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BLACK MUSIC MONTH AND NYC’s “GREAT AMERICAN FOLK SCARE”

You’ve seen this picture before.

It’s the late 1950s or early 1960s. In New York City’s Greenwich Village, in a dark, crowded cellar, perhaps a dozen small round tables, each with a few chairs, surround a tiny, slightly raised platform that passes for a stage. The people scattered about this little club, whose sole available beverage is coffee, are chain-smoking, wearing berets and striped T-shirts. The performers are singing traditional folk and blues songs played on guitar, banjo, harmonica, mandolin or simply sung a cappella.

This was the peak of what’s known as the American folk music revival, or more memorably described by contemporaneous folksinger/guitarist Dave Van Ronk as “the great American folk scare” (a reference to the Red Scare of the McCarthy era—members of leading folk group The Weavers, among others, were blacklisted during the period).

And in this movie, the performers and audience are as white as the snow blanketing New York in winter.

Except that this particular scene should have remained on the cutting-room floor. Indeed, there was a thriving, politically and socially engaging climate of folksong and political activism in New York just prior to The Beatles’ landing at JFK in early 1964; however, the actual truth is that many of the folk revival’s greatest practitioners were African American (while much of the white performers’ repertoire consisted of Black spirituals, slavery-era field hollers and the blues).

African American performers like Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Richie Havens, Terry Callier, Oscar Brand, Leon Bibb and Len Chandler were household names among folk aficionados. Some even appeared on the short-lived but powerful TV show Hootenanny, which showcased the folk artists who regularly performed on the Village coffeehouse circuit.

What’s not as well known is that several crucial figures at the birth of the career of folk music’s biggest and most enduring star, Bob Dylan, were, in fact, African American. These unsung heroes included producer Tom Wilson, a Texas polymath and midwife of what became “folk rock” who oversaw the recording of Dylan’s epochal “Like a Rolling Stone”; guitarist Bruce Langhorne, the subject of Dylan’s classic “Mr. Tambourine Man”; and session bassist Bill Lee, who can be heard on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and whose son Spike would go on to worldwide acclaim as a filmmaker.

Wilson sat in the producer’s chair for some of rock ’n’ roll’s most celebrated records. A product of Waco, Texas, he is, without question, one of the more fascinating people in African American musical history.

By the time he landed in New York, he’d graduated from Harvard, where he’d been president of the Young Republican Club while helping run the school’s New Jazz Society. He was also the Harvard radio station’s jazz DJ.

He served as an A&R director for several labels, working with such jazz luminaries as Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Then, in 1963, Wilson was named staff producer at Columbia Records, becoming the first African American to serve in that capacity in the history of the label (founded in 1887).

In 1964, Wilson produced Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. 1965 yielded Bringing It All Back Home (Dylan’s first foray into electric rock) and the aforementioned “Like a Rolling Stone,” both of which rank among folk and rock’s most essential recordings.

(The recording session for “Like a Rolling Stone” has achieved mythical status in rock history; it’s the story of how young session guitarist Al Kooper—intimidated by the fiery skills of blues guitar hero Mike Bloomfield, who was also present—crept over to the Hammond B3 organ and, ignoring Wilson’s protestations that he was not a “real” organ player, nonetheless came up with the song’s iconic organ refrain, which launched scores of imitators who copped Kooper’s signature licks throughout the remainder of the ’60s and beyond.)

Also in 1964, Wilson used studio musicians to overdub electric instruments onto an acoustic recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” in so doing creating one of the first examples of what came to be known as “folk rock.” It was the duo’s first #1 hit.

But Wilson wasn’t done breaking new ground. In 1966, he worked on two of rock’s most radically avant-garde debut albums: the double LP Freak Out by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground masterpiece The Velvet Underground and Nico. The latter famously cites Andy Warhol as its producer, though according to the band members, it was Wilson who actually oversaw the recording sessions and the songs’ singular arrangements. He would go on to produce The Velvets’ sophomore album, 1968’s White Light/White Heat, an effort even more dissonant and sonically extreme than their debut.

Both of these groups—who, by the way, despised each other’s music—set the standard for transgressive, boundary-pushing rock, with The Mothers based in L.A. and The Velvets the archetypal New York rock ’n’ roll band. Said Zappa of Wilson, “He had vision, you know? And he really stood by us… He laid his job on the line by producing the album.”

Wilson was at the epicenter of a musical and social revolution—the explosion of folk, rock and activism—yet, as a political conservative, he was squarely at odds with the liberal and left-leaning messages of the Civil Rights movement and the folk artists he produced; according to his friend, the cookie entrepreneur Wally Amos, Wilson “lived his life unapologetically as a human being, not as a Black man.” Tom Wilson died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1978 at the untimely age of 47.

Another influential, idiosyncratic Black musician of the ’60s folk revival was Bruce Langhorne, session guitarist extraordinaire.

Raised in Harlem, Langhorne—a violin prodigy—lost two and a half fingers to a cherry bomb when he was 12. Despite his affliction, he persevered and, after a stint in Provincetown, Mass., in the ’50s, returned to New York and caught the nascent folk boom on its ascent.

In 1960, he began accompanying Brother John Sellers, emcee at one of the Village’s premier folk haunts, Gerde’s Folk City. This caught the eyes and ears of New York’s folk elite; soon Langhorne was playing and recording with the likes of Belafonte, Hugh Masekela, Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Carolyn Hester and others. He and Odetta, with whom he’d been working, performed on Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington immediately before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Still, the most notable folk artist Langhorne accompanied was Dylan, using amplified acoustic guitar to lend majestic, lyrical accompaniment to such enduring tracks as “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero (No Limit)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Langhorne’s guitar work was marked by a keen sense of counterpoint, beautiful melodic phrases and solid, insistent rhythm.

Describing his signature technique, Langhorne told an interviewer, “Since I have fingers missing, some styles of guitar playing were forever unreachable for me… I really needed someone who had a thread going to do my job. Because then they could generate a couple of lines of polyphony, or a rhythmic structure, and then I could enhance that.”

He was heavily influenced by the repetitive, propulsive rhythms of Afro-Cuban forms and the trance-like drones of Indian music. In an interview with author Richie Unterberger, he said, “For the Africans, if something is pleasing, why not play it again? So the Africans would play repeated phrases, and that’s their aesthetic… the essence of trance music, music that captures people, which you can really see in Indian music… [It’s all] based on a drone, which is a continual tone, which represents om, the seed sound of the universe.”

Langhorne’s greatest legacy, though, is having inspired Dylan’s epic “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “Bruce was playing guitar with me on a bunch of the early records,” Dylan attested. “He had this gigantic tambourine… as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.” This image was immortalized in the song’s chorus: “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man/Play a song for me/In the jingle-jangle morning/I’ll come following you.” When asked about his experience accompanying Dylan, Langhorne offered, “The connection I had with Bobby was telepathic… Between the two of us, the communication was very strong.”

Following his career-defining collaboration with Dylan, Langhorne went on to work with folk and blues singer/songwriter Tom Rush and Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji, among others. He later became a film composer, scoring such pictures as Peter Fonda’s 1971 The Hired Hand and Jonathan Demme’s 1976 Fighting Mad. He also played on the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which featured music by Dylan. Langhorne died of kidney failure in 2017 at age 78.

Still going strong at 93, bassist/composer Bill Lee has had an illustrious career and colorful life in music. He holds the distinction of having played not only on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home but also Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” and composing the score for his son’s classic, Do The Right Thing.

Born on July 23, 1928, in Snow Hill, Ala., Lee is the scion of a musical family; both of his parents were professional musicians (his mother was a concert pianist). He graduated in 1951 from Morehouse College, where his classmates included King and Olatunji.

Once Lee moved to New York City, he quickly became known for his eclecticism and musical curiosity, which enabled him to gain steady employment as an upright bassist. He boasts a jaw-dropping list of credits, recording or performing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Max Roach, John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin. Asked to comment on his contributions to the rich legacy of African American music, Lee says simply, “I’m standing on the shoulders of those who came before me.”

But, in addition to his work with Odetta, he was widely admired for his collaborations with her follow folk artists, including Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger and Gordon Lightfoot.

Lee was also present at the 1962 session for  Dylan’s first foray into electric music, “Mixed-Up Confusion,” which was recorded for his groundbreaking sophomore LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—though the track was shelved and remained unreleased until Dylan’s 1985 career-overview boxed set, Biograph.

And Lee was the up-right bassist on the initial, acoustic version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 
Sound of Silence,” the recording Tom Wilson later added electric instruments to. That track, along with The Byrds’ electrified reworking of “Mr. Tambourine Man”—the original features Lee—is now seen as among the earliest examples of folk rock.

The 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, partly inspired by Van Ronk’s autobiography, unfolds on the New York City folk scene of 1961. Dylan figures briefly in the story. Among its settings is Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café. No one in this picture looks like Wilson, Langhorne or Lee.

But the fact remains: The folk revival that so influenced American music of the succeeding decades, certainly as it was practiced by Bob Dylan, owes an enormous debt to a handful of African Americans about whom “only serious music geeks have the faintest idea,” as music journalist Jem Aswad put it in Variety last year.

What inspired the characterization? The announcement of the upcoming scripted feature Tom Wilson: Lost in Transition. Not a moment too soon, a movie about the folk era we haven’t seen.

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