Bruce Langhorne was a crucial figure in the early folk-rock figure as a session guitarist on early electric recordings by Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, Richard & Mimi Farina, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, and others. Here he talks about his work with the early folk-rockers.
Everyone had a different take on what the probable evolution of music would be in the '60s when folk-rock was emerging, in essence. I think there was a total social phenomenon going on then. There was a real upsetting of the old order, so to speak. It started with civil rights in America, and a real revision of social values, all around the world. It was the start of the drug culture, for one thing. And there was a great deal...well, it wasn't the start of the drug culture, of course. But it was...
The spread of the drug culture?
The spread of the drug culture. It was when everybody got high, and you knew that all of your brothers and sisters got high. And everyone was a brother and sister 'cause they got high with you. It was them and us. It was the creative people who really propelled this movement forward, like with Woodstock and all kinds of things. There were like the Beatles bringing in Indian music, and then everyone was influenced by music from everywhere at that point. There was really a total synthesis.
I was in New York for part of that time -- well, probably for all of that time. And I got to play with Hughie Masekela from South Africa, and I got to work with Belafonte, who was doing music from the Caribbean and all over the place, and I got to play -- 'cause a lot of people who were experimenting, who were folk people, who were experimenting with electronic music. I did an interview with some magazine, I think it might have been Sing Out!, but I don't really remember if it was Sing Out! or another magazine. Someone asked me what I thought, and what I heard for the future. And I said, I hear a synthesis. I hear a...everyone's going to take the aesthetics from all different types of music, and put 'em together. Because really, I think the essence of different types of music -- I'm doing a book too, by the way (laughs) --
That's okay. Everyone's doing a book!
But the essence of different types of music is really the cultural aesthetic. Like some things are pleasing, for instance, to African ears. I read a book by an African musicologist once. And he said that the African philosophy -- the Africans, if something is pleasing, why not play it again? So the Africans would play repeated phrases, and that's their aesthetic. And one of the points that I'm gonna bring out in my book is the essence of trance music, music that captures people, which you can really see in Indian music. Indian music is all based on a drone, which is a continual tone, which represents om, the seed sound of the universe. And people who listen to Indian music get mesmerized by the drum. They get captured, and Indian audiences can listen to a six-hour piece of music, because they go into a state of meditation. And African people, Africans are real participants in the music, though they're also audiences. But they get involved in the rhythmic repetition, where you'll have like a drum music, you'll have some sort of a repeated pattern. The essence of African music, the simplest African music, is music for three drums. And that's also the essence of Afro-Cuban music. Basically, it's two drums that lock into a pattern, and a third drum that works off of the pattern. And that could go on for hours, because the strength and the hypnotic qualities of the two drums that are forming the basic pattern is so strong. So, that's how the Africans do it. They do rhythm as a substitute for tone. The Indians do tone, they do pitch.
And rock and rollers, and folk musicians, do the same thing, to a lesser extent. Particularly for dance.
When did you start doing session work?
BL: I started recording fairly early. My professional career really started in Provincetown, where I used to like play music on the street. I used to work with this guy, this artist, and our street scam used to be, I would play music and get people to stop and listen, and he would sketch them, and then he would charge them for the sketch. And then they'd give me money, and then we could go and eat and drink. So that was how it started. And then when I was in Provincetown, I met a guy who used to sing and play guitar. And when I got back to New York, he introduced me to Brother John Sellers.
This was about 1960, I would guess?
Yeah, thereabouts. And Brother John was emcee at Gerde's Folk City. And I started playing with him. And I started recording, because everyone who came into Gerde's Folk City heard me play, 'cause I was there all the time. And a lot of people wanted me to sit in with them. And these same people started getting recording contracts, and they asked me to come and play.
Was that how Carolyn Hester hooked up with you?
Yeah, I think so.
One of the people who was very instrumental for me in any contribution that I made to the electric end of this whole phenomenon was Sandy Bull.
Yeah, I love his two early Vanguard albums.
He was a very sophisticated musician with really wide taste. I met Hamza El Din through him, and when I played the Dylan sessions, I borrowed Sandy's twin reverb amp to play. I had a pickup on my acoustic Martin, and Sandy introduced me to the work of Roebuck Staples. And Roebuck Staples, I think, was one of the absolute masters of electric guitar. He was the first person I ever heard who used tremolo as a rhythm device. And he played this Fender through the tremolo, and he used the tremolo in time with the tunes that he was doing. And for me, he was about the most swinging player of the whole folk-gospel era. He had this inevitability of his tunes, based on this electronic rhythmic thing that he set up. So I have to credit Sandy with turning me on to what could be done in the medium.
I'm guessing that was around maybe 1963? That's when Sandy's first album came out.
Probably around then.
To backtrack a little, Dylan did some pretty mildly electric session back in late 1962, for his single "Mixed Up Confusion" and the track "Corrine Corrina." You're listed in a sessionography as playing on those. Do you remember anything about those?
I remember doing a version of "Corrine Corrina" with Bob that was acoustic, and I played acoustic. I think it was acoustic. I don't really remember the session that you're talking about, though. It might have been overdubbed, or something.
That song "Mixed Up Confusion" only came out as a single, and was hardly even distributed. There's a drum and a fast beat, but it's not really fully rock. The guitar is mixed way back and sounds acoustic; mostly you hear a piano and a shuffle drum.
Don't really know. I really can't remember.
In the crowd of musicians you hung out with, was there any notion before '65 that there was going to be a move toward electric instruments and band arrangements?
I don't really remember that consciousness. I really don't. And I know that there were a lot of people who were anti-electric. Luddites, didn't want to change, the way it was going...
Like the Sing Out! people, and the people who ran the festivals?
No, I'd say more the performers, the performers who were more into purism. Because, I mean the whole folk music aesthetic was sort of a celebration of American musical heritage. And there were a lot of people who were really into the preservation of tradition. I remember Dick [Fariña] got a lot of flak for playing the dulcimer as a rhythmical instrument. But I can't think of anyone who was really -- I would say that Sandy was really a pioneer in that area. He was really overlooked. He was very, very influential. He was also one of the first people to take, to make loops. And he'd actually perform onstage with loops. He would have -- I don't know if what was an echoplex, or something. But he'd have some kind of device, where he would play a pattern and then it would play back, and he would play with it, he would overdub on the pattern. And a lot of people didn't like that very much, either. But he was really...he was certainly influential on me.
So for you personally, what was the impetus in starting to think about playing in an electric context?
Well, I was into everything. I liked R&B a lot. I grew up hearing R&B. I think the first record that ever really captured me was Ruth Brown, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." It was in the early '50s. I had just gotten a record player. I was a kid, you know. And I got this record, and I just played...I found I could make the record player repeat. I used to play it for hours. And I was very into R&B. I was into Wilson Pickett, and I was into sophisticated black bands, popular black bands, like Louis Jordan. So I had very little trouble transferring these kinds of aesthetics to folk music. I thought it was great, and I thought it was beautiful.
Was the first time you recorded in a folk-rock setup Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home?
I think so. I had been experimenting with just putting a pickup on my Martin for a while, before that. But not long. Because my playing, it was just amplified and sustained acoustic playing, really. And I played the same sort of lines that I would play with somebody like Odetta, who would provide the same sort of thing that Dylan provided, or Dylan and the band, which was like a really inevitable rhythmic structure. I mean, I always thought that the people that I most enjoyed playing with were the people who had like an unstoppable thread to their music. And it couldn't be diverted easily. I mean, it was gonna be there, the root, the core was gonna be there. And my job was really, essentially, icing. I put icing on the cake. But in order for me to do my job, that basic thread had to be there.
You said earlier that you felt like you developed a style that wasn't so characterized by virtuosity or flash.
Since I have fingers missing, some styles of guitar playing were forever unreachable for me. Like, I couldn't really play good flamenco. Classical was difficult for me, though I did play some classical. But since I couldn't develop technique to the point where I could just play the entire repertoire of guitar music, I had to develop a technique based on my own aesthetics. Because I had to listen to everything and say, okay, this sounds okay with three voices. Because I had pretty good control of three voices on guitar. I could control four-note voicing, but it was only with extra physical effort. Because it would mean, since I played basically with three fingers, it would mean that I would have to play two notes with one finger on a six-string instrument, or I would have to strum. So I developed a style and a technique that was based partially on classical music, because I separated voice. I used each of my fingers to generate a line, a polyphonic line, or I would play, which is why I say I really needed someone who had a thread going to really do my job. Because then they could generate a couple of lines of polyphony, or a rhythmic structure. And then I could enhance that.
And I got to be a very good accompanist for that reason. Because I was really forced to listen. So I listened. And that's very essential for an accompanist.
In some of the things that you recorded then, it often seems like your guitar's answering a vocal phrase with an instrumental phrase.
That's exactly right. Call and response, that's another aesthetic that I picked up from black music. 'Cause I always loved gospel music, because they really had that down. I still love gospel music. I still do gospel music, I still write gospel music, even though I don't perform it very much. That aesthetic's very pleasing to me, 'cause they really do have call and response.
I hear that in your parts to a song like "Love Minus Zero."
(Uncertainly) Yeah...my performances, I can't always remember what I did (laughs). Another thing that I was forced to do, though all this has been to my benefit -- I was forced to play very much in the moment. Because I did not have a great deal of sophistication in classical or jazz technique. So what I had to do, was I had to rely on communication and empathy to get me to play the next note, the right note, the right phrase or something. Which I why I liked working with somebody like Dylan, who had an inevitability to their structure. Because they were able to, like, communicate what the next note or section was gonna be. And some of the Dylan tunes that were done on Bringing It All Back Home were done without rehearsal. They were just like...everybody was able to tune into it what he was going to do next. Not that he was predictable, but he was inevitable.
How did your recording on that album come about? Was that through Tom Wilson, or Bob?
I met Bob at Gerde's. And I think John Hammond set it up. And he probably set it up because I think I had recorded with Carolyn [Hester] before, who he was producing. And I think John called me, and said "Hey, how'd you like to come and play with Bob?" And I knew Bob. But I hadn't played his material. But I'd heard him. I think that's how that whole thing happened.
[He mentions that he just saw Eric Andersen and Joni Mitchell, and then he talks about Joni Mitchell]
She is one of the most talented, one of the most sophisticated songwriters and musicians that I've ever had the privilege to meet. And I knew Joni before she was a big deal, before Woodstock and everything, when she was married to Chuck Mitchell. And I stayed with them in Detroit. And Joni was already starting to write songs. And I was already Mr. Studio, and I was playing with a lot of people in New York and stuff, and recording with a lot of people. And I was used to like just tuning into people and playing their material. And Joni -- I couldn't really play with her. Because she was so creative and so wonderfully unpredictable, and her music was so sophisticated, that I couldn't just tune in and start playing and have it work. So I wound up just listening (laughs). So I've always loved and respected Joni and her work.
To go back to the Columbia session with Dylan -- the album was half-electric, half-acoustic. Do you remember any reason for...
For overall anything -- no. I wasn't involved with that discussion. You know, production decisions at that point in my career, people just wanted me to come in and play.
It seemed like he might have been trying to hedge his bets a little, trying to be a little cautious.
That's quite possible. It's probably...John Hammond was a very, very sophisticated producer. As you know he produced Billie Holiday, and he'd been producing jazz from the time Rover was a pup. And he probably gave Bob the advice to not alienate his old audience by doing something that was completely, that would turn a lot of people off. It did turn a lot of people off. A lot of people just hardly ever came around [from] Dylan as an acoustic musician, even though he's an icon now.
To your recollection, is the big schism between the folk purists and those who were going into rock as dramatic as it's sometimes been painted?
I was at a Newport folk festival, one year. And Alan Lomax and Al Grossman got into a fistfight. Here are two grown men, got into a fistfight. They were rolling around on the ground. Actually, Dick Fariña and I broke it up. But it was a real trip. And I never -- I was not there at the start of the fight, but it's my projection that it was about that very thing. It was about aesthetics, and probably Alan Lomax, who tended to be kind of outspoken, probably said something that Albert, who was very very loyal to Bob, extremely loyal to Bob, probably just didn't cotton to. (laughs) So it was very interesting, and the feelings were very strong. Because there were a lot of people who were very heavily invested in the traditional folk music. And with the folk music revival, these were people who had been playing folk music for years and years and years in obscure venues, and suddenly they saw their time had come. And they probably saw electrification and rock'n'rollation as co-option, total co-option.
Part of the angle that interests me is that, in spite of this perceived split, almost every folk musician of note who wanted to be meaningful in a contemporary context in the early and mid-1960s went electric, and very quickly. So if this was an Armageddon of sorts, it seemed like the electric side won very decisively.
Yes, it was [emphatically]. It was a six-day war (laughs hard). Well, the thing is that, you know, there's just so much more happening when you have music that you can dance to. It speaks to a whole other center. And that's what folk-rock was. It was danceable folk music. You didn't have to just listen. Listening was an option. You didn't have to hear the words.
But if you did decide to hear the words, it had more meaning than almost all rock'n'roll had had prior to that.
Yeah, it did. It was deeper than the Beach Boys, though the Beach Boys were great music. But yeah it's true, there was a little more depth. And history -- history's important.
I'm asking everyone who was at Newport '65 what their perspective was of Dylan's show, because it's almost like a Rashomon-type event. Everyone remembers and interprets it differently. Some people are like, "Dylan was great," and others are...
"He was terrible," right? (laughs)
Although you didn't play with Dylan, I know you played with the Fariñas there, did you play with anyone else at the festival?
Peter, Paul & Mary, I think, and I don't know whether I played with Odetta or not. But I know I played with Peter, Paul & Mary. I know I played with a lot of people, because somebody said to me, somebody said some kind of smart ass thing like, "Boy, it would have been great if you had gotten paid for every time you jumped on stage" or something (laughs)'Cause I'd recorded with all those people for the past couple of years, and I knew a lot of people's material.
Before Dylan's concert, was there already a sense at the festival of tension between purists and a younger generation more open to new sounds, if not loud electric rock? For instance, the Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers also played, and the Fariñas had musicians with them even if they weren't using electric guitars for their slot in particular.
(Long pause) You know, I don't think that anyone said that to me. Because I don't think people really considered me a purist. Because, you know, I'd always been involved in the synthesis of black music and white music. Because when I started at Gerde's Folk City, I was playing gospel backup for Brother John Sellers, who was also doing some straight folk music. So I was playing some folk music. When I started sitting in with people, I'd be playing folk music. And I don't think, because of my ethnicity, that people ever could imagine me at some Appalachian folk festival (laughs hard).
Though, and that's a whole 'nother thing -- my book doesn't deal with it, but if you go back to the early 20th century and before that, there was actually a lot of interchange between rural white and American folk and country musicians, and they often shared similar repertoires.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And that was particularly true with Cajun and Creole music and everything. And I think it was with a real institutionalization of Jim Crow and segregation, which probably happened, started probably in the '20s and '30s -- well, I guess it started before that. But it got to be really serious. And a lot of like -- I can't remember this musician's name, but there was a black musician who played Cajun music, Creole music, and that was responsible for a lot of the repertoire.
He got killed in some sort of racial incident. Everyone was doing his material, and he was doing everyone's material, and he was highly respected by black and white musicians in Louisiana. It was an example of some drunken racists going haywire.
Now I must say that I did not ever run into any prejudice or inequality in the folk world. I played with a lot of -- well, I must say this (laughs). I did at one point, I had dinner with Willie Nelson and his band. And a couple of the guys in the band were kind of, were making -- I was good friends with the bass player at the time, and that's how I happened to be there. And a couple of the guys in the band were making kind of off-color, racist comments. And I don't know whether they knew that I was black or not. And that is the only incident I can remember where that was ever shoved in my face.
Of course, I did play at the March in Washington. And I did absorb some of the -- I have to say that, too. I did absorb, during civil rights days I did absorb some of the black racist things going around. And there were some actual battle lines being drawn. And I aligned myself with black militarism at that point. I was married to a girl who was black. She was trained in classical ballet, and couldn't find work. Of course, there was no work for a black classical ballerina in the '60s. And I have to admit that I did pull away from my white friends a little bit in that period. And I remember having a discussion in my house with Al Grossman one time, about the whole racist thing. We got down. He talked about his background and the aesthetic at his house. And he said, "I was raised in a household that gave lip service to tolerance, but basically, you didn't hang out with schwartzehs. They were the lowest." So we did get down about that.
Fortunately, that period of -- you know, I was just trying to find myself. Fortunately, that period didn't last very long. I divorced that girl, and you know, realized that I was not just a black man. I was like a, I was a human being. So that's the story of my brief descent into madness.
At Newport in '65, did you see Dylan's performance?
You know, I saw part of the performance. I didn't see the whole performance, 'cause I think I came in in the middle of it. But I did catch half of it. I liked it. I thought it was excellent (laughs hard). Because I believe in innovation.
Did you have any impression of the audience reaction?
It was mixed. It was mixed. Some people were going, "what the hell's that?!" And some people were going, "Oh wow!" But my overall impression was that more people were offended than were enchanted. That was my overall impression.
Some people I've talked to, like Sylvia Tyson, have made the point that they supported Bob Dylan's musical direction into electric rock, but didn't like this show in particular, because they thought the sound -- meaning the PA and amplification and the quality of performance, not the whole idea of rock arrangements -- was bad.
Yeah, the sound was bad. They did not know how to deal with amplified electric instruments and drums [at the festival].
With hindsight, that's understandable. Because not just for Dylan, but for any rock band in 1965, the amplification was pretty primitive at large concerts, and it was still being worked out how to effectively project at a high volume, with clarity.
That's right. It was all new. How to get loud volume projected, and how to get individual parts heard. And Hendrix and Cream, they finally got it down, they gave the bass player [a] role, they gave the guitar player a role, they gave the vocalist a role, they gave the drummer a role. And everybody had their roles amplified to fill up that area of the musical spectrum. I mean, it's kind of a fine art now. People can actually do good mixes of loud music, so you can hear everything.
But -- I still think that it's not as much of an art as it could be, mixing for live performance. I think that a lot of electric performances that I go to, I really can't stand. Because first of all, they're not mixed properly, and second of all, they're too loud, and third of all, they've lost the dance aesthetic. Because the reason that loud electric performances used to be great was that they were in venues where people could dance. And people would totally get mesmerized by the loudness of it, and by the visceral quality of sound at that level, and by the rhythm. And they would have that kind of experience. Nowadays, I think concerts tend to be more compacted, and they're more in halls and auditoriums where the promoter can get as many seats as possible. They don't give up seating area for dancing area. People just don't dance as much any more. People go to clubs to dance. This makes me sad.
This is a question from Chris Darrow, actually. He said, "Ask Bruce if he is Mr. Tambourine Man."
Yeah. Dylan said in his Biograph album, you should read the liner notes...
Yes, I've read those.
He said, there was this guy who used to play this giant tambourine. It was like as big as a wagon wheel, and that was kind of the inspiration for the song. So I am Mr. Tambourine Man (laughs).
My guess is he didn't actually talk about that with you.
He didn't tell me about that. And probably if he did tell anybody, he'd probably deny it (laughs). Because...I don't know, just because he would. I think he has a wonderful sense of humor. And I think that he has a wonderful ability to let people just let out enough rope to hang themselves. And I think he'd probably do that with me, I think, if he thought that I was attached to being Mr. Tambourine Man, I think he'd just...(laughs hard). I did a TV show with Dylan, I think it was the Les Crane show. And Bob Dylan said -- Les Crane had on a tie. And I was just playing second guitar. And Bob said to Les Crane, he said, Les, I like your tie, man. And Les said, oh, thanks, Bob. And he took it off and he gave it to him. Bob looked at him and he said, Les, I like your boots. So, I mean, it's an example of that. If you get attached to anything, he'll run the rope out for you.
What do you think of the song itself, "Mr. Tambourine Man"?
I like it. I think it's a good song. I do. And it's about me (laughs). If I had a big ego...well, I do have a big ego. But if I wanted to fuel it, that'd be a way to do it.
What did you think of the Byrds' version?
I liked it. I thought it was very good. I still remember their hook (sings opening bass line). I always thought Roger [McGuinn]-- I always thought he was a wonderfully sophisticated musician.
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