BluesWax Spotlight On
Jesse Colin Young
By Art Tipaldi
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is out this week with an injury. To fill in Blues Revue Editor Art Tipaldi pulled out this profile of Jesse Colin Young. The Rev. promises he will be back next week. Enjoy!
Jesse Colin Young has been a solo folk guitarist in the coffee houses of Boston and Greenwich Village, a major force in Jackson Browne’s No Nukes movement, the owner of his own record label, a music teacher in a Waldorf School in Hawaii, and owner of an organic Kona coffee farm on the big island of Hawaii.
But Young will always be remembered as the recognizable voice behind the 1960′s peace anthem “Get Together.” As the focal point of the band the Youngbloods, Young’s soulful take on Dino Valenti’s tune showed up on their 1967 debut album. They re-released the tune in 1969 as a single after the National Council of Christians and Jews used the refrain in a television commercial. From there, students participating in the anti-war movement adopted the tune as a message of hope in a hopeless world.
“I hope people will remember me as both someone who awakened people to these issues and an important songwriter,” says Young. “I was right there on the wave. I didn’t write “Get Together,” it was a gift to me. And that song put us on the front of that wave. People ask if I ever get tired singing that? It’s a beautiful song that I’ll never get tired of singing.”
Young was born and raised in Queens, New York, in 1941, and his earliest family memories are filled with the joy of music and celebration. His mother was a violinist who had a beautiful singing voice of perfect pitch, and his father was a Harvard-educated accountant with a passion for classical music. Along with his older sister, the family spent evenings gathered around the piano singing Harvard fight songs and other lively tunes. In 1959 the talented student won a scholarship to Phillips Andover, the all-boys prep school in Massachusetts. The rigorous curriculum and strict discipline the school required ultimately resulted in Jesse being kicked out of the exclusive academy—an event which forever changed the course of his life.
The blues were calling his name and the next few years were spent exploring the music of T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters for inspiration and consolation.
Young recorded his first album in four hours, accompanying himself on guitar. That release was called The Soul of a City Boy. A second album, Young Blood, featured supporting musicians, including John Sebastian and Peter Childs.
After the two solo albums, Young met guitarist Jerry Corbitt on the New York-to-Boston club circuit, and with keyboardist/guitarist Lowell “Banana” Levinger, and drummer Joe Bauer, they began to perform as The Youngbloods. ”Get Together” became a worldwide Top Ten hit, and was immediately followed into the charts by “Sunlight” and “Darkness Darkness,” both written by Young for the Elephant Mountain release that same year.
Having established legendary status with hit singles and albums, the three remaining Youngbloods (Young, Banana, and Bauer) launched their own Raccoon Records and released four albums between 1970 and 1972; the studio recordings, Good & Dusty and High on a Ridgetop and two live recordings, Rock Festival and Ride the Wind. Jesse returned to recording solo albums in 1972 and released Together, which entered the Billboard Top 200 Album chart.
In September 1973, Jesse released what many critics claim is his solo masterpiece, Song for Juli, which stayed on the Billboard Top 200 chart for nearly a year
As one at the vanguard of social and political change in those days, Young vividly recalls the optimism of those turbulent times. “It was not only the music scene that was wide open in the 1960s. The wonderful feeling that anything was possible, musically or otherwise, was the most special part to me. I felt we created an alternate universe that existed side by side with the straight universe, peace and love in our universe and war and fear in the “real world.” Our dreams were very powerful but as people drifted away, that universe seems to have collapsed.”
But Young quickly realizes that the political messages in his music more than forty years ago can still offer wake-up calls to a sleepy new generation wired into consumerism. “It’s scary. We’re rehearsing the songs like ‘Light Shine’ and I go over the lyrics and think about the phrase ‘the world being dark with fear’ and I think it’s probably worse now. It’s funny how all those lyrics resonate.”
Though the Youngbloods broke up in 1972, Young continued his mission to address social and political issues through his music. Through all he has written or sung, Young has always looked to be much more than just a performing musician. At the core, he is one with a social conscience. I asked, “You are a musician who, like Jackson Browne or Bonnie Raitt, uses that platform to shed light on injustices.”
“All of the singers you mentioned were part of a group that supported American Indian self-determination and their rights to pursue the fulfillment of treaties that our government signed and then ignored 150 years ago. That small group was also the beginning of the musical impetus behind the No Nukes movement.
“I think music is an amplifier. The No Nukes movement wouldn’t have been anything if it hadn’t already been in place on a nuts and bolts level of people organizing in their communities trying to stop the building of nuclear power plants. We amplified that cause. With Jackson and Bonnie, we were able to raise a lot of money to fund those little groups. We didn’t invent it; I was just a parent watching public television with my children and reacting to those facts.”
When he’s not in Hawaii tending to his coffee farm, Young finds time to revive those magical moments. Traveling with a four-piece band called Celtic Mambo, which includes his wife of more than thrity years, Connie, on electric violin, Young will revisit his timeless hits. Yet he’s quick to point out that his shows are not another 1960’s revival act.
“’Get Together’ will not sound like it did with the Youngbloods. Instead, there will be electric violin and we’ll be singing harmonies. We’re playing the songs that I’ve written over the years and doing them in a new format that’s turning me on now. I still get that electric feeling when I’m singing those songs. It’s channeling. Because I haven’t done it for a while, I’m anxious to touch it again. When we can’t enjoy this, that’ll be the end of it. But we’re all still growing musically and we enjoy each other, so I don’t see an end to it.”
Art Tipaldi is the editor of Blues Revue.
About the Author: