Barney Hoskyns Zeroes in on Woodstock in “Small Town Talk”
Americana music can claim several music towns as its home. There was Austin in the early 1970s, Laurel Canyon during the same time, Muscle Shoals in the late ’60s and early ’70s (though less a scene in the same sense that the others were), Memphis around that same time period — and then there’s Athens and Nashville and Bristol and the Delta, of course … and then there’s Woodstock, ever since the early ’60s.
And in Woodstock, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell was Levon Helm’s right-hand man from 2004 until Helm’s death in 2012. As he recalls about The Band, perhaps the group most directly associated with the beginning of the Woodstock scene, “To me they were the most influential band after The Beatles. They were taking everything that said ‘America’ musically and inventing this thing that hadn’t existed before. There was so much talk about that record [Music from Big Pink], and then the talk turned to this place in upstate New York where these guys were living and where this scene was going on.”
Acclaimed music historian Barney Hoskyns had already turned his pen to The Band in Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Hyperion), and he points out in his absorbing and in-depth new book – Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo, March) – how Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson weren’t the only ones who found magic in those woods.
“It always was a mecca, a power spot,” Maria Muldaur says in the book. “There are other perfectly cute towns in the Catskills, but there’s some mojo [in Woodstock].” After 1963, according to Hoskyns, “Woodstock had changed from a place famous for its painters into a magnet for the popular music that shook sixties America to its core.”
Hoskyns’ subtitle tells part of the rest of the story, and he draws deeply on interviews with denizens of the little American Eden to chronicle the history of Woodstock from its days as an artists’ colony at the turn of the 20th century to the mecca for folk, rock, jazz, and jug band music it became in the early 1960s.
Many of the tales might be familiar to the initiated fans of this time, place, and music. Yet, Hoskyns so powerfully evokes the feelings and vibes – both good and bad – of living in and through those halcyon and fraught days. In his pages, reading about Robbie Robertson’s preening and vanity in thinking himself as the leader of The Band, Van Morrison’s reticence about meeting Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix’s love of horses, brings new life to old tales.
At the center of the scene is Albert Grossman, and in some ways the stories of Grossman’s arrogance, his megalomania, and his penchant for grandeur come across as the most telling in the book.
“Albert Grossman, who was 35 in 1961 but always looked 50, was a new type of impresario on the folk scene,” Hoskyns writes. “Saturnine, intimidating, greedy, the opposite of everything the folk revival was supposed to be about.” Grossman managed Dylan, The Band, and Janis Joplin, among others, and he conducted his life and business as “the lord of the [manor],” according to Maria Muldaur. “He could afford to have the best of everything,” she told Hoskyns, “including a restaurant that was practically at the end of his driveway. And some of the wives of the guys in The Band and various other people aspired to his lifestyle. … If Albert proclaimed that a certain kind of imported cheese was the absolute best you could get, they wanted that too.”
Grossman had a great ear for talent, so the story goes, and he looked out for his artists, even though he also took advantage of them. As with Dylan, Hoskyns points out, Grossman protected Joplin, “often bringing her up to Bearsville to keep an eye on her.” He went so far with Joplin as to try to get her off her heroin habit and straight. He was inconsolable at her death – though not quite sad enough to keep him from demanding her estate pay him the money she contractually owed him at her death.
Grossman failed to win many hearts. Upon Grossman’s death, Todd Rundgren, who recorded his first album in Woodstock, said, “He got what he deserved. … Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Barbara O’Brien, Levon Helm’s manager at the time of his death, tells Hoskyns, “Maybe Albert was a wise businessman, but I think he’s the model for what managers shouldn’t do. … Albert wanted to be as big as Dylan and Janis were, and he took too much from them. The guy was an empire, but his personality stopped you from wanting to embrace it.”
Mary Travers, one of his first stars, once told Dylan’s biographer Bob Spitz that Grossman “wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”
Apart from the tales of ego and excess in the woods in upstate New York, the real story is the music that emerged from Woodstock. Besides The Band, Dylan, and other marquee names, some of the most compelling tales Hoskyns tells involve musicians who have since left this world, like Karen Dalton; or whose names we simply don’t hear as much as we used to, such as Maria Muldaur and Happy Traum.
In 1972, Artie and Happy Traum booked a small studio in Saratoga Springs. They “literally camped out on the floor” for the weekend, and what emerged was an album called Mud Acres: Music Among Friends, with the Traums accompanied by Muldaur, Jim Rooney, John Herald, Bill Keith, Tony Brown, and others. They did songs by the Delmore Brothers, Gene Autry, and Blind Willie Johnson. This little group of folk musicians evolved into the Woodstock Mountains Revue and put out a second album in 1977 – recorded at Bearsville – that included John Sebastian, Rory Block, and Eric Andersen, and “Sebastian and Paul Butterfield did a fabulous harmonica duet on ‘Amazing Grace.’”
More albums followed, with Larry Campbell and Cindy Cashdollar joining the troupe. As Campbell recalls to Hoskyns, “It felt like a Utopian music scene. There didn’t seem to be any egos involved. There was an aura of the ideal of the hippie scene that could actually come to fruition through music. And it seemed to permeate the whole town. Everywhere you went, there was this camaraderie and this easy flow of relationships.”
In his novella Music from Big Pink, John Niven describes the illusionary aura glowing off the little village of Woodstock, New York: “It always looked real peaceful as you drove through the mountains along those dusty gravel roads that cut through all the greenery, but, man, there was some crazy shit going on in those big houses back in the woods.”
Hoskyns’ illuminating book shovels through that crazy shit to discover the gold that lies beneath it, in his captivating look at this sometimes sad and always fascinating scene that gave birth to Americana music.