The Sound Of Home-Made Music

Orginally posted March 2, 2007

Well, we got socked in by the snowstorm: It rolled in just about 10 o’clock yesterday morning, and there are still a few vagrant flakes flying as I write this twenty-four hours later, with what appears to be about fifteen to twenty inches of white stuff on the ground. (According to the local paper’s website, we got a little more than eight inches, but I know that twice yesterday, I cleaned about six inches off the car, and a look through the window shows another five to six inches on the car this morning.)

So the Texas Gal, like many in the area, I assume, stayed home from work today. We’ll likely go out for a walk in the fresh snow this afternoon. And right now, having ripped two LPs for today, I’m thinking about a warmer time: the summer of 1977.

St. Cloud’s East Side, where I grew up (and where I live now), has always been kind of the city’s stepchild. With maybe twenty percent of the city’s population, the East Side kind of thrums along under the radar of those who live west of the Mississippi River. Its main street – East St. Germain – has long been home to a fascinating mix of stores and institutions. Forty years ago, that mix included a local bank, an independent bakery, a grocery store that cut its own meat and made its own sausages, a jeweler, a hardware store, a drug store, a funeral home, several bars, and a TV repair shop owned by a member of the John Birch Society.

The bakery is still there. About twenty years ago, a large regional bank bought the bank and then closed it, with the building then becoming home to another local bank. One of the bars still attracts a motorcycle-riding crowd. That’s all that’s left from forty years ago, except for the sign high on the side of the building that used to be home to Fred’s TV: “Get US Out Of The United Nations,” it still pleads.

And then there’s the storefront just half a block from the river that for a short time in 1977 was the home of the East Side Café, a vegetarian restaurant that featured good food, cheap beer, and an old piano that was only slightly out of tune. I don’t recall what was in the storefront before the café, and since the East Side Café’s brief life in 1977, it’s been occupied by several other restaurants and cafes. Today it’s the home to the Somali Cofe, a gathering place for St. Cloud’s growing Somali population. (The building in the next block that used to be Fred’s TV is now home to a food market specializing in goods that are halal, or prepared according to Islam’s dietary requirements; I often wonder how Fred the John Bircher would feel about that!)

But this isn’t about Islam or the Somalis or Fred the Bircher. This isn’t even a lament about how hometowns change. This is about the East Side Café and music. Very often during that summer of 1977 – my last in town before I headed off elsewhere to be a reporter – my friends and I gathered at the East Side and found two or three people there with acoustic guitars. I’d sit at the piano, and we’d run through an odd repertoire of early 1970s singer-songwriter tunes, some Top 40, some traditional folk and a few originals. We weren’t great, but we were pretty good, and more importantly, we had fun.

The East Side Café and our acoustic jam sessions came to mind today because of the two LP’s I ripped to share today: Cross Country by Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite from 1973 and Toni Brown’s self-titled record from 1974. The two of them – Brown and Garthewaite – were the focal points and main vocalists for Joy of Cooking, a Berkeley-based group formed in the late 1960s that was the first major rock group fronted by women.

Brown and Garthwaite formed the band in 1967, drawing on Berkeley’s lively folk community. For six years and through three albums – Joy of Cooking and Closer to the Ground in 1971 and Castles in 1972 – Joy of Cooking found a home on the lighter side of rock, mixing folk-rock with elements of country and the more literate and more intelligent portions of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement. It was a nice mix of sounds, with Garthwaite’s occasionally bluesy vocals blending nicely with Brown’s more folk- and country-tinged offerings, all laid on a sweet acoustic foundation. “We were folkies that plugged in,” Garthwaite told an interviewer a few years ago when the group’s albums were released on CD.

It’s a homey sound, one that was consistent through all three albums. And the sound of Joy of Cooking, I learned during the 1990s when I finally bought the group’s records, was the same kind of sound as the one my friends and I had stumbled through during our evenings at the East Side Café (though we obviously were far less proficient than were the members of Joy of Cooking).

The records I share here today don’t quite have the same sound. Cross Country is the result of a trip that Garthwaite and Brown took to Tennessee in 1972 while the other members of the band were beginning work on either Castles, the final Joy of Cooking album, or on the group’s unreleased fourth record (the liner notes are unclear). While traveling, the two of them wrote ten songs inspired by their journey, eight of them written by Brown – who’d always been Joy of Cooking’s main songwriter. They added a song by Dennis Linde to their ten, and the resulting album – recorded in Madison, Tenn. – features several of Nashville’s better-known musicians, including Vassar Clements on fiddle and Charlie McCoy on harp. Released in 1973, it’s a far more country-ish record than the Joy of Cooking releases, but it’s still vital. Garthwaite and Brown seem to feel at home in the country idiom, even though they were only visiting.

Toni Brown is a little less distinctive. Recorded in 1974, it has Garthwaite providing some back-up vocals but no help from the other members of Joy of Cooking. It tends to drift a little more closely than the group’s albums did toward the shallow end of the singer-songwriter pool. It’s still a nice listen, though, and the songs show Brown’s craft and talent well, even if the production by Chip Young sometimes threatens to overwhelm them. (The rip of Toni Brown also has more pops than I’m happy with; the vinyl wasn’t in as good as shape as I remembered or hoped. But it’s still very listenable, I think.)

All three of Joy of Cooking’s original albums are available on CD, as is Complete Joy of Cooking, which has all thirty cuts from the three albums. American Originals, an anthology released in 1993, is out of print and sells for around $25 to $35 used and for more than $70 new. As well as a “best of” selection taken from the group’s three released albums, American Originals also includes a couple of cuts from Cross Country and three from the unreleased Same Old Song And Dance. (It also includes a cut called “Refer to the Ground,” the origins of which I’ve not been able to track down; it may be from Same Old Song And Dance, or it might be from another album. Anyone know?)

Enjoy!

Toni Brown – Toni Brown [1974]
(50.77 MB rip from vinyl at 192 kbps)

Cross Country – Toni Brown & Terry Garthwaite [1973]
(49.57 MB rip from vinyl at 192 kbps)

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