[2 August 2007]
Joe Boyd recently penned a memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, describing his adventures in the music industry in America and England during the turbulent decade. Boyd played a pivotal role in the folk rock scene. His book reveals the connections between his life and the changing world in which he lived. He started as a teenager by booking black bluesman Lonnie Johnson to play in a living room at a friend’s house in Boyd’s hometown of Princeton, NJ. Boyd attended Harvard and became involved in the Cambridge, MA folk and blues scenes, then managed the European tours of notable black artists like Muddy Waters. Boyd later settled in London, where he ran a club and produced records by such important and influential folk and rock acts as Pink Floyd (the band’s first single), Fairport Convention (with Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny) , Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan. Boyd’s name became associated with a certain level of quality, daring, and intellect as exemplified by the aforementioned musicians.
White Bicycles has received critical praise in major media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker. Boyd has been active promoting his book. He recently participated as a speaker and panelist during South by Southwest (SXSW). As a fellow Mercer County, NJ neighbor, albeit from a different era than the one Boyd grew up in, I asked him about race. This was the central social tension of the Garden State during the post World War II era.
“Princeton was a little more sophisticated (from Trenton). My school was integrated. I had a lot of black friends.” Boyd said. He graduated from the eighth grade in 1956 then went to boarding school. “Listen, Princeton wasn’t ideal. There was plenty of racism around for sure. We didn’t play spin the bottle with black girls, but we had black friends.” He acknowledged that his early love of the blues may seem odd, but he maintained that he was far from alone in his enthusiasms. The early shows he produced that featured black artists drew full houses of middle-class, white audiences.
“All over the country there were white kids getting fascinated with black R&B and blues. The music of the time was pretty good stuff and still stands up today. It was a golden age for musical creativity, and it was getting documented for the first time. There may have been a great ferment somewhere in the world in the 1870s, but we never heard it. This was an era that was documented with fantastic recordings,” Boyd said with a sincere passion. What drew him to the music originally is still within his heart today.
The situation of black music and folk music at the time was somewhat parallel. “It’s very difficult for someone from a working class culture to be nostalgic, to look backwards. The black community in America, the mass audience of African Americans, wanted the latest thing. In the Blues boom of the ‘60s, black music with roots in an earlier era was something white people listened to,” Boyd said. The same was true for folk. “The whole notion of folk music and an appreciation of things that are more rural and more traditional and more rustic than our lives are now is the privilege of the middle class.”
In Appalachia, Doc Watson didn’t play in folk clubs. It wasn’t until he learned about it when he went to New York. He never would of thought of his music or conceived of it as folk music. For him, it was just the music of his culture.” He said that the audience for both folk and blues music at the time came from the same pool of people.
Boyd was there at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric. Boyd stood between three men who wanted to shut off Dylan’s power supply: Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel and Alan Lomax. Some have accused Seeger of rewriting history, as he now claims that he never intended to de-electrify Dylan. Boyd generously describes Seeger’s role as misunderstood. “I actually talked to Seeger about it once. He said that what he objected to was the fact that you couldn’t hear the lyrics. The sound was distorted. The instruments were too loud. It really confronted what Seeger’s music is about. For him, the song, the lyrics mean something, and people can remember it and sing it for themselves. That’s a wonderful thing and a perfectly understandable notion. Seeger believes in the meaning of the song. It was he who introduced the hymn “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement. So Seeger had a lot of history and a lot of righteousness on his side. On the other hand it was clear at that moment in history Dylan was going in another direction.”
Boyd’s still very much interested in the relationship between music and society. He’s working on a new book on the world music phenomenon, an area he was directly involved with more than a decade ago when he ran the Hannibal record label . “I like the subject because metaphorically, there are so many other areas of our life where we deal with the same issues,” Boyd said, “like architecture.” He explained, “There is a time in every culture that people love tearing things down and building new things. Then outsiders, middle-class intellectuals, go ‘No no no no no, you shouldn’t tear that down. You should preserve it. It’s beautiful.’ But the others say that it doesn’t have proper plumbing. So they build boxes that look horrible but have good plumbing. There is always the tension between the desire to be modern and the desire to preserve tradition and beauty from the past. That tension exists in world music where traditional artists want to add synthesizers and drum machines, and it’s the producers from London, New York, and Paris that say ‘No, don’t do that you won’t sell any records.’”
Speaking of not selling many records, Boyd did get a chance to see Vashti Bunyan perform at this year’s SXSW. He raved about Bunyan’s beautiful voice and brilliant songwriting. He suggested that Bunyan’s recent resurgence in popularity was due in large part to the poor sales of the record he produced for her back in 1966. “I love the fact that the tiny sales in the end help relaunch her 40 years later,” Boyd said. “When I first heard Bunyan, she was a pretty girl singing about romance. When I finally got around to making a record with her, she was writing about dogs and horses and countrysides. I thought they were wonderful songs, but I knew they were uncommercial. I sort of made the record out of a feeling of completing an unfinished task. I loved her and thought she was great but also understood that the album was willfully unsalable. Still, it didn’t cost much to produce.” Boyd said he released the disc on the Philips label rather than his usual one, Island, because he did not know how to promote it.
Boyd smiled and continued, “Bunyan sold like 200 records. If she sold 2,000 records, things might not have happened. But since she sold so few copies, people started passing around tapes and made her into a figure of cultlike devotion. A record of hers at a vinyl auction sold for 750 pounds, which is an enormous sum. It startled everybody and got written up in record collector magazines. Some people on a small indie label read about Bunyon and sought her out to record again. I got her back the rights to her first record, which has now sold more than 75,000 copies in re-release.” Boyd beamed at Bunyan’s success and the part he played in it, however strange the journey may have been. He’s been around long enough to know how much the music matters. Its success in the marketplace may reveal clues about the values of the society in which it is produced and distributed, but Boyd takes pride in the quality of the music itself with which he has been associated.