And then there were the stories …
It wasn’t until Woody Guthrie played a personal six-hour set in his college dorm room that Glenn Yarbrough truly embraced folk music.That was more than 50 years ago. And if there’s anything that’s certain about this guy who’s been making records since 1951, it’s that he’s still got a lot of stories in him.Yarbrough is considered by many to be the king of folk. And although he can claim as many albums as he can years of life – 75 – the stories never get old.Two years ago, Yarbrough finally gave up his second passion; second to making music, that is – sailing. In an attempt to compensate for not feeling the ocean breeze in his hair and being able to stare across an expanse of water to the endless horizon, Yarbrough had a lighthouse built on the lake across the water from his house in Mexico, just to remind himself of life at sea.”I used to go single-handed sailing across the ocean,” Yarbrough said last week from his (primary) California home. “It’s a pretty difficult thing to do. If something happens to you, you’re finished, I thought, at 73, it was a good time to quit. I miss it so much. I do all my work through a lighthouse window.”Part of his work of late includes a new radio show, the star of which sounds vaguely recognizable. Yarbrough has not found a home for the program yet, but is optimistic that an audience is out there.”It’s about an old guy who has had a lot of experiences and adventure,” he said of his show. “Now he’s too old to do that. Now all he can do is take his wisdom down and put it on paper.” Rubbing shoulders, polishing stringsThrow a name out there. Any name. Yarbrough’s path has crossed those of about every personality in the music industry over the last half-century. Some have had a more profound on him than others. Woody Guthrie being at the top of the list.
“When I started working many years ago, everything was about pop music. It was all moon june spoon. I didn’t care about that,” Yarbrough said. “When I was going to college in ’49, ‘ 50, ‘ 51, I used to go and sing at the clubs in Annapolis after the midshipmen. There was Sinatra – all of those big individuals, not many groups – but, to me, the lyrics never meant much, so I never was enamored with it. But, one night, it was a concert by Woody Guthrie. I had never heard folk music before. He lived the life. I just sat and listened and his songs were so meaningful and heart-rendering. It really struck me. I went up to him after the concert, and he came up to my room and sang from about 11 p.m. to 5 in the morning, just for me and my friends. Later on, I met Josh White. He really helped me a lot. When Josh White died, I helped his son become successful. Josh White was a great folk singer.”The music of White and Guthrie fit into the vein of Yarbrough’s own soul.”It was what I was looking for,” he said. “Before, I’d like to sing, but I didn’t sing music that didn’t mean anything. As a folk singer, as a singer of lyrics that mean something, you suppress your ego and bring your lyrics to what can be open. Some of the old pop songs, the lyrics never meant too much.”That’s not to say there’s nothing Yarbrough admires about the likes of Frank Sinatra, with whom Yarbrough also shares a history.Frankie goes through folkland”I did, I met him,” Yarbrough said of Sinatra. “I was working at The Hungry Eye in San Francisco. My girlfriend at the time, the matredi, had both of her legs run over. Her legs were cut off at the hips. She was a gorgeous girl, she just didn’t have any legs. Sinatra came in one day. He had had everything else, so he asked if he could go out with her. This was in the late ’60s. There were some things I admired him for. His phrasing was pretty good. But this woman, many years later, in the late ’80s, she had a head-on collision on the Bay Bridge. You’d think, if there were any justice in the world, it would have cut off those wooden legs. But, what happened was, she had her face torn off. Sinatra heard about it and put about a half-million dollars into reforming her face. I admired him for that.”When it came to music, however, there was a time when Sinatra enlisted Yarbrough’s advice.”At the time I was working with Rod McKuen,” Yarbrough said. “(Sinatra) tried to sing some of Rod’s songs and he wasn’t able to do it. He had talked to me about what was wrong with the way he sang it. I said, it’s singing folk singing folk songs for the lyrics. You need to think about the lyrics and not the way you sing it, not singing it like you’re a sexy, handsome guy.”What’s the story got to do with it?
Since Yarbrough’s early days, folk music, like rock or any other genre, has undergone a metamorphoses. The definition itself has become much more all-encompassing than it was 40 years ago.”The strict definition to me is music that’s handed down from generation to generation -orally, not in written form,” Yarbrough said. “My father handed down (many of) the songs I’ve sung over the years. But, that just doesn’t happen any more. I guess it’s because, in the old days, that was the way to tell a story. It took the place of news. You’d sing a song about some activity that was happening. It was striking, and that would go down the generations. Everything now-a-days is instantaneous. But, folk musicians pick music and write music that’s deeper than most.”As to his own music, Yarbrough, for years, had no idea how deeply it was impacting people. It was this realization that has helped keep the flame of passion burning for singing and performing.”It’s something I never really understood when I was young,” Yarbrough said. “I thought (making music) was an easy way to make a living. I didn’t think my work meant anything. I didn’t treat it with any kind of respect. I never met any fans. I’d do a concert and rush out of the dressing room door. I’d be driving around the block before the applause even started. I never knew what I did influenced people and made them feel better. One day, my manager said, ‘You should come outside and sign some autographs.’ I started meeting people.”The people along the wayTo Yarbrough’s surprise, many of his most adoring fans were war veterans.”I was a soldier in the Korean War,” he said. “In the Vietnam War – it was a pretty demoralizing war – I didn’t even know they were playing my music in Vietnam. Many of the veterans come to see me now. Signing an autograph or a CD, there was a time when they feinted. I’m not talking about women.”Yarbrough, with his trademark prowess for enrapturing an audience, has perfected the art of talking people through their initial state of being starstruck when they meet him.”I’m kind of a loner anyway,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy being treated like a star. If you just meet people and talk to them like real people – I’ve learned to do it – they stop issuing that adulation to you. I’ve found ways to eliminate that and get through to the right people. It’s osmosis. I treat any encounter in my personal life as that – personal – not something that happens because I’m a singer. There have been many moments when I’ve been affected by people. I guess that’s why I stayed in (the music business). I should be retired by now.”Yarbrough said he has about seven brand new songs on tap to play Tuesday at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek. He hopes they’ll go seamlessly, but he’s not making any guarantees.
“In the old days, I could learn three, four, five songs a week. Some of these songs, I’ve been working on for a month. I hope I remember the lyrics and everything else. But, I don’t try to fake it when I forget it. Everybody seems to handle it.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado