Universal Notebook: Just an Old Folky

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

Music is not as big a part of my life as it should be, but I did get caught up in the 1960s folk music revival when I was in high school. I much preferred the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to the Beatles.

I started thinking about that music again last week when a couple of my buddies, who know a great deal more about music than I do, surprised me when they said they had never heard of Koerner, Ray & Glover.

Spider John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray and Tony “Little Sun” Glover were a blues/folk trio who were cool before fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan was. I played their album “Blues, Rags & Hollers” all the time, their rendering of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Kind Favor” being a particular favorite.

These days I mostly listen (on those rare occasions when I listen at all) to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young for moral support, but in the 1960s I listened to folksingers such as Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie. Rock ‘n’ roll struck me as crass commercial music for teenyboppers. Folk music had deeper roots and connected listeners to the civil rights and antiwar movements. It was alternative before there was alternative rock.

At 17, I had a crush on Joan Baez, the dark-haired beauty strumming her guitar on the Big Sur shore on the cover of “Joan Baez/5.” Baez has the most beautiful voice I have ever heard and, at 76, is still one of the world’s most beautiful women.

In July 1966, I went to the Newport Folk Festival hoping to see the prince and princess of folk, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. That was one year after Dylan outraged folk purists by playing the electric guitar. I was no purist. “Highway 51 Revisited,” his first straight-up rock record, is my favorite Dylan album. There were Dylan rumors and sightings everywhere, but neither he nor Joan Baez appeared.

Judy Collins, Buffy St. Marie and Maria Muldaur made up for the missing folk royalty. I had this romantic adolescent attraction to female folksingers. A close second to Joan Baez was her younger sister Mimi, who performed with her husband as Richard and Mimi Farina.

Dick and Mimi Farina were the Romeo and Juliet of folk music. Farina was an international wild man, a frequent traveler to Cuba and novelist Thomas Pynchon’s roommate at Cornell University. He and the soulful Mimi Baez married in 1964 when she was only 18. They made two fantastic albums together, their powerful voices and his idiosyncratic dulcimer playing conjuring the social magic of the 1960s.

In 1966, Dick Farina published his picaresque novel, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.” Its anti-hero Gnossos Pappadopoulis was my role model at 17. Just a few days after his novel came out, Dick Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving Mimi a widow at 21.

As a teenager I was not really into the topical songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, even less so the high harmonies of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a drag. I was enamored of the troubadour tradition of singers such as Tom Rush, Tim Hardin and Eric Anderson. Dylan, of course, is the greatest of these, but the old folkie closest to my heart is Dave Van Ronk.

Van Ronk (1936-2002) was only five years older than Dylan, but his gruff, grizzly appearance and whiskey-inflected voice made him seem to belong to history even when he was alive. His wonderfully hoarse, raspy renderings of traditional songs such as “Fare Thee Well” and “Tell Old Bill” made such an impression on me as a teenager that I sang them to each of my daughters when I became a father.

“If I had wings/like Noah’s dove/I’d fly up this river/to the one I love./Fare thee well, oh honey,/fare thee well.”

Something about the sonorous cadence of these songs was in my limited vocal range and worked wonders at putting a baby to sleep as I wandered through the house rocking her in my arms.

“Tell old Bill/when he comes home this morning,/Tell old Bill/when he comes home this evening,/Tell old Bill/when he comes home,/he better leave those downtown girls alone,/This morning and evening, so soon.”

It did occasionally occur to me that the lyrics of “Tell Old Bill,” which tell of a man who comes to no good while out carousing, might not be ideal for family consumption, but I have thus far seen no evidence that the blue nature of that bluesy bluegrass ballad did any lasting damage to tender infant psyches.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.