For singers like Baez and Collins, the revolution happened at an opportune time
“It’s not to be taken seriously, this song,” Joan Baez warned her audience.
“This song,” which she also called an “image-breaker,” was “She’s a Troublemaker,” a minor hit for the Majors in 1962. Baez would do it live sometimes, as at a concert broadcast in June 1965 on the BBC, and she’d always put some spin on her approach to it: I know this isn’t what we’re all about, but here goes. The pact she had with her fans was a mutual understanding of the divide between folk music—its integrity, purity,and seriousness of purpose—and pop music, which was crass and commercial. My guess is that Baez really liked “She’s a Troublemaker,” and why wouldn’t she? The Majors’ record, produced by Jerry Ragavoy, had spirit and vitality, a sense of fun, and didn’t the folkies consider themselves trouble-makers anyway? She does seem to enjoy singing it.
AUDIO: The Majors “She’s A Troublemaker”
That June was pretty much the end of folk’s ability to hold the pop world at arm’s length. Snobbery was no longer an option. In April, Bob Dylan appeared on the pop singles chart with the Chuck Berry-esque “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (a mere prelude to his scandalous decision to have the amplified Paul Butterfield Blues Band back him at the Newport Folk Festival in July), and a month later The Byrds made their chart debut with the jet-age version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” All of which put the folk singers in the position of having to abandon, or at least modulate, their position on such things as electric guitars and drums. After “Like a Rolling Stone,” intransigence was futile, and silly.
For singers like Baez and Judy Collins, the revolution happened at an opportune time. Baez had already released five albums (two of them live) on Vanguard, and Collins had four (one live) on Elektra, and the formula was getting a bit repetitive. How many lilting-yet-somber traditional folk songs were just lying around waiting to be trilled prettily? How many girl-with-guitar albums did one need in the dorm room? Vanguard hardly even bothered to distinguish between one Baez LP and another. Joan Baez, Joan Baez, Vol. 2, Joan Baez/5, Joan Baez in Concert, Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2. But in 1965, a world of possibilities opened up. Varied instrumentation, new songs by a group of young writers—not just Dylan, but Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Richard Fariña, Eric Andersen, Donovan.
On Farewell, Angelina, Baez’s sixth album, she was backed on nearly half the tracks by electric guitarist Bruce Langhorne (who also helped pump up Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home), and added the electric bass of Russ Savakus (one of the players on Highway 61 Revisited). It wasn’t exactly what people were calling “folk-rock”—it was still relatively staid and non-rockin’—but it loosened things up a bit, and the songs, including Dylan’s unrecorded title track, and Donovan’s “Colours,” alongside oldies by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, were smartly curated. It became her highest-charting studio album. Then, in August, during the fall ’65 plugged-in-folk boom, Baez had a sort-of hit single (#50 in the U.S., a top ten hit in the U.K.), with Phil Ochs’s “There But for Fortune,” lifted from Joan Baez/5.
Judy Collins’ Fifth Album (Elektra had better artwork, but its titling department wasn’t much more imaginative than Vanguard’s), went even further. Released fifty-five years ago, September 1965, Fifth Album, like Farewell, Angelina, had three Dylan songs (that was the minimum requirement, I think), and songs by the new guard: Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Richard Fariña’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (all became modern folk-pop standards). She didn’t go so far as to hire a drummer, that would’ve been too radical, but her backing band included guitarist Danny Kalb from the Blues Project and John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful. For Collins, Fifth Album was transitional, a bridge between her pure folk albums and the Joshua Rifkin–orchestrated art-pop of 1966’s In My Life. Before that album was recorded, Collins and Elektra tried a blatant folk-rock move, cutting a new Dylan song, “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” with electric-Dylan players like organist Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. It came out as a single, and faded away. It wasn’t the right setting for her. With In My Life, which introduced listeners to new classics like Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and placed them alongside Jacques Brel and Bertolt Brecht and Lennon and McCartney, Collins found a way to move the folk tradition forward.
While the East Coast folk girls were adjusting their responses to the specter of electric folk music, the West Coast pop girls weren’t having any problem at all in this new world. Folk-rock was pretty much invented out there by singer-writer Jackie DeShannon, working with arranger Jack Nitzsche. Her 1963 self-titled debut album on Liberty, re-released nearly intact as In the Wind in ’65, was another three-Dylan songs (plus staples like “If I Had a Hammer” and “500 Miles”) LP, and nearly all of L.A. folk-rock was premised on her records “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk in the Room.” She also wrote “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” on the Byrds’ debut album.
Then Sonny Bono, who co-wrote “Needles and Pins” with Nitzsche, had a simple and brilliant idea: it’d take a flip of a switch to adapt the Phil Spector approach to this “folk-rock” bag. A lot of Spector’s records were already protest music: “He’s a Rebel,” “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love,” “Not Too Young to Get Married,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Those songs told society to buzz off; they were defiant. Don’t tell us what to do! So for Cher’s first solo album in the fall of ‘65, Sonny threw in a Dylan song he’d copped from the Byrds’ live set (“All I Really Want to Do”) and two more Dylans (the rule of three!), alongside “Needles and Pins,” DeShannon’s “Come and Stay with Me,” and Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep,” and he and the Wrecking Crew made a solid folk-rock album. When Judy Collins recorded, with the help of the Byrds’ Jim McGuinn, Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney” on her third album – the one that has “Turn, Turn, Turn” – who could have predicted that less than two years later the song would be on two albums of electrified West Coast pop-rock? It was a crazy time.
VIDEO: Joan Baez performs “500 Miles” at The Big T.N.T. Show
In late November 1965, Baez was out in Los Angeles to tape The Big T.N.T. Show, a videotaped follow-up to The T.A.M.I. Show. The lineup was, like top 40 radio in the pre-F.M. days, incredibly varied: Roger Miller, Ray Charles, Donovan, the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Ike & Tina Turner, the Ronettes, Bo Diddley, all under the supervisory baton of Phil Spector. There, in the midst of this pop cornucopia, was Joan, and if it felt odd for her, Tina, and Ronnie to all be on the same bill, when only that summer Dylan had come under fire for “going electric,” and Baez was telling her audience not to take “She’s a Troublemaker” seriously, that’s how quickly everything shifted then. In the movie, Baez comes on after Mr. Diddley, and does “500 Miles” and her “hit” “There But for Fortune.” Then, after a couple of Ray Charles songs, Joan is back, and Spector is at the piano, and with the large musical ensemble behind them, they play and sing the Barry Mann–Cynthia Weil–Phil Spector smash “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” It’s an on-stage match-up, Baez, the folkies’ pin-up girl, and Spector, the Tycoon of Teen (as Tom Wolfe dubbed him in an early ’65 article), that couldn’t have happened even six months earlier.
If you think the folk crowd couldn’t handle Dylan and the Butterfield crew, imagine if Joan had shown up at the Newport fest with Phil Spector and the expanded Wrecking Crew, doing a #1 pop hit by the Righteous Brothers. Pete Seeger’s and Alan Lomax’s brains would have exploded.
AUDIO: Joan Baez Farewell, Angelina (full album)
AUDIO: Judy Collins Fifth Album (full album)