorded the memorable Mermaid Avenue.
Fairly recently I went on pilgrimage to Mermaid Ave in Coney Island New York. The house was no longer there but you could still walk around and pick up the feel of it with its Funfair Park and tackiness. I could feel him there and I breathed his air.
Coney island 2010
Back in 1965 I’d discovered Woody and I’m still investigating to this day. I always go back to Guthrie. He is a legend.
For Rock to come of age it had to grow out of the love songs and teenage focus of early Rock ‘n’ Roll and start dealing with real issues in a sophisticated manner. The music had to become more sophisticated and complex and the lyrics had to expand. That’s where Woody came in. Almost single-handedly he raised the art of song writing and added humour and a social dimension through a poetry that was insufficiently rewarded.
Woody was a genius. I had found him and been moved by him but my quest was not over.
Woody got me into Folk and Folk, post Dylan, was undergoing a resurgence of interest.
There were two ways it could go. There was the contemporary field with singer songwriters like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn or there was the traditional with the Young Tradition.
It seemed to me that traditional Folk was stilted and set in the past while contemporary Folk was of the moment. Inspired from the roots of Guthrie and then Dylan they were creatively writing songs about the world I was living in. They were telling my stories.
Viv had got me into early Donovan and then two other people got me going into contemporary acoustic Singer-songwriters who were largely masquerading as Folk singers just because they played acoustic guitar.
Firstly Robert Ede leant me the wonderful Jack C Frank album. I immediately bought it and played it to death. It is one of those rare albums that are just perfect with beautifully crafted songs.
I loved Jackson he was a lovely gentle man with a great mind and welcoming smile. I got to meet him in 1969 in Ilford High Road at the Angel pub. It was a great little gig although there were only about twenty people there. Jackson stayed back and we sat and talked with him and told him how great he was.
Jackson had a really tough life. He’d been badly burnt when his school caught fire. Many of his friends had been killed. He’d come to England with the compensation looking to buy classic cars. He’d recorded the one fabled album, performed some gigs, got together with Sandy Denny and then was gone. He later ended up on the streets in New York, got his eye shot out and died penniless of pneumonia.
He didn’t deserve that. He was a lovely talented man.
Supposedly Jackson was meant to be performing with Roy Harper as a guest at Roy’s big break-through gig. He never showed up, never did another concert and faded away.
Then Neil Furby introduced me to Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. I loved Bert’s first and second albums with all the political stuff like ‘Antiapartheid’, ‘Do you hear me now?’ and ‘Needle of Death’. I liked the stuff I could get my teeth into. Folk brought that social bite.
It was the liking of Bert and John that led me to Les Cousins on Greek Street in Soho. Having a motorbike enabled me to get there. It was there that my quest took me to Roy Harper but that’s another story altogether.
Folk changed Rock by adding substance to it. You can see its influence in the Beatles later work. By the end of 1965 I was listening to Beat music that had begun to get more experimental and was getting into Blues and now Folk. The mid 1960s was a nascent period that was about to explode again and I was poised to become more active in my quest. A number of goals were about to be achieved.