Five Lesser-Known Folksingers from the ’60s Greenwich Village Scene
The following is a continuation of my article Half-forgotten Folksingers from the ’60s Greenwich Village Folk Scene. This one adds five more artists to the list.
Dave Van Ronk
Many were introduced to Van Ronk by the popular film Inside Llewyn Davis, which was partially inspired by Van Ronk’s life story, although the final product doesn’t really reflect it a whole lot.
He might not have influenced the film that much, but he definitely influenced the Greenwich Village scene. Nicknamed the “Mayor of MacDougal Street“, Van Ronk was a central figure about town. Many of the younger performers who eventually went on to great fame, including Bob Dylan, spent nights crashing on his couch. A true Renaissance man, Van Ronk taught the youngsters more than music. He entertained them with his knowledgeable and eccentric views on politics, poetry, history, and many other subjects. As Dylan said in his autobiography, Chronicles, “in Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he ranged supreme.”
Many of the younger artists learned many folk and blues songs from Van Ronk. Sometimes not only the song, but also his exact arrangement. Many are familiar with the amusing story Van Ronk tells in Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. According to Van Ronk, Dylan asked him if it would be ok if he used his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” on his first album. Van Ronk told him no, since he planned to use it for his next album, only to have Dylan tell him, whoops, too late, he’d already recorded it. Van Ronk goes on to say it was a sign of divine justice that The Animals had a hit with the version they copied from Dylan’s first album.
Van Ronk’s earliest albums contain the work for which he is best known. On these albums Van Ronk focuses on covers of traditional blues and folk songs. On later albums he tried on other many other styles, including rock, contemporary folk, as well as jazz and pop.
Van Ronk is accompanied by an electric band on his ninth album, Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters. Although spotty, it has its moments, including an infectious version of “Would You Like to Swing on a Star”, two interesting Joni Mitchell covers, and a unique version of “Dink’s Song”. His next album, Van Ronk, consists of well-chosen covers of contemporary folk and Jacques Brel songs. Later albums include his take on jazz and pop standards. (My personal favorite being Hummin’ to Myself.)
Van Ronk also recorded a number of live albums. The best is Live at Sir George Williams University, which includes his wonderful take on a Yeats’ poem that Judy Collins put to music, “Song of the Wandering Angus”.
Odetta was an established singer before the Greenwich Village scene was in full swing, having already released several landmark recordings, including Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, At the Gate of Horn (which, weirdly, is not a live album),and My Eyes Have Seen.
Odetta was born in Alabama. Her father, a steel-mill worker, died when she was a toddler. Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1937. An elementary school teacher noticed her vocal talent and persuaded her mother to get her classical training. She majored in music at Los Angeles City College and afterwards worked briefly in musical theatre. After deciding she was too fat and too black to make it in theatre, she decided to give folk music a go.
Odetta was a major influence on many of the performers that got their start in Greenwich Village, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In an interview with Ron Rosenbaum published in Playboy, Dylan tells a story of being in in a record store in 1958 and hearing the album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues. “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.” Dylan also discussed Odetta’s influence in an interview he did with Martin Scorcese for the documentary, No Direction Home.
In her autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, Joan Baez mentions the influence of Odetta, specifically citing the song “Lowlands” from Odetta’s At the Gate of Horn.
Like many folk singers of her era, Odetta was involved in the social upheavals of the times. She was often referred to as the “voice of the civil rights movement”. She took part in the 1963 March on Washington, where she was introduced by Martin Luther King and sang “I’m On My Way”, the third part of the “Spiritual Trilogy” from her debut album. (Joan Baez sang the first part, “Oh Freedom”.)
Odetta also participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.
Odetta for the most part stuck to traditional material, accompanying herself on guitar in a simple, straight-forward style. Her singing is what made her unique. Instead of mimicking the vocal styling of the older generations, she let her classically training shine through. The result was a truly individual style that set her apart.
Odetta’s first couple albums are solo efforts. On My Eyes Have Seen she is joined by Bill Lee on bass (filmmaker Spike Lee’s father). She included additional instrumentation on later records. In 1962 she released Odetta and the Blues, which was recorded with a full jazz band. Although the album is quite a departure from her more well-known work, it might be my favorite. She sings the songs well, and the band has a very lively, impromptu sound, as if it were recorded live.
Odetta didn’t record much after the sixties, although she continued to tour on a regular basis. She gives her take on contemporary material on some of her later albums, including an album of Dylan covers.
Paul Clayton never sold many records, but he’s still was an important figure of the sixties folk scene.
Clayton was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a fortuitous circumstance for a future folk song collector. New Bedford was at one time the center of the whaling industry. The sailors produced a bevy of folk songs, singing being a big part of the sailing culture. The quote below appears in Clayton’s sleeve notes for his first album.
“I soon got used to this singing; for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might he, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, “Come men, can’t any of you sing? Sing now, and raise the dead.” It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea-captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope.”— HERMAN MELVILLE
As a youngster Clayton became interested in these songs, and pored over the historial information availiable at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Clayton started his own radio show while still a teenager, featuring himself performing traditional material. After high school he enrolled at the University of Virginia and was fortunate enough to find a mentor, Arthur Kyle Davis Jr, who was one of the most respected folklorist in the country. Clayton assisted Davis with his book, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia. Around this time Clayton also traveled the backwoods of Virginia talking to residents familar with the folksongs of the area.
Although he remained based in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, living in a small log cabin without electricity, he made numerous trips to Greenwich Village, and became friendly with the notables on the scene, including Van Ronk, Dylan, and Joan Baez.
Dylan praised Clayton in a 1964 interview. He said a folk song “goes deeper than just myself singing it, … it goes into all kinds of weird things, things that I don’t know about, can’t pretend to know about. The only guy I know that can really do it is a guy I know named Paul Clayton, he’s the only guy I’ve ever heard or seen who can sing songs like this, because he’s a medium, he’s not trying to personalize it, he’s bringing it to you … Paul, he’s a trance.”
Clayton eventually was signed to Stinson Records. His first album, Sailing And Whaling Songs Of The 19th Century, is a classic. Later he recorded a series of albums for Folkways, each focusing on a different part of the world where he had collected songs. For my money, the best are Folksongs and Ballads of Virginia and Cumberland Mountain Folksongs. I’m also fond of the later Dulcimer Songs and Solos, which includes his take on “Mary Hamilton”.
Not surprisingly, Clayton had little commercial success. However, he did write “Gotta Travel On” (actually rewrote the traditional “Yonder Comes the High Sheriff”), which became a major hit for Billy Grammer (who, much to the folksinger’s horror, played it for the crowds as he toured with race-baiter George Wallace during the 1964 presidential campaign).
Clayton hung-out with Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village during the early sixties. Given Dylan’s deep interest in folk ballads, it’s not surprising the two became friends. Dylan and Baez visited him in Virginia, and according to some sources played together at the Gaslight in Charlottesville. Clayton also tagged-along on the well-known cross-country trip where he, Dylan and several others attended Mardi Gras and then headed to California to meetup with Baez.
Dylan took the tune for his song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” from Clayton’s “Scarlet Ribbons for Her Hair”, which Clayton in turn had borrowed from the traditional “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chicken’s When I’m Gone”. Dylan did not acknowledge Clayton’s contribution to the song, which some argued was borderline unethical. It didn’t seem to bother Clayton too much. They remained friends even though their record companies sued each other.
Tragically, Clayton committed suicide by pulling an electric heater into the bathtub with himself. He was only thirty-six years old.
Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker (Ian and Sylvia)
Ian and Sylvia were part of the Canadian invasion of the Greenwich Village folk scene, which included such notables as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot, among others. Both Ian and Sylvia got their start in the folk clubs of Toronto in the late fifties. They met in one of the clubs, and decided to work together. In an interview with Studio Q, Ian said at the time he only knew a few cowboy songs.
Ian and Sylvia gained great popularity during the early to mid-sixties. It’s easy to see why. Their choice of material to cover was masterful and their performances were exceptionally well-done, threading the needle between overly saccharine bids for popularity and overly sincere copies of older artists. Although neither was a prolific songwriter, both penned some exceptional original material (expecially Ian). Four Strong Winds will live on in the folk music pantheon, and “You Were On My Mind”, “Summer Wages”, and “Someday Soon” are not far behind.
Ian and Sylvia’s first six albums record for Vanguard contain their best work. Most of these recordings consist of a mix of traditional material, a couple original works, and some of the earliest covers of songs by up-and-coming artists such as Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. Ian and Sylvia had exquisite taste and wisely chose to include only their strongest original material. Arguably, their second and third releases are their best. Four Stong Winds includes the great title track, and also a nice cover of an obscure at the time Dylan song, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”. Northern Journey includes both “You Were On My Mind” and “Some Day Soon”.
The folk world started to shift around 1965, as Dylan went electric and country music had a bigger influence. Unfortunately for Ian and Sylvia, those changes moved the world of popular music out of their comfort zone. They attempted to change with the times, covering more contemporary songs, trying on country sounds, adding new instrumentation. Although their later work certainly has its moments, it doesn’t compare with the earlier stuff. In the same Studio Q interview mentioned above, Ian says they were “meandering” after the Vanguard years.
Ian and Sylvia called it a day after two county-tinged albums recorded for Columbia in the early seventies. Both have remained active in subsequent years.
Martin Carthy might not have been from the Village scene, but he certainly influenced it.
Many of the songs sung around Greenwich Village in the early days of the folk boom originated from the U.S., penned by such notables as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and many others. Some of the older material came from Harry Smith’s collection, the well-known and influencial Anthology of American Folk Music. Others originated from the Old World, some straight from the Child Ballads, including such staples as “Lord Randall”, “Tam Lin”, “Barbara Allen”, and “Mary Hamilton”. Carthy helped popularize many of the Old World songs.
Carthy was sort of the David Van Ronk of the British folk scene in the early-to-mid-sixties. He possessed a vast knowledge of British folk music and was a very skilled singer and guitar player. He was a regular on the London folk scene, making the rounds of all the popular clubs. At one point Carthy was the artist in residence at the Troubadour, the leading folk club at the time.
Although Carthy is well-known among hard-core folk music fans, for general music fans he is best know for his influence on both Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Carthy met Bob Dylan in 1962, when the largely-unknown Dylan traveled to London to appear in a BBC play, Madhouse on Castle Street. Upon his arrival, Dylan started exploring the folk clubs around town. Carthy and Dylan met and quickly developed a friendship. Carthy often tells a humorous story about how on one particularly cold night Dylan accompanied him back to his apartment, where they chopped up an old piano with a Samurai sword and used it for firewood.
Dylan’s visit to London was very productive even though the play itself had little impact. He learned the traditional “Scarborough Fair” from Carthy, and turned it into his own “Girl From the North Country” and also “Boots of Spanish Leather”. He turned “Lord Franklin”, also learned from Carthy, into “Bob Dylan’s Dream”. He learned “The Patriot’s Dream” from Bob Davenport, and it eventually became “With God on Our Side”.
Paul Simon also meet Carthy in London in the early sixties. After Simon’s first album with Art Garfunkel bombed commercially , he decided to try a solo career in London. He met Carthy, and one night Carthy jotted down for him the guitar part he had composed for the “Scarborough Fair”.
Unbeknown to Simon and Garfunkel, the producer of their first album, Tom Wilson, added a tasteful electic backing track to “The Sounds of Silence”, a song that appeared on their first album. It immediately became a smash hit, which prompted the dou to get back together. “Scarborough Fair”, complete with Carthy’s guitar part, was included on their third album, and was another big hit. Many felt that Simon at least owed Carthy a mention, but it was not forthcoming until many years later.
Carthy started his recording career in 1965, recording traditional folk with partner and later key member of the Fairport Convention, Dave Swarbrick. He’s also played in several bands, most notably Steeleye Span. Although he is not a household name and never sold a great number of reocrds, Carthy is widely known as the “father” of the British folk movement, and is regarded as one of the best guitarist in that style.