Lyman Happens at Orleans
Boston After Dark
May 11, 1966
There is a "happening" with Mel Lyman every Wednesday at the Orleans Coffee House. Mel is the best mouth-harpist around, does fascinating things with a banjo his fingers just wander, producing Indian-inspired sounds, and gets the closest possible thing to blues out of a nylon-stringed guitar.
But the essence of what he offers is communication. Lyman spends most of the evening talking rambling monologues about his VW bus, his music, his writing. He fingers his guitar or banjo as he speaks, and the borderline between talking and singing is not always discernible, even to Mel himself. He is not a performer: he is a personality who happens also to be an outstanding instrumentalist.
It takes a while for Lyman to get around to performing recognizable songs, but they are worth waiting for. He illustrates the definition that "any song people sing is a folk song." When he plays the guitar, he generally sings modern country music, but last Wednesday he also sang "Unchained Melody." To banjo accompaniment, he usually sings white gospel music, with an intensity rare for this kind of song. And it is said that he once played several variations of "The Star Spangled Banner" on mouth-harp.
His voice, nasal and off-key, is most readily compared to Woody Guthrie's, but where Guthrie sings extroverted "hey-hey-hey's" between verses, Lyman moans, often throughout entire songs. Lyman knows that his voice is awful, but for his kind of performance, it makes no difference. His gentleness, honesty, and warmth pervade the Orleans: the audience becomes noticeably kinder by the end of the evening than it was at the beginning.
( The last paragraph was quoted in: David Felton, Mindfuckers p 294; Rolling Stone p 52 [#99] )