Ten Half-Forgotten Folkies from the ’60s Greenwich Village Scene
Every art form goes through periods of intense transformation as artists discover new avenues and new methods to express themselves through the medium. Television is currently experiencing such a revolution, driven in part by advancements in streaming technology and the emergence of new content providers such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon.
Folk music experienced this type of renaissance from the late-fifties through the late-sixties. During a time of growing civil unrest, music fans turned away from the exhilarating but inconsequential pop music of the time. Folk music, with its serious subject matter and no-nonsense sound, fit the era. The artistic capital of this revolution was New York City’s Greenwich Village, the long-time epicenter of the American art scene.
Even casual music fans own a couple albums by the most well-known artists of that time and place, such as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. However, many other talented artists from that time never reached a mass audience. Below are ten that deserve more attention than they ever got.
1. Karen Dalton
Dalton grew up in Oklahoma, married at fifteen, had a son and daughter, divorced, lost custody of the children, remarried the same guy, and then took off for Greenwich Village with the daughter, arriving just in time to join in the great folk boom.
She played in the numerous coffee houses in the Village, often on the same bill as Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, and even Bob Dylan. She made quite an impression on Dylan. From his autobiography, Chronicles:
My favorite singer in the place [the Café Wha?] was Karen Dalton. She was a tall white blues singer and guitar player, funky, lanky and sultry. I’d actually met her before, run across her the previous summer outside of Denver in a mountain pass town in a folk club. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it. I sang with her a couple times.
Although not a songwriter, Dalton was a unique interpreter of both traditional and contemporary folk music. As Dylan said, her voice was reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s, bluesy and languid, but instead of jazz she sang folk songs, accompanying herself on a 12-string acoustic guitar.
Dalton was never comfortable on stage, preferring to play for friends or at parties. She also hated recording. According to many sources, she would freeze-up or simply refuse to play during recording sessions. Thankfully, producer Nik Venet, having failed in four previous attempts to record the elusive Dalton, tricked her. While she was attending one of Fred Neil’s sessions, he asked her, as a personal favor and just for his personal collection, to record one of Neil’s songs, A Little Bit of Rain. She agreed, and afterwards Venet pushed her to record several additional songs, all in one session. The result was her best album, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best. Dalton only recorded one other album during her lifetime, In My Own Time.
Dalton played music less frequently as the years rolled on, developed a heroin habit, and eventually died of AIDS at 55 years old.
2. Fred Neil
Fred Neil is another curious case. Neil was one of the “stars” in the very early days of the folk music heyday that centered in the Village. He was something of an elder statesman, mentoring youngsters like Dalton, Tim Hardin, and many others. He teamed up with Vince Martin for one album, and then recorded a solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal. In 1965 he released his seminal work, the self-titled Fred Neil.
The album contains his most well-known song, “Everybody’s Talkin’“, a massive hit for Harry Nilsson. Nilsson’s version was included in the film Midnight Cowboy, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, which was both a box office and critical success. Luckily for Neil, Bob Dylan, who had been asked to write something for the movie, was late with the delivery of his song, “Lay, Lady, Lay”, which forced the producers to use Neil’s song instead.
Like Dalton, Neil was not a big fan of touring and recording, and outside of a couple half-hearted efforts, basically bagged his career after Fred Neil. Instead of following up his most successful album, he head to Florida to work on The Dolphin Project. Perhaps inspired by his own song, “Dolphins“?
3. Tim Hardin
Tim Hardin dropped out of high school to join the Marines, and after he got out, made his way to the Village. He then moved to Boston, made an album for Columbia Records which they chose not to release, moved to Los Angeles, and then back to New York, where he was signed by Verve Records. Although uneven, his first album for Verve contains several stellar songs, including “Don’t Make Promises”, “How Can We Hang on to a Dream”, and most notably, “Reason to Believe”, which Rod Stewart turned into a hit single, and was subsequently recorded by many artists. The next year he released the best recording of his career, Tim Hardin 2, which contained “The Lady Came from Baltimore” and his most well-known song, “If I Were a Carpenter”, recorded by hundreds of artists and a big hit for both Johnny Cash and Bobby Darin.
Unfortunately, over the years Hardin’s problems with alcohol and heroin grew worse and his artistic output suffered. Later releases mostly consisted of cover versions of other people songs (Bird on the Wire is the best of the lot). He eventually sold his catalog for a bargain basement price, and a few years later died of a heroin overdose, mostly forgotten.
4. Eric Andersen
Eric Andersen second album, released in 1966, contains his only widely known song, “Thirsty Boots”, a civil rights anthem that has been covered by many artists, most notably Judy Collins. In 1972 Andersen released Blue River, generally recognized as his best. The album generated quite a bit of attention for Andersen, and it seemed he was poised to make a name for himself during the height of the singer/songwriter era. Unbelievably, his follow-up record, now referred to as The Lost Record, was misplaced by his record company. The tapes showed up almost twenty years later and the album was finally released in 1991.
Andersen continues to release material up to this day. Perhaps freed from any hope of large-scale commercial success, he has recorded some very adventuresome material. In 2002 he released Beat Avenue, a two CD set that contains one song consisting of 26 minutes of Beat-inspired poetry. In 2014 he released Shadow in the Light of Albert Camus, an album dedicated to the works of the existentialist philosopher.
5. Patrick Sky
Patrick Sky is a weird case. According to Dave Von Ronk, an elder statesman of the Greenwich folk scene, Sky jumped out a window to escape a bad marriage, moved to Florida, changed his name, and then ran into Buffy Sainte-Marie (more about her later), who brought him to the Village. Von Ronk said that Sky nearly derailed Joni Mitchell’s career when he loudly proclaimed that her performance of her song, “Get the Urge for Going”, “really sucked”, which caused Mitchell to consider quitting the music business.
Sky’s first two records were recorded for the folk label Vanguard Records. His first album includes his most well-known song, “Many a Mile”, a story of lost romance that has been covered by many artists. While his early albums were typical folk/blues fare, well-constructed and competently performed, later albums were more political in nature.
In 1971 Sky recorded Songs That Made America Famous, which purposefully and successfully offended the sensibilities of pretty much everybody, with songs such as “Child Molester’s Blues”, which sarcastically (I hope) laments the hard life of the pedophile, and “Luang Prabang”, about a soldier whose balls were blown-off during the Vietnam War. Vanguard refused to release it. It was finally put out several years later by a small independent label. It was not well-received at the time, but over the years was recognized for its wit and daring.
Sky has been largely inactive on the music scene since Songs That Made America Famous, instead becoming a builder of uilleann pipes, the national bagpipe of Ireland.
6. Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie, born in Canada on the Cree First Nation Reserve, was adopted by a family from Massachusetts. Sainte-Marie taught herself to play guitar and piano. As a young adult she performed extensively in the clubs around Toronto, and eventually migrated to the Village scene.
She signed a recording contract with Vanguard, which released her first album, It’s My Way, in 1964. It includes her most enduring song, “Universal Soldier”, recorded by dozens but most notably by Donovan, the British answer to Bob Dylan. “Now That the Buffalo Is Gone”, which vividly describes injustices done to American Indians, is another fan favorite. Her 1965 release Many a Mile (the Patrick Sky tune) contains “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, a hit for Elvis Presley. She also co-wrote Up Where You Belong, a giant hit for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes that was included on the soundtrack for the popular film, An Officer and a Gentleman. Although the pace has slowed, she continues to record, releasing Power in the Blood in 2015.
7. Tom Paxton
Tom Paxton arrived in the Village after a stint in the Army and already having had some success as a songwriter.
Paxton’s material generally consists of political satire and children’s songs, as well as romantic topics. Paxton’s first album, The Man Who Built the Bridges, includes one of his most popular children’s songs, The Marvelous Toy. It also contains Going to the Zoo Tomorrow, well-known to parents whose children are Raffi fans.
His second album, Ramblin’ Boy, includes three of his best songs, “The Last Thing on My Mind”, “Ramblin’ Boy”, and “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound”, all subsequently recorded by many other artists.
Paxton went on to record many albums, and although none sold particularly well, they contained a plethora of quality material, notably the satirical “What Did You Learn in School Today”, “What Lyndon Johnson Told Us”, and “One Million Lawyers”.
8. Richie Havens
Richie Havens had his fifteen minutes of fame at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Opening the show, he had played every song he knew, but was told to keep going since the next act wasn’t ready. He improvised a song, “Freedom”, based on the traditional “Motherless Child”, which consisted of furiously strummed chords and an impassioned one word chant – “freedom”. It was the perfect theme song for the festival.
Havens was not a songwriter but was a sensitive interpreter of other people’s songs. Highlights include his recording of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.
Later in his career Havens was a successful commercial jingle singer, recording ads for Amtrak, among others.
9. Carolyn Hester
Although she wasn’t a songwriter or nearly as impressive a singer/guitar player as the artist she most resembles, Joan Baez, Carolyn Hester nevertheless played an important role in the folk revival.
Hester arrived in the Village in the early sixties having already released an album of mostly traditional material. A talented singer and quite beautiful, she quickly developed a following. The legendary John Hammonds signed her to Columbia Records and produced her album, I’ll Fly Away.
I’ll Fly Away is a good record but is remembered more for the musicians that played on it than the actual recording. Unusual at the time, Hester gathered the players for the session herself, including two men who would go on to play on many important albums of the period, Bill Lee (film-maker Spike Lee’s father) and Bruce Langhorne. She also hired an unknown – Bob Dylan – to play harmonica. Not long afterwards Hammonds signed him to Columbia and the rest is history.
Hester was offered the job as the female singer in what became Peter, Paul and Mary, but turned it down. Probably not a good move. Still, she went on to record many competent albums over many years, and continues to perform today.
10. Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs was a supremely talented songwriter, and given his gift for the topical song, in the right place at the right time. Ochs studied journalism in college, developed an intense interest in politics, and happened to meet a fellow student who got him interested in folk music. Later, Ochs would combine those interests in his songs.
Ochs arrived in the Village in 1962, was signed to Elektra Records, where he recorded his finest political songs, including “Power and Glory”, “What’s That I Hear”, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”, and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”.
Ochs also wrote two non-political songs during this time period that will be long remembered, “There But for Fortune”, a hit for Joan Baez, and “Changes”. Both appear on his Phil Ochs in Concert album.
Ochs’ song-writing slowed as the decade ended, and he eventually succumbed to alcohol and drug addictions. He left behind some powerful political songs that rank with the best of the genre.