When folk merged with rock to form the explosive new hybrid known as folk rock in the mid-1960s, Vanguard Records found itself literally in the vanguard of the new movement, probably at least as much by happenstance as design. The label was already enjoying more commercial success with folk music than any other indie, largely on the back of superstar Joan Baez, but also bolstered by such innovators and solid sellers as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ian & Sylvia. And around the same time as the Byrds and Bob Dylan were becoming the first to fuse the best of both worlds in early 1965, Vanguard artists Richard & Mimi Fari?±a were making their own more tentative, but similarly cutting-edge, forays into primordial folk rock in the studio.
The enormous success of Dylan and the Byrds, however, was the call for folkies electrify or die, commercially at any rate, and for folk labels to adapt to the changing times or face a similar fate. Vanguard artists such as the Fari?±as, Ian & Sylvia, Eric Andersen, Patrick Sky, and Buffy Sainte-Marie all tried their hand at recording with full-band accompaniment. The label began to sign honest-to-god rock groups as well, some of whom came from similar folk roots, others of whom just dipped their toes in the folk rock waters before moving on or disappearing entirely.
In the ensuing folk rock stampede, Vanguard never did reap the huge folk rock sales of Columbia or even its indie rival Elektra. But as this compilation of almost wholly overlooked highlights from the company's 1964-67 forays into the medium demonstrates, it did cut more exciting, at times daring folk rock than history has acknowledged. It was a time when anything went, in the search for a new electric folk rock sound (and sales!), and Vanguard's folk rock catalog reflects the era's uncertain yet thrilling eclecticism.
While Sainte-Marie's Cod'ine (covered by many a folk rock and psychedelic combo) and the Fari?±as' Reno, Nevada may be the most celebrated items on THE VANGUARD FOLK ROCK ALBUM, the real goodies are the long-buried album cuts, obscure non-LP flop singles, and a handful of previously unreleased items unearthed by compiler Alec Palao. The full-band alternate take of Ian & Sylvia's When I Was a Cowboy has never appeared anywhere else (not even on their recent Vanguard box set), while the drastically different alternate of Mimi Farina's Morgan The Pirate thrills with its oddball combination of super-fuzzed bass and James Bond horns. Patrick Sky's 45-only cover of Tim Hardin's Reason To Believe is his finest folk rock moment; the Hi-Five give the We Five a run for their money on the hit-worthy folk rock-pop ballad You'll Never Know What's In My Heart, as do the mysterious Project X with another failed (and never-before-comped) single, Got No Reason To Cry. Lurking among the shadows are future stars Leslie West (with the Vagrants on the 1966 non-LP single Young Blues) and Jerry Jeff Walker (as part of Circus Maximus). No folk rock anthology would be worthy of the name without a Dylan homage or two, and Jackie Washington's Long Black Cadillac and Eric Andersen's The Hustler are among the most sardonic such pokes ever waxed.
Presented in such a creatively culled light, Vanguard's contributions to the folk rock phenomenon - many of them out-of-print, or spottily dispersed on albums and compilations mixing folk rock with other styles - can now be properly appreciated on The Vanguard Folk Rock Album, which (barring perhaps Sainte-Marie's original classic acoustic version of Cod'ine) is folk rock and nothing but. It's not the only such stuff hiding in Vanguard's folk rock closet, either, whetting the appetite for the excavation of a second volume from the label's folk rock archives, which constitute a sorely underrated chapter in one of the most galvanizing movements ever produced by popular music.
Richie Unterberger is the author of the two-volume 1960s folk rock history Turn! Turn! Turn!: The 1960s Folk Rock Revolution and Eight Miles High: Folk Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock, available from Backbeat Books.
By RICHIE UNTERBERGER