By Richie Unterberger

With his 1965 Elektra album Five & Twenty Questions (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), Mark Spoelstra had established  himself as a folk singer-songwriter of conscience. Outside of the recording studio, too, he had established himself as a man of conscience. Even as his recording career gained momentum, he'd opted to perform alternative service in a poor, black rural Central Californian community rather than serve in military uniform, years before pursuing alternatives to fighting in the Vietnam War became commonplace. Indeed, when Five & Twenty Questions came out, he was unable to perform in support of its release, as he still had some time left to fulfill on his alternative service obligation.

    "I was doing some local [performing] in Fresno, but that was about it," says Spoelstra today. "I was under some pretty strict rules. We weren't in prison, but we were paid ten dollars a month the first year, and fifteen dollars a month the second year. We weren't allowed to have an automobile, and were discouraged from trying to make money in any other way. We were allowed to have a motorcycle. So when I got the royalty money from the [Harry] Belafonte recording [of 'My Love Is Like a Dewdrop,' a song from Five & Twenty Questions], I was able to buy a second-hand motorcycle. That's what Richard Fariña refers to on the back [cover liner notes of Five & Twenty Questions], riding my motorcycle to Big Sur. [Five & Twenty Questions] was emotionally and spiritually something that kept me alive for that time period. It really helped me to have a sense of worth, and hope for the future for when I got out of alternative service."

    For his follow-up LP State of Mind, Elektra again teamed him with producer Paul Rothchild, though Peter Siegel also took on some of the production duties. Like Five & Twenty Questions, it would feature just Spoelstra's vocals and acoustic guitar, on a set of entirely original material. Although he finished his alternative service around the beginning of the fall of 1965, as Mark notes, "I was pretty much into the mindset of continuing as a peace activist songwriter. I was continuing on with anti-war sentiments, and some of the influence from the alternative service was very much in State of Mind as well. ['Too Late'] relates to some of my feelings on alternative service. It certainly was an expression of complete frustration with the continuance of the Vietnam War."

    Such sentiments, mixed in with other strands of social consciousness, are very much a part of songs such as "Guns of Our Cities" and the particularly stark "Soulless Blues." Though State of Mind included a few children-oriented songs as well, these too also reflected some social concerns. "When you have pretty sharp, jabbing things  like 'Soulless Blues' and 'Guns of Our Cities' and the protest songs about children, that's pretty far out," Spoelstra acknowledges. "I have a friend that actually sings one of those  songs ['Gimme Gimme'] still, and I cringe every time I hear it, because it sounds so anti-kid, and I didn't really want it to sound that way. I wanted to have a legitimate reason to say, hey, you know, sometimes kids misbehave, and do it with a lot of consistent meanness. Some of these poor kids out in the rural black community were consistently looking upon us white playground directors, or bus drivers, or whatever we were doing, as a meal ticket. So a lot of begging started going on. You tried to explain to them that 'we're getting fed, but on fifteen dollars a month, we don't have any potato chips. We don't have any candy money. And besides, that's not why we're here.' And they just didn't give a shit, and would do some pretty mean things sometimes. So that was a protest song about bad behavior in children. I don't think it's so legitimate anymore. 'Play Run Run' was a good one, though."

    Asked to see where he saw his stylistic place in the groundswell of young singer-songwriter talent emerging from the folk world in the early and mid-1960s, Mark muses, "One thing that comes to my mind immediately is that I was rooted firmly in the Scottish-American ballad song form, and also the blues form. The blues form freed me up a lot in terms of not being required to tell a story. Whenever I wrote a ballad-type thing, I was very strict in my form. Like a lot of Scottish and Irish songs are, and English songs, they're very, very strict about what works and what doesn't. That form for me was not constricting; that form gave me a solid place to work. Whereas the blues just freed me up. I would sometimes use the same form for the blues; for example, the Brownie McGhee/Sonny Terry influence that was so strong with me was a strict, so many beats per measure kind of blues form. But then there was the other kind of blues form too that you pretty much just changed chords when you felt like it, and you didn't necessarily play 4/4 or sixteen bars or eight bars. You could play five bars. A lot of these old blues singers would consistently do that, drop a few beats here and there, and I was notorious for that as well. It was pretty hard for me to get in the studio with a band, because I didn't know how to count to four, really. I didn't have to as a solo artist. You get a band playing with you, you gotta count, man."

    At the same time, he adds, "I think making songs topical, having a spiritual protest vote in the songs, was something that I didn't perceive myself as doing. But I felt that I was a part of a very unique group. It was really like a calling. It was like an exodus, like Jews returning to Israel. We didn't know exactly why we were doing this, but we were there, and it was so exciting to me to be a part of  this energy, and a part of this purpose. We weren't all religious, we weren't all not religious. There was just this strong belief that at least on my part that I was gonna try to change the world, [though] I don't think I did, really. We weren't all necessarily the best of friends, but because of personality differences and when things got competitive commercially, it got a little more ugly than when we were all just full of the joy of being called."

    With a cover picture taken in the kitchen of his friend and fellow folk singer Guy Carawan, State of Mind was released in January 1966. This time Spoelstra was able to perform in support of the LP, and he toured for about five months, "just trying to get back into the swing of things, and the gigging," going to Europe as well as various parts of the US. But State of Mind didn't do as well as Five & Twenty Questions had, and Elektra dropped the singer-songwriter from its roster. "I didn't get as much response from this album as I did for Five & Twenty," he recalls. "I don't know why." As for Elektra's reaction, he adds, "There was no ceremony after State of Mind was made. There wasn't any more contact with me at all. There was not even a note saying, 'That's all we're gonna do, Mark.' They just took off. That's one of the depressing things about the music business. People make such friendly and excited plans and contracts. But the bottom line, if it doesn't at least pay for itself, and a little bit more, you're out of luck."

    A couple of the tracks did find an audience through unexpected channels. "'Too Late' was used in an underground protest film on the soundtrack," Spoelstra says. "They never asked permission; I just happened to have seen the film, and there it was. 'This Man,' it's a cooking 12-string jam, it just charges, but it has a kind of spiritual nature, and for some reason it caught on in France. For many years, I've gotten royalties from France on that one song. I don't get much royalties now, but for a while, they were quite active."

    After a few years without a label, Mark did manage to record  a rare self-titled 1969 album on Columbia, produced by James Guercio (who was then hot with Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears). "It was done at a time when folk, as I had been doing it on the previous four albums, just wasn't gonna cut the mustard anymore," concedes Spoelstra. "So this was more commercial than anything I'd previously done. [Guercio's] backers wanted him to drop me; all they wanted was money, and they could see money with Chicago. But I got some of my old friends, and I had a band, and we were trying to go more commercial. I got Mitch Greenhill, I had Jim Gordon playing drums, and Michael Deasy played lead guitar. We had some good stuff going on there. But Guercio almost didn't finish it, and didn't talk to me for about four or five months after we had already recorded a number of songs. I think he just felt like he'd gotten himself into something that wasn't gonna make any money. So he did decide finally, after pressure from me, that he should follow his word, and follow through on what he said he was gonna do. So we finished it, and there was very little promotion, if any. Not anywhere near as much as Elektra had done. But he took two of the songs and put them in the soundtrack of his movie, Electric Glide in Blue. I still get royalties from that, and people that remember Electric Glide in Blue remember me as the artist on there. So I did make more money on the Columbia album, although it's harder to find [than the Elektra LPs]."

    Spoelstra did record a few more albums for other labels, and is still writing and  performing, releasing the Out of My Hands CD on Origin Jazz Library in 2001. (For information about his ongoing work, visit his website, Looking back at his Elektra material, he surmises, "In those days I was growing as a new songwriter. I was growing from a folk-based, fairly tight discipline, but not very erudite, and not very mature in many ways as a songwriter. I am still growing. I didn't stop growing after the '60s."

    And he's happy to find that his Elektra albums are still remembered. As he admits, when he was dropped by Elektra after those two LPs, "I felt a little bit dejected about that. Anybody would. You build up plans, you have excitement, you work hard, you write hard, and for it to amount to what seems to be a failure—that was very difficult for me. Now, forty years later, I'm hearing from people that didn't consider either of these records a failure, in fact consider both of them very unique. And so, I'm rewarded now for something that I did believe in. I knew I was doing something very different, and not commercial. But I was doing something that I was true to, and doing what my heart dictated to me to do as a writer, and as a guitarist. I didn't think that forty years later I was going to have this sense of worth, this welling up in my heart after all these years. I don't care how many record companies dropped me. It's really a wonderful, wonderful thing." -- Richie Unterberger


contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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