Q&A with legendary highway troubadour Jesse Colin Young, one of the most influential and enduring singer-songwriters

"I think, Beat Generation therefore jazz, the Village Vanguard a famous jazz club that was there in the Village, it was right across the corner from then Café Au Go Go, so, they were there first. And then came my generation, the generation of singers-songwriters. We were reading a book, wrapped up in that. That’s revolution of consciousness. We just didn’t concentrate on having a house and a washing machine. It was very inexpensive at that time and the musicians survived, it was a wonderful experience."

Jesse Colin Young: Highway Troubadour

One of the most influential and enduring singer-songwriters, Jesse Colin Young, who first made history with the Youngbloods on their classic ‘60s peace anthem “Get Together,” and who has amassed a loyal worldwide following over the past five decades, released his 22nd solo album, Highway Troubadour (2020). "Highway Troubadour is not only a return to my roots, but the beginning of a surprise adventure of solo performing,” said Young. “I have begun to take guitar playing to a whole new level while revisiting my decades of musical catalogue.” Throughout the remaining 10 songs, Highway Troubadour highlights some of Jesse Colin Young’s most beloved classics including selections from the Youngbloods’ albums The Youngbloods (1967), Earth Music (1967), and Elephant Mountain (1969), alongside a number of tracks from his releases as a solo artist including The Soul of a City Boy (1964), Song for Juli (1973), Light Shine (1974), Songbird (1975), and Dreamers (2019). Highway Troubadour was produced by Jesse Colin Young and his wife Connie Young.                                                  (Jesse Colin Young / Photo by Brent Cline)

A pioneer of American roots music for more than half a century, Jesse Colin Young has left a unique mark on the intersecting worlds of folk, blues, jazz, country, and rock & roll. As the front man of the Youngbloods, he immortalized the ideals of the Woodstock generation with "Get Together," an international hit that called for peace and brotherhood during the turbulent 1960s. During the decades that followed, Young expanded both his audience and his artistic range, releasing a string of solo albums that mixed socially conscious lyrics with top-tier guitar skills and gorgeous vocals. An acclaimed songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, producer, label owner, podcast host, and longtime social/environmental activist, he has established a permanent place in America's musical landscape, while continuing to make modern music that's every bit as vital as his work during the countercultural era.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Katerina Lefkidou (transcription)

Special Thanks: Jesse Colin Young & Ryan Romenesko (Jensen Communications)

What do you miss most nowadays, from the music and the feeling of the past?

Jesse: You know the 60s were a very special, the audience of our whole generation kind of came together over the music and through the music, so playing for people in those times, they were all like family, they were all feeling, we were all exploring our love for each other and our love to the earth so, therefore we learned our responsibilities to take care of each other and the planet we live on. So, I don’t know, even big shows were kind of like playing in your living room and it no longer feels so much like that anymore, although some audiences are still there, and it is wonderful and they I think are hungry, I haven’t played live in a couple of years, they are hungrier than I am, to come back. So, we can find little, smaller venues for who wants to share that feeling again, of being part of the music, not just plain amusement.

Your new album, back to the roots, a truly acoustic album, what touches you, what do you like from the sound of acoustic music, from acoustic instruments?

Jesse: Well, you know Mike, it all started on the first day of, they have home order here, in South Carolina. And I looked at Connie and I said “Well, I guess we’re not going on for dinner. So, what do you wanna do, besides cook (laughing)?” And she said, well this is kind of weird, but we don’t know how long it’s going to be like it and I’ll bet everyone else is feeling kind of weird, so why don’t you go get your guitar and play “Sugar Babe”? And we’ll put it up on Facebook and cheer everyone up. So that’s what we did, she took a phone video of and we had such lovely fun, it felt so good to be sharing and giving, just in a small way, with music to lift the spirit of those people who we reached, and by doing this lifting our own spirit and filling our time in something meaningful and joyful. So, we did it that, we called it “One song at a time” and we did it through the second two weeks of March, cause in the middle of March I was getting ready to go to South by Southwest and then all of the sudden three days before we would leave the cancelled it. And then the things I was counting on being able. So, we put that energy into two weeks of March, all through April, all through May. Three-four times a week, sometimes five, I would spend the day, you know, playing a couple of songs and working them up in a solo arrangement. Because many of them are recorded with a band, either the Youngbloods or one of my several solo bands. But it was kind of an adventure for me, to take myself back through the beginning of how I started. And by the end of May, my manager said that we’re getting a good response, if some 60-70.000 people are listening, he said, then maybe it’s time for a solo album. I said yes. (laughing) I was able to make it with a friend, a good engineer, who lives near my home who has a studio in the house. So, we did this thing and we had the record.

"Well, sometimes I think it’s kind of the fact that the blues want music from the heart. Not just cute music or fun music. Music that begins with one man, or one woman and one instrument, one guitar, that’s just coming out of their experience of their life, comes across to true passion. And some people love that, and they have recorded artists like myself." (Photo: Jesse Colin Young)

Too many experiences in your life and in music. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experiences?

Jesse: I learned how to be strong and tolerate the kind of schedule that touring brings and I made very close friends with almost all of the people that I played with. I learned the joy of giving pleasure through music to and I miss it right now of course, but I would think of them, imagine them as an audience, when we did this taping, so I did the same thing when we were recording. I imagined they were there, the people who would love the music, that would be a fan, I imagined them there. I hope that you can feel it, when you listen to it.

What is the impact of music and your generation’s music, on the civil rights, human rights, political, spiritual and sociocultural implications?

Jesse: Well, it was very powerful, in the sixties and the seventies, it supported a lot of wonderful things, justice for all, freedom, peace, love at a time when America was very divided over the Vietnam war. It healed, it brought us together in ways that I had never experienced before. Culturally, it would be many things, including organic plastic, ways of living on earth healthier. The civil rights movement, the women movement, the LGBTQ movement, lots of movements. All people searching for equality, wanting to be included and respected. Sometimes, I think the most destructive thing that could happened was the human rights, somehow it ended up being the power that so many beautiful, important, human things that came alive. Any of the things that I talked about. And look, we’re going to another civil rights, black lives matter, here in America, once again, very important, there’s lots of work to be done. Still for many of us, who are watching, the realization of too much privilege, I think some of us including myself are not so conscious of it.

75 years old, what is happiness to you? What is happiness for Jesse?

Jesse: Children, my wife of thirty years. Being a father is a great joy, a lot of work. Children change you. I love to be outside in the field, in the farm. In Hawaii we actually have a coffee farm for twelve years. I was born in New York City, but we were in Aiken for some time, because of my wife, Connie and it was a wonderful experience. Playing music, being able to make a life out of enjoying myself, being able to write about my experiences and turn them into music is bliss.                        (Photo: Jesse Colin Young)

"You know the 60s were a very special, the audience of our whole generation kind of came together over the music and through the music, so playing for people in those times, they were all like family, they were all feeling, we were all exploring our love for each other and our love to the earth so, therefore we learned our responsibilities to take care of each other and the planet we live on."

My next question is about Greenwich Village. Bear Generation, poetry, what were the reasons that made Greenwich Village to be a Mecca of artistic avant-garde musicians and people?

Jesse: You know, I don’t know. And I ended up there fairly by chance. But I spent a year in Ohio in my freshman year in college and then I found it to be kind of boring and I was reading Jack Kerouac and I just wanted to go around and I being caught up with degenerates, so I transferred in NYU and it turns out NYU is in Greenwich Village and it’s actually the building that I went to school right on Washington square and I’d used to walk up to my flat and they were always kind of, there were all these young people playing guitars, banjos, fiddle, “What’s going on?” During that year I found out, you know I’d go work in coffee houses, although most of them were for tourists and I could not afford the same kind of dollar charge, so I’d rather played in it. So, I quit school and I had a day job for a while and then I went on a limb. Without paying rent I realized that I could get along on what I’d just made on those coffee houses and that was the beginning of my career. So that was a really tough year and in the midst of that, you know, lots of people were there, why it was the king or mecca I don’t know, I think partially, because it was in the Italian section of New York. All of a sudden, we had all these coffee houses and there was music in those coffee houses. And that became a way to get around. And liquor license was so expensive, incredibly expensive. But if you’d just serve coffee, you don’t need a license in a regular restaurant. So, music and coffee was our get together. And I think, Beat Generation therefore jazz, the Village Vanguard a famous jazz club that was there in the Village, it was right across the corner from then Café Au Go Go, so, they were there first. And then came my generation, the generation of singers-songwriters. We were reading a book, wrapped up in that. That’s revolution of consciousness. We just didn’t concentrate on having a house and a washing machine. It was very inexpensive at that time and the musicians survived, it was a wonderful experience.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you and you keep it like a motto of your life?

Jesse: Well, the best advice came from a song ("Get Together") that made me change;

Love is but a song we sing

Fear's the way we die

You can make the mountains ring

Or make the angels cry

Though the bird is on the wing

And you may not know why

Come on, people now

Smile on your brother

Everybody get together

Try to love one another right now…

That became my path, to follow that song. We found great joy in learning to love each other and just sharing, we could be poor and do that.

"Well, I would love to go back and do the most wonderful venue, the Avalon Ballroom, that the Youngbloods ever did. We’d never been to San Francisco and we flew out there, to play at the Avalon, we checked into a sleep motel and I turned on the radio and “Get Together” was on the radio. And we had no idea, we had a hit record, in 1967, in San Francisco and in the north coast I would say all the way to Seattle, but just that area, that’s where the love was blooming, full bloom, the rest of the country not so much, for another couple of years." (Photo: The Youngbloods; "Get Together" was written by Chet Powers, aka Dino Valent. First recorded and released by the Youngbloods in 1967)

What does the Blues mean to you?

Jesse: Well, when I was ten on Long Island, Alan Freed came up the radio, but he wasn’t called Moondog, so he then changed the name to rock and roll. Moondog was actually a street poet in New York and he went and got himself a lawyer and said “Wait a minute, I’m Moondog, they have my name”. So, the blues was there, and then on another station played blues-rock music and when Elvis came on I always wondered, “what is that?” So, when I went in Ohio as a freshman in college, I lived behind a record store and I went in there one day and there was a cover, a picture of a black man with a guitar up and around his head and I thought what is he doing, I've never seen anything like that and he says, well he plays it up there sometimes, you should see it.  And those, I felt the blues this way. In that same store I found BB King, Ray Charles, ... And I followed the blues. I got my father into letting me to study the blues one summer, instead of working in a restaurant like a busboy I said “Dad, I need to study the blues and he very kindly helped me do that and then I found John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and the power of the blues and the simplicity of blues music, so much so that when I left Ohio State, there’s more in those two lines then everything that I have learned in my first year here, so I have to leave now and go study the blues, this is my future.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?

Jesse: Well, I would love to go back and do the most wonderful venue, the Avalon Ballroom, that the Youngbloods ever did. We’d never been to San Francisco and we flew out there, to play at the Avalon, we checked into a sleep motel and I turned on the radio and “Get Together” was on the radio. And we had no idea, we had a hit record, in 1967, in San Francisco and in the north coast I would say all the way to Seattle, but just that area, that’s where the love was blooming, full bloom, the rest of the country not so much, for another couple of years. So, I’d love to go there and maybe even play that show again, see my younger self play there.

"Well, it was very powerful, in the sixties and the seventies, it supported a lot of wonderful things, justice for all, freedom, peace, love at a time when America was very divided over the Vietnam war. It healed, it brought us together in ways that I had never experienced before. Culturally, it would be many things, including organic plastic, ways of living on earth healthier. The civil rights movement, the women movement, the LGBTQ movement, lots of movements." (Jesse Colin Young / Photo by Brent Cline)

Why do you think that Jesse Colin Young music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Well, sometimes I think it’s kind of the fact that the blues want music from the heart. Not just cute music or fun music. Music that begins with one man, or one woman and one instrument, one guitar, that’s just coming out of their experience of their life, comes across to true passion. And some people love that, and they have recorded artists like myself. Others would rather have dance music, or rap music. But there is always glimpse where I began, where singer/songwriters began, I believe it was created in the sixties. My daughter is doing some writing, she’s been writing during these covid times, songs about living alone and becoming depressed and it’s perfect, she’s writing for her generation.

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