Evolution in a Musical Microcosm

Evolution in a Musical Microcosm


John Sebastian was born in 1944.   This fact is relevant because, along with fellow Lovin' Spoonful bandmember, Zally Yanovsky who was born later that same year, John is the youngest person in this story.   In the pivotal year 1964 John was 20, just out of his teens.  His father, also John, was a highly respected classical harmonica player. Little John became a blues harmonica player but also had developed proficiency on the guitar and autoharp. 

John grew up surrounded by privilege and famous musicians (and not just classical ones) ever since he was a musical proverbial knee-high. Burl Ives was a frequent visitor who brought Woody Guthrie by to crash in the Sebastian apartment, which, by the way, located at 29 Washington Square W, right in Greenwich Village. 

. . . on the top floor.

John grew more interested in Sonny Terry and Mississippi John Hurt than in that other John Sebastian: Bach.   His family wasn't poor, struggling or dysfunctional, but they were diverse, artistic and open-minded. 

One of John's musical fascinations, besides blues, was jug band music and he became familiar with the old time jug band artists such as:

The Dixieland Jug Blowers, a highly sophisticated jug band from the 1920s. They incorporated a saxophone, trombone, clarinet and piano to supplement the basic guitar, fiddle, banjo and jug line-up. 

Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, a group out of Memphis fronted by Gus Cannon, a blues banjo player.  I selected the following example because the lyrics, "these prison wall blues keep rollin' cross my mind"  influenced Sebastian's lyrics to his hit, "Younger Girl (keeps rollin' cross my mind)"

The Memphis Jug Band, a long standing jug band (for over 30 years) and also the most heavily recorded.  John Sebastian compared his own jug band to the Memphis Jug Band in noting their lack of rigidity. They had a fluid and diverse line-up of guitar, harmonica, kazoo, washboard,  fiddle, mandolin, washtub bass and, of course, a jug.
I selected the following since it's one of their two songs that Sebastian's own group covered on their only album.

While Sebastian had been doing some studio harmonica work in 1964-5, notably on banjo player, Billy Faier's The Beast of Billy Faier and on Bleecker & MacDougal  by Fred Neil, one of the earliest examples of so-called Folk-Rock, he also became an erstwhile member of the Even Dozen Jug Band. 

Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton and Fred Neil playing at the Café Wha? in 1961

The Even Dozen featured such people as Steve Katz (washboard), Maria d'Amato, later Maria Muldaur  of Midnight at the Oasis fame (fiddle),  Stefan Grossman (guitar), Joshua Rifkin (kazoo) and David Grisman (mandolin), plus Dan Lauffer (jug), Frank Goodkin (banjo) and Peter Siegel (guitar).  Although the group was admittedly formed for fun, they did play at Carnegie Hall and cut an album (for which they were paid $1000, split 12 ways).  After Maria d'Amato fell in love with Geoff Muldaur, she left the group to play in the far more exacting Jim Kweskin Jug Band of which her future husband was a member, the Even Dozen started in its demise.
Maria's place in Jim Kweskin's group was more prominent:

Jug band music greatly influenced Sebastian and his love for it is reflected in his song Jug Band Music, recorded by the Lovin' Spoonful on their Daydream album and released the same year that a California group called the Mugwumps (not the same group as the one mentioned in Creeque Alley) released it as a single.

But the idea that a group called the Mugwumps recorded Jug Band Music is worth noting.   When Sebastian left the Even Dozen, his next venture was with the "real" Mugwumps (NYC, not California based). 
But we'll get to all that in a minute or three.

The Halifax III

There was a Canadian group playing in Toronto called the Halifax Three. It was made up of Richard Byrne, Pat LaCroix and Denny Doherty. They picked up Toronto guitarist Zalman Yanovsky, essentially, though not in name, making them the Halifax Four, even though they had moved from the Halifax area to Greenwich Village.   The guitarist Yanovsky and Denny Doherty left that group and started one with a wannabe Broadway star named Cass, her husband (of convenience as she was helping him avoid the draft), Jim Hendricks, and sometimes a harmonica player named John (who later married Butchie Webber for the same reason).  This group had an important effect. According to Cass Elliot, the Mugwumps was the first true Folk-rock group (according to Joe Butler, his group, the Kingsmen, was the first such group. . .you choose);  according the the Washington Post, they were "attempting a new sound."   

1964, the pivotal year.

Cass Elliot and Jim Hendricks had been in a group called "The Big 3,"  no. 3 being Tim Rose,  before forming the Mugwumps.

Even before any of this, a pre-Peter, Paul and Mary folk trio named The Journeymen, consisting of Scott McKenzie,  John Phillips and Dick Weissman had been gaining critical success

The Journeymen, formed in 1961, was a pure folk group group. While in high school in the mid 1950s, Scott McKenzie and John Phillips formed a doo-wop group called the Abstracts which morphed into a Four Freshman type harmony group called the Smoothies. They released 2 singles:  Softly  and  Lonely Boy, Pretty Girl

The Smoothies
John Phillips is dead center. McKenzie is the smiling guy with his hand on his head.


John Phillips met and married Holly Michelle Gilliam in 1963.  Scott McKenzie suffered from deteriorating metal problems and the group simply fell apart.  (Scott McKenzie would later have a solo hit with the John Phillips hippie anthem, If You're Going To San Francisco -be sure to wear some flowers in your hair) John and Michelle formed The New Journeymen with banjo picker, Marshall Brickman, a former member of the Tarriers with Eric Weissberg (can you say Dueling Banjos?).  Brickman saw a bigger future in writing for TV, dropped out and was replaced by Mugwumper, Denny Doherty. 

The New Journeymen (Dennis Doherty, John and Michelle Phillips)

Cass Elliot,  another Mugwumper, would have been in The New Journeymen too but John Phillips thought her obese appearance would hurt their image.  The trio took off for a drugged-out vacation in the Virgin Islands where they were later joined by Cass Elliot who had a crush on Doherty. Around this time, John began to realize her talent and vocal blend far outweighed other considerations and they momentarily became The Magic Circle and The Magic Circle became the Mamas and the Papas.

Now in another, yet unexplored, part of this tale we encounter Skip Boone who was playing guitar in a local Long Island rock band. His 16 year old brother, Steve, who had been seriously injured in a car crash and was laid up, decided to follow in his older brother's footsteps and learn guitar, though more in the folk/acoustical style, during his convalescence  When Steve turned 18, he was adequate enough on guitar that his brother recruited him to play rhythm guitar in his band.  The band's drummer was Joe Butler, by all accounts a talented musician.  After Steve had been in the band for only a couple months, the bass player decided to go back home to Louisiana.  Before he left, he convinced Steve to take up bass guitar.  They called themselves the Kingsmen (but not the Louie, Louie garage band). 

Steve took off with a friend in the summer of 1964 to ride his motorcycle through Europe. When he returned from his bumming trip in December 1964, he wanted to crash with his brother, Skip, who told him to come on but to brings his bass with him. When he showed up he was introduced to Zally Yanovsky who, in turn, took him to meet John Sebastian. They hit if off.  Steve Boone actually roomed with Joe Butler but Butler was in a different band.  The newly formed group played at the Night Owl but the owner, who let them play because he new the Sebastian family, wasn't impressed.  They then recruited Joe Butler as the drummer.  When they started seeing Sebastian's original tunes, particularly Do You Believe in Magic, they were all sold on the group.  
If we backtrack a bit to jug band music, we might recall the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.  His washtub bass player was Fritz Richmond. According to Steve Boone, "[Fritz] suggested to John, 'Why don’t you name the band that line from the John Hurt song, I wanna see my baby ‘bout a lovin’ spoonful?'"

my lovin' spoonful 

[the Lovin' Spoonful side trip came from a Steve Boone interview. and a video with Boone and Butler.]

The Lovin' Spoonful went on to have their first 7 singles all hit the top 10 with Summer in the City, written by Mark Sebastian, John's 14 year old brother, then improved upon by John with the help of Steve Boone.

The Mamas and Papas released California Dreaming and the money started pourin' in as the hits kept a rollin' on.

Was it for the Love of Ivy or the love of money?

either way, what a gorgeous song

As Paul Simon wrote, "Everything put together sooner or later falls apart." 
This is especially often true of musical groups. 

In May 1966 Zal Yanovsky and Steve Boone were arrested in San Francisco for possession of marijuana .  As Boone wrote, theirs was the first big rock band to find themselves in this circumstance.  21 year old Zal was threatened with deportation back to Canada.  This put pressure on the group,  who not only wanted to continue in the same fashion but who also had responsibilities to a rather large number people dependent upon them for their income, and on the record label who had a lot invested in the group and who pressured Zal to cooperate with the authorities.   Their deal with the authorities was to introduce an undercover agent to partygoers, one of whom, a dealer, got busted.   Zal especially became branded as an informer and lost credibility within the prevailing counterculture.  This profoundly affected the group and hastened their demise. Zal did leave and was replaced by Jerry Yester (who in 2019 was arrested and sentenced to a 2 year prison term for possessing child pornography).

The Mamas and Papas had their own difficulties, most of which revolved around their hedonistic,  unhealthy lifestyle and Michelle.   John Phillips and Cass Elliot were notoriously heavy drug users. Cass would die  young of a heart attack and Phillips died an addict, also of a heart attack.  Michelle, had an affair with fellow member Doherty, alienating John, her husband, and Cass who still had a crush on Denny.  Michelle had other affairs, one of which even got her kicked from the group for a while.   Cass, who did everything she could to become part of the group, now  just wanted away it all and craved a solo career.  After three years they simply imploded. 

Both groups essentially operated between 1965-1969.  

Evolution is as exciting as the devolution is sad to witness. 

One of my favorite groups, the Indigo Girls, sang about the "smallness of deconstruction" in a different context yet applicable sense.

. . . and the doctor said, "Give him jug band music. It seems to make him feel just fine."