This is another installment in my series of personal notes on lesser known songs that have meant a lot to me over the years. My intention is take a break from politics and offer a few songs interested readers might enjoy. I hope they may even provide a spur to your own explorations.
Richie Havens grew up in Brooklyn singing with a choir in church and with doo wop groups on street corners. He crossed the river to figure out how to make a go of it in Greenwich Village as a performer until he signed a recording contract with Verve. In 1967 Havens seemed to materialize out of nowhere with Mixed Bag, a beautiful album of folk covers and original compositions. The album was full of striking performances, but none more so than Havens’s stunning interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.”
Getting out to San Francisco on a trip to visit colleges with my dad in June 1968, I had the great good fortune of seeing Havens perform live at the hungry i the week before Enrico Banducci closed the club. Banducci was determined to go out with a bang. Mort Sahl was playing the room on one side of the club, Havens the room on the other. Not yet famous, Havens played to a tiny audience accompanying himself on guitar and just poured it on. The obscure comedian Stanley Myron Handelman warmed up for Havens without drawing a laugh, although he deserved to. He was funny.
Reviewing Havens’s performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood just before or after I saw him at the hungry i, Los Angeles Times staff writer Pete Johnson surrendered: “He sings in a lispy rasping voice which by all odds should be unappealing and flails the strings of his guitar with an energy which belies sensitivity, but the performance and the man remain inarguably beautiful.”
I was a teenager then wondering where I might find my place in the scheme of things. Richie’s song “New City” from the follow-up album Something Else Again captured my feelings perfectly. I hadn’t listened to it in a long, long time when I heard it again on the CD compilation of Richie’s first three Verve albums, still sounding good to me after all these years.
I think I first heard Nanci Griffith singing Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” as background music in a restaurant or store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. I hadn’t heard that song in a long, long time either, but it caught my attention. Tracking down the song on Griffith’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, I heard Griffith’s striking version of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide.”
Looking back on her life in the song, the singer finds herself “on the mountainside, where the rivers change direction…” That’s just about where I was at the time, and I loved the metaphor. Kate Wolf died at the age of 44, way too young. In the live performance of the song below, Griffith calls on the musicians who played with Wolf to help her out and throws in Emmylou Harris on harmony for good measure.
The Band leads off its great self-titled album of 1969 with Robbie Robertson’s raucous “Across the Great Divide,” a different song entirely. Bob Dylan had borrowed the members of The Band to back him when he went on his first tour featuring his electrified, post-folk music. I saw them performing with Dylan when he came to town in 1966 or so.
Reading in the paper that Dylan would be performing that night, I asked my dad if he would take me downtown to see him. We walked in and got just-released first-row tickets to an otherwise sold-out show. Indeed, Bob’s mom was sitting way in back with our friends the Applebaums. We had better seats than she did.
Bob performed his folk songs unaccompanied for an hour and a half or so, then took an intermission and brought out the band (not yet The Band) for another hour and a half of his amped up stuff. In the middle of his first set my dad asked me, “How can he remember all those lyrics?” Good question! They were plentiful. I will just say that I loved both halves of the show.
Working with Dylan on tour and later in Woodstock, his friends in The Band must have picked up a thing or two about songwriting from him. The Band ended that great 1969 album with Robbie Robertson’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (video below). It’s not an obscure song, but it fits in with what turns out to be a slight Dylan motif in these recollections.
In dire straits, the singer (that’s Richard Manuel on the vocal with Levon Helm joining him on the chorus) forces an abashed or ambivalent optimism. “Last year this time, was no joke. My whole barn went up in smoke. Our horse Jethro, well, he went mad. I can’t ever remember things being that bad.” Are you sure King Harvest has come? It sounds like a permanently relevant confession of faith.
I could go on, but I think I should leave it here this morning.