Cover photo by Brent Cline
As far as music eras go, the 1960s are incredibly hard to dismiss. It was, after all, the generation that revolutionized music and introduced a special little thing called rock-n-roll. Free love, anti-war, feminism, civil and gay rights movements—these are just a few of the social and political seeds that struck emotion and planted hits into the minds of the artist we know and love today. Jesse Colin Young, who helped found the dynamic ‘60s folk/rock band, The Youngbloods, is one of those artists. His widely-popular recording of the song “Get Together," originally written by Dino Valenti, was released in 1967. The song—a brand of brotherhood, love, and peace—was a Hot 100 hit and is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the flower power era.
I was lucky enough to get a phone call from the New York City-born singer/song writer and “Get Together” was a topic of discussion.
You have an upcoming show at City Winery Nashville. What is your favorite memory associated with Nashville?
Well, I think I only played there once and it was in a little theatre. My soundman, while we were doing the sound check, said, “You know right in this spot you’re standing…I hugged Dolly Parton right in this spot.” I now live in the south, fairly close to Nashville, and I’m about to start getting to know it because I think that’s the next place I want to record. I have a young band so we are going to go for a couple of days and look at some studios. I have some friends in the music business there.
You’re touring for the first time in a while. How’s your tour going so far?
It’s wonderful. I had no, uh, had no intention when I quit seven years ago of ever doing this again.
Can’t get away from it, can ya?
Yeah, you don’t want to say never. My son was graduating not this past spring but the one before from Berklee College of Music. I went up there to hear his senior recital and a lot of the young people playing just blew me away and a light came on somewhere inside me and said, "I want to hear these young people play my music and I want to be there in the middle of it."
What is the biggest difference between playing music back then and playing music now?
I’m not sure there is a difference. For me, a lot of the time, I play with the same people. I miss the free music. There was a lot of that in San Francisco. That was how we built an audience, really. When we moved there in 1967 we had a record on the radio. Not sure if you knew, but “Get Together” came out twice. It came out in the "Summer of Love," which was not yet called the "Summer of Love," and it was a hit just on the West coast. Mainly on the North coast from San Francisco to Settle. For us, we were starving in New York, we flew out there, walked into the ballroom. We never saw so much hair in our lives. You know the rest of the band was still wearing suits and ties…we knew it was time to take off those funky street clothes. We found a home just like that. We finished our record in New York City (the earth music we were making) and packed our stuff and moved.
That is a time period I definitely wish I could have experienced.
Yes, several of the young people in the band, our guitar player especially, he always says it was a marvelous period of music and it was. I mean you could turn on FM radio and hear an hour of music you had never heard before. Nobody sounded like anybody else. It was all different. It was incredible. A musician like myself could turn on the radio and learn things and be inspired by it.
Who were your main influences?
I came up in folk music so I had a lot of heroes in folk music. Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, Lightning Hawkins. I got to know Lightin’ and John. T-Bone Walker, though I never got to meet him. When we were playing folk music, the fellow I formed the Youngbloods with, Jerry Corbitt, he lived in Cambridge. Cambridge was the center of the folk scene. We started to get to know each other and he started to come to my gigs. Everybody was playing solos back then and um, he started singing with me in a beautiful baritone voice that you hear underneath mine in “Get Together” and then we kind of just looked at each other and I said, “Wow, pop music doesn’t have to be stupid. Maybe we should get some amplifiers.”
That was a big inspiration right there. We got into it and then we couldn’t find a bass player. We had three guitar players. One of them was me. The other guys were both more into the lead guitar. I thought, you know if McCartney can do this, I can do it. I mean, I know all the route chords of the songs. I went and bought a bass and learned how to play bass. By the time we made “Get Together” I might have been playing a year or maybe less. I don’t know.
I always find that it’s harder for a band to find a bass player than anything else.
Yeah, why is that?
I don’t know but it’s seen a lot. I think a lot of people maybe find the guitar, I don’t know, cooler, maybe?
When my son went to school, Berklee College of Music, you know the bass department, I think…I remember he told me there were maybe 300 bass players…there was 1500 or 1800 guitarist. Yeah, that’s the ratio. That’s why bass players are hard to find. There are fewer of them. My son plays bass, six string, and he’s a marvelous bass player. He helped me put this young band together.
I see people either on YoutTube or blogging sites talking about how much your music and the song “Get Together” in particular still resonates with them to this today. Did you expect it to be an age-old hit?
No. I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I wasn’t sure I’d make it past 30-years-old or if I could be trusted once I turned 30. It just happened. It is a gorgeous song. I did not write that song. Dino Valenti wrote it and I discovered it in Grantsville when the Youngbloods were first starting out at an open mic at the Café a GoGo. It just blew me away and I rushed back stage. Buzzy Linhart was playing it. I rushed back stage and said, "Dude! I have to have these lyrics. Please write them up for me.”
I took them to the Youngbloods the next day. It was magic in the studio. It had been recorded before. The Kingston Trio recorded it in 1964. The Jefferson Airplane recorded it and a couple of other people. Hamilton Camp, who is a wonderful folk singer and became a television actor, did a beautiful version of “Get Together” but his album, like so many folk albums, were not selling very well. It was just magic. When I fell in love with that song I knew that I had discovered my life long partner. That song is just incredibly mystical and exponential for the 60s and the dilemma the existential dilemma that was facing all of us.
"Get Together" is still listened to today. People find strength in it even during this time period and era and the things happening.
I think I’m singing it today because my country needs me. It's become a polarized placed. It's very different. There was a lot of polarisation back then too and, of course, a lot of us were on the chopping block for Vietnam. It was a life or death issue. Now, with this string of hatred and bigotry that has just boiled up, or come to the surface anyway, we are once again, in a way, since the Trump presidency, I think, we are really more and more opposed. Two or three or four sides opposed to each other. Polarized. "Get Together" is a song that says life is beyond that. I don’t want to make the angels cry. I want to make the mountains ring. And I think that’s why I’m back out here. I had no plans to do this. To put together a band and start playing again during the 50th anniversary of the summer of love. It all just happened...the way that I walked into a club and found "Get Together" and thought, "This is it. This is my future. This is my life partner." And certainly the last show I played on this earth will have "Get Together" in it.
Outside of the Youngbloods, you have an impressive discography. Do you have a favorite album?
No, they all have their favorite parts, and really, the process of recording is difficult and stressful for most musicians. When you play live the mistakes that you make (when you play a wrong chord) it comes and it's gone. Most people don’t even know it’s there. Live music just goes into the air and then just flies up into the cosmos and goes wherever it goes. Recording is more painstaking, but there is a great joy that comes meeting the challenge. I think all of my records have those places that I can remember or those songs that were hard to get or had to be changed or just difficult to get a great take of.
You’re a big songwriter. What are some of your inspirations?
I write from my life. I have to submit to that process. It’s always been like magic to me. A song will come to me and I'll experience something that could have been five years ago or five minutes and it triggers something in me that says this moment needs to be memorialized or made part of memory. Sometimes I think of myself as a reporter through the generations. I have to experience something to report in. I’m kind of a free will reporter. I’m not paid by the hour. I have to run across something that triggers a desire in me to take that photograph of this moment, whether it’s something that happened in the woods or something that happened in the street or something I read.
As far as music goes, who are you listening to nowadays? Any favorite artist?
My daughter. My daughter just graduated this spring from business school. She’s 22-years-old and has been a song writer since she was 13. I always thought she should give it a go because she’s very talented and has a beautiful voice. She is my hope child and my last. I have always wanted a singer in the family cause my mother was a beautiful singer and the voice has passed down. Part of it must be genetic. She’s just released her first single. It’s on Spotify. Her name is Jazzie Young. It’s amazing. She just made this decision three weeks ago. She’s been working with a local guy here in our small town in South Carolina doing very modern sounding stuff that I have no idea how to produce.
I see that you’re now in the coffee business. What’s been your favorite part about running that different type of business?
The Ridgetop house burnt down in a forest fire in 1995. When the house burned down, I wanted to move to Hawaii. We had a little house out there. Two bedrooms. I was brought up in New York City. I was ready for the adventure of being a farmer. I think being close to the earth, learning all these things I had to learn about coffee, which is one of my favorite beverages, helped to heal me. Losing the Ridgetop house was a tremendous loss. I never dreamed that would happen to me and everything in it…just..when your house disappears overnight in a forest fire…your house was gone. The fire was so hot it burnt most of the cement columns that held up the house. It’s a traumatic experience.
I couldn’t imagine. Here recently in Gatlinburg, TN there was a forest fire. They had to evacuate. I know a lot of people lost their houses and businesses.
Yes, Gatlinburg, yes! I remember when it happened. When it happened, oh man. I felt like I was right there with the people thinking, “God I hope the wind turns and your houses don’t burn because it’s hell.”
I imagine it brought you straight back to your experience.
It did. We have a house up in the mountains. It’s on the other side of the Smokey's and the heat is wicked in the summer. There was drought. We had fires going near there. We were doing a lot of praying then.
Do you ever miss New York City?
No. I was born and raised there. I spent six or seven years living on the lower east side. It’s a pretty skinny living. A quarter of a century was enough for me.
I love the city, but I am a country girl and would definitely miss the wide open spaces.
I wrote songs about the country when I was in New York. I was bitten by that bug early on. When we discovered San Francisco and found that we had a hit record there (and that we could work instead of starving in New York) we moved out there. We moved out to the north and that’s where I built the Ridgetop house.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. We are looking forward to having you in Nashville and I am definitely looking forward to checking Jazzie out.
Do. Do check Jazzie out. I bet she’s going to be a star. She’s a star in her father's eyes. It takes a lot of building and a lot of work. You have to give yourself to it once you make up your mind. You have got to be devoted and got to have a strong desire and just stay on it. Sometimes it takes ten years. Sometimes longer.
I know that she is going to have a lot of great advice from you.
Yeah, she will.
Thanks so much for calling in.
My pleasure. Take care.
Listen to the full interview here.