By Richie Unterberger

The early-to-mid-1960s saw an explosion of folk-based singer-songwriters who were expanding into unprecedented topical, spiritual, and personal lyrical concerns. Elektra Records recorded several such figures, including Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Tom Rush. Also in that crop was Mark Spoelstra, who drew upon traditional blues and folk forms for his own brand of expression, much of it informed by his peace activism and accomplished 12-string guitar work. His two mid-'60s Elektra LPs have become increasingly difficult to locate in the decades since their original appearance, but Collectors' Choice Music is finally making them widely available again via CD reissues forty years later.

    Raised in California, by the early 1960s Spoelstra, like many young folk singers of his generation, was performing in New York. There he befriended and sometimes performed with another recent arrival, Bob Dylan, and soon recorded a couple of albums of his own for Folkways. "I really respected Folkways because [they'd recorded] Leadbelly and a lot of the old blues singers and 12-string guitar players that I really admired, so I was hoping to start off with them," remembers Mark today. "I was under the impression almost anybody could record for Folkways. All they had to do was show up with a guitar. That turned out to be not true. [Folkways owner] Moe Asch, at that time, was seeing that times had changed. And I didn't know it at the time, but later I found out that he refused to sign Bob Dylan. Bob and I were really good friends at that time, and Bob had been really angry when I asked him to do a cover for me for a Folkways album. He was really ticked off, and acted really bizarre. I didn't know at the time that Folkways had refused to record him, but wanted to record me. So I was really excited about that. Moe Asch saw my excitement, and we had a contract, pretty much just verbal as I recall. He said, 'Just make two albums for me before you go on to another company.' And I said, 'You got a deal.' So we made two albums, and the day that I turned in the tape for the second album is the day I signed with Elektra."

    The songs on Spoelstra's Elektra debut Five & Twenty Questions, issued in January 1965, were moving into more original territory than the oft-blues-grounded material he'd cut for Folkways. "On those albums, I was more into the traditional blues, as well as ballads," says Mark of his Folkways output. "I could feel myself being pulled away from being a blues interpreter. I had written songs, but I didn't really have the nerve—I was terribly shy—to sing them to anybody. I'm pretty sure I was writing songs just before Bob was. But he wasn't shy! He just went out there and threw 'em out to the world. The Elektra stuff was still folk-based in terms of structure, the way I put the words together. But the subjects changed, because 1964 and 1965 were different times than we're living in now, except for the difficulty in explaining the wars."

    Such was Spoelstra's commitment to peace that at the time he recorded Five & Twenty Questions, he was fulfilling his draft commitment through alternative service (via work in a poor rural black Central Californian community) rather than joining a branch of the armed services. This was still quite an unusual decision among young men (let alone commercial recording artists) in 1963-65, though applying for conscientious objector status and performing alternative service in lieu of joining the armed services would become an increasingly popular option among draftees opposed to the Vietnam War by the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I became quite an active peace activist, and that was just bound to happen," he explains. "Because I was raised as a Quaker in Southern California, and I really believed that I was not going to put on a uniform, ever, except the possibility perhaps of becoming a medic and going in as a non-combatant. But I couldn't even do that. I really felt that it was just wiser to do something that was more positive, like community development work. That's what I did for two years."

    Continues Mark, "I was in the midst of doing that when I had a two-week vacation. Joanie Baez asked me to come to her festival in Big Sur, so I went up there with [Elektra producer] Paul Rothchild, and then we flew down to L.A. and recorded the album. Then I had to go back to finish my alternative service. It was really neat that [Elektra president] Jac Holzman honored my contract, because I knew I wasn't going to be out there singing. I wasn't going to be out there selling records. It was pretty cool of him to stick with me until I finished that two-year service, and then could start performing again."

    A number of the songs on Five & Twenty Questions were very much influenced by Spoelstra's experience in alternative service, in terms of both his decision to perform it and what he actually went through while he was doing it. (Indeed, the cover shot was taken right down the street from where he worked.) A challenge to accepted convention and commitment to peace and social justice were certainly present in the title cut, and peace advocacy also informed "White Winged Dove" and "Fife and Drum." Anti-racism was expressed in "Won't Allow Mankind to Rest," while "Just a Hand to Hold" was inspired by the young boy David Anthony Lee, a victim of a hit-and-run accident in the community in which Spoelstra was based. "White Winged Dove" and "Just a Hand to Hold" remain the two most requested songs from those albums; Joan Baez performed the latter one for a while, and according to Mark, "Judy Collins almost recorded it, but for some reason didn't. Maybe it was too sad, I don't know." "Just a Hand to Hold" did, however, find a place on the 1965 Elektra album by the duo Kathy & Carol, produced by Paul Rothchild after Spoelstra introduced him to the singers.

    The somber "Ballad of 12th Avenue" likewise took place in the same town, and at six-and-a-half-minutes is quite an opus by mid-'60s standards, coming not long after Bob Dylan had recorded compositions of similar groundbreaking length such as "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "With God on Our Side." "As writers, I think we really broke out of the box of two-and-a-half minutes," Spoelstra observes. "We were rebels in that sense, and felt like we could do anything that we felt was important enough to do. There was somebody who wanted to make a movie out of that song at one point, but I didn't trust the guy, so I didn't let him do it. But it would be a heck of a movie."

    There were lighter excursions on the record too. "My Love Is Like a Dewdrop" was covered by Harry Belafonte, whose ties to the folk scene were closer than is generally remembered; it was on a Belafonte release, for instance, that Dylan made one of his first appearances on record (as a harmonica player). The instrumentals "Jessie's Jump" and "Untitled Instrumental" showcased Spoelstra's skills as a 12-string guitar player; "Untitled Instrumental," in fact, should be instantly familiar to longtime listeners of public radio station WXPN in Philadelphia, as it was used as the theme song for its weekday folk program for years. "I would put in 12-string instrumentals just because I liked to do it," he notes. "It doesn't have any political or religious origin at all. One of the things that  pops up in the way I play is a very strong Furry Lewis [influence]—Furry Lewis influenced me to the bone. People say Mississippi John Hurt did, but not as much as Furry Lewis did. When I'm sitting down and writing a 12-string, Furry Lewis's soul will just come out on my fingers." A couple of additional blues-oriented Spoelstra tracks ("France Blues" and "She's Gone"), incidentally, appeared around this time on the Elektra various-artists anthology The Blues Project, though neither of them were included on Spoelstra's own Elektra solo LPs.

    Five & Twenty Questions was issued with admiring back cover liner notes by fellow folk singer-songwriter Richard Fariña, who also recorded for Elektra as a solo artist, though he contributed just a few tracks to a compilation LP (Singer Songwriter Project) before recording the bulk of his discography for Vanguard Records as half of a duo with his wife Mimi. As Spoelstra was still doing his alternative service, he was unable to tour to support the album. Nonetheless, he notes, "It sold more than any other record I ever made. It was very well received."

    Imprinted with a "review copy" stamp, it was even sent by Elektra to John Lennon, who had met the label's president when Jac Holzman traveled to London in 1965 to ask for permission to adapt Beatles songs into baroque classical arrangements for the album The Baroque Beatles Book. The copy that Lennon "reviewed," says Spoelstra, eventually surfaced years later, with some handwritten comments from the Beatle next to some of the track listings, such as "good lyrics" for "Won't Allow Mankind to Rest" and "good riffs" for "On the Road Again" and "My Love Is Like a Dewdrop." "On 'Dewdrop' he said, 'Good vocal sounds—cozy,'" Mark chuckles. "Then at the top, he says, 'Very hillbilly, folksy, Hank Williams sound, lots of good chords.'" Whether or not those comments made their way back to the Elektra brass is unknown, but the label was encouraged enough to record another album with Spoelstra soon afterward, State of Mind, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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