Emmylou Harris’s teenage obsessions: ‘The Beatles parted the clouds after JFK’s assassination’

The country singer, 74, recalls the inspirational power of Joan Baez and American folk – and the lessons dogs can teach us

Music Americana, the Folk Music of America

Just after I started high school, there was the Cuban missile crisis, so I wasn’t sure if the world was going to be around much longer. It was a very intense, frightening 13 days, then suddenly it was over and I got into the more mundane problems of being a teenager. I wanted to act, was in plays at school and would read the plays of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. The weirder the better. I didn’t have an outlet for music then. I’d hated piano lessons. I listened to the usual teenage fare like Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell, but the folk music explosion changed everything. My older brother owned a record player and would play old-time country and bluegrass. Nothing did anything for me except Johnny Cash’s first record, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! Then suddenly there was Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I cherished Dick Cerri’s radio show Music Americana, the Folk Music of America. Every night, he’d play the new folk artists I was just becoming aware of and I would sit on my little bedroom floor doing my homework, listening in awe.

Peter, Paul and Mary

Finally, I got a guitar, a little Kay 1160 Deco Note that my grandfather bought for me for $30 in a pawn shop. That guitar is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It had a big thick neck like a baseball bat but somehow I managed to learn chords from books. I’d listen to records, learn the songs and accompany myself. That’s how I started to sing. Peter, Paul and Mary were a very strange thing to land in the Top 40. Mary Travers – who is hugely underrated – had a low, androgynous voice. I realised you didn’t have to have a high soprano. There was a local folk duo of two boys, one in my class and the other a bit older. When Peter, Paul and Mary became popular the duo had a gig and wanted me to be the Mary to their Peter and Paul. I was so excited when we worked up these songs and we performed them at the school dance. I never heard from “Peter and Paul” ever again. I hope it was because suddenly I became the focus.

Joan Baez

My main ambition was still to act, but I only lasted three semesters studying drama at the University of North Carolina. Music did something to me that drama never did because I didn’t have the talent to get into that zone. I realised I wasn’t very good, so instead I went to New York and tried to be Joan Baez.

She is the reason I picked up the guitar and I think I speak for a lot of other girls my age. She’s an iconic artist who changed music and the heart of America by giving voice to the civil rights movement, and her continued support for any struggle for democracy represents the best of what America stands for.

I’ve been able to sing with a lot of my heroes, but one time Mary Chapin-Carpenter and I had to sing in front of Joan. It was the first time I’d been nervous since I’d fronted my own band, but she was incredibly gracious. Then a few years ago Jackson Browne and I sang with her at a fundraiser in San Jose. We were considered compatriots of the stage, but I still had a goddess complex about Joan.

Mutts

My father was studying to be a veterinarian when the second world war broke out, and all my family respected and loved animals. So that became part of my DNA. I got my first dog Duchess in 1951, when I was four. When my father was shot down in Korea and we didn’t know if he was alive or dead [Walter Harris, a decorated Marine Corps pilot, was declared missing in action, and spent 16 months as a prisoner of war], she was a real comfort.

When my mother took me to see a woman advertising Boston terriers, for some reason I did not relate to any of these pedigree puppies. So she said: “Well, I have this other dog …” I just fell in love with this little, funny-looking cocker spaniel/Mexican spitz cross-breed with no tail. Duchess died when I was 17 but that little dog started my love for mutts [mongrels]. In the rescue [Bonaparte’s Dog Retreat Rescue] that I started in my back yard after my dog Bonaparte died, most of them are wonderful combinations of different breeds. Basically, in America we’re all mutts, a mix of peoples who have moved and mingled. I think that’s what God intended.

E G Marshall (third from left) in 12 Angry Men.
EG Marshall (third from left) in 12 Angry Men. Photograph: Allstar/UNITED ARTISTS

The Defenders and 12 Angry Men

There wasn’t much television when I was a teenager. I think there were four channels, but there were a couple of shows that I’d watch with my parents. One was The Naked City, a series about the New York City Police Department, which used to go: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them …” It was brilliant, but even more fantastic was The Defenders. It starred a wonderful actor named EG Marshall as a defence lawyer who’d take on these complex cases that were never black and white. The series really made you think about justice and the human condition and why people did what they did.

EG Marshall was also in my favourite movie, 12 Angry Men, a courtroom drama with a similar theme. It was a stage play [by Reginald Rose] and you can tell; it was all done in one room and each character was remarkably well written. If it comes on TV now, I’ll still watch it because it’s quite brilliant.

The Beatles

I fell in love with the Beatles along with everyone else, shortly after the assassination of JFK. In America, it was like the end of innocence, a terrible, horrifying thing. There was a blackness, a cloud over everyone. So when the Beatles came along with their great haircuts and joyful music, it was like the clouds parted, the sun came out and it was all right to be happy and feel innocence again.

I didn’t want my parents to know that I loved the Beatles because I’d turned 18 and they thought I was beyond that teenage stuff. I remember buying a Beatles magazine and hiding it. Steve Earle has a wonderful theory that the Beatles’ music got deeper and darker because the seriousness of Bob Dylan’s lyrics made them think: “We’re not teenagers any more.” I’m sure the drugs had something to do with it.

A few years ago, I was playing in Dallas and visited the museum in the building from where Kennedy was shot. It was like a Greek tragedy, this young president with this beautiful wife and young children and the feeling of optimism for the future … It hit me all over again and I just wept.

Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers Ramble In Music City: The Lost Concert (live in Nashville, 1990) is released 3 September on Nonesuch

Contributor

As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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