Irwin: Yes. That’s good.
Hector: No, it’s not good. It’s…flip…it’s glib. It’s JOURNALISM.
– From “The History Boys” by Alan Bennett.
All The News That’s Fit To Sing
Elektra, April 1964, in Mono and Stereo.
Original sleevenotes by Gordon Friesen and Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham.
2001 Re-issue sleevenotes by Peter Doggett
- Production Supervisor – Jac Holzman
- Recording Director – Paul A. Rothchild
- Engineering – Mastertone Studios, New York City
- Second Guitar – Danny Kalb
- Cover Design – William S. Harvey
- Cover Photo – Jim Frawley
“The L.P gives a fine example of the use of modern folk music for the purpose it was originally styled, the making of social comment”
“As important in 1964 as Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’’ album was in 1963”
– Josh Dunson, High Fidelity.
“Mr Ochs is certainly no genius although he might be a hero, and he isn’t much of an artist. His songs are lacking in imagination and taste and tend to be overemotional”
– Los Angeles Free Press.
Gavan Daws, in the introduction to the book he co-authored with Jac Holzman (‘Follow The Music’, 2000), wrote that “in the creative social turmoil of the times, Jac Holzman was a significant agent of change”. Just to be clear, Jac Holzman released records.
Holzman started up Elektra records (named after Electra, the Greek demi-goddess who was said to preside over artistic muses, but given a ‘K’ as Holzman stated “Electra with a ‘c’ struck me as too soft”, [funnily enough the same spelling used by Marvel Comics for their super-hero]) in 1950, as a nineteen year old with a $300 loan. Elektra was part of a burgeoning scene of new labels established in the early part of the 1950s as new technologies, and new trends in listening habits, saw the birth of labels such as Atlantic, Vanguard and Folkways.
Elektra’s first release – ‘New Songs’ by John Gruen, poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and E.E. Cummings set to music, was recorded in the studio run by Peter Bartok, the son of Bela – sold less than 100 copies. It’s sleevenotes stated that “‘New Songs’ marks the first release of Elektra records which shall continue to offer disks of unusual and worthy musical fare”. Holzman’s record store, The Record Loft, which he opened in 1951, became a hub of the New York folk-scene, a meeting place and purveyor of folk LPs and a link between Holzman and the wider folk music community. Out of this community would spring the musicians and singers that would help put Elektra at the forefront of the New York folk scene and capture the birth and growth of the “folk boom” (not the nicest of phrases, but handy none the less).
Elektra’s second, and first folk LP, was the prosaically titled ‘Jean Ritchie Singing Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family’ which sold close to 1000 copies. Jean got paid 22c per record sold and was given three free copies. As Holzman stated “everyone cared deeply about what they were doing, and as a secondary consideration you might even be able to make a living”. For the next ten years or so, Elektra’s roster was made up of a virtual revolving door of recording artists (Shep Gindandes and Cynthia Gooding [who’s 1953 LPs featured artwork by Maurice Sendak], Tom Paley, Theodore Bikel. Ed McCurdy, Oscar Brand and Geula Gill to name but a few) with their records interspersed with some notable additions, from the legendary (Art Blakey, Sonny Terry) to the leftfield (Joyce Grenfell, Jean Shepherd) to the oddball (Zacherley, he of Dinner With Drac’ “fame”). Along the way they also released an LP by Alan Arkin and in 1963 ‘New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass’ by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman, who went on to co-write several movies with Woody Allen, including ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’. Weissberg and Brickman also recorded Dueling Banjos, later used, to great effect, in the 1972 John Boorman movie ‘Deliverance’. Brickman was also in The Tarriers alongside label mate Alan Arkin, who released ‘Once Over Lightly’ in 1955 before a successful acting career that saw him win an Academy Award for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ in 2007.
According to Elektra historian Andy Finney it was in 1956, it was the release of Josh White’s ‘Josh at Midnight’, that heralded the start of “mainstream Elektra”. While earlier albums were released and largely ignored and/or forgotten, ‘Josh at Midnight’ would stay on the Elektra catalogue for some twenty years. The same old names would continue to have records released by Elektra (just where did Theo Bikel find all those Israeli folk songs?) but new names started appearing too. In 1958 a various artist LP named ‘Our Singing Heritage’ featured two songs by Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk would remain a staple of the Greenwich Village scene, a link perhaps between the older generation of native New Yorkers and the new wave that was on the verge of invading. The first of this new generation to record with Elektra was Seattle, Washington native Judy Collins who released two albums in 1962 – ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’. The same old names (Ed McCurdy, Josh White, Cynthia Gooding, Theodore Bikel) saw releases before Judy Henske, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, (keen readers may notice that Chippewa Falls is also the hometown of Annie Hall in the movie of the same name. Marshall Brickman must have paying attention!) released her eponymous debut. That same year Oscar Brand with his Sand Trappers released his ‘Songs Fore Golfers’. I’m guessing it wasn’t terribly groundbreaking.
And then in 1964, after the releases of Bob Gibson’s ‘Where I’m Bound’, ‘Cough – Army Songs out of the Barracks Bag’ by Oscar Brand, Fred Engleberg’s ‘The Songs of Fred Engelberg’, The Even Dozen Jug Band’s eponymous LP (featuring Stefan Grossman, John Sebastian, who would later form The Lovin’ Spoonful and play harmonica on Phil’s Bound For Glory, Steve Katz, later of Blood Sweat and Tears and part of the Blues Project that played back-up to Phil on his “electrified” version of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and Geoff Muldaur who married bandmate Maria D’Amato who then became the far-more-famous Maria Muldaur), Judy Collins’ ‘3’, Judy Henske’s ‘High Flying Bird’, Rey De La Torre’s ‘20th Century Music for the Guitar’, Fred Neil’s debut ‘Tear Down The Walls’, released with Vince Martin, ‘The Patriot Game’ by The Irish Ramblers, ‘Adventures for 12-String, 6-String and Banjo’ by Dick Rosmini (who, much later, added pedal steel guitar and harmonica to Phil’s Greatest Hits), yet more Thedore Bikel, thirteen LPs worth of sound effects, (Volume 8, side one, track 12, ‘Griddle’), the various artist ‘Blues Project’ featuring two tracks by Dave Van Ronk, two tracks by Mark Spoelstra (who also appeared on ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 1’)as well as Danny Kalb (who would provide second guitar to All The News That’s Fit To Sing and an appearance on piano of Bob Landy, really Bob Dylan, on Geoff Muldaur’s Downtown Blues), The Dillards’ ‘Live!!! Almost!!!’, Jean Carignan’s ‘The Folk Fiddler who Electrified the Newport Fold Festival’, ‘Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers’ by Koerner, Glover and Ray, The Ian Campbell Folk Groups eponymous debut and before the releases of ‘Swing Hallelujah: the Christian Tabernacle Church of New York City with Reverend WM O’Neil’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Library of Congress Recordings’, ‘Happy All The Time’ by Joseph Spence, Jean Redpath’s ‘Laddie Lie Near Me’, Juan Serrano’s ‘Bravo Serrano’, the various artist ‘Old Time Banjo Project’, Tom Paxton’s debut ‘Ramblin’ Boy’, Hamilton Camp’s ‘Paths of Victory’ and the various artist ‘The Iron Muse – A Panorama of British Industrial Folk Music’, came… Elektra EKL 269 (Mono) and EKS 7269 (Stereo) All The News That’s Fit To Sing by Columbus, Ohio’s very own, Phil Ochs.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that when Phil left Elektra for A&M in 1966 following the release of his third album Phil Ochs in Concert , one of the reasons he cited was lack of support from the record company. As one of 25 Elektra releases in 1964, plus the thirteen special effects LPs, Phil was a part of a genuinely hip movement. That he didn’t get lost amongst it, that he rose to gain some notoriety, is testament to something rather special. Of that lot, only the Judy’s Henske and Collins and Tom Paxton could be counted as Phil’s immediate peers. And while it may not have been the giant leap towards world domination that Phil was hoping, standing out from that crowd and getting a record released was no little achievement.