Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider Get Together, a terrific folk-rock song from the 60s. We will review the first recorded version by the Kingston Trio, and a cover of that song by Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods. We will finish up by discussing the importance of this song as a progressive anthem, and provide some examples of its use in various festivals in the 60s and 70s.
The Kingston Trio and Let’s Get Together:
The Kingston Trio were formed when junior high school buddies Dave Guard and Bob Shane from Honolulu, Hawaii teamed up with Nick Reynolds from San Diego. The trio caught the eye of publicist Frank Werber, who began coaching and training the group.
The budding young musicians assembled a playlist of folk songs and Caribbean melodies mixed in with pop and foreign tunes. Werber drove the Kingston Trio rather relentlessly, and the group polished their act until they mastered every detail. Even the apparently spontaneous banter between the musicians was meticulously rehearsed.
Here is the original lineup of the Kingston Trio, in their signature three-quarter length striped shirts. From L: Dave Guard, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds.
The Kingston Trio began appearing in California’s Bay Area folk clubs, built up an enthusiastic following, and followed that up with successful appearances at the top clubs in New York, Chicago and Boston.
After hitting paydirt in 1958 with their break-out folk song Tom Dooley, the Kingston Trio enjoyed phenomenal commercial success. Tom Dooley won them a Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Performance, as at the time no Grammy existed for folk song. That oversight was corrected the following year when the group’s second album won the first Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
While most folk-singers toiled away in small clubs in major cities, selling handfuls of albums on struggling boutique record labels, the Kingston Trio virtually invented the college touring circuit, where they filled up auditoriums with eager young fans — including me, among many others.
Furthermore, the group focused on album sales rather than single records. Their albums sold millions of copies, and remained on the Billboard charts for months and even years. At one time, four Kingston Trio albums were simultaneously near the top of the Billboard charts, a record that has never been equaled.
However, critical assessments of the Kingston Trio were not nearly as positive as their commercial success.
Irwin Silber [editor of Sing Out] referred to “the sallow slickness of the Kingston Trio.” …Ron Radosh referred to the Trio as “prostitutes of the art who gain their status as folk artists because they use guitars and banjos.” … folk music critic Mark Morris wrote: “What connection these frenetic tinselly showmen have with a folk festival eludes me… except that it is mainly folk songs that they choose to vulgarize.”
More recent reviews of the Kingston Trio tend to be more forgiving. They emphasize the great exposure that the group provided for folk music, and the fact that in addition to folk songs, the Kingston Trio recorded tunes from a wide range of genres.
Get Together was written by singer-songwriter Chet Powers, aka Dino Valenti. It is a melodramatic plea for peace and brotherhood. The message is punched home in the chorus, which is repeated several times throughout the song.
Love is but the song we sing, and fear’s the way we die.
You can make the mountains ring or make the angels cry.
Know the dove is on the wing and you need not know why.
CHORUS: C’mon, people now, smile on your brother
Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.
So here is audio of the Kingston Trio recording of the song they called Let’s Get Together.
I was a big fan of the Kingston Trio as a teenager. They came along when I was in high school and had recently become a big folk music fan, mainly through my exposure to the four-record set Folk Song and Minstrelsy. This was a 1962 collection of 33-RPM records issued by the Classic Record Library and sold by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Inspired by Pete Seeger’s clawhammer banjo playing from that album, I purchased a cheap banjo and labored mightily to master the instrument. But then the Kingston Trio came along, and I was able to sing along with Nick, Bob and Dave through their series of folk albums.
So I was more than a bit distressed when a few years ago, my friend Glenn Gass dissed the trio as a slick ensemble with minimal musical talent. I chalked up Glenn’s attitude to yet another example of culture wars – the Kingston Trio were his Dad’s favorite group, so naturally he hated them.
When I heard that the Kingston Trio had recorded the original version of Get Together, I eagerly sought it out. Man, what a disappointment! To my ears, their version of this song sounds really lame. The harmonies are nothing to write home about, and I found their exclamation “Hey! Let’s get together …” positively embarrassing.
What a shock to realize that one of the favorite groups from my adolescence was not as talented as I had remembered. Say it ain’t so, Joe!
Now, back to the career of the Kingston Trio. Although Nick, Bob and Dave reached the pinnacle of success, breaking new ground and making pots of money, dissension was lurking beneath the surface.
First off, Nick and Bob were irked that the media referred to Dave Guard as the ‘acknowledged leader’ of the group. They were also irritated that Guard assigned songwriting credits to himself for many of the group’s tunes. Of course, one should question why anyone in the group should receive ‘songwriting credits’ for traditional public-domain folk songs such as Tom Dooley.
The group members also had very different ideas about the musical directions they should pursue. Guard was convinced that they should focus on traditional folk songs, while Shane and Reynolds were content with the group’s mix of folk, pop and Caribbean material.
This all boiled over in April, 1961 when Shane and Reynolds, together with their manager Frank Werber, forced Guard out of the group. Guard was replaced by John Stewart, a guitar and banjo player and singer who had been a member of the Cumberland Trio.
For awhile, the re-shuffled Kingston Trio appeared to thrive. Their albums remained best-sellers, their tours still sold out, and they enjoyed success with hit singles. However, around 1964 the group’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. First off, a generation appeared of new and more openly political folksingers — and much better musicians — such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul & Mary.
Secondly, 1964 brought the British Invasion, spearheaded by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Very few American pop groups were able to withstand the onslaught of the British Invasion, and the Kingston Trio’s album sales sagged.
Finally, the individual Kingston Trio members were tired after a decade on the road. Nick Reynolds wanted to take a break from touring, and John Stewart was ready to try a solo career as a singer-songwriter. The group broke up in 1967, and went their separate ways.
Bob Shane went back on the road with the New Kingston Trio, while Nick largely retired from the music business. John Stewart continued to have a fair amount of success, particularly as a songwriter – he wrote Daydream Believer for The Monkees and Runaway Train for Roseanne Cash.
Dave Guard died in 1991, and Nick Reynolds and John Stewart died in 2008, so Bob Shane is currently the only surviving member of the original and second incarnations of the Kingston Trio.
The Youngbloods and Get Together:
Jesse Colin Young was a folksinger and bass player who teamed up in 1965 with fellow musicians Jerry Corbitt (guitar), Lowell ‘Banana’ Levinger (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and Joe Bauer (drums) to form the folk-rock quartet The Youngbloods.
The group garnered some initial success – they became the house band at the Greenwich Village club Café Au Go Go, and signed a contract with RCA Records. They were critically acclaimed, but this did not translate into commercial success. The group’s albums were also highly regarded, but did not sell well.
Below is a publicity photo of The Youngbloods. From L: Jerry Corbitt; Jesse Colin Young; Lowell ‘Banana’ Levinger; Joe Bauer.
In 1967 they issued a cover of the Dino Valenti song which they titled Get Together, a slight change from the Kingston Trio’s title Let’s Get Together. At the time, the song was a minor hit but stalled at #62 on the Billboard pop charts.
The group was still searching for success in 1969, when the National Conference of Christians and Jews adopted The Youngblood’s Get Together as their theme song for a series of radio and TV spots.
Suddenly, the song caught the public’s imagination. The group re-released Get Together, and this time it climbed to #5 on the Billboard survey. Not only did the tune become a best-seller, but the song’s sentiments of love and togetherness really resonated with the ‘Summer of Love’ generation.
Young’s high, clear vocals emphasized the song’s idealistic lyrics, and the slow tempo was a perfect vehicle to convey the message. The audio of the song was used in the movie Woodstock to introduce a montage of various artists, crowd scenes and activity taking place at 1969’s Woodstock Festival. And here is that video, backed by the Youngbloods’ Get Together.
[click the link to access the video]
Isn’t this a great clip? You see crowds of idealistic hippies streaming through the venue at Woodstock, interspersed with snippets from performances at the festival. Brief shots of Janis, John Fogerty, Jimi, Santana, Grace Slick, and Country Joe McDonald are woven into a montage with crowds of hippies, families with babies, psychedelic buses, gigantic Afros and mind-boggling crowds. The Youngbloods’ version of Get Together was a perfect fit for the ethos of Woodstock, the blockbuster concert-slash-love fest that arguably became the high-water mark of the Peace and Love Generation.
In 1969 The Youngbloods were riding high with the success of their record, and had every reason to assume that they would enjoy a long, successful career as folk-rock musicians.
Alas, it was not to be; The Youngbloods turned out to be one-hit wonders. They never again dented the pop charts, and eventually the group disbanded in 1971. The various members had minor success either with other groups, or as solo acts.
The song Get Together, however, retained its resonance as a pop anthem and rallying cry. Below is live video of this song at the 1979 series of “No Nukes” concerts hosted at Madison Square Garden by the group Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE).
A documentary and film of the concerts was released in 1980. The final song in the film is Get Together, featuring Jesse Colin Young’s lead vocals accompanied by Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and others. This particular event took place in Battery Park and attracted 250,000 people.
The No Nukes concert assembled a blockbuster group of artists, including the first official live film performance from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As you can see from the video, all the performers “get together” in backing Jesse Colin Young for this finale. The audience is also into it, enthusiastically singing along to the chorus.
One bizarre footnote: immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Americans were reeling from the brutal and shocking carnage of those events. The mammoth radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications sent a memorandum to all 1,200 of their stations that contained a list of some 165 songs that they described as “lyrically questionable.”
Although the media giant later denied it, the gist of the memo to its affiliates seemed rather clear – don’t play these songs! One could argue that it might seem crass and insensitive to play AC/DC’s “Shot Down in Flames” (one of the listed songs) in the weeks immediately following this traumatic event.
But some of the songs on the Clear Channel list boggle the mind. “Imagine” by John Lennon? “Get Together” by the Youngbloods? What part of “c’mon people, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now” sounds ‘lyrically questionable,’ anyway?
We will finish up with a performance of Get Together from the Big Sur Festival in 1969. This was an annual event that was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California from 1964 to 1971. But the event held on Sept. 13-14, 1969 was rather special. For one thing, it was just one month after the ginormous Woodstock Festival in upstate New York. And like Woodstock, the festival was captured in a documentary film, in this case Celebration at Big Sur.
However, unlike Woodstock, the Big Sur film was not nearly as popular. Furthermore, it had nothing like the mega-list of Woodstock performers. However, the event was memorable nevertheless. It featured Joan Baez, who had a major role in founding the series of Big Sur concerts, John Sebastian also performed at the 1969 festival.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also performed a few songs at Big Sur. And here they team up with Joni Mitchell in a version of Get Together. This is a memorable event for several reasons. First, this is probably the first appearance of Joni Mitchell in a concert film. Although Joni would soon grow disenchanted with big festivals, she was eager to perform at Big Sur.
Joni was upset that she had missed out on the Woodstock festival – so much that she wrote the song Woodstock to commemorate the sense of community that she felt was embodied by that gathering. She performed Woodstock at Big Sur, attempting to get the audience to sing along, despite the fact that both the words and melody of that song are quite challenging.
The career of Crosby, Stills and Nash had just taken off. Their first eponymous album had been released in May of 1969, to tremendous critical acclaim. They had been headliners at Woodstock; their shaky performance there could be attributed to the fact that they had little prior experience playing live gigs. As Stephen Stills explained to the crowd of 400,000 people, “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man… we’re scared shitless!”
At Big Sur Crosby, Stills and Nash were joined by Neil Young. The four of them performed for a short while in the early 70s, before the brilliant but mercurial Young headed off on his own.
So here is Joni Mitchell joining up with Crosby, Stills and her then-boyfriend Graham Nash to sing Get Together at the Big Sur Festival in 1969. As far as we can tell, this is an impromptu performance of this song.
It’s always great to see Joni performing. For decades she has been a major force in pop music. Joni has moved through a series of different genres — folk music, folk-rock, pop music, jazz, world music. Everything she does is stunningly creative and remarkably durable. I must do a blog post on her soon.
The audio quality here is nothing to write home about, but Joni’s beautiful voice shines through. The song features some impressive guitar work from Stephen Stills.
In any case, their choice of the Youngbloods’ Get Together once again highlights the importance of that song during this period of time. It symbolized the spirit of peace, love and harmony that these festivals meant to foster. Of course, it would be just another three months before the vicious and tragic concert held just a short distance away at Altamont Freeway.
The Altamont disaster shattered the Woodstock aspiration of assembling a group of rock superstars for a giant communal love-in. The Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 came closest to re-creating the atmosphere of Woodstock. It brought somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 spectators to that small British island – and subsequently led to
Parliament passing the “Isle of Wight Act” preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence.
But by then of course, we had Richard Nixon in the White House; the Vietnam War looked as though it might last forever; protest movements became less peaceful and more confrontational; and the exhortations of Get Together began to seem like a dream that was vanishing right before our eyes.