Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.
Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.
It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.
Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.
Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.
When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”
Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.
I have published this here before, but given that we will not be able to experience a live Rose Parade this year, either in person on the cold street in Pasadena or watching it on television from our warm living rooms, I thought it was appropriate to share again. I hope you enjoy my 1970’s reminiscence.
December 31, 1975. I had planned on a quiet evening in my Olive Street apartment. My roommate George and his significant other (and my good friend) Alison were at home with their families. I splurged by buying a halibut fillet, which I was just taking out from under the broiler when the lesbian pair Anne and Ann burst into my apartment and told me they were taking me to see the Rose Parade.
I’d always talked about seeing the Rose Parade in person. And it sounded like a lot more fun than spending the evening alone listening to soft rock on Stereo 93, KNX-FM. Besides, the two Ann(e)s can be very persuasive individually, and as a couple were often an irresistible force. I allowed myself to be kidnapped and taken to Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena.
When we got there and we finally found the group with whom Ann and Anne were rendezvousing, I discovered that I was the only male in the group and the only straight person as well. I was in fact in the midst of the undergraduate lesbian elite of the Claremont Colleges.
They did come well provisioned. Included in the supplies were vodka, pineapple juice, and a tray of brownies. There being no orange juice, I started fixing myself pineapple juice and vodka drinks (what would you call that?) and munching on the brownies. It didn’t take me too long to start feeling sleepy and light-headed. It was only months later that I understood the true source of my condition. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but I remember Ann saying to me in a tone of voice that betrayed her impatience with my naiveté, “Mike, it wasn’t the small amount of vodka you drank that caused you to feel that way!” Oh, yeah. Right. Got it now.
The evening wore on, and eventually 1976 arrived. There was a brief burst of energy at midnight when people driving by honked their horns and everyone shouted “Happy New Year!” back and forth to each other. Things calmed down before too long, and we eventually decided it was time to get some sleep. I got into the sleeping bag that had been provided for me, and found myself wedged in between two members of the Claremont lesbian community.
I quote from an essay I wrote in the summer of 1976, something I aspired to get published, but which in fact never made it out of draft form.
I slept about as well as one might expect when lying on a street with a jacket for a pillow, but it was better than no sleep.
About five a.m. I was awakened by the sound of a car idling nearby and the voices of four or five men and women. Apparently the people next to us, a group of three couples, had decided that they had no intention of sleeping on the pavement, and so set up six chairs and took turns guarding their claim. I was hearing the final changing of the guard. After a lot of details being worked out in voices a good deal louder than I would have liked, the car drove off and a new couple took command of the post. It was at about this time that my bladder had begun hinting to me that I wanted to do something other than merely sleep, while the new woman next door found it necessary to do a commentary on what she saw about her.
“Look at those people in their sleeping bags,” I heard her say, “They’re so cute!” Perhaps to someone who had just gotten out of a warm bed my companions and I looked cute.
I, of course, felt anything but cute. I was sore, sleep-deprived, and wanted nothing more than a shower and a shave. I extricated myself from my spot on the street and made my way to the nearest set of portable toilets. When I returned the spot I had occupied had of course been filled in, so there was nothing for me to do except sit and take in the sights and sounds.
The morning wore on and eventually my companions started to stir. Those organizing the event started making quesadillas on a Coleman stove. They were quite good, actually.
The street was full of vendors, including one very clean-cut young man who struck me as perhaps a law or accounting student walking up and down the street with a cart and megaphone saying repeatedly in a pleasant, mild tone, “Good morning. Kodak film.” I wasn’t sure whether we was really trying to sell film, or simply wishing it good morning. I still wonder whether he actually sold any.
Eventually the streets were cleared and the parade started. It was fun seeing the flower-covered floats in person, but we were also all tired and happy when the parade was finished.
Anne had dropped Ann and me off at our camp site the night before and then parked the car. We headed off to where she said she had left it, only to find no car. Again, I quote my essay:
Both Ann and I had shared an apartment with Anne [Ann at the time, me earlier the previous summer ], and we knew how scatterbrained she could be. Our immediate assumption was that she left the car in a no-parking zone and it had been towed away. Anne insisted that she had done no such thing, and that we call the police department at once. One would not have guessed just how difficult it is to find a phone booth in downtown Pasadena.
After walking twenty or thirty blocks, and asking innumerable people where we might find such a rarity, we found a pay phone on Colorado Boulevard, next to an abandoned automobile showroom. The phone shortage in Pasadena that day was acute, and Anne had to wait in line for ten minutes before even getting to use it. I don’t suppose that we could have expected otherwise, but once she got through to the switchboard, she was put on hold. After just enough delay to make us fidget a bit more, Anne discovered that she had, in fact, parked legally, until the police decided that they needed that particular street for through traffic, and summarily towed away all of the cars parked thereon. But she did not tell us this until she finally returned with the car. She merely mumbled something about a high school and 200 blocks, and went wandering off, leaving Ann and me to sit, dressed for a cold night, in a sun that was becoming increasingly warm.
Nor did we have a particularly panoramic view front of us. It was past noon by this time, but traffic officers were still at all of the intersections directing an interminable flow of departing spectators. The gutters were a mass of trash, and tired purveyors of pretzels were returning their carts to some spot near where we were waiting. I had some change in my pocket, so I wandered across the street to a tiny and somewhat seedy-looking liquor store and picked up a soft drink and candy bar for Ann and myself. Then we sat and waited. I tried to write a letter and got nowhere. It got warmer. We became more sore and more tired. At length Anne reappeared in front of us and asked, “Anybody want a ride home?”
We were too exhausted to even throw our empty soda cans at her.
We headed back to Claremont and piled into the local Howard Johnson’s. We were slightly surprised that they let us in given how we looked: three people who came straggling in off the street. But then, we did just come straggling in from off the street. We had a mid-afternoon breakfast, and the Ann(e)s dropped me off at home.
I don’t recall what I did when I got inside, but I must have either taken a very long soak in the bathtub or stood under the shower until the hot water ran out.
Since that adventure, seeing the Rose Parade at home on television has always been more than adequate for me.
“2015 Rose Parade” by motleypixel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
There is something missing in the San Jacinto Valley this spring.
The sunflowers are missing.
Where I would normally see sunflowers I am seeing small yellow flowers. This time last year sunflowers were all over the place. This year we had an unusually wet winter and (with the exception of a few hot days) an unusually mild spring with a lot of clouds and a robust marine layer. Maybe sunflowers don’t like that.
Sunflowers represent hope and new beginnings for me. In the spring of 1971 I was a senior at Hemet High School. There were sunflowers all around that year. I was enjoying the final semester of my coursework (all electives I wanted to take!) and looking forward to attending Pitzer College in the fall. I also spent some time with a marvelous young woman named Peggy. We went out a couple of times. Hemet’s lone single-screen theater was showing a Sophia Loren movie called Sunflower. It was an awful movie, but I got to spend some time with Peggy. I regret that my social ineptitude meant that the relationship didn’t really go anywhere.
So sunflowers have always been a symbol of expectation, moving forward, and happiness to me. I miss them this year.
As a result of my surgery I have one really big dietary restriction: no red meat. Not for three to six months from the date of the surgery. Now exactly what that means depends on who you talk to. When my surgeon’s assistant tried to clarify that for me she got varying responses. She told me that two nurses said that it meant only beef, while two doctors told her that it meant both beef and pork. The nurse who removed my staples and who is very familiar with my surgeon said it meant only beef. But when I finally had my follow-up with my surgeon he couched the restriction in the broadest possible terms: no beef, pork, lamb, etc.
Now as a practical matter only the first two affect me (I never eat lamb), but that still creates a huge impact on my diet. It means I am restricted to poultry, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. Given that I’m not keen on a diet based exclusively on chicken and turkey, and since a diet heavy on seafood is not practical, I have to open myself up to more vegetarian food.
Long time readers of this blog may recall that I have flirted with a vegetarian diet in the past, and more than once. This is not exactly new and unfamiliar territory for me. I know a vegetarian diet is healthier for me as an individual and it’s far better for the health of the planet. That is one thing that has not changed a bit since Frances Moore Lappé first published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971.
The question, then, is how to eat vegetarian. It’s the same question I have asked intermittently since the 1970s. The easy path, the path taking the least amount of thought, is to go with meat substitutes. I bought a package of veggie bacon strips which were awful. Some of the meat substitutes aren’t so bad, however. Soy crumbles make a great vegetarian chili when properly seasoned, and black bean burgers can be very tasty.
A vegetarian snob, however, and even a serious vegetarian who is not a snob, would say that one ought to cook vegetarian dishes that stand on their own and which do not try to emulate meat dishes. Perhaps that’s not as easy as it might first sound. Mollie Katzen admits that in her first edition of The Mousewood Cookbook she tried to create recipes specifically so the meat wouldn’t be missed. But that was decades ago (1974) and a lot of vegetarian cookbooks have been published since then, a good number of them with some very tasty, savory dishes. Martha Rose Shulman, one can make the case, is a master of this sort of recipe in her cookbooks.
It’s not an easy journey right now, but it is one that is highly manageable.
La lucha continua, if I may be so presumptuous as to borrow from those engaged in the fight for social justice.
The book Silences was originally published in 1978. This edition is a 2003 reprint with a long introduction that page homage to Tillie Olsen and gives her credit for broadening the scope of reading lists in college curriculum.
The book is a strange hodgepodge conglomeration. The first two pieces are reconstructions of talks Olsen gave in which she calls out the marginalization of women authors and writers of color. Points very well and clearly made.
This is followed by Olsen’s very long afterword to the 1972 reprint of the nineteenth century expose, Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis, a marginalized writer writing about marginalized men and women and their horrific working conditions.
The book then includes excerpts from a variety of authors, many of whom were not at all marginalized. Olsen also writes about the poor pay authors receive and the lack of recognition given women writers.
This is a book of the 1970’s. I was in the book business in those days and when Olsen writes that most publishing houses “are now owned by” conglomerate corporations I can only think that is nothing at all compared to the consolidated state of publishing today.
If nothing else Silences captures one worldview in the 1970’s and for that it is worth preserving.
Have a safe, festive, and fun New Year’s Eve!
Here’s my recollection of my trip to the 1975 Rose Parade.
I have had a long-term relationship with Joyce Maynard. It goes back to the 1970’s. Joyce does not know me and has no idea as to who I am. Yet she has influenced my life and thinking for over forty years.
I first became acquainted with Joyce shortly after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975. It was not long after I went to work at B. Dalton Bookseller when I read her 1973 book Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, expanded from an essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I felt an immediate and deep connection with her and recognized that we shared many of the same values about growing up, leaving home, and heading out into the world. The book touched me deeply as I was leaving the sheltered world of academia and figuring out how to buy my own groceries and pay my own rent. At that time I had no clue that she was the 18-year-old who had moved in with J.D. Salinger.
I was disappointed, therefore, to hear Joyce’s commentaries for the Spectrum series on CBS radio. Back in those days CBS radio had a rotating group of commentators who offered short audio essays on current affairs. Joyce always took the conservative perspective, very much at odds with her viewpoint in Looking Back. I was further disappointed, devastated, and hurt, I felt stabbed in the back, when I read a piece of hers, I don’t remember where, in which she wrote that what she said in Looking Back was not what she really felt but what she believed readers of the era wanted to see. Joyce, how could you?
In spite of this betrayal I paid attention when I saw her name, and I was compelled to buy and read her 1998 “tell-all” book about her life with Salinger, At Home in the World. I felt sympathy for her naiveté and ineptness, but she wrote nothing to heal the original betrayal.
Joyce resurfaced recently, when I turned the page of the September 9 New York Times Book Review and saw her name on a full-page essay. She notes that twenty years have passed since the publication of At Home in the World. She reminds me that we are very close to the same age (there’s only three months difference, in fact). She writes of being ostracized by the literary community for the perceived betrayal of Salinger in her book, and about how, after all these years and after all of the novels and other books she has written over the decades, she is still most remembered, by some at least, for her brief relationship with Salinger.
I feel a certain sympathy, even some empathy for her. But Joyce, you still betrayed me more than forty years ago. I should be over all that, I know. The truth, nonetheless, is that I hardly knew ye.
The options these days for entertainment are overwhelming. If you have cable or satellite, in addition to the basic channels you have the option of HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, Starz, and Epix. If you like to stream you have Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and a whole range of other services. These are services that you can get through your Smart TV, your Blu-ray player, your Roku device, or your tablet, smart phone, or computer.
It was not always so.
My senior year in college, 1974-75, I rented a room off campus in a beautiful old house on College Avenue in Claremont. Somehow I managed to get a portable black and white TV. I think perhaps my parents bought it for me. Claremont sits at the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, so I had access to all of the L.A. television stations via my rabbit-ear antenna and my loop antenna for UHF.
I could flip the dial for the VHF stations or set the VHF tuner to “U” and scan the UHF stations on the separate UHF dial. I think I was able to get three, maybe four, PBS stations. How incredibly cool was that?
I had no complaints. I didn’t think I was missing anything. (Except for a sex life, but that’s a different story.) It was a simpler time.
An Olive Street recollection.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been forty-three years since I graduated from college. As the Wallace Shawn character in the movie Princess Bride kept saying, “Inconceivable!” (“I don’t think that word means what you think it does, boss.”)
When I moved into the Olive Street apartment after graduation with my roommate George we kept expenses down and our needs were simple. Our dining room table was a pice of plywood on two saw horses. Georges’s desk was a door from the lumber yard (long before Home Depot and Lowe’s) on four orange crates. For compartmentalization and document storage he used empty Pringle’s potato chip cans.
I had a small desk that I had acquired from my patents and slept on a roll away bed from the same source.
Orange crates, by the way, weren’t what you might expect. Originally they were in fact made to hold oranges. But when Sunkist switched to cardboard boxes from those wooden crates a smart entrepreneur moved into the Sunkist warehouse by the railroad tracks and started making orange crates that never held oranges. He astutely priced them so they were affordable to college and post-college folks like myself who, almost universally, used them for furniture and shelving.
So when it came to candle holders we were equally frugal. An empty wine bottle made a great candle holder. And sometimes, as now, I simply need to go back to that place.
It’s not such a bad thing, really.
I haven’t discussed it for a while, but those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know that I’m really a 1970s kind of guy. I have more of a nostalgia for the seventies than for the eighties and I much prefer seventies music to eighties music. The default radio station on my SiriusXM car radio is The Bridge, which plays music of James Taylor, Carly Simon, Gordon Lightfoot and the like.
That seventies vibe informs my Saturday morning routine. While waiting to hear from my brother or sister-in-law as to where Terry and I going to have breakfast with them, my dad, nephew, and great niece I have my internet radio on the Sirius XM channel 70 on 7, which plays reruns of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 from the 70s. When we get in the car I switch over to 70s on 7.
I look at the date on the display and remember where I was and what I was doing at the time. Some of the songs were not part of my world then, but many bring back memories.
I really am a 1970s kind of guy.