Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Music Weird interviews Glenn Yarbrough

Here We Go, Baby was also issued as Glenn Yarbrough

Glenn Yarbrough was a pioneer of commercial folk music, although he wouldn't necessarily admit it. He gives all the credit to the Weavers

Yarbrough released his first album in 1957, a year earlier than the Kingston Trio, and then led the folk trio the Limeliters through its most successful period. As a solo artist, he scored a major solo hit with "Baby the Rain Must Fall" in 1965 and has continued to perform for decades. 

One of Elektra Records' first artists, Yarbrough recorded a single for the label in 1951 and then an album in 1957. I interviewed Yarbrough when I was working on a reissue of that first Elektra album, Here We Go, Baby. The interview is from November 19, 2001. 

How did you end up on Elektra Records?

Jac Holzman, who owned Elektra Records, was my roommate in college [St. John's in Annapolis, Maryland], and as a matter of fact, when we were in college, his dream was always to own a record company.  

One time I was playing my guitar and singing a couple of songs, and he wanted to record them. We went down to the commons room and he recorded them and they were released as my first single.  We didn't have a name for the record company yet. He wanted to call it Elektra-Stratford Records, and I suggested Elektra Records because it was a little shorter, and that's what we went with: Elektra Records.  

And that's how Elektra Records was formed, right there in the common room of St. John's College. I went off to war—to Korea—and in the meantime, he started the company up in earnest in New York City, and my wife was his secretary while I was gone in the war. When I got back, he wanted me to do another album, and that turned out to be Here We Go, Baby.  

The earlier albums on Elektra had been very traditional—world music, folk by Jean Ritchie, blues by Josh White—but Here We Go, Baby is more commercial. The liner notes even mentioned what a departure the album was for the label.

That was [Holzman's] first try at a commercial folk album. 

Strangely enough, I was performing in Chicago at the time, and when it was released, that song "Here We Go, Baby" was a hit in Chicago. 

It became a big hit in Chicago. It was the only place, but it was there. And it was kind of odd, even for me, because I always prided myself in singing songs with lyrics that meant something, and all this says, as I remember, is "here we go baby down the road, here we go baby down the road, here we go baby down the road, side by side...."  

How did Fred Hellerman get involved with the record?

Freddy was one of the Weavers. That was a period, of course, when the Weavers were blacklisted, all of them individually. It was the McCarthy era. When we in to record, Freddy was the arranger, and he was doing the album under a pseudonym, because he didn't want my record to be affected by his situation. 

During the making of the album, he came to me and asked me if it would be all right if I would let Pete Seeger do the banjo work on the album, and he said [Seeger] would do it under a pseudonym himself. I said, "Why would he do this?" and he said because of McCarthy, because of the blacklist.  

That was the first time I really faced that problem. And I kinda went home that night and thought, that's not right to have them do something but not with their own name. It was kind of a large decision for me, because it was my first record, and I was a kid, and I was hoping for success. But I thought I had learned a few things at that time, and one was: If I don't do what I think is right, I can't live with myself. So I just said, Freddy, he can do the banjo and I would expect that you should do the whole thing under your own name.

I just wrote the album off. I thought, well, that's the end of that. It'll have to be the next album. It was the time of the Army-McCarthy hearings.

How was it, working with Seeger? 

I was a little disappointed with Pete Seeger at the time. He did it because he needed money badly. That's what Freddy said. Fred said he can't get a job, he had kids, and he needed some money pretty badly. But when he got there, he didn't like the music, and he never said anything about it, but he just didn't play well. I was a little annoyed at him. I mean, I was taking a big chance having him on the album, and I felt at the time that it would have been more ethical, since he was taking the money for the project, [that] he should have done the best he could. But he didn't. So what happened was, we tuned him out. When the sessions were finished, we called in Erik Darling to redo the banjo parts. That's how it worked. Seeger did the original recordings, but when he wasn't playing well they just took him out and we replaced him with Erik Darling. I was very upset about it. Well, I wasn't upset, I was just kind of hurt.

Did you have a sense in 1957 that folk music was on the verge of breaking through in a big way?

Well, you see, folk music had meant to break through much earlier with the Weavers, but when McCarthy came through and just scotched the whole thing, it was suppressed. But it could only be supressed for so long, and then finally someone else came along. 

The Kingston Trio came along and were very successful, but it was really meant to be earlier. It was just one of those things. The Weavers should have been much more successful than they were. I mean, they were successful enough, but they should have been much bigger.  

You ended up in jail during the recording of Here We Go, Baby?

I had this beat-up old station wagon I was driving around New York and I started getting traffic tickets, because I'd park my car and the next morning I'd have another ticket on it. I meant to pay them, but it just got overwhelming. I had, like, 20 or 30. I was kind of a scofflaw.  

One morning—the morning of the recording of this material—I lived down in that tenement on the Lower East Side, and I went to get in my car and there was a cop there and he grabbed me and put me in handcuffs and took me over to the Delancey Street station, and I was caught. I was standing up in front of the sargeant at the big desk, and he's way up high, and he said, "How many of these tickets have you gotten?" and I said, "Uh, two or three." 

As I said that, this cop came in from my car and in the glove compartment were all of the tickets—there was a stack about maybe six inches deep! So they kind of kept me. You know, I wasn't a bad guy or anything. They kind of kept me there, and then Jac Holzman—I made my first and only call to Jac Holzman—I said, "Jac, I'm in jail."  

He was furious with me. He started calling up everyone he knew, some state senators and you know, all kinds of stuff, and the sargeant at the desk kept getting these telephone calls from big shots, and he wasn't for that at all. That just made him even more belligerent. He called all the cops in the building around him and they all had a conference. By this time I was getting to know everyone in the place, and they voted whether to let me go or not, and I guess I charmed them, because they let me go. 

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