Thursday, June 18, 2009

Protest singers and protesting singers

I scored a used copy of Ellen Sander's Trips the other day. I think many Led Zeppelin fans will know why. Sander was the reporter on assignment from Life magazine who traveled on Led Zeppelin's plane with them and lived and worked in their company for several days on their second American tour. After noting that it was an exhausting, dehumanizing way to work, she came round to almost appreciating why their behavior failed miserably to live up to a basic human level (as she put it) and seemed almost on the edge of writing a sympathetic article when, on her last day, she stopped in to say goodbye, and two members of the band assaulted her, ripping her clothes and seriously scaring her. She shelved the planned article and couldn't bring herself to write about it for months. In the end, she wrote it up for Trips, and it's that chapter I bought the book for.

But Trips is subtitled Rock Life in the Sixties, and covers far more ground than travel with tetchy (and apparently smelly unwashed) British rock groups. Sander started out as a folkie and so the sixties to her was not a journey from segregation, cha cha heels and high school principals to Woodstock, but a saga from committed protest song lover to …. Well, Woodstock and stuff, I guess. They all ended up in the same place.

From that vantage point she has unique view on the 1965 Newport Festival. This is the one in which Dylan "went electric", an odd phrase that suggests he had a conversion on the road to Newport. He was backed by an under-rehearsed Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The story out there is that the crowd were outraged at the sound and booed. Dylan left the stage but was persuaded to come back and finish acoustically, and all ended well. But Wikipedia has some additional complexity on the matter– some people remember, for instance, that the boos were not for the electricity, per se, but because of the poor sound. Whatever, Dylan did not return to Newport for 37 years and eventually returned wearing a wig and disguise.

Ellen Sander has an additional episode that isn't in the Wikipedia article.

Never before had the antagonism between folk purists and young folk stars been more vivid. The stuffed shirts of folkdom despised the coat of many colors the young ones wore, insisted that real folk music came from and strictly adhered to traditional sources. The political people, too, were incensed that this music had turned back to songs of changes people go through with themselves, with one another, leaving protest music to seed itself. The new music to hit this festival was a Judas’ lamb and the venom was rife.
At one afternoon workshop for which Alan Lomax was the emcee, he introduced the Butterfield Blues Band with some stupid remarks about, well, they’re white and young and use electric guitars, but for what they’re worth . . . with the implication being not much—and like that. Mind you, here was a band whose key organizer hung around the south side of Chicago for years, sitting in with Muddy Waters, hanging out with James Cotton, absorbing the blues as directly as he felt and identified with them.

She says that Paul Butterfield had paid his dues and recognized the depth of the blues masters musical knowledge. He played the music with all the respect due, and turned many white kids on to the blues, helping to guarantee the older black stars some commercial success.
Albert Grossman (who also managed the Butterfield Blues Band), himself a refugee from Chicago’s folk and blues scene where he’d once run a club, was mottled with rage. Since his association with Dylan he’d grown his hair long; it fell around his full face knotty and white like seaweed transfigured by the Ajax white knight. He looked for all the world like Ben Franklin on acid and being on the Dylan trip had given him a kind of smug obscurity he wore like a banner and a shield. He was a hulking porterhouse of a man with an aura of sternness about him which broke right on the brink of some amazing private scheme the music-biz monarch always seemed to be concocting. But when Grossman heard Lomax’s introduction for the Butterfield Blues Band he blew his everloving cool.
As Lomax turned to leave the stage, Grossman strode over toward the steps to meet him and he was fit to be tied. “That was the dumbest introduction I have ever heard!” he said, leveling Lomax with blood in his eye. Nobody was sure who shoved first but in an instant they were both on the ground, these two old men, rolling around in the mulch, punching each other out, arch symbols of the polarities in the musical tug of peace of the time, scrapping big brawny brats on the ground.
Who knew that folkies had so much hatred in their hearts? The book is a fascinating read. It's long out of print but is available through the usual resellers.


databirds said...

Was amused to find this.
All the best,
Ellen Sander

rocdoc said...

a comment from the author herself!
i'd seen her name mentioned in a couple of 'rock scene' books and did a search on the local libraries' database and 'trips' popped up - i'm just finishing the band blurbs at the end.
from the mentions i'd read, i was surprised ES was a serious journo..and a damned good writer!
i've enjoyed this book a lot.
thank you miss databirds!


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