August 1939 - July 2005
When I heard the Del McCoury Band this summer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I took the opportunity to introduce myself and ask Del how he had come to record John Herald's song, "Moneyland", and make it the title for the 2008 album he put together with Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Tim O'Brien and others.
John Herald had included the song on Just Another Bluegrass Boy, the album he completed just days before taking his own life in July 2005. The song is a powerful indictment of the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor and also, given the dire financial situation he faced in his final years, extremely poignant. Only 65 years old, John apparently hoped that this collection of 13 of his songs would bring more of the attention his music deserved after his death than it would while he lived.
It's not as if the Del McCoury recording would have made John rich, but he would have loved it. It would have been the kind of validation he had rarely received in the decades since his widely influential band, The Greenbriar Boys, had been featured on folk and bluegrass stages across the country and since Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt had sung and recorded several of his songs. Maybe it would have led to more prominent and lucrative bookings. Maybe it would have led others to also pick up a John Herald song or two. Maybe it would have given him the strength and resources to embrace life for a while longer.
When I asked Del about the song, he told me it had been sent to him by Artie Traum, to whom John had given custody of his work. He lamented that he had never met John or seen him in concert and also that, only three years after John's death, Artie himself had died of liver cancer.
Del readily agreed to sign my copy of John Herald's final CD. I wasn't quite sure why I asked but now, as I look at the signature, I hope it helps to do for John the one kind favor Blind Lemon Jefferson phrased as seeing that his grave is kept clean.
Memories of John Herald written shortly after his death in 2005
I first heard John Herald at Carnegie Hall in 1963. I believe the concert was presented by Sing Out! Magazine and, at age 15, it introduced me to a wide, wonderful world of rising singer-songwriters and jugbands, and a bluegrass band called the Greenbriar Boys. The guitarist and lead singer, John Herald, had formed this band with some fellow New Yorkers in 1959 while they were students at the University of Wisconsin. The Greenbriar Boys may have been the first northern bluegrass band and were certainly the first to be good enough to win respect and acclaim at southern fiddle and banjo festivals. They were stars at the early Newport Folk Festivals and, most famously, were the band for whom Bob Dylan opened when he played at Gerde's Folk City. John also became the house guitarist for Vanguard Records, playing back-up for Doc Watson and lead for Joan Baez and Ian and Sylvia.
I loved the band and tried to hear them wherever I could which included The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, a club called The Golliard in Queens and, oddly enough, the 1964 New York World's Fair. Their 2nd LP, Ragged But Right, which had just been released on Vanguard, remains one of my favorite records, with its still unusual and then-very unusual combination of bluegrass, country, Cajun and original material, played with skill, respect, invention and humor.
After their 3rd LP, Better Late Than Never, the band broke-up and, a few years later, John formed the John Herald Band, a group that would include many fine musicians over the next 35 years. In its first iteration, the band was headed for stardom with a contract with Paramount Records that included a live album to be recorded at Max's Kansas City in New York. With a huge soundtruck parked in front of the club for several nights, John and his band played their hearts out to wildly enthusiastic crowds. Somehow, though, only some of that energy and enthusiasm was captured in the ensuing album and, more importantly, Paramount effectively went out of business as the album was being released.
Unfortunately, that set the ill-fated pattern for the rest of John's recording career. Several much smaller record companies put out John Herald albums that received little distribution and attention, and the office of one even burned to the ground just after recording him. He had similar bad luck with his songwriting. A number of prominent women singers were drawn to John's songs but always in ways that just missed earning him significant royalties. Linda Ronstadt learned "Different Drum" from John's singing and arrangement, but someone else, Mike Nesmith, had written it, Maria Muldaur recorded John's rewrite of "John The Generator" but not on one of her big-selling albums, and, more recently, Shawn Colvin made a demo of John's "Carrying A Torch" but didn't include it on either of her albums of covers.
In 1987, I found John's address (Maverick Road in Woodstock, NY) in Bluegrass Unlimited and wrote a letter inviting him to give a concert in a small series I had begun at the Prallsville Mill in Stockton, New Jersey. To my delight he said yes and that year gave the first of five shows he would put on there over the next 15 years.
We became friends, I think, because the first thing he saw when he came to the Mill in 1987 was the jackets from each of his and the Greenbriar Boys' albums which I had hung on the wall. He was clearly pleased but mentioned that he no longer had two of them. Over the next few months, I managed to locate copies of both and mailed them to him. His thank you note was the first of many two-to-three page, always hand-written in a clear and distinctive printing, letters he would send me, and his follow-up phone call to make sure I had received the letter was the first of numerous long conversations we would have.
Politics was one major topic of the phone calls. We shared a longing for the sense of progressive idealism and hope that had been alive in the 1960s, but John looked for it to arise from citizen action from the left while I looked for it largely from elected Democrats. He was surprised that I didn't see the actions of the hero of one of his more recent songs - a man who had lost his legs in an action of civil disobedience against a train loaded with nuclear materials - as particularly worthy of praise. He listened patiently as I told him my belief that the President defined the center in political debate and that Bill Clinton, was therefore, moving the range of mainstream thought and action to the left.
We talked more about John's music and career. While he must have had such conversations with many people, he made me feel that my thoughts were of particular value to him. While this was flattering and fun, it also was a little disturbing. I was a devoted fan but I knew next to nothing about the commercial or even semi-commercial world of concert promoting and record producing about which he asked me. Similarly, his seeming innocence was both refreshing and heartbreaking. It was as if his song, Bluegrass Boy, was autobiographical. But that boy who got overwhelmed by the big city and set off alarms when he mistakenly mailed letters in a firebox had just come in from the country while John had grown up on the Lower East Side and been in the center of the early folk music boom.
John asked my advice about record labels he should pursue. As far as I know, he never had e-mail or a computer though I think he got hold of a CD player by the late 1990s. One evening, he called to ask what I knew about Appleseed Records. He had looked through the CDs for sale in a local store and been impressed to find Eric Andersen and others he respected on a label available there. John was nervous about contacting the label and seemed very grateful when I offered to feel out the founder of the company with whom I had corresponded in the past. He seemed even more pleased when I reported back that the guy knew John's music and would welcome hearing some of his current material. But John never sent him a tape.
I think John was plagued by looking for perfection. CDs replaced LPs in 1987 but John didn't put one out until 2000. Through the 1908s and 1990s, John was putting on great concerts, many of which would have made fine live albums. At a minimum, he could have sold them at his shows and made a little more money. Properly distributed, they could have helped gain him new gigs and a wider audience, and they could have introduced his great, unusual songs to some of the rare singers who still believed they were allowed to sing songs they hadn't written. But John seemed to always be aiming higher than that, maybe hoping to recreate the success the Paramount LP in the early 1970s had promised.
John lived a financially very marginal existence that must have eventually contributed to his decision to take his life. But he got the idea his first CD needed to include guest appearances by old friends and associates who had gone on to wider fame. When a small windfall came his way a few years ago, he used it all to record one song with Jack Elliott, thinking that would be an attention-grabbing start for an album. Then, when a more famous friend he had contacted suggested he "fly up and meet me in Montreal" to record the next month, John was too embarrassed to tell him he couldn't afford the trip. In one of his songs from the 1990s, John was writing from experience when he said, "It ain't so funny when you ain't got money here in moneyland."
John was also a bit out of date about the relative fame of his musical friends and associates. Once, when I mentioned having recently seen Hot Tuna perform, John told me that he and Jorma Kaukenon used to be good friends. He was, I think, skeptical when I suggested that Jorma would be a more noteworthy addition to the album than either Jack Elliott or the singer in Montreal.
John was a fine solo performer but he much preferred the energy and companionship of a band. When I suggested he do a show at Prallsville solo and explained the obvious economic advantages of coming alone as opposed to bringing three other musicians, he said he didn't think he could carry it off. Once I had a chance to discuss this with Rory Block who had heard John play since she was a child and admired him greatly, and we conspired to offer John the possibility of a double-billed show for which she would reduce her normal fee so they could share the gate and he could perform solo to an enthusiastic audience in a building he already knew.
John reluctantly agreed. From what I could tell, the show was a great success with some of John and Rory's fans each learning about the other, and John earned more that night than he did from any of the other shows I presented. But, still he said he wasn't comfortable playing alone and the next time I invited him to Prallsville, he wanted to bring a band.
Now that John is gone, it will be sad if his music remains largely unheralded but it will also be very sad -bittersweet may be the right word - if his death brings his music and songs some of the attention they have long deserved. I hope some of his great live shows will be released on albums and that other singers and bands will pick up many of the fine songs he wrote. And I will want to go to tribute concerts his musical friends may present in his memory. But those of us who were his fans will shed more tears to know that some financial success could have given him the hope to keep living and keep making music, and that he would have loved commercial and critical success. He knew he was good enough for it.
John's fans felt special. Like fans of anyone whose talent so exceeds their fame, we wanted more people to hear his music. But it wasn't so much that John was our secret as that he seemed so vulnerable, innocent and sometimes open that it was easy to feel protective and capable of maybe helping.
I know he made me feel special. I love the note he wrote me on his 2000 CD to "my nicest, bestest fan" though I know that I was just one of many people who loved his music and loved him, and tried over the years to ease his path and bring good things to his life. I have no doubt that he expressed similar sentiments to many others and that he meant it every time.
The last time I saw John was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2003. We went for a walk and ended up stopping to sit and hear throat singers from Tuva. When one song ended and I said it reminded me of the old country song, The Auctioneer, he laughed and said he'd been thinking the same thing. When the set was over, he told me he would send me a tape of some new songs he thought I would like and we hugged each other good bye.
When I return to the air in September, I will put together a show in tribute to John Herald. It will be an emotional experience for me but my guess is it won't sound too different from the radio shows I've been doing since 1968, for, along with Pete Seeger and Mississippi John Hurt, John Herald has always been at their center.
July 27, 2005