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18 November 2012

Crushed by the Tumblin' Tide (or: Newport vs. the Rural Electrification Act)

Yeah, I haven't posted a link in a forever to anything I’ve contributed to any of the decades blogs (see the 'Elsewhere' header, right of this column) because – honestly – it's been a forever since I’ve written anything for them. I'm not the only one, because posting on the things experienced a major slow-down after the beginning of this year. Not sure why the other primary contributors mostly went silent, but one can suspect the usual reasons – continual distractions that leave drafts unfinished or ideas abandoned or in development limbo, writer's block, other more pressing priorities, and what-have-you. Shame, that – especially seeing how the things received a few honorary accolades in some quarters last December as some of the best reading on the intertoobs.

I had a few stalled drafts for things, myself. At one point I was working on something drawn from personal experience, having to due with the number of bluegrass music festivals I was dragged to as a child in the early years of the 1970s, mixed in with some relevant anecdotes from my time spent living in Nashville a few years later. Thematically, the thing was going to hinge on the brief and marginal "Bluegrass Revival" that took place for a few years in the early '70s. Something something something about it being perhaps the final twilight flickering of the folk-music which had begun many decades earlier, and what had a history that was previously tied to major societal shifts that bracketed the Second World War; a history that very complicated, if only because it had once had a deep cultural resonance.

All of which is why the thing stalled. As you can probably guess, it was bordering on becoming a huge, sprawling mess. And if not a mess, then certain something unfit for a blog post, an Exhibit A example of tl;dr-ness.

But just before the posting traffic tapered off over at the decades blogs, one of my last contributions was to the friendly competition of the "Geetar solo" spree of tag-team posting. I've never been much of an expert or enthusiast for such stuff, but I managed to throw a couple of favorites into the mix. There were plenty of behind-the-scenes e-mails being exchanged on the topic while the thing was going on. At one point, in an exchange of messages with Simon, I cited the full version of Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" as a longstanding personal favorite; even tho’ it probably doesn’t -- save for the cheeky segue into "The Little Drummer Boy" at one point – count as a guitar solo proper, but is really more of an extended rhythmic "jam." And I was intrigued a few weeks later that he cited the song some weeks later, offering it as what might be his choice of "The Last Song I'd Want to Hear Before Dying." I doubt that I helped jog his memory about the tune or anything like that, but I thought it a canny coincidence.

So, right: A definitive psych-garage classic writ large and in longhand. There’s the extended borderline freak-out type, drenched in reverb and washes, almost cataclysmic in its heaviness, flirting with outright structurelessness in a way that (going by way of contemporaries) sounds more akin to something off the first Red Crayola LP than something by, say, Cream or Love. There's the way it yanks the listener's head through a relentless series of sonically simulated spatio-temporal expansions and compressions. Not to mention the wryly mocking bit about "And my soul has been psychedelicized," over a track that prefigured Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On, as well as the "acid soul" sound that would come down the turnpike thanks to Norman Whitfield's work at Motown, as well as Funkadelic's navigations through the maggot-brained consciousness of Nixonian America.

And atop all that, I've always been quite taken by the vocal and the lyrics. It starts out as a blues, but ultimately it’s deeply gospel. The live performance captured in the clip above fully demonstrates that aspect of the song – how the band chugs and churns through the endlessly unfurling break, with the song building in density and intensity as it progresses, becoming something like a fiery tent revival canticle that guides those in attendance on a tour through all nine circles of Dante’s hell before finally -- in its closing moment -- reemerging from the substrata into the light of day/redemption.

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As it was, the Chambers Brothers came by that gospel by the most direct route possible. They grew up in it, first playing music in the church back in their hometown in rural Mississippi. Eventually they became a folk act and headed west, touring the circuit as quartet as a folk and gospel quartet whose instrumental line-up consisted of two acoustic guitars, a harmonica, and a washboard. But at some point the Brothers seemed to have been ahead of the curve in terms of intuiting what a growing number of aspiring folkies would realize in the years that followed. That point being when they made the decision that the rock’n’roll thing was "where it's at," and ditched their traditional instruments and opting to go electric.

As was recently pointed by some music scholar or another: No one ever admits to being one of the people who boo'ed Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The incident of course is one everyone’s familiar with. One version of the story had it that Festival organizers Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger tried to sever the band's power source with a fire axe, but Seeger has long maintained there's not truth to that account. Other have recently claimed that the audience wasn’t booing Dylan and his band but rather the festival’s supposedly shitty PA system; but anyone who’s ever watching D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back suspects that this argument of being wrong-side-of-history revisionism.

In Pennebaker's film, we hear the embittered grievances of angry fans as they leave shows on the British leg of Dylan's 1965 tour, heaping condemnation of what they'd just seen and heard, each of them speaking from a sense of betrayal. The intensity of their scorn might seem baffling to a contemporary viewer – if only due to the decontextualized remoteness of that moment in time. What, one might wonder, was at stake in all of this to provoke such a bellicose and vehement backlash? To some in the folk community, it wasn’t merely a matter of aesthetics, but also one of an ethos – or, perhaps more precisely, about how aesthetics were irrevocably interwound with a cultural (if not countercultural) view of the larger society at a particular point in history. Which is where things get murky and complicated, because in to understand that reaction, a person has to know a lot about the history and the character of the whole folk revival movement.

Thing was, Dylan was hardly the first to plug in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Muddy Waters had played the Festival in the prior years, and nobody blinked. And the Chambers backed up both Joan Baez and Barbara Dare at the 1965 event, appearing earlier on the bill than Dylan. As photos from that occasion show, the Chambers weren't playing in "unplugged" mode at either appearance. And they met with nary a protest. In light of this, one might wonder how or where the "double standard" enters into the matter. And to arrive at an answer, one would have to know or research the movement's history, learning about the various – and often conflicting – purisms and notions of authenticity that had haunted the movement since it’s first-wave manifestation during the 1930s (if not earlier).*

A fair or thorough unpacking of which would fill an entire book in and of itself.

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Whether it was an integral element of a countercultural lifestyle or merely a more "wholesome" alternative to rock'n'roll for educated middle-class kids, the Folk Revival movement had a huge presence on the American cultural landscape at the beginning of the 1960s. It's popularity some waned however, particularly with younger listeners. Maybe it had to do with the advent of Beatlemania or with Dylan's plugging in, but at some point a number of young musicians looked and read the proverbial writing on the wall, and the message as writ told them that perhaps they'd boarded the wrong train. A glut of supply in the face of withering demand -- too many folk acts in the market and it was nothing but diminishing returns from here on out. The Chambers were older than many of these musicians, having first hit the folk circuit some dozen or so years before they hit the charts with "Time Has Come Today." For them the decision to augment their sound may have been based in another type of pragmatism, from merely noticing that -- depending on the audience -- people seemed to have a much better time whenever they dropped something like "Johnny B. Goode" or something by the Isleys into their set. Whatever the case, their own re-orientation took place several years in advance of that of many of the 1960s contemporaries. But by the latter half of the decade, a fair number of American rock acts were made up of former folkies (or at least aspiring folk-rockers). The list, if anyone ever cared to compile it, would likely be a long one. Among it's ranks one would find half of the Monkees, three-quarters of the Mamas & the Papas, pretty much every member of any group associated with the "San Francisco Sound" of the Haight-Ashbury scene, and scores of others.**

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The tracklisting on most of the Chambers Brothers' albums might be a tip-off of their folkie origins; sporting a few original songs to the group’s credit, but mainly a lot of covers of popular R&B tunes and such – "People Get Ready," "In the Midnight Hour," "What the World Needs Now," "I Can’t Turn You Loose," and the like. Sure, in those days covers were usually a much more integral part of a rock act's set, but in this case it might be seen as an extension of the communal folk aesthetic of offering a repertoire of songs that most everybody knew, to which everyone could sing or dance along.***

Which goes back to that ethos I mentioned earlier. Chalk it up to a different sensibility, a different worldview. I find myself thinking of a remark that turned up in Martin Amis's recent novel The Pregnant Widow:

"The Me Decade wasn’t called the Me Decade until 1976. In the summer of 1970 they [this cast of characters] were only six months into it; but they could all be pretty sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all decades were now me decades. There has never been anything that could be called a you decade. ...The 1940s was probably the last we decade."

Fair enough, even if I feel that Amis might be giving far more diagnostic credit to the likes of Christopher Lasch or Tom Wolfe than they’re due. But to whatever degree it might ring true, that means chances are slim that you or I know anyone from that pre-Me era. I suppose once upon a time I did; if only on account of being mostly raised by my grandparents. But my mother was the one who dragged me to all those bluegrass festivals when I was very young. Too young, naturally, to have any frame of reference that I was attending any sort of fringe-y, quasi-'rootsy' musical trend; let alone to recognize that I might be rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of some erstwhile boho something-or-other. In fact, I think about the only thing I could educe from it all at the age of eight was that once you'd heard one rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," it seemed like you'd pretty much heard them all.

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"The typical middle-class interpreter of folk music makes his guitar sound like a metronome, without timbre changes and without percussive and loud-soft tone contrasts. He is a friendly guy. He likes everybody. He smiles alot. He wants you to like him. He’s volk. To hell with him. The real test when someone is playing hot or hard-driving is this: Does his music make you want to dance, or not?"

- John Fahey

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Of course "Time Has Come Today" is the one tune everyone knows by the Chambers Brothers, what saddles them with the ranking of being a One-Hit Wonder. But thanks to beat-digging efforts of the hip-hop community, some might be reminded that these low-charting number above -- which just barely and briefly grazed the Top 40 in 1971 -- is pretty fucking bad-ass, too. So how 'bout it?

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* In fact, it could be argued that issue of authenticity, so often cited as a core tenet of so-called "rockism," is actually folkist in origin -- complete with all the arguements about "selling out."

As far as any double standard might be concerned, this probably has more to do with perceiving the folk community as a lumpen whole – a unified body of adherents with homogenous tastes and preferences. Such was far from the case, and blues could be difficult or divisive territory, and had been ever since John Lomax brought Leadbelly to the national stage. A fair amount of this can probably be blamed on the music's lyrical content, or – more to the point -- how that content was received by those listeners who harbored a puritanical or socially conservative streak.

** Admittedly, this continuum experienced some odd fluctuations in the early to mid 1970s, with some artists doubling back and briefly returning to their musical "roots" or indulging in countrified, Americana-type fare.To cite a couple of examples: There was the popularity of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 3LP set Will the Circle Be Unbroken; soon followed by the outfit Old & In The Way, which a bluegrass "supergroup" headed by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia (on banjo) and mandolinist Dave Grisman.

*** Curiously, the production credit on their Columbia debut and the song in question goes to David Rubinson; who by appearances had an odd career at the label, his name usually turning up on some of the label's most unusual or commercially-unviable acts of the era. Most notably, Rubinson was the producer who worked with Moby Grape and also recorded and produced "Skip" Spence's Oar. But Rubinson also turns up in the credits for such one-off curios by the United States of America and The Devil’s Anvil. In the years that followed, he also played a consistent hand in producing Herbie Hancock's electro-fusion work throughout the 1970s.

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