Old records have a certain smell. It's musty, sometimes moldy, and if you spend as much time pawing through old LP's as I used to, you'd be well-advised to keep a store of antibiotics on hand. But it's also the smell of Pop Americana - a whiff of bygone decades, their hipness turned to hokum. Oh, the joy I've found sniffing Keely Smith, Leslie Gore, even Helen Reddy.
There's a day that will live in my nostrils forever - the day I found The Wayfarers' COME ALONG WITH in a 99-cent bin on Haight Street.
The Wayfarers commanded the American concert stage in the early 60's, when folk music was Big Business. Listening to The Wayfarers, keenly, eagerly in my room in a shared flat on Waller St. in the Haight Ashbury, two worlds opened up for me: the world they sang about - minin' and sailin' and dogs named Boo - and the world they represented - college-educated white guys in suits. What a delicious dichotomy! What an inspiration!
And I remembered smelling through my uncle's record collection. The Kingston Trio. Peter, Paul and Mary. The Limeliters - dearest to me for their perfect blend of gritty, folkie realism (Alex Hassilev), fluttering folkie sincerity (Glen Yarbrough) and hilarious, professorial folkie shtick (Lou Gottlieb).
At the time, I was all about the shtick. These were the Comedy Boom years of the 80's, and I was writing for and performing with The Reagan Brothers, my comedic and musical (and strangely un-political) partnership with Stevie Coyle. So I set out to write a Limeliters-like song for Stevie and I. A song about death, I thought, like so many folk songs. A song about many deaths, perhaps. A folk song about reincarnation as told by one, recurrent soul. Yes.
So, from The Wayfarers through The Limeliters came the "Song of Many Deaths."
I thought at the time that writing that one song would be my unique Folk Era parody moment. But the world of The Folk Era resonated more deeply for me. It was full of hilarious characters. It was full of American history, and it was itself historical in its early-60's, intellectual, nightclubby hipness, bridging the Beat thing with the Summer of Love thing
(This was before Christopher Guest so brilliantly and lovingly lampooned the era with The Folksmen, and A MIGHTY WIND.)
I began collecting old folk records. It became a compulsion. Any smelly old folk record would do, but especially folk as recorded by college-educated white guys in suits. The Journeymen, John Phillips' group before the Mamas and the Papas, featuring Scott MacKenzie. The Brothers Four belting "Greenfields" around their fraternity house coffee table. The Chad Mitchell Trio, of course, with their spot-on arrangements, unafraid to go a little Brechtian.
The Smothers Brothers were all about the comedy, hung on the bones of folk music, and with a sly Lefty leaning. I'm sure there was a period in my younger life when I wanted to BE them. Bud and Travis were more about the music, but if you listen to their live records, you'll hear the same sort of smart-one/dumb-one exchanges that informed The Foremenís character interactions.
And lesser lights. The Balladeers. The Four Amigos. The Yachtsmen. The "Yachtsmen," I shit you not. The whitest of guys in the bluest of suits singing songs of slavery and the Dust Bowl. I just had to have a group like that. And as soon as I gave myself permission to write those songs, they began to pour out of me.
My record collecting bordered on OCD. I was teaching guitar at McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, and if I had an hour between students, I'd slip away to the Record Recycler, just down Pico, to sniff out the folk section. "More 'Nutty Wanderers'?" Melanie would tease, coining a term that would become Foremen shorthand for these groups. (Even after I left the band, Kenny referred to the "Nutty Wanderers" in The Foremen's interview on Dr. Demento.)
In fact, it was Melanie who named The Foremen. "The Foremen," get it? Four management guys singing labor songs.
Even the record covers were inspirational - young men twangling their homey instruments enthusiastically, shoutin' out a song, or leanin' on their knees with earnest purpose, or better, caught by the camera in mid-air, leaping with their instruments in hand. Leaping with your instrument is to Folk what scowling in front of a brick wall is to Rock (or alternative country).
Check out the Chad Mitchell Trio's MIGHTY DAY ON CAMPUS. First of all, it's a trio, and there are four of them. Four white men in suits singing spirituals for college kids. It's the record cover that inspired Melanie to come up with the name The Foremen. Also, it's a fabulous album. Then there are the album covers that defy description: The Swagmen, The Goldwaters, The Soul Singin' Rambos, and more. And let's not forget The Womenfolk (highly recommended -- really!)
I never stopped listening to those records, and the music began to grow on me until I couldn't get it off. It was for amusement at first, but I came to find I was truly moved by it, and my love for the shtick was rounded by love for the sincerity. My record collection grew to encompass more of the meatier stuff - The Gateway Singers, The Weavers and all things Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, notably, who had the ability to marry strident politics and humor. I hope you can hear their influence in the songs I write now for my solo career.
There's a struggle portrayed in these songs, however goofily it may be presented, for peace, for freedom, for justice, for love between a brother and a sister, impractical at best. So when you hear The Foremen I hope you laugh, of course, but I hope you also hear, and smell, the sincere desire for a better world.
These days, you might find a Foremen CD in the cut-out bin right alongside The Yachtsmen. And college students come to my shows and say, "I used to listen to The Foremen when I was a kid." The circle remains unbroken, and here are but a few examples of brave groups carrying the torch into the new millennium ...
Charlie King and Karen Brandow Hope mongers extraordinaire and purveyors of beautiful, funny and heartfelt political satire in the folk tradition.
Lou and Peter Berryman Masters of the comedy folk song and another accordion/guitar duet for the ages.
The Austin Lounge Lizards The best satirical bluegrass ever -- bringing the funny long before The Foremen and still going strong.
Darren Zieger Okay, technically not a "group," but technicalities aside, folk music for postmoderns from our own webmaster.
Throwing Toasters The best in comedy rock from a four piece band unlike any other and fronted by the first Foremen Fan Club president, Grant Baciocco.
Funny Musicians For a Serious Cause Hurricane Katrina relief organized by Grant of Throwing Toasters.
Billionaires For Bush Political satire from fine, upstanding examples of that long-ignored, under-appreciated ethnic subgroup: College educated white guys in suits. Hilarious.
Last, but certainly not least, another band carrying on the tradition (broadly interpreted).