By Richie Unterberger

When Bob Gibson's final Elektra album, Where I'm Bound, was released in 1964, the singer had been a mainstay of the folk revival for a decade. For all his considerable influence, however, his recordings had not often shown him to his best advantage. For the most part he had been a popularizer of folk tunes or folk-based material, rather than a composer of original songs. Too, his cheery approach and frequent interjections of humor had made him seem as much, or more, an entertainer as a serious artist. His charismatic onstage presence and accomplished skills on banjo and twelve-string guitar had inspired many younger musicians, yet those performers would soon surpass Gibson's achievements and commercial impact with more daring and contemporary folk-rock.

    Before the wave of newer singer-songwriters and folk-rockers completely overtook him, however, he issued the strongest album of the early phase of his career. On Where I'm Bound, he for the first time presented almost wholly original material, whether composed on his own or in conjunction with Shel Silverstein. There was a more serious, at times even somber, mindset and purpose to his vocal delivery and instrumental arrangements. At no other point in his discography was his vaunted twelve-string guitar playing as forceful, and his singing as high, clear, and engaging. As it turned out, it was also the last album of the early part of his career, as the folk boom gave way to electric rock, and Gibson retreated from the music business for several years.

    Since Gibson was first inspired to pick up a banjo after meeting Pete Seeger in 1953, his rise to the top of the folk world had been rapid. He began recording in the mid-1950s, and by the end of the decade may have been the most popular folk artist in the Midwest, often working out of Chicago's top folk club, the Gate of Horn. Gate of Horn co-owner Albert Grossman, at the beginning of a managerial career that would see him handle Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Janis Joplin, and many other folk and rock luminaries, took on Gibson as one of his first clients. (In fact Grossman originally intended to build a vocal trio with two male and one female voice around Gibson, but it didn't work out, though Grossman successfully applied the idea to three other clients who formed Peter, Paul & Mary.) Gibson gave crucial boosts to the careers of two folk icons himself by inviting a then-little-known Joan Baez to share the stage with him at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, and bringing a then-unsigned Judy Collins from Denver to open for him at the Gate of Horn in 1960. Gibson would also recommend Collins to Elektra president Jac Holzman, helping to launch her reign as a top recording artist.

    Yet the huge commercial breakthroughs of Baez, Collins, and Peter, Paul & Mary eluded Gibson during the early-1960s folk boom. In part this was because of a worsening drugs problem that Gibson would struggle with until the end of the 1970s. But it was also because his records were not maximizing his creative potential. His first Elektra album had been an odd (and fairly commercially successful, at least in terms of the folk market) 1960 concept LP of Ski Songs, and a little-noted instance of a pre-Beatles recording by a folkie to employ some electric guitar. 1961's Yes I See also used additional musicians, including black female vocalists and top session guitarist Tommy Tedesco. One of its songs, the Bob Gibson-Hamilton Camp composition "You Can Tell the World," would be covered by Simon & Garfunkel on their first album.

    Simon & Garfunkel were likely among the musicians influenced by the Gibson & Camp 1961 duo LP At the Gate of Horn (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), an album that Roger McGuinn of the Byrds cited in MOJO magazine as the record that changed his life. But Gibson & Camp did not remain together for long, and when Gibson's next solo Elektra effort, Where I'm Bound, appeared, it marked his first release in three years.

    In that period he had begun to place a much greater emphasis on his own songwriting, often in collaboration with cartoonist and children's book author Shel Silverstein. Silverstein was a talented folk songwriter too, though he is far more famed for the novelty hits he penned, such as Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and Dr. Hook's "The Cover of Rolling Stone." "[Where I'm Bound] had tons of my own songs," observed Gibson in the autobiography he co-wrote with Carole Bender, I Come for to Sing (Kingston Korner Books). "By then I was writing and I wasn't interested in doing traditional too much, or the traditional I was doing was so grossly arranged that it was hardly related to the traditional form anymore."

    Listen to the title cut, and you can hear the passionate, exhortatory folk-gospel blend heard in some of Simon & Garfunkel's early material, and more noticeably in the early work of Phil Ochs. The Ochs-Gibson lineage was also pronounced in tracks like "The Waves Roll Out," which had a tone similar to Ochs' early material. The Gibson-Ochs connection is not incidental; the pair would write a couple of songs together, "One More Parade" and "Too Many Martyrs," that appeared on Ochs' Elektra debut album, All the News That's Fit to Sing.

    Another highlight on Where I'm Bound was the instrumental "12-String Guitar Rag," a deft showcase of the skills that so inspired a young Roger McGuinn when he was a teenager in the audience for Gibson's sets at the Gate of Horn. The most outstanding song on the record was the haunting "The Town Crier's Song," co-written with Hamilton Camp, and covered to great effect by Judy Collins on her 1964 album #3. As a further testament to the Gibson-Collins-McGuinn influence, incidentally, that Collins LP was largely arranged by McGuinn, who also contributed second guitar and banjo, and had yet to found the Byrds.

    After the release of Where I'm Bound, Gibson would not issue any other recordings in the 1960s, going as far as to virtually retire from music for about three years. Returning to the public eye with a self-titled album on Capitol in 1970, he continued to record and perform until his death in 1996, sometimes with old partner Hamilton Camp. He also ventured into children's music, wrote a musical play about poet Carl Sandburg, and produced seven Tom Paxton albums. Where I'm Bound, however, remains the best way to get acquainted with his talents as a singer-songwriter. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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