Friday, March 29, 2013

Dino Valenti's "Let's Get Together"

For western Christianity, today is Maundy Thursday, which in my Catholic childhood was called simply "Holy Thursday," and it is the beginning of the Passiontide, which gives way at dawn on Sunday morning to Eastertide. For Christians, this is the most sacred and significant phase of the nearly 2,000-year-old liturgical year, observing as it does Thursday's Last Supper, Good Friday's Crucifixion, Holy Saturday's quiet entombment (and for those who really know their traditional theology, the Harrowing of Hell), and Easter Sunday's Feast of the Resurrection. All of the mysteries and core beliefs of the religion coalesce into the three day observance (again for traditionalists, the Triduum or "Three Days" is the official name) - the incarnation of the son of God as a human being, the point of which was to redeem humanity from its sins through a sacrificial death (symbolized by the eucharistic elements of Thursday's Last Supper) followed by a triumphant resurrection that solidified the possibility of redemption for all of us wretchedly flawed and miserably sinful people.

Yet another odd opening for an article on a folk song, it might seem at first, but I would suggest that it is the perfect context in which to understand why Dino Valenti's (pictured) "Let's Get Together" attained such popularity when it was written and recorded almost fifty years ago,  and why it remains relevant today, this week, now - even, perhaps especially, for those many of us who do not profess any such beliefs as described.  Valenti's lyric makes a clear if slightly oblique reference to mainstream Christian theology ("When the one who left us here/Returns for us at last," alluding to the belief in the second coming of Christ), but I would suggest that in the aggressively irreligious and secularist zeitgeist of the late 1960s when the tune became a major chart hit for The Youngbloods, its popularity with the record-buying youth of the day had nothing to do with conventional religion or theology whatsoever.  Rather, it is the way that the lyric expresses the universal desire for peace and love of nearly all the segments of that era's youth culture - the hippies and war protesters and Hare Krishnas and Transcendental Meditators and Flower Children and all their attendant wannabees and fellow-travelers - that propelled Valenti's composition to high-profile popularity and embedded it in the consciousness of the time.

Those last two sentences are, I suppose, some sort of heresy at best and apostasy at worst, and the good nuns of St. Raymond's School in my native Illinois are undoubtedly spinning in their graves even as I write this. Yet rest easy, good sisters - your lessons were not completely lost on this errant child. Beyond the theology, beyond the religious trappings of today, there remains at the core of the Holy Thursday story a transcendent moment, one of genuine historical significance whatever attitude one has toward  religion itself. In the Gospel of John, after the Passover Seder, Jesus is imparting a final lesson to his followers, which he begins by saying, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you..." - a corollary of sorts to the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you. Taken together, the commandment and rule are enough to warm the hearts of even the flintiest and most committed of non-believers, including such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom revered Jesus as a great teacher without adhering at all to conventional beliefs in his divinity or in any traditional theology. Mahatma Gandhi also noted the significance of the imperative to "love one another" as the foundation of any society with pretensions to justice.

Whatever  Valenti's  intentions were initially, the song owes its popularity to the idealism of the young five decades ago - the plea of his chorus to "love one another right now," written in late 1963, expresses an urgency that seems poignant now that we know of the darkness that was settling over the land at just that time. Valenti (who was born with the name Chet Powers) recorded the song for his debut solo album on Elektra Records in January of 1964:

This beautifully clear recording is a digital remastering from 2007, significant in that Elektra (now a subsidiary of Warner Music Group) felt that despite
Valenti's spotty career, frequent legal troubles resulting from drug use, and early death at 57 in 1994, that there was still enough of a market for his music to validate the expense of upconverting the original analog tapes to a digital format. If their confidence proved justified, it was on the basis of this song.

Cover versions began to appear even before
Valenti's album was released, likely due to the small and close-knit community of folk and rock musicians (and the soon-to-be fusion of the two) in the San Francisco Bay area to which Valenti had moved, where everyone knew everyone else and traded and stole songs from each other. Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber apparently heard Valenti performing the song in a San Francisco nightclub, liked the tune, and brought it to his group, who also liked it and recorded it a mere two months after the release of Powers' record. This is from the Trio's eighteenth original and final LP for Capitol Records - Back In Town, recorded live at SF's Hungry i, from which the group had rocketed to fame six years prior:

Pop country legend Glen Campbell sat in on many of the tracks on the album, uncredited, and it may well be Campbell playing the 12 string guitar here. Though the album itself was of only middling success in terms of performances, sales, and recording quality, several of its tracks received favorable critical response. Just a few years ago, prominent Allmusic critic Bruce Eder remarked that "'Let's Get Together' might even have put the Trio out in front of the folk-rock pack, had Capitol gotten either this performance or the Trio's studio recording of the same period (which wasn't heard until the mid-'90s) out as a single."

Frank Werber also managed We Five, the Bay Area folk-rock group headed by KT member John Stewart's younger brother Mike. We Five had had an international smash hit early in 1965 with their rendition of Sylvia Tyson's "You Were On My Mind," and Werber believed that the follow-up release in late '65 should be the group's arrangement of "Get Together":

We Five's arrangement seems to have been a cross between
Valenti's original and the Kingstons' cover. Like the KT, We Five re-ordered the lines in the song's chorus and added an element of drama to their version that anticipates the Youngbloods. This recording reached a respectable #30 on the national singles charts, but it was the last of the group's 45s to make the Hot 100.

Folk superstar Judy Collins was also transitioning away from the accepted perimeter of revival-era folk music when she performed the song on a BBC television show in 1966:

Collins' syncopated take on the song reminds us that Brazilian bossa nova was all the rage in American pop that year, and Collins had the versatility to pull this off. It helps that her accompanying guitarist is the multi-instrumental genius Eric Weissberg, late of mid-50s folk group The Tarriers and a few years later the banjoist on the recording of "Dueling Banjos" that was included in the film Deliverance.

Back in the Bay Area, an assemblage of former folkies had created a folk-rock band that they named The Jefferson Airplane, including "Let's Get Together" on their debut album, which was released in mid-1966:

This is the Airplane pre-psychedelia - and pre-Gracie Slick. Signe Anderson is the female voice here.

Less than a month after Woodstock, in September of 1969, the "Celebration At Big Sur" in California sought to replicate the New York festival's success. It didn't come close, but at least Joni Mitchell was able to make this one - here with Woodstock vets Crosby, Stills, and Nash:

Mitchell was early in her career most successful as a soloist, and this apparently impromptu rendition doesn't reflect the best of what either she or CS&N were capable of. The video itself, however, with its crowd shots and cuts away from the performers, works nicely as a time capsule of sorts.

And that brings us to The Youngbloods, who first waxed "Let's Get Together" in 1967 and released it as a single. It went almost nowhere until '69, when this recording was used in a popular public service announcement for the National Council of Christians and Jews. RCA, the band's recording company, sensed that it was on to something and rushed out the nearly two-year-old track as a single. The suits were right in this case - the record reached #5 on the national charts:

Jesse Colin Young is the lead here, and the arrangement seems to owe a little bit to each of the preceding recordings, Collins perhaps excepted - the emotional crescendo of the Kingston Trio, for example, and the dramatics of We Five, and the guitar stylings of the Airplane. Like the track or not, it's a fine example both of the professionalism of the performers and of the superior technical know-how of the RCA engineers and producers.

Looking at the live performance videos above, it is tempting to relegate "Let's Get Together" to the dustbin of history as a naive and perhaps even shallow manifestation of a time period as fleeting and ephemeral as youth itself. The musicians are mostly in or nearing their seventies if they are alive at all, and many of the fresh-faced kids in the audiences are grandparents today. The Revolution came and went, effecting changes in many areas of American society without fundamentally altering it, and the battles we fight today - political, economic, and moral - are largely reincarnations of the same battles we were fighting with each other back then. The intensity and acrimony generated just this past week by the Supreme Court's consideration of same-sex marriage cases, not to mention the intensity and acrimony of a recently-concluded presidential campaign whose chief issues were economic justice and war and peace, remind me of nothing so much as of the divisive political conflicts of the late 1960s. How, then, has
Valenti's song lost even an iota of relevance? Should not the religionists pay more attention to Maundy Thursday's "new commandment" and demonstrate genuine love of neighbor transcending sectarian prejudices? And should not the humanists act as if they genuinely cared about real people and believed in the worth of individuals, even those whose ideas they find unacceptable? And is this not exactly the urgent plea of Dino Valenti in this song?


mark said...

Excellent commentary.

greenhawk46 said...

good stuff, the Youngbloods version does it for me-like a time capsule of the '60s thanks Jim-
Jim H.

Jim Moran said...

And thank you, Mark and Jim, for your continued reading and comments!