Friday, 21 April 2017


My obituary of Bruce Langhorne, the session guitarist & percusionist who inspired 'Mr Tambourine Man' is online at the Guardian now, you can link to it here. He was, as I say, a crucial, perhaps seminal figure in the transition from folk music into rock; a brilliantly creative guitarist who added what you might think of as 'lead' guitar to the strumming and fingerpicking of folk. Only his 'lead' was more counterpoint. In fact, his best playing has that kind of just hitting the very edges of the melody, like Thelonius Monk on folk guitar. He was the session guy on so many of the crucial folk records on Vanguard, Elektra, and of course Dylan's Columbia records. And that photo of him, Dylan, and Bill Lee playing with Carolyn Hester on her first record in 1961 is a perfect moment of frozen time.

Bringing It All Back Home is probably the pivotal album for Bob Dylan, opening the door for Highway 61 and his live touring with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper and then with The Band. I've tried hard to try to pick out the bits of Langhorne and the bits of Al Gorgoni (Kenny Rankin also plays on the album) but you can easily hear how their interplay segues into Bloomfield on the next record. And it is not really a coincidence that Gorgoni plays on Al Kooper's records, especially the first Blood Sweat & Tears album.

But I was enthralled by Langhorne with Richard and Mimi Farina. I was listening to their song 'V' and then had to read Thomas Pynchon, and read Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, and be entranced by Mimi's voice, and autoharp, and guitar. It was a sort of time of magic innocence. There's a great picture of the three of them at Newport; Bruce is playing tambourine while Kooper sits in on guitar and Joan Baez seems to be hurrying onto the stage to get into the act. There are those who say that Dylan appropriated much of the psychedelic poet image from Farina (Mimi said Richard always hid the songs he was writing whenever Dylan came by) in much the same way Joan Baez took her singing style from Debbie Green. I'd like to think of it more as cross-pollination, but it is significant in an eerie sense that Farina died in a motorcyle accident coming back from his book launch on Mimi' birthday, and Dylan poses in a Triumph t-shirt on the cover of Highway 61.

I already knew Langhorne from folk albums, especially Odetta's.  And I remember their playing just before Martin Luther King spoke in Washington before the 300,000 people, though I must've seen it later on film. There was an interesting diversion to be written about the way, as folk melded into rock, black folk artists faded from the spotlight. Just as country blues singers gave way to the electric Chicago blues, and to white rock bands. One of the fascinating aspects of Langhorne's life was his moving between worlds; it was only a chance reference to his having a first wife who was a dancer, and whose name was Georgina, that led me to discover he (and Brother John Sellers) played with Alvin Ailey's dance troupe.

Avalanche is not one of my favourite Eric Andersen records; that's not Langhorne's fault, but he would have been better providing the edge when Andersen was singing more softly. I got the feeling that playing tasteful chops behind singers like Noel Harrison was probably a good motivation to play with Hugh Masekela; some versions say it was Masekela who introduced Bruce to Peter Fonda. I recommend The Hired Hand as a movie and also for Langhorne's score. I didn't remember that he'd done Stay Hungry, whose value seems to have diminished by our later perceptions of Arthur Schwartzenegger, but it was a piece of synchronicity that I should have been reviewing Warren Beatty's Howard Hughes movie just before I had to write Bruce Langhorne's obit: Jonathan Demme's Melvin And Howard says a lot about Hughes, a lot more than Beatty's does.

I originally started the piece with a thought about those who are not so much written out of history as never written into it, but then I realised although it sounded good, it didn't really apply to Bruce Langhorne. He's written into history for perhaps the wrong reason, but that serves as springboard to the vast spectrum of his music making. It was a privilege to be able to revisit his polyglot talent, and give it and him the recognition he deserves. And I'm gonna have to hunt down some Brother Bru Bru's Hot Sauce, for sure.

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