sorrows and promises and songs of farewell

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There is more than one Great American Songbook, or let’s say that the Great American Songbook has many chapters. The phrase has become shorthand for the songs written mostly before and right after World War II by such composers and lyricists as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and the Gershwins, but our musical history is more sprawling and diverse than that. The Great American Songbook is a multi-volume anthology that ranges over decades and over a geographical area longer than Route 66 and wider than Tin Pan Alley. It includes country songs by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard, blues by Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and Jimmy Reed, rock and roll by Chuck Berry, Pomus and Shuman and Leiber and Stoller. And soul music, western swing, the modern jazz that Chuck Berry had no kick against.

The idea behind Sorrows and Promises is one that took hold years ago when I started to see many albums paying tribute to the great songwriters who worked in the Brill Building and at 1650 Broadway, people like Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Barry and Greenwich, Bacharach and David. Growing up in the 1960s in New York City, I was in awe of the pop and R&B records being made in midtown Manhattan, but I was also affected by the songs that were coming from a few miles south. Songs by Bob Dylan, of course, but also by Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen and Richard Farina, and a bit later by Tim Hardin, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Fred Neil and Paul Simon. One of my earliest rock heroes, Dion, from The Bronx, was influenced by downtown folk and blues, and I found out that Buddy Holly was living and writing in Greenwich Village, at The Brevoort on Fifth Avenue, right before he died in 1959, making demos in his apartment, taking his guitar to Washington Square. In a way, he was one of the earliest of the generation of singer-songwriters who went on to shape the scene and the sensibility of the 1960s, and it made perfect sense for Carolyn Hester to cut his “Lonesome Tears” on her album That’s My Song alongside a few by Tom Paxton.

As a record label A&R person, I wanted to do an album that brought all these writers under one roof, made the connections between Buddy Holly and Phil Ochs, between Dion and Lou Reed, Richard & Mimi Farina and Janis Ian. I thought about an album that explored the depth, variety and complexity of the music being written in the 1960s (and just over a year before the start of the decade, in the case of Holly) in downtown New York City. There is a tendency to think of the ‘60s Village songwriters as a group of political activists with acoustic guitars, ripping songs from the headlines. That was a big part of it. Richie Havens told me about the effect it had on him when he walked into a Village club and heard, for the first time, Dylan sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and I was at a number of concerts and rallies in the ‘60s where Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton sang pointed songs of protest.

But there was, as the Fred Neil song said, another side to this life. You can hear, in songs like Eric Andersen’s “Close The Door Lightly,” a poetic approach to the more tender side of Buddy Holly. John Sebastian’s songs for the Spoonful electrified folk with as much sheer joy and invention as The Byrds, with elements of jug band music, ragtime and the easy-rollin’ Americana of Hoagy Carmichael. Tim Hardin sketched perfect, haunting songs about intimacy and miscommunication (“Do you think I’m not aware of what you’re saying or why you’re saying it?”). Phil Ochs balanced the defiance of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” with the touching meditation on mortality “When I’m Gone.” The album I envisioned would gather together a dozen or so of those songs and, I hoped, put them in the context they deserved, as songs that belonged in any definition of the Great American Songbook.

The New Wave of New York songwriters were like the French New Wave filmmakers, breaking with convention, stirring up trouble, demolishing the wall that existed between pop and folk. Kids listened to Top 40 radio and bought 45’s, and the assumption was that this was a phase to be outgrown, that pop was disposable and frivolous, and sometime after the high school prom, childish things would be put aside and the audience would buy folk and jazz LP’s. You didn’t see many pop acts on college campuses; that was Baez and Brubeck territory. And if the occasional folk song made its way into the pop charts – “If I Had A Hammer,” say, or “Walk Right In,” or “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or “Michael (Row The Boat Ashore)” – that was a novelty, not an artistic compromise. But the folk scene of the New Frontier, the world where Hootenanny! was a prime-time network television show and a catch-all term for the mainstream marketing of folk music, was upended in 1964 when The Beatles came to the U.S.A. (February) and Bob Dylan went into Columbia Studios (June) with his producer Tom Wilson to record what the label pointedly titled Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was an album that contained one of his most enduring “protest songs,” “Chimes of Freedom,” but also had (and ended with) the kiss-off “It Ain’t Me Babe” (“it’s not me you’re looking for,” he says) and “My Back Pages”:
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

How could anyone writing songs not be rattled by what Lennon & McCartney and Dylan were up to? ’64-’65 was the tail end of the Folk Revival (a period cinematically rendered by Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis). The “folk” guys – because what else could you call them? They were mostly male, wielded acoustic guitars and played the folk clubs – were all chasing Dylan around at first, inspired and emboldened by his success as a crusader-troubadour, and now they had this whole other world-shaking thing to contend with. It became a mad scramble, peaking in spring-summer 1965 when The Byrds’ shimmering folk a go-go version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” became a number one single and Dylan, members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Al Kooper got on stage amped and amplified at the Newport Folk Festival, played “Like A Rolling Stone” and a couple of other songs and started an epic battle worthy of an episode-nine of Game of Thrones. Within days, it seemed, there were bands like the Spoonful and the Blues Project, who saw an opportunity to make a joyous, category-defying noise. That June, Tom Wilson took the spare, vocals-and-one-guitar original version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and overdubbed it with electric guitar, bass and drums. Any notion that the citadel of folk purism would hold was folly.

Where was folk-rock born? Maybe in L.A., where even the Byrds were preceded by Jackie DeShannon doing Dylan. Maybe in Liverpool, where The Searchers jangled up “What Have They Done To The Rain” and George Harrison picked up the Rickenbacker guitar that was an inspiration to Jim (later Roger) McGuinn when he saw A Hard Day’s Night. Maybe in San Francisco, where the Beau Brummels’ “Laugh Laugh” and “Just A Little” (produced by Sylvester Stewart, later known as Sly Stone) had all the sonic elements later associated with folk-rock. Some people call The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” the first folk-rock hit. Or maybe it was Trini Lopez’s “If I Had A Hammer.” By 1964, the foundation was already in place for a more inclusive approach to folk music. McGuinn had been a guitarist on Bobby Darin’s Golden Folk Hits LP that featured a couple of Dylan songs. You can hear traces of it in Dion’s mournful folk-blues from the early ‘60s. Hell, as early as 1963, Joan Baez was doing The Majors’ “She’s A Troublemaker” in her set. At a ’64 Broadside session, Phil Ochs brought Eric Andersen up to share vocals and sing harmony on Lennon & McCartney’s “I Should Have Known Better,” and although the term “folk-rock” was a year away, that’s kind of what it was.

It was a point of no return, and the anything-goes eclecticism was a natural fit for the musicians and writers gathered south of 14th Street in NYC. You could walk around on any given night, drop into the Bitter End, Café Wha, The Night Owl, The Gaslight Café, Café A Go-Go, Folk City and see blues giants John Lee Hooker and Skip James, singers like Richie Havens doing Fred Neil’s “The Bag I’m In” and Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears.” Tim Hardin was singing his own songs as well as “Stagger Lee” and Neil’s “Blues On The Ceiling.” There were New York-based record companies like Elektra, Verve Folkways/Forecast, Vanguard and Columbia – and newer ones popping up like Kama Sutra – taking a chance on all this music (except for Holly, all of the songs on this album were originally cut for one of those labels). And there were critics in the city, at papers like the Village Voice and the New York Times, sending out bulletins about what was happening downtown.

The Blues Project’s first album had songs by Chuck Berry, Eric Andersen and Bo Diddley, and the repertoire of the Spoonful’s debut was a combination of jug band staples, vibrant originals, and a song, “You Baby,” that was by the midtown writing team of Mann & Weil with Phil Spector. In this new world, everything was up for grabs, no more folk snobbery. Tom Rush cut full-tilt rock and roll, Baez sang “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in The T.N.T. Show, Ian and Sylvia recorded Bacharach & David’s “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” (a hit for Gene Pitney), Simon & Garfunkel owed their sound to more to The Everly Brothers and doo-wop than to the Limelighters and the Brothers Four, and when Shadow Morton produced Janis Ian, he must have realized how much in common, thematically and emotionally, her songs of adolescent angst had with the soap-opera pop records he made with The Shangri-Las.

What Lennon & McCartney and Dylan did was write everyone a creative permission slip: don’t be tied down. Language can be more elliptical, song structure more experimental, instrumentation more varied. Wasn’t the folk movement about Freedom, ultimately? The conviction that you could change the world with a song and a guitar, an idea as much about Chuck Berry and Hank Williams as Woody Guthrie. It didn’t always have to be about the news that was fit to sing. Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” were, I think, as important and as influential as “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” because they were hard-edged break-up songs, matter-of-fact and even cruel (“You just kind of wasted my precious time”). They weren’t unrequited-love songs, or torch songs, they were about restlessness and the impulse to move on, walk on down that long lonesome road, babe.

This album could have been called Sorrows and Promises and Farewells: “The Road I’m On (Gloria)” (“Now I’ve gotta roam”) “ Close The Door Lightly” (“Who was the one who robbed my time?”) “The Other Side to This Life” (I don’t know where I’m going next, I don’t know who I’m gonna be”) are all fare-thee-wells without undue sentiment, songs of freedom. Even Holly’s “Learning The Game” is more resigned than self-pitying: “When you love her and she doesn’t love you/You’re only learning the game.” And other songs are about couples at cross-purposes, romantic indecision, grown-up stuff. It was a writing renaissance that changed how folk albums were imagined: in 1962, Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun was almost completely comprised of “Trad” songs, but by ’64 she was releasing a live album with material by Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, John Phillips and Bob Dylan, and her next studio album had Richard Farina’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” Phil Ochs’ “In the Heat of the Summer,” Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” and two by Dylan. Joan Baez/5, released in late ’64, had Dylan, Ochs and Farina (and Johnny Cash) songs. It was going to be a long, slow period for “Trad.”

The second half of the ‘60s was about the freedom to form the Velvet Underground and shock even patrons of clubs on St. Mark’s Place, who’d seen just about everything. It was about bands like The Fugs, The Youngbloods, The Flying Machine (featuring singer-songwriter James Taylor), The New Journeymen and The Mugwumps (with members who combined to become Mama’s and Papa’s). It was about teenagers like Janis Ian, whose “Society’s Child” was a racially-charged version of girl group songs like “He’s A Rebel,” and the pop group The Cyrkle having a hit with “Red Rubber Ball,” co-written by Paul Simon.

One night in 2015, I ran into Richard Barone at City Winery, and hastily pitched the concept of Sorrows and Promises to him. I’d been a fan of Richard’s for a long time (and raved about his albums with The Bongos and with James Mastro in the pages of Creem and High Fidelity) and thought he’d be the perfect artist to interpret these songs. We started bouncing ideas around. I wanted it to be an album that recognized connections. Phil Ochs singing Buddy Holly songs at Carnegie Hall. A Paul Simon song about Greenwich Village, produced by Tom Wilson, who also did a nocturnal version of Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” with Nico, who was in a band with Lou Reed, who inducted Dion (also produced by Wilson) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and Dion, of course, was on the same tour on which Buddy Holly was killed, and Holly’s spot on the next scheduled date was filled by Bobby Vee, for whom Dylan played piano). Fred Neil writing “The Other Side to This Life,” a song covered by the Youngbloods and the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose first album’s back cover has Tim Hardin’s name scrawled on a wall.

Lists of writers and songs went flying back and forth, and much hand-wringing was done about whom had to be left off: Toms Paxton and Rush, Jesse Colin Young with the Youngbloods and Al Kooper with the Blues Project, Tim Buckley and David Blue. Where are Jim & Jean and Ian & Sylvia? What about the writers who settled in the west, James Taylor, John Phillips, Jackson Browne? How can there not be songs by Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte-Marie? It would have been fun to show how the folk-and-jug-band scene rippled towards San Francisco and affected bands such as Jefferson Airplane (another band that covered “The Other Side to This Life”), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and The Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are so many individual New York stories woven into Sorrows and Promises: Buddy Holly, alone with his guitar and a tape recorder on lower Fifth Avenue, the Velvet Underground at the Electric Circus on St, Mark’s, the Lovin’ Spoonful at The Night Owl on West 3rd. Paul Simon taking the subway from Queens to Bleecker Street. “Voices leaking from a sad café.” These are some of those voices.

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