Originally published October 2012, completely revised, August 2016.
During my formative years, I formed many things: nice tits, a great ass and a strong aversion to American folk music. Part of that aversion had to do with a brief period in my youth when my mother went through a phase where she incessantly played John Denver records.
She can’t explain it either, and wished I hadn’t reminded her.
Imagine a pretty little girl with a complexion of strawberries-and-cream and a perpetual smile on her face. The camera pans in as she happily plays with her dollies as rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. Suddenly, the music stops, and after a few minutes, the sounds of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” fills the air. The camera goes in for a close up. As the music plays, the little girl’s expression of innocent delight transforms into a dark, distorted, twisted grimace as if she has just swallowed poison. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream . . . the screen goes dark . . . and the next scene begins with a gaggle of decapitated dolls strewn across the floor.
I hope I’ve made my feelings about John Denver clear.
American folk music has never grabbed me for a number of reasons. For the most part, it’s musically boring and predictable. I know that many people in my parents’ generation think that Bob Dylan is a lyrical genius, and while I wouldn’t go that far, some of his lyrics are better than decent. But Dylan is anything but a musical genius—you can pick up the chords to almost any Dylan song in about five minutes. Woody Guthrie followed the same model: focus on the words, keep the music simple.
I do like folk music from the other side of the pond, particularly Fairport Convention, June Tabor, Steeleye Span and a few others. I am quite passionate about Bulgarian folk music with its weird time signatures and soaring melodies. Lately I’ve become interested in North African folk and chaabi, in part because of my current proximity to Africa and the large number of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants in the area. But when it comes to American folk music, the only artists whose work I truly admire are Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. The vast archives of American folk music hold little interest for me except for a couple of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot renditions, some Leonard Cohen stuff (as long as someone else is singing it), and this one album by Dave Van Ronk.
Dave Van Ronk was an interesting guy—a big, burly, gruff-voiced Brooklynite who relocated to Greenwich Village in his teens and became a serious student and interpreter of American folk music. His autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, is a hoot, a free-wheeling coming-of-age story, most of which took place during the folk music revival in the early 60’s. In addition to some great stories of the life of a wayward musician, he shared his thoughts on music, and one particular quote caught my eye: a lesson he learned from one of his mentors, Jack Norton:
Never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence. Van Ronk, Dave (2013-10-15). The Mayor of MacDougal Street [2013 edition]: A Memoir (p. 11). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
That’s my Count Basie Theory in a nutshell!
Whether it was song selection, empty spaces or excellent interpretive skills, there is something about Dave Van Ronk’s approach that made American folk music come alive for me. Folksinger is filled with the kind of music that lifts you out of the daily routine and immerses you in a series of all-too human tales of love, betrayal, addiction and loss.
“Samson and Delilah” opens the album, a traditional song Van Ronk learned from mentor Reverend Gary Davis, though recorded under a different title as far back as 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson. What I love about this retelling of the biblical story is that it focuses on the human aspect rather than the spiritual. The Bible has some great stories, but when the various authors shift to moralizing I tune out completely. Here we get two verses that describe Samson as an uncivilized Neanderthal of exceptional strength without any reference to him being “god-fearing.” Delilah’s entry into the scene is described in the same language that later blues musicians would use to describe a hot babe’s grand entrance into the juke joint:
Well, Delilah was a woman, she was fine and fair,
She had lovely looks, God knows, and coal black hair
Delilah worked fast, like Mata Hari on speed:
Well, Delilah climbed up on Samson’s knee,
“Now tell me where your strength lie, if you please?”
Well, she talked so fine, God knows, she talked so fair,
Well now, Samson said, “Delilah, you can shave my hair,
You can shave my hair just as soon as you can
And my strength will be that of a natural man.”
Van Ronk’s sense of vocal dynamics is startling and compelling, as he raises the volume on the just the right words—sometimes a single word— to reflect the libidinal surges Samson experienced. The guitar support remains in deep background so that our full attention is riveted to the story.
Van Ronk turns to Reverend Gary once again for the song that would become his signature song: “Cocaine Blues.” A dramatic monologue from the perspective of cocaine addict, we meet the narrator on the edge of forced withdrawal, describing a life characterized by police harassment, threats of gun violence from his lover and entrapment by a powerfully addictive drug that sickens and controls him. Van Ronk’s tone in the early verses combines resignation, near-exhaustion and an almost helpless sense of humor as the addict quietly reflects on the consequences of addiction.
Cocaine’s for horses, not for men
They tell me it’ll kill me but they won’t say when
Cocaine—runnin’ all ’round my brain
As the waves of nausea intensify, the steady blues-tinged guitar pattern becomes more insistent, and Van Ronk’s voice transforms from defiant resignation to genuine alarm. In the last verse, when he raises his voice to maximum volume, he sounds like he has assimilated the panic of the deprived addict, and explodes in an unrelenting growl of agony and despair:
Come here, baby, come here quick,
This old cocaine’s gonna make me sick,
Cocaine—runnin’ all ‘round my brain.
The sheer intensity of the performance is such that you have to stop the album before playing the next song and give yourself some time to recover from the experience. “Cocaine Blues” is an interpretive masterpiece with few equals in any genre.
Van Ronk figured we’d need something on the light side to follow “Cocaine Blues” and delivers with “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon.” Refusing to change gender to accommodate his own, Van Ronk plays the role of a woman taunting her about-to-be-ex-lover with the studliness of her new beau:
Well he is the king of lovin’
Just minus of a crown
He’s a good old wagon, daddy
And he ain’t broke down
Van Ronk delights in the role reversal, capturing the woman’s scarcely disguised glee at putting her old man in his place.
“Fixin’ to Die” is an old Bukka White song (“Fixin’ to Die Blues”), one he penned when he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Bob Dylan’s earlier cover version managed to rescue Bukka from obscurity and made him something of a figure in the 60’s folk revival. Bukka really didn’t think much of this particular song, and while I don’t think it’s one of his best, songs about facing death tend to appeal to the more dramatically inclined interpretistes. Van Ronk’s version is as strong as the original (though I do miss the washboard), and he manages to capture the strange anxiety the dying often feel about things left undone and responsibilities left unfulfilled (particularly family responsibilities).
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a very quiet number describing the experience of a man on his way to the gallows. Although I’m forever thrown by the Americanized pronunciation of “Girardeau” as “Jordo,” Van Ronk gives a compelling, empathetic performance of a man inflating the extent of his travels to convince himself he has led a full life and won’t be missing much in the grave. It’s followed by the traditional “Long John,” a vivid description of a ramblin’ man who winds up on the chain gang “with my teeth poked out.” It’s also the source material for “Baby Please Don’t Go,” popularized by Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Them. Side 1 ends with an adaptation of a Liberian folk tune, “Chicken Is Nice,” in which a man catalogues a list of undesirable wives whose undesirability stems from cultural stereotypes associated with geography. Van Ronk’s delivery is gentle, bemused and a perfect fit for the narrative.
Another great example that demonstrates why Dave Van Ronk touches my soul and other folk musicians leave me cold can be found in his version of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” I’ve heard versions by Dylan, The Byrds (who turned it into a JFK eulogy) and The Chad Mitchell Trio (!). Only in Dave Van Ronk’s version do I hear the deep mourning, the anger of loss and the existential helplessness one experiences with the death of a friend or loved one. Dave Van Ronk performed this song in the memorial tribute to Phil Ochs, and I can’t believe there was a dry eye left in the house. A great interpretive artist has to combine discipline with empathy, and Dave Van Ronk achieved that rare and difficult balance in this marvelous performance.
“Motherless Children” continues the theme of loss in a growling performance characterized with more bitterness than empathy—the “life is unfair” theme. “Stackalee” is a much more coherent and compelling version of the old folk song than you hear in Lloyd Price’s abbreviated hit, “Stagger Lee.” Van Ronk’s take on the Furry Lewis version emphasizes the terrifying aspect of the lead character, who in real life was a St. Louis pimp and by all accounts, the ultimate bad-ass. After the authorities hang the murderous, sadomasochistic prick, Stack shuttles off to hell, where he has no qualms about taking on Satan himself:
Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Devil, let’s us have some fun,
You stab me with your pitchfork
And I’ll shoot you with my gun
When you lose your money, learn to lose
Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Put your pitchfork on the shelf,
I’m a bad man they call Stackalee
I’m gonna rule hell by myself
When you lose your money, learn to lose
The song is filled imagery from the world of craps shooting—the ultimate experience of fortune and misfortune—and it never ceases to delight me. Van Ronk’s hard-earned skills at finger-picking are on display here in a yeoman’s display of steady rhythm and brief counterpoints.
“Mr. Noah” is a cute song for children about you-know-who, and I definitely prefer the more adult, sexier “Come Back, Baby” that follows. This is an old Walter Davis song covered by dozens, most notably Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Davis was a piano player, and his version is definitely more late night bar with only one lonely guy in the place drowning his sorrows in whatever Joe’s pouring. Van Ronk’s version sounds like he’d just read Thoreau, delivering his plea to his lost love in a tone of quiet desperation, in a glorious display of vulnerability.
Folksinger comes to a close with the one song I don’t care for. “Poor Lazarus” is a modification of the traditional “Po’ Lazarus,” a work song about another bad ass. Unlike “Stackalee,” this song drags on too long, and its placement after the very still “Come Back, Baby” was a curious decision. I usually pick up the needle after “Come Back, Baby” and pronounce myself a happy camper.
Before we leave Folksinger, let us deal with the elephant in the room: Dave Van Ronk was a white guy who sang a lot of black music. Rock is full of singers who have attempted with varying degrees of success to emulate African-American vocalists. While I guess the old saw that imitation is flattery has some value, I think it’s a bit off the mark when it comes to this subject, and way off the mark when it comes to Dave Van Ronk. The more effective imitators attempt to immerse themselves in the feelings they hear in the original singer’s voice, and some are quite effective at it. I don’t think early McCartney was trying to “whitewash” Little Richard the way Pat Boone whitewashed Fats Domino—he heard a terribly exciting voice and wanted to capture that excitement.
Dave Van Ronk took it one step further: his goal was to immerse himself in the black person’s experience and connect through empathy. A passionate socialist, he understood his own white privilege well enough to know that sitting around a feeling guilty about the historical developments that put white people in positions of power was a useless, self-indulgent exercise. Singing the songs from the African-American tradition helped him understand the experience, and the gift of a powerful, sandpapery voice made him a natural for interpreting those undeniably powerful songs.
Folksinger in many ways is a brave attempt at bridging the racial divide, but I’m pretty sure that was not Dave Van Ronk’s intent. He was simply fascinated by the music and wanted to interpret it to the best of his ability, to satisfy his own needs for development and maybe make a few listeners stop and think for a moment. The end result was this masterpiece of American folk, a paean to the gift of empathy and understanding.
Allegedly legendary and overrated music critic Robert Christgau famously lambasted Pleasures of the Harbor, which apparently hit the racks during a period when Mr. Christgau wasn’t getting any. Nor should he have:
He also commented on the artist, saying “Too bad his voice shows an effective range of about half an octave [and] his guitar playing would not suffer much if his right hand were webbed.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Christgau was extolling the virtues of Mr. Dylan, who has no effective range at all if you only give someone credit for being in the octave range when they actually hit the notes.
Now, I’ll admit I can get cranky, huffy and insulting in some of my reviews, but the thing that triggers those bursts of vituperation is not my mood, whether that mood is affected by the absence of sex (a rare occurrence, and anyway, I have a huge collection of vibrators), or my monthly bleeder. What gets my dander up is when established artists produce crap and then try to sell it to the easily-exploitable masses with sophisticated and suitably artistic marketing (McCartney has dispensed with the artistic pretense, in case you hadn’t noticed).
But when someone gives it their best and falls short, I’m actually quite nice about it. However, that statement has no relevance whatsoever to Pleasures of the Harbor, which I think is one of the most remarkable records ever made. I will admit to its flaws. Mr. Christgau’s reference to “gaudy musical settings” is imprecise; while some of the arrangements get too crowded, the more common problem is that the vocal-instrumental balance is off, distracting from the singer and his superb lyrics. Sometimes Phil Ochs can overdo it with his signature vibrato and occasionally I find myself wishing that he would have restrained himself a bit. All in all, those are minor imperfections in a masterpiece of the songwriting art.
Curiously, Pleasures of the Harbor follows a strange pattern: each song is better than the one that precedes it. I don’t think I’ve experienced that with any other album. Think of it as a novel that takes a while to get going, and you’ll be fine. I’d even go one step further and say I’d forgive you if you skipped the first song, “Cross My Heart,” because it’s easily the weakest song on the album and the one with the “gaudiest” musical arrangement. Ochs had hooked up with an arranger by the name of Lincoln Mayorga, and while they did some fabulous things together on the album, sometimes their 60’s experimental exuberance got the best of them. Remarkably, Ochs thought “Cross My Heart” would be a hit. The man simply had no concept of commercial music, bless his heart, and the single bombed.
“Flower Lady” is definitely a step up. The strings, piano and flute provide a relatively subdued chamber music background to allow Ochs to paint a picture of a society too busy, too fragmented and too self-absorbed to bother to stop to buy flowers and celebrate a moment of beauty or friendship. Interestingly, the notoriously political Phil Ochs even laments the lack of civility between anti-war protestors and those shouldering the rifles:
Soldiers disillusioned to come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night, black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right
But nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.
The most famous song on the album, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” is a masterpiece of social satire that still resonates today. The indifference to human suffering, the fear of getting involved, the power of comfort to lull us to sleep, the demonization of minorities . . . not much has changed since he wrote this song almost fifty years ago. The ironic use of Dixieland piano to set a jolly mood as he recounts the murder of Kitty Genovese and rats chewing on children in the ghetto was a masterstroke. What I find amazing is that a song like this—one that did receive some airplay before prudish radio stations pulled it because of the reference to marijuana—didn’t change a fucking thing. For some reason, satire no longer has the power to spark change in our society as it did in the times of Swift and Dickens. That’s not the fault of modern musical satirists like Ochs, Vivian Stanshall and Ray Davies, but a combination of the modern lack of community and the general feeling of impotence that leads the average person to believe that they have no power to make a difference. Have a good laugh and go back to the telly! Or the booze! Or the babes!
I’ve always found it interesting that Ochs, Stanshall and Davies—all exceptionally perceptive people—suffered nervous breakdowns. The gap between truth and reality must have been extraordinarily painful for them.
The song that got the team of Ochs and Mayorga going was the stunning “I’ve Had Her.” As Mayorga explained in an excellent piece in Political Affairs, “Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea.” It was a brilliant idea indeed; the music is so beautiful that I long to hear an instrumental-only version. The problem with that idea, though, is that we’d lose the equally beautiful lyrics. I’ve read some horribly moronic interpretations of “I’ve had Her,” all from males who believe the song is about a chick who plays the field and who is therefore worthless. Besides the obvious and offensive sexism in that line of thinking, the lyrics tell a completely different tale if you bother to read and reflect on them.
The structure of “I’ve Had Her” is a verse describing an encounter with a “woman” followed by the key lines, “But I’ve had her, I’ve had her . . . She’s nothing.” The problem with the standard male interpretation is that Phil Ochs is not describing real women but images and fantasies of women: the image of a woman sailing, a mermaid, a queen that appears in a dream. The one verse where a real woman is present illustrates the instinctual male ability to transform a woman into an abstraction:
The players at the party are prepared to take a chance
They drop their pants
They drop their pants
In the corner, she’s so crystalline no one dares to ask a dance
And she calls out to you
And she calls out to you
But, I’ve had her, I’ve had her
Of course she’s nothing! Every “woman” in this song is a manufactured male fantasy. The verse with the queen even describes masturbation to that fantasy: “In the prison of your broken bed you dribble in a dream.” The point (which should be obvious by now) is that men have a horrible habit of relating to women in terms of their idealized notions of womanhood rather than learning to deal with a living, breathing human being. Phil Ochs wasn’t a sexist pig, but one of the few men who perceived this persistent problem in male-female relations.
People have called Pleasures of the Harbor a somber album, which means they’ve given it a superficial run-through and moved on. How could an album with “Miranda” on it be called “somber?” In a more boozy Dixieland style than “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” this song is a hoot! It’s a fun song to help you work on your barbershop harmonies and relatively light in terms of the social satire. The spooky verse is the last verse, when Phil Ochs sings, “In the bar we’re gin and scotching/While the FBI is watching.” While he later became quite paranoid, there was nothing paranoid about those lines. According to the Wikipedia bio, this was real shit:
Years after his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of nearly 500 pages on Ochs. Much of the information in those files relates to his association with counterculture figures, protest organizers, musicians, and other people described by the FBI as “subversive”. The FBI was often sloppy in collecting information on Ochs: his name was frequently misspelled “Oakes” in their files, and they continued to consider him “potentially dangerous” after his death.
Okay, I wasn’t there, but I have a hard time believing that this gentle soul was more dangerous than J. Edgar, who was seriously fucking weird.
As I said at the beginning, Pleasures of the Harbor gets better the further you go. “The Party” is a breathtaking tour de force of the satiric arts, where Phil Ochs appears in the role of piano flunky to provide decoration and background music for a upper-crust soirée. Each verse satirizes a type or group, followed by the couplet, “And my shoulders had to shrug/As I crawled beneath the rug and retuned my piano.” Some of my favorites:
The hostess is enormous, she fills the room with perfume
She meets the guests and smothers them with greetings.
And she asks, “How are you” and she offers them a drink
The countess of the social grace, who never seems to blink
And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think
I’ve run into a lot of these lately at corporate parties . . . trophy women:
The beauty of the hour is blazing in the present
She surrounds herself with those who would surrender
Floating in her flattery, she’s a trophy-prize, caressed
Protected by a pretty face, sometimes cursed, sometimes blessed
And she’s staring down their desires
While they’re staring down her dress
And I love the way Phil Ochs decides to make an entrance at the end of the piece:
Oh, the party must be over, even the losers are leaving
But just one doubt is nagging at my caustic mind
So I snuck up close behind me and I gave myself a kiss
And I led myself to the mirror to expose what I had missed
There I saw a laughing maniac who was writing songs like this
I wonder what it was about the 1960’s that gave birth to such talented lyricists . . . and please don’t tell me it was the drugs.
You may be wondering why a thirty-two year old woman would be bothering with an album that probably none of her generational cohorts have heard. The answer lies in the title track, “Pleasures of the Harbor.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was a little girl growing up with my hippie parents in San Francisco, music was a constant presence every day of the life. Although I was a pretty precocious little kid, I won’t make the claim that I understood much of anything I was hearing, but certain songs filled me with a sense of absolute wonder. I called them “The Most Beautiful Song in the World,” and the use of the singular is deliberate. I had several of them, but the one I was listening to in the moment was The Most Beautiful Song in the World and I’d get very pouty when my parents laughed and reminded me that I’d already given that honor to another song. The ones I remember are “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Donovan’s “Celeste,” Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne” and “Pleasures of the Harbor.” I haven’t listened to Donovan in years (I have Fairytale and Sunshine Superman on my to-do list), but I still think the other three qualify. Later dismissed for its “cinematic” music (a dismissal that even Phil Ochs bought into), I still find it heartstoppingly beautiful. My favorite passage is the ritual of sex and the sailor:
And the girls scent the air
They seem so fair
With paint on their face
Soft is their embrace
To lead them up the stairs
Sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor
In the room dark and dim
Touch of skin
He asks her of her name
She answers with no shame
And not a sense of sin
‘Til the fingers draw the blinds
Sip of wine
The cigarette of doubt
The candle is blown out
The darkness is so kind
The shyness of the rough man as he faces the beauty of the woman is so touching; that “cigarette of doubt” he smokes is so real; the “darkness is so kind” to hide both our emotional vulnerabilities and the embarrassment of desire. Magnifique!
If Phil Ochs had ended Pleasures of the Harbor at this point, he would have had a masterpiece. That he gave us another masterpiece to end the album is astonishing. “Crucifixion” is primarily an allegory with John F. Kennedy substituted for Jesus, but in truth describes the human flaw of elevating people to heroic status, destroying them and then turning them into gods. It applies to JFK, Martin Luther King, Kurt Cobain . . . the whole tragic lot.
When I was still living at home, my parents made me watch a six-hour special (it must have been PBS) of the live NBC coverage of the events of November 22, 1963 to try to elevate my appreciation of the significance of the event. My first impression was amazement and the professionalism of the journalists; by the time I grew up, journalism had become a form of entertainment. More than that, I’d never seen so many truly spontaneous expressions of grief and shock; the faces and the voices of the people they interviewed in the streets dramatically expressed the incomprehensibility of the event. As part of my cultural study I’d paired with my musical exploration, I decided to learn more about JFK, particularly the meaning he had to people of the time (although I had a good sense of it by simply comparing him to the boring old fart who preceded him and the seriously weird pair who followed him). I was especially delighted by videos of his press conferences and how intelligent his answers were. I’d never seen that in a president!
Needless to say, I liked him much better when I found out what a horny bastard he was.
So, although I can’t emotionally appreciate the real impact of his death since I came eighteen years after the fact, I get it on an intellectual level. This was an event of monumental proportions that, if you follow the subsequent history, seemed to let all the evil genies out of the bottle. Lincoln Mayorga’s brilliant decision to use the eerie sound of dissonant strings to support the tale communicates the other-worldliness of the event better than words ever could. His equally intense scoring of the matador sequence is truly terrifying. Through this mad music, Phil Ochs relates the tale of the strange dynamic between leader and follower, one that is darkly complex and deeply disturbing, for the opposites of love and hate coexist in uneasy and ominous tension:
Then His message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land
The rewarding of His pain is the following of the man
But ignorance is everywhere and people have their way
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
For blood is the language of the band
The Spanish bulls are beaten, the crowd is soon beguiled
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style
Excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets
Gracefully He bows to ovations that He gets
But the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles
Another passage recalls a line from Ian Anderson’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” where he wrote, “And the limp-faced hungry viewers/Fight to fasten with their eyes/Like the man hung from the trapeze/Whose fall will satisfy.” In this context, though, the meaning is horrifyingly real, because I grew up in world where people were much more fascinated by the gruesome details of Kennedy’s assassination than any of his contributions, thanks to Oliver Stone:
But you know I predicted it, I knew He had to fall
How did it happen? I hope His suffering was small
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?
Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. All while his brain explodes on the big screen. Disgusting.
Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I’m dismayed that Phil Ochs is not as well-known today as some of his contemporaries, given the excellence and originality he displayed over a too-brief career. Following Dylan’s lead, he began to expand his reach beyond protest songs strummed on guitar and seemed to hunger for interesting new approaches to music while never losing his strong sense of social consciousness. Although his later years were characterized by wide behavioral swings and a growing sense of alienation (Mayorga said that “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself.”), nothing can diminish the power of his work. Pleasures of the Harbor is one of the great albums in American music, and its messages retain their stark power today.