Take Harlem’s Heartbeat, Make It a Drumbeat, Put It on a Record, Let It Whirl
Between his music studies uptown at Columbia, Len Chandler worked a day job at a downtown center for children in need; the boys there led him to the singing sessions at Washington Square Park. Folk wasn’t exactly Len’s bag, but he knew the songs of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Big Bill Broonzy well enough to get by and soon was getting paid to play. “Hugh Romney—Wavy Gravy—took me down to Orchard Street in New York and put me in a costume. I had a chambray work shirt, some real nice black boots and a little bandana handkerchief around my neck and that became my folk costume,” he says. Securing gigs at all the folk clubs, he held a regular spot at the Gaslight, one of the Village’s most desirable venues, notable for its history of beat poetry readings and its prestige bookings of folksingers. Following a performance there, Chandler was tapped for contract with a Detroit television show, performing two songs a night. He took the gig, using it as an opportunity to expand his traditional folk repertoire. When he returned to New York thirteen weeks later, “everyone had on the same black jeans and chambray shirt,” he says. The golden age of Greenwich Village had begun; the scene’s most famous son, Bob Dylan, arrived there in January of 1961.
“When Dylan came to town, he wasn’t writing much, he wasn’t writing anything, really,” Chandler remembers. “We’d drink coffee and look through the daily newspapers left behind on the counter to see if there was any song material in any of it,” Dylan writes in his book Chronicles of himself and Chandler. “I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work.” Dylan’s self-directed studies of history, current events, traditional music, and the rebellion songs of Ireland’s Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were parts of a longer equation; his Greenwich Village relocation and relationship with a politically aware young woman, Suze Rotolo, further flesh out the portrait of a musician as a young man, just one of many folksingers on the new beat.
“The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, hey Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name’... stuff like that,” says Chandler. In December 1961, Chandler wrote his first song. “I was playing up in Saratoga Springs, New York. On the front page of the newspaper, the two pulp newspapers, the Daily News and the Post, they had similar pictures. There had been a terrible school bus accident in Greeley, Colorado, and I wrote about that. What was so heavy about it was everyone had seen that photo and it was really shocking… women standing like that [hands to face], kids messed up on the ground, and so I wrote… about that and played it as my last song of the set that night.” The audience was devastated, to the point of being struck silent by Chandler’s performance of his freshly composed original song. “I left the stage and went into the dressing room, took off my shirt… wiped myself off, put on a new shirt, put my guitar away and then applause started. People were hammering the tables and stomping, screaming and I thought… this is something.”
Alongside the folk standards on Bob Dylan’s 1962 debut album were two original songs: “Song to Woody” (inspired by Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”) and “Talkin’ New York” fit neatly into his set of otherwise traditional arrangements and blues. Dylan borrowed Chandler’s melody for another of his own songs, the early civil rights era eulogy “The Death of Emmett Till,” about a fourteen-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered on a visit to Money, Mississippi, in 1955 because he spoke to a white woman.
“[Chandler] played me this one and he said, ‘Don’t those chords sound nice’ and I said, ‘They sure do,’ so I stole it. I stole the whole thing,” laughed Dylan during Cynthia Gooding’s radio show in 1962. “Len didn’t seem to mind,” he wrote later in Chronicles: Volume One. In the spirit of folk’s tradition of love and theft, borrowing and sharing was standard practice among folksingers, especially within the close circle of Greenwich Village friends.
Dylan first began intently studying the Civil War while attending a well-appointed high school in Hibbing, Minnesota. “The age I was living in didn’t resemble this age, but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way,” he writes. “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template of everything I would write.” Dylan’s material developed into pointed statements on injustice; as he deepened his queries into the human condition and the causes that drive people toward or away from certain actions, he made the transformation from folk imitator to innovator. “It was what was happening around him, right at the moment,” says Chandler.
Beyond the insular yet international island of Manhattan, there were other simultaneous movements and interpretations of freedom. James Marshall Hendrix of Seattle was just out of the army, living in Nashville. Before it became known almost exclusively for its country scene, Music City was a stop on the so-called Chitlin Circuit, the clubs dotting the south where African Americans worked without hassle in the era of segregation. Hendrix was part of the high-level R&B scene there, sharpening his tools as a sideman. “Every Sunday we used to go downtown to watch the race riots. We’d take a picnic basket because they wouldn’t serve us in the restaurant,” he said. He was arrested with his musician friend Billy Cox during a lunch counter demonstration there in 1962. In Detroit, a hotbed for freethinking and musical innovation, for musician and entrepreneur Berry Gordy Jr. black unity was a way to financial freedom. Tired of earning pennies on the dollar for his compositions for R&B singer Jackie Wilson, he formed the labels Tamla and Motown in 1959 and began to bank on the dividends of building an all-black business empire. He built rosters consisting almost entirely of kids from around the way. As it turned out, Tamla’s first national hit, “Money (That’s What I Want)” sung by Barrett Strong, was as prophetic as it was strong: “Well now give me money (that’s what I want)... I wanna be free.”
In part, the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s had successfully launched an integration campaign; as a demonstration of unification between black and white, the merging of “hillbilly” and “race music” was a wild success. However, it wasn’t long before the inevitable conservative backlash campaign to denounce the musical miscegenation started. As the 1960s began, rock’s originators were largely shunted aside for a whitewashed version of music founded largely on black creative inspiration; white remakes of black records. In the record business existed a system of unfortunate and unfair business practice—something that Gordy had initially tried to offset, though would later be accused of practicing himself—that persisted until the music business’s general decline in the early twenty-first century. Disputes over money matters between artist and label, black and white, businessmen and artists would haunt the record business for at least fifty years. Nina Simone was among those ripped off royally upon the release of her now-classic 1958 album Little Girl Blue. When she measured the album’s popularity against her earnings from it, she became aware fairly quickly that she’d been done wrong. In her lifetime she never collected what she was due for the album’s enduring success through the years. Hers is one of many stories that demonstrate the necessity of financial equality, education, and empowerment for recording artists from lower-income backgrounds. In particular need of representation was the young talent pool emerging from black America that Gordy helped initiate. Eventually a network of musician and professional associations developed to support eclectic artists from divergent socio-economic backgrounds, but economic justice remains an issue for recording artists.
Artistically, the new voices of freedom and equality found a West Coast advocate in Ed Pearl. There were few places to hear the new music outside of Greenwich Village, but when Pearl, owner of the Los Angeles club the Ash Grove, attended the first annual Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1959, his entrée to the East Coast folk establishment led directly to the introduction of folk and traditional music to the West Coast. “I met Alan Lomax, the New Lost City Ramblers… people had started hearing good things about the Ash Grove, so I had all these good people doing the booking. I still hadn’t yet had the great traditional singers, but then Bess [Lomax] Hawes brought in Lightnin’ Hopkins. Slow but sure, word got around and I started to hire Big Joe Williams. I introduced Lightnin’ to Brownie [McGhee] and Sonny [Terry].”
The list of legends who went west and filled Pearl’s club with music starts with Maybelle Carter, Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Doc Watson. It continues with Mississippis— John Hurt and Fred MacDowell—and includes the three Bigs: Joe Turner, Joe Williams, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. There were hundreds more. Pearl suggests these bookings affected the young folk as much as Woody Guthrie shaped Bob Dylan singing his way out of Minnesota and Greenwich Village, much as Beatlemania would eventually launch a thousand rock bands and encourage boys to grow their hair long. The folk and blues revival’s black/ white, young/old, traditional/contemporary, and country/urban music contrasts were a direct link to the “justice and equality for all” politics of the civil rights movement and the nation’s rapidly growing social consciousness led by its youth. “At the Folklore Center I’d seen posters of folk shows at the Ash Grove and I used to dream about playing there,” writes Dylan.
In Memphis, high school student Booker T. Jones quietly integrated his quartet, the M.G.’s, who were cooking up the basis for the sound of Stax Records. As Soulsville U.S.A., Stax became synonymous with a deeper kind of southern music that mixed gospel and rock ’n’ roll and defined the sound of soulfulness for most of the sixties. Meanwhile in New York, making his recorded debut at the age of twenty as a harmonica player on a Belafonte album, Bob Dylan’s Columbia Records debut Bob Dylan was a collection of mostly traditional songs. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan established him as a writer with more than old folk renditions on his mind. Dylan was well on his way toward changing the way the masses and his fellow artists related to political matters mixed with folk music. When she met Dylan, Joan Baez was folk music’s reigning queen at age nineteen. Inspired by Odetta and Pete Seeger, Baez made her debut on the Cambridge folk scene holding down a spot at Club 47. She appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and invited Dylan to perform there in 1963. Baez practiced civil disobedience as a student and studied pacifism and the nonviolence teachings of Dr. King. She was enfolded into the civil rights movement not only as an entertainer but as a living example of its core values, singing to workers in Mississippi while she continued to study and teach nonviolence in her home state of California.