The Boston Herald, p.12
Sunday, November 24, 1985

Mel Lyman: A mind-control guru
or a leader deserving respect and love?

by Matt Carroll

THE black-and-white image filmed more than 20 years flickers and jumps on the TV screen, but cannot diminish the power that seems to glow from Melvin Lyman, leader and musician.
Lyman sits surrounded by other members of the Kweskin Jug Band. His too-large, scruffy skipper's hat rides over his thin face and frames his bright eyes.
Joking and playing his harmonica, he clearly dominates with a confident, almost cocky presence. The camera can't get enough of him.
The narrator of "Festival," the story of the 1964-66 Newport Folk Festivals, asks: What's so special about folk music?
The smile disappears for a second. "Because it's truth," Lyman answers.

* * *

LYMAN, the founder of the Fort Hill Community, disappeared from sight during the early '70s. Rumor said that he had split from the group, gone to Europe maybe.
But Family members say the truth is simpler, that the founder of Fort Hill, who had frequent health problems, died "seven or eight" years ago after being sick for about three years. They refuse to be more specific about the date or his burial, saying the subject is too painful to talk about.
So who was Melvin Lyman?
A man who provokes intense reactions:
To detractors, he was some sort of "mind-control guru" who held a despotic power over his followers on Fort Hill. To others, outsiders as well as Family members, he was a man they think of with respect and love.
Some talk about his talent on harmonica and banjo; his intense dedication to whatever he turned his attention to; his ability to develop a person's strengths.
For everyone who met him, there is a different perception of a complex individual.
Dick Russell, 38, a Family member, says: "He had an incredible ability to bring out the best in whomever he met."
His first wife, Sophie, 45, says: "He was hungry for life ... He was always searching for more."
His daughter, Jackie, 25, simply says: "He was the best person in the whole world."
Lyman's early years gave little clue that he would later become the leader of a tradition-shaking commune.
He was born March 24, 1938, In Eureka, Calif., the son of a waitress and sailor. His family bounced around before he finally earned his diploma at the Mission Adult Night School in San Francisco, where he studied IBM programming.
But Lyman was becoming a lot more interested in learning to play the harmonica and banjo than in learning how to work computers. He was in the early stages of what would turn into a lifelong passion for music.
It was so intense that Lyman "never made a separation between music and life," says one Family member.
As Lyman says in "Festival": "If you are really playing music, a whole crowd of people will all be moving together, all experiencing the same thing that's truth.... You don't choose to play music; music chooses to play you."
But while others in the late '50s were turning on to a new sound called "rock 'n' roll," Lyman's heroes weren't Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly.
He was into folk and traditional music and musicians, men like Woody Guthrie, the legendary balladeer who penned "This Land Is Your Land" and many other standards.
Lyman married the first of his several wives, Sophie, in 1956. He was 18, she was 16.
"We were a new husband and wife," she says, "with a little house, kids. But it wasn't enough."
Lyman needed more, he was restless. He would tackle a subject, a job, an experience, devour it completely and then go looking for something new, she says.
Lyman decided to head out on a cross-country trip to search for some of his beloved musicians. The move shocked his friends because be was quitting his job and leaving behind his wife, eight months pregnant, and two children.
But Sophie understood. "He never just 'took off.' He made sure we were taken care of, he wrote and called, and when he could, he sent money. We weren't abandoned.
These were things he had to do and were part of our life."
Lyman headed for North Carolina, home of a great banjo plucker named Obray Ramsey, whom he hoped to learn from.
Ramsey, now 71 and retired from farming but still playing his banjo locally, remembers Lyman well.
"He didn't cause me any problems," Ramsey says, recalling Lyman as being a very good harmonica player and a good guitar player. He liked Lyman, but he didn't like the way he would leave his family to "live off neighbors" while he went hitchhiking around.
Lyman eventually went back to Portland, Ore., to bring his family back to North Carolina with him.
Finding that he couldn't squeeze both his family and precious record collection into his '53 Studebaker, he was forced to leave something behind.
That something, the Family now jokes, was his daughter, Jackie, then 1, who ended up staying with her grandmother.
Another reason for leaving Jackie was that Mel was worried that Sophie would have her child on the trip.
Lyman moved to the Boston area in the early '60s and soon landed a job as a banjo player with Jim Kweskin, the leader of the popular Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
The band, playing "good-time music," was a popular folk group during the mid-'60s. It played coffeehouses like Club 47 in Cambridge, and also at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and on the Steve Allen Show.
Hired to play banjo, Lyman filled in one night on harmonica when a band member failed to show and immediately won the job because of his tremendous talent, recalls band leader Kweskin.
The Family today talks about his playing "harp" in almost awestruck tones.
"He just blew us away," says George Peper.
Lyman quit the band after a few years.
Lyman was moving past the band. Living in a garret apartment on Huron Avenue in Cambridge, he was becoming a "spiritual adviser."
He was into "the new-age mojo": astrology, I-Ching, macrobiotic diets and taking morning glory seeds for an LSD-like high. He used them as a "language to achieve a deeper communication between people," a Family member says.
Lyman's Family was slowly being pulled together in Cambridge, drawn by "a new unique idea" that "a group of people would live together and make music."
But pressed for room, the center of activity moved in 1966 to a row of ramshackle houses in a section of Roxbury, Fort Hill.
Under the shadow of the massive white tower built on the remains of a Revolutionary War fort that guarded the approach to Boston, Lyman slowly built his Family.


Mel Lyman