My Folked-Up Life

The folk revival began for me sometime in my junior year in high school, in Tampa, Florida. I was befriended by a group of brainy, bohemian girls, one of them still a close friend, who had, for the late 50s, eclectic tastes. They played records of Arabic music and other exotica. One favorite of them, and soon mine, was The Kingston Trio's From the Hungry I. Strange now to think of the buttoned-down lads as avantgarde, but they were among the first to popularize what later got called World Music. And if the hippest song in the album, "They Call the Wind Mariah", was a Broadway tune, I had no idea.

In the meantime, I was teaching myself to play the guitar and eventually mastered the three chords needed to accompany myself on very simple songs. Other friends were doing the same, and by the time we got to college (University of South Florida, Charter Class), their tastes had diversified. From them I learned about the English and Scottish ballads, Appalachian music played on fretless banjos, established folkies like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, legends like Lead Belly, and new folkies like Dave Van Ronk. I played their music. Badly. For a while we had a folk group.

Some in our group spent summers up north and come Fall would come with records of folk artists that were making a splash there but had yet to be heard in our backwater city. One September, I heard a voice unlike no other singing folk tunes, a young woman with a Spanish surname and long black hair. I was enthralled. Joan Baez. Next year it was a voice less than enthralling (the guy who did the booking at the Village Gate heard him audition and told him, "Kid, you better find another line of work."), but the lyrics, oh dear Lord. It was Guthrie and Rimbaud and Ginsberg and Blake and the Surrealists all rolled into one. And that included the Welsh poet who was our culture hero and whose name he took, Dylan.

I managed to learn a simplified version -- at least one chord change was missing -- of "Blowin' in the Wind" and later an even worse one of "Mr. Tambourine Man." Bob Dylan became my soundtrack; Susan Danner, soon Fernandez, and I courted to the sounds of all the songs in Bringing It All Back Home. By then I was in grad school at Indiana University, and there I met serious folkies. I took guitar lessons from some, and improved but ever so slightly. I discovered Robert Johnson and saw Skip James. I became friends with a guy who did nothing all day but smoke dope and play the blues on his guitar. And I realize that's what it took, not the doping but the obsessive playing. I was busy trying to get graduate degrees, start a career, have a family. My artistic obsessions ran shallow.

I remained faithful to Dylan until the mid '70s and Planet Waves with "Forever Young." Since then I haven't followed his career. I saw him live twice and it was a huge disappointment. And though I thrilled to the Beatles in full bloom psychedelia -- theirs and mine -- and to the Stones pretty much to this day, my tastes remained folkie and definitely unhip. Oh, I heard but did not pay much attention to punk, which seemed like a fun accent to its times, and to New Wave. I was fortunate to review the Talking Heads' last tour, figured that was about as good as rock was going to get, and, fully satisfied, said goodbye to the genre. I got into Latin music, wrote about it without knowing much, enjoyed it so much it made me cry. But I continued to have a soft spot for the folkies and folk rockers of my generation, geezers all if still alive. I learned, many years after, that I'd gone to high school with Stephen Stills. And when I first heard the garbled Spanish in the Afro-Cuban coda of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (yes, I liked Judy Collins), I thought some cosmic message was embedded in it.

When it comes to music, I'm an idiot savant. So far I've nailed the first half.