This article originally appeared in the Woodstock Times, October 1996
by Irv Yarg
By wire and wireless, in a score of bad translations, They give their simple message to the world of man: 'Man can have Unity if Man will give up Freedom. The State is real, the Individual is wicked; Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune. And Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking.' - W.H. Auden
Ian Matthews was plugging his tapes at a recent show in Woodstock when he quipped "I'm a capitalist." Someone in the audience called out "Aren't we all?" Another voice piped up: "I'm not!"
It was John Herald.
"Ian said 'Oh, you're not? Well, I'm not either'- which was obvious to me," Herald recounted later. "I feel now that if communism can end, capitalism should also end. Eventually, we're going to have to invoke the good parts of both democracy and socialism but that remains to be seen."
John Herald has always seemed a rather singular voice in the crowd in the sense that most of his career has seen him as a member of one musical group or another, be it the Greenbriar Boys or The John Herald Band or the Woodstock Mountain Revue, a loosely-bound bunch of artists which included one-time Herald Band member Roly Salley (now playing with Chris Isaak & Lucinda Williams) and Pat Alger (who's gone on to write hits for Garth Bucks- 'cuse me- Brooks), and other stars in their own right like Eric Andersen, the Traum Brothers, John Sebastian and others.
Herald's songs for the Revue, "Bluegrass Boy," "Woodstock Mountains" and others, demonstrated his distinct individual voice in writing and performance, a voice that stands apart even in traditional and bluegrass streams that tend to narrowly define their sounds. His style at creating infectious melodies around his haunting story of the last passenger pigeon or his sunburst tribute to Ramblin'Jack Elliot or just about anything else he turns his hand to has carved a legendary notch in the logs of contemporary music. But recently Herald, who has almost always been immersed in a group sound, has decided to try it alone.
"What's nice about doing a single," Herald explained, "is I can sing about things that are a little more interesting to me. I do other forms of music than bluegrass- ragtime, country blues, ballads, some good wild mountain music and (as a solo act) I can get it (to be) a little more Me. I'm just finishing up some recordings of songs I've written in recent years and I'm satisfied with it enough to start making a big push for my solo career."
Herald is relishing the liberty to expand into material that might not lend itself as readily to a bluegrass band as to a single singer/songwriter. Horace, the Greek philosopher, observed the difficulty of expressing common notions in an individual way. But that's what songwriting is all about.
"I'm going to do all the things that I like," Herald beamed. "I'm a very political person. I still hold most of the ideals from the 60's. I still think people can change things and that people must express themselves. Since the 80's, most of us have become too passive. People that believe in things- that can't stand to see hard-hit people suffer- they don't speak about it anymore. It's like it's not 'in' to talk about. It's a trend, whereas, it was a trend in the 60's to show your face at a march."
Appalled by new generational trends that seem to urge against individual expression, that bind youth identity to team logos or prestige sneakers, Herald calls for a return to what he terms a naturalness of self expression. "I'm still very much a naturalist in the sense of people- I like natural people," Herald said. "That's in my songs- my political feelings, my feelings about lifestyles. I still like the 'Back to the Country' idea, country music, some things Woody Guthrie mught have talked about..."
In a culture which does seem trend-manipulated, Herald makes some valid points. "Rugged American individualism used to be considered a high virtue; President Herbert Hoover even used it as a campaign slogan in what seems like another century entirely. But Hoover was still alive when John Kennedy was killed and the real decline of individualism is still in progress.
Sometimes cultural fabrications seem to blatantly mock individualism. Can you picture the creators of some mundane new "trend" sitting around the boardroom?
Wizard A: "The flock these days are such pathetic clowns, they should all be wearing bulbous noses and baggy pants."
Wizard B: "Don't know about the noses but we can get them into the baggy pants with a charming little twist of phrase."
Wizard C: "What's that?"
Wizard B: "Just say it's the new style, say it's 'in' and don't call them baggy pants. Say they're 'loose-fitting', I'm telling you the fools'll buy it!"
You may think that's too cynical a take but are you really sure? You can be sure, however, that John Herald's talents, however packaged, aren't trendy. They're solid and their individual tone is unmistakable. There'll be an unusual opportunity to see them close up as John Herald, individual, exercises them at the Woodstock Pub in a warm up show on Sunday October 17th and at the Town Crier (with Bill Keith) on the 22nd as he prepares for upcoming appearances at Brooklyn's Good Coffeehouse and 3 concerts for Canegie Hall's Neighborhood Concert series. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts about individualism, keep 'em to yourself.
- Irv Yarg (Woodstock Times- October 1996)
Irv Yarg is an internationally published observer on cultural and political events who resides in the Hudson Valley area. His analysis of the recent and ongoing musical history of the region will be featured as a part of our coverage of the local scene.