John Herald: Bluegrass Boy of the Catskills, by James Rooney

The energy was there before the festival and it would remain long after. Visions of nude hippies rollicking in the mud burned into cultural memory; Sly Stone arguably saving the whole festival; the disappointments of so many beloved groups. Absolute chaos against a backdrop of country living. Back-to-the-land sentiments preached by so many yet realized by so few. If one thing is certain, its that nothing more really needs to be said about Woodstock, the festival. Long before the farm down the road put the town on the map, there was already an exodus of writers, musicians, and artists that used the rural town as a base to regroup and recharge when the city life overwhelmed. Obviously, this comes with a high degree of privilege, but the town was accommodating to those who came respectfully, ready to blend in to a quiet life (often not the case for those coming off the hype of the 1969 festival).

John Herald moved to Woodstock in 1964. Not yet a beacon of free love and counterculture, the town was a modest retreat from the happenings of New York City. Herald was familiar with the setting, having joined his father, poet Leon Serabian Herald, on several trips as a child. Boosted by the recent successes of The Greenbriar Boys, the founder and soon-to-be solo artist, decided to settle down in the Hudson Valley. The group had backed rising folk-star Joan Baez on her second album and were gaining recognition as one of the first Bluegrass groups to make waves in the Northeast—subsequently exposing a bunch of Yankees to authentic southern music.

Formed in 1959, the original line-up of The Greenbriar Boys consisted of John Herald on guitar and vocals, Eric Weissberg on mandolin (yes, the Deliverance “Dueling Banjos” guy), and Bob Yellin on banjo. Weissberg would later be replaced by future Smithsonian archivist Ralph Rintzler. Regular performances around the city and their eventual backing role on Baez’s record landed the Herald-Yellin-Rintzler lineup a deal with Vanguard. From 1962 to 1966 they released three albums: The Greenbriar Boys, Ragged But Right, Better Late Than Never. A fourth – on Elektra – shared credit with singer Dian James. The timing of the folk revival with their status as authentic hometown Bluegrass pioneers landed The Greenbriars headlining spots in festivals and concerts around Greenwich Village or Washington Square Park; sharing stages with The Kingston Trio, Mike Seeger, or an up-and-coming Bob Dylan. With the always-professional Rintzler on board, the trio fine-tuned their musical acuity, becoming a live sensation with improvisatory chops to rival groups coming out of the southern Appalachians. The band managed to earn accolades abroad, winning both fiddle and ensemble contests in the South. 

With Herald’s foregrounded tenor, the group excelled in the old ‘high lonesome’ sound. At times, one could almost make a comparison to Roscoe Holcomb singing with the full-throated confidence of Bill Monroe (noted curmudgeon Robert Christgau suggested that Herald’s vocals should inspire Art Garfunkel to return to his architecture studies). The three Vanguard records are excellent bluegrass albums that occasionally lean more toward the beatnik stylings of New York City’s folk revival than the mountain music of Uncle Dave Macon or the Stanley Brothers. Naturally, this is to be expected when playing coffeehouse jams in a booming city folk circuit. It does lend to the question of whether a group of urban hipsters – not matter how skillful or authentic – could have indoctrinated The West Village had they played it entirely straight. Regardless, audiences were ravenous, and a bit of rapid-fire improvisation may have been a welcome relief from the torpid-tempoed snoozefests that surely accompanied some of the lesser folk acts. These factors combined to facilitate a moderately successful sales record for the Greenbriars, and as so often the case, more artistic freedom was granted. Trust established with Vanguard, the group began to move away from traditional bluegrass songs and try their hand at originals. Each subsequent album had a few more original or contemporary tunes that were catching the attention of other artists.

1968 rolled around and Linda Ronstadt recorded “Up To My Neck in High Muddy Waters”. Originally recorded on the Greenbriar’s Better Late Than Never, The Stone Poney’s had a minor hit with the number. Their version of Michael Nesmith’s “Different Drum” was also credited to The Greenbriar Boys, with Ronstadt being introduced to the tune by the same album. Joan Baez’s use of “Stewball” on Baez/5 – another Herald and Yellin tune – established that New York City’s Bluegrass troubadours were capable of crafting cross-genre material with the ability to sell. Unfortunately, by the time Ronstadt had brought the group some extra attention, the Greenbriars had disbanded. Rintzler took a job at the Smithsonian as a folklore archivist (and would play a huge role in the institution’s scope and vision in collections), Yellin and Herald maintained steady work as session players for Vanguard, playing with Ian and Sylvia, Doc Watson, and more. Herald recorded and toured with Ramblin’ Jack Elliottt, with whom he maintained a strong relationship. Still living in in Woodstock, Herald eventually landed a record deal with the recording arm of Paramount Pictures and his first solo album was released in 1973. Though not before appearing on the first of several Rounder Records compilations highlighting the ongoing traditional music scene in the Woodstock Mountains. 

Music Among Friends was released by Rounder in 1972. The ensemble, credited as Mud Acres, consisted of Happy and Artie Traum, Maria Mulduar, Herald, Eric Kaz, Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, Tony Brown, and Lee Berg. All were current residents of Woodstock. Recorded over a cold weekend in January of the same year at the ZBS Commune in Ft. Edward, the compilation contains loose interpretations of folk and blues standards. Everyone from Leadbelly to Ewan MacColl to the Delmore Brothers are represented within the grooves. Highlights include the Muldaur-led rendering of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Oh, The Rain,” a raucous “Hobo Blues” (complete with sawed fiddle, hoots, hollers, and knee slaps), Herald’s swinging interpretation of “Prison Wall Blues,” and the closing banjo instrumental “Mud Acres.” 

It was around this same time that Dylan was departing the small-town life. The Band had relocated to California. Van Morrison skipped town while working on Tupelo Honey. Despite the exodus of big-names, Woodstock still had plenty to offer those not striking out westward for the big-time. As the mountains settled down, the hip-but-not-too-hip crowd (the Music Among Friends liner notes mention whole grain peanut butter, avocados, sprout sandwiches, and herbal teas) lingered about, making music in a leisurely fashion. Alan Grossman’s Bearsville label was running strong and saw a handful of durable releases. Bobby Charles’s self-titled LP from 1972 is a contender for the finest slab of American Rock and Roll ever put to tape. Todd Rundgren was making a name for himself as a producer and artist. Jesse Winchester was a darling of New York City rock critics. And of course, there were the folk musicians carving out a living just on the periphery of popular culture. Critically appreciated, modestly successful regarding album sales, and brief episodic flirtations with breaking out into the mainstream, Herald fell into this final category. Maybe it was the articulate studio work, or perhaps they noticed his appearance on the Rounder comp, but something about John Herald caught the eye of Paramount Records in late 1972.

A bright yellow cover with red lettering immediately grabs the listener. Herald’s portrait sets in the foreground. His gambler hat is tilted back as he scratches his forehead, his brow furrows. The leather jacket suggests that the intentions of the self-titled LP’s contents may stretch beyond the Bluegrass we heard from him with The Greenbriars. The flip side reveals the ensemble. Primarily minor studio names, we do see that Richard Davis, Howie Wyeth (longtime Dylan keys man), Maria Muldaur, and Amos Garrett were involved. There’s also a reunion of Herald and Weissberg, who at this point was riding high on Deliverance fame and playing with a rotating cast of singer-songwriters. 

The record kicks off on a superb high note. “Fire Song” is a perfect cut about Herald’s house burning down. A stove was left on during a quickie and all hell breaks loose. In the aftermath, the community comes together to rebuild the house by hosting a benefit concert. The ensemble blazes, belting out backing vocals, start-stop time changes, cooling off only during brief interludes from a string quartet led by Davis. An all-too-appropriate ode to the importance of community up in the Woodstock mountains. A theatrical ending drops the curtain on the piece and a boisterous “Getting Happy” kicks off. Eric Weissberg provides a phenomenal mandolin break. Herald’s voice cracks a bit on the vocal delivery, giving the tune a Michael Hurley-on-speed quality. 

The lyrical subject matter takes a turn on “Pretty Eyes.” In what is likely the most intimate cut, we have Herald narrating the tale of a stalker serenading his object of desire. A solitary organ chord drives the tune forward and flutes and recorders erase the ominous mood. One could just as easily be rafting down the Hudson at sunset. A Milltown sits on a hill in the distance. The unsettling matter at hand is easily lost as you tag along for the ride. Unfortunately, the final cut on the first side is lackluster. One must ask—do we really need a tune to celebrate the eccentricity of Jack Elliott? Catchy as it may be, the track seems forced. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate his friend, but surely there was a better option available to close out an otherwise stellar side.

Luckily, Side Two redeems with a slice of island weirdness. Manipulated vocals are reminiscent of Donovan. An organ bubbles underneath, propelling a Caribbean rhythm. Certainly not what one would expect out of the upstate mountains. But then again, the same could have been said of authentic Bluegrass music ten years prior. A quick tune, the quirkiness doesn’t get to be too much. The novelty of “Minute to Moment” lies in stark contrast to “Brother Sam,” a sincere tune about a veteran returning from Vietnam without the use of his legs. Herald hints at the mental anguish of being forced to fight against one’s will for a cause they disagree with. Its unpretentious and remains one of the most genuinely subtle tunes about the personal cost of unnecessary imperialism. A micro-subjective take on the typical structurally-focused protest song. Anger is not impetus, but rather, compassion for those treated as capital.

The live suite that takes up most of side two functions as a callback to the Greenbriar days. A rippin’ “Hangman’s Reel” kicks off the set, recorded at Max’s Kansas City. The band is phenomenal. Circuitous jamming that builds and builds. Herald’s guitar playing is superb and he’s truly in his element. He seems to have no issue keeping up with the ever-increasing speed of the fiddlers. There are moments that recall the interplay between Thompson and Swarbrick during Fairport’s live peak (though maybe not quite so nuanced). The following “Passenger Pigeons” offers a chance to breathe. A beauty of a tune. Man’s demise shown through the lens of the Passenger Pigeon’s wholly unnecessary extinction. The band showcases their brilliance yet again, with the number taking on a dirge-like quality. Led by a multi-fiddle attack with cascading mandolin, the song winds down into the Cajun romp of “Jetembocooh.” It’s a hell of a pick-me-up. The Beerhall hollers only accentuate how lively the performances and audience were for these shows. If anything, the real take-away is wondering where the fuck these tapes are at? Rumor has it that Paramount had their portable studio parked out front of Max’s for the four-night run.

The opening ensemble is back on the album closer (tough to verify, but it must be). Gorgeous subtly arranged strings grace the cut, the perfect bookend to the opening “Fire Song.” Superficially, a simple love song, Herald disguises the questionable subject matter with soft vocals and pretty arrangements. The “Sweet Mahidabelle” of the Jack Bonus-penned tune, turns out to be a fourteen-year-old girl, and the narrator’s dedication to the relationships raises eyebrows.  Nevertheless, the band delivers. A perfect bridge with strings, slide guitar, and woodwinds. Soaring choruses showcase Herald’s range. His vocals are at their finest here. The highs ring and are only further complemented by group’s competency. 

A near perfect album from an artist pivotal in both introducing Bluegrass music to a new audience and bringing traditional music out of the academy and into the popular consciousness. Unfortunately, upon its release Paramount was closing up shop. The label was done by 1974. Amid the circumstances, Herald’s debut was ignored, receiving almost no promotion and limited exposure. The recorded live sets from his four-night run at Max’s remain in a vault (or worse, destroyed). 

A series of misgivings followed John Herald from this point on. The tiny Bay Records put out the similarly ignored John Herald and The John Herald Band in 1978. In all fairness, the material did not hold up to the debut. The Real Thing saw release by Vermont cult favorite Rooster Records. A strong outing with a killer cover of Michael Hurley’s “Oh My Stars.” Released in 1984, Rooster Records was ravaged by fire in 1987 (the same one that made Hurley’s Blue Navigator nearly impossible to find for 40 years). Herald attempted several comebacks in the years since. Out of touch with the recording industry’s digital direction and heavy reliance on old friends with little lingering influence only led to the artist treading water. In 2005, Woodstock’s first and last Bluegrass Boy took his own life—leaving behind a legacy that rubbed elbows with the best of them, but always remained on the edges of notoriety.  

Major gratitude to James Rooney for allowing RCU to publish this excellent piece. You can catch Rooney spinning some killer records on his show The Comedown, on WXOX 97.1 Louisville/artxfm.com, every Wednesday from 6-8pm. 


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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