Seeking Some Historical Perspective

Originally posted July 11, 2008

There’s an interesting dichotomy I’ve noticed when I read, study, ponder or listen to music historically. There’s what I know about the music, and then there’s what I know about the times when the music was created and how those times intersect my life.

As an example, I was digging into Robert Johnson’s recording history this week, both for last Tuesday’s post and to answer a question from an acquaintance. Now, Johnson recorded in 1936 and 1937 before dying in 1938, so his life and times obviously didn’t intersect mine. But as I was listening to “Sweet Home Chicago” the other day, my mind began wandering, and I realized that when Johnson was recording that song in San Antonio in November of 1936, my father – gone now for five years – was in high school.

Something about that just rattles around in my head. The same sort of thing happened the other week when I was ripping mp3s from a new Fats Domino anthology. I was bobbing my head in time to “Something’s Wrong,” a mid-tempo ballad from 1953. As I read about the record, I realized with little shiver that it entered the R&B chart (eventually going to No. 6) when I was less than four months old.

I guess what I’m saying is: I know a fair amount about Robert Johnson and Fats Domino and many other musicians who line the historical corridors, and on fairly frequent occasion, I ponder their lives as I listen to their music. But it’s rare that I try to put those sometimes legendary lives in a context that intersects with the standard American lives of me and my forbears. And it’s somewhat surreal to think that when Robert Johnson was singing his “32-20 Blues” in San Antonio on November 26, 1936, my dad – then seventeen – was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Cambridge, Minnesota. It’s as if there were some odd conjunction of two parallel universes.

(I thought it odd, as you might, that Johnson recorded on Thanksgiving. But I guess that the American Record Corporation, having sent its representative to San Antonio, wanted to get at least a little bit done on the holiday. According to the notes in the box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, Johnson actually recorded two takes of “32-20 Blues” that day, with one of them eventually being issued on Vocalion 03445 and the other evidently lost to history. Sandwiched around Johnson’s session, according to the notes, were sessions by the Chuck Wagon Gang and by the duo of Andres Berlanga and Francisco Montalvo with their guitars.)

This falls in place here because this morning, as I was uploading today’s album, which was released in 1966, I found myself thinking about the music of that year. I’m not sure in which month today’s album was released, but the musical environment was about the same all year long, so I glanced at the Billboard Top 100 for this week in 1966. The top song was the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” and other songs in the Top 15 included Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night,” “Cool Jerk” by the Capitals, the Standells’ “Dirty Water” and “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones. The entire Top 15 for that week is an altogether familiar group, with the least known being perhaps “Little Girl” by the Syndicate of Sound.

And then I realized that during the summer when those songs were coming from the speakers of millions of radios, I was there. I heard that music, but I know I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it as I wandered through the summer between seventh and eighth grades. It’s like there are two versions of 1966: There’s the one that I consider in my guise as music historian (maybe too grand a term), and then there’s the 1966 that I remember, and it’s not often that the two versions are all that congruent.

(The two versions of the years, mine and the historical, become much more similar starting in 1969 or so, as the music I heard became the soundtrack to my life rather than something utterly apart from it.)

So when it comes to an album like today’s, all I can do is look at the historical 1966 and realize that the young lad who would become whiteray had absolutely no clue the record existed (and likely wouldn’t have cared a lot if he’d known).*

The record was one of those that companies put out to cash in on trends in the youth market, hoping to pry a few shekels from the hands of kids and their parents. Raga Rock was released on the World Pacific label and recorded by a group called the Folkswingers. A group by the same name, made up of Glen Campbell and three members of the Dillards, had recorded a 1963 album for World Pacific called 12 String Guitar! For the 1966 project, World Pacific brought in a different group of players and called them, also, the Folkswingers.

Raga Rock was, of course, an attempt to cash in on the increasing use of the sitar and other Indian instruments and techniques in pop music. George Harrison’s sitar work had anchored the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” on 1965’s Rubber Soul album, and Brian Jones had done the same for the Rolling Stones’ 1966 record, “Paint It, Black.” There were other groups dabbling with the sitar sound, too, of course: The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” has an obvious Indian sound to it, just to name one more. And as record companies were never slow to grab a trend, World Pacific gathered some of L.A.’s best session guys and went to work.

What the Folkswingers had going for them, notes All-Music Guide, was the presence of an actual sitar for the sessions, played by Harihar Rao, who, AMG notes, was “the leader of Los Angeles’ Ravi Shankar Music Circle and director of the Indian Studies Group at UCLA’s Institute of Ethnomusicology.” Joining Rao in the studio was “the cream of the cream from the L.A. rock session world, with Hal Blaine on drums; Larry Knechtel on keyboards; Tommy Tedesco, Howard Roberts and Herb Ellis on guitar; and Lyle Ritz and Bill Pittman on bass.”

Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, at least not all that well. But it’s fun, and it’s probably more cool to listen to it now than it would have been in 1966. I wonder how many teens groaned as their parents, trying to be with it and failing, brought Raga Rock home? On the other hand, I probably would have liked it.*

Tracks:
Paint It, Black
Eight Miles High
Dona, Dona
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
Along Comes Mary
Time Won’t Let Me
Shapes of Things
Hey Joe
Kicks
Homeward Bound
Grim Reaper of Love
Raga Rock

Folkswingers – Raga Rock [1966]

Afternote: Raga Rock was reissued on CD in 2007, but it doesn’t look as if it’s that widely available. Check your favorite online emporium. Thanks go to Chocoreve.**

*I saw I “wouldn’t have cared a lot” had I known of the record’s existence, and later I say I likely would have enjoyed it. To clarify, I doubt that I would have been that interested if I’d seen the record at, say Dan Marsh Drugs, but had Dad brought it home, I would have played it, and I think  I would have liked it.

*The link to Chocoreve still works, but sadly,  there have been no new posts there since November 2008, nearly three years. Notes added July 20, 2011.

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2 Responses to “Seeking Some Historical Perspective”

  1. Patti Dahlstrom Calls It A Day « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Friday morning, as I was dithering over what to say about Raga Rock, I heard the little chime that tells me that something had dropped into the mailbox that I use for […]

  2. ‘Stranger Than Known . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Miles High,” there are some interesting names: Crowded House, the Folkswingers (whose album was posted here recently), the Floorjivers, Les Fradkin, Golden Earring, Joe Goldmark, Rufus Harley, Hüsker Dü, […]

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