He escorted Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on their pivotal 1964 U.K. tour, and, a year later, he served as the stage manager for Bob Dylan's first electric appearance, which stunned the audience at the Newport Folk Festival. A Harvard graduate, he worked side-by-side with legendary label heads such as Elektra Records' Jac Holzman and Island's Denny Cordell before forming his own Hannibal label.
He discovered folk-pop icons Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan, guided groups such as the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, and produced Pink Floyd and R.E.M. Until now, he's never been to Memphis -- but producer, manager, record-label owner, and author Joe Boyd will be here promoting White Bicycles, his memoir of the '60s music scene, at the International Folk Alliance Conference this week.
"I drove straight through from New Orleans to Chicago in '64 and haven't been in the neighborhood since, much to my shame," says the Boston-born Boyd, who has resided in London for years. "I hope the musical memories [in Memphis] are not too Disneyfied to be enjoyed by the likes of me," he adds.
Asked if he pays much attention to the current crop of Memphis and north Mississippi blues artists, Boyd says, "I'm afraid I'm a bit spoiled, having seen many of the masters. I have a huge admiration for Robert Palmer [author of Deep Blues and co-founder of Fat Possum Records, who died a decade ago], but I think it's just as difficult to come up with originality in the blues as it is in rock-and-roll. I signed [Memphis guitarist] Alvin Youngblood Hart to Hannibal in the '90s, but in truth, I haven't listened to much of the younger generation except on CD."
When pressed, Boyd lists the April '64 concert of the Blues and Gospel Caravan in Brighton, England, as one of the most unforgettable events he's seen. As shown on the DVDs recently released under the American Folk Blues Festival moniker, artists such as Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee got a phenomenal reaction in the U.K., where the color line wasn't as sharply drawn.
"They got a great response because they were great artists," he maintains. "I think they would've had a great response in the U.S. as well, if myopic presenters hadn't been reluctant to present shows like that to middle-class audiences."
That same decade, Boyd witnessed firsthand another kind of reluctance: the staunch folk traditionalists' reaction to musicians such as Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield. "A lot was politics," he says of the divide. "Folk had been the fighting colors for the left. The notion of music having an intrinsic value unconnected to its origins was alien to them.
"Conservatives on both political sides often know what they're talking about," Boyd says. "American youth did become less politically engaged as a result of the 'hedonistic' turn the '60s took after 1965, just as Southern preachers were right about rock-and-roll destroying the chastity of Southern womanhood. As we used to say, 'When the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake.'"
Though Boyd is a key figure in the history of folk music, he does have mixed feelings about the genre.
"The F-word, like most sweeping categories, has a lot to answer for," Boyd says. "It really covers two separate things. One [is] singer-songwriters, i.e., white people strumming guitars and singing about their middle-class troubles. The other [is] traditional music, exemplified for me by people like Tim Eriksen and his shape-note singing groups. Of course, [Mississippi] John Hurt and Memphis' own Furry Lewis would normally have fit right in, but blues has its own bin in the record shops. The definition [of folk] has more downsides than upsides, but it's become an indispensable brand name. No one would know what to do without it, but it does create its own limitations."
White Bicycles, Boyd's riveting account of the '60s folk scene, was written, he says, after a clash with the accountants who were running Palm/Rykodisc [current owners of the Hannibal catalog] prompted him to leave and start a new label.
"2001 was not a great time to be entertaining such thoughts, so I figured I'd write that book I always wanted to write," Boyd says. Within its pages, he details tour dates with Miles Davis, recording sessions with Vashti Bunyan, and Greenwich Village parties where a young Dylan would often drop in.
Joe Boyd will be a featured speaker at the International Folk Alliance Conference.