Mel Lyman: The Harmonica Player Who Became God
March 24, 2002 11:28 PM   Subscribe

Mel Lyman 1938-1978. Mel Lyman was controversial. He was the brilliant folk musician who soothed the Dylan-ruffled crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the Fort Hill guru whose prose in the undergound newspaper Avatar shocked conservative Bostonians of the late 60s... Many years of collecting, and help from numerous people has resulted in the large collection of articles reproduced here. Some say Lyman was God... others that he was a devil... but most of these articles show him as a charismatic individual somewhere between those two extremes. An exhaustively authoritative page about a very interesting harmonica player who became God. And, man, does this bring back the 60s...(Details within)
posted by y2karl (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Mel Lyman was an excellent harmonica player who played with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. I saw him in Murray Lerner's Festival, here mentioned at the Richard and Mimi Fariña Webpage--the fact this movie has not been shown in decades, let alone transcribed to VHS or DVD seems criminal to me--and he was indeed charismatic.

He was famous for quieting--or emptying the arena of--an angry Newport audience after Bob Dylan's famous short electric set with an unaccompanied 5 to 20 minute version of Rock of Ages which you may find on vinyl in a used record store somewhere. And during this performance was evidently when he had his epiphany...

Then he went on to become a commune and cult leader in an encyclopedic narrative that intersects those of Thomas Hart Benton, Antonioni's Zabriskie Point , Charlie Manson and Boston in the hippy era--It's quite a story...

This is a very detailed site made by one George Trussel, who knew Lyman in the early 60s, and whose Eclecticity has links to equally exhaustive sites on the banjo, Bladerunner, Gilbertese--the language of Micronesia and Lafcadio Hearn, to name but a few. I am in awe at all. I guess I know how jonmc feels now, for sure...
posted by y2karl at 11:29 PM on March 24, 2002

Fascinating. If, like me, you'd never heard of him, Trussel's chronological work of love reads like a cut-up biography, complete with telling Diane Arbus photographs, polemics and an enduring human mystery. A strange man indeed. I bet the fact that he was a harmonica-player will put people off clicking and discovering his story. I know it took me a while to gather the courage, y2karl... ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:27 AM on March 25, 2002

When the Avatar was a regular weekly in the late 60s in the Boston area, it would be peddled on the street by members of the 'family' and others. Once or twice the police in Cambridge busted peddlers for selling obscene material, to wit, an occasional four-letter word. The Avatar responded by publishing a color centerfold spread consisting solely of the words "FUCK, SHIT, PISS, CUNT" printed as big as possible. It may seem strange today but that was an astounding thing around 1968. Needless to say this just escalated the persecution by the cops, which in turn helped sell the paper. I had an occasion to visit the offices of the Cambridge detectives around that time and noticed they had on the wall a chart of the entire hierarchy, with photographs, of the Lyman clan, so beat cops could be familiar with these insidious pornographers.
posted by beagle at 5:48 AM on March 25, 2002

(Pshaw! Gilbertese isn't "the language of Micronesia"!)

I remember when Lyman was portrayed as the East Coast version of Charles Manson. Man, Boston got the second-best of everything in those days. SF had the Haight-Ashbury scene, Boston had the Ultimate Spinach.
posted by rodii at 6:41 AM on March 25, 2002

Interesting, y2karl. I hadn't heard of this guy until today, but consider my interest piqued. Although I always thought that the "harmonica player who became God" was this guy:)
and, rodii, Boston's days of second-best are over, they now have these guys, one of the best young bands around.
posted by jonmc at 7:21 AM on March 25, 2002

Like the rest of the '60s, this whole tawdry, sickening tale is somewhat redeemed by the music. Not only the wonderful pre-"Lyman is god" Jim Kweskin Jug Band (with the slender young Maria D'Amato, for my money, the decade's number one musical sex symbol), but what came after, the album "Jim Kweskin's America (featuring Mel Lyman)" -- a record of true eccentric genius. It features an incredibly haunting version of "Old Black Joe," played with excruciating slowness, to cello accompaniement, that sounds like the voices of dead rising from the grave. Dumb people. Great art.
posted by Faze at 7:30 AM on March 25, 2002

(By the way, Lyman had a very individualistic harmonica style that involved holding a lot of long, lingering, vibrato-heavy notes way in the upper register. It could get on your nerves after a while. He was no virtuoso, like Paul Butterfield, or that huge -- now skinny, I understand -- guy from Blues Traveler. In fact, he was a very minor talent, perhaps the least talented guy in the whole Kweskin outfit. And yet Lyman was the one who got himself declared god. That's the music business for you.)
posted by Faze at 7:37 AM on March 25, 2002

the slender young Maria D'Amato

That's Maria Muldaur, I assume?
posted by rodii at 7:53 AM on March 25, 2002

You betcha. Maria Muldaur before she was married. Wow. The Kweskin band was the perfect setting for her sultry and confident, but thin and somewhat tremulous voice. A fuller band would have overwhelmed her (and did so, as her career progressed beyond the jug band sound). She did not, by the way, go the Lyman route with the band's namesake.
posted by Faze at 9:37 AM on March 25, 2002

That's Maria Muldaur, I assume?

Yes! And her version of Mississippi John Hurt's Richland Woman on See Reverse Side For Title is her best. song. ever. And the guitar break--I think it's Bill Keith--ends in this wonderful harmonic flourish. Sweet...

And I think his harmonica stylings were a bit more that, Faze--I'm thinking of My Creole Bell on the Relax Your Mind album. And now I wish I'd heard his Rock of Ages on the Newport Folk Festival album.

Around 11 years ago I interviewed Ramblin' Jack Elliott for the Rocket--a wonderful long--they didn't call him Ramblin' for nothing--interview they never published--no contemporary product out was the reason given: grrr--and found my self the bearer of bad news re Lyman's death.

Which has never been explained to my satisfaction--his death--nor was it on Trussel's site.

The Lyman family became a high end home construction biz that built Steven Spielberg's house, among others. That fascinated me as well as the fact that one of Lyman's more hateful rants shows up on a Dark Goddesses--Kali the Destroyer!--sorta Goddess worshipping page. The whole page + Google is full of surprises like that.

And, too, I found the Mimi and Richard Fariña webpage in the process. Another lovingly detailed site, for sure...
posted by y2karl at 9:42 AM on March 25, 2002

Boston had the Ultimate Spinach

And Earth Opera..

And, I find that Bruce Langhorne has a hot sauce...

Also, I forgot that Bill Lee--in the photo in the Bruce part of the links above--was Spike Lee's dad. Which makes me want to write Spike and try to get some childhood recollections out of him...
posted by y2karl at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2002

y2karl: "Richland Woman". YES! It's astonishing to reflect that the fabulously sexy, life affirming energy of that song came from the vicinity of the source of that stupendously negative Lyman rant you linked to (which could have been written by Mohhamed Atta). These hateful bozos are all the same.
posted by Faze at 10:02 AM on March 25, 2002

y2Karl: The Spaceman is Spike Lee's old man? Never woulda guessed.:)
posted by jonmc at 10:54 AM on March 25, 2002

I'd seen a picture of this Eric Von Scmidt tribute on Jug Band Rag awhile back, and then ran across it again via Stefan Wirz's American Music page--now, there's a bookmark--and include here for the Kweskin Jug Band reunion pics. Jeepers, they all look older. Except for Geoff "Dorian Gray" Muldaur. (Where does he buy his vitamins!?) His daughter Clare has her own website now. Caitlin Von Scmidt has a CD out, too... and she's 30. Move over, jonmc, I think I'm having a post-life crisis...

Eric Von Schmidt is, of course, the man whose adaptation of Georgia White's Baby, Let Me Lay It On You --which you may know by the title Baby, Let Me Follow You Down led him to immortalized on Bob Dylan's first album as "a blues singer/I first met/on the green pastures/of Harvard University..." From what I recall, he had throat cancer, necessitating a laryngectomey, if I'm not mistaken, which is sad to hear... But, given all on the link to his name, he deserved that award.

Also, Faze, to be fair to Lyman, he was mixture of good and evil, at least in his early days, as much of his writings show.
In the movie Festival, there's a bunch of cross cut scenes between him and Son House talking about folk muisc and the blues. Lyman comes across as a sort of speedy, squirrely endearing--very endearing--kid while House is this gentle old man.

(My brother bought the Son House album that was out on Columbia then, thinking he was getting another Mississippi John Hurt. Boy, was he surprised: House's singing persona was 180 proof demon haunted wail... when he stopped singing, he clicked right back into the near beer of that nice old man. I got the album posthaste and, later, I was lucky enough to see Son House once...very lucky.)

Anyway, you have to factor in what I refer to as the Jim Jones effect--get enough people under your sway, get enough uncritical adoring attention and you almost invariably become a monster.

Lyman may well have been a manipulative jerk to begin with but all that attention was gasoline poured on one candle. What and who Lyman was when that song was recorded was not the person who wrote that rant. And I repeat, it's a crime that movie isn't out on VHS or DVD. Everybody's in it--Dylan, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin' Wolf... Oh, as a movie, it's kinda crappy but, man, the footage therein.
posted by y2karl at 5:49 PM on March 25, 2002

And Earth Opera.

Weirdly enough, I was the world's biggest Earth Opera fan (west of the Berkshires, anyway) when I was a kid. I thought "The Great American Eagle Tragedy" was the most profound song ever written. I even bought Seatrain albums because Peter Rowan was on them. Oh, the painful memories this thread is brining back.

But anyway, I was just kidding about Boston. Any city that would give the world the Remains, the Modern Lovers and the Blake Babies rules in my book.

(By the way, my links here are to titles on the amazing Borderline Books site. Check it out.)
posted by rodii at 6:23 PM on March 25, 2002

"I spend my Saturdays alone in the mirror
Arranging my hair in the end what is there
To talk of? Passing time shall I turn off the TV
Or go to the race track and bet on the dogs?
And the weather is strange, no summer out here
In the days of the war, but the Red Sox are winning."
posted by rodii at 6:45 PM on March 25, 2002

I bought that first Earth Opera album--in fairly pristine shape--at a rummage sale last summer. Now if I'd only known...
posted by y2karl at 7:10 PM on March 25, 2002

I saw "Festival" when it came out in the theaters, a couple of decades ago. I left the theater walking on air, having seen that snatch of footage of Mimi and Richard doing their set in the rain. Indeed, it is a tragedy that that film is not on VHS or DVD. But here's something else to look for: David Garth, a photographer whose name will be familiar to anyone who's ever mooned over the covers of any old folk albums, published a book of photographs called (I think) "Folk Music U.S.A" or something. I used to have it as a kid (it got lost) and I got it out of the library about ten years ago. It covers much the same ground as "Festival", including lots of shots of Mel and everybody else you'd ever want to remember from that scene. The youth... the hope.. the great music. The pictures broke my heart with nostalgia. I went back to the library to see if they still had it, but it was stolen some years back.
posted by Faze at 6:34 AM on March 26, 2002

Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney is, I think, the book to which you refer, Faze. There's a passage from it there on Trussel's Lyman site.
posted by y2karl at 7:35 AM on March 26, 2002

y2karl -- I'm such a dope. Actually, it's this, by GAHR:David GAHR.
posted by Faze at 8:35 AM on March 26, 2002

Just an FYI FWIW--Richland Woman, with accompanying documentation in the notes, is up on the current (as of 05/16/02) show for the next two weeks or so.
posted by y2karl at 12:38 PM on May 16, 2002

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