I’m glad so many of you enjoyed the post on Joan Baez. There’s plenty more to say about the folk music movement and Joan, but I’m using her to springboard forward into an analysis of 60s rock. The main point of the Baez post was that the folkies were able at their best to bring a more spiritual or otherwise soul-searching feel into popular music, a pattern which rock, initially through the folk-rock style, could try to follow.
Here I simply want to extend and develop one aspect of this point, by using one song by the archetypal folk-rock group, the Byrds.
The particular aspect has to do with love-song. Love-song is perennial to all times, although here we’re concerned with love-song in the era of recordings. My hypothesis is that the folkies and folk-rockers found a way, in part by drawing upon earlier traditions but in part by an alchemy that frankly remains mysterious, of bringing something extra to love-song in particular, something less-formula bound and thus with a more confessional, authentic, and spiritual tone to it. As you’ll see, I’m not arguing that this difference necessarily makes folk-inflected love-song better than other sorts, although I admit and feel its attraction. And again, I’m limiting the claim here simply to the era of recordings.
Consider, for example, “I Knew I’d Want You,” one of the Gene Clark originals from their debut LP. Not one of their A-list songs, and structurally considered, maybe too sing-songy. But for me, it nonetheless has a certain gentle magic I associate with the era.
Now I think love songs tend to belong to one these categories: 1) Serenade/Seduction Songs, 2) Lamenting Lost Love Songs, 3) Celebration of Falling in Love Songs, 4) Praise of the Beloved Songs, and 5) Relationship Analysis Songs. All these categories mix, and the last category, so common in rock, is capable of blurring into other sorts of confessional topics entirely. “I Knew I’d Want You” at first seems a praise of the beloved song, although because it involves retrospective glances back at the moment of meeting, it is also a celebration of falling in love. It has a slowly-unfolding somber aspect, of the same sort the Byrds later used so effectively in “If You’re Gone” and “5D(Fifth Dimension).”
Let’s compare it to “Unforgettable,” one of Nat King Cole’s trademark songs, even though here I link the even more sublime Dinah Washington version. It is also about praising the beloved, and it also does it slowly, although I’d say with a less, well, religious tone than “I Knew I’d Want You.” It would be utterly unfair to pit the Byrd’s voices up against those of Cole and especially Washington—for apt comparison we’d need to find a 40s or 50s harmonization group anyhow—so rather, what I want you to listen for is the way the feel in the two songs frames the notion of romance differently.
The words are also important here. At first glance, these could have been penned anytime between the first recordings and the 1960s:
I found something new girl, just by looking at you…
But that “something new” seems a bit more charged in 1965 with “Times-A-Changin’” idealistic expectation, and then these lines, even if verging on the trite, push the expectation to something like a quest to “only connect” in a society otherwise filled with superficiality:
I meet so many people, I feel I don’t know,
But I felt so close to you, when you said “Hello.”
Well, maybe I’m pushing things here, but when I add the Baez-y feel of the music, with the slightly extra expectation and confessional character of the words, I just don’t think pop-song delivered much of this sort of thing prior to the early 60s. Without question, some pre-folk and pre-rock love songs took us into the highest levels of Symposium-like worship of Eros and the Beautiful, levels perhaps never reached in rock or folk. Here I’ll mention some personal favorites, such as Sinatra’s version of “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me,” or Jack Teagarden’s of “Stars Fell on Alabama.” More examples in my Love Spins at 78rpm post, and of course in the entire catalog of Billie Holiday. She also sang that “Alabama” song, and here are a few of its best lines:
I never planned in my imagination
a situation so heavenly.
A fairyland where no-one else could enter,
and in the center you and me, dear.
As always you have to hear such lyrics to appreciate them.
What I want to stress here is that earlier composers of love-song seemed more willing to tie themselves to certain formulas. I’m not saying that a Sinatra didn’t think carefully and soulfully, the way an expert actor would, about the various modes of love he was to represent in song, that he didn’t reach down into his own soul to do so, but there is a way in which he’s made it a science, and there’s a way in which songwriters of the American Songbook of jazzy pop standards sought to make it so generally. And of course, this continues with rock n’ roll inflected pop, down to the present day. The Beatles of the first two albums , for example, are essentially romance merchants, specifically, an up-dated and more calculated delivery of the Everly Brothers’ focus on teenage romance. So while the Sinatra fan and the early Beatles fan have something in common in their expectations for love song, and the early Beatles fan and the Byrds fan have something in common there too, I say a gap seems to open between the Sinatra fan and the Byrds fan. There is a facility with formula on one hand, and a penchant for confessional authenticity on the other.
Rock will remain wed to all kinds of formulas, even formulas of authenticity-display, because at bottom music’s expression of emotions is ever wed to form. But the most serious and acclaimed rock stars will continually seek out a muse of anti-formal authenticity. That quest has had its glories, and its pitfalls. I certainly think plenty of artists today could benefit from learning more from the older songsters and entertainers who knew how to move from formula to formula with ease. There was an artistic humility and democratic manner to that old approach that we need more of.
Upon hearing the likes of Joan and Bob, and in a different way the Beatles too, the idea of trying something new and more audacious, of writing and performing your own songs that would to some extent reveal who you really were, became irresistible to many. True, no-one was yet so comfortable with revealing the darker or more problematic sides, particularly since these would take one’s music into more discordant and unattractive area, so the initial turn to a more confessional mode would be primarily about love and would occur through or at least side-by-side with the older formulas and musical perfumes of love song. Hippie-dom’s heady vibe in its early years was thus often at bottom some odd combination of radical authenticity and romantic cliché.
I know I’m reachin’ a bit here, so let me know if you don’t get what I’m trying to describe!