Thin Gruel with Bison: Ann Arbor Folk Music Forty Years Ago
My students chuckle and roll their eyes at Michigan boneheads around them worried at the end of January 2014 that Bob Seger has just died. Nevertheless, the death of Pete Seeger has gotten me thinking about folk music, in the Ann Arbor of my high school years, 1970-73.
By 1970, the collegiate, participatory Hootenanny movement of the 1950s had been replaced by the post-Beatles garage band movement of the 1960s. While our own demographic coming of age in the 1970s took for granted the ethics or aesthetics of "rock n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets" (the Ann Arbor-based White Panther Party's exhortation), we also grew into the post-Woodstock Nation cynicism characteristic of our Punk cohort.
By the time we were listening, folk music had a certain establishment quality, like tuxedoed jazzmen on the Ed Sullivan Show, or Leonard Bernstein and orchestra playing "Peter and the Wolf" (or nowadays, "A Prairie Home Companion" on public radio). It was something embraced by people older than ourselves; I'd walk down Pomona Road to read or draw comics at my equally bookish friend Paul's house, and his mother would be listening to Bob Dylan, or gentle finger-picking Beatles songs like "Mother Nature's Son", "Julia" and "Blackbird". Paul and I would put on the Stooges, Eno-infused early Roxy Music or Pink Floyd's "Careful With that Ax, Eugene". Yet folk once had an edge; note that Harry Smith, avid collector of archival American folk music recordings, also made animated collage films, both evocative an an old, weird America already receding into the past from a safe, brightly-lit present.
What hath Pete Seeger wrought? Though Seeger either played a 12-string guitar or a banjo, in my era a kid with a steel-string guitar probably began with easy-to-play folk songs. My own group the Bison Boys played, what I wrote at age 18 was, "an odd vernacular hybridization of country-western, folk, inability and innocence". We were able to assemble lyrics, often on the topic of bison, on simple, time-honored two- and three-chord progressions. Yet one main reason we were acoustic was that we were too lazy to haul amplifiers for electric instruments around. Gary Malvin excelled at classical guitar, and later a borrowed lute from University of Michigan School of Music. There was usually a living room or basement piano for me, often in hilarious disrepair. Our friend Tony was even folkier, with a band called Mountain Wind I played in, and his dad didn't mind my clomping but didn't want me sliding Jerry Lee Lewis-style up and down the keyboard of his beautiful Yamaha baby grand, a motif I applied to verses of a song much like a carriage return on an old typewriter.
Other Americana influences on the Bison Boys were via Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, an acoustic band with a 1940s feel, and the jovial western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. As this was the era of folk masses, musically eclectic steel-string guitarman Jimm Juback brought a Catholic missal to a practice and led us in "Crown Him With Many Crowns", which wasn't especially fun to play. Malvin remembers (I don't) a tuneless two-chord song whose only lyric was "folk music". We never played Ann Arbor’s notable Canterbury House where some remember Blue Cheer, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Buddy Guy, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen playing in the 1960s. Yet twice in 1972 we played the Side Door coffeehouse at the campus Unitarian Church. On the same set was a born-again Christian named Charlie Christmas; while waiting to play, a Nigerian student played us a cassette of more spirited high life music.
Juback and Malvin's Chinese-American classmate Madeline would host old-fashioned Hootenanny Parties, where her scholarly friends sang from a folkie songbook, and the Bison Boys would attempt to teach them some of our originals, or at least amuse ourselves in their performance. These were serious, college-bound students; selections from hoot stalwart Kathy Makielski's diary of her first year in UM Med Interflex program Fall, 1973 was reprinted in TIME magazine.
The Ark, then the big house on Hill Street funded by the First Presbyterian Church, was a major center of folk music in Ann Arbor, and hosted Utah Phillips, Loudon Wainright, George Gerdes and, frequently, Pete Seeger’s half-brother Mike Seeger. It hosted weekly open mic Hootenanny nights, and the Bison Boys played a couple times, making managers Linda and Dave Siglin suspicious of songs like "Stomach Music", "Norman (Ain'tcha Warm)", "I Love My Gonads" and "The Bison Didn't Always Have It So Good" that were slightly outside of expected American folk genres. For us, folk remained a pose, a costume, the fifteen minutes of a manufactured child star; Ben Miller calls Bison Boys “anti-folk” (as CREEM magazine founder Dave Marsh argues Al Gore is "the anti-Seeger"). In 1974 Juback and co-conspirators brought a 10-year-old friend of Sally Ryan's daughter, dressed up like Miss Kitty on "Gunsmoke", to the Ark, where the girl belted out a version of "Frankie and Johnny" wise beyond her years. On the bill that evening were two newcomers from Hungary, the Slomovitz brothers who, forty years later, still perform as Gemini.
That shenanigan prompted Jim Rees’s crew from Joint House Co-op to bring wind instruments to the Ark, in Ann Arbor’s 19th century German band tradition. Yet even if Dylan went electric for a spell, folk essentially meant acoustic guitar, and as such could include Johnny Cash, Trini Lopez, José Feliciano. What passed for folk on FM radio in the early ‘70s included Arlo Guthrie's shaggy dog story "Alice's Restaurant", Tom Rapp's Pearls Before Swine, even lazy revivalist Leon Redbone. Some of the women of the genre could be cloying, overly earnest, warbling songs that were long and droning, with sparse and uninteresting instrumentation, however praiseworthy the purity of the voice and all that. I respected Joan Baez's antiwar songs more than I liked listening to them, and I'm most curious about her dates with Steve Jobs.
Even college folkie Lou Reed could be tiring, however amplified and gritty his guitar, when the limits of the folksinger in him came out. I always liked Neil Young's guitar playing (at its best on the "Dead Man" movie soundtrack) better than his whining folkie voice and songwriting. There's an agreeable gravitas to elderly eccentrics like Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan is more pop than ever. On sixties prime-time television, John Hartford played both novelty songs and his folk-like hit for Glen Campbell, "Gentle on My Mind" on Campbell's musical variety show; on Johnny Cash's show, Cash played folk-country duets with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. English folk was also pop-friendly, including Donovan, and Chad and Jeremy; one notes the acoustic folk conceits in bands Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, even the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” or Rolling Stones’ (or Marianne Faithfull’s) “As Tears Go By”. And before discovering Motown and American rhythm and blues, the Beatles were a teenage skiffle group, an amateur-friendly version of the folk music revival. Considering John Lennon's quirky sense of humor, how far from the Bison Boys?
Recall that Bruce Springsteen, when still a taste of New York-area girls attending UM and living in Alice Lloyd and Mosher-Jordan dormitories, was considered folk, or folky. In recent years, some of the folk-pop of forty years ago, like Jim Croce and Harry Chapin, chart-toppers that made me groan and turn the radio dial, now sound skillfully crafted, if a bit predictable and obvious. I still don't like the Eagles, James Taylor, or Crosby, Stills, Nash though. Or the aforementioned Springsteen.
As with Springsteen today, much of the admiration of Pete Seeger seems to have been for the political dimension of folk, its practitioners who were unrepentant communists or fellow travelers, providing a soundtrack of working-class integrity to The Movement. In college at Harvard, Seeger joined the Young Communist League (he later quit), and was later influential in cleaning up the Hudson River. In September, 1967, Seeger sang "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", about trainees who died at Camp Lejeune but with a comment on the US in Vietnam, on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, hosted by two genial folk music humorists. The network cut the song from its intended original broadcast, but after the Smothers Brothers complained publicly, Seeger was invited back to perform it in February, 1968; the controversy likely contributed to the show's cancellation.
In his remembrance, when NPR played Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", with his stern voice and fingerpicking banjo, I didn't like it, and felt I'd soon be bored at a concert; perhaps that's why he goosed people—especially children—into singing along. It made me realize how smoother pop interpreters, like Peter, Paul and Mary made folk music more palatable, much as the Stevie Wonder did for Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". Or as strummy Los Angeles folk-rockers the Byrds did with Pete Seeger's Ecclesiastes-based "Turn! Turn! Turn!".
And a time for every purpose under Bison.
Thanks to homeboys Harry Hammitt, Jimm Juback, Gary Malvin, Ben Miller, Laurence Miller, Pat Powers and Jim Rees for editorial input.
At Saginaw Valley State University, Art/Communication & Digital Media Professor Mike Mosher plays rootsy music weekly with his workplace band.