‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ and the Vietnam War Moratorium redux

It was perfect timing, running into Peter Yarrow a week ago Sunday unexpectedly at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). He was meeting and greeting talent buyers strolling the Hilton’s vast exhibition halls, where he was stationed at the BiCoastal Productions agency booth to assist in the promotion of Lonesome Traveler: The Concert, the acclaimed 2015 off_Broadway musical now being packaged as a concert event, that he has endorsed and can be featured in as guest star depending on his availability.

Subtitled “The Roots of American Folk Music,” the show celebrates the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Bob Dylan and of course, Peter, Paul and Mary, in the context of folk music from the 1920s to the ’60s and beyond.

I didn’t meet them until much later, but I first saw Peter, Paul and Mary at a church on the University of Wisconsin Campus, where they performed at a Vietnam War Moratorium—but I’m not sure of the dates. According to Wikipedia, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, which was a massive demonstration/teach-in all over the country, took place Oct. 15, 1969, and was followed by a Moratorium March on Washington a month later on Nov. 15.

So it had to be the second Moratorium (the word means “a suspension of activity”), because I do remember that PP&M were leaving that night for D.C. to join the march. It’s terrible I don’t remember the church—maybe St. Paul’s?—but it had to be at the end of State Street, where the UW begins. Peter, though, remembered the church well, not to mention everything surrounding the Moratorium.

The last time I’d seen Peter was a couple years ago or so, doing pretty much the same thing, except at Toy Fair at the Javits Center. Not sure which exhibition booth he was ensconced in this time, because I think there were two toy companies that had “Puff, the Magic Dragon” toy product out, but he was probably at the one with the plush Puff toys. Wherever, he was signing Puff, the Magic Dragon illustrated children’s books, packaged with a CD of Peter singing the PP&M classic and other songs with his daughter Bethany and a cellist—and, of course, posing for pictures with starstruck baby boomer toy business people.

But at the Hilton, I was for once more than just the starstruck baby boomer kid at the Moratorium who didn’t even meet Peter Yarrow, as well as the starstruck baby boomer music journalist who had met him many times since. No, this time I approached him as an equal in that both of us had starred in the 2015 Noah Baumbach movie While We’re Young.

Yes, I exaggerate! Not Peter’s role, for he had a meaty part as a leftist intellectual—hardly a stretch—whereas I was an extra–hardly a stretch–sitting at an Upper West Side coffee shop while Naomi Watts, her back to me, was meeting with Adam Driver, with Ben Stiller, playing Watts’ jealous husband, storming in after.

If you see the movie, you might recognize me by the bald spot on the top of my head—which I didn’t even know was there! Then for a second or so the camera pulls back at the end of the scene to reveal my truly recognizable receded hairline profile. Just don’t blink.

But it was so fun, and certainly arrogant, to address Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow as my co-star! That he didn’t blow me off is testament to something or other, his befuddlement, most likely. But it did lead him into some interesting observations, and an affirmation by both of us of our continued commitment to the ’60s ethos.

“It took a cultural, ethical point-of-view,” he said of While We’re Young, “and when I read the script I realized it was the antithesis of what I try to espouse in the songs I sing–as was the case with Peter, Paul and Mary all those years. And it profoundly preceded the rise of Trump.”

Here he pointed to Driver’s less-than-truthful aspiring film director character, who is “perfectly able to live without finding any sense of responsibility or guilt and can act unethically in terms of respecting the rights and creativity of Ben Stiller’s [documentary filmmaker] character. I thought that that counterpoint made it a very important film—but I didn’t expect it to become such a powerful commentary on what’s happening now in our country.”

He had attended the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg musical Finian’s Rainbow the night before, a show centering on themes of immigration, economic greed, racial reconciliation and fighting bigotry.

“At the end I sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with the cast, and spoke about why the music is so critical: It’s intention is to bring a tear to your eyes and dissolve the distance between us—and let us now unite in the face of a disuniting force.”

A disuniting force.

I told Peter Yarrow I would be marching again come Saturday, the day after the inauguration of the Disuniting Force. And Peter Yarrow of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” hugged me and called me “my Brother.”

Oscar Brand–An appreciation

Oscar Brand, one of folk music’s great luminaries, died Sept 30 at 96.

He was “a national treasure,” per folk music authority Stephanie P. Ledgin.

“Oscar Brand has left an enormous number of accomplishments in music, television and beyond that will entertain and educate for many years to come,” says Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “He was warm, funny, engaging, abundantly generous in his talents. It was truly an honor to have known and worked with him.”

Ledgin’s connection with Brand came during the latter part of a remarkable 70-year career dating back to the 1940s. His Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show, which aired every Saturday on New York’s WNYC-AM, extended into its 70th year after its launch in December, 1945. On it he introduced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, all the while refusing payment so as to avoid being censored.

A two-time Peabody Award winner, Brand was a most prolific musician himself, and after his Army service during World War II moved to Greenwich Village and wrote a book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me. He eventually recorded hundreds of campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, protest songs, military songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties, filling over 100 albums. Doris Day charted in 1952 with his “A Guy Is a Guy,” and his “Something to Sing About”—also known as “This Land of Ours”—became the unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.

Additionally, Brand hosted the Canadian TV show Let’s Sing Out (in which he featured such folk music pioneers as Malvina Reynolds, The Womenfolk and The Weavers, and introduced then unknown Canadian singers like Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot) and collaborated on musicals including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.

Brand participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, and was a board member in the ‘60s of the Children’s Television Workshop, for which he helped develop Sesame Street. He joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) board of directors in the early years of the organization and was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum, then located at One Times Square in 1980.

On behalf of SHOF, president/CEO Linda Moran expressed gratitude for Brand’s “invaluable contributions,” adding, “he will always be remembered fondly by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.”

Moran further notes the many years that Brand served as the organization’s curator—and that he remained an active board member up until 2014.

“On a personal level, Oscar was a handsome, charming, witty, brilliant gentleman, and I will always fondly remember him for the support and guidance he gave me in my role as president of the SHOF,” says Moran.

Fred Hellerman–An appreciation

Vocalist/guitarist Fred Hellerman, a founding member of The Weavers who died Sept. 1 at 89, was the last surviving original member of the historic quartet, which formed a vital link between the folk music revival of the 1950s–which emerged out of the labor movement–and the peace-oriented folk revival of the `60s.

“As a founding member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman’s place in American folk and pop music is secure,” notes music historian John Alexander. “While the other original members–Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and of course Pete Seeger–are more well-known, Hellerman’s contributions cannot be minimized. It’s a magical blending of all four voices that made songs like ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ come alive and embed themselves in our memories.”

“And let’s not forget that Hellerman produced Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant, one of the most defining albums of the ’60s,” adds Alexander.

The Weavers also introduced songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Midnight Special,” “The Sloop John B,” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” “This Land is Your Land,” “Wimoweh,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” into American popular culture. They paved the way for generations of important musicians including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

“The music of the Weavers, for which Fred Hellerman was best known, continues to resonate not just within the folk music community, but globally, pertinent to social issues that remain at our core every day,” says Stephanie P. Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “I was never fortunate to meet Hellerman, but was thrilled to attend the 1980 Carnegie Hall Reunion.”

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Seeger and Hays were identified as Communist Party members, with Seeger judged guilty of contempt for refusing to testify—though his conviction was later overturned. But The Weavers were no longer allowed to perform on TV or radio, and were dropped by their label. Denied airplay and the ability to record, and with their concerts besieged by right-wing protesters, they were essentially forced to disband in 1952.

The Weavers did reunite for a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1952, and a recording of the show was released in 1957. The group continued to perform after Seeger, who had established a successful solo career, left in 1958; they split up for good in 1964, though the original foursome got together occasionally through 1980, when their last full performance was the Carnegie Hall concert attended by Ledgin.

“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of influential folk music vocalist, guitarist, and producer Fred Hellerman,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “A 2006 recipient of The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award with the iconic group the Weavers, Fred and his bandmates were best-known for performing timeless versions of American folk standards such as ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘If I Had A Hammer,’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky.’ Their musical talents, and commitment to social activism, were a strong influence on the folk music revival of the 1960s. We have lost a true innovator.”

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 16

It started innocently enough when Nellie McKay asked me, after we’d seen Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox at Radio City, what I thought of Bob Lefsetz, the long-winded music industry newsletter pundit famed—in the comparitvely small but ever growing circle of aging, mostly bitter ex-music industryites, all of whom are equally grumpy—for the newsletter he sends out to his email list once or twice daily.

No, I don’t read him, I said. One, he’s full of shit. Two, he’s a shit writer. Three, he writes the same shit over and over again.

Yes, I know this sounds a lot like I’m talking about myself–and I hastily admitted as much to Nell—especially #3. After all, I told her, I’m sure people go, “Gee. All he ever writes about is Nellie McKay! Doesn’t he like anyone else?” That answer, I conceded with the same haste, was for the most part, no.

We really should start a feud, Nellie suggested. It would be good for both our careers.

No, I told Nellie, my career is unsalvageable. And I definitely don’t want to risk yours. For the most part I don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t want it in my obituary that I took down the career of the most talented music artist of her generation.

[Editor note: Nellie’s career, actually, is fine. She was off the next night to play with her band at Deerhead Inn at Delaware Water Gap in Pennsyvlania, and is readying her most brilliant cabaret piece from two years ago A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, about the strange case of Billy Tipton, jazz musician and bandleader from the 1930s to the ‘70s, who performed with artists including the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine, but when he died in 1989, was discovered to be a woman who had passed as a man in both his professional and personal lives, for upcoming repeat performances. But, no, she’s not doing the Super Bowl halftime show.]

Then why does everyone read him, she asked, returning to Lefsetz. That answer, I said, was easy: Everyone reads him because everyone else does.

This led me to Bob Dylan—somewhat ironically in that Nellie does about the best Dylan impression of anyone out there.

Just announced Nobel Prize aside, why does everyone consider Dylan the greatest songwriter ever? I asked rhetorically. Because everyone else does! Don’t get me wrong. I was a huge Dylan fan—as a kid. “Blowin’ the Wind”—especially Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit version—“Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “The Times They are a-Changin’”—these and so many other early Dylan songs woke me up to the 1960s. I knew Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde inside-out. But after he went Christian—great songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You” and the great Gospel Tour of 1979-’80 that I saw in Madison notwithstanding, I started having second thoughts that carried over into a reexamination of his earlier work: Suddenly the lyrics to formerly beloved songs like “Desolation Row” and “I Want You” seemed like so much surrealistic baloney, to mangle–and I throw it in here gratuitously, much as those lyrics now appeared to be written–a favorite phrase from Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 horror film classic The Black Cat, where Bela Lugosi says to nemesis Boris Karloff, in response to a comment that the occult is little more than “supernatural baloney,” “Supernatural? Perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not.”

It all came to a head in 2007, when I chanced to meet a reporter for ABC News at some showcase, and talk turned to Dylan. She was amazed, if not appalled, when I told her that I considered his post-folk period lyrics largely “gibberish”—and quoted me saying it in a piece around the release of Todd Haynes’ bizarre Dylan biopic I’m Not There (in which Cate Blanchett, in another instance of convincing female male impersonation, turned in the best Dylan portrayal).

Having slaughtered another sacred cow, I wanted to share my favorite lyricists with Nellie, starting with—who else?–Hal David.

I was so lucky to know Hal very well. In fact, he called me up once, a few years before he died, to say that he’d been mulling over writing a memoir and wondered if I’d be interested in helping him. Duh, I replied, then he said he wanted to hold off until everyone else was dead and of course, they all outlived him.

But go to any of his songs—as but one easy example, take “One Less Bell to Answer.” Even just the title is poetry, and when I say poetry, I mean you can take Hal’s lyrics apart form Burt Bacharach’s beautiful music and they stand alone as poems concerning contemporary relationships:

One less bell to answer
One less egg to fry
One less man to pick up after
I should be happy
But all I do is cry
.

Indeed, I actually have a book of Hal’s lyrics—and you really don’t need the music.

I’ve also known Kris Kristofferson very well, and wrote liner notes on a two-disc KK compilation. Two famously immortal lyric examples will suffice: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “There’s nothing short a’ dying/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” (from “Sunday Morning Coming Down”).

I’ve written liner notes on two David Johansen CDs, and need go no further than the opening verse of “Frenchette” in which he pares down everything fake to the real core: “You call that love in French, but it’s just Frenchette/I’ve been to France, so let’s just dance.”

And then there’s Nick Ashford, which is why we’re gathered together here again in the first place. No one was more real than “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Gimme Somethin Real” Nick Ashford.

This being the sixteenth in my continuing Reflections on Nick Ashford series, obviously I could go on and on about Nick, as human being and here, as songwriter. One of the things I love so much about his songwriting is the way he made poetry out of vernacular: “We got love/Sure ‘nough, that’s enough” fro “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “She wanna live in a high-rise” from “High-Rise”–you get the picture. But even better, the way he cut deep to the core of human beings and humanity—but ever so tenderly. I come now to Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” the enduring hit for Diana Ross, what I love to call the greatest song of all time.

First, it’s not “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)—Or Else!” or “You Must Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand.” Nick was never judgemental, never demanding: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand—make this world a better place if you can.” The italics are mine, but the gentle suggestion is Nick’s. It’s “if you can,” not “of course you can!”

Nothing authoritarian, either, as in “I command that you reach out and touch sombody’s hand!” No, Nick never forces an issue: He always kindly leaves kindness up to you.

And then he delivers what I consider one of the most extraordinary anthropomorphisms ever in a song, that is, of course, if I have any idea what anthropomorphism means.

Or would I be talking to a stone
If I asked you
To share a problem that’s not your own?

Again, he’s not saying, “You are a stone,” or even insinuating it, just rhetorically asking.

And “to share a problem that’s not your own”! Ruminate on that for a moment, maybe even two.

I’m really at a loss for words now. How seemingly simple yet so enormously poetic in anthropomorphizing a stone in bringing us around to see our failings in caring about others—this from the most creatively caring songwriter maybe ever.

Sorry if it took so long to get here. So many roads, sometimes circuitously, lead to Nick.

[Editor’s note: Bob Lefsetz and Bob Dylan deserve an apology. Nothing said was inaccurate, but any negativity towards another is inappropriate and uncallec for in anything relating to Nick Ashford.]