Extracts from Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Eric von Schmidt & Jim Rooney, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. 1979. 2nd edition, 1994.
Whatever unpleasantries were exchanged in the kitchen pantry that night were of little or no concern to Fritz [Richmond]. He was no longer just everybody's sideman. He was part of a real, live band.Once you make a band, you have to use it. Bands don't do well just sitting around; they get flat spots like a tomato or an old tire. We played some gigs around Boston and Cambridge and were delighted how people reacted. Record companies got interested and word spread. Folk music was a big business. Hootenanny became a familiar word. The Jug Band was ready to boogie. We went to New York City to make our first record.Soon after joining the band, Mel became part of the Kweskin household at their new apartment at 131 Huron Avenue. Jim discovered that Mel's lifestyle was a bit different than his.
Bob Siggins couldn't go on the road with us, being all tied up with laboratories and university schedules. We needed a new banjo player, and they were nearly as scarce as fiddle players but more plentiful than North African kief. We checked out several local pickers first and finally found a likely one, way out in Waltham. His name was Mel Lyman.
Mel had hoboed around the country and knew the roads. He had lived in North Carolina near Obray Ramsay, and his music was of the High and Lonesome sound. He plunked quietly and sang sometimes with harmonica. He didn't command instant attention, for he played his music for one or two or three people sitting around a small fire off in the world somewhere, or in a kitchen in Cambridge. Whatever he sang of, he gave the hint of having been there or done it before. The effect could be chilling, or very comforting.
Jug Band music must have seemed raucous and outrageous to Mel, and the lifestyle a bit odd. Who knew what a Jug Band was supposed to be like? Not me, I behaved any way I could and caused my life to be very involved with being in the band.
Mel seemed to already know what being a traveling musician was going to be like and had resigned himself to it. He tried hard to learn the uptempo jazz tunes but was much more at home on the slow country blues. He and David Simon would play duets on harmonicas on some songs. Often excellent music happened. Mel could become totally involved with his instrument and be drained dry emotionally at the end of a tune. We knew it was hard for him to then jump into a fast one like "Borneo" or "Beedle-Um-Bum."
Mel was into astrology and the macrobiotic diet and championed them as ways to understand other people better and for self-improvement. He showed us some unexplainable events.
We were in between gigs one day in Cambridge, and Mel said he had gotten a flash. His wife and four children were in Eureka, California, three thousand miles away and were in danger. Mel knew they needed to leave Eureka, so he borrowed a van, and he and Geoffrey went to get them.
"Hey, man, can I use your van for a few days? I'll bring it right back." Seven thousand miles later, Sophie and the kids were safe in Cambridge reading about the tsunami from an Alaskan earthquake that had turned Eureka into U-Wreck-A. We thought about that.
Another time, another year, another van, Geoffrey and Mel on a snowy night, tearing along the dotted line in Utah someplace: Mel said, "Something fantastic is about to happen." They hadn't gone another tankful when they came to a hitchhiker with his frigid digit displayed way away miles from town. "Stop the machine," said Mel. They backed up, and who should it be but Mel's old hanging-out partner, Eben Given, who hadn't seen Mel in years. We thought about that, too.
[p. 176]Mel told me that he was being evicted from his place in Waltham and he'd like to move into the little storage room in our attic. Marilyn and I liked him, but we thought he was pretty weird, and we didn't know anything about him. But he really needed a place to live and we needed our banjo player, so around the middle of September, for fifteen dollars a month, I became his landlord. He brought his cat Theodore, a record player, a dresser, an old cat scratcher, a Tiffany lamp, a school-type desk and chair, a double bed, his old radio, a legless chair, cushions, hot plates, pictures, utensils and an old Mexican fertility rug which he hung on the door. All kinds of stuff went up to that tiny attic room. By the end of the day he had somehow managed to get it all neatly arranged and standing in the middle of the room, slowly turning and pointing, said to Marilyn, "This is my bedroom, and this is my study, and this is my kitchen, and this is my music-room..." Everything he needed was there.[p. 180] (Maria D'Amato [Muldaur]:)
Downstairs it was a constant party, beer, music and all the dope freaks who came to hang out. Marilyn and I had our bed in the kitchen with a curtain for privacy. People slept everywhere, anywhere, the big attic room across from Mel's was always full. The record player was going constantly. I was always lighting joints for people and playing them Jimmie Rodgers or Django Reinhardt, jug bands, jazz bands, and fiddle bands. The beer was flowing. Marilyn was always cooking and people were always eating and smoking dope. But Mel never came down and joined the party. We would all go over to the Club 47 to hear whoever was playing, parties at the DeLong's or Fritz's or the Siggins'. Around three a.m. we would all roll into the Red Fez for stuffed grape leaves and houmis and baklava. But Mel would never come with us. I wanted him to, but he stayed up in that little room and listened to Ray Charles, nothing but Ray Charles. I asked him once why he never listened to any other kind of music. He said, "Ray Charles contains all music."
Then the Jug Band got about a month's worth of gigs on the West Coast. So me and Geoff and Mel Lyman went across country together. We had lots of adventures. Mel kept a hundred pound sack of brown rice in his VW bus. He was already on a macrobiotic diet, into astrology, had taken acid, morning glory seeds, and a lot of pot. He'd show us where he rode the rails and we'd camp out. He'd sing Woody Guthrie songs, and we'd all sing in the car and play harmonica.
When we got to the West Coast, they had three Steve Allen gigs and three weeks at the Troubadour. I got a gig as a cashier at the Ash Grove. We lived in our bus in the driveway of Marilyn Kweskin's parents at the top of Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. Marilyn and I palled out and went to a lot of material shops and made shirts for the guys. I was a jug band old lady. We cooked and sewed a lot. I was not singing with them at all.
At that time, Dylan and Victor Maimudes and Neuwirth were also hanging out in L.A. Dylan was doing the college circuit, and we'd meet every night for parties. Every night, some rich L.A. person would invite some of us crazies over to his house. And we'd all sing. I remember Dylan or Neuwirth would ask me to sing "Trix Ain't Walkin'." I had little songs that I sang; but just for parties. I didn't really have any particular aspirations. I was just happy to be part of it.
Later that spring, Dave Simon quit, and the next thing I knew, I'd been asked to join. We did a few rehearsals and made the second record. I did "I'm A Woman." I would play a lot of rhythm instruments, tambourine, wood blocks. It was a fabulous time. I learned to play "Jug Band Waltz" in harmony with Mel on the harmonica.
The whole trip was so innocent. The Jug Band, for those days, was a pretty successful band, but we traveled around in our Volkswagen buses. Say we'd hit Philly and play the first set at the 2nd Fret, then a bunch of young, rich kids would come up and say, "Stay at our place. My mom will cook you organic turkey sandwiches" or whatever. Or we'd score pads to stay in. We never thought of the Holiday Inn. Being on the road was a groove. People came to wherever we were staying and took us on tours of the city.
We got magnetized into music. It was just folk music - nobody ever dreamed that they could pay the rent with it. It wasn't as if people had sat around in their college dorms and said, "How can we make a million?" We just did it like crazies and got up there and sang, and I'm sure we all weren't very good when we started, but there wasn't any self-consciousness about it. It was just a pure love of music and a real community and family feeling.
Meanwhile, Mel was getting a reputation as a guru - someone who knew something. Today you can go to the local Rexall and get "I Ching" books and Tarot cards, but he was one of the first guys to be putting all that together. He was in on one of the first "if-if" experiments-- Leary and Alpert's first acid experiments. So people were starting to come to Mel. People who were in trouble would come in and have long raps with him, or he'd throw their changes for them, or give them morning glory seeds. He was our spiritual leader, while Jim was our showbusiness leader.
I remember when Mel left the Jug Band. We were at Newport for the first time. We did the afternoon concert. The way we did "I'm A Woman" was that I sang three verses, then Mel played a harp solo, then I sang the fourth verse. You can imagine how nervous I was. There must have been seventeen thousand people out there. I had only been with the Jug Band for a couple of months. We'd been playing little coffee houses, and here we were playing the Newport Festival at the height of its thing. Nobody'd ever seen a gig like that at the time. So how was I to know in my basic tremulous condition of facing 17,000 people that Mel Lyman was so into his harp solo that he wanted to blow at least one, if not two, more choruses. I was not musically and cosmically and sensitively aware of this. So after he did a very lovely solo, I came back in and sang the last verse. That was that, and we finished the set, and that so crimped his musical soul, and I guess he felt we were really going show biz to the point that he quit the band at the end of that weekend. It was never said that I had simply not been aware enough, but that's what I was made to feel. So I learned. a big lesson in musical sensitivity.
Mel was replaced by Bill Keith, who is an entirely different story than Mel Lyman - very methodical. The best description of him I ever heard was "the world's foremost nuclear banjoist." And he was.
Many of the younger performers at the Festival agreed with Dylan. The politics of the folk movement weren't necessarily their politics. They were really in it for the music, which they dearly loved. One of them, Mel Lyman, made an attempt to heal the wound of the evening with his own powerful brand of folk mysticism. He had seen the split coming even before Dylan went on and talked to him, trying to get him to see that he had a responsibility to the folk movement, that he could help it with his music, if only he would accept that responsibility. When Mel saw the chaos and confusion and rage which followed Dylan's performance, he was moved to do something to bring everyone back together as a family. He asked Pete Seeger and George Wein to let him go and play "Rock of Ages" on his harmonica. Neither of them thought it was a good idea, and told him that neither of them had the authority to tell him to do it. That was up to the Board of Directors. So Mel did it anyway. The concert was over, but the sound system was still on, and soon the sound of his harmonica floated out over the field. Everybody was just in the process of leaving the park emotionally drained after the events of the night. The first to stop and listen were the other musicians backstage and those sitting down front. Mel kept playing. Then others heard and stopped where they were. Mel kept playing. "Rock of Ages" washed over everyone again and again until they finally were satisfied and slowly left the park. It was pure music - folk music - and it said it all with no words.
Mel Lyman and Jim Kweskin wound up out in Hollywood, too, but they took a different route. After the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Mel journeyed up to Woodstock hoping somehow to connect with Dylan and talk to him about the direction his music was taking. He never got to see him. The next Spring, after Richard Fariņa died, and before the next Newport Festival, he called Mimi Fariņa and Joan Baez, among others, to try to get people back into the spirit of folk music. At that Festival Mel and Jim joined with Pete Seeger on the Sunday night program to emphasize their commitment to the Guthrie/Seeger tradition, but even as they did, the commercial world of the music business was tugging at their sleeves. The first page of the Newport program book had a big picture of Mel selling the Hohner Blues Harp. The ad read, "Until now, harmonicas just weren't made for blues. For one thing, they didn't last. After two or three blues sessions it was tough even for a musician like Mel to get a good sound. The punishment of blues wailing often caused the reeds to lose pitch and flat out. Now you've got the Blues Harp ... Mel said the Blues Harp was the best harmonica he'd ever played. See if you don't agree."
The Kweskin Band was involved more than ever in show business. Albert Grossman had provided them with a road manager, Jon Tapplin; a full concert and club schedule; and television appearances on the Roger Miller Show, the Al Hirt Show, and others. He also introduced them to Mo Ostin at Reprise Records and was in the process of extricating them from their Vanguard contract and negotiating a new deal with Reprise. Bill Keith was learning the pedal steel guitar, Richard Greene was soon to join the band on fiddle, and Geoff was looking to get into a more arranged style of music. A wonderful seamstress in L.A. was making them some pretty far-out stage outfits. The Jug Band was moving out.
Right after the '66 Festival Mel met Jesse Benton through David Gude, who had started out as a singer, but had been working for several years for Vanguard as an engineer. Davy's family had known Lee Hays and the rest of the Weavers, so he was firmly in the Guthrie tradition. His family spent summers out on Martha's Vineyard, which was where he had a group called the Islanders that had done some concerts on the Vineyard with Bill Keith and Jim Rooney and Tom Rush back in the early sixties. Jesse was the daughter of the well-known American populist painter, Thomas Hart Benton. The Bentons also had a place on the Vineyard as well as one in Kansas, where she was from. Jesse was a beautiful, striking girl, with a voice to match. She had appeared on one of Manny Greenhill's "Night Owl" concerts back in the late fifties, and anyone who ever heard her sing never forgot her.
Soon after meeting Jesse, Mel acquired some property in a run-down area of Boston called Fort Hill. The hill was actually one of the oldest parts of Boston, and the Fort was part of the fortifications during the revolutionary struggle with the British. A tower stands there from which you can see the entire city. It is a powerful location, which is possibly why it appealed to Mel. Mel, Jesse, Davy, and some others started what came to be called the Fort Hill Community. Soon, Jim and Marilyn Kweskin moved from Huron Avenue to the Hill.
Kweskin began to find that his life as the leader of the Jug Band and his life as a member of the Community were pulling him in two different directions.For a while I was very enthralled with the idea of entertaining people and having them applaud and love me. I would eat it right up. But it was through learning things from Melvin that I came to a different realization. You learn something from someone because you realize when they say something it is the truth. After a while that experience became very unsatisfying. What I really wanted to do was to be with people, to share something, to communicate something and have something communicated back and have a relationship -- and not be an entertainer.When Jim tried to put his new ideas into practice, Geoff Muldaur found himself in an awkward position.Mel left because the music wasn't honest enough. I guess it meant that we didn't see God every minute or some bullshit. But from Kweskin's point of view it was true. He had to sing all the jive shit. Kweskin had to go "Deet Deedly Dum" and he wanted to sing "You Are My Sunshine." I got to pour my heart out.Finally, Kweskin announced to the rest of the band that he was going to disband at the end of the series of gigs they had lined up. Bill Keith accepted the news with his usual reserve.
The last few months were the dumbest. We'd sit on the edge of the stage, me and him. Some poor guy would have called out for "Rag Mama." I'd have to say, "Okay, Jim, why don't you want to do 'Rag Mama?' We're being paid to be here. What do you think?" Then he'd say what he thought, and the guy in the audience and Kweskin would have a conversation. Sometimes I'd say, "Jim, you're so into this frame of mind that I don't think you should play this set," and he'd leave, and I'd try to do some of his songs. He was struggling. Mel had left, but he was very much there as far as Jim was concerned.Towards the end things got a little strange. One gig we played was at some Catholic girls' school. On the way up, Jim talked about wanting to swear and use dirty words on stage. That was later carried through by the Lyman Family when they got into provoking reactions from the audience. It was not enjoyable for me to be involved in those later gigs. On the very last gig, Jim very ceremoniously shaved off his mustache, which signified the end of the band. He told us that he would be doing it, so we all grew them. I have had mine since then.[p. 294]
One of the influential books to appear in the late sixties was Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage. It wasn't long before Dave Wilson was being approached by people from the Fort Hill Community who were looking for a medium for Mel's message.Eventually, I got involved in the media. I got together "Folk Music, U.S.A." for Channel 2, the Boston PBS station. Later I worked on their production of "What's Happening, Mr. Silver?' I did the music section of "Artists Look at the Sixties." We even did a few editions of The Broadside on video tape. It was a little ahead of the times.Whatever the controversies surrounding the publication of Avatar, it certainly succeeded in getting Mel's message to the world. One person who responded to the message was Owen DeLong, one of the charter members of Geoff Muldaur's "last call" gang.
At some point, Wayne Hansen came to me from the Fort Hill Community and told me that he'd been thinking that Boston should have an "underground" newspaper. I'd been thinking of that, too. Out in California the Berkeley Barb and The Los Angeles Free Press had already started. Within the next two weeks several other people, including Bud Burns, Ed Beardsley, and Gunther Weill, all talked to me about the same idea, so I brought everyone together at a think-tank on Mt. Auburn Street called "Crazy Eights," and we decided to do it.
There were long and heavy discussions about a name - a couple of suggestions were The Mystic River Bridge and The Boston Anvil. The people from Fort Hill suggested Avatar, which is a Hindu term for the embodiment of God's spirit. I wasn't totally enthusiastic about the name, but it did get the message across that the paper was going to be something other than news. It would be a forum for the "underground community," with a spiritual direction. That direction was not going to be limited to the spiritual values of the people from Fort Hill, although they would be well represented. We weren't thinking of it as "Mel Lyman's newspaper." The people from Fort Hill didn't tell us that. They talked a lot about Mel, but the rest of us saw them as contributing individuals not as spokesmen for Mel. That was beyond our concept.
What was very difficult about working with Avatar was that you were always dealing with Mel in absentia. How do you deal with three persons who have a vote who say, "Mel says..." I'd say, "I can't argue with Mel. He's not here." So we'd go 'round and 'round. About the fourth issue we voted them out. They got very penitent and came back, saying that they understood better what it was all about, and in our ebullient brotherhood and camaraderie we not only welcomed them back, but gave them an additional vote! After that it really became "Mel" oriented.
At some point in the Spring of '68 the people on Fort Hill started withdrawing, and they decided to take Avatar away from all the people who were working on it -- to take it up to the Hill. At that point the rest of us hired a lawyer. I was still president of the corporation on paper. They had never voted in another president and they hadn't filed any of the necessary corporate forms with the state so it was very easy to have a corporate meeting and vote to take it all away from them. But this all took time, and in between came the famous issue that was confiscated by Fort Hill. They came in the middle of the night and confiscated thirty thousand issues and stored them in the tower on the Hill! Craziness! I put out five more issues of Avatar. Then the Fort Hill people regained control. I resigned along with Sandy Mandeville, and we walked out free, never to be tempted again.
At the same time a splinter group had broken from Avatar just to cover the Spock trial which was going on in Boston. They called themselves the Free Press. Somewhere in all of this The Phoenix started as well. We were doing The Broadside the whole while. It was a killer time.
The Broadside finally stopped in 1970 as a result of all that was going on. The competition on the newsstand had become ferocious. There was Avatar, The Mole, Boston After Dark, and The Phoenix. Street vendors were the only means we had to keep going. Because we had a second-class mailing permit we were not allowed to sell to vendors for less than half of the cover price of the magazine - 12½ cents. The Phoenix and Boston After Dark got into a circulation war. They were charging vendors between 2 cents and 5 cents apiece, which put us out of the ball game.The country followed Dylan off into rock music and others followed Mel off into Fort Hill in the end of '66. I went in '68. In '68 I was still in my apartment in Harvard Square, but it was absolutely dead. I knew that if I stayed there one more year I was going to die myself. Martin Luther King getting killed and Bobby Kennedy getting killed was like the end of it. People came from all over the country in response to Mel's message. There were ten people from Michigan who read an Avatar, took a train, wound up on Fort Hill, and are still there. I was a Ph.D. candidate in government and I was reading everyone in the world, and no one was making as much sense as he was. It was very clear to me. The spirit had gone there. He's the kind of person who forces you to make a choice. If you are looking for what he is doing, and you see that he is really doing it, you either join, or you find a lot of reasons why not to join.For many of Mel's friends and admirers it was not his simple philosophy that presented a problem, it was the "us/them" mentality which was encouraged among his followers. It seemed that unquestioning devotion was becoming a prerequisite for sharing Mel's company. Simple love was not enough. Maria Muldaur found it more and more difficult to penetrate the barriers that were being placed between her and her friend and teacher.
What I learned from Mel was that the whole revival of folk music and what happened around it was a gift from God and that, once having received it, you then had to work hard to do something with it. I was just a student at Harvard. The whole thing was a gift for me. It gave me all this music and all these people and all this life. Then, when it went away and I was still sitting there in my apartment, I realized that what he'd been telling me for five years was true and that I had to go out and do something. I had been going to work for Bobby Kennedy. Now, where was I going to do it? With Melvin and what he was doing. That was it for me, anyway. It was time to get together with other people who wanted to have personal relationships and build and to have the faith that if we build honestly enough and long enough that we would at least create a life together. Everyone of us has had opportunities to do other things and yet everybody has stayed in the community, brought together by the music -- which still binds us together. Music -- folk music, especially -- is the binding force.We'd go visit, because Mel really had taught us a lot and we loved him. And I know that Mel loved singing with me and Geoff. But the people who started surrounding Mel were too rigid and just on too many trips. After the Jug Band broke up, we were still living in Cambridge. We did the Pottery Pie album, and at that time, they really made a pitch for us to join. They invited Geoff to play on a session for their Avatar record and at a certain point he said, "Hey, I love Mel because he's a great guy, not because he's God." I wasn't there, but apparently a deadly hush fell over the thing, and the next thing he knew he was "out."Some people say that you can judge a religious leader by his ability to get other people to give their lives and their worldly goods to him. By those standards Mel must be judged a success. His community has properties across the country from Martha's Vineyard to Hollywood. His followers listen to Woody Guthrie on the tapedeck while they are wisked from place to place in a curtained limousine. Their collection of Thomas Hart Benton's paintings would be the envy of any museum. They entertain guests generously and gather 'round to sing songs on beautiful oriental rugs. They grow most of their food themselves on a farm in Kansas. They cruise on a yacht which would make Jay Gatsby's eyes light up. Everyone in the community works or contributes in some way to the common good. They have an ambitious project underway which involves collecting, cataloguing, and taping as much of American popular, jazz, and folk music as they can in their quest to preserve for posterity what they consider to be true tradition of America, the music of its people, uncontaminated by crass commercialism. By choosing to live this way their gaze is more inward than outward, their view is more to the past than the future, and they are committed to an insular way of life, apart from their former companions on the quest. As far as Jim Kweskin is concerned, though, he's a better man than he was.
Then they called me and made a play for me to get hooked into their trip, and I went down. It was the day of the first moon landing. I'll never forget that. We were all at the Petrucci and Atwell studio doing this cosmic session. Meanwhile, the moonwalk was happening on the television in the other room. We kept going in and out. There was this whole trip about how portentiously cosmic this all was. That night, we did "People Get Ready," and it was really beautiful, and Mel had tears in his eyes. But shortly after that, the party line got so complicated with Geoff and me that we just said, "We think we'll pass, thank you."
I think that Mel started out as a guy who was truly looking for the truth and thought he had found some answers and that people gravitated to him. There's a lot of people who are too chicken to write their own life story, who are kind of your weak, not-too-together people, and I think the whole trip corrupted him. I think he was truly right on at first, but the trip of him being worshipped corrupted his best intentions.
Jesse Benton found a guy important enough to protect from others, as her mother had protected Tom Benton. Mel had many old ladies in his life, but it was when she was with him that it really started being the 'inner circle" and the "outer peons," and You couldn't get in to see Mel, and things got more and more mysterious, and there were more and more slaves on the periphery actually drilling with arms and so on. I think she was a corrupting influence on the whole trip.I was a dope smokin', beer drinkin' sex fiend until I met Mel Lyman! Now I'm a record collector, I don't drink beer, and I have very little sex! But that's not it, of course. My whole relationship with other people has changed. I never realized how shallow I was when I was in Cambridge. However, I did learn a lot there from people like Rolf and Eric and then Mel. It was a beginning. It was a whole lot more than where I came from, which was Stamford, Connecticut.