.....As I put together newspapers for recycling I noticed an obituary I had seen before, but which had slipped my mind during the fuss over holidays. There have been many deaths in the music business this year (David Bowie's 70th birthday is in a week; don't think you won't hear about that), so it would have easy for many and excusable for some to have overlooked it, but Milt Okun died just before Thanksgiving. Okun was best known as a producer, but he has touched the lives of many musicians in many ways, including as a publisher, composer and even as a sound editor. He played a large part in the background of the emergence of what I used to call "barbershop folk", characterized by traditional (or at least public domain) songs sung by scrubbed, clean shaven young people in matching outfits. (Think of the film "A Mighty Wind". Or the Bob Dylan song "Talkin' New York Blues".) It wasn't completely unrelated to the real folk music scene; most if not all of the acts played in the same clubs as people who would never get on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Okun produced the recordings that brought folk to middle America just as Nat King Cole did for jazz.The Band only ever became known to most Americans because Bob Dylan recruited them to be his touring band in the mid-60's and Bob Dylan was only ever able to tour enough to need a band because of a ball set in motion by several people including Milt Okun.
.....To set some perspective, in the late 1950's the emergence of rock music was being met with resistance, sometimes violently but more often from state and local officials under pressure from white supremacist groups who objected to the fact that it drew upon both traditionally white and black music forms and moreso that white teenagers enjoyed it. Sometimes that pressure was direct and sometimes it was through national elected officials who relied on these domestic terrorist groups as a part of their campaign apparatus. In a short period of time the major players were either dead (Buddy Holly, et al), drafted (Elvis Presley), jailed (Chuck Berry) or otherwise blackballed (Jerry Lee Lewis). Of course, there were many who simply objected to rock for aesthetic reasons. One of the most strident of these voices was Mitch Miller, a recording industry fixture for many years who wore several hats: arranger, conductor and producer, but to the general public he was best known as the host of the television show "Sing Along With Mitch". Most importantly in music history, he was the head of the Artists and Repertoire department at Columbia Records. Having issued the first major contracts to Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis and having put Leslie Uggams on television every week, Miller couldn't possibly have perceived himself as being in the same boat as the various "Citizens Councils" that kept rock records off certain radio stations. And it would unfair and inaccurate to paint him that way. However, he was very likely among the many at the time who saw blues and jazz as forms of minstrelsy used to demean and oppress African Americans, and that black musicians were 'liberated' to the extent that they sounded like white musicians. There's little doubt that his heavy hand regarding selecting material and arrangements drove Franklin to Atlantic records after recording eight albums for Columbia in six years. For all her effort, only the 1961 single, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" barely squeaked into the top 40. By contrast, her first nine Altantic A-sides were each Top 10 Pop chart hits (that's Billboard Pop, not the R&B chart which skewed to black artists). It's no wonder most people think her career started with "Respect" in 1967. Her last Columbia album may have been called "Soul Sister", but with material like "Ol' Man River", "Swanee" and "You Made Me Love You", she probably couldn't care less that nobody remembers it.
.....With Miller's influence in the music business and preference for repertoire in public domain (no royalties, you see), there became an inroad into the recording industry for people with a knowledge of traditional American music so long as they were willing to perform it in a stiff, almost neo-classicist style. While this wasn't Milt Okun's mission in life, it meant work for performers who would have been unlikely to get a recording contract even a few years earlier. It didn't take long for other labels to follow suit. It also didn't take long for a folk revival to take root on American college campuses. With the most vital rock acts missing it was easy for young adults to dismiss rock music as a passé and juvenile fad. These were people who came of age in the Cold War being told that American freedoms must be preserved at all costs and as they prepared to enter the adult world and be the ones who would be responsible for that preservation, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the greatest threats to the American Dream were coming from within-- the selfsame officials and Citizens Councils that pursued segregationist policies (and worse) and pushed rock into relative obscurity. They didn't know it yet, but the nation's racist power brokers had made the same mistake that the Shah of Iran would make years later, but in reverse. The Shah eliminated his most civilized and reasoned critics in every aspect of modern Iranian culture-- academics, politics, economics; intellectuals and respected civic leaders of all kinds were exiled or imprisoned, tortured or intimidated into silence, some dying in custody or simply disappearing. The only ones he didn't bother with were the craziest of the religious polemicists because the general public didn't have any respect for them, so they couldn't form an effective opposition. However, because of his purges, the Shah left the public with no one to voice their concerns except the severest religious extremists. He essentially delivered to them the public support they could never get on their own. Enter the Ayatollah. In America in 1959, those who needed civil rights repression in order to stay in power put all their energies into persecuting whoever couldn't fight back, had no political inclinations or insights, little or no formal education, no extended network of social support in the form of middle class families or military background and the least articulate. What was left was an army of English majors with a decades long history of organizing social and political activism who now had the flag and apple pie on their side. There was something distinctly American about American folk music and something distinctly anti-American about the Confederacy.
.....One of those young fans of folk music was a Cornell freshman named Lenny Lipton who, having read an Ogden Nash poem, "The Tale of Custard The Dragon" about a girl named Belinda and her cowardly pet dragon, was inspired to write his own poem about a boy who "prepared to enter the adult world" and take on greater responsibilities, leaving his own pet dragon to carry on without him. A fellow student named Peter Yarrow set it to music and would sometimes include it while performing. (You realize we're talking about "Puff, The Magic Dragon", right?) In Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, there's a Cherry Road and a Cherry Street. There's even a Cherry Street in Brooklyn, where Lipton was born, but not a Cherry Lane. How that made it into the song, I don't know. I also don't know why a theatrical troupe in Greenwich Village back in the 1920's would refurbish a box factory on Commercial St. and rename it the Cherry Lane Theater when there's no Cherry Lane in Manhattan, either. But in 1960, while Lipton was working on his physics degree, Milt Okun formed a music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing, in the offices above the theater. Also working in New York was a young man who left his home in the midwest with hopes of becoming a rock musician. During the course of that journey he, too, became deeply impressed by the power of American folk, as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to touch people and spell out the human condition in stark, honest terms. And Mitch Miller couldn't have had any idea what he was getting into when Bob Dylan signed to Columbia Records in 1961, but in just two years after that Yarrow, Okun, Dylan and others would ignite a phenomenon of the 1960's that's still burning today: Dylan covers.
Next post: "Plowmen Till My Earth" continues with "Broadsides, Blowin' and Brothers", plus the reason why that's not the right lyric