The “folk music revival” of the beginning of the last century reached the end of the road in the mid 1960s. Anodyne groups like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary were marketed and promoted to older children, teenagers and college students. I found them a bit too refined and, literally, a “head trip”, as we said in those days. They didn’t “swing”.
Probably ADD, restless and always on the move, even sleepwalking at night, I soon became enamored of popular dance. I learned all the rock’n'roll steps, practicing them with everyone and everything that moved. Lounging around listening to “Puff the Magic Dragon” didn’t do it for me.
My friends and I went to dances every chance we got. We were in “the sticks”, 20 miles west of Chicago—which was more like 30 miles east of DeKalb, home of the field corn company. We would sneak into teen clubs, and later into adult clubs, where we discovered the dancing was a bit different.
There were the weekend dance joints out on St. Charles and Geneva Roads and the even racier, rougher clubs on North Avenue, where our fellow clubgoers included men with stubble and women who were the age of our mothers. Motorcycles were a tip-off that trouble was brewing, but we’d go anyway, just to feel the buzz of being “bad” (“scared” is more precise). It’s like sneaking into the circus: If you crawl under the tent, you end up with either the clowns or the lions.
The bands were generally groups modeled on late 60s pop, but, once in a while, Chicago-based outfits like “The Riddles” (who were especially good), “Grope” and “Pontiac Angels” would show up. Greaser bands too, like “The Top Kats”. There was one called “Next Of Kin” who covered The Rascals and Wilson Pickett with great energy and flair.
Fights broke out, even without alcohol served. Maybe it was the music, Coca-Colas and cigarettes. Too much stimulation! But fights are fights. Black eyes, bloody noses, loosened teeth and concussions over girls. Had we been less well educated, poorer and closer to Chicago, we’d have used knives and guns.
Grounded by my parents for one of these forays—and lying about it—one day I read in the liner notes of a Folkways album a short bio of the late, great blues singer Leadbelly. Leadbelly, whose real name was Huddie (or Hude) Ledbetter, was reputed to have killed at least two men, one with a knife and the other with a gun. His showdowns tended to take place in bars or streets along “saloon rows”, rife with gambling and prostitution and fueled by the cheapest liquor available—the hooch that fuels nights “when the wolves are shining and the moon is howling”.
But he was so charming and outstanding a musician that he sang his way out of prison twice. Once in east Texas, and another time in Louisiana. His story reminded me of the faraway world of my mother’s relatives, the sort of folks who lived near a creek or a river, or along a rural two lane where trucks roared past in the night. Colorful and very intense people who could have stepped out of a Southern Gothic novel.
I saw only a few of the blues groups in Chicago. In those days there were no “white” blues clubs, as they’re called now, in Lincoln Park or the Loop. We had to lie to our parents and take the train into the city and then all the way down to “Silvio’s” and “The Apartment” on the South Side. A frightening neighborhood to us kids, but what fabulous groups. The serious looking Muddy Waters, who put on a phenomenal stage show. Howlin’ Wolf wore janitor clothes—olive shirt and pants and plain steel-toed work shoes. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen and had an electrifying voice. My favorite singer was Junior Wells—very smooth, well dressed and funny. It was incredible. All of them would easily lay waste to any popular band today. If the audience wasn’t on its feet in a matter of minutes, it was a miracle.
The very names of the bluesmen indicated that they sprang from a reality wholly different from my leafy suburban realm. It was magic enough to enter a world where performers’ names had such mythic resonance: Sleepy John Estes, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Champion Jack Dupree. My parent’s friends did not have names like this.
Leadbelly had long since passed away, but his records were stunning: a big, booming voice matched with an enormous 12-string guitar. His repertoire had no limits. He sang about everything and everybody. No one could categorize Leadbelly. He was a legendary giant who put chills down my spine. Also, he sang as often a cappella as with his great 12-string. I learned many songs from him, such as “Goodnight, Irene”, “Julie Ann Johnson”, “Stewball” and “Poor Howard”. It was impossible to have a favorite Leadbelly song—all were sensational.
But there came a time when I was distracted and weakened by the partitioning of adolescence. I let Leadbelly go, and Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee. Seduced by electric guitars! I shuffled off to boarding school and college and left the folk LPs behind.
Now that I’m older, I find these earliest musical memories to be the sweetest and the purest. Today we use the word “original” to signify innovation and newness. In fact, the word relates, of course, to origins, or beginnings, the roots from which we grow, our culture.
As Elizabeth Lawrence said about gardening,
“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”