Highway's Song

We Five Co-Founder to Showcase Folk-Rock Experience

Jerry Burgan with his book, Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk Rock Revolution

Jerr Burgan with his book? Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk Rock revolution

Photograph taken by Jerry Burgan of original poster designed and printed by Hatch Show Print

Photograph taken by Jerry Burgan of original poster designed and printed by Hatch Show Print

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find tea and crumpets being added to local menus or San Diegans walking around doing really bad impressions of the British accent. This is after all 2014, the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion. Almost on a daily basis – through print and electronic media – we are being reminded what a life force that musical gift from the UK was back in the mid-’60s. Cinemas are now showing the digitally upgraded version of A Hard Day’s Night, and the soon-to-be-released Kinks CD-box set will provide new revelations.

The party won’t necessarily stop on New Year’s Eve, because 2015 will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the equally profound musical phenomenon known as folk-rock. 1965 was the year Bob Dylan left the shine to Woody Guthrie and raised the volume at the Newport Folk Festival, delighting impressionable youth that sensed something indeed was “blowing in the wind.” Folk purists had an opposite reaction, loudly voicing their displeasure at what they perceived to be Dylan’s betrayal. Whether an audience member was pro or con or a fence sitter during Dylan’s performance, the public consensus from the Newport Festival was that a cultural and ideological shift had taken place.

For staunch Dylan supporters, the Bard from Hibbing, Minnesota, was soon vindicated. “Like a Rolling Stone,” a 6:13-minute ode to breaking the rules, began to be played by Top 40 AM radio disc jockeys, many who had only associated Dylan with songwriting credits on Peter, Paul and Mary albums. Dylan was by no means the only artist to go barefooted and test the waters in 1965. The Byrds (whose take on Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a transformation, not a mere “cover” of a song) were described with great affection by writer Lillian Roxon as being either “Dylanized Beatles” or “Beatle-ized Dylans.” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (“Sounds of Silence”) found a second career as sober-minded folk rockers after their moderately successful stint as Everly Brothers sound-alikes Tom and Jerry. The Lovin’ Spoonful (“Do You Believe in Magic?”) brought jug band music and Mississippi Delta blues to teenage America, led by a Cheshire cat-grinning leader named John Sebastian who got a lot of mileage out of an amplified autoharp.

Joining in on the folk-rock movement was an attractive group of college-age students based in the San Francisco Bay Area called the We Five. For an unknown band hurled into the spotlight, 1965 had to been a heady experience. Led by the take-charge drumming of jazz great Jerry Granelli (he was part of the Vince Guaraldi group on A Charlie Brown Christmas), We Five’s “You Were on My Mind” expanded on Ian and Sylvia’s original version through the utilization of layered harmonies and concluded with a soaring climax that sounded great on car radios. Nearly a half century later, it still does. In 1965, the We Five lineup of Michael Stewart, Jerry Burgan, Beverly Bivens, Bob Jones, and Pete Fullerton defied expectations. Billboard listed “You Were on My Mind” as the fourth best-selling single of the year, behind “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones but ahead of the above mentioned singles by Dylan, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Since 2000, there has been a revival of interest in the We Five. In 2007, the band was prominently featured on a box set called Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets: 1965-70, the title coming from Dino Valenti’s “Let’s Get Together,” a song recorded by We Five two years prior to the Youngbloods’ famous 1967 version. England’s Big Beat label in 2009 released There Stands the Door: The Best of We Five. By eliminating many of the Broadway and Tin Pin Alley standards heard on the original We Five albums, the import anthology presented We Five in a clearer folk-rock vein, an obvious predecessor to the early Jefferson Airplane when original vocalist Signe Anderson was handling the lead vocals.

In 2014, it is Jerry Burgan keeping We Five’s memory torch lit. In recent years, he has been appearing in Songs and Stories, a conceptual performance where Burgan leads the audience on a journey from the folk scene from the 1950s to the blossoming of the folk-rock phenomenon in the ’60s. On Sunday night, October 26, Burgan performs at Swedenborg Hall in University Heights as part of a trio featuring his wife Debbie Burgan (We Five’s lead vocalist since 1968; she has appeared on four of their six albums) and bassist Tholow Chan, formerly of the Back Porch Majority.

There has been favorable critical reaction to Burgan’s recent autobiography, Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution. The audience for the upcoming San Diego show can expect funny and poignant episodes from Burgan’s book to be brought alive in entertaining anecdotes from the author. While Burgan shares his life story – musical highs followed by some rough-and-tumble lows – much space in the book is devoted to the troubled genius who was Michael Stewart. The younger brother of Kingston Trio member and successful songwriter (“Never Going Back,” “Daydream Believer”) John Stewart, Michael was far more vulnerable than his older sibling. John possessed natural charisma and matinee idol looks while Michael was an acne-scarred, bespectacled youth who battled with asthma all his life. How Michael excelled in his later life (he blended his natural musical gifts with an interest in computer technology) and walked away from his brother’s large shadow makes for compelling reading.

From his home in Glendora, Burgan recently looked back on his early influences and the hit single that changed his life.

San Diego Troubadour: Many of us at the Troubadour were deeply saddened by the death of Phil Everly earlier this year. In the early portion of the book, you talked about the impact of the Everly Brothers. How were you influenced?

Jerry Burgan: They were kids not much older than I, making a really cool sound playing acoustic guitars and singing harmony. Pretty much what I said in the book: I liked the sound of acoustic guitar and they had two of them. I also liked the harmony and with just two voices you could really hear what they were doing (and it didn’t sound square like the Browns). I was fascinated by the way the records were driven by their rhythm. I saw them on TV and could tell they weren’t playing chords I recognized  – and they weren’t both doing exactly the same thing. In the days of C – A minor – F – - G7 chord patterns it literally jumped out at me. The same thing happened when the Beatles played “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was strangely energized and sounded simple until you tried to find the chord changes. Nobody else was doing what they [the Everlys] did – at least not the way they did it. Though I liked Johnny Cash for a lot of the same reasons: acoustic rhythm and chord changes that jumped around.

SDT: There was a great connection between We Five and the Kingston Trio. I’m interested on your thoughts regarding the legacies of the two San Diego native Kingston Trio members, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds. How did they inspire you?   

JB: I knew John pretty well and he never talked about it [San Diego], although I knew that his mom was from San Diego and he had relatives there. My dad grew up in San Diego and I actually lived there until I was in second grade, so it always had a special place in my memories – but not with an “I want to live there” attitude like San Francisco. That SFO connection was something I picked up from John, and later from Nick, when I came to know the Kingston Trio in San Francisco. I knew about Nick’s roots from album copy and souvenir programs, but didn’t get much of the San Diego connection until many years later when Nick and I spoke about him selling his Ferrari to buy a ranch in Oregon when he left the Trio and the Bay Area – but ultimately being drawn back to his roots and returning to Coronado. I think the “going full circle” Aha! factor really kicked in when both John and Nick died there. (Stewart and Reynolds died in San Diego in 2008; Stewart died at Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest, the same hospital where he was born.) As far as inspiration goes, the book is permeated with the John Stewart inspiration factor. I’m sure that without him, I would never have become a professional musician. Everything from how to finger pick, to what guitar strings to use, to how to write a song came directly from him. In some cases, I showed Michael what John taught me. I didn’t know Nick until later, but even before I knew him I’d been studying how he and Bob Shane created a unique rhythm together that was driven by Nick playing a double-time pattern with an emphasis on the ‘ones’ while Bob created a snare drum-type slap on the “twos and fours.” That was very different from the bluegrass approach that used a tenor guitar-like mandolin on twos and fours. I ultimately learned how to do both – though we needed a second guitar to really get the sound right. We Five’s recording of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” is a good example of us simply using the trio instrumental platform for a totally different kind of vocal arrangement. Not until I began recording with one of Nick’s old tenor guitars did I realize how truly unique his playing was – by using a felt pick. It was tone and energy with almost none of the percussion you get with a bluegrass mandolin. And you couldn’t get the same effect with a six-string even if you played the same parts up the neck because the two bottom strings changed the dynamic. Nick’s approach to harmony was also non-traditional. The trio seldom did parallel parts and he often jumped in and out of unison for effect. That’s a tool We Five used a lot and that I still use today. Nick’s “I’m just here having fun” stage persona was also something we learned to use.

SDT: What are your feelings on “You Were on My Mind” after nearly 50 years ago when it climbed the charts? How has your perspective changed?

JB: Clearly there is an emotional connection to the song that transcends anything easily explained. People still tell me stories of where they were when they first heard it, or how it affected them in light of what was going on in their lives at the time. As to why? Well, “You Were On My Mind” was the #4 song on the Billboard Top 100 for the year 1965. It was sandwiched between “Satisfaction” at #3 and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” at #5 – and ahead of some pretty good Beatles songs. One answer to your question might be that all three have that same intrinsic sustaining power (“Wooly Bully” at #1 was more of a novelty song and did not). I believe that’s attributable to the combination of the song, the lyric content, and the performances. All three songs hit squarely on the yearning of a hurting heart but with powerful music to drive the point home. Clearly our next single, “Get Together,” also proved to have that sustaining power (though on a societal, rather than a personal level), and had our version been released soon enough to make the Top 10 before Christmas of ’65 the two songs might have become linked, who knows? The fact is, it didn’t, and as the book brings out, the destructive forces at work in and around We Five probably would have brought us down anyway. Regarding how my perspective has changed, that’s one of the key reasons I was able to actually write and finish the book. I had no real sense of why the song worked so well in the first place. It was a fairly simple folk song as I first heard it, but it served as an effective platform for the many different musical influences We Five was able to bring together and it coalesced into an iconic hit record. The ensuing 50 years and other perspectives like those brought in by [co-writer] Alan Rifkin permitted me to peel away some of those layers. I guess my bottom line would be that our arrangement of the song became an iconic marker in the lives of several million boomers who then carried it along with all the other milestones that became implanted in their psyche, giving it a key role in the soundtrack of their lives.

SDT: What has given you the greatest satisfaction doing the Songs and Stories Tour?

JB: There are a couple of things that drew me in that direction. One, I like the historical element of life: What happened? Why did it happen? What’s different because it happened? How does that fit into our world today? Two, there’s nothing new under the sun other than the progression of tools we have available – and that applies to music. Whether it’s a native drum, a rudimentary harp, a musical saw, or a synthesizer, musicians will band together and make music because the kinetic energy that comes from being in a band can’t be achieved playing alone. People are drawn to certain things and I’m old enough now to see the cycles repeating. Folk-rock music is everywhere and while part of that is because young people heard some old records, part of it is because I believe there are melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sounds that fit comfortably into our lives. Creative people tend to seek and find those zones naturally – it’s almost like salmon finding a stream and going there because it’s in their DNA. Three, I happen to like the music of my youth, which was “folk” music. When I play it for people who learned to love it when I did back in the ’60s, hearing me play it makes them smile because of the refreshing joy it brings. When I play it for someone who didn’t experience it first person, it still has the power to connect with anyone who shares my inner musical sense and it’s fun to open that door. And finally, anyone can actually learn to do what we do, but there is a special energy that emerges from people who learned to sing folk music in a ’60s group when they get together and perform. If they have skill and practice, it can be magic. I read that when some people questioned why Bob Dylan still performed, the most fundamental answer comes to mind – because he can. As long as I can sing and play and people want to hear it, I will continue because it’s part of who I am – and it’s fun.

Mitch Feingold presents “Burgan and Chan: Songs and Stories” on Sunday, October 26, 7:30pm at Swedenborg Hall, 1531 Tyler Ave., San Diego. For information and tickets, visit www.MFpresents.com or phone: 858-550-8088

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