Perfect Sound Forever

Fred Neil:
The Other Side Of Greenwich Village 60's Folk Scene

60's recording session with Fred Neil, Bruce Langhorne (aka Mr. Tambourine Man), Felix Pappalardi, Jack Nitzsche
photo courtesy of the Fred Neil website

By Toni Ruiz & Henry Llach
(July 2003)

When Fred Neil passed away in July 2001, most obituaries in the press remembered him as the author of "Everybody's Talkin'," the theme song to the Oscar winning and controversial movie Midnight Cowboy (1969), sung by Harry Nilsson. "Everybody's Talkin" was an international hit, and would eventually end up among BMI's 7 top songs, engendering hundreds of cover versions. But it was not a song that Fred Neil really "wrote"; it was a song that he lived. When he sang the lines "I'm going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain," Neil really was narrating his own getaway from an outside world that endured until his death on July 7th 2001.

 But the reissue of all of Neil's records on CD has reawakened interest in this unique and talented artist, maybe the original contact-guide for some of the more eclectic and musically interesting scenes and styles of the sixties folk-rock era. The singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, as he was often referred to by his contemporaries, he had all the markings of the genuine artist: vaporous life, hazy background and unique expression. Neil created an influential and lasting legacy, in which all American Popular Music genres (folk, blues, gospel, jazz, country, rock'n'roll, pop) fused together seamlessly. His musical craft included, above all, his omnipresent, bottomless low voice, and his effortless, haunting folk-blues 12-string guitar strumming.

 In the vibrant Greenwich Village scene of the early '60's, there were many free spirited musicians, that were directly influenced by Fred and his music. This group included Dino Valente, Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Judy Henske, Vince Martin and Richard Fariña -among others- all who would eventually perform and record. We will discuss their work, since in a way they were all Friends of Fred, jamming, performing or hanging out in the wee hours with the legend that was Fred Neil; they are all part of the his story and these lines are dedicated to all them too, since, like Fred would say, 'that's the bag I'm in."

 Fred never achieved mass popularity outside the Village, mostly because he was never comfortable in the public glare -"he just didn't fit in this commercial world"1, said David Crosby, shortly after Neil's death- but he influenced many younger musicians that went on to make their mark on the music charts. Crosby, John Sebastian, Gram Parsons, Stephen Stills, Paul Kantner, Cass Elliott, Jesse Colin Young, Peter Tork, are just some that were influenced by the music and artistry of Fred Neil. Seminal sixties groups like The Lovin' Spoonful, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills And Nash (at one point CSN thought of calling themselves Sons of Neil, but Fred nixed the idea), all have acknowledged their debt to the Fred Neil vibe.

At the end of the 1950's, Greenwich Village, in downtown Manhattan, probably had the largest number of bars, clubs, coffeehouses and strip joints in North America. On weekends, Washington Square Park turned out to be the perfect free space for artistic gatherings. While young intellectuals and students left the jazz cellars, aspiring folksingers raised in other urban areas were attracted by the bohemian air that permeated the Village. Soon jazz musicians were hanging out with blues and folk players; there were no rules and no musical boundaries- living the music was the only goal.

 Most clubs held a weekly hootenanny night, in which unknown, up and coming musicians and songwriters were given the opportunity to show their stuff onstage. At the basket houses, the 'kitty girls' passed the basket, demanding coins for the folk rookies who were going onstage. Café Flamenco, The Commons, Gerde's Folk City, The Gaslight, Café Bizarre, Café Wha?, The Bitter End, Café Figaro or The Village Gate opened their doors the new music. It was all happening at once, a magical time and place that would never again be duplicated.

Some veteran acts like Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Happy Traum, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Theodore Bikel, Cisco Houston, Jean Ritchie, The Greenbriar Boys and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and reborn country bluesmen like Mississsippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis were there too, allowing the new kids to fill in the places.

Soon, other folk scenes were appearing throughout the states (Cambridge, Chicago, Toronto, Coconut Grove, Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boulder, Woodstock). Rock' n 'roll had become a mediocre cliché without excitement, so for a brief period, folk music brought together youthful expression a politics and musical excursions rooted in folk and blues styles. In this wide-open path Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen and Tom Rush emerged as the new breed of songwriters.

The music coming out of Greenwich Village surfaced right when the beat generation quit New York. Many of the beat poets went to California at the end of the decade, after living in the Village since the early fifties. The beatnik scene wasn't focused artistically in the same gigs poets, comedians and jazz musicians would join in ramshackle events. Beat locations were the White Horse Tavern, the Gaslight, and the Jack Kerouac's regular place for readings, the Cedars Tavern. In there, major painting artists like Willem De Kooning and Alex Katz drank their booze.

There were comedians like Hugh Romney, later known as Wavy Gravy, the Hog Farm founder. Ted Joans, a radical beat-jazz poet who had already created the prominent stance "black is beautiful" at a time when the civil rights movement was still years away. A heterogeneous setting was shaped. The Village Voice photographer, Fred W. MacDarrah was a witness: "There weren't strict divisions between writers, dancers, poets and musicians. Those in the avant-garde grouped together, living the same neighbourhoods, supporting each other's work by attending concerts, openings, readings and hanging out together."2

Ex-sailor and ragtime fanatic, Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) possessed a profound blackish voice, which played over a finger-picking guitar. He released seminal albums like Sings Ballads, Blues And A Spiritual (Folkways, 1959) and Inside Dave Van Ronk (Prestige, 1963). In recording and in his concerts Van Ronk offered a handful of folk-blues standards and traditionals that later would be repeatedly covered by the next generations of folkies ("How Long," "In The Pines," "Cocaine," "Green Rocky Road," "Come Back Baby," "Trouble In Mind," etc.). Bob Dylan would call Van Ronk's sofa home during the early sixties, and would learn to play "House Of The Rising Sun" and Bukka White's "Fixin' To Die," recorded for Dylan's first album released in 1962.

About that changing scene, Van Ronk stated: "The beatniks hated folk music. The real beats liked cool jazz, bebop, and hard drugs... But in the eye of the media, folk music and beatniks were one and the same. So a lot of people came to the Village to see the beatniks and they ended up seeing folk music."3

One guitar player who was essential in the scene was Bruce Langhorne, who worked with Neil, Havens, Dylan and Fariña, among many others. Without Langhorne's smooth gloving guitar licks, folk-rock probably would have not existed. Langhorne declares today: "It was one eclectic movement that included a fabulously diverse group of individuals. Some of us just loved to play and sing the music, some of us were into poetry, some of us were into the historical and cultural background of the music, some of us were into the current and historical political implications and applications of the music, some of us were into sex, drugs and alcohol, but everyone was a little bit into everything." 4

In the middle of this cross-road, Fred Neil became an accomplished artist, one who would never fit in any one category. According to Langhorne: "Among the performers of the time, Fred was already known for his fantastic voice- Fred was able to integrate his guitar, his voice and his stage presence into a compelling performance. It is difficult to separate out and evaluate separate elements."5 Richie Havens described him as a true original, claiming that none of his "songs were strictly folk songs or rock songs." 6

 David Blue, soon to known as a up and coming songwriter, but then just the Gaslight dish-washer, expressed the difficulties of including Neil in the American Folk Music map: "All the folk musicians were kinda into camps... you were either 'commercial' or you were 'ethnic'... I remember I wouldn't talk to Fred Neil, because he was... he wasn't traditional... I mean, I didn't know what he did..." 7

 Born in Ohio in 1936, Fred Neil was raised in Saint Pete (Florida). He travelled with his father, a jukebox engineer, through the Southeast. Some quotes place him at Sun Studios (Memphis) in the mid-fifties but it's a fact that after a stint in the Navy, in 1957 Neil left Saint Pete and got a song writing deal in New York. He worked for different publishers at the Brill Building, the Broadway pop hit factory. There he composed a song for Roy Orbison ("Candy Man," B-side of the 1961 top one single "Crying") and another for Buddy Holly ("Come Back Baby"). He released some singles in various styles, mostly in rockabilly-pop mould, sometimes credited as Freddie Neil. He performed one of his songs, "Listen Kitten," on the Alan Freed TV show sometime in 1959, attempting his hand, like so many, at becoming the new Elvis.

His career kept on growing in all directions. He would do studio work on guitar, doing sessions with two pop kings, Paul Anka and Bobby Darin, among others. In 1960, Neil recorded a demo -with Doc Pomus- for an Elvis movie, though the song was not used. He recorded a nine-track demo for Aaron Schroeder's January Music. Later mainstays of his repertoire like "Faretheewell" and "That's The Bag I'm In" were among the tracks recorded, and showcased a delightful mix of cabaret blues and Tin Pan Alley vocal tones.

By this time, Neil was devouring urban folk-blues (notably Leadbelly, Josh White and Lonnie Johnson) and contemporary artists like the poet Maja Angelou and the gospel-folk goddess, Odetta. He had put down roots at Greenwich Village clubs, doing sets at the Café Wha?, hanging out with Len Chandler, who was instrumental in bringing Fred to the Village clubs in 1960. Neil soon became the MC at the Café Wha?, which would include sets by Karen Dalton, Dino Valente, José Feliciano, Mark Spoelstra, Lisa Kindred, Felix Pappalardi, Hoyt Axton and Lou Gossett, Jr., and comedians as Hugh Romney, Adam Keefee, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge.

Len Chandler, a performer with a classical music education, had played at the Gaslight in 1959. Later Bob Dylan would base his early protest tune "The Death Of Emmett Till" on one Chandler's songs. Dylan marched in Washington with Chandler during the 1963 Civil Rights rally. Fred Neil said of Chandler's strong political passion was not a passing fancy: "A lot of people now go on these marches and protests down there because "it's the thing to do. On his days off he [Len] used to come by and say "Who wants to get arrested?"8

Chandler was a precursor for the new wave of political singer-songwriters. His first songs came out on Broadside, the left wing magazine rooted in the political scene. One of them was titled "I'm Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail," showing that Chandler lived and played for real. John Hammond, the producer of Dylans first album, would help Chandler produce his two CBS LP's: To Be A Man and Lovin' People (both Columbia, 1967) that are out of print but full of curious soul-jazz arrangements sugared with gospel-folk vocals.

Though the folk movement of the early sixties has always been seen as white and middle class, it included many compelling black folk acts, such as Odetta, Richie Havens, and lesser know names like Herb Metoyer, Josh White Jr, Terry Callier, Major Wiley and many others that were part of Fred Neil's circle of friends and were touched by his music. It is one of the great injustices that these hugely talented artists remain forgotten and under appreciated even today.

 John Sebastian was maybe the only musician from the booming folk scene that was born in Greenwich Village. Barely twenty years old, he would be backing Mississippi John Hurt on harp: "Some of the black musicians that were our first real close friends had an affinity with Fred that they didn't have with the New York musicians."9 Fred always appreciated the authenticity of the great forefathers, and their influence on his music would be lasting.

 An early homage to Neil was recorded by Casey Anderson, another obscure black folksinger with a distinctive guitar style, who also influenced Richie Havens. Anderson would title his second album The Bag I'm In (Atco, 1962), when Neil's original yet to be released.

When in late January 1961 Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village, he played harp for Fred Neil at the Wha? In a 1984 interview, Dylan recalled that Neil "had a strong powerful voice, almost a bass voice and a powerful sense of rhythm."10 During the following months, Dylan would continue playing with Neil -and with Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott- at venues like the Mills Tavern and the Village Gate. Suddenly, Bob Dylan burst out on the scene, drawing his new songs from the Village scene, just like many had done.

 Charlie Brown, who ran the Gaslight South in Coconut Grove, said about the Dylan-Neil partnership: "Dylan wasn't a very friendly person and I don't think him and Fred really got along. I think they had a bit of a rivalry going up there. They were the two masters. They saw each other as the competition."11 Yet, Paul Colby, who later would be Bitter End's owner, has claimed that Fred Neil and Bob Dylan jammed and recorded some songs at the Chip Monk's (Village Gate's lighting engineer) basement, that have never been released. 12

 Bob Dylan has recently revisited his very first years in the Village recording folk-blues versions of traditional songs Neil adapted. In fact, Dylan still plays "Cocaine Blues" (credited to Reverend Gary Davis), a song he first recorded with Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, on the rare album recorded in London Dick Fariña & Eric Von Schmidt (Transatlantic, 1963). Officially Dylan would later release "Cocaine Blues" as B-side for the single "Love Sick" (Columbia, 1999).

"Sugaree" (written by Elizabeth Cotten) was recorded by Neil as "I've Got A Secret (Didn't We Shake Up Sugaree)" for his eponymus album (Capitol, 1967). Dylan would later include his version of the Neil recording in his '90's sets. Finally, "The Water Is Wide," a traditional number that had been another Neil's favourite, was performed in the mid-'70's by Bob Dylan. There's a one version of this, with Joan Baez on vocals, recorded during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, released recently in the Bootleg Series Vol. V: Live 1975 (Columbia, 2002).

Also at the Wha? a girl called Karen Dalton (1938-1993) would join Neil and Dylan on vocals. With her broken, Billie Holliday-like voice, Dalton played long-neck banjo and 12-string guitar. Dalton was beset with personal problems (divorced mother aged 22, a debilitating drug dependency), her performances were based mostly on piano-blues (Le Roy Carr, Jerry Roll Morton, etc.). But, as Izzy Young, Folklore Center's owner claimed, "all the songs were comments about her hurt life and her search for some kind of happiness... The songs become a litany to the desperation in her life."13

 By 1961 Karen was living in the Village with his new husband, Richard Tucker, another local folksinger, and her live appearances were sporadic, but she always left her mark on the stage, her rare sets becoming a must for attendance for every folk aficionado, at the Café Flamenco or at the Cock'n'Bull. One photo taken of a Karen Dalton & Richard Tucker at some Village club became the cover of The New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine story concerning the folk revival spreading across the country.

 Tim Hardin (1941-1980), was a great songwriter, an innovator of the folk revival. Hardin wanted to be an actor but the connections he made while hanging out at the Village and Cambridge, would eventually land him a recording deal. Sometime after Hardin released his first album Tim Hardin 1 (Verve/Forecast, 1966), Bob Dylan would refer to him as the best songwriter alive. 14

 In 1961, Tim Hardin met Karen Dalton and Richard Tucker. Through Dalton, Hardin would get to know Neil, whom he'd always admired. Dalton and Hardin, both would perform moving versions of Neil's classic song, "Blues on the Ceiling." Fred Neil, in one of the few comments that has survived15, wrote that Dalton sang the song with so much conviction, that it was almost like she had written the song herself; he also recalled her first meeting with Dalton, at a jam session with Dino Valente.

Dino Valente's (1943-1994) life is more enigmatic than Neil's, and he too was an influence on many of the young performers in New York City. His song "Get Together" would be the first folk-hippie national anthem in 1969, when it became a huge hit for the Youngbloods. He claimed to have been "raised on carnivals all around the East Coast"16. At seventeen he was in Cambridge, part of the growing folk scene there, along with Joan Baez and Tom Rush, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, but finding the scene too stifling, he soon drifted down to the New York City area, wanting to make his mark.

If Valente wanted an outlet for his songs and poems (he'd written dozens of them by then) his very first night in the big city would certainly have been at the Café Wha? Dino would later play with Dylan at the Gaslight. According to Peter Stampfel (member of the beat-folk band The Holy Modal Rounders and Village expert), Valente and Dylan visited Woody Guthrie, and played together for the Oklahoma master17, when he was already hospitalised (Guthrie would die in 1967).

 In 1961, Valente recorded a seven-track demo that included songs he had penned, like "Dino's Blues," and standards like Elizabeth Cotten's "Fast Freight" (also covered by Tim Hardin during his first recordings sessions in 1963), and "Wayfaring Stranger," an Appalachian classic in the repertoire of Bob Gibson and many years later, in the Tim Buckley's one. The tape has never been released but folk-rock specialist Richie Unterberger claims that it recalls the minor key tone of Valente's only solo album, released in 1968.

Valente's early recordings were not successful and most have yet to see the light of day, rumoured albums for Elektra in New York and Autumn in California were never released, mostly due, according to sources, to Dino's refusal to relinquish total control over his music. In 1963, Valente moved to the West Coast, rooming with a young David Crosby, another Neil acolyte, in a Sausalito houseboat.

See Part Two of the Folkniks article

Also see our 2021 Fred Neil article

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER