The Singer of Folk Songs Talk

jerry garcia at the 1962 winter berkeley folk music festival, talk delivered @ pca/aca conference, 14 april 2022.

“The Singer of Folk Songs”: Jerry Garcia at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival Transcript

Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Assistant Professor, Department of History, State University of New York—Brockport

Director, Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project

In a room that at first glance might seem like it is inside a flying saucer, a man in a suit gesticulates to an audience. With its modernistic ceiling and setting, this is in fact Pauley Ballroom at the University of California in Berkeley.

The man on stage is Sam Hinton,a marine biologist based in San Diego who was also a renowned songwriter, folksinger, and folk revival thinker. He served as a master of ceremonies at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place at least once a year between the late 1950s and 1970 on the Cal Berkeley campus.

Hinton and audience may look like they are in a futuristic space-age room, but here at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival, they are actually engaged in a quite retrospective activity: listening to, making, debating, and pondering the meaning and significance of traditional music.

Hinton is important because while not as well-known nationally as East Coast figures such as Pete Seeger, he presented a distinctive West Coast mode of folk music interpretation in both his own performances and his thinking and writing.

We shall return to Hinton later, but for those listening to this talk, the more intriguing figure in the photo sits upright, front row center, listening intently to Hinton.

That figure is none other than a young Jerry Garcia, 20 years old at the time.

In December of 1962, Garcia was well into his folk revival phase and on the cusp of performing with numerous bluegrass lineups, the Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, and the electric rock band the Warlocks, who would then transmogrify into the Grateful Dead.

But that’s later. At the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Garcia got to spend time with some of the most important figures of the 1960s folk music revival: not only Hinton, but also the musician, folklorist, and music manager Ralph Rinzler, along with other members of the Greenbriar Boys, who at the time consisted of Rinzler, Bob Yellin, and John Herald, seen here.

Garcia also met Jean Ritchie, who grew up in a ballad-singing family in Kentucky, became a master of the dulcimer, and relocated to the New York City area.

Charles Seeger was at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival. The ethnomusicologist and father of Pete and Mike and Peggy Seeger as well as husband of Ruth Crawford Seeger attended almost every year to participate in panels and talk with attendees.

At Berkeley in December of 1962, Garcia also got to meet Bessie Jones and members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, who arrived from coastal Georgia via New York City to perform their stirring Gullah folk songs and spirituals.

Those were just some of the people at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival with whom Jerry came into contact.

And although it’s too difficult for me to tell in the photograph, I’ve always wondered if this fellow is the typically mysterious Robert Hunter, Garcia’s close friend by 1962 and of course eventual songwriting partner.

Maybe not, but if it is, Hunter along with Garcia took in a remarkable lineup of performers.

Here is Garcia in the front row taking in the performance by the Greenbriar Boys.

Garcia also listened to people such as Kentucky balladeer Jean Ritchie.

Organized by Berkeley local Barry Olivier, seen here with Hinton, the Berkeley Festival overall remains less well-known than East Coast events such as the Newport Folk Festival, but in its duration from the late 1950s to 1970 it too was part of the folk revival’s efforts to bring participants together across lines of race, class, age, gender, and region.

While always riven by larger structures and systems of inequality and injustice in America, never overcoming them, folk revival events such as the Berkeley Festival did mark moments of exchanges across difference. Glimmers of new social arrangements could sparkle up for a moment in the temporary festivity.

Older performers who had seemingly come out of the pre-World War II mists of time, such as Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, could now mingle with fervent young acolytes, treated as purveyors of wisdom, as worthy as any of the most prestigious faculty members at Cal Berkeley.

Yet these older musicians were not distant stars on stage but rather highly respected and accessible participants—teachers, and sometimes learners too, who performed with each other, joined the conversation at workshops and panels, and just hung out together.

Informality reigned. So too did deep discussions and fervent debates about the nature of folk music: what did it mean to perform it well? Who did the music belong to, exactly? How could the music link to larger issues of living righteously, connecting across differences, accounting for injustices, and pushing for a better society and world?

Garcia grappled with these issues in his own irreverent way. You can hear it in stage banter recorded around this time. Here he is comically talking about tradition, transmission, and the folk process in June of 1962.

Maybe Garcia discussed this and other lessons about folklore at a coffee hour hangout, sitting with Rinzler and Ritchie.

Or maybe he continued to work them out for himself while singing with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

I would argue that Garcia himself thought about these matters for the rest of his career: how does one transmit traditional music in compelling, authoritative ways as a musician, particularly when tapping into or borrowing from the traditions of others? Is it more honest to maintain fidelity to the source material or does one bend sources in new directions? Where is the line between creative self-expression and artful appropriation? Can performers lose themselves in a song or do they in fact discover themselves in it?

In our own times, the term “cultural appropriation” has become a flashpoint phrase for these dilemmas of who can take what from whom, and other lessons in folklore, as Garcia put it in his stage banter. But we should remember that we are far from the first to confront the issues of who gets to tap into musical traditions not their own and on what terms.

As early as the 1955 essay, “The Singer of Folk Songs and His Conscience,” Hinton granted that folk music was most alive in its places of origin, but he also contended that transformative processes of beauty and power could occur through thoughtful, creative interpretations and translations of songs by outsiders to the original folk culture.

Perhaps hearing Sam Hinton or Charles Seeger discuss folk music interpretation at events such as the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival confirmed Garcia’s take on the topic, for they had long been thinking about what an aesthetically and ethically valid approach by newcomers to traditional culture should be.

Maybe Hinton did this a bit for Garcia in December of 1962, particularly at the panels slated for the Festival at the panels, Festival Director Barry Olivier would later note, Berkeley English Professor and folk ballad expert Bertrand Bronson was present.

Bronson, seen here with Charles Seeger, debated with the other panelists as to whether, “a new sort of folk tradition is arising in urban America.” Bronson felt that this was a potential problem for traditional music.

But Hinton, according to Olivier, disagreed, responding with the idea that folksinging was like map-making: one could not represent actual place with perfect accuracy, but one could translate the core aspects of the song to new audiences.

Folksinging as map-making. One thinks of the hilariously strange and profound West Coast creation Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, created by Garcia musician-pal Rick Shubb and Berkeley folk scene superfan Earl Crabb in 1968.

The map reimagined the folk world as a Pangaea, with key locations linked together, the “Rest of the World” sequestered on an island, an 800-name population all around the edges, and Pigpen as King Neptune.

Here was Hinton’s folk music interpretation as map-making quest in literal cartographic form, the interpretive truth whimsically brought to view instead of the actual geographic distances.

The map also showed the connections between scenes East and West, North and South, but, crucially, from a very particular kind of West Coast ethos.

Hinton’s version of that ethos was sweet. Humbead’s was zany. Garcia was irreverent. But they all shared a kind of twinkling-eye perspective on issues of authenticity and appropriation that the folk revival raised. And they used humor to own up to—and bring to the surface—dilemmas of folk music interpretation.

Their comedic turn was also meant to circle back to a key point: Hinton, Shubb and Crabb’s Humbead’s Revised Map of the World, Garcia—they all implied with their humor that we are all connected, we can all find a place on the map or add our name to the population, even if our vantage points and interpretations diverge.

As if to prove this Humbeadean point, Hinton himself made a funny remark about obsessions with folk music purity during the 1962 Berkeley Festival panel discussions with Bertrand Bronson. Hinton said, “one day people would probably be saying, ‘oh, I wish I had been living back in the 1960s, when folk music was pure, without all the influences of inter-planetary song!'”

Hearing Hinton’s remark, one might even say, hey maybe the Pauley Ballroom really was a time-traveling spaceship!

Most of all the West Coast scene that Hinton shaped and in which Garcia came of age kept things looser. Unlike back East, where Bob Dylan going electric at Newport was received as a folk music betrayal, when Jefferson Airplane performed in 1966 at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival they were embraced as the former folkies they were, now taking folk music in intriguing new directions.

And who did they have in tow with them backstage? Jerry Garcia, now with long hair and Beatle boots. These new rockers, they were received at the Berkeley Festival as part of a continuum of folksong interpretation.

Perhaps this is because back in December of 1962, a younger Garcia was there and present, ready to join in, consider and explore what it meant to be a singer of folk songs, to be conscientious about doing so in the pursuit of, as Hinton urged, the emotional content and truth of the music.

Maybe that afternoon at Berkeley in December of 1962 a young Jerry sang along with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Maybe they performed their version of the old traditional African American spiritual “Turkle Dove.” It was a song that went deep. Bessie Jones told none other than Alan Lomax when he recorded her and the Singers performing it in 1960 on Saint Simons Island, that the song dated back to, as she put it, “slave times.”

[Audio clip of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, “Turkle Dove,” recorded at San Simons Island, 1960]

Jones herself was an interesting figure. She presented herself more as folksong interpreter and cultural heritage vessel than some kind of pure unmediated source. She had married into a Georgia Sea Islands family and she sculpted and curated the traditions she learned, sustaining them in her local community and carrying them outward to the rest of the world, where people such as Garcia were eager recipients of what they heard.

And so it was that twenty-five years later, in December of 1987, at a benefit concert to address the HIV AIDS epidemic that Garcia sang the song as well, with Bob Weir, John Kahn on bass, and Joan Baez joining him.

Here was the singer of folk songs again, down the years, remembering the song, interpreting it, looking for its emotional power, bringing it into the present from the past, borrowing from Jones and those who came before her under conditions of racism and oppression, now shifting the song into another moment of suffering during the AIDS crisis, going into and also giving way to the song’s power, sharing it with others on Zion’s hill, trying with voice and hands to take what had been received and push it—and with it, us—forward, maybe toward, as the song goes, “heaven on the wheel of time.”

[Video clip of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Joan Baez, and John Kahn, “Turtle Dove,” recorded at “An AIDS benefit concert, Humanitas International and BGP presents Joan Baez and Friends: A Christmas Concert,” 1987]

3 thoughts on “The Singer of Folk Songs Talk

  1. Excellent!! Thanks – 68 w/shows since 1971, and happy to still be learning about the Dead!

  2. Thanks for sharing this talk. I remember hearing about a comment of Joan Baez at the 1964 Festival referring to workshops about the proper way to sing traditional ballads and then saying something to the effect that she would sing them her way anyway.

    It is good to remember that acclaimed performers like Jerry learned at the feet of folk masters.

    Loved Sam Hinton’s map metaphor.

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