By Richie Unterberger
Folk-rock was a year-and-a-half away from even getting a name when Judy Henske's High Flying Bird was released in January 1964. If ever there was a song recorded prior to 1964 that pointed the way to folk-rock, however, "High Flying Bird" was it. There was a fat bass line, tense drums, raucous 12-string guitar, hypnotic minor-keyed melody, and gripping lyrics of a miserable earth-bound narrator envying the freedom of birds sailing through the sky. It was a blast that dragged folk music into the future, its engine Henske's anguished, low wailing bluesy vocal, projecting both inconsolable torment and the ecstasy of flight.
"High Flying Bird" was just one side, however, of a musical flight that knew few boundaries. As on her Elektra debut, 1963's live Judy Henske (also reissued by Collectors' Choice Music), the singer mixed traditional folk and blues with jazz, pop, and Dixieland, as well as a few hints of rock'n'roll. The key difference was that this time around, the sounds were all recorded in the studio, minus the lengthy, comic introductions that were trademarks of her live shows. Henkse feels Elektra's decision to make her follow-up a studio affair was deliberate. "I think that they thought, 'Well, you know, she's done this live thing.' And High Flying Bird was a big success, for me and Elektra."
On a few songs -- most notably "High Flying Bird," but other tracks as well -- Henske was backed by a full band, including Jack Marshall on guitar, John Forsha on twelve-string guitar, Bill Montgomery on bass, and legendary New Orleans/Los Angeles R&B/rock session vet Earl Palmer on drums. This was a radical step at a time when purist folk audiences disdained electric instruments of any sort, as well as drums and full bands that even hinted at rock or pop. Not that this bothered Judy much.
"I wasn't what I call a dulcimer girl," she emphasizes. "I was a beltin' person. I had a harder edge to what I was doing. I wanted drums. They said, 'Well, you can't have drums. Judy Collins doesn't have drums. Joan Baez doesn't have drums.' And I said, 'But they're sopranos and I'm not, and I want drums.' And I had John Forsha doing a very heavy backup kinda rhythm."
"High Flying Bird" itself was written by Billy Ed Wheeler, "a country-folk crossover singer-songwriter," elaborates Forsha. "I believe we learned the song from his recording. The arrangement was organic, evolving from our learning and rough-arranging the song and then giving it to Marshall. Jazz guitarist Jack Marshall sort of co-produced/arranged with Judy and Curly Walters. Jack also booked the players, including 'Baby Earl' [Palmer] and bassist Montgomery. I agree that the song could be called folk-rock although that wasn't our intent. We took a country-folk song, head-arranged it, and gave it to a jazz combo. Although hindsight is 20/20, I don't believe anybody was thinking rock at the time. Although Judy was originally a folk singer, she was rapidly broadening her material. Judy always went for the song/lyric first, without regard for the genre."
There's no doubt that "High Flying Bird" was hugely influential on nascent folk-rockers, however. It was covered by the Au Go-Go Singers, the lead vocal taken by a pre-Buffalo Springfield Stephen Stills. It was done by the Jefferson Airplane at one of their first recording sessions in late 1965, and sung by the group at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (as captured, in part, in the Monterey Pop film). The We Five, Carolyn Hester, and H.P. Lovecraft are just some of the other folk and folk-rock-rooted acts that cut the tune. Notes Henske, "Billy Ed Wheeler thanked me through somebody else for singing 'High Flying Bird' in the first place, because it opened the door for everybody else who sang it."
Of course there was much more to High Flying Bird than the title track. "Buckeye Jim," a fine reflection of her more serious folk leanings, was one of several traditional tunes on the record to which Henkse added new words. In fact, she believes that the original "Buckeye Jim" had just one verse, tripling in the length after she penned two additional ones. "Lonely Train" had the dramatic accelerating tempos and brooding melody that typified performances by early-'60s folkies like Dino Valenti. "Till Real Thing Comes Along" and "Baltimore Oriole," the latter co-written by Hoagy Carmichael, demonstrated her facility for putting a folk-blues bent on pop tunes. In a jazzier vein were the Billie Holiday standard "God Bless the Child" and "Blues Chase Up a Rabbit." Both "Charlotte Town" and "Columbus Stockade" harked back to her early folkie days; she had sung the latter tune "onstage when I just appeared with my banjo."
"Oh, You Engineer" was co-authored by Henske and Shel Silverstein, an accomplished folk songwriter who would become more famous as a cartoonist and children's book author, as well as for writing novelty hits like Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and Dr. Hook's "The Cover of Rolling Stone." Silverstein also found time to write liner notes for High Flying Bird that were quite daringly irreverent for the time, accusing Henske of making "a mockery of marriage and motherhood," and encouraging her to "associate herself with a more respectable record label which could further her career and forget about [Elektra president] Jac Holzman who would sooner fly airplanes anyway." Like several songs on her Elektra albums, "Oh, You Engineer" featured elderly trombonist Streamline Ewing, whose sound Henske tapped, she declares with typical frankness, when she wanted "more of that blues-whorehouse kind of trombone."
While her association with Elektra came to an end after High Flying Bird, Henske continued to record until the early 1970s, both as a soloist, as half of a duo with Jerry Yester (on the cult psychedelic classic Farewell Aldebaran), and as part of the band Rosebud, which included her husband Craig Doerge. After nearly thirty years of retirement from the recording scene, she issued Loose in the World in 2000, for which she was hailed by Dave Marsh in Playboy as "beyond all categories except 'legendary' and 'great.'"
as well, recording a live album in late 2000 with Doerge and other
that varies between full band arrangements and smaller groups,
with just a piano as accompaniment. Featuring some new material penned
by her and Doerge, it also "has my introductions, and the poems that I
do that are accompanied by jazz, 'cause I wanted to do another live
like Judy Henske. I'm thrilled about it. It's fun to take a
'cause it keeps you alive." For more information about Henske's present
and past work, see her website, www.judyhenske.com.
-- Richie Unterberger
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