Long before the pretenses of poetry set in, folk music's definitive mode of expression was both vernacular language and a musical approach that complemented its informal slang. In the 1950s, a prevailing strain of revivalism came into play; the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, the Highwaymen. Even more revered heroes like Alan Lomax represented an interesting disconnect as folk music began a distinct formalization. The language became less malleable and the movement was accepted as a delicate, irreplaceable part of American identity - not to be treated lightly, not to be played with. The common cringe scenario: three well-groomed blond kids singing their hearts out about working on a plantation. However, it's not so much an issue of authenticity as interpretation. Language became metaphorical rather than concrete, something that has plagued both rock and folk music ever since. This is not to say American roots music was somehow devoid of metaphorical device, but Charley Patton singing about his "jelly roll" is a lot less ambiguous than the New Christy Minstrels singing about working on the railroad.
The political and social changes that began in the '60s caused an influx of both new language forms and an even firmer stronghold on the idea of metaphorical poetry. The divide between the concrete and the lofty became substantially blurred. Figureheads like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell embody this change. The shift in language also resulted in a musical change, the gravitation towards rock music, a form born out of the same commonplace, functional artlessness as folk music. Yet, once again, a set of standard metaphorical allusions became currency in this culture. Could one perhaps look at all the songs on the Nuggets compilations and trace them back to two or three songs, just a handful of basic archetypes, not unlike the wide proliferation of songs like "Stag O'Lee" and "Frankie and Johnny" 40 years prior?
Yet, there are always exceptions, and for awhile, angst-ridden North American male folk music was forging its own identity. Jake Holmes' recently reissued debut falls into a category of male folksingers who during the 1960s attempted to reclaim the clarity and immediacy of folk music, implementing a distinctly American vernacular and applying it to songs of overtly personal subject matter. There was common ground: The malaise of a white bohemian lifestyle, a mixture of both dissatisfaction and the romance of dissatisfaction.
A pertinent example is Jackson Frank's "Blues Run The Game":
"Catch a boat to England, baby, maybe to Spain / Wherever I have gone, wherever I've been and gone, wherever I have gone, the blues are all the same. / Send out for whiskey, baby, send out for gin. / Me and room service, honey, me and room service, babe, me and room service, well, we're living a life of sin."
You have any number of predominant themes in just those two stanzas: Frank is able to pick up and see Spain and England; he merely "catches" a boat, a colloquialism that emphasizes the simplicity of Frank's departure. Then there is Frank's admission that the "blues are all the same" to him. This could be read to suggest that Frank is just sad everywhere, stuck in a bell jar that follows him around the world, but the idea suggests that Frank, more than anything, is underwhelmed by the blues, that the vividness of feeling has faded. Frank has seen the whole world, has turned himself inwards, and has transferred the feeling of blues to an anesthetized feeling of apathy. He concludes with his confession to living a life of sin through room service, a linking of old American religion and a contemporary luxury travel perk. We see a contemporary white angst not betrayed by social and racial status, but fueled by it.
Another example would be in Fred Neil's work, perhaps an even more adept synthesis of American idiomatic language and a restructuring of the definition of blues:
"You know, last night as I was walking down the street, whistling the blues to the tapping of my feet, some old cranks called the cops on the beat / It'll happen every time. / Every morning when I get up / Miss my connection so that I'm late for work again, you know they'll probably drop the atom bomb the day my ship comes in / I guess I better nickel toss and get paid off again / Somehow I just can't win and that's the bag I'm in."
The song, "That's the Bag I'm In," builds up a checklist of bad luck and slight misfortune, a checklist of the plain-stated annoyances of life that boils to personal defeat. Neil can't ever win and concludes with a refrain of "I'll never get out of these blues alive."
Frank and Neil are particularly representative of this prevailing lineage of 60’s white-male sorrow, though there are other examples, perhaps slightly less solid. Lee Hazlewood, though not strictly from a folk lineage, had similarly built a name for himself on colloquial, concrete hipsterisms. David Ackles comes close, operating with an operatic sarcasm, sounding like a Leonard Cohen with something to lose. Tim Buckley often veered into lofty, psychedelic territory, relying a bit on the increasing metaphor-laden language of rock. P.F. Sloan and David Blue might also be considered in the running, but often emulated Dylan a bit too closely to have the same striking individuality of Neil and Frank.
Eventually, the tide of Elektra/Asylum inoffensively rolled in, with the notable exception of Judee Sill, who was perhaps denied the same success as Jackson Browne due to her idiosyncrasies. The point is, with James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot, with Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens, the bohemian angst-folk tradition was buried underneath a sea of vaguely sensitive music, once again relegated to overtly poetic territory.
Radioactive Records recent reissue of Jake Holmes' debut LP reveals a lost footnote in the small pool of boho-angst folk music. Between the prominently featured electric guitar and Holmes' snarling voice, The Above Ground Sound often builds to a tension that feels like it will brim over into aforementioned Nuggets territory. Where Frank was occupied with British folk and Neil had a unique mix of country and folk ideas, Holmes serves as the most aggressive, rock counterpart. A song like "Genuine Imitation Life" shows Holmes straddling any number of fields, part snot-psychedelic-social-critic, part over-the-top sarcastic showman, and part bohemian folkster, just barely after the fact:
"Chameleon's changing colors, while the crocodile cries
"All the pretty clouds are a lovely shade of black
Holmes says of the song in the liner notes, "I wish I didn't feel that way about life." Similarly, the Holmes-penned, Page-stolen "Dazed and Confused" is here, a paranoid burst of energy somewhat removed from Zeppelin's drug implications, yet described by Holmes as a "combination of colors, a place I understand but cannot stay too long in."
In "Wish I Was Anywhere Else," a song underpinned by the restlessness Jackson Frank resigned himself to, Holmes fakes stream-of-conscious rhyming, sounding somewhat like a Neil Hamburger routine:
"Do you drive to work or do you take the train?
The closing track "Signs of Age" is, again, clearly marked as young-White-man folk, if for no other reason than Holmes' fervent denial of it. The spoken lyrics reach an endearing Hazlewood-ian goofiness, though admittedly with a slightly less sharp wit:
"I guess to a person who's over 65, someone who's 25 is pretty young, but to somebody who's 13, 25 is over the hill. You spend your whole life trying to grow up and then one day, you're dragging your heels."
"There are girls past childhood who are too young for me to love……I think I'm showing signs of age…”
"My friends have children now and I'm even earning a living wage and my parents, they're just good friends of mine…think I'm showing signs of age."
Granted, Holmes' hipster veneer comes across as slightly more vulnerable and less cool than Neil, with his proclivities towards rock music, he seems like the adolescent of the bunch, his work simply devoid of the wellsprings of sorrow that some of his contemporaries may have had. Yet, that embarrassing vulnerability and unflinching directness of terms makes him a far cry from the dominating popular folk-rock forms of the time.
By Matt Wellins