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Coming to Genre, Part Three: Mid-Century Motown and Laurel Canyon Vibes

Motown house with snow (left), singer above nighttime Los Angeles city lights in Laurel Canyon (right)

In 1950, just after my parents and sisters settled in Detroit on a street called Curtis, the city ranked fifth in population among cities in the United States, with 1.85 million inhabitants, trailing only New York (7.9 million), Chicago (3.6), Philadelphia (2.1), and Los Angeles (just under two million); no other city had a population above one million (for comparison, in 2024 ten US cities top a million inhabitants, with three each in California and Texas along with one in Arizona).  The thriving automobile industry (my father worked in a Dodge plant before he learned enough English to pass the exam for a barber’s license) and the historically busy port attracted immigrants from a wide range of countries as well as many thousands moving north as part of The Great Migration beginning in 1910, which added population to all the cities listed above and many others.

Berry Gordy in front of original Motown house.

Hitsville: the Making of Motown, a 2019 documentary, features an extended interview with/conversation between Motown founder Berry Gordy and Motown singer-songwriter-hitmaker Smokey Robinson, who by that time had been friends and collaborators for some sixty years.  The documentary includes archival recordings and photos from Motown’s years at the original location in Detroit, roughly 1959-1968, after which Gordy first moved the company to another site in Detroit and then to Los Angeles in 1972 as part of his desire to expand into producing movies.  The original home of Hitsville at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit remains as a museum, 11.9 miles from my childhood home in Oak Park (still there, not a museum). 

I begin with an array of snippets of oral history drawn from the 2023 book But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the ‘60s Girl Groups by Laura Flam and Emily Sien Liebowitz (note the title puts the spotlight on the Shirelles #1 hit version of the Goffin-King song discussed in the previous installment) to convey a sense of Motown’s early days and to balance how Gordy and Robinson tell the story in the documentary.  These excerpts describe how The Marvelettes came to Motown as teenagers and performed “Please Mr. Postman,” the first huge hit for the company.

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: Berry [Gordy] was the one who told us to come up with an original song. Berry said, “These girls are good, but do they have their original material? You can come back when you have your own original material.” You always get that “but” in there.

Georgia Dobbins, The Marvelettes: I was standing by the window. I was waiting for the postman to bring me a letter from this guy who was in the Navy. That’s how I came up with the lyrics. Then I made up the tune.  I just hummed it over and over and changed it to the way it should be. I improvised.

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: When we went to Motown with “Please Mr. Postman,” they were excited because we had brought them original material. Here again, Motown was growing, it was building. So bringing in new material was like bringing in new blood.

Gladys Horton, The Marvelettes: Georgia’s mother was sick with a bad back, and Georgia made it clear that she was not going to leave her mother if we had to tour. Georgia wanted me to sing lead, so she taught me the song.

Georgia Dobbins, The Marvelettes: When my dad wouldn’t sign the contract, it was just like somebody had snatched the rug from up under me. It’s like wanting something and somebody just takes it away from you. You want to go, you’ve got your outfit ready, but Daddy says no. That’s the way it was for me. You’ve got your little dress and your shoes laid out, and you’re ready to go to the party, but Daddy said, “No, you ain’t going.”

I stayed in seclusion for about a year. I didn’t even come outside. I was so hurt. I felt…robbed. I wouldn’t listen to the radio or anything. It wasn’t until 1978 before I sang again.

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: I do remember that the session was long and then, on top of that, Gladys had to sing the lead because Georgia wasn’t any longer there. Then the background—Wyanetta, Georgeanna, and myself…we, and Wanda—because when Georgia left, Gladys took and recruited Wanda Young—so that means the four of us would be back there singing the background and Gladys would be singing the lead. Marvin Gaye played the drums. It was a long, long day.

Martha Reeves, The Vandellas: I think Gladys Horton gave her heart and soul, saying, “There must be some word today / from my boyfriend who’s so far away / please, Mister Postman, look and see / if there’s a letter in your bag for me.”

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: The next thing that we knew “Please Mr. Postman” was number one on the Billboard chart.

Billy Vera, musician: Don’t forget—the audience for rock and roll had now grown up to the point where they were out of high school. Even though there was no war on yet, a lot of boys went off to the draft. And so there were a lot of songs about soldiers—soldiers going away and the girl waiting at home for them.

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: Really to be truthful. . . when our record hit number one, they were not ready. They went and began to scurry around, trying to find people to do this and do that, and all of a sudden they made it seem like it was really, really big. But Motown was not as big as they wanted people to believe it was.

Gladys Horton, The Marvelettes: Everything happened so fast. It was like one-two-three-four. The talent show, the recording of the record, the release date of the song, the date it hit the number one spot on Billboard—all in the same year of 1961.

Romeo Phillips, The Marvelettes’ principal: George Edwards, who was married to Berry Gordy’s sister Esther, came to the school right after the girls, on their own, made “Please Mr. Postman,” and he was encouraging them to drop out of school. In fact, I got on him because he did not stop by the office first. He just came into the building and walked straight back to the music room. He was talking to the girls, and they were expressing some ambivalence about dropping out of school. I think this was near the time they were about to graduate.

Katherine Anderson, The Marvelettes: Unfortunately, that was the choice we had. We had a choice of staying in school or going out there and doing our record. So, why, if you were so family-oriented, would you think in terms of sending five other girls out there? Because the public doesn’t know what The Marvelettes look like anyway.  At sixteen years old, how could I know? How could any of us? Georgeanna was sixteen, Wyanetta was sixteen. We had the choice of going out there or staying in school, and all of us ended up making the choice—we made the record, we made it popular, and we were going out there and representing ourselves.

I include this multi-voiced account at such length to highlight some of the early Motown dynamics, particularly the pressure to produce original songs (remember Kirshner’s assignment to Goffin and King) and, in this case, the teenagers having to choose between formal schooling and the school of pop music.  I left out the argument about the songwriting credit (Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland concedes that Gladys Horton had the idea for the song, but claims that he and another collaborator, Robert Bateman, wrote much of the song—we’ll see this kind of conflict about song origins again in the argument about the credit for writing “Killing Me Softly”). The Marvelettes perform “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961.  Note the odd crowd shots about halfway through. The Beatles do their cover, 1963.  Before the British Invasion, English groups listened to and recorded Motown songs.  The standard lore about the British bands embracing as models such fifties icons as Little Richard and Chuck Berry should expand to make room for Motown as another essential inspiration.

The Motown Production Line

Berry Gordy, born 1929 (a year after Burt Bacharach), dropped out of high school, boxed, served in Korea, and earned a GED.  The Hitsville documentary comes down with some force on his time working at a car factory in Detroit, making much of what he learned from the production line (our esteemed colleague Dr. Donna Hunter might consider this a metonym for the documentary), with each worker responsible for a single task to contribute to the finished product, an automobile.  The filmmakers structure the narrative around that influence, moving through a sequence of titled sections (with blueprint drawings) focused on different aspects of producing songs as a scaffolding for the documentary, from the writing to the recording to the marketing as well as the training of performers (a form of professional schooling) to appear in concerts and on television.  We can consider this Motown assembly line training in relation to the canons of memory and delivery, including as Motown gained prominence meticulous attention to the performers’ wardrobe, bearing, choreography, and gestures. 

The Supremes rehearsing.

CHORES INTERLUDE: as noted above, my father worked in the Dodge car plant in Detroit before he learned enough English to pass the barber’s exam that earned him a barber’s license and eventually led to him running two barber shops in Ferndale, adjacent to Oak Park.  He ran non-union shops, referred to as “cut-rate” barber shops, renting chairs to barbers who also wanted to work outside the union shops.  He didn’t talk to his children about his reasons, or any pressure he might have faced to “go union”—I just scrounged and scavenged for stray remarks that would help explain the workings of the adult world, picking up that my father didn’t like the idea of being constrained by union rules.  One thing I do remember has to do with one of my chores growing up.  You know the paper towels swaddling the neck above the customer’s shirt collar that I expect barbers still use to keep hair from finding its way inside the shirt?  My father bought them in boxes of 500, ten individually-wrapped packages of 50 three-ply towels.  The chore: separate the three towels from each other and refold them, turning 500 into 1500 towels.  “Folding towels” was the family parlance for this task, better than the unwieldy “unply the three-ply towels and refold each ply to triple the value—no customer has ever complained.”  I usually did this work alone, though I have some memories of a tiny production line on the beige vinyl sofa (also a rollout bed)  when my sister Miriam and I watched television together.  She would do the unplying, I the refolding–when working on my own, the key strategic choice had to do with whether to unfold lots of towels, creating a pile for refolding, or unfold one three-ply towel at a time.  We placed the refolded towels in bags from the grocery store for my father to take to the barber shops.  Looking back I now understand this chore in several ways: it taught me to double-task, as watching television didn’t warrant undivided attention; it taught me that family members could share chores, though in my family cutting the lawn belonged to me and helping Mom with dishes belonged to my sisters; and it saved money, though I didn’t understand till adulthood that supporting a family of five with the earnings from the barber shops required cutting corners wherever possible.  End interlude.

School of Rhythm and Blues

Who went to Berry Gordy’s Motown school/production line?  William “Smokey” Robinson (born 1940, just before Diamond, Simon, and King) attended Northern High School and spent  two months in college studying electrical engineering.  Legend has it that he came into Gordy’s orbit as a young singer performing with friends in Detroit; what made the young man stand out: a notebook of one hundred songs he wrote in high school, the kind of apprenticeship we’ve seen for the Brill bunch writing their way into genre.  The songwriting juggernaut (Eddie) Holland-(Lamont) Dozier-(Brian) Holland (born between 1939 and 1941) rivaled Bacharach-David in their productivity and consistent success, as did the (Norman) Whitfield-(Barrett) Strong team (born 1940 and 1941).  Quite a class coming of age in that house on West Grand Boulevard.

The documentary also makes much of recounting, through photographs, audio tapes of the actual interactions, and memories shared by Gordy and Robinson, the regular meetings held at the house/school, during which members of the learning/culture-making community advocated for their songs they believed would be hits (not exactly elevator pitches but in the vicinity).  

Motown music groups.

This somewhat democratic though competitive model, with Gordy as the head of school/parent figure (several of his older sisters also worked within Motown, likely providing some kind of family feeling—one sister and her husband became legal guardians of one of the Marvelettes, while Anna Gordy married Marvin Gaye, co-writing several songs with him), led also to competition among the many young writers and performers committed to success and status inside and beyond the company.  Gordy refers to himself explicitly as a teacher in the documentary, voicing pride in the prolific and phenomenal (and younger) Smokey Robinson, recognizing Robinson’s greater talent as writer and performer while also taking some credit for creating the home soil for his growth into maturity as an artist and lasting fame.

“Please Mr. Postman” offers an early example of how Motown songwriters establish kairos and exigence in relation to the praise of love/emotion.  “There must be some word today/From my boyfriend so far away” sets up the basic situation; Georgia Dobbins shares above that waiting to hear from “some guy in the Navy” provided inspiration—the major craft choice in the lyric comes from focusing on the pleas to the postman rather than describing the absent boyfriend in any detail.  We learn nothing about the loved one; the lyric delivers on the urgency of the narrator’s longing, celebrating the intensity through the repetition of the appeals to the potential deliverer of proof of love reciprocated.

In the lyrics to “Tears of a Clown” and “Tracks of My Tears,” both written by teams including Smokey Robinson, we again have tears, as in the song above, and we also have direct second person address to the loved one, telling a story and relying on a poetic conceit or image, allowing for the extended expression (and celebration) of emotion over the duration of the song.  When watching the clips below, consider how orchestration and choreography work in relation to time (somehow both frozen, suspended in the moment but also elastic) and the display of emotion for the epideictic purpose.

“Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my surface hid/Smiling in the public eye/But in my lonely room, I cry/The tears of a clown/When there's no one around, oh, yeah, baby/Now if there's a smile on my face/Don't let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression/Don't let this smile I wear/Make you think that I don't care/When really, I'm sad/Hurtin' so bad”—“Tears of a Clown,” Henry Cosby, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform “Tears of a Clown” in 1967.

“Hey yeah, outside I'm masquerading/Inside my hope is fading/Just a clown oh yeah/Since you put me down/My smile is my make-up/… I wear since my break up with you/Baby, take a good look at my face/Oh, you'll see my smile looks out of place/Yeah, just look closer, it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears”—“The Tracks of My Tears,” Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform “Tracks of My Tears,” probably before 1967.

“Maybe you'll wanna give me kisses sweet/But only for one night with no repeat/And maybe you'll go away and never call/And a taste of honey is worse that none at all/Oh, little girl, in that case I don't want no part/I do believe that that would only break my heart/Oh, but if you feel like lovin' me/If you got the notion/I second that emotion/Said, if you feel like giving me a lifetime of devotion/I second that emotion, oh”—“I Second that Emotion,” Alfred Cleveland, Smokey Robinson Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform “I Second that Emotion,” maybe around 1967.  Think of this song in conversation with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”  Both utilize the second person, addressing a romantic partner and seeking assurance of lasting love, the Goffin/King lyric with a question and the Cleveland/Robinson with conditional phrasing (“if you feel like giving me a lifetime of devotion”) and a borrowing from deliberative contexts (“I second that emotion”).  Goffin/King begin by rhyming “sweetly” and “completely,” while Cleveland/Robinson begin “kisses sweet” and “no repeat,” introducing the lovers’ conflict immediately.

“What’s Going On”/”Living for the City”: Post-Graduate Singer-Songwriter Work

“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say ... I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” Marvin Gaye in Rolling Stone interview.

"He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story and not a song ... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it."[ Musician and songwriter Renaldo Benson on what Marvin Gaye added to Benson’s original version of “What’s Going On,” which resulted in Benson sharing the songwriting credit.

Marvin Gaye (born 1939) grew up singing in church and then in doo-wop groups in Washington D.C.  He quit high school at 17 to join the Air Force to escape from a physically abusive father.  After his discharge, he found his way first to Chicago and then to Detroit in his early twenties, entering the Motown community as a session musician, playing drums on “Please Mr. Postman.”  Although he had planned to sing jazz and pop standards, aspiring to be the next Nat King Cole, his talents as a singer and songwriter soon made him one of the label’s most successful acts performing what became the Motown sound.

Two images of singer Marvin Gaye, one headshot beardless from the 1960s, the other with beard at piano. Marvin Gaye performs “Ain’t That Peculiar,” written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White, Pete Moore, and Marv Tarplin, in 1965, on his way to earning the title the “Prince of Motown.”  Note the production values, with pre-recorded back-up vocals and instrumentation provided by Motown hit factory colleagues. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell perform “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, in 1967.  I couldn’t locate a clip of a live singing performance, but in this version we can again appreciate the musical production values that distinguished Motown hits in the sixties and revel in how the performers interact with each other in one of the many Motown love song duets of the decade.  A second cut of the same performance.  Marvin Gaye performs his own “What’s Going On” in 1972, with a live vocal and live band.  The film of the performance alternates with footage of urban scenes showing many facets of life in the African American community from what looks like many US cities as well as some audience reaction shots.  Note how far Gaye has ventured from the Motown formula, stretching lyrically and musically, moving into political commentary and jazz idioms.  Here’s a link to the album version with layered vocals provided by Gaye and other voices interwoven to offer an aural experience of community interaction (including the voices of members of the Detroit Lions football team Gaye befriended when he briefly pursued a football career): .

Stevie Wonder (born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in 1950–the same year as Bruce Springsteen, though I think of Stevie Wonder as older because he came to fame some dozen years earlier than Springsteen) moved with his mother and siblings from Saginaw to Detroit at the age of four.  He played a wide range of instruments growing up and signed with Motown in 1961, going on tour with the Motortown Revue at the age of 12 in 1962.  A recording of his set in Chicago resulted in his first album and first hit, “Fingertips.” 

Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye Little Stevie Wonder performs “Fingertips” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 (after Elvis, before The Beatles). Stevie Wonder sings “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” with “older woman” Diana Ross around 1969 (note his reference to her as Mrs. Robinson in a gesture toward a popular film of that year, The Graduate). After the song she reminisces about when he first came to Motown as a precocious prodigy and now qualifies as Motown’s musical genius.

AN INTERLUDE SUPREME:  Watch this clip of Diana Ross and the Supremes performing “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965.  The documentary describes Ross’s reluctance to perform the song, but Gordy wanted to connect her and the group to what some might call the  “Great American Songbook,” as a symbol of the ability of Motown stars to perform beyond the Motown formula.  Now this one: Note the interplay with Sullivan four years later when Ross and the Supremes perform the same song with Ed joining in as part of the swingin’ groove in 1969–the Sullivan show had structural roots in vaudeville with the genre’s entertainment buffet aesthetic, but note here how the host, known for his wooden demeanor adjacent to dour, becomes a jovial part of the act similar to how Milton Berle’s interacts with Elvis Presley back in 1956.  In the Motown context, we can construe all of this as part of the career arc moving Ross toward her star turn as Billie Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, produced by Motown Productions, as by that time the record company had moved west and started producing movies. Stevie Wonder performs his “Living for the City” live in 1974 with a full band and chorus of back-up vocalists. You might for contrast listen to the album version, which provides a full narrative of what happens to the young man moving north from Mississippi to New York as part of The Great Migration to northern cities.

As we move westward, let’s consider the ways in which the Gaye and Wonder songs of the late sixties and early seventies reframe the nature of love, describing it in the context of family and community, beyond the standard couple of the pop love songs mass-produced by both Brill and Motown songwriters working within the confines of genre.  Gaye addresses “mother” and “brother,” advocating that only “love can conquer hate.”  Wonder describes a loving and supportive family dynamic challenged by social injustice.  We can hear both as anthems.  While Diamond sings of immigrants coming to America in his anthem, Gaye and Wonder sing of families and communities long a part of the country, long struggling for their rightful place.

Laurel Canyon—How the West Was Sung

“L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most the time/And the feeling is ‘lay back’/Palm trees grow and rents are low/But you know I keep thinkin' about/Making my way back/Well I'm New York City born and raised/But nowadays I'm lost between two shores/L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home/New York's home/But it ain't mine no more”  Neil Diamond, “I Am, I Said”

“So I bought me a ticket/I got on a plane to Spain/Went to a party down a red dirt road/There were lots of pretty people there/Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue/They said, ‘How long can you hang around?’/I said a week, maybe two/Just until my skin turns brown/Then I’m going home to California/Oh, will you take me as I am/Strung out on another man/California, I’m coming home” Joni Mitchell, “California”

During the Baby Boom, popular culture shifted west.  New York always mattered—“if you can make it there/you’ll make it anywhere”—but Los Angeles, long home to Hollywood, became more prominent in the realms of television production (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson moved to Burbank in 1972, though many television shows filmed there in the sixties), sports (the Minneapolis Lakers become the Los Angeles Lakers in 1960, the Brooklyn Dodgers become the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, and farther north the New York Giants become the San Francisco Giants in 1958 and the Philadelphia Warriors become the San Francisco Warriors in 1962), and music, especially as coming-of-age Boomers aspired to become singers and songwriters or just members of a band.

Two two-part documentaries, Laurel Canyon, 2020, and San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time, 2023, both directed by Allison Ellwood, in their first parts trace the heady (in a couple of senses) adolescence of the music scenes in two regions of California and then, in the second parts, chronicle the decline in both locations due to drug use and violence on the negative side and fame and fortune on the supposedly positive side as those who become superstars outgrow the local “music college” scene and the initial creative community to assimilate into mass culture via huge record contracts, lucrative touring, and mansions in other parts of town or other towns altogether.  For a time Diamond may have observed with some truth that “rents are low” in LA (or in the Haight district of San Francisco where Ellwood focuses the first part of the second documentary)—those days exist only in memory now however durably the songs remain prominent in popular culture (more on that in part four).

In contemplating Laurel Canyon as a community and a college, I also chart the rise of the singer-songwriter, a category incipient in the Brill and Motown contexts (as chronicled earlier, by the early seventies Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and others from alma maters in Manhattan and Detroit had prominently defined and exemplified the category) but one that flowers through the sixties and dominates by the early seventies.  We can track the convergence of individuals (less often bands, many of which formed in LA) from New York, Canada, and everywhere else, some from folk traditions, some from rock and roll traditions, some from pop.  In sunny California these mostly young people found in Laurel Canyon a kind of neighborhood school, with people visiting each other’s houses to play new songs, going to each other’s gigs at Doug Weston’s legendary club The Troubadour and other venues, finding their way into and out of bands and beds, and ultimately finding agents and corporate record company homes (a sure sign in part two of the documentaries of a loss of both innocence and community).  

A Case of Her

Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins in Mitchell's treehouse.

Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson in Canada in 1943), graduated from Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon, took art classes at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate and then for a year at the Alberta College of Art.  She lived briefly in Detroit, playing on the folks circuit of clubs not far from the Motown house/factory; she also performed at the University of Detroit and at The Raven in Southfield (a few miles from oblivious ten-year-old me growing up in Oak Park).  She moved to New York in 1967 after divorcing (keeping the ex-husband’s surname, Mitchell), made connections in the folk scene there (hence the anecdote about particular songs belonging to particular performers, guiding her to write her own songs).  She moved around a lot before settling in Laurel Canyon.  As noted previously, Judy Collins recording of “Both Sides Now” provided the big break; in California, though, she developed a distinctive confessional mode we can discern in her folk-inflected songs but which reaches full flower when she roots herself out west. “All I Want,” performed in 1970.  “I wanna talk to you, I want to shampoo you/I want to renew you again and again.”  Can we imagine the phrase “I want to shampoo you” in a love song from the fifties or sixties?  “I want to knit you a sweater/Wanna write you a love letter/I wanna make you feel better.”  We get the triple rhyme moving from knitting a sweater to the more general love letter and most general wish of feeling better.  Much as in Paul Simon’s lyrics, the specificity signals a genre shift from common tropes about love to the kind of detail we expect in a short story or confessional poem. “A Case of You,” performed in 1974.  “I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints/I’m frightened by the devil/And I’m drawn to those who aren’t afraid.”  Do you hear the confessional mode?  “Go to him/Stay with him if you can/But be prepared to bleed.”  In Love Actually, 2003, Emma Thompson’s character Karen tells philandering husband Alan Rickman “I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” “Song for Sharon,” a 1976 song from Hejira performed with a full band in 1983.  So much to say about this one, perhaps my favorite of all her work, for its narrative flow and how it handles time (gauzy and in sharp focus somehow), its scope, its pictorial mastery, its rhymes, its colloquial idiom.  Note also the effect of working with the full rock-oriented band, with Mitchell on electric guitar rather than dulcimer.  The performance calls to mind another revered singer-songwriter-guitarist coming to attention as part of the new wave in the seventies, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders (we’ll meet her again in part four).  Note a verse toward the end: “Sharon, you've got a husband and a family and a farm/I've got the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm/But you still have your music/I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky/Sing for your friends and your family/I'll walk green pastures by and by.”  Here we find direct address and the narrator’s gentle exhortation to her childhood friend to sing in a domestic/folk setting, contrasting images of the worldly and the pastoral with a hint of the biblical (that snake cameo), and a reflective stance in relation to choices made and the passing of time.

E Pluribus Unum (for a while)--CSN&Y 

David Crosby, born 1941, first came into the public eye as a member of The Byrds.  Bad boy from the start, he’d flunked out of Crane Country Day and finished high school via correspondence courses, then briefly studied drama at Santa Barbara City College before pursuing a music career, along the way meeting the musicians who would form The Byrds.  He produced Joni Mitchell’s first album, greatly impressed by her songwriting.  When the other Byrds kicked him out of the band for, in Crosby’s words, “being an a**hole,” he became available to join Crosby, Stills, Nash, and ultimately Young.

The other members also came to the supergroup from other bands of the early to mid-sixties.  Graham Nash, born in England in 1942, wrote and performed with The Hollies (band name inspired by Buddy Holly) before moving to LA in the mid-sixties because the other Hollies didn’t want to record his songs, notably “Teach Your Children,” welcomed by his new bandmates and ultimately a sixties anthem.  He wrote “Our House” directly out of his personal experience living with Joni Mitchell in a Laurel Canyon house.

Stephen Stills, born in Texas in 1945 (the first Boomer year) into a military family that moved around a lot; he attended prep schools before graduating from Lincoln High School in Costa Rica, then dropped out of LSU to go to NYC to play folk music at various venues solo and in groups.  He saw Neil Young perform in Canada and knew immediately that he wanted to “play folk music in a rock band.”  Stills moved to California with Richie Furay in 1966; together they formed Buffalo Springfield.  Stills tells an LA-set story about flagging down Neil Young while Young was leaving town and bringing him into the band in which both played lead guitar, sang, and wrote.

Neil Young, born in Canada in 1945 (another early Boomer), quit high school to play in bands, appearing across Canada with The Squires, heavily influenced by the then-folkie Dylan and Phil Ochs; he wrote some of what would become hits later during this formative period, meeting Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell when all were on the road living their apprenticeships.  Young even auditioned for Berry Gordy at Motown at one point (no tape exists that I’ve found).  When he moved to LA he didn’t have proper documentation, though that didn’t stop him from heeding Stills and joining Buffalo Springfield.  In part one and earlier in part two I included links to songs by the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.  What about CSN&Y? CS&N (pre-Young) perform Nash’s “Teach Your Children” in 1970.  Definitely from the folk side of town. A fan video of photos from Laurel Canyon in the late sixties, giving a sense of the times and the house Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash shared, the site of “Our House.”  Look at the cover of Tapestry to see Carole King in her Laurel Canyon house (one cat, not in the yard but in the photo) around the same time. David Steinberg introduces CSN&Y in 1970 playing a folk song with electric guitars, Young’s “Down by the River.”  Note Young and Stills’s guitars in conversation. Neil Young performs an acoustic version of his “Ohio” in 1971. And all four perform another acoustic version also in 1971.  While Stills and Young wanted to play folk songs on electric guitars (that Dylan influence), the group chooses here to play a folkie acoustic version of Young’s protest song about Kent State.  A few years later, after CSN&Y disbanded, I saw Neil Young (at Wonderland, I think).  He began alone onstage with his acoustic guitar playing old songs like “Sugar Mountain” for the first half of the concert.  For the second half, backing band Crazy Horse joined him to rock the venue to its foundation.  I remember the show as equal parts coffeehouse and stadium.

Mama Was Not a Rolling Stone

Mama Cass in Laurel Canyon

Let’s round off the biographical sketches of this section with Mama Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941); she moved to NYC right after graduating from high school to pursue an acting career, losing out on a featured role in I Can Get It for You Wholesale to Barbra Streisand.  She started singing when she moved to Washington D.C. to attend American University before moving to LA to pursue a music career.  Her Laurel Canyon house served as a gathering place for the musicians in the community, with Mama Cass introducing people to each other, listening to new songs, and providing a kind of home base.  I think of Laurel Canyon in those days—with Frank Zappa, the Monkees, and other up and coming musicians living in the area—as a particularly idyllic counterpoint to the urban corporate campus of the Brill Building and the less frenetic though contentious Motown house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.  What the campuses have in common: each provides apprenticeship, space to grow as artists, opportunities for collaboration and competition, and a shot at fame and fortune—and of course a chance to become part of pop music culture forever.

Okay, maybe not forever.  But for decades.  Echo in the Canyon, a 2018 documentary directed by Andrew Slater, features Jakob Dylan (son of Bob, lead singer of The Wallflowers) interviewing members of the Laurel Canyon sixties community, visiting the still-standing recording studios, recording their songs in the same studios, and performing their songs for audiences full of people not yet born when the original artists wrote the songs.  Dylan pays homage to his forebears, speaks of playing the songs as they were played back then (they’re timeless, after all); he talks with contemporary artists like Beck and Norah Jones about the power and influence of the songs and respectfully listens to the memories of such sixties luminaries as Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Michelle Phillips (the other Mama with Cass and the only band member to do an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation).


A word about hair and genre (or hair genres) in the sixties: my father’s customers at the Ferndale barber shops generally kept their hair short, coming in for trims perhaps once a month before their hair could encroach on their collars or ears; while I visited the barber shop for haircuts growing up, I don’t recall seeing many young people there, and I kept my own hair short through the counterculture era of the sixties.  I think I kept my hair short through my high school graduation picture—I don’t recall any arguments with my parents about hair length, though I let my hair grow longer than usual between the high school graduation picture taken in the fall and graduation day the following June, though again I don’t remember conversation or argument about that.  Some pictures from graduation day I may have somewhere show me in the Irvine backyard wearing Oak Park High’s cap and red gown (school colors were red and white) mugging with the baby blue electric lawn mower, flashing a peace sign toward my father or maybe sister taking the pictures, with hair flowing out from under the cap.

I note here that youth culture rippled through (some would say ripped through) the culture in ways large and small.  For my barber father, youth culture morphing into counterculture brought along with it the requisite long hair for young men.  Consider all the clips I’ve included, focusing on the hairstyles, from Elvis on.  Sideburns, the Beatles’ moptops, their later long tresses and facial hair, the levels of shagginess of The Monkees through CSN&Y.  The evolution from Carole King’s semi-bouffant in the Brill Building pictures to Joni Mitchell’s iconic straight long blond hair in Laurel Canyon and King’s tousled curls on the cover of Tapestry.  To follow this ripple back home to Oak Park and the Ferndale business, my father faced a rhetorical challenge of sorts: how to attract young men to the barber shop.  He settled on the strategy of cutting pictures of teen heartthrobs like Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy out of the TV Guide and taping them up in the front windows and the inner walls of the shops.  I have a vague memory of him taking a class (lord knows where) focused on the esoteric (for him) genre of how to style longer hair for youthful male customers with rock star dreams.  The available means (including blow dryers) of hirsute persuasion.

Portola Valley Vibes–Up in the Nook

After graduating from Stanford I spent about eight months in Boston the following year, experiencing a winter that convinced me that for the rest of my life I would live out west—so I have, mostly in California along with eighteen years in Tucson, Arizona.  When I returned to Palo Alto (Stanford folk used to label the condition of those of us who didn’t leave to get on with our lives “Hoover Tower Syndrome”), my friends Tim M. and Gary D. still played music together and had spent a quarter or two at the Cliveden estate in England that housed Stanford’s overseas campus there at the time—they and others in the cohort played music together, calling themselves the Stilton Blues Band to commemorate that part of their Stanford life.  I connected with them again, occasionally performing the “old” songs put together just a couple years before, sometimes serving as the novelty portion of a Stilton Blues Band gig, most memorably at Jose’s Pizza, long gone but once located across El Camino from the Jack in the Box near campus. 

In the spring of 1978 Tim and Gary anchored the house band for a production of The Rocky Horror Show (adhering to the movie script rather than the original play) that the student producers called me in to direct when the original director had to step away due to another commitment.  That invitation brought me back to campus for a while (though without student status); I had the opportunity to direct a rock musical in the same space in which the Larkin Players staged Franny and Zooey four years previously—yes, that Toyon lounge looms large and brightly lighted, an eternal off-off-off Broadway stage enshrined in memory.  Golly, I enjoyed doing that show with Tim on bass and Gary on lead riffing away to “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.”

I kept writing songs, performing a bit (at the CoHo, at the Tresidder summer lunch concert series), usually with Phil G. at the piano.  Fellow Larkin Player Phil had played Zooey’s older brother Buddy in Franny and Zooey; we’d been frosh together.  I have a long, twisty-turny story with many eddies and tide pools about my songwriting days with Phil, but that’s a saga for another time.

I focused on writing fiction during my Tucson years, with the only lyric writing in the archival realm involving the early work of the Composition Blues Band.  For four years, from 1992-95, I joined the writers’ room of the Tucson Press Club’s annual Gridiron Show, writing satirical lyrics to well-known songs (drawing from genres from opera to show tunes to pop standards) about the year’s events—few members of the press remained among the writers and performers by the time I got involved; apparently the group had included some heavy drinkers, as during the early nineties rehearsals began with an AA meeting backstage.  Before rehearsals began, the writers met weekly at a local Chinese restaurant in the months leading up the spring show; we brought our new lyrics and sang or recited them to the table—that process likely represents as close as I’ve come to the Motown pitch meetings. 

I didn’t see much of Tim and Gary for some twenty years after my Hoover Tower Syndrome era—when I returned in 2000 to work in the writing program, though, I found, happily, that Gary D. lived in Portola Valley and still did music.  We reconnected immediately in the fall of 2000, first recording all of the old songs and then collaborating on new songs—I provided lyrics while Gary composed the music and also produced the recordings in his home studio—from 2000 to 2012 we compiled three CDs including some thirty-five songs.  A note about the home studio: Gary’s house has a living room with an impressively high ceiling, so high that the room includes a rolling ladder on wheels to reach the built-in bookshelves rising skyward on one wall.  A narrow winding staircase near that wall spirals up to a nook, where Gary keeps his audio console and multi-track recording equipment (all computerized).  Not much space in the nook–when we recorded, I had a designated spot near the stairs in which I squatted, headphones on, microphone set up in front of me, with Gary sitting at the console twirling knobs and nodding at me to prompt the vocal at the appropriate time.  I felt something like a piece of equipment, just another bobbing line appearing on Gary’s console among the various musical tracks as I sang. Gary played all the instrumental tracks, sometimes using a pre-recorded drum track, sometimes using a gizmo that turned what he played on his guitar into the sound of another instrument.  All alchemy to me.

We inflicted the CDs on very few people, generally family and friends (Tim down in San Diego usually received one), though we never found time to seek out local venues in which to perform.  Reflecting on all of this, I think we found the invention work the most interesting part of the collaboration, and I link this to the concept of conversation—I brought to the work my lifelong immersion in the conversation on the lyrics side while Gary, a gifted musician and composer, brought his parallel lifelong immersion (and practice) in the conversation about music—we both worked across popular genres, weaving together what we’d heard our whole lives to write the songs we collaborated on. 

An example—we used to have lunch together about once a quarter, usually going off campus.  One afternoon after lunch when Gary dropped me off at the Escondido turnaround, I leaned back into the car and told him I’d heard a phrase somewhere and planned to write a lyric called “Serial Monogamist Screw-Up.”  He smiled and drove off; I returned to Sweet Hall.  I wrote the lyric, a rambling narrative about a couple meeting in a coffeehouse or maybe a bar (the chorus: She said “That’s who I am/So what about you, bub?”/I said “Glad to meet you, ma’am/I’m a serial monogamist screw-up”), and took it along with other new lyrics the next time I drove to Gary’s house in Portola Valley.  We almost always wrote apart, with me sharing a dozen or two dozen lyrics and Gary choosing the ones that led him to a musical idea (I always liked when he talked about one of his guitar solos, sharing that he’d “said all he wanted to say,” as that gave me a sense of composing and playing music as a form of speaking).  That visit, though, we sat in the room with the impressively high ceiling, what I would call the family room, with an impressively large television screen, with Gary strumming his guitar while I stared at the lyric sheet before me and tried to find my way into what he was strumming, as I had decades ago on the FloMo roof.  He stopped strumming.  I shifted my eyes to look at the side of his face, which displayed the “I think I’ve got it” look I knew from having known him a long time.  He said something like “It’s a waltz” or “What if we make it a waltz,” and he started strumming what a musician (not me) would recognize as within the waltz genre.  He nodded over at me.  As if by magic, my way into the melody opened up before me like a verdant path—I started to sing from the lyric sheet.  When we recorded, the song was very much what we played and sang in that moment.


Frank O’Connor (1903-1966, born in Cork, Ireland as Michael O’Donovan, changed his name to write free of family constraints, taught at Stanford toward the end of his life) introduced the concept of the “submerged population group” in his 1962 examination of the short story genre, The Lonely Voice, with chapters featuring writers from the Russians Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, and Isaac Babel to the Irish James Joyce and Mary Lavin to the New Zealander Katharine Mansfield among others.  He proposed that the short story form offered a genre to writers allowing them to describe characters living on the fringes of society who generally would not find room in the genre of the novel, a form more suited to examining characters in the center of society (or striving to reach the center).  Along these lines, he noted that Irish writers in particular gravitated to the short story form (though certainly Irish writers write novels as well, as do the Russian writers O’Connor includes) as a vehicle for telling the stories they wanted to tell about the characters they wanted to explore. 

To what degree can we make a parallel claim about the popular song genre?  The genre carries a lineage from folk traditions, as the short story carries forward from folk tales and other narratives close to the folk.  Popular songs aim to reach a mass audience, not aiming primarily to reach a highly-educated elite.  We can argue that many of the Brill Building, Motown, and Laurel Canyon songwriters and the characters populating their songs qualify as members of submerged population groups—perhaps, though, the largest submerged population group of all consists of youth, constituting the core producers and consumers of youth culture.  Youth culture often thrives on disaffection from the ways of elders and difference from the novelistic lives of “anybody over 30.”  An anthem such as The Who’s “My Generation” sums up youth in love with itself: “hope I die before I get old.”  Borrowing from O’Connor, we can put forward the possibility that the growth of youth culture heralds the victory of the submerged population of youth, giving voice to all of the singers, songwriters, and singer-songwriters profiled in parts one and two, from Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison (not profiled but he belongs) to Carole King and Paul Simon to Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

A final interlude to round off the theme of schooling in popular culture and academic culture: we can think of the history of education generally and higher education more specifically in relation to O’Connor’s view of the short story as welcoming to formerly/currently marginalized groups.  Many of us count ourselves first-generation university students; FLI students choose Stanford in large numbers so we encounter them in a range of educational contexts as we do our work in classrooms, the Hume Center, and across campus.  I believe that these students, in coming to the genre of higher education, change the genre and the culture, just as short story writers O’Connor discusses changed literary culture and the singer-songwriters I’ve written about in this series changed popular culture.

Here ends Part Three of Coming to Genre. Next time: Coming to Genre Popular Music Edition, Part Four: Songs in Conversation, Songs in Circulation.

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