Where Is It All Going? An Interview With Fred Neil

Listen to the music of Fred Neil, particularly “Travelin’ Shoes”, “Country Boy” and “Gone Again” from his “Bleecker & MacDougal Street” album and you’ll dig where he’s at. Fred is a ramblin’ man… sort of a wandering minstrel who cares more about playing his music and traveling and being free than settling down.

When we first met Fred he was playing at the Night Owl in Greenwich Village being backed by drums, bass and vibes. They made music that you couldn’t believe. It was rock & roll and folk and country and jazz and blues all at once. The audiences every night mostly hip teenagers mostly dug the new sound.

Now Fred is in canada, without the trio. The wanderlust got him. His group disbanded. No one, most of all Fred, knows where he’ll be or who he’ll be making music with. Next week he might be back at the Night Owl or the Café Au Go Go in the Village, or in Coconut Grove, Florida or in Canada or on the road. That’s what Fred is living and singing about.

During his last stop over in New York, we taperecorded some of Fred’s remarks on the Village, Bob Dylan, songwriting, the Beatles and other related topics.

‘Bob Dylan sort of put the charger in everyone on the folk scene and got them going. And Greenwich Village is one of the main sparkplugs of folk music. Everybody gets together for a few months and they absorb everything that’s going on, then they go off wherever they go and write their music.’

‘In pop music there’s too much imitation, songwriters continually try to come up with something that sounds like a record in the top ten because they figure “if it sold once, it’ll sell again”. They were trying for so long to keep the kids down, instead of letting them hear what was really going on. A lot of record producers are still trying for the same baloney sound. They’re reluctant to try something new. I think they should let the music happen the way the new songwriters and singers are creating it. If the music is good, or is saying anything at all, it’s got to become commercial. And the only way to really do that is to make the commercial field come to you. Then you’ve got it. Roger Miller’s music was rejected at the time when he first started writing his songs, because the record producers didn’t want to hear them. They were only interested in hearing the “yeah-yeah” and “whoo-whoo”.’

‘The kids today are more hip than ever and they want to hear some honest songs for a change. For example – and this is not a put-down on New York – the 13-14 year old kids who come down to the Village see the winos passed out in the hallways. It’s not something they’ll go home and tell their mothers about, but they see it and they know these conditions exist. Folk music deals with stark realities like this. It’s saying something that the kids know about. You can’t kid the kids anymore. They know –and they know that they know. They don’t want all these wars and hassles and uproar all over the world. They know their parents have made a lot of mistakes and they want to see some peace for a change. Maybe when they grow up, the same thing will happen –who knows? But at least they’re trying more than any other generation. They’re tired of all the baloney and they’re saying just that. Much of this is responsible for the new interest in folk music. The lyrics are saying something. I still don’t know exactly where I’m going myself. I’m following the music, trying to write it as I see it, I’ll even say that. Someone once said that in “Other Side Of This Life” I got away with saying “Would you like to know a secret… I don’t know what the heck I’m doing” But at least I wasn’t copping out.’

‘A song like “The Bells Of Rhymney” has been around for some time and now all of a sudden it’s being done rock and roll. The kids are dancing to it. Once in a while they start singing the words by themselves. The message is bound to get across. It’s going to reach them sooner or later. And if that’s the way to get it to them, that’s the way to do it. (ed. note: “The Bells Of Rhymney” is in The Byrds’ “Tambourine Man” album if you want to listen -or dance- to it.) A lot of club owners complain about folk music. They say “It’s nice, but you can’t dance to it.” There are people like Phil Ochs who are writing some great things with a lot of message. Odetta says if you put a beat behind these messages, folk songs, some of it is bound to get across.’

‘I always liked Buddy Holly so I always liked The Beatles because he was one of their influences. Holly had a beautiful sense of country music and folk music and never even knew it -he just sat down and wrote. He did the thing, as they say. I think if Buddy Holly had lived, he would have been one of the most recognized people in folk music as well as in pop and country. The Beatles got into the country thing, I don’t know why –probably because they dug it. The Beatles have the sound and the sincerity. That’s why they succeeded, in my opinion.’

‘The beginning for me was about 4 years ago at the Cafe Wha? On MacDougal Street. Bobby Dylan, Dino Valente, Lou Gosset, Mark Spoelstra. Comedians Godfrey Cambridge and Adam Keefee and myself worked the Wha for almost a year together. The things that came out of that one little basement, all the people… so much has happened to those people since then.’

‘Len Chandler deserves much more recognition than he’s gotten. But he’s been so busy going to Mississippi. A lot of people now go on these marches and protests down there because “it’s the thing to do”. On his days off he used to come by and say “Who wants to get arrested?” God knows where he is now. He could be in Mississippi because he believes in fighting for civil rights. But he’s so busy doing that, he doesn’t have much time for his music. He’s been another of my influences. He hates me to say this, but he took me by the hand to the Cafe Wha? about 4 years ago, put me in the stage and said “sing!” It was that simple. He started me off. He didn’t know what he was doing -he created a monster, heh, heh. Len comes up from Miami to work in the Village for a while, then he goes back down and hides like the rest of us. A guy can only take it for so long, then he has to get away.’

‘Almost all the folk groups, when they started out, had nothing but Bob Gibson’s chord progressions. Whether there were 3 or 5 in the group, they all sounded like Bob Gibson. He never got credit for this, which is ridiculous because he’s one of the biggest influences in folk music. I’d been in New York doing blues for a long time and I’d had it. But Gibson said I was doing folk music and should stick around because something was going to happen -and he was right- Gibson is far ahead of his times. He should be getting a lot more recognition. Gibson was one of my influences ans so was a girl named Karen Dalton. She’s really a blues singer. She’s disappeared now. No one knows where she is. She comes into New York for a couple of weeks, then she can’t take it longer and she disappears.’

‘Lonnie Johnson is a fantastic musician. They call him “folk” now, at the time “blues”. He’s one of the best , he has to work Canada -which is bad- but he deserves wider recognition. There’s another man… I don’t know where he is now -I think was one of the biggest influences Bob Dylan ever had and that’s Jack Elliot. Elliot was more or less a country singer. He didn’t have as many protest songs as Bobby did but Bobby sounds quite a bit like him. He comes into town every once in a while, gets bored and goes back on the road again. He’s one of the people who puts on his walking shoes and takes off –or his deck shoes and goes sailing.’

‘Many of the people who were in that scene three years ago have come back again. Then they disappear, they’ve envolved with the real thing. In my opinion, most of blues or folk music are one. There’s a lot of jazz in folk music too… and viceversa. The only thing that’s stopping folk and country music from growing today is that they’re not combined. All forms of music should build much wider range. But one thing that’s slowing the growing of the music is the people themselves that I mean prejudice. Once this gets straightened out, I think the music will be much further into something new really great.

Hit Parader Magazine – 1966

(Thanks to Ben Edmonds for making this article available)