Q&A with American singer and songwriter Dorothy Moskowitz, always rested on openness to all styles of music

"Most of the lessons I learned when teaching children were joyful. For instance, I learned that every youngster could be motivated to play well enough to enjoy ensemble or choral work at a basic level. I also learned that gracious parents and brilliant colleagues could guarantee such results. There was one lesson that was not so joyful. Music education was starting to be considered a frill by the late 90’s, so I also needed to learn tactics to disarm the many continuing challenges to its safety. Rock and roll was never that politically painful."

Dorothy Moskowitz: Eclectic Music

Dorothy Moskowitz is an American singer and songwriter, who was most notably a lead vocalist in the experimental rock band the United States of America. Moskowitz and the band, though not too commercially successful, produced some of the earliest examples of electronic rock. Dorothy had worked with Byrd earlier.  They met in New York in 1963 and began a relationship. The first album they worked together was the “Time-Life Treasury of Christmas Music,” released in 1963. Later that year, the two moved to California to enroll in UCLA. It was there that she played on an album produced by Byrd for Folkways, featuring Gayathri Rajapur and Harihar Rao and released in 1965.  By 1966, Moskowitz and Byrd had separated, and she returned to New York for a year. Byrd then asked her to join his new band, the United States of America, which she did. Following the USA’s demise, Moskowitz continued her music career as a member of Country Joe McDonald’s All-Star Band.  After that, she performed and recorded with the gypsy rock band “Steamin’ Freeman,” led her own “ Out of Hand Band,” and sang with jazz pianist Dick Fregulia. Dorothy’s credits include the KALW radio documentary “Perfect Rose,” with songs she wrote based on the lyrics of Dorothy Parker, “Squnch,” a guided movement album, and several Japanese-fusion scores for Yuriko Doi’s Theater of Yugen. One of them earned her an “Izzy” (Isadora Duncan Award) in 1997.  The educational film strips Dorothy produced for Chevron’s “Music Makers” series sparked an interest in teaching and she composed children’s theater songs for the Lively Arts Workshop in San Francisco and then instructed brass in the Piedmont Unified School District.    

(Photo:  Dorothy Moskowitz, 2021 Boston/ Photo by Jessica Cross) 

Dorothy currently collaborates with gifted writers, musicians and composers from all over the world via e mail. She’s developed a continuing association with the renowned critic, novelist and songwriter Tim Lucas, whose “Secret Life of Love Songs” was released in 2021. Dorothy arranged and performed on the CD that accompanied his novella. More recently, she has worked with the inventive Swedish composer Peter Olof Fransson (aka Retep Folo) to complete a double album entitled “Afterlife,” intended for release in 2023. Her new background vocals for Native American poet-composer Todd Tamanend Clark are currently on YouTube. Dorothy may be known for her psychedelic rock years, but many Bay Area residents will remember her years as an educator, music director, and as a writer of children’s music.

Interview by Michael Limnios           Special Thanks: Dorothy Moskowitz Falarski

How has the Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Early rhythm and blues provided the soundtrack for my teens, but I was more interested in the counterculture of beat literature and jazz, so rock didn’t directly influence me until I was older.

What characterizes your music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My musical philosophy has always rested on openness to all styles. Being eclectic has likely kept me from stagnating in one genre.

My inspiration comes from many different sources. I studied both classical and jazz piano, led a collegiate cappella group, composed musicals, performed in experimental, psychedelic, blues, rock and jazz settings. I studied both African and South Indian music and composed for Japanese Noh theater.  

As I enter my 80s, I don’t think much about a musical philosophy. I’m driven now by the ticking clock and want to produce as much as I can before I lose my abilities. I often write in a neo-psych style using electronic sources. I’m inspired by the musicians and writers I work with via internet. The most notable include the prolific and brilliant novelist/critic/songwriter Tim Lucas, the gifted Swedish composer Peter Olof Fransson and the inspiring Native American poet/composer Todd Tamanend Clark. I plan on a project with Italian composer Francesco Paolo Paladino, and brilliant music writer Luca Chino Ferrari quite soon.

How did the United States of America come about?

Joseph Byrd formed the band with composer/pianist Michael Agnello (now, Michael Tierra). The two often collaborated in ‘happenings’ and new music concerts at UCLA and other venues in the Los Angeles area. I was part of that experimental world, as were most members of the band. Byrd and I had separated by 1966 and I was in New York when the idea of the band was proposed. I returned to LA at Joseph’s invitation. Many commentators credit me with being a co- founder of the band, but much of its music had already been drafted by the time I joined. I fleshed out unfinished lyrics, edited phrasing, and contributed additional material.

"Early rhythm and blues provided the soundtrack for my teens, but I was more interested in the counterculture of beat literature and jazz, so rock didn’t directly influence me until I was older." (Experimental, psychedelic, electronic rock group United States of America Gordon Marron, Rand Forbes, Joseph Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz and Ed Bogas, 1967 New York / Photo by William Kerby)

Why do you think that The United States of America music continues to generate such a devoted following?

In view of our initial obscurity, it’s puzzling that the USA has such a devoted following these days. There were richer sounding singers around and other electronic experimentalists, but only the USA dared to combine two such differing sensibilities in a unified esthetic.

There’s a very unique tension between the dark power of Byrd’s expression and the airy restraint in much of my singing that makes for an intriguing artifact that still touches people. It gives young listeners a window to the past and reminds older listeners of a remarkable era.

How important was/is the Beat literature in your life?

I think Beat writers typically mixed high spiritual aspiration with low hedonism.  Since I had no appetite for either, I wasn’t deeply attached to the literature itself, at least in my formative years. At the same time, I bought into the countercultural phenomenon the Beats represented. They were colorful, authentic and pioneering in terms of spontaneity. They challenged blandness, conformity, racism, prudishness, materialism and the American Dream in general.

A clear memory of my adolescent attitude was of walking by the expansive houses along the Hudson River a few blocks from my no-frills apartment building in South Yonkers. I remember seeing big-screened TVs flickering behind shiny bay windows and feeling both superior to the mindless ostentation and jealous of the wealth at the same time. If I couldn’t aspire to the American Dream, I would dismiss it just as the Beats did. It was my own personal disaffection and confusion that made them important to me.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of the Beat Movement with the music?

In the 1940s and 1950s, Beat writers were inspired by Bebop. In the 1960s, many rock musicians adopted a Beat attitude. I struggle to describe a clear lineage in much of this.

The Beats, especially (Jack) Kerouac and (Allen) Ginsberg sought to infuse their writing with the improvisational freedom they heard in musicians like Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Kerouac specifically called for a complete break with traditional form. There would be no need for sentence structure with old-fashioned punctuation, no self-conscious rewrites, only a passion to give language a new life without being inhibited by craft.

What I think may be overlooked here, is that in jazz, no matter how experimental or dissonant, there is always an underlying harmonic structure at the core and a clear beat driving it. In other words, jazz music has formal underpinnings and requires a powerful command of craft to make it all work.

The same applies to rock. Certainly the attitudes of artists like Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and even John Lennon were influenced by Beats, but connecting their well-honed work with a literary genre dedicated to abandoning form seems curious to me.

I believe all Western music is based on patterns. Most song lyrics contain planned repetition and meter; many still use rhyme. We have the 12 bar blues, the 32 bar pop tune, the AABA rock song. Even in the chance music of John Cage, there are specific cues derived from the I Ching or a roll of the dice. While rap lyricists may not adhere to stanza construction, there are internal rhymes and rhythms that pulse coherently. I can’t find the ‘stream of conscious’ effect in music that Kerouac wrote about. 

It could be that there’s a confusion of counterculture with an abandonment of form and that one doesn’t necessarily connect with the other when writing or playing a piece of music.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

Jean Shepherd—It was 1956 when I first heard “Shep” broadcasting all night from a New Jersey station. He was the first person to get me questioning conformity and decorum. With absurdist pranks and edgy monologue, he had us turning up our radios and setting them at an open window so he could hurl invective into the night. He’d set up useless “milling sessions” and even manufactured a best seller before it was even written by having us ask for it at libraries. I was hooked.

Otto Leuning—I became friends with electronic composer Otto Leuning who taught at Columbia. He was coaching a small team of us for a music competition and as others dropped out, I wound up with several private lessons. We never discussed his electronics innovations. Instead, he taught me about modal writing and above all, to trust my own ear and taste. I came away believing that I could compose.

Joseph Byrd—I was a collegiate singer/songwriter when I met Joseph Byrd in New York in 1963. He introduced me to experimental artists who were at the cutting edge and he himself was known and respected that world. We were romantic partners for several years and music collaborators afterwards. Without him, I would never have heard of the Freedom Singers, of Joseph Spence, or of Charles Ives. I would never have met John Cage or Morton Feldman. Without him, I’d never have become a lead singer in the lately legendary USA.

Charles Seeger—I remember visiting Seeger in his tiny ground-floor office at UCLA. I later took his course in American Music and remember how he opened with a recording of Andean Flute and ended with an analysis of the synergy of the British Invasion and American rock and roll. He legitimized rock and roll for me and it changed my entire outlook. (He is Pete and Peggy Seeger’s father.) 

"My musical philosophy has always rested on openness to all styles. Being eclectic has likely kept me from stagnating in one genre. My inspiration comes from many different sources. I studied both classical and jazz piano, led a collegiate cappella group, composed musicals, performed in experimental, psychedelic, blues, rock and jazz settings. I studied both African and South Indian music and composed for Japanese Noh theater." (Photo: Dorothy Moskowitz with Country Joe's All-Star Band, 1973)

What´s been the highlights in your career so far?

I’ll recount only two of my career highlights, although there have been many. For several years I worked with Country Joe McDonald and the All Star Band as backup singer and keyboardist. We toured Europe twice and played all types of gigs, from a narrow high school stage in Juneau, Alaska to the 1972 Fête de l'Humanité in Paris, attended by over 400,000 people.  We opened for The Who and I got to watch them up close from the stage. At the time, the band shared lodgings at the Strawberry Studios in Herouville with Jethro Tull. I got to play on Elton John’s piano when recording the “Paris Sessions” album there. I also became friendly with Ann Charters, Kerouac’s first biographer, whose husband Sam was our producer.  

The second highlight is a recent one. I was isolated for several years, first by illness and then by Covid lockdown. During that time, I learned to record digitally from a small home set-up and have since had intense collaborations with the fantastic artists I mentioned earlier. I’m proud to have reinvented myself. I’m grateful to my daughters Jessica Cross and Melissa Falarski and to my husband Martin for their continuing support and patience during this challenging period.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There is something that keeps me from remembering much about stage or even rehearsal experiences. Ask me who was in the dressing room or what the weather was like, or what I wore and I can find something to say. I have scant recall of how I felt on stage. I think it has to do with losing connection with the real world when playing.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience with music of children?

Most of the lessons I learned when teaching children were joyful. For instance, I learned that every youngster could be motivated to play well enough to enjoy ensemble or choral work at a basic level. I also learned that gracious parents and brilliant colleagues could guarantee such results.

There was one lesson that was not so joyful. Music education was starting to be considered a frill by the late 90’s, so I also needed to learn tactics to disarm the many continuing challenges to its safety. Rock and roll was never that politically painful.  

"I miss the opportunity musicians had to earn remuneration for their work through recordings. The ease with which sites like Spotify acquire wealth from unpaid labor is infuriating. I hope things will be different in the future." (Dorothy Moskowitz, 2017 California / Photo by Melissa Falarski)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I’m a tunesmith, not a cultural historian, so pardon my oversimplification here. I don’t see music directly impacting culture or causing its change. Music is more like an emblem of the culture that produces it. It defines culture in ways that words can’t always express. I wonder whether Haydn would have written in that orderly, mathematical style had there been no Newtonian Revolution. Would we have had Bebop without the Second World War? I don’t know the answers here. All that I can personally hope for is that future music will underscore the times without artificiality. Of course, paying retro homage to some a style from the past will always have its joys. So long as it’s authentic, I’m open to all of it. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the opportunity musicians had to earn remuneration for their work through recordings. The ease with which sites like Spotify acquire wealth from unpaid labor is infuriating. I hope things will be different in the future.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I’ve been shooed away from a sound check and barred from stage doors because of mistaken identity, but neither experience fazes me. I think I’m insulated from minor slights like these because of the stinging sexism I experienced in music as a young girl.

I went to a Jewish parochial school, so by the time I was ten or eleven, I could sing and read in Hebrew pretty smoothly, or so I thought. I remember a junior congregation group where I volunteered to sing in Hebrew. The teacher raised his hand and said, “No, you can’t come up. Girls don’t touch the Torah.” I slunk back to my seat and endured tone-deaf attempts by the pampered little boys. No stage manager or club owner could ever make me feel that hopeless.

Dorothy Moskowitz - Home

(Singer Dorothy Moskowitz of the experimental, psychedelic, electronic rock group United States of America, December 1967 New York / © Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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