Ruthann Friedman is best known for penning the 1960’s hit single “Windy” for the Association. She played an integral part in the folk and hippie movement of those turbulent times. She was crashing in David Crosby’s basement when she wrote the tune. Hanging out with the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Van Dyke Parks she was at ground zero of a musical explosion that would blur the lines between acoustic folk and psychedelic song structure. She released one lone album during the end of that decade, “Constant Companion”.
During the mid-2000s, much of her unreleased material from 1965-1971 began to receive reissue on various indie labels. She recently released her first new recording in 40 years “Chinatown”. “Chinatown” is essential listening. Her latest recording is a brooding and shadowy introspection that sophisticatedly blends intricate acoustic strumming with darker psychedelic melodies. She took some time and spoke about her past and recent return to the burgeoning folk revival.
What made you decide to record new music (Chinatown) after 40 years?
People wanted to hear it. I started playing out, writing new songs, and people like them. A friend of mine from San Jose, John Miller, heard the song “The End” and told me I needed to record it. I then went to San Jose and started recording. This process would become “Chinatown” which took a few years to do.
I started writing new songs about 7 years ago when I was called back. I received a call from Water Records and they told me that they were going to reissue the “Constant Companion” album from 1969. Shortly thereafter, I received a call to participate in a festival. I was playing only my old songs and they were not so relevant. Some of them are but not to me. I began writing songs that reflected how I feel now. The songs are much more complex and the lyrics more worried-over than they used to be. My songs used to be about how I wanted things to be and now, they are about how I really feel about things.
In the Long Beach area and across the globe there is a resurgence in the folk movement. How would you describe the essence of folk to someone just beginning to play in the folk scene?
It depends where you are. Folk music is the music of the people. It’s thematic and has some relevance to the culture that it’s in. A need to express just what the hell is going on… “Springhill Mining Disaster” on my new record is a good example I think. Folk is about community and one circle or group of people blending with another, like a Venn diagram. I came out of folk and now many things including folk, jazz, show tunes, literature, and country influence me.
Did you have any exposure to the Beat Generation in your teens?
My sister was ten years older than I was and she went to the University of Chicago. When she would come home on vacation, she would bring her Bohemian friends who brought banjos and guitars. This was pre-Beatnik and my first exposure to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Allen Ginsberg is brilliant. Reading “On the Road” in junior high was like… I don’t have to do this… I can get out of here! (laughs). It set me free in a way.
Do you feel that your idealism as the time conflicted with the radio success of “Windy”, which you had offered to the Association to record?
No. I was poor. I had no money. I was living because of the kindness of others. It happened and my reaction was to take off and form a rock n roll band.
Did artists like Janis Joplin or Jefferson Airplane influence you musically or chemically?
Chemically? (laughs), they had the best acid. I think we were all influenced by the same people and happened to be coming out at the same time when it all happened.
I just saw the 1971 cult classic movie Peace Killers, what do you think of the movie and how did you get involved with the soundtrack?
The worst movie ever (laughs)! I did the songs for the movie and my lawyer at the time got me involved in it. The Drag City label just released the songs on a white label 7” in fact. The movie is so bad it’s good.
What is the biggest misconception about the counter culture of the 1960s?
That we were any different from any other people… we did things differently but we were just people. There were different rules and we broke the rules. We took LSD and saw that societal rules were things that were imposed upon us by whatever society we were in. Different cultures have different sets of rules and why were ours right and theirs wrong? We smoked marijuana and realized that this isn’t the devil’s weed. This is one thing they’ve lied to us about, now what else have they been lying about?
I lived in Big Sur for a year and we had squatted a cabin. It was a very primitive situation. All the stuff I saw going on around me…it was still people cheating on wives and girlfriends just like suburbia. It was a suburban existence but with flowers, no underwear, and hairy legs. The ideas at that time are what were important. We changed the world but we didn’t change people. People will always have the same desires, needs, and wants. They did then and they do now, just like all throughout history. Only the rules change.
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