Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns

Small Town Talk tells the history of Woodstock, New York, a place famous for the Woodstock Music Festival of August 1969, although it was held 60 miles away from the actual town.  Author Barney Hoskyns documents how the town, a gathering place for artist and bohemians throughout the 20th century, usually in shaky harmony with the locals, transformed rock and roll into an epic art form during the 1960s.  

When Bob Dylan set up shop in Woodstock as a remote haven from New York  City, many other rock icons of the era followed suit including Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Levon Helm, and many others.

The best part of the book covers the town's heyday in the 1960s.  Albert Grossman looms large in the book, a key figure in the New York music scene who saw the commercial possibilities of folk music and brought it to the mainstream with acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Later he managed Bob Dylan's career until their dramatic falling out, a conflict addressed on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album. Grossman remains complex figure who left many hard feelings over money and his derisive attitude towards artists. 

Dylan bought a farm in Woodstock and the spent the early years of his marriage there. In 1967 he recorded The Basement Tapes with the Band, music that never got an official release until 1975, but became a major influence on the future of music. According to Hoskyns Dylan rose at Six every day, took his kids to school, and recorded with the Band from Noon till six five days a week. In time Dylan felt less at peace in Woodstock when obsessed fans would congregate in his backyard, he even had a direct phone line to the police station installed in case of trouble.

Eventually Dylan moved back to the city, but many other musicians from both sides of the Atlantic came to Woodstock in search of inspiration. The Band recorded their early albums there, music partly inspired by the atmosphere of the town.  Drummer Levon Helm remained a fixture of the local scene until he passed away in 2012.

After the Woodstock music festival the town was overrun with people trying to make a quick buck by emulating their counter-cultural heroes. Todd Rundgren became the most notable musician to record his music at Woodstock in the 1970s, "a cult hero's, cult hero" to quote Hoskyns.

The genre today known as Americana, a problematic term because since it tends to simplify a wide swath of music, nevertheless originated with The Basement Tapes.  Many ingredients including folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues coalesced into something unique in the late 1960s and remains a foundation of a certain type of American music. Hoskyns also left a useful playlist in the book's appendix.

Small Town Talk tells the story of a unique place that inspired many artists, unsparing minutia on their personal lives, and the corrosive effect of commerce on creativity.  There's many tales of romantic betrayals, hard feelings, disputes over money, and creative breakthroughs.